In Ephesians 4:11-13, the apostle Paul states, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ“ (NASB).
Many people within the visible church today, primarily in charismatic movements, use this passage as a proof-text for the doctrine or teaching of the “five-fold ministry,” which commonly implies today that the office of apostle and prophet, as seen in Scripture, are still in affect today. But is that what Paul, the biblical author of this letter, actually means in Ephesians 4? Does the Bible speak to the office of an apostle or prophet elsewhere? When coming to any text of Scripture we should always ask ourselves, “how does the rest of the Bible help me interpret this passage?” I like to call this process “Scripture interpreting Scripture,” which is proper exegesis.
Beneath this question about apostles and prophets is a much larger and significant question that we must ask ourselves, and it is this: is the Bible alone sufficient today for faith and practice?
The Importance of Sola Scriptura
One of the gospel truths recovered in the protestant reformation was the conviction that Scripture alone is the only basis for divine authority. It is not to say that Christians do not have other authorities in our lives that we submit to, but it is to say that there is no greater authority for us than Scripture. Those who claim to be apostles and prophets today, as seen in the Bible, fail to hold God’s Word in its proper place and thus abandon Sola Scriptura as they claim and profess “new revelation” that is not found in the Scriptures yet is binding on Christians.
If we see Scripture as less than final, complete, and sufficient for faith and practice, then the door for theological chaos has burst open. The claim to receive special revelation from God through tongues, prophecies, visions, or audible voices comes not from God but from a personal neglect, slander, and hatred for Holy Writ – Scripture. Do you believe the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:14-17?
“You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:14-17, NASB, emphasis added).
Paul’s view of Scripture at this point certainly encompasses his understanding of the progressive revelation in the New Testament, as he himself composed 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament; but it also encompasses the 66 books of the Old Testament that Jesus Himself quoted from and never questioned its authority. Notice also that Paul says that Scripture is sufficient – “adequate, equipped for every good work.” Scripture is sufficient for not just some things, but everything in regards to doctrine and Christian living.
So, if this is your view of Scripture, then we can now look confidently at what the Bible has to say about apostles and prophets; and, to be frank, when the Bible speaks on a topic the debate is over.
The word “apostle” literally means “one sent.” During Jesus’ earthly ministry He appointed twelve men as apostles, giving them special and unique responsibility to receive and spread divine revelation from Jesus Himself as eye-witnesses after Jesus ascended back to heaven (John 17:6-10; Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:14-15). These men were trained by Jesus Himself.
However, after Judas killed himself for turning Jesus over to the Sanhedrin, that left only eleven apostles. In Acts 1:12-26 we see the apostles in Jerusalem with other believers including Mary, the mother of Jesus. Simon Peter informs them that Judas’ desertion was predicted in Psalm 69:25, and that Psalm 109:8 instructed that Judas’ vacant place should be filled (Acts 1:15-20). Thus Peter instructs apostle qualifications, meaning not anyone could be an apostle. These qualifications are:
- Must have been with Jesus during His three year ministry (v. 21)
- Must be an eye-witness to Jesus’ baptism (v. 22)
- Must have been an eye-witness to Jesus’ teachings and miracles (v. 22)
- Must have been an eye-witness to Jesus’ death on a cross and His resurrection appearances (v. 22)
This is significant because apostles gave trustworthy apologetic witness to their message as eye-witnesses (Acts 10:39-40) and not by hearsay. Jesus appointed apostles to serve the church (1 Corinthians 12:27-30; Ephesians 4:11) in a specific way, namely, to lay the foundation for the church’s doctrine and confession (Ephesians 2:19-20). It was necessary that the church be built on eye-witness accounts of what we believe rather than mere rumors for the sake of credibility.
The only exception in Scripture that we see in terms of apostleship that breaks the normal qualification mold is with a Pharisee named Saul, later known by his Greek name Paul. While Saul was heading to Damascus to persecute Christians, Saul has a miraculous encounter with the risen Christ where Jesus appoints him as an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 22:14-15). Following this, Paul spends time in Arabia where he is taught by other Christians (Galatians 1:12-17). While Paul was not a member of the twelve, he was recognized by the church as a special apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:1; 1 Corinthians 9:1; Acts 26:16-18).
There are other individuals referred to as “apostles” in Scripture, like Andronicus and Junias in Romans 16:7, but these men do not hold the office of an apostle like the twelve did or the apostle Paul. They are apostles in the basic sense of the word, “sent ones” who advance the gospel.
Since the office of an apostle (and prophet) was to lay a foundation for the church (Ephesians 2:20), after the apostles’ deaths the office of apostleship ceased as eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are no longer necessary. The offices of elder (pastor-teacher) and deacon are now who carry on the work the apostles laid (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; 1 Peter 5:1-3).
We are still influenced and instructed by apostles today, but these apostles are not walking our streets or standing behind our pulpits, they are found in the pages of Scripture and possess authority over the teaching of the church. If anyone claims to be an apostle in the sense of the apostolic office that the twelve and the apostle Paul had, they are a liar and tool in the hand of Satan to deceive God’s people (2 Peter 2:1).
Biblical prophets were mouthpieces for God who spoke divine revelation from God that was binding on all Christians (Exodus 4:12; Deuteronomy 18:18; Jeremiah 1:9; Ezekiel 2:7; Hosea 1:2; Joel 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zephaniah 1:1; Jonah 1:1). True prophets never spoke on their own authority or personal opinions (2 Peter 1:20-21), rather they spoke “thus says the LORD” (Exodus 4:22). Furthermore, true prophets always spoke true revelation, and if a professed prophet speaks falsely, that word spoken is to be rejected along with the false prophet (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).
In terms of the biblical office of a prophet, this office is closed as there is no new revelation to be given for God’s people. Jesus is our final Prophet, Priest, and King:
“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2, NASB, emphasis added).
Jesus’ revelation is superior to that given through the former prophets. Moses was the greatest prophet, but Christ is greater than Moses and He speaks with final revelation (Hebrews 3:1-6). This means that since the book of Revelation, there is no new divine revelation from God that is binding on all Christians. God’s revelation for doctrine and Christian living is complete. In fact, the Bible warns the individual who tries to remove or add anything to Holy Scripture (Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:18-19).
However, there are many individuals today on TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network) and in our local churches professing to hear special knowledge from God, new revelation, and the Bible has warned us about these people: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:1-3, NASB, emphasis added). Always run from a preacher who claims to have a “word from God” with his Bible closed!
But, can there be “prophetic words” spoken today? Absolutely. Christians can speak prophecies already revealed in Scripture. For example, I can prophetically proclaim that Jesus will return, but this is not new revelation given only to me. It is revelation already given by God in His Word. The way we discern what is true prophecy vs. what is false teaching is through the Word of God: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1, NASB).
Scripture is the test for every theological opinion because Scripture is objective truth no matter who we are, where we are, or what time of day it is.
Are there people who assume the office of apostles and prophets today? No. Is the church instructed and in submission to apostles and prophets today? Yes; and those who held these offices are found in the pages of Scripture and supremely expressed in the Person of Christ who is our faithful witness (Prophet), firstborn from the dead (Priest), and ruler of kings on earth (King) – “and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood” (Revelation 1:5).