One of my favorite things to do on a fine, sunny afternoon is sit with a friend at the edge of a meadow and watch the clouds. I always see interesting shapes in the clouds (Look! There’s a puppy!), but my favorite friend (who still wears a ring I gave her some decades ago) generally sees different things than what I see (No, that’s a flower!). And as we watch, the cloud shifts slightly, and it’s no longer what I saw or what she saw; it’s something else entirely, except that what she sees now is still not the same as what I see. And a couple of minutes later, it shifts again, and again, and again.
I’ve been asked by a friend about “What is an apostle?” I’ve decided that the question reminds me of watching those clouds with my sweetheart: a good working definition of an apostle is hard to see; it changes fluidly and consistently, what you see depends on your viewpoint and expectations, and it doesn’t really matter what you think you see: that doesn’t change what it is. The clouds are really water vapor, not a puppy, floating across the sky, no matter how loudly I declare that it’s a puppy!
Because of some unusual circumstances in my life, I know a couple of dozen apostles personally, and a couple dozen more at a distance. And I’ve worked on that exact question for several years, long before my friend brought it up. All the apostles I know are completely different from one another. What is it about them that defines them as an apostle?
Fair warning: this document is not intended to be a treatise on apostles; it’s thoughts about apostles, and it’s written from the perspective of “very early in an apostolic age.”
I have studied this topic intently for a while, and I’ve been gathering input for a decade or two, so some parts will come from memory; many others will come from observations. Some fresher portions comes from watching and interacting with apostles.
What Does Not Make an Apostle?
First, here are some things that I have rejected as signs (or even requirements) of an apostle:
· Church planter. Most church planters I know (I know several dozen) are pastors, teachers, or pastor-teachers.
· Pioneer. Often, apostles pioneer new works, yes, but not always.
· Head of a network, ideally an “apostolic network.” Bah, Humbug. Many heads of networks are ambitious, not apostles.
· Famous. Most apostles I know are not famous. A few are. Most shy away from it.
· Strong willed. Hmm. Often. Not always. I think.
· Leaders of mega-churches. Most leaders of mega-churches are successful businessmen, excellent administrators, or, in those that are in the Calvary Chapel movement, gifted bible teachers. I have known only a couple of real apostles who led large churches, and for them, their large church was an accident.
· Miracle workers. Some argue that miracles accompany a true apostle. I won’t argue, but that doesn’t make them specialists in miracles, nor does it make them famous for miracles. People who do miracles and draw attention to the miracles are often either evangelists, or they’re self-seeking. Apostles don’t seem to seek the spotlight, unless they’re also working under an evangelist’s anointing (some do). Some apostles use miracles regularly; many don’t. I will say this: I don’t know a single apostle who shies away from miracles or refuses to start something just because it would take a miracle to complete it!
· Experienced. Nope. Nobody’s mature when they start something, and we’re just beginning the Apostolic Age. There are a lot of rookie apostles out there. A lot of them don’t even know the calling on their lives. Some do, and run screaming. A few embrace the calling and want to know why they aren’t suddenly experienced.
· Clear or powerful vision. Often. Not always. Most with strong vision are merely ambitious. Paul – the prototypical apostle – had only the vision of “preach where no-one has preached before.” Other than that, he pretty much stumbled into his ministry trips.
· In the Marketplace. For a long time, almost every successful Christian Businessman in his 50s was considered a “Marketplace Apostle.” Most of them weren’t apostles. Some knew it. Paul was a successful businessman. Peter, James & John left their business behind to pursue Christ.
· Missionaries (cross cultural). A few are. Most are not. Evangelism is a more useful tool to most missionaries.
· Male. Yeah, the mindset of “only men can be apostles” still exists in some circles. Heidi Baker ought to be enough to kill that little heresy, all by her little lonesome.
“Apostle” in Ancient Culture
Studying the original language for “apostle” is an interesting exercise. It was a word that was well used before it was ever used in the Bible, so the best tools for understanding the concept are often secular tools. It was never used for religious purposes before Jesus co-opted it for the twelve.
In fact, the word is so unique, that we haven’t even translated it into English. The Greek word is “Apostolos” (ἀπόστολος). All we did was spell the Greek word with Roman letters.
The concept of an apostle was something that was invented by the Phoenician empire and used heavily by the Romans. When the Roman army conquered a new nation, a new culture (something they did with remarkable regularity!), the Emperor would send an “apostolos.” It was the name given to the lead ship in a fleet of ships sent from Rome to the new land, and especially for the man – one man – who led that fleet. The fleet – and that man – were carrying the embodiment of Rome with them to the new territory.
The apostle’s job description in Roman culture is functionally the foundation for the apostle’s job in the Church: to bring the home civilization to the new territory. In Rome’s day, the apostle brought Rome’s legal system, education system, language, government, financial systems, entertainment, culture. His job was to make the new culture fit into the Roman empire, to become Roman, to the degree that when Caesar arrived, he’d feel at home in the new territory.
In our day, a Christian apostle is probably the spearhead of God’s answer to the prayer that he taught us to pray: “on earth as it is in heaven.” The apostle’s job is to see heaven, to understand what he sees enough to cause it to be done on earth: to manifest heaven on earth, to the degree that Jesus will feel at home in the territory.
How’s that for vague? Pretty good, eh? Now let’s try to make some application from that. This is where it gets really interesting!
So the apostle observes what’s going on in heaven, draws on heaven’s resources, and works with heaven’s strength and strategy to accomplish change on earth. In my experience, the biggest changes are needed in the ways we think, so an apostle’s job often involves a new, heaven-based worldview, one that emphasizes the spiritual realm and de-emphasizes the natural realm. So apostles often teach, but they teach from revelation as often as they teach from straightforward study. I think.
The teaching includes foundation-building: this is what the Kingdom of God is like. But the teaching of a true apostle will often involve strategies: this is what God is emphasizing right now, and that changes. Bill Hamon teaches – and the Bible illustrates – that occasionally, and under limited circumstances, apostles may find themselves teaching new doctrines from revelation rather than from scripture. No, they won’t teach doctrine that isn’t supported by the written Word of God. To be honest, this one scares me, but I recognize the validity of the principle.
Seeing spiritual realities, apostles often confront strongholds, though that may be a casual confrontation, or it may be “collateral damage” when they’re going after something else. Since apostles are fixated on Heaven (and with Him who sits on Heaven’s throne), their idea of warfare is often God-focused; since they’re in touch with God’s plan for people, they may also be mercy-driven, and American Church culture doesn’t know what to do when spiritual warfare is driven by mercy.
The power of God is present to support the work of an apostle, though it may not manifest dramatically. I know one woman who hated harsh language, but couldn’t rid herself of it. She said, “Oh crap!” around a young apostle. He replied, “No thanks. Already did,” and she was delivered from her “addiction” to swearing. Accidentally, really. Was that power? Yes. But it didn’t fit in the “normal” way we expect to see miracles.
The apostle Paul always travelled with a team, and the apostles in Jerusalem were a team. I want to say that apostles generally work well with a team, but I don’t think that’s true of all the apostles; Apollos doesn’t seem to have travelled with a team. It may be God’s intent, and they’re not connecting with his means. Or it may be completely fantasy.
I’ve had some really frustrating interactions with people who have called themselves apostles; some are frustrated religious businessmen and others are fresh bible-school grads. It’s probably superfluous to say, but it still needs to be said: not everybody who calls themselves an apostle is a true apostle. As an apostle friend of mine has said, “It takes more than a business card to make an apostle.”
Since there are both bad prophets (inaccurate ones) and false prophets, it is likely that there are both bad apostles and false apostles: the first are unsuccessful at building the things of heaven (or successful at building things of flesh); the latter are building things from the realm of darkness; I believe they’re rare.
I’ve been frustrated by apostles’ difficulty relating to other folks sometimes, but again, that’s not consistent. Some don’t relate well to anyone; others relate best to other apostles, or other 5-fold people. I’ve never known an apostle that fit into a crowd well: they pretty-much all have been kind of other-worldly a little, not completely at ease with social skills like an evangelist or a pastor is.
Since they see things from heaven’s perspective, sometimes apostles see better where individuals fit in the strategic plan of things: they can see, “Oh, you’re a prophet,” or “Your gifts would fit better here,” or “You and you should think about working together.” Again, not a focus of their ministry, and not exclusive to apostles (prophets do this too), but sometimes.
Apostles and prophets work pretty well together. But again, it’s not consistent. I know some apostles who are themselves prophets (I think of Harold Eberle and Jonathan Welton), but there are others are paired with prophets (I think of Bill Johnson with Kris Vallotton, Dutch Sheets with Chuck Pierce).
The work of an apostle has already been outlined by Paul in Ephesians 4:11-12: “And He Himself [that would be Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…” So the work of apostles, like the work of prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, is to equip the People of God.
What does that look like? Well, like the clouds, it’s always different, and it often changes. It might look like a pastor who spends more time raising people into their calling and sending them to the nations than gathering a flock. It might look like a businessman whose work in the marketplace brings the presence and provision for the kingdom of God. It might look like a woman leading an orphanage and a church, who teaches on the kingdom, heals the sick, and raises the dead, and who sends out hundreds of pastors and evangelists and apostles who also teach the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead and plant thousands of churches. It might look like a young man who teaches the Kingdom in churches, home groups, and on the streets, who heals the sick and teaches others how, and in his spare time, he and a squad of intercessors break demonic strongholds off of regions.
There is a degree that all the “fivefold gifts” (Ephesians 4:11-12) are about “equipping” saints. The Greek word there is “katartismos” (katartismos), which is about adjusting, aligning, like the work of a chiropractor aligning the spine. And as with a chiropractor, don’t be terribly surprised if a visit from an apostle leaves you feeling sore, but better, stronger, than you were before.
1Corinthians 12:28 has been misunderstood about apostles: “And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then….” Some have taken this to mean that apostles deserve honor first, or are the greatest authority in a disagreement, or get the biggest paycheck. Bosh.
Jesus was real clear about leadership in the Body of Christ. “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13-14-15) So the apostle should be the first one to wash the feet of others, to serve other ministries, to lift up others. If you meet someone wanting to be respected as an apostle who is more interested in greater honor than in greater foot-washing, you’ve met someone who is confused about apostles.
The Apostle Paul said an odd thing in Romans 11:13: “For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles.” I suggest that no one is an apostle without a people to minister to: Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles. Peter was an apostle to the Jews. It’s important to know who you’re called to. I know a man who is “only” an auto parts salesman when he’s in the US, but when he’s in India, he’s holding crusades, training pastors and leaders, and starting training schools: he’s an apostle to India, but not to the US. I would maintain that there is no such thing as an “apostle at large” or “apostle without a people” (though I have known some people who think they are).
The principle is broader than just apostles, by the way: I may be trained as a pastor (or a prophet or whatever), but until I’m a pastor to a group of people, I am not walking in the ministry of a pastor. This is an extension of the principle that “Ministry flows out of relationship.” If there’s no relationship, then there’s no real ministry. This is not formal assignment, by the way. We know those we are called to: they’re the ones that listen.
There are clearly young apostles being raised up today. But it’s probably worth mentioning that this is not the only way that God forms an apostle. Many of the apostles I know have encountered success in another area – in pastoring, in business, as a prophet – before God released them to apostolic ministry. And while apostles are always called by Jesus (see Ephesians 4:11) into the role, they are very often forged for the work as well: most apostles I know have been through incredible failure, have been crushed, and have learned, first hand, to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Finally, probably the best way to tell an apostle (or a prophet): wait until those already in the office recognize it in you before you attempt to walk in it. Believe it or not, one doesn’t become an apostle by getting Apostle business cards. More significantly, when a bunch of people in your church’s pews start calling you an apostle, ignore it: they don’t generally know what makes an apostle.
But when apostles recognize the apostolic calling on you, it means it’s coming out, moving from “potential” to “actual.”