The Apostles are included in “the foundation” of the Christian church (Eph. 2:20)—a foundation laid only once. Today, Barry Cooper describes the unique role these men played as the commissioned eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ.
Saturday, 4th February, 2012, was the day Florence Green died.
Florence was a British citizen who served in the Royal Air Force during the First World War. She died at the age of 110, only two weeks shy of her 111th birthday. When she was asked what it felt like being 110, she said, with typical British understatement, “Not much different to being 109.”
I mention Florence because as the last known surviving veteran of World War I, she was unique and irreplaceable. She had been there. Been a witness to it. And now, following her death, there are no longer any firsthand witnesses that we can speak to about the Great War. We will have to rely on recorded conversations, written memoirs, the work of historians.
Apostles occupy a similar role, as firsthand witnesses.
In Acts chapter 1 verses 21 and 22, we learn that an Apostle had to be a firsthand witness to the resurrected Jesus. Initially, Jesus commissioned twelve Apostles, and then later commissioned Paul and Jesus’ own brother, James.
Paul became an Apostle because he too had encountered the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus and had been commissioned by Him “to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”
There’s scriptural evidence that at first, the other disciples were wary of Paul’s claim to be an Apostle. After all, everybody knew that Paul had an unenviable track record of persecuting believers. But nevertheless, once the disciples had spent time with Paul, his story about encountering the resurrected Christ checked out. He was given the official stamp of approval from all the other Apostles and was visibly endorsed by them as an Apostle.
In Ephesians chapter 2, Paul writes that the church is built on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.”
That view of the Apostles as being included in the foundation of the Christian faith is crucial to understand, because a foundation is laid only once. So after those Apostles laid the foundation in the first century, and then eventually died, there could be, by definition, no further Apostles. No one subsequently could truthfully claim to be an Apostle in the sense Paul talks about in Ephesians, because they would not be firsthand witnesses of the risen Lord Jesus as the Apostles were; nor would they have received the visible endorsement of those first-century Apostles.
That’s one of the reasons why the written testimony of the Apostles in the New Testament—and the New Testament writings of those specifically endorsed by the Apostles—is so uniquely authoritative today.
In the Roman Empire, an apostolos (from which we get the English word apostle) was anyone with the authority to speak to others on behalf of the emperor. Such was their authority that if you disobeyed them, it was as if you were disobeying the emperor himself. That’s the kind of authority that the Apostles’ written testimony has. They have the authority to speak to us on behalf of, and with the same weight as, the King Himself.
“Red letter” Bibles, I think, can be a bit misleading on this point. They can imply that the words of Christ are somehow more trustworthy or more important than the other words in Scripture. But that is to overlook, and underestimate, the authority of an Apostle: those uniquely positioned first-century resurrection eyewitness who were recognized by the other Apostles and specifically commissioned as Apostles by Christ Himself.