Romans 15:17-19 “Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done – by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way round to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.”
If people think that a Christian is a bully or a bit arrogant, someone who insists on having his own way, then they won’t listen to him when he speaks. It’s not that they believe any of his teaching is false, or that he encourages or practices immorality, but in their judgment they think he’s domineering and so they don’t listen to him That is a very common attitude; there has never been a blessed and mightily preacher who has not had to endure such criticism. Paul was concerned that some people in the congregation in Rome might be thinking like that about him. Such an attitude would greatly hinder his ministry to them. They wouldn’t read his letters and feed their souls on them if they felt the one writing these epistles was an egotist. So Paul comes towards the end of this letter and he is dealing very tactfully and carefully with them, in effect he’s saying to them, “You’ve not been offended by my letter have you? You don’t feel I’m being presumptuous in speaking so strongly to a congregation I’ve never visited? I haven’t given you the impression that I think your Christianity is second class or immature? Do you think I have been too outspoken?” Paul was being a bit apprehensive; he didn’t want anyone to push aside the thrust of his words and ignore them because of misplaced judgments on his behaviour, and so here he is opening his heart to them, hoping he has not caused needless offence.
Yet at the same time Paul wants them to know that he does have authority to address them as he has been writing to them because Almighty God appointed him to be an apostle to the Gentiles. That is what he’s been referring to at the end of verse fifteen in the words, “the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles.” He is writing of the divine charisma he had received, that is the spiritual gift of apostleship. Now you will not understand our text until you’ve understood something about the office of the apostle. So that is where I must begin, in explaining to you what an apostle was and why the apostleship was crucially important in the plan of God.
1. WHAT AN APOSTLE ACTUALLY WAS.
The word ‘apostle’ literally means a “sent one.” In Junior School I was the fresh and lively boy that the headmaster would choose to run errands for him. If he had a book that needed to be returned to the Carnegie Library next to the Town Hall in Merthyr Tydfil then he’d send me with it. I could skip classes and not be in any trouble with my teacher because the headmaster had sent me to do his will. I was acting under his authority. I was a ‘sent one’, a little apostle. But this word also had a specialised legal significance amongst the Jews – and all the Twelve were Jews. A person could be given legal power to represent someone else. He could speak up for him in court. I once had legal authority to pick up my grandmother’s pension from the Post Office. A person may be given legal authority to sign a tax return for someone who is unable to sign it. Amongst the Jews in Paul’s day a man who had been given this power of attorney was called by this very name, an apostle. There was a phrase that said, “the apostle of a man is as the man himself.”
We look to see if that concept can be found in the New Testament concerning the church’s apostles and what do we find? In the opening verses of Hebrews chapter three we read that the Lord Jesus Christ was his Father’s Apostle. He had been sent on his mission into the world by God. Then elsewhere we read of Jesus speaking and saying, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say,’Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (Jn. 14:9&10). Christ is God’s apostle sent into the world speaking on behalf of God himself. Again, when Jesus commissions the Twelve he says, “‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Jn. 20:21&22).
God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son Jesus Christ with his blessing and authority to speak in his name, and with similar divine authority Christ sent out the twelve apostles. So how should we receive an apostle, or a letter that comes to us from an apostle, or one of the gospels of Jesus Christ that an apostle wrote? We should respond as if the great God of heaven himself came and put directly into our hands those letters and gospels; we treasure them as a Book from another world. The Lord Jesus tells us in Matthew chapter ten and verse forty, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.” Again Jesus says in John thirteen and verse twenty, “I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” So when we accept, for example, John’s gospel, we take it into our hands, read it, memorize it and obey what it says, and in that response we are submitting to Jesus Christ’s authority over our lives. In such a response to the apostles’ writing we are accepting the true and living God’s authority over us. So Peter, or Paul, or John, or Matthew were each of them a person who spoke and wrote with the binding power of the courts of heaven. When they spoke it was as representatives of the Lord Christ.
So an apostle is a ‘sent one’ and his authority depends solely on the authority of the one sending him. The little curly headed eight year old boy in Merthyr Tydfil sixty years ago sent by his headmaster to take his book back to the library didn’t have much authority, just to miss class and run through town in the middle of the day for half an hour. He had the headmaster’s authority to do those brief tasks, but if the Prime Minister appointed me this year as his Spokesman for Wales then I would have considerable authority. I would be his ambassador, his legal representative in Wales. Behind me would be the authority of Number Ten Downing Street, the Cabinet, and the Houses of Parliament. My authority would be as great as the greatness of those whom I legally represented.
So let us raise the question, “Are there apostles today?” And to answer it you must ask, “Apostles of whom?” When we look at the New Testament we find a distinction between those who were Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, let’s call them Apostles with a capital ‘A’ – and those who were simply apostles of the churches – apostles with a small ‘a’.
i] There are the Twelve, the Apostles of Christ – Apostles with a capital ‘A.’ Peter, John, Paul, Matthew and the others who were Christ’s direct, legal representatives. They spoke in the name of Jesus Christ. They brought Jesus’ own teaching to us through their mouths and by their pens.
ii] Then there are the apostles of the churches – apostles with a small ‘a’ and they are the legal representatives only of those local congregations which sent them, and they have the authority of those churches alone behind them, and only indirectly do they bear Christ’s authority. Let me give you some examples of apostles with a small ‘a’. If you go on to the next chapter, Romans sixteen and verse seven we read these words, “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Here were two men well known to Paul, his own kinfolk, converted before him. They had been sentenced to a time in prison for their boldness in preaching Christ. Paul says that “they were outstanding among the apostles.” Now that could mean that in the circle of the Twelve apostles these men freely moved and were esteemed highly by all the apostles. Or it could mean that they had been sent as apostles (with a small ‘a’) by a local church to evangelize and church plant and they had been outstandingly successful in this work.
Again we find a reference to apostles with a small ‘a’ in a couple of other places though the NIV doesn’t translate the Greek word apostolos as ‘apostle’ in either place. In Philippians chapter two and verse twenty-five we read these words, “I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow-worker and fellow-soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs.” So there the NIV translates the word apostolos by ‘messenger’. In that way it is bearing its own witness to my distinction between capital ‘A’ apostles and small ‘a’ apostles. It calls the latter ‘messengers.’ Then again in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians chapter eight and verse twenty-three we read, “As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow-worker among you; as for our brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honour to Christ.” In this case the NIV translates the Greek word apostolos by ‘representative.’
So in the early church there were men sent out by the local churches and these sent ones were called ‘apostles.’ We think of Keith Underhill whom we sent out to Kenya and we call him a ‘missionary,’ and churches in Georgia sent Gene Johnson to Welshpool. We could call both those men and many like them ‘apostles’ with a small ‘a.’ They have the authority of their sending church behind them when they cross an ocean and preached in a different country, but they don’t have the direct authority of Christ as did the Twelve who could say, “What I am saying to you Christ is saying to you, word by word.” Paul could say those words, for example, to the Thessalonians in the first letter to them, chapter two and verse thirteen, “we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” Apostles with a small ‘a’ cannot and must not make such a claim. I preach the truth, but you must check up on everything you hear from me by the only word in the world which is without error and that is the Bible
2. WHAT THE QUALIFICATIONS WERE WHICH AN APOSTLE NEEDED.
There are in the New Testament three indispensable qualifications for being an apostle;
i] An Apostle Must have been an Eye-witness of the Risen Christ.
Listen to the words of Peter concerning the qualifications of the man to replace Judas and be appointed an apostle. Peter tells them, “We’ve got to have a man who was with us apostles for the whole time that Jesus was with us”, “beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:22). Again we meet it in the claim that Peter makes to the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house, “We are witnesses of everything Jesus did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39-41). And then there are these words of Paul to the same effect in his first letter to the Corinthians and the opening words of chapter nine, “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?”
It was with their own physical eyes that all the apostles saw the risen Lord. Even Paul—the ‘untimely born’ apostle of Christ (1 Cor. 15:8) – could claim to have seen the resurrected Christ with his physical eyes. It was not a vision that he had on the road to Damascus. He actually heard a physical voice and he actually saw a blinding physical light which radiated the glory of the resurrected Lord Jesus. He saw, but then he could see no longer. The encounter was all very carneous or fleshy; it was two bodies that confronted one another on the Damascus road. The men with Paul also heard the sound of a voice but they did not see Christ. He did. He was given the same physical sight of Jesus as the other apostles.
Dr. Sam Waldron has been helpful in explaining the significance of the physical sight of the apostles. He points out that the Old Testament distinguished between Moses and the prophets in just this way. In Numbers 12 we read of an incident in which Miriam and Aaron are opposing Moses. Then God responds to them and he emphasizes the dignity of Moses as compared to even the prophets. “Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the doorway of the tent, and he called Aaron and Miriam. When they had both come forward, he said, ‘Hear now my words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, shall make myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream. Not so, with my servant Moses, He is faithful in all my household; With him I speak mouth to mouth, Even openly, and not in dark sayings, And he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses?’ (Nums. 12:5-8)
The point is that if Moses were greater than the prophets he was surely greater than Miriam and Aaron. The way in which Moses’ greater dignity is underscored is through the contrasting way in which God appeared to him – as opposed to how he revealed himself to the prophets. While God appeared only to the inner eyes of prophets in visions and dreams, God appeared to Moses’ physical eyes in what are called theophanies. Moses actually saw with his own eyes the back parts of the glory of Jehovah [The approach and much of the content of the remainder of this sermon I mined from Dr Samuel Waldron’ book To Be Continued, Calvary Press Publishing, New York, 2005, which I commend without reservation].
The apostles of Christ all make this claim to us that they have seen the Son of God. They have had this superior kind of contact with the resurrected Jesus. This is the force of the passages we’ve looked at. Let me draw your attention to one other familiar passage for you to look at afresh in the light of what you have been hearing, the opening words of the first letter of John where the apostle emphasizes his physical contact with Jesus Christ. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (I Jn. 1:1-3).
All of this emphasis on physical sight is important for this reason, that having visions and dreams, even if they are real and genuine, doesn’t qualify anyone to be an apostle of Christ. Teenagers see visions of a lady in blue year after year all over the world, and immediately thousands flock to those places and listen to what those children say. They can see the children but they can’t see the woman. They can hear what the children say but they can’t hear the woman speak. They can’t take snaps of the women, but they can buy picture postcards of the children who are now celebrities. The visions were all in their minds; they were not out there. You can’t video them, but if cameras and video-recorders were in existence on the Damascus road or on the road to Emmaus Paul or Cleopas could have made a film of the Person they met, and tape-recorded the conversation they had with this risen Jesus. In other words it’s clear that the Bible claims a very real distinction between the inner eye and the outer eye. It counts revelation to the outer eye a mark of ‘superior dignity’ as Sam Waldron puts it. Modern claims to have seen Jesus in a vision or dream don’t qualify anyone to claim, “I am now an apostle.” They’ve not seen him with their eyes, but Peter and Paul and John and the others did. Very much so. For 40 days.
ii] An Apostle Must be Personally Appointed By Jesus Christ
No church or denomination can hold a meeting and even with one hundred per cent agreement appoint a man and set him apart to be an apostle. They cannot claim, “This man really is an apostle.” He just aint! Not even the other apostles of Christ were competent to separate a person from the ranks of the disciples and make him another apostle of Christ. Only the Son of God alone can give someone his power of attorney and say, “You are going to speak for me, and those who receive you are in fact receiving me.” Every true apostle of Christ must be sent, can only be sent, by Jehovah Jesus himself. This is the reason for an explicit declaration nailed up in two of the gospels and also in two places in the book of Acts stating that Christ himself chose and set apart his apostles. Let me read them to you, Mark 3:14, “And he appointed twelve, so that they would be with him and that he could send them out to preach,” and then Luke 6:13, “And when day came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also named as apostles:” and again in Acts 1:2, “until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after he had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom he had chosen,” and then later in that book in Acts 10:41, “not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with him after he arose from the dead.” Those four statements are the reason for Paul’s emphatic insistence that he had been chosen to be an apostle by Christ himself . . . not by any man . . . not by any group of men. Hear the words with which he commences his letter to the Galatians, “Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead).”
It was so essential for Christ himself to appoint a man to be an apostle that even the eleven apostles said “Now way!” When it came to finding a man to take over from Judas, ultimately they drew lots to pick him, according to Acts chapter one and verses twenty-four to twenty-six. Neither Peter nor the apostles dare take it into their own hands to appoint a replacement. People in the future could say, “Ah, he was a second class apostle; he was appointed by Peter whom we now know wouldn’t eat food with the Gentile Christians of Antioch.” So the Eleven selected two of the men whom they knew possessed the other necessary prerequisites for an apostle of Christ, that they both had been disciples of Christ from his baptism and had seen him raised from the dead. Then the apostles stopped the selection process; they had gone far enough. They all prayed and finally they did something, perhaps like draw one of two straws from a box, and the longest one was Matthias. All they did was draw one straw, but God would guide their hands and determin which of the two had been chosen. Notice the emphasis “And they prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two you have chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:24-26) [emphasis Sam Waldron’s].
iii] An Apostle Must have the Ability to Confirm his Mission by Miraculous Signs
That is the third indispensable characteristic of apostles of Christ that they, just like their Lord, had been given the ability to confirm their mission by miraculous signs. The description of their calling in the gospel of Matthew immediately links miracle-working with their office, “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles” (Matt. 10:1-2). This is in all likelihood the implication of Acts 1:5-8 where Jesus is eating with the eleven apostles and divine power is promised to them to assist them to be his witnesses for the rest of their lives. Often preachers are eager to apply this change to themselves, and miss the focus of it upon the apostles. This theme of apostles having miraculous gifts is taken up in Acts; in Acts 2:43, “Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.” In Acts 4:33, “And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all.” Again in Acts 5:12, “At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico.” And in Acts 8:14, 15 & 18, “Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. . . . Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money.”
So apostles had this ability to confirm their mission by miracles, and that is why Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:12 can say, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.” These healings and exorcisms were the activities of the direct representatives of God the Son. They were direct validations, God saying, “These are men who are acting with my divine authority. You had been listen to their words.” Surely, miraculous signs were fitting for such men as confirmations of their divinely appointed mission. So there is a necessary connection between the apostolate and miracles. Apostles could work miracles.
So there are three indispensable characteristics necessary for a man to be a genuine apostle, and only someone with each of those three characteristics could claim to be an apostle of Christ. Two out of the three were not enough. Every apostle of Christ must, first, have physically seen the resurrected Lord; second, he must have been appointed directly by Christ; and, third, he must have performed miraculous signs to vindicate themselves as apostles of Christ.
3. WHAT VITAL AUTHORITY THE APOSTLES OF CHRIST HAVE OVER US TODAY.
Haven’t there been times when you have asked yourself, “What am I to believe? How should I live? What is truth and error? What is right and wrong? How can I know?” God has given the world the twelve apostles to instruct and teach each congregation all the earth over these things and they will do so through the Bible until the end of the age. I am saying to you that the apostles of Christ were the true, eternal, legal representatives of Christ. They were as the Son of Man himself. It follows directly from this that what they said and did in their apostolic ministries Jesus himself was saying and doing. This is a crucial point to understand. Think of the very opening words of the Acts of the Apostles; “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” The gospel of Luke was just the beginning of the works and words of Jesus. The book of Acts is the continuance of his words and works.
Consider three passages that teach this clearly.
i] I Corinthians 14:37-38, Paul makes this point in striking terms: “If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.” The context is this; Paul is giving the church in Corinth counsel about matters the Lord Jesus had never spoken about, things like tongues speaking and the woman’s role in the church. But Paul speaks with authority on these subjects – in fact he writes with the authority of Christ. He says that what he is writing to them is “the Lord’s commandment.” In other words what Paul says binds each church to receive it as though Jesus himself were speaking.
ii] 2 Corinthians 13:2&3, Paul writes these words, that “I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you.” What a claim! Do you see it? “Christ is speaking through me!” His opponents were spot on in saying that this was the definitive issue. “I’ll tell you,” says Paul, “Christ is speaking through me.” Those are either the words of some blasphemous egotist or they are the words of the man whom Christ had sent as his messenger to the Gentiles of Corinth. That extraordinary claim certainly mustn’t be trivialized into something that any Christian could say. It would be, in fact, an act of unspeakable daring and folly to make such a claim. Only cult leaders talk in that way. Only the Twelve could claim that God the Son infallibly inspired what they said and wrote.
iii] 1 John 4:4-6 is often overlooked but very important. I want you to notice the three different pronouns with which each verse beings; “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognise the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.” Notice how verses four, five, and six begin, respectively, with three different pronouns. Do you see that? ‘You,’ ‘They,’ and ‘We.’ Some contrast is intended clearly between the “You” of verse four and both the “They” of verse five and the “We” of verse six. The contrast can be nothing else than the contrast between in verse four, Christians in general, in verse five, false teachers, and in verse six the apostles of Christ. Do you see that? “We apostles are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us.”
It is an echo of the beginning of John’s letter when he was emphasizing the firsthand knowledge that the apostles possessed of the Christ. How did fellowship with God come to the people who lived in Corinth in Greece? How does fellowship with God come to Christians in Aberystwyth living 2000 years later? It comes today as it came then through the apostles bringing their words to people. Fellowship with God is mediated through the apostles’ message. In other words the creating and giving to the church the office of the apostle is a saving act of God. Your salvation does not depend on listening to me or any man, but it does depend on your listening to what the apostles say in the New Testament. That is what John says here; that is what he ought to say and that is what he does say because he remembered words Jesus once spoke to him when he was a young Christian, words whose impact he would not understand for many years, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). You receive Paul and his gospel and you receive God the Son himself, but to reject an apostle was to forfeit Christ and his salvation. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (John 13:29).
Let us finally read our text and now you can understand it as you would not have been able to do before understanding what an apostle was; Romans chapter fifteen and verses seventeen through nineteen, “Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done – by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way round to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” Paul glories in Christ because long ago he met him on the road to Damascus and he commissioned Paul to be his apostle to preach him among the Gentiles, and he had helped Paul and worked through him in all his journeys in the Gentile world. There were things which the apostle could do which no other Christian could do, and yet he did them only by the power of Christ. Paul says, “I wouldn’t dare to speak of this if it weren’t Christ’s work and not mine, but I wouldn’t dare to speak of it if it were not Christ’s work through me – not through anyone else. The Gentiles – through my ministry in word and by the confirming miracles I performed by the power of the Spirit – have turned from worshipping idols to obeying the living God.”
So from Jerusalem Paul had gone out and out to the uttermost parts of the earth, all the way to Illyricum. That was the huge mountainous region from the Adriatic, through the Balkans to north east Italy and the Celtic tribes and on to Macedonia. That is the furthest Paul had reached fully proclaiming the gospel of Christ, and through all his dangers and trials Christ was with his apostle, Christ by the power of the Spirit was speaking through his apostle, Christ by the power of the Spirit was doing his signs and miracles through his apostle. Christ was building his church and saving the Gentiles. Paul would say, “I couldn’t have done it without Christ’s commission, without his gift of grace when he made me his apostle and how he helped me every day and every step of the way.” And since that time and everywhere in the world the same Christ has used the message of the apostles in the New Testament to build his church. That is how every one here who is a Christian became one, when Christ brought the word effectively to us and we gloried in Christ our Saviour. We glory in him still; we glory in his gift of apostles to our church today. We always meet in the presence of miracles. We have the miraculous book that was written by God to its very jots and tittles through Matthew, Mark, Luke John, Paul, Peter and the rest of them. It is the miracle of the living Bible that we gather round. I believe in miracles today. When I hold this book in my hand I am holding a miracle. Thank God for it and the miraculous work it has done in the lives of so many of you saving and sanctifying you.
11th February 2007 GEOFF THOMAS