This is a vital question, since, in our own day, extraordinary claims are sometimes made and extraordinary practices undertaken on the basis that a contemporary ministry is supposed to be ‘apostolic’.
To answer the question, we must first look carefully at the teaching of Scripture, to see what the biblical qualifications of New Testament apostles really were.
First, apostleship was sometimes linked to the actual writing of the New Testament books. Peter also says at the start of both of his letters that he was an apostle of Jesus Christ.
While John didn’t use the word ‘apostle’, he made it abundantly clear at the outset that he and the other apostles had seen, heard and touched the Lord:
‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us — that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:1-3; cf. Revelation 1:10ff).
Interestingly, James and Jude do not claim apostleship, even though they were the Lord’s half-brothers (Matthew 13:55; Jude 1:1).
Paul introduces nearly all his letters as ‘an apostle’, although sometimes he says ‘called to be an apostle’. He also underlines his apostleship with phrases like: ‘through the will of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:1); ‘not from men, nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead’ (Galatians 1:1); and ‘by the commandment of God’ (1 Timothy 1:1).
An essential apostolic credential was to have physically seen the risen Lord. Paul makes explicit mention of this in 1 Corinthians 9:1-2: ‘Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord’.
Some might argue that this text alone (although it certainly proves that Paul himself was an apostle who had seen the risen Lord) is not enough to tie in seeing the risen Christ with being an apostle — that it is forcing the connection.
But the evidence is cumulative. For example, we can add into the argument that, following Judas’ betrayal of our Lord, the apostles were insistent that the names put forward as Judas’ possible replacement ‘to take part in this ministry and apostleship’, must have been eyewitnesses of Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:21-25).
The opening words of the great resurrection chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 are also highly suggestive, in this respect: ‘For I delivered to you first of all … that [Christ] was seen by Cephas and then by the twelve…
‘After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all he was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, whom am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God’ (vv. 3-9).
Paul also helps us recognise an apostle by specifically defining the signs of an apostle as the frequent and powerful exercise of miraculous gifts. ‘Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds’ (2 Corinthians 12:12).
When sign gifts were exercised in Corinth — a church founded by the apostles — many believers there were given specific gifts, distributed as the Spirit willed, but they certainly weren’t all able to exercise all the gifts; the gifts were distributed separately to different ones, which is the basis of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 12: ‘for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit…’ (vv. 8-9). They could not all speak in tongues, for example.
That they were able to exercise spiritual gifts at all demonstrates that Corinth was indeed a church directly founded by the apostles. But that none of the ordinary church members were individually able to manifest a large number of the gifts shows that they were not apostles.
Finally we should note that the term ‘apostle’ refers to a ‘delegate or ambassador of the gospel, a messenger that is sent’ (James Strong, Strong’s exhaustive concordance of the Bible; World Bible Publishers; Iowa, 1986; p.16).
Christians today are sent out by the Holy Spirit and by the church, but the New Testament apostles, including Paul, received their commission directly from the risen Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 22:21). They were told by Jesus to go into every part of the world and preach the gospel to all nations (Acts 1:8).
In the light of the evidence of the New Testament, it is, therefore, a mistake — and potentially a very serious mistake — to call any preacher or servant of the Lord today an apostle, however eminent or useful that one may be in the service of God.