Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Curiously, and without biblical support, this fivefold list of ordained ministries from Ephesians 4:11 has been split by the modern church into two lists.
There is nearly universal acceptance of the evangelist, pastor, and teacher as being valid ministries for the church today. But the ministries of apostles and Christian prophets are relegated by many to the first-century church only. But in recent years, many Christians have been reexamining the Scriptures to answer the increasingly heard questions: Are there apostles today? Are there prophets today? Were the ancient bible prophets and bible apostles the only valid ones? Or are there modern day prophets (that is, Christian prophets) and contemporary apostles? Does apostolic and prophetic ministry continue in our day?
The intent of this bible study is to prove biblically that all of what have been called the “fivefold” ministry or “ascension gift” ministries are valid and needed in the Christian Church today. The “perfecting of the saints” intended by the Lord (Ephesians 4:12) will require all five of these ministry gifts given by the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:11).
Ephesians 2:19-20 ...God’s people...[are] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
1. Apostles and prophets are the two foundational ministries in the body of Christ. I have great respect for dedicated evangelists, pastors and teachers. I am personally ordained to two of those three ministries — pastor and bible teacher. But the bible singles out prophets and apostles as the two ministries which, anchored to Jesus the Chief Cornerstone, undergird the Lord’s Church. All Christians are entitled to be built on this apostolic and prophetic foundation. And we will see later in this study that these are not just restricted to the early church’s apostles and the Old Testament prophets. They include contemporary, modern day prophets and apostles as well.
1 Corinthians 12:28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.
Ephesians 4:7-8, 11 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” ...  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.
2. Who gives these ministries to the Church? These verses above declare that it is God the Father and Jesus the Son of God who give these ministries to the church. Jesus Himself is the premier expression of each of these offices.
• “Jesus, the apostle...whom we confess” (Hebrews 3:1)
• “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth” (Matthew 21:11).
• Jesus was certainly the Great Soulwinner, the consummate evangelist.
• Jesus is “the Shepherd [Greek word for “pastor”] and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).
• “Rabbi, we know you [Jesus] are a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2).
It seems that Jesus — the chief apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher — is giving an expression of Himself to the Church in the form of these ministry gifts. For example, in Paul, Peter, and the other apostles we see a partial reflection of the perfect apostleship of Christ. In Agabus (Acts 11:27f; 21:10f) and other Christian prophets we see a partial expression of the perfect prophetic ministry of Jesus. The same could be said for God-given evangelists, pastors and teachers.
3. Apostles and Christian prophets are in the Church for the entire church age. A number of Scriptures (see below) make it very clear that prophets and apostles were intended for the full church age, and not just for the first century church.
Ephesians 3:4-5 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.
Paul declares that the mystery has “now been revealed...to God’s holy apostles and prophets.” These were “now” — that is, contemporary — apostles and prophets in the Church several decades after Christ’s resurrection and ascension to heaven.
Some have erroneously identified the “prophets” in this verse as Old Testament prophets. But this very Scripture says quite the opposite. It states that the prophets receiving this “now” revelation were “NOT...men in other generations.” No, these were Christian prophets, contemporary to the time in which Paul was writing. There were prophets (and apostles, too) existing in the New Testament church long after Jesus had ascended back to heaven.
Ephesians 4:8, 11-13 This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” ...  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Here the apostle Paul gives us additional proofs that apostles and prophets were to continue during the Church Age.
• “When He ascended on high...He gave...some to be apostles, some to be prophets...” These were not the original Twelve apostles. This refers to apostles and prophets that Jesus continued to give after His ascension to heaven! For that reason some have called the “fivefold” ministries of Ephesians 4:11 the “ascension gift ministries.” Having ascended to heaven, Jesus continues to give all five, not just evangelists, pastors and teachers.
• And this giving of five ministries by Christ was not just to get the early church started. Rather, the giving of all five is needed “until we all...become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” That is an ongoing process occupying the entire time between Jesus’ First Coming and His Second Coming.
Revelation 11:10 The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.
These “two prophets” are the Lord’s “two witnesses” (Rev. 11:3) at the very end of the Church Age during the time of the Antichrist. Again we see Christian prophets long after the time of the early church, in fact at the very end of this age.
Revelation 18:20 Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.
As end-time “Babylon” is judged, there is a call to contemporary, modern day, end time “saints and apostles and prophets” to rejoice over this divine judgment. Once again, contemporary apostles and Christian prophets are seen, not only at the beginning of the church age, but (here) at the end.
4. Is the New Testament Church today properly structured?
The answer to that question can be found in a very simple test. May I add that most Christians will fail this test!
• Question #1 — Which three of the Ephesians 4:11 ministries are mentioned most in the New Testament?
• Question #2 — Which two of those fivefold ministries are mentioned least in the New Testament?
The answers may shock you. They indicate how far out of balance the contemporary church has grown compared to the original church that Christ established on the earth.
• Answer to question #1:
• The word “apostle(s)” occurs 85 times in the New Testament.
• The word “prophet(s)” occurs over 150 times in the New Testament, about 20 of those occurrences referring distinctly to prophets in the Church Age.
• The word “teacher(s)” occurs 125 times in the New Testament.
• Answer to question #2:
• The word “evangelist(s)” occurs only 3 times in the New Testament.
• The word “pastor(s)” occurs precisely one (1) time in the entire New Testament! One time! (Ephesians 4:11)
Consider those numbers. The Bible speaks of New Testament apostles, prophets, or teachers a combined total of at least 200 times. Pastors and evangelists are mentioned a combined total of four times!
And yet the modern day church calls most ministers by the term “Pastor” and shies away from “apostles” and “prophets” like a horse avoiding a rattlesnake! Man’s prejudices, fears, or misinterpretations have deprived the Lord’s Church of the two foundational ministries — apostles and prophets — that He Himself placed on earth. The Church today, wherever it denies these two ministries, is improperly structured. Pastors, evangelists, and teachers alone cannot bring the church to maturity. They were never intended to. Jesus gave all five ministries for that purpose.
In the two sections that follow, we will examine the characteristics and work of prophets and apostles in the Church Age. Nowhere in Scripture is there a concise, precisely worded “job description” of these two offices. Therefore, I will offer to the reader overviews, or composites, of these two ministries in the New Testament. Of course, no individual apostle or prophet can be expected to fulfill every aspect of these descriptions. That level of perfection remains the privilege of the Lord Jesus Himself.
5. What are the biblical characteristics and ministry of apostles?
• Acts 2:4 They were filled with the Spirit.
• Acts 2:14-36 They preached the Word of God.
• Acts 3:1-8 They healed the sick.
• Acts 4:1-12 They were persecuted.
• Acts 5:1-11 They pronounced God’s judgment.
• Acts 5:12 They worked signs and wonders.
• Acts 5:42 They taught and preached Jesus Christ.
• Acts 6:1-6 They ordained deacons.
• Acts 8:14-17 They laid their hands on others to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
• Acts 8 and later chapters. They founded and/or strengthened new churches.
• Acts 9:36-43 They raised the dead.
• Acts 10 They preached to the Gentiles.
• Acts 12:1-11 They were martyred, persecuted, and sometimes delivered.
• Acts 13:4 They were sent by the Holy Spirit (the root of the word “apostle” means “sent”).
• Acts 13:11 They pronounced a curse.
• Acts 14:21-22 They confirmed disciples in their faith.
• Acts 14:23 They ordained elders.
• Acts 15:1-21 They settled doctrinal disputations.
• Acts 16:18 They cast out demons.
• Acts 19:22 They sent forth other ministering men.
• Acts 20-28 list further ministries that apostles performed.
• 1 Corinthians 3:10 They were wise master builders. They laid spiritual foundations.
• 1 Corinthians 4:14-15 The apostle Paul warned his “sons” in the faith.
• 1 Corinthians 7:1 They counseled and answered the saints’ questions.
• 1 Corinthians 11:34 They set churches in order.
• 2 Corinthians 11:28 Paul exercised “care of all the churches.”
• 2 Corinthians 13:10 They used their authority for edification.
• Ephesians 2:20 Apostles are part of the foundation of the church.
• Ephesians 3:3-5 They received revelation from God.
• Ephesians 4:11-12 They perfected the saints.
6. What are the biblical characteristics and ministry of New Testament, Christian prophets?
• Acts 11:27-28 They (1) did trans-local ministry and (2) they foretold future events.
• Acts 13:1 They can be among the leaders of a local church.
• Acts 15:32 they exhorted and confirmed the brethren, sometimes with “many words”.
• Acts 21:10-11 They may give personal, predictive prophecies.
• 1 Corinthians 14:29 They prophesied in church services.
• Ephesians 2:20 Prophets are part of the foundation of the church.
• Ephesians 3:3-5 Prophets may receive revelation from God.
• Ephesians 4:11-12 Prophets perfected the saints.
7. Should we identify and recognize apostles and prophets today? Certainly!
Luke 6:13 When morning came, [Jesus] called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles. If Jesus named them and designated and recognized them as apostles, how can we do otherwise?
Acts 14:4 ...the apostles Barnabas and Paul...” The New Testament, here and in many other verses, consistently recognized men by name in the office of apostle.
1 Corinthians 14:29, 32, 37 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said....  The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets....  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.
The early church — here, the church at Corinth — found it quite normal to have a prophet or prophets in the church.
Acts 13:1 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers
Again, it was not unusual, but accepted, that there might be prophets (even plural prophets) in a local church. And the New Testament church recognized other Christian prophets by name:
• Agabus (Acts 11:28; 21:10)
• Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32)
Matthew 10:41a, KJV He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward.
Why beat around the bush? Jesus tells us to receive someone who is a prophet “in the name of a prophet.” There is no biblical encouragement for identifying certain ones as “evangelists, pastors and teachers” and then identifying true prophets and apostles with correct but controversy-avoiding phrases like: “He has an apostolic [or prophetic] ministry.” As if the Lord has given three nouns (evangelist, pastor, teacher) and two adjectives (apostolic, prophetic)! No! Jesus said to receive a prophet “in the name of a prophet.” It’s time for the Church to shake off the fear of man and return to biblical patterns.
My prayer is that once more in the 21st century, as in the first century, the Church will return to the clear pattern of Scripture. May the body of Christ once again grow and thrive as we open our hearts to the God-given ministries of modern day prophets and apostles, as well as evangelists, pastors and teachers.
Revival can again break out in churches determined to search the Scriptures, to rediscover the proven, historical "ancient landmarks" of God's word, to open their hearts to the ministries of God-given, modern day apostles and Christian prophets, and to “build ... everything according to the pattern” (Hebrews 8:5) laid out by God in Scripture.
©2005, James H. Feeney. Copyright statement.