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 broad acceptance of the evangelist, pastor, and bible 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 prophets and 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).
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, living prophets and apostles as well.
2. Who gives these ministries to the Church? The 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.
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 prophets are in the Christian 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.
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 New Testament prophets (and apostles, too) existing in the church long after Jesus had ascended back to heaven.
Here the apostle Paul gives us additional proofs that apostles and prophets were to continue during the Church Age.
These “two prophets” are the Lord’s “two witnesses” (Rev. 11:3) who will prophesy and do great signs and miracles at the very close of the Church Age during the time of the Antichrist. In this verse we see Christian prophets — here, end-time prophets — long after the time of the early church, in fact at the very end of this age.
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!
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.
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! Or they'll talk around the subject without dealing with it directly: "Brother Jones has an apostolic mantle." Or "Bill has a prophetic mantle." These terms are not found in the bible, where they unashamedly called them "apostles" or "prophets." 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 definition of these two offices. Therefore, I will not try to define the terms "prophet" or "apostle." Rather, 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. So to the question "what is an apostle (or prophet)?" I offer the following composite of the New Testament prophets and apostles in the Bible.
5. What are the biblical characteristics and ministry of apostles?
6. What are the biblical characteristics and ministry of New Testament, Christian prophets?
7. Should we identify and recognize apostles and prophets today? Certainly!
The early church — here, the church at Corinth — found it quite normal to have a prophet or prophets in the church.
Again, it was not unusual, but accepted, that there might be prophets (even plural prophets) in a local church. And the New Testament church identifies some Christian prophets by name:
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 descriptive 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.
And along with these much-needed fivefold ministries, may the Church recognize also the biblical, local-church ministries of God-called elders and deacons, as well as the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit.
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.
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©2005, 2015, 2018 James H. Feeney.
Pentecostal Sermons and Bible Studies
by Pastor Jim Feeney, Ph.D.