Over the last few months I've had a few conversations about the subject of apostolic grace; a few years ago I began asking the Lord for a deeper understanding of what specifically apostolic ministry is, and I believe God has given me some revelation about that. In these conversations my thoughts have been received as helpful and I've had requests to write about this subject to open up further conversation. This is my attempt to do just that.
What we Will (and won't) Discuss
Now from the outset, let me point out that as soon as someone uses the "a-word", I've noticed people tend to start acting uncomfortable. I'm not sure that's entirely bad - since Biblical times there have been examples of people who have claimed apostolic ministry to not-good ends. Jesus himself identifies this reality:
“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. Revelation 2:2
The situations where this has not gone well has raised the emotion in the conversation about apostles to very high levels, and so it is only with a bit of trepidation that I undertake the topic as a whole. That being said, I don't think this particular article will run into much of that though because the purpose of this conversation is about something different than the most sensitive parts of the conversation. Namely, I won't be addressing:
- Are there apostles still today? (Probably an important question, but not the point of this post.)
- If so, is person X or Y an apostle? (This is especially where things tend to get uncomfortable. I'm not planning to claim anything like that with respect to anyone here.)
Tabling those two specific conversations, this is still an important conversation because even if there are no apostles today, the Church is still called to be apostolic. Church Fathers going back to the first centuries after Jesus have affirmed "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" (Catholic in this context meaning "universal", not referring to Catholicism.) Whether or not there are still apostles, we need to be able to identify and understand apostolic ministry, which like all ministry, flows through grace.
The question I'd like to write with today is this: what is the essence of the apostolic grace that empowers the church to be apostolic? If you stop and think about it, it's not usually too difficult to identify the teaching grace (grace for the Word to be unlocked), pastoral grace (grace for health and growth), evangelistic grace (grace to order our lives after the kingdom priorities), even the prophetic grace (grace to walk in intimacy with God and righteousness). These all tend to feel concrete: it's easy to point to something and say to ourselves, "I do (or do not) see that type of grace flowing in this moment." Apostolic grace has always felt murkier to me; fuzzy and unclear. Hence me asking the Lord for clarity.
What is the Core of Apostolic Ministry?
If we were to survey the definitions used for apostolic ministry, in general, they fall into a few main categories:
The charismatic portion of the church is likely to latch on to 2 Corinthians 12:12 as the defining feature of apostolic ministry:
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. 2 Corinthians 12:12
Given this definition, we can identify ministry to be apostolic when it is replete with signs and wonders. While I do think this a component of apostolic ministry, I do not believe this to be the crux of it, because that's not the way the logic in this passage flows. Paul isn't arguing that signs and wonders are the essence of apostolic ministry, he is saying they are evidence of his apostolic ministry. His ministry has signs and wonders because it is apostolic, not the signs and wonders are the apostolic part. (I'm pretty sure one could make a pretty good case that signs and wonders should probably be in the orbit of the prophetic and evangelistic ministries as well.)
(2) Visionary or strategic leadership
Another segment of the church would suggest that apostolic grace is about visionary or strategic leadership. The idea here is that as apostle means "sent one", apostolic grace is the grace for mission: it is what accelerates us forward into the future God has for us, and given that the tip of the spear for most organizations is visionary and strategic leadership, this is the natural choice. I do understand the line of logic, but to me this argument feels a little weak when we look at the record of the apostles in the Scripture. At what point do we see Jesus' 12 apostles working this way? Some may argue that in the early church they served this function, but I'm not sure I'd say I see that so much. It's not at all clear that the early church had clearly defined visionary leadership, and when the apostles reflect on their own best function to the church in Acts 6, they don't point to visionary leadership:
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:2–4
While I do think that it's possible that apostolic grace may come with visionary or strategic leadership, I again don't feel there is a strong case to be made that it is the essence apostolic grace.
(3) Church planting or missionary work
In the apostolic conversation, church planting or missionary work often comes up. Once again, like the last few categories, I do think that it's possible that apostolic grace results in church plants or missionary work, but I feel like we have to be hard pressed to argue this is the core of apostolic ministry. Did many of the original 12 apostles church plant? How many of them were missionaries? We know Paul was, but other than him, it doesn't appear most of the other apostles in the New Testament had a major missions focus. Once again, possibly in the picture, probably not the core.
Isn't this a fascinating situation? Of all the types of ministry in the New Testament, we have the clearest picture of apostolic ministry; we can see it up close with more examples than any other ministry, but we struggle to pin down quite what it is. What is the core of apostolic ministry? You can see why I began to dialogue with the Lord on this subject.
My Current Understanding
As I've turned this subject over and engaged with it, a new picture is starting to emerge. I believe that apostolic grace is the grace to participate in the joining of this world with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus' death and resurrection is the event that gives birth to God's New Creation. Everything that exists in the new creation happens because it has been joined to the death of Jesus and in him has been brought through death into new life. This begins with us; we are made new when we are joined to Jesus in his death and resurrection by faith. (For a deeper discussion of this personally, check out my recent article on the Identity Journey.) Often we don't think much beyond that, but I would suggest that joining with the death and resurrection of Jesus is the means the kingdom comes to earth. Whatever has been brought through death into life along with Jesus properly belongs to the new order of creation, and anything that does not, has not.
Apostolic ministry then, is the ministry of this world being joined to Jesus' death and life and being born again into the kingdom of God. And apostles (whether they only existed in the pages of Scripture, or if they continue to this day), are a living embodiment of experiencing that death and resurrection being tethered into this world. I know this probably sounds mystical, but from what I can tell, this is the language that surrounds apostles and apostolic ministry most frequently in the New Testament.
Contrary to the common understanding that apostles are Christian super-stars, it seems to me the Bible talks about apostles in a way that sounds like they experience more loss and death than anyone else, not more success than anyone else:
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. 1 Corinthians 4:9–13
But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that...Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 2 Corinthians 11:21b,23–30
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 2 Corinthians 1:3–9
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. Colossians 1:24–26
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:8–11
These passages of Paul's writing indicate he understands himself as continuing to participate in something of Christ's death, and in that bringing something to the world. He sees himself as continuing to die and continuing to experience resurrection. Indeed, I might even go further than this and just suggest this: the one thing that the apostles' ministry had in common more than anything else is that they were each martyred (save John). They participated in Jesus' death to the extent that they as well were executed like he was.
This indeed means that Jesus is the first and primary Apostle (Hebrews 3:1). His death and resurrection is the foundation that any other joining in death and resurrection is built upon. Furthermore, by being this Apostle, he is also our High Priest (again, Hebrews 3:1).
What this Means for Apostolic Ministry
What does all of this mean? Well, it means that for any ministry that is apostolic, there will be times (and commensurate grace) to walk through death and resurrection. It means that we will have times in our life when God sends us to our own private Gethsemane and like Jesus we cry out, "God, could there be any other way?" It will be cold, dark, our friends will have fallen away or betrayed us. All we will see ahead of us is loss and pain. In that moment, it is okay to struggle and wrestle; but we must do that until we come to the same end that Jesus does: "Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done." This is, in my opinion, the moment of Jesus' premier apostleship: is the moment of accepting the death that God may use as a bridge to bring his resurrection to the world.
In a world that celebrates the successes, it's easy to see resurrection and not understand the death that preceded it. Jesus himself says that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot produce much fruit. This parable rightly applies first and foremost to Him, but it also applies to us: we join in Jesus' falling to the ground and dying, and in that we participate in the rebirthing of the world. These two come as one package: there is not one without the other. True kingdom fruit comes through death. Now don't get me wrong: there can be worldly success - there might be large crowds or high merchandise sales, but it will ring hollow of spiritual authority and transformative power.
This all means that our suffering has value to it. (Specifically I'm talking about the suffering that's not brought on by our own dumb choices, although that has a different type of value I suppose). When we wind up walking through the fire, it is not just that we as human beings are formed in the process (though that is indeed true), I am increasingly believing that the road itself forges a new reality in the spirit, which releases life into the world. Consider these promises Jesus gives to the churches in the book of Revelation:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ Revelation 2:17
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. Revelation 2:26–27
The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. Revelation 3:12
It's easy to read passages like this and get drawn into specific symbols, etc. Don't miss the overall point: Jesus is saying that our natural journey has the potential to shift the spiritual aspect of reality. Want that manna, rod or iron, or a to be a pillar in the temple? There is a road to it, and it has to do with conquering the challenges that face us here on the earth. (This all has incredibly interesting implications if you believe in things like 'mantles' and all that, but perhaps that's for another article sometime.)
Sometimes I think we can miss this aspect of the earth/spirit realm interchange. It is true that things come from heaven to earth, but that doesn't mean earth doesn't affect heaven as well. Effects flow both ways; our actions on the earth have the power of shift spiritual realities. The death of Jesus is the ultimate example of this, but I believe that through Jesus, our own suffering and smaller-d-death unlocks redemptive spiritual realities to a lessor degree as well. I might say it this way: in our suffering, we have an opportunity to incarnate a small slice of Jesus' suffering, and as we do that, we step into incarnating his resurrection as well.
And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Revelation 12:11
So when you come to a place in your life where there is true loss, suffering, or a price to be paid, do not resist it, instead, rejoice. It is at that moment that you have something of value to present before God. It is that moment that you have the chance to be a "living sacrifice", and in that you minister to the world in a way that goes far deeper than you may ever even know. It is in this moment that we can follow the way of our Christ; we can lay our lives down and give of ourselves to God self-sacrificially; embracing physical death that unlocks spiritual life (1 Peter 3:18), for in the kingdom economy, there is never death without resurrection.