The Function of Apostles and Prophets
It is significant that the apostles and prophets are listed first among those to whom Christ "gave gifts." This order is seen again in 1 Corinthians 12:28 which states: "And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets....." The Ephesian passage, however, defines the purpose served by all of these gifted men: "....for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ." Wherever the body of Christ exists, saints must look to the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to equip them to serve in order that the body might be built up.
Since we all have had some contact with evangelists, as well as pastors and teachers, we have little difficulty in understanding how they can "equip us to serve." But we do not know any legitimate apostles or prophets. An apostle was one who had been an eye-witness of the resurrected Christ and who could perform miraculous signs (see Acts 1:21-22; 2 Cor. 12:12). The term "prophet" was always used to describe a miraculously-inspired individual (or in the case of a false prophet - one who claimed inspiration) (See 1 Cor. 13:1; Eph. 3:5; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 Jno. 4:1). True apostles and prophets do not live among us today. Yet, the Lord designed that they equip and edify us. How can this be?
The answer is seen in the fact that both apostles and prophets were individuals who received new revelation. To the apostles Jesus said: "I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth..." (John 16:13). Paul affirmed: "...the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit" (Ephesians 3:4-5). This fact explains why the apostles and prophets are listed first in God's plan for the equipping of His people. Revelation of the Lord's will as to what we should be and how we should live is indispensable in equipping us to serve. What would the evangelists preach and what would the pastors teach were it not for the revelation furnished through the apostles and prophets?
The very existence of the church necessitated the foundational work of these men. Of God's household, the church, Paul wrote: "...having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone" (Ephesians 2:20). While the work of evangelists and pastor/teachers is important, only the apostles and prophets are described as being the foundation upon which the church is built. It has been popular to say that the "foundation of the apostles and prophets" means the foundation which they laid, i.e., their revelation. However, the figure used by Paul is that of a building. The cornerstone of the building is the Person of Jesus Himself. According to verses 21 and 22, the building itself also consists of people - believers. Consistency with the figure would appear to demand that the foundation also refers to people - identified as the apostles and prophets. If this conclusion is accurate, then this constitutes positive evidence that apostles and prophets were not to be a permanent "office" in the church today. For, just as the Cornerstone has been laid, Jesus Christ, so also has the foundation been laid and the church built upon it. There is no need for other cornerstones (other Christs), since Jesus finished His work which still benefits the church. Just so, there is no need for other foundations (latter-day apostles and prophets), since their revelational work was completed and we still benefit from it. It was in obedience to the apostolic revelation that the three thousand were added to the Lord's church (Acts 2:14-41). Obedience to the same revelation today will add people to the same body. But notice also that these newly-constituted people of God "...were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching..." (verse 42). Their continued existence as the church depended upon the apostolic revelation designed that they might be "complete in Christ" (Col. 2:28; Eph. 4:13-16). The same is true today. Our growth toward maturity in the faith depends upon our learning and vigorously applying the apostolic revelation.
By Robert H. West
From Expository Files 3.9; September 1996