One of the arguments used for cessationism is the presence of apostles in spiritual gifts lists in Ephesians 4:11 and I Corinthians 12:28-29. Richard Gaffin, for example, writes: “many continuationists are in fact cessationists, in that they recognize there are no apostles today…. A flat ‘all the gifts are for today’ will not do” (Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, ed. by Wayne Grudem [Zondervan, 1996], 45). This argument deserves a thoughtful response.
Its best to begin by asking, what does the Greek term apostolos mean? This word was not invented in the New Testament. It was used prior to the New Testament in Classical Greek to mean herald, ambassador, envoy, messenger. I remember seeing this word when translating through Herodotus (5th century B.C.) in a college Greek class. There’s no question that the New Testament takes this more general term and gives it a specific and technical meaning, referring to the authoritative 13 (12 disciples – Judas + Matthias + Paul), and perhaps others.
However, the older sense of apostolos is also used in the New Testament. For example, in Philippians 2:25, Epaphroditus is called the apostolos of the Philippian church (ESV and NIV translate “messenger”). In II Corinthians 8:23, Paul’s coworkers who are traveling with Titus are called apostoloi (ESV: “messengers;” NIV: “representatives”). A clear example of the non-technical use is in John 13:16: “no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger (apostolos) greater than the one who sent him.” That apostolos does not always refer exclusively to the 13 is evident from I Corinthians 15:3-8 alone, where Christ appears first to the twelve, then to the rest of the apostles, then last of all to Paul. Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14) and James the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19, Acts 15) would be further examples of individuals outside the 13 who are nevertheless referred to as apostles. Finally, the reality of “false apostles” in II Corinthians 10-13 is only intelligible if the term could be used more broadly.
What is my point? That when we come to apostolos in Ephesians 4:11 and I Corinthians 12:28 (and any other passage where it is used), we cannot simply assume that it is referring to the 13. Rather, we must ask, in what sense is apostolos being used here? Should we translate it as “apostle,” or should we translate it as “ambassador” or “herald” or “messenger” like we do in Philippians 2:25 and II Corinthians 8:23 and elsewhere? The best way to proceed is to ask, what sense of apostolos best corresponds to what we know from the rest of the New Testament about spiritual gifts? Is it even coherent to consider “apostle” in the technical sense a spiritual gift? Here are four reasons why I think the older, more literal translation makes better sense as a spiritual gift in Ephesians 4:11 and I Corinthians 12:28-29:
1) If you compile all the lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament, every gift listed is associated with a particular skill or ability. Teachers teach. Prophets prophesy. Administrators administrate. Leaders lead. Showers of mercy show mercy. Encouragers encourage. And so forth. What do apostles in the technical sense do? Apostle-ize? The 13 performed all kinds of spiritual gifts, but their apostleship itself was not a particular skill or ability, but an ecclesiastical office. In that office they performed a wide variety of functions, but the office itself is not a skill or ability. Conversely, apostleship in the literal sense (translated as messenger, ambassador, etc.) fits very well with other spiritual gifts. One could see it next to, say, the gift of administration (I Corinthians 12:28) or leadership (Romans 12:8) without skipping a beat.
2) Spiritual gifts are wrought internally by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:11). They are called “kinds of service … kinds of working” (I Corinthians 12:5-6) and even “manifestation[s] of the Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:7). One could become a messenger or ambassador through the internal working of the Spirit, but one did not become an apostle in the technical sense by an internal working of the Spirit but rather by an encounter with the risen Christ (I Corinthians 9:1) or by having been with Christ since the beginning of his ministry and therefore publicly recognized by the whole church (Acts 1:21-22).
3) Spiritual gifts are given liberally to all Christians in the body (I Corinthians 12:7-11). Even prophecy, for example, which Gaffin sees as an authoritative gift, Paul exhorts every Corinthian Christian to pursue no less in than 6 times in the space of one chapter (I Corinthians 14:1, 5, 12, 26, 31, 39). Tongues, also, is commended to all (e.g., 14:5). And so with other gifts – even one who lacks a particular gift can exercise that gift occasionally. Non-teachers can occasionally teach. Non-encourager can occasionally encourage. Non-showers of mercy can (and should) occasionally show mercy. And so with the literal sense of apostolos, but its technical sense is by its very nature restricted to particular men called of Christ.
(By the way, if Gaffin is right that the spiritual gift of prophecy functions with the authority of Scripture, then Paul is in the awkward position of encouraging every lay Corinthian Christian to pursue and exercise Scriptural authority at every church gathering [e.g., I Corinthians 14:26].)
4) Spiritual gifts like are commonly associated with the ongoing ministry of lay Christians at particular local churches. Yes, they also accompany the apostolic spread of the gospel in Acts (Acts 2, 8, 10, 19), but they are not restricted to this. They are also exercised among lay Christians at established churches in at least Rome (Romans 12:3-8), Corinth (I Corinthians 12-14), Galatia (Galatians 3:5), Ephesus (Ephesians 4:11-13), and Thessalonica (I Thessalonians 5:19-21). One could likewise see messengers and ambassadors serving in local congregations, but apostleship in the technical sense is not associated with the ongoing ministry of lay Christians at local churches, but rather the unique ministry of (frequently itinerant) individuals who oversaw those churches.
To summarize: spiritual gifts are (1) abilities/skills (2) wrought by the Spirit (3) among all Christians (4) for the building up of their local churches. Apostleship in the technical sense is an awkward candidate on all these accounts; apostleship in the literal sense is a perfect match. All of this makes the literal sense a better candidate for translation in Ephesians 4:11 and I Corinthians 12:28-29.
So has apostleship ceased? As an office, yes: its simply a historical fact that the 13 are dead. But as a spiritual gift, no, not any more than the gift of administration (I Corinthians 12:28) or leadership (Romans 12:8). God still gives administrators, leaders, and messengers/ambassadors in the church today. But these gifts have nothing to do with the 13 and their unique, first-century authoritative office. Nor does the death of the 13 have anything to do with the cessation of spiritual gifts.