In our last post, we looked at a familiar passage from Ephesians 4 and saw that Christ, through the gift of His death and resurrection, gave divers grace to all the members of His body, unified together in Him. This diversity within unity illustrates how the body is one, yet also how it is made up of various parts, each gifted for a particular function. As we worked our way through the passage of vs. 1-16, we arrived at a well-known list, which has often been the source of debate, usually rooted in discussions over various offices/officers within the church. In this post, we want to work through the list of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and shepherd-teacher to look at their various roles before seeing their primary function within the body of Christ.
First, apostle is probably a general reference and not specifically denoting the Twelve. One evidence for this is it’s context where it is talking about those gifted by Christ after His ascension. We ought to be reminded that apostle, apostolos, simply means messenger or sent one. While the twelve certainly hold symbolic significance (Revelation 21:14) and identification as the first called by Christ (perhaps even His ekklesia), we’ll run into trouble if we assume their superiority in a church office capacity, because what then do we do with Paul, who arguably was more influential than the others? If we start to draw crisp lines on the matter of Twelve apostles, then wouldn’t Matthias be the thirteenth? Wouldn’t Paul then be the fourteenth?
We love to have offices and titles, perhaps its rooted in a good desire for structure and a bad desire for power, but nevertheless this development of apostle is an easy one to trace. The twelve chosen by our Lord were His disciples, or learners. They spent all of their time at His feet learning who He was, why He was sent, and what people’s need was for Him. In Matthew 10:1-15 (see also Mark 3:14; 6:7-13), there is a transition that takes place from learner to sent one, i.e. apostle. There was a maturation that took place from one who learns to one who is sent to teach. It’s that simple. If we are going to allow ourselves the latitude to create an office out of apostle, then we need to also create an office out of disciple, but nobody is arguing for that (at least I hope not!).
In the First Century, these sent ones, which included the Twelve (Judas among them, cf Matthew 10:4; 26:14) as well as Matthias, Barnabas, Paul, and James, among others (possibly Timothy, Silvanus, Epaphroditus, and some unnamed), would travel throughout the region preaching the gospel and laying a foundation of first generation Christian believers. In a sense, it is near to our modern concept of missionary and their function was to plow a spiritually fallow area and sow the seed. Though we have already seen both apostles and prophets used in conjunction and referring to the foundation of a structure being built, Ephesians 2:20, it would appear here a different reference is in mind. Perhaps not so much the foundation of the building but the ongoing, individual blocks that are being laid.
Next, prophets are mentioned. Contextually, prophet would not make sense if it referred to Old Testament prophets, as some have interpreted. Here, it’s more likely, this is a reference to those who have been gifted by the Spirit for prophecy, as Paul states elsewhere (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28; 14:1-40; Ephesians 3:5; 1 Thess. 5:20). Prophets, in the New Testament sense, are more forthtelling than foretelling, but the latter still existed at times and for specific purposes. Forthtelling, on the other hand, is simply the communication of divine truth. Not so much the communication of what God will do, but what God has done. Furthermore, it may be in light of what God has done that the prophet made a basis for what God will do. Its doubtful the passage is referring to new revelation, as with the prophets of the Old Testament (see also Acts 13:1; 15:32; 21:10). Rather, in line with the epistle to Corinth, those who prophesied edified (built up), exhorted, and comforted (1 Cor. 14:3).
Third, we have evangelists. Whereas the apostles plowed the ground, the evangelists sowed and watered the seed. In Scripture, we find Apollos performing this function (1 Cor. 3:6) and Philip by name being called an evangelist (Acts 21:8), and Paul exhorting Timothy to do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5). Furthermore, one of the most common New Testament terms translated as preaching is euaggelizzo, from where we get evangelist or evangelize. There is a clear connection between an evangelist and the function of preaching, specifically and importantly preaching of the gospel. While the apostles were sent ones, indicating the itinerant nature of their ministry, its reasonable to conclude that the evangelist was more rooted in the area continuing the work that the apostles had begun. Simply put, its those gifted to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Finally, we arrive at some difficulty and debate over the concept of shepherd-teachers or shepherds and teachers. Shepherd is where we get our modern concept of pastor, however, our challenge is increased when we consider that this is only time in NT where shepherd, as a masculine noun, is used in reference to a person other than Jesus Christ. It conveys the idea of care and protection. Used just slightly more, the verb: to shepherd (pastor) occurs in Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2. Interesting that such a rarely used word could have an entire ecclesiastical office built around it, as well as an entire profession, but that challenge for another day. If we refer to those passages where the verb, to pastor (shepherd), is used, we might easily see the relationship between shepherding and oversight. Practically speaking, the function of a shepherd is to guide one through the Word of God and apply the Word through wisdom into the lives of those in need.
Teaching, as a function, is clearly performed by all those listed above, so whether it is distinguished or combined with shepherd is probably a moot point. However, due to the structure of the original Greek, it’s clear that there is a closer relationship between shepherd and teacher than say apostle and teacher. Nevertheless, this last functioning gift most likely has in mind the care and protection that comes through teaching accurately the word of God.
Summarizing these gifts, we have those who are sent, those who foretell and forthtell, those who preach the gospel, those who shepherd or pastor and teach. Now that we have briefly summarized the list, next time, we will turn our attention to the actual purpose of the passage, recalling that it opened with a discussion on unity before asserting that Christ has gifted all His people for the work of the ministry.