The order of the Christian church was shown to us in the Old Testament; more specifically, through the pattern of the tabernacle. Many churches believe that the tabernacle and the priesthood were done away with, when in fact, we are meant to understand them on a deeper level.
Without this understanding, we cannot have a correctly functioning church. There are endless deep things to understand in the pattern of the tabernacle, relative to our Christian walk. However, for the purpose of this article we will be focusing on the function & requirement of apostles in the church today.
The Apostle Paul tells us in Hebrews 8:5 that the priests on earth (speaking of the priests in the Old Testament), served a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. Hebrews 9:11 tells us “Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation.” This means the pattern of the tabernacle including the sacrifices, the Levites, priests and high priest, and furniture, were all a picture of the church to come; and ultimately the pattern of the redemption of our souls. 1 Peter 2:9-10 likens Christians to a ‘royal priesthood’: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…”.
In 1 Corinthians 6:19, 1 Corinthians 3:17 and 2 Corinthians 6:16, Paul tells us that we are the temple of the holy spirit. Scripture says in Revelation 3:12 “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. 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 out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name.” All these references to the temple are there to show us that the pattern of the Tabernacle/temple was to be walked out spiritually by the church.
Hebrews 3:1 shows us that an apostle (New Testament) is akin to a high priest (Old Testament), “Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus”. Why is the comparison of the high priests to the apostles so important? This is absolutely vital for us as Christians to understand. If we understand the role of the high priest to the people in the Old Testament, we will be able to see the pattern of who the apostles are meant to be to the church today, and why they are essential to the church.
The main role of the high priest in the Old Testament, as set out in Leviticus 16:32-34, was to bring atonement to the people for their sins and transgressions. Atonement is reconciliation between God and the people, or more simply put; forgiveness. Without the high priest, there was no forgiveness of sins. In Leviticus 16:34, God said to Moses that this statute (command), regarding only the high priest bringing atonement, was everlasting (eternal). But, how can this be an eternal statute when that statute is part of the Law of Moses (Torah)? Paul says in Romans 7:6 that we are no longer bound by the law. Well, Paul goes on to say in the same verse, that we serve in the new way of the spirit. We can read the Law either by the letter, which is only understanding the scriptures from the historical/literal interpretation, or we can read by the spirit, which is the deeper understanding or the mysteries revealed. The Law of Moses was not annulled through Jesus. In Matthew 5:17, when Jesus says He did not come to do away with the law, but to fulfil it; the word fulfill means to “fully preach” (1) and “to cause God’s will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be.”(2) Throughout Jesus’ ministry on the earth, He taught us how to walk out the law spiritually by understanding the deeper meaning in scripture.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry on the earth, He taught us how to walk out the law spiritually by understanding the deeper meaning in scripture.
In the tabernacle, the high priest went through the veil (curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies) into the holy of holies once every year on the Feast of Atonement. In Hebrews 10:19-20, the Apostle Paul gives us a clue to the spiritual/deeper meaning of the high priest going through the veil by telling us that Jesus went through the veil, which is His flesh. Galatians 5:17 teaches us that the flesh wars against the spirit. So, this was a picture of Jesus overcoming everything opposed to the Spirit and opening the way for us to do the same. This scripture in Hebrews 10:19-20 alone is a big key to showing us that the pattern of the tabernacle was not done away with. Through this scripture, Paul is giving us the revelation of what a true high priest/apostle was supposed to do, which was to teach the people to overcome their flesh and come to the perfect man just as Jesus did (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Without the apostles, the church in the New Testament didn’t have the grace of God. Scripture shows us this in a number of places. Ephesians 3:1-5 says:
“For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles— if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already), by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets….”
In 1 Corinthians 3:10, Paul says, “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it.” Also, in Romans 15:15, Paul again speaks of the grace given to him for the people of the church.
Often, we just think of grace as unmerited favour given to the church through Jesus’ crucifixion, essentially meaning that we can do what we please. Paul refutes this mindset in Romans 6:15 when he says, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” Grace is unequivocally an undeserved gift from God, but there is a much deeper meaning to grace. Above in Ephesians 3:1-5, we are shown that the grace of God is actually talking about the revealing of the mysteries of Christ, given to the apostles & prophets, which is what Jesus came to open up to his disciples. In 2 Peter 3:18, we are exhorted to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. This scripture shows us that through knowledge of God comes grace. If grace was just a one-time occurrence freeing us from all judgement, then how can we be expected to grow in grace? We are shown in 2 Peter 1:24 that grace, or the revealing of the mysteries of Christ, was given to change us into Christ’s nature and to help us escape the lusts of the flesh:
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”
As we saw above, grace was given to the apostles of the church, and this is confirmed in 1 Peter 5:5 where it is written:
“Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘GOD RESISTS THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.’”
The word for “elders” is defined as: among the Christians, those who presided over the assemblies (or churches). The New Testament uses the term bishop, elders, and presbyters interchangeably. (3)
Ignatius was a disciple of John the Revelator and a first century apostle (Bishop) of Antioch. Ignatius confirms that the mysteries of God were given to the apostles in the following portion of his epistle to the Ephesians:
Ye are initiated into the mysteries of the Gospel with Paul, the holy, the martyred, inasmuch as he was “a chosen vessel;” (Act 9:15) at whose feet may I be found, and at the feet of the rest of the saints, when I shall attain to Jesus Christ, who is always mindful of you in His prayers. (4)
In his epistle to the Philadelphians, Ignatius again confirms that the secrets of God were entrusted to the high priests, which we see in scripture is a picture of the apostles:
The priests indeed are good, but the High Priest is better; to whom the holy of holies has been committed, and who alone has been trusted with the secrets of God. (5)
Ephesians 2:8 shows us that grace is necessary for our salvation. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Grace is conducive to our salvation because through it, we understand the nature of Christ and how we are meant to be transformed into His image through the unveiling of the mysteries from a true apostle.
Grace is conducive to our salvation because through it, we understand the nature of Christ and how we are meant to be transformed into His image through the unveiling of the mysteries from a true apostle.
The church today has fallen so far away from the pattern of the early church, where the apostle/bishop presided over the congregation. Just because we do not have apostles as a standard in the church today, doesn’t mean this is right. We need to go back to scripture and to the writings of the early church to find out what the standard was.
Paul said in Ephesians 4:11-13,
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”.
Here, Paul is saying that apostles were given by Jesus for the church, and that the apostles’ existence in the church was to continue up to the second coming of Christ, for the perfecting of the saints. Philippians 1:6 (AMP) confirms that the completion/perfection of the saints won’t come until the second coming of Christ:
“I am convinced and confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will [continue to] perfect and complete it until the day of Christ Jesus [the time of His return].”
Here is another snippet from Ignatius’ epistles. Through his writings, we get a glimpse of how the early church functioned, subsequent to the 12 Apostles.
In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church. (6)
Ignatius makes two very significant statements: not only are we to reverence the apostles as Jesus Christ, but that without an apostle there is no church. In the same epistle to the Trallians, Ignatius goes on to describe that without an apostle in the church, or being disobedient to the apostle is worse than being a heathen.
And do ye also reverence your bishop as Christ Himself, according as the blessed apostles have enjoined you. He that is within the altar is pure, wherefore also he is obedient to the bishop and presbyters: but he that is without is one that does anything apart from the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons. Such a person is defiled in his conscience, and is worse than an infidel. For what is the bishop but one who beyond all others possesses all power and authority, so far as it is possible for a man to possess it, who according to his ability has been made an imitator of the Christ of God? (7)
For what is the bishop but one who beyond all others possesses all power and authority, so far as it is possible for a man to possess it, who according to his ability has been made an imitator of the Christ of God?
More is said in the Constitution of the Apostles regarding the reverence that the apostle over the church is to be given. In this portion, the apostle is referred to as “a good shepherd”:
As to a good shepherd[, let the lay person honour him, love him, reverence him as his lord, as his master, as the high priest of God, as a teacher of piety. For he that heareth him, heareth Christ; and he that rejecteth him, rejecteth Christ; and he who does not receive Christ, does not receive His God and Father: for, says He, “He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that rejecteth you, rejecteth me; and he that rejecteth me, rejecteth Him that sent me.” (8)
Hermas was an early church father and around the second century wrote The Shepherd. In this writing, it references about 40 apostles in the earth at the time. This means that God was expanding the Apostolic gift from the original 12 apostles. (9)
Malachi tells us that before the great and terrible day of the Lord, God is going to send a prophet, in the spirit of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers (Malachi 4:5-6). The children being spoken of in this passage is referring to the children of God, and the fathers are referring to the apostles over the church. We know this because in Galatians 4:19, Paul says, “My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you”. And he tells the church of Corinth “For though you might have 10,000 instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel,” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Paul’s labour was revealing the grace given to him (Ephesians 3:1-5) to his disciples (his spiritual children) to form the nature of Christ in them.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the pattern of the church wasn’t kept through the last 2000 years and that true apostles weren’t maintained as a standard in the church. Paul prophesied that there would be a great falling away prior to the second coming of Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3), which is the church departing from truth. A true apostle gives us grace by revealing the mysteries of Christ, for the salvation of our souls. The early church understood that the nature of Christ could not be formed in the church without the apostles, and without birthing the nature of Christ in us we cannot be reconciled back to God.
(1) Strong’s Dictionary for “fulfill”, ref G4137 “pleroo”
(2) Thayer’s Dictionary for “fulfill”, ref G4137 “pleroo”
(3) Thayer’s Dictionary for “elder” ref G4245 “Presbuteros”
(4) Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, Ch XII – ANF Vol 1
(5) Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians, Ch IX – ANF Vol 1
(6) Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians, Ch III – ANF Vol 1
(7) Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians, Ch VII – ANF Vol 1
(8) Constitution of the Apostles, Book 2, Pt 1, Ch XX – ANF Vol 7
(9) Hermas, The Pastor, Book 3, Pt 3, Ch XV – ANF Vol 2