The Origin of Deacons: Acts 6:1–7

Does Acts 6:1–7 tell us anything about deacons, technically speaking? After all, the word deacon is not used, some of the seven men appointed to ministry also preached (Stephen and Philip), and the seven’s appointment was for a singular task, not serving the church’s tangible needs as a whole.

While such a description may push us towards describing the men in view as something other than deacons, it is fair to conclude that Luke was indeed describing the first appointment of deacons within the church. The task given was managing the distribution of food to widows, an example ministry of how deacons minister to the church. While deacons are not required to teach (cf. 1 Tim 3:8–13), neither are they forbidden from doing so. As for the word deacon, their ministry in Acts 6 was to “serve tables,” and the word serve is translated from diakoneō, the verb form from which we get our title deacon (cf. 1 Tim 3:8, diakonos).

When compared to 1 Timothy 3:1–13, Acts 6:1–7 provides further indicators that deacons are in view. One contrast between an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and a deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 is that an overseer was to be able to teach, but not a deacon. In Acts 6:1–7, the apostles were unique as apostles, yes, but they also functioned as the church’s first overseers and were thus given to the “preaching of the word of God” (Acts 6:2), which is also described as “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The seven, however, were appointed in order to keep the apostles from being distracted from this focus, and the preaching of Stephen and Philip was something in addition to and did not take away from their ministry to the widows. Just as overseers and not deacons have to be able to teach, so also the overseeing apostles needed to give their time to teaching and not the seven who were appointed to serve the widows’ tables.

A comparison between Acts 6:1–7 and 1 Timothy 3:8–13 also shows that, just as the seven were to meet certain character requirements, so also are deacons in general. In Acts 6:3, being “of good repute,” being “full of the Spirit,” and having the “wisdom” necessary to oversee a practical ministry is simply shorthand for the more detailed requirements for deacons found in 1 Timothy 3:8–13.

Having explored the above, we see something of the amazing unity and diversity that Christ has ordained for the church. Just as some members may be the mouths who speak the word of God, so also others are the hands that tend to the church’s specific, tangible needs. One ministry could not exist without the other, and when these ministries work in harmony, the word of God increases, disciples multiply, and many become obedient to the faith (cf. Acts 6:7).

Apostles: A Wrap-up

512px-Apostles_MNMA_Cl23530My graduation and a number of church matters busied me away from a series on apostles, and this post will be a final few thoughts on the matter for now. The NT gives requirements for what it is to be an apostle (see here and here), and Paul’s description of himself helps to explain his apostleship as well. It is debated whether or not Barnabas is an apostle, but I sided with the evidence that he is not.

In addition to apostles who are the apostles, there are also those who are termed apostles merely in the sense that they are messengers. Paul sent Epaphroditus as a “messenger” (apostolos) back to the Philippians (Phil 2:25). He did the same with Titus and the unnamed brother who were “messengers of the churches” (2 Cor 8:23). Jesus spoke of messengers in general when stating, “nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16).

There are also those who are apostles with Paul in the sense that they are sent for the purpose of gospel ministry. Men such as Timothy and Silvanus could be included in this category (1 Thess 2:6; cf. 1:1).

We should also add that Jesus is uniquely “the apostle” in Hebrews 3:1. He was sent like none other to provide redemption for the children of God (cf. Heb 2:10–16).

Having hardly scratched the surface for this topic, hopefully I’ve laid out the broader principles that establish the multiple senses of the term apostolos as it is used in the NT:

  1. The apostles are the twelve and Paul, one untimely born.
  2. Apostles are also those sent by the churches for gospel ministry (e.g., Timothy and Silvanus – 1 Thess 2:6; cf. 1:1).
  3. Apostles are messengers who have a specific task (e.g., Epaphroditus – Phil 2:25).
  4. The apostle Jesus was sent to provide redemption for God’s children (Heb 3:1).

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.

Was Barnabas an Apostle?

San Barnaba by Anonimo Lombardo (an anonymous Lombard) - 17th CenturyWas Barnabas an apostle? This question is important because it is related to the larger question of whether or not apostles exist today. If the NT gave a pattern of apostles being added to the original Twelve (and Paul), could there be apostles today?

I explained in previous posts that the Twelve and Paul had a unique apostleship that singled them out from others that were called apostles in Scripture. In this post (and more to come), I will examine who else was called an apostle in the NT and the meaning of the term apostle as it applied to these individuals.

In Acts 14:4, Luke refers to “the apostles” who, in context, are Paul and Barnabas (cf. Acts 13:50). Ten verses later, Luke is more explicit and refers to “the apostles Barnabas and Paul” (Acts 14:14). Barnabas was clearly an apostle. But in what sense? Was he an apostle like the Twelve? Was he an apostle to the Gentiles in the same sense as Paul? Could the term apostle mean something else in this context?

Part of the difficulty in explaining Barnabas as an apostle lies in the fact that Paul, too, is called an apostle in Acts 14:4, 14If Paul was an apostle in much the same way as the original Twelve, to call Barnabas an apostle alongside Paul seems to color Barnabas with the same apostolic hue as Paul. But this reasoning does not necessarily follow.

Luke typically describes Barnabas as an individual who was distinct from the twelve apostles (Acts 4:36; 9:27; 15:2, 22). These verses and others demonstrate that Luke consistently used the term apostle to refer to the Twelve.1 Luke’s use of the term apostle with reference to others such as Barnabas and Paul is exceptional.2 This is not to say that Paul was not an apostle, but it is to say that whether Paul, Barnabas, or anyone else, Luke did not typically call these men apostles. More likely, Luke used a more generic use of the term apostle, albeit with reference to two notable individuals. One scholar refers to Acts 14:4, 14 and explains this use of apostle as follows: “In this broad usage, then, an apostle was a first-century evangelist who bore witness to the resurrection of Christ, an itinerant missionary sent by Him to make disciples of all nations.”3 Barnabas was an apostle in the sense that he was sent to proclaim the gospel with Paul (cf. Acts 13:1–3).4

In short, Luke described Barnabas as someone distinct from the Twelve. He was sent with Paul to proclaim the gospel, and in this sense, he was an apostle. He cannot be used an example of someone who received an apostleship that was the same as the Twelve or Paul and thus be used as precedent for anyone to claim a similar apostleship today.

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.

  1. F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 271; John B. Polhill, Acts (NAC 26; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 312. []
  2. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, 276.Cf. A. F. Falls, “Apostle,” NBD, 123. []
  3. William C. Robinson, “Apostle,” ISBE 1:193. Cf. David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 408. []
  4. To get even more technical, Luke’s order of names in Acts 14:14 (Barnabas and Paul vs. Paul and Barnabas) could suggest the exceptional nature of this use of apostle as well. Unless referring to Paul by his Jewish surname Saul, Luke usually referred to Paul first and Barnabas second (Acts 13:43, 46, 50; 15:2, 22, 35; cf. 15:12, 25). If Luke was copying an irregular order of these two names from some external source, it could be that he also copied the term apostle along the way, explaining why Luke would have used the term with reference to someone other than the Twelve. (See Bruce, The Book of the Acts, 276.) Another suggestion for the unusual order of names is that this order corresponds to the order of the gods Zeus and Hermes mentioned in Acts 14:12. (See Andrew F. Falls, “Apostle, NBD, 123.) []

The Apostleship of the Apostle Paul: One Untimely Born

conversion-of-saulOver the last couple of weeks, I examined Acts 1:21–26 for the requirements laid out by the early church for one be an apostle (part 1part 2). The three such requirements were as follows:

1. An apostle followed Jesus during His entire earthly ministry from His baptism by John to His ascension into heaven (Acts 1:21–22a).

2. An apostle saw Jesus after His resurrection (Acts 1:22b).

3. An apostle was appointed by the Lord Jesus Himself (Acts 1:24–25).

When we look at these requirements, we wonder – how was Paul able to claim that he, too, was an apostle?  He met only the last two of these three requirements. He saw Jesus after the resurrection (Acts 9:1–9; 1 Cor 15:8), and Jesus appointed him to be apostle (Acts 26:16–18; cf. 9:15–16). However, Paul was an unbeliever who persecuted the early church (Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2) and could obviously not have been one who followed Christ during His earthly ministry (cf. Acts 1:21–22a). Was the first requirement really not all that necessary? Could this apostolic appointment of Paul set a precedent to open the door for others to later say that they, too, had somehow seen Jesus and been appointed to be apostles as well?

The answer is no because Paul describes himself in terms that imply he was an exception to the rule. Twice in 1 Corinthians he describes his apostleship in correlation to when Jesus first appeared to him (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8–9). In the second of these descriptions, he notes that Jesus appeared to him “as to one untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8), a phrase that describes one of the primary ways in which Paul’s apostleship was distinct from the Twelve. Apart from other ways this phrase could be taken, it seems Paul used the picture of a premature birth to imply that his apostleship was something that came about rather abruptly as opposed to something that had been developed over a longer period of time.1 Teasing out the picture further, one could say that the Twelve underwent the full development of apostolic nurture in being discipled by Christ during His earthly ministry.2 In contrast, Paul’s apostleship came about rather suddenly and apart from such a process.

Putting this all together, the Twelve were the Twelve in part because they  were with Christ from His baptism by John to His ascension into heaven (Acts 1:21–22a). Christ chose Paul to be an apostle apart from such a process, but even Paul knew this type of apostleship was out of the ordinary (1 Cor 15:8). Moreover, if Paul’s apostleship was unexpected for such a reason, it seems all the more unlikely that we would see apostles today.

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.

  1. Cf. David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 690–91, and Anthony C. Thistleton, 1 Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1208–09. []
  2. See the previous posts about Acts 1:21–26 for an explanation as to how Matthias was able to be an apostle as well. []

What Is an Apostle? Requirements from Acts 1:21–26 (Part 2 of 2)

We saw last week from Acts 1:21–26 that the early church laid out three requirements in choosing a replacement apostle* for Judas Iscariot:

1. The candidate was required to be someone who followed Jesus during his entire earthly ministry, beginning from Jesus’ baptism by John to Jesus’ ascension into heaven (1:21–22a).

2. The candidate was required to have seen Jesus after His resurrection (1:22b).

3. The candidate needed to have been appointed by the Lord Jesus himself (1:24–25).

What I did not stress in the previous article was this: if these are some of the requirements to be an apostle, then no one is an apostle today. These requirements are historical conditions that no one can fulfill today. No one today can claim to have followed Jesus during His earthly ministry. Along with this, neither can anyone today claim to have seen Jesus after His resurrection. And, if someone has seen Jesus neither before nor after His resurrection, neither will he be able to claim that Jesus was physically present to personally appoint him to be an apostle.

But perhaps someone claims Jesus gave him a personal appointment to some type of apostolic ministry through a dream or vision.  If this is so, could a person still be an apostle? I am an unashamed cessationist who would dismiss such a claim outright, but even if someone could claim such a dream or vision, he still could not be an apostle. He did not follow Jesus during his earthly ministry from Jesus’ baptism by John to the point of His ascension into heaven.

Adding one more thought—if one cannot be apostle, neither can he enjoy what Scripture calls apostleshipIn the context of Acts 1:21–26, apostleship is a ministry that is enjoyed by only those who are apostles. The eleven prayed to the Lord Jesus and asked Him to reveal which of two men would “take the place in this ministry and apostleship [apostolē] from which Judas turned aside” (Acts 1:25). Paul used this word elsewhere with the same sense (Rom 1:5; 1 Cor 9:2; Gal 2:8).

Pulling all of the above together, Acts 1:21–26 denies the possibility of apostles today and their correlative ministry of apostleship. An apostle is someone who followed Christ during His earthly ministry, saw Him after the resurrection, and was personally appointed to the apostolate.

*Scripture uses the term apostle in a more general sense as well (cf. 2 Cor 8:23). I hope to address both  this use in the days ahead as well as the unique appointment of Paul. 

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.

What Is an Apostle? Requirements from Acts 1:21–26 (Part 1 of 2)

ma-1704087 (1)“What is an apostle?” This is an important question to answer because many people in Christendom claim that there are apostles for today or at least claim that some enjoy what is called the spiritual gift of apostleship. Over the course of my next couple posts or so, I hope to give a brief understanding of how Scripture describes and defines apostles and whether or not there is a gift called apostleship. A great place to start is Acts 1:21–26.

To give a dash of context, after the suicide of Judas Iscariot, Peter addressed the matter of finding a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:15–20). In doing so, he laid out two requirements for who this replacement apostle should be (Acts 1:21–22), and the subsequent prayer of the people (cf. Acts 1:15) revealed a third requirement as well (1:24–25).  Acts 1:21–26 begins with the words of Peter:

21 ‘So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.’ 23 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” (Acts 1:21–26)

The requirements that can be gathered are as follows:

1. The candidate was required to be someone who followed Jesus during his entire earthly ministry, beginning from Jesus’ baptism by John to Jesus’ ascension into heaven (1:21–22a).

2. The candidate was required to have seen Jesus after His resurrection (1:22b).

3. The candidate needed to have been appointed by the Lord Jesus himself (1:24–25).

While the first two requirements are fairly straightforward, the third is not. Some question the wisdom of the Christians’ use of lots to decide between Justus and Matthias, but my understanding is that the Lord (i.e., the Lord Jesus; cf. Acts 1:21) providentially allowed the use of lots to appoint the replacement for Judas. The Christians were led by the eleven and prayed to the Lord Jesus that He would reveal to them the apostle He had already chosen (Acts 1:24). In this way, it could be said that, just as Jesus had personally appointed the other apostles (Mark 3:13–19), so also did He appoint Matthias through the casting of lots.

Luke’s description of Matthias’ appointment showed that the early Christians accepted this choice as the Lord’s mind on the matter: “he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26). Later reference to “the twelve” assume Matthias’s legitimacy as an apostle as well (Acts 6:2).

I’ll say more next week.

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.

Elder, Overseer, and Shepherd: One and the Same Office?

the-vigil-of-the-shepherds-detailDo the titles elder, overseer, and shepherd refer to one and the same office? The answer is yes, and a brief survey of a few NT passages will provide ample evidence for such a conclusion. The basic thesis of this article is that the overlap of terminology from one title to the next in a number of texts clearly shows the offices of elder, overseer, and shepherd to be one and the same.

Elders Are Overseers

Paul clearly equates elders with overseers in Titus 1:5, 7. Paul tells Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete,” namely, to “appoint elders [presbuteros] in every town” (Titus 1:5). Immediately after telling Titus to appoint elders, Paul then gives some initial qualifications for elders (Titus 1:6) and then gives his reason for doing so: “For an overseer [episkopos], as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:7).

The equation of elders with overseers is seen again in Acts 20:17, 28. Luke records that Paul “sent to Ephesus and called the elders [presbuteros] of the church to come to him” (Acts 20:17). In addressing these elders, Paul stated to them that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos]” (Acts 20:28).

Elders Are Overseers Who Shepherd

To quote Acts 20:28 again, Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit had “made them overseers [episkopos], to care for the church of God.” The infinitive “to care” is literally rendered “to shepherd” (poimainō). Paul saw shepherding as the primary role of elders who the Spirit had appointed to be overseers. What is helpful to notice at this point is that Acts 20:17, 28 uses some form of all three terms to refer to the same office: elders were appointed overseers to shepherd.

Elders Shepherd by Exercising Oversight

Peter likewise exhorted “the elders [presbuteros] among you” (1 Peter 5:1) to “shepherd [poimainō] the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2) and to do so by “exercising oversight.” The participle “exercising oversight” (episkopeō) is the verbal cognate of the noun “overseer” (episkopos) and is subordinate to Peter’s imperative to shepherd (“shepherd the flock of God, exercising oversight”). Though Peter does not identify elders as overseers, he does tell them to shepherd by exercising oversight. It seems fair to conclude that Peter would say that those who exercise oversight could be called overseers who, in this case, are elders. Similar to Acts 20:17, 28, Peter uses some form of all three terms to refer to the same office in 1 Peter 5:1–2: elders were to shepherd by exercising oversight.

Christ Is Both Shepherd and Overseer

Another helpful text in identifying overseers as shepherds is 1 Peter 2:25. Peter refers to Christ as “the Shepherd [poimēn] and Overseer [episkopos] of your souls.” Though Peter was not speaking of shepherds and overseers in general, the overlap in terminology with reference to Christ has bearing upon how this terminology is used for shepherds and overseers in general. If Christ is both Overseer and Shepherd, it is easy to infer that overseers and shepherds in general are one and the same as well. The overlap in terminology in Acts 20:17, 28 and 1 Peter 5:1–2 makes this conclusion all the more certain.

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.