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The Apostleship of the Apostle Paul: One Untimely Born

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series

"A Theology of Apostles and Apostleship"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

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 1, part 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.

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About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, serves as a chaplain for his local police department, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Bob Jones University. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.

  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. []

7 Responses to The Apostleship of the Apostle Paul: One Untimely Born

  1. Thanks David.
    Surely you are familiar with the argument that Barnabas also was an apostle, based on Acts 14:4,14.
    Romans 16:7 is a little ambiguous, yet the world ‘apostolos’ is again used with reference to Timothy and Silvanus in 1.Thess 1:1; 2:6 (cf Ac 15:40; 16:1-5). Also, what about Epaphroditus in Phil 2:25?

    Another problem I see is that when the New Testament speaks of ‘false apostles’, the three criteria are never used as a counterargument. If there had only been thirteen, it would have been the obvious resort to state such. Also, since apostles are mentioned as offices given to the church in Eph 4:12 “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” it seems counter-intuitive to say apostles only existed in the first century. Surely, the above-mentioned criteria (notably, unity of faith) have never been fulfilled by the church until today. It seems, then, apostles would be needed even more today than they were then.

    Lk 10:3 indicates a more general use of the word Apostle’ (sent one) that may apply to all Christians. Yet, 1.Cor 12 and Eph 4:12 distinguish the office of apostle from other offices, and eliminating it from the list today forces the unpleasant discussion as which of the offices (and related gifts) have ceased to exist and when/why.

    Arguing from silence once more, we do not read of any other of the twelve, or even Paul, being replaced by other apostles. In that vein, it would make sense to point out that no ‘foundational apostles’ as in the first century exist today. In your opinion, then, were there ‘lesser apostles’ as well – maybe Epaphroditus was one? – and could those still exist today?

    (you may have intended to deal with these anyways in future posts, so sorry if I jumped the gun)

  2. Martin, as you noted toward the end of your post, I do intend to deal with these issues in future posts – Barnabas, the general use of “apostle” for others such as Epaphroditus, etc. As you brought out, there are different ways in which the NT uses the term “apostle.” I’m trying to keep people on the edge of their seats by only speaking to a particular issue each post. It seems to be working! :)

    For the moment, though, a couple of thoughts may address several of your concerns.

    1. I would say that an argument from silence as to what a biblical author could have said can only go so far, especially when Scripture does explicitly speak to the issue of apostolic requirements (e.g., Acts 1:21-26 and 1 Cor 15:8). Since Scripture addresses the issue, I believe it is more hermeneutically sound to go by what it says first and only then infer conclusions from what it does not say.

    2. There is clearly a difference from the use of the term “apostle” when applied to the Twelve and Paul as opposed to how it is used elsewhere in the NT. Again, I hope to address these other uses in future posts because it will take a bit of explanation to tease this out.

  3. […] Barnabas as an apostle lies in the fact that Paul, too, is called an apostle in Acts 14:4, 14. If 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 […]

  4. The question is: does Acts 1:21-26 establish the fundamental criteria for Apostleship for all time? Or does it simply lay out the proper application of those (not explicitly stated) crtieria in a particular historical context (the immediate post-Resurrection context), which allows the same criteria to be applied in different ways in different historical contexts in the future? We might call the former reading the “general” reading, and the later reading the “contextual” reading. I don’t think you’ve proven that the general reading is right and the contextual reading is wrong. You do of course have some arguments to prefer the general, but conversely I think one could produce some arguments that favour the contextual, and I’m not convinced that at the end of it we will be able to confidently say that one side is wrong and the other right.

  5. Simon, thank you for thoughts. My understanding is that Acts 1:21–26 is the explicit statement itself of the criteria that God recorded for the church. I’m not sure how I could exegetically split the hairs to unveil the hidden criteria that lie beneath Acts 1, whatever they would be, and how Acts 1 is an application of those criteria. For me, the text is clear enough, which is why I am personally confident and convinced in my own mind. I realize the need to charitably disagree with those who understand this text otherwise, especially when establishing normative principles from a narrative text. But, it’s what God said on the issue (among other texts as discussed in this series), and I have to go by what He says, not what He does not say.

  6. David, I’m responding a bit late to your article, but I think Gal. 1: 11-24 is crucial in understanding Paul’s “journey” to and qualifications for apostleship. Paul clearly demonstrated his attitude of equal authority with the 12, and I think the strong inference of the Galatians passage is that Paul was directly discipled by Christ in Arabia.

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