I’ve been having a discussion with some American pentecostal types in which the issue of apostles has come up. I’ve written before about why I think Apostles like Paul no longer exist, but this time I was asking myself again why Paul isn’t a precedent for there being Apostles beyond the original Twelve (or 14).
The problem is that when Judas dies, the other Apostles insist that the replacement must have been with them from the beginning (from John’s baptism) and he must have been a witness of the resurrection. Clearly no one can any longer fulfil either of these qualifications, and this is one reason why big-A Apostleship is off the cards. And yet Paul also failed to fulfil them, but he clearly was an Apostle of the highest order. Does this mean that those qualifications were not so important after all? Can people these days still be Paul-like Apostles?
Well with respect to the requirement to be a witness of the resurrection, Acts goes to great lengths to show that Paul did fulfil it, albeit via a loophole. Acts recounts three times that he was graced with a special post-resurrection appearance of Jesus (which Paul refers to as his ‘unnatural birth’, ektromati, ‘by miscarriage’ or ‘at an unnatural time’). This was witnessed publicly, but its repetition in Acts emphasises how important (and unusual) it was.
The other qualification is simpler. Paul does not meet it at all. So the question is Why not? God doesn’t do things by accident, so if there was a reason for the two qualifications given in Acts, there must be a reason for a clearly legitimate Apostle not to meet them in Acts. Indeed, the fact that Paul recognised that his Apostleship was ‘abnormally born’ is an acknowledgement that there is both a proper way (the two qualifications) and that he didn’t follow it.
The answer to this problem is, I think, this. Once the Twelve Apostles recognised Paul’s status as one of their order, they nevertheless saw that he had a different role to theirs. They were to serve the Jewish church, and Paul was sent to establish Gentile converts. There was an acknowledged difference in his sending. It is the difference in his sending that seems to me to be the motivation for the difference in his calling. Paul began his career as a famous enemy of the Christian movement, tirelessly working to wipe it out. The Gentiles began the book of Acts occupying their long-standing historical position as unclean enemies of the Jews. By the end of the book of Acts, Jewish and Gentile churches have been established and united, and the Gentiles even prove to be the more willing recipients of the Christian message. What better person to choose to instigate the conversion of enemies to friends than the man who was initially the foremost enemy of the Christian message?
So the choice of Paul to be the Apostle to the Gentiles was reasonable and poetic, and it accounts for why he had to be chosen outside of the normal pattern. His election to Apostleship was picturing the work that he was being called to: enemy Gentiles were going to be made friends (outside the normal Jewish pattern of circumcision and submission to Torah). The surprising nature of Paul’s conversion and calling to Apostleship probably had a preparatory role for his mission.
This might seem to provide a precedent for other ‘abnormally born’ Apostles, but actually it doesn’t. As I’ve said, Paul acknowledges that there is a proper time and pattern for Apostles that even he didn’t fit, and that he is an exception, a miscarriage. Secondly, the exception was made for reasonable purposes: the inauguration of Gentile mission; this was a one-time event, so there is no reason to expect that any more exceptions to the rule in the future. Thirdly, as my other post on apostles argues, Paul himself does not encourage the church to seek the office of Apostle, but only the second order teaching ministry, i.e. prophecy. So, unless Jesus personally appears to you and gives you good reasons why you should be starting some new chapter in redemption history, you should probably not put yourself in the shoes of Paul or the Twelve. Call your office something else.