In the olden days of Sovereign Grace, a funny phrase would occasionally pop up in our sermons. Do you remember this?
“Don’t hear what I’m not saying.”
The double negatives were so puzzling that it almost passed for profundity. But it was really just a way to appeal for careful listening. Careful listening was vital when confusing young preachers like us were learning our craft—but I’m getting off-message here.
I resurrect the phrase now as we return to the Great Commission and discuss the delicate topic of “apostolic ministry.”
The Apostolic Mission
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. (Matthew 28:16)
The target group of the Great Commission is the eleven disciples. As we discovered in a recent post, they received it as representatives of the church throughout the ages. Yes, you and I were represented in the audience at the premier of the Great Commission. But the disciples also received it as apostles
who would actually carry the gospel to the world.
There’s that word again, apostles
. Let’s go to a wide-angle lens and take in the big picture.
Jesus gave the commission to ordinary men—men who would receive a unique commissioning as Apostles by the risen Christ. Joined by Paul of Tarsus, they would be the essential human agents in the proclamation of the gospel and the establishment of the church after the ascension of Christ. These men would play a unique and unrepeatable role in redemptive history. There are no contemporary reproductions of these men and their role. They are long gone.
Yet the mission they undertook remains. So the question: did “apostolic ministry” cease with the passing of the first apostles?
If we’re talking about the writers of the Scriptures, yes. Apostles of that brand are done, gone, they’ve left the building. However, this does not mean that they were the last men God would call and grace to extend the mission of the gospel through church planting. Such men are still around and quite essential. Here’s the thing: the continuity between the original recipients of the Great Commission and the present practitioners who extend it on behalf of the church is not one of office, authority, or anointing. It is function. As Jeff Purswell, the other guy (the smart one) sharing C.J.’s blog, says, “The function of first century apostles finds its ongoing expression in the efforts of those called and gifted to lead the church into missions.”
Mobilized for Mission
This “apostolic function” persists primarily to help the church reach the world with the gospel. This requires leaders whom the church sends to break new ground or explore new mission opportunities. Their function can be rooted in the Great Commission, but we can readily see a pattern for their labors in the missionary strategy of the Apostle Paul. “And thus I make it my ambition,” he said, “to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20). Elsewhere Paul states to the Corinthians his impassioned gospel-goal: “to preach the gospel in lands beyond you” (2 Corinthians 10:16).
The take-home point? The function fulfilled by men following in Paul’s (and Timothy’s, and Silas’s, and Epaphras’s, etc.) footsteps is primarily missiological, not ecclesiological. The accent rests on gospel mission, not church maintenance. And the specific expression of that mission is church planting. “[Paul’s] more functional understanding of apostleship,” says Gordon Fee, “would certainly have its modern counterparts in those who found and lead churches in unevangelized areas.”*
The Apostolic Aim: Mobilizing Everyone???
Make no mistake: the church is sent to the lost. No one is exempt from this responsibility. But God doesn’t send everyone in the same way. God sends most locally (reaching their community with the gospel) and a few globally. I think that is why we don’t find Paul just moving through New Testament churches recruiting missionaries. Nor do we see the Great Commission applied in the New Testament in a way that mobilizes all believers to go to the uttermost parts of the world.
Here’s a summary: The Great Commission is entrusted to the church. But the church is called to identify, send, and support those graced specifically to extend the apostolic mission. Such men are called and gifted by God to provide leadership for mission and to orchestrate the planting of churches. Just because a man is a great pastor, or a great preacher, or a great evangelist, or a great leader doesn’t mean he is called to this apostolic function. But if a man can theologize, strategize, mobilize, and organize with a view to where the gospel hasn’t gone, then maybe we need to set him apart to do just that.
Why? Because mission activities are closest to the pattern in Scripture when they flow out of this Great Commission strategy: missions flowing from the church and stewarded by gifted, theologically informed church leadership.
The Apostolic Mission: Don’t Hear What I’m Not Saying
Does this mean that the activity in foreign fields that is not defined this way is not legitimate? (How about that for some double negatives!) Not at all…don’t hear what I’m not saying!
There are certain areas of expertise—medicine, translation, business, disaster relief, etc.—that make a vital contribution to the mission field. It’s not like every time a medical team is formed we think someone with apostolic-type gifts should be on the team—actually, most folks would rather just have a doctor. And by the way, just because Hudson Taylor, David Brainerd or John Paton didn’t think in terms of apostolic function doesn’t mean that they weren’t doing it. We can recognize right out of the gate that they had more apostolic game than anything we are bringing to the court!
But here is the challenge: It would seem like the church’s mission ministry could function more scripturally, and therefore more strategically, if it were married to a biblical vision for this apostolic function.
May God give us men gifted for this function so we can go further into the fields!
leads international expansion and church planting for Sovereign Grace
Ministries and is based in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. For more
information about the Sovereign Grace church-planting process, click here.
*Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians
(Eerdmans, 1987), 397.