Sometimes I run across preachers or teachers today who claim to be “apostles” or “prophets.” Often they’re just using those titles in their most general senses. Missionaries may use the term “apostle” as “one who is sent” or preachers may use “prophet” as “one who proclaims a message.” But occasionally, the self-styled “apostle” or “prophet” claims to be the same kind of apostle or prophet found in the New Testament, upon whom the church was built (Eph. 2:20). In fact, some today claim that the next great revival and reformation of the church will come through bona fide apostles and prophets … and only those Christians and churches who follow their lead will be part of the new wave of the Spirit.
Is this possible? Can there be real apostles and prophets with such authority today?
According to Scripture—and confirmed by the testimony of the early church—the authentic offices of the apostles and prophets were limited to the earliest church. Paul wrote, “God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets” (1 Cor. 12:28), indicating that these are first in sequence as the foundational offices of the church. Paul also implied that one mark of an authentic apostle includes having “seen Jesus our Lord” (1 Cor. 9:1). In 1 Corinthians 15:5–8, when Paul lists the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus, he indicates that Christ appeared to James and “then to all the apostles,” he himself being “last of all.” Another essential mark of “a true apostle” was the ability to perform authenticating “signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Cor. 12:12). This function of signs and wonders as confirming the original apostles’ message is mentioned in Hebrews 2:3–4, when the author writes, “After [the gospel] was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.”
But someone might say, “Isn’t it possible that God continued this foundational apostolic ministry beyond the first century? Wouldn’t it make more sense if God continued to call apostles and prophets, confirm His message with signs and wonders, and broaden the foundation of the church in the future generations?”
When we turn to the earliest generation of Christians after the original apostles and prophets, we see that those original disciples of the apostles and prophets referred to those offices as foundational ministries of the church that had ceased.60 This is especially important when we consider how the early church determined whether a Christian writing should be regarded as Scripture or not. The mid-second-century Muratorian Canon wisely rejected the inspiration of a book entitled Shepherd of Hermas based on the fact that it was written after the time of the apostles and prophets: “It cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among the Prophets whose number is complete, or among the Apostles, for it is after their time” (emphasis mine).61
So, both the Bible and the records of the earliest church immediately after the apostles demonstrate that the New Testament apostles and prophets were a fixed number in the first generation of the church. Their teachings concerning the crucified and risen Lord, as well as their writings, were foundational for the church. When their lives on earth came to an end, so did their offices. Today their doctrines are preserved in Scripture and taught by their successors—the evangelists, pastors, and teachers throughout church history (Eph. 4:11). Nobody can legitimately claim to be an authoritative apostle or prophet in the church today.
Swindoll, Charles R. 2018. Insights on 1, 2 & 3 John, Jude. Vol. 14. Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.