Today we are concluding our series called ‘The Historical Church’ where we’ve focused on the marks of Church given to us in the ancient document from 325 AD called the Nicene Creed. In the first sentence of the last paragraph the creed says this, “And we believe in One, Holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.” We’ve gone over the Church’s unity, the Church’s holiness, the Church’s universal nature, and today we turn our attention to the fourth mark of the Church: Apostolic. The meaning of Apostolic is clear and given to us within the word itself. To say the Church is ‘Apostolic’ is to say the Church is founded on the apostle’s teaching.
The book of Acts makes this crystal clear in Acts 2:42 when Luke, the author, says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Here we see a summary of what the early Church devoted themselves to or continued steadfastly in when they gathered together. They devoted themselves to prayer, to the breaking of bread (Lord’s Supper), and fellowship. But notice what’s on the top of the list here? “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” Above all they did, the central object in focus was the teaching of the apostles. This is why we say that the apostles’ teaching is the foundation of the Church.
This is clear to most of us I think and, clear as it may be, it does bring up a number of questions, questions that need answering. Questions like: ‘Who were the apostles?’ ‘What did the apostles teach?’ and finally ‘Why is the apostles’ teaching so important?’ It is these questions that we’ll zero in on today.
Question 1: Who were the Apostles?
The original Greek word for apostle is apostolos meaning ‘he who is sent.’ The Bible uses this word along with the plural apostoloi which means ‘sent ones.’ This gives us an understanding of who the apostles were. There were men chosen by Jesus, whom Jesus sent out with His message of good news. Mark 3:13-14 tells us how it happened, “And Jesus went up on the mountain and called to Him those whom He desired, and they came to Him. And He appointed twelve (whom He also named apostles) so that they might be with Him and He might send them out to preach…” So out of the group of disciples Jesus calls to Himself on this mountain, Jesus chose twelve of them to be apostles. The picture given to us here is that all of the apostles were disciples, but not all of Jesus disciples were apostles. Mark tells us their names a few verses later: Simon whom Jesus called Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the zealot, and Judas Iscariot.
The apostles enjoyed a special office in the early Church. There were sent by Jesus, being commissioned by Him with the authority to speak on His behalf. This of course is modeled after Jesus Himself, who is called the Chief Apostle in Hebrews 3:1. Luke 10:16 makes it clear that as Jesus was sent by His Father and spoke with the Father’s authority, so too Jesus sent his apostles out to speak with His authority. Just as anyone who rejects Jesus rejects His Father who sent Him, anyone who rejects the apostles rejects Jesus who sent them.
Most of the great European cathedrals of history and older large American churches that have stained glass usually represent the apostles as being larger than life figures, super saints, men of mythical stature. Nothing could be farther from the truth – they were common men with an uncommon calling. We learn of their common and ordinary qualities all throughout the gospels. Not understanding Jesus, not trusting Jesus, denying Jesus, scared of storms, scared of men, and lusting after power the apostles were weak and insignificant. No paparazzi would have followed them around. But after Jesus ascended back to Heaven He gives the apostles the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, and the wondrous thing about the apostles after that is that these men who used be characterized by their weakness are now characterized by their bold and fearless preaching of the gospel. This shift in their character is even noticed in Acts 4:13 which says, “When the people saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished, and understood that they had been with Jesus.” Common, ordinary men who followed and proclaimed an extraordinary Savior. Their time with Jesus left an enormous mark on these men, it changed them forever.
Well, after the death of the traitor Judas, there was an opening, and the apostles choose Matthias to take his place. In choosing Matthias to replace Judas Peter gave 3 qualifications one had to meet in order to be an apostle: 1) you had to be disciple of Jesus during His earthly ministry, 2) you had to be an eyewitness of the resurrection of Jesus, and 3) you had to be called and commissioned directly by Jesus Himself. Matthias met these and was chosen. Later in Acts 9 Jesus Himself chooses Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles, and after this as you move onto into the New Testament you have the stunning reality that there were no more apostles called or chosen. By the late first century this was confirmed again and again by the early Church fathers who recognized their authority was subordinate to the original apostles. This means by the standards set forth in Acts 1, there are no apostles alive today. This leads to Question 2.
Question 2: Why is the Apostles’ teaching important?
The apostles’ teaching is important not only because there are no apostles alive any longer, but because their teaching is the foundation of the Church. Paul, in Ephesians 2:20, makes this point saying the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.” Let me explain this by using Jesus’ words. Follow me here:
In John 14:26 Jesus said to His apostles, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Later He said this to them in John 15:26-27, “When the Helper comes, whom I send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” In John 16:13 Jesus told them, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you (apostles) into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” Lastly, in John 17:20-21 Jesus prayed saying this, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their (the apostles, including Paul, the last apostle) word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
So, the Holy Spirit will be sent to the apostles, from the Father, in the name of Jesus. Next, the Holy Spirit will bear witness to, testify, and cause the apostles to remember the Words of Jesus. The Holy Spirit will lead the apostles into all truth and declare to them the things that are to come. Then as a result of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the apostles will testify and proclaim about Jesus (this is what we see in the book of Acts). Jesus then, prays for us, asking specifically that through the word of the apostles we who believe may be one, as the Father and Jesus are one so that the world would believe Jesus came from the Father. Did you follow that?
We learn from this that the Spirit who is going to inspire the apostles with truth, specifically “all truth”, only speaks what He hears from Jesus and from the Father. So, in turn when the apostles go out to preach, teach, and write letters to all the churches, those words are God’s Words, because they are being inspired by the Spirit, and Spirit only speaks what He hears. Thus, the apostles preaching and writing should not be thought of as their own, but rather as God’s Words through the power of the God’s Spirit about God’s Son.
This is why the apostles words have power, and why when compiled together they form the New Testament Canon. Their Words, have the same authority as the Words of Jesus, because their Words are God’s Words, given to them through the power of the Spirit.
So, Christians today have believed through the Words of the apostles, spoken and written. And since we cannot hear them audibly any longer, we read their words. This is the New Testament canon, which is the authoritative word to the Church today. This brings to light the correct interpretation of Matthew 16:18 doesn’t it? “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Is Peter the rock? No. The Rock Jesus is referring to are the Words (Scripture) that will come from Peter and the rest of the apostles. That is the foundation of the Church.
See the progression here: Apostolic representatives who then by the power of the Holy Spirit turn into Apostolic preachers, who then through the inspiration of the Spirit turn into Apostolic writers, who have left in their writings an Apostolic witness for the Church for all time.
Therefore the Bible you hold in your hand is the only Apostolic authority for us today. Or as R.C. Sproul says: “The church is Apostolic in that the teaching of the apostles as contained in the sacred Scripture is the foundation of the Church and the authority by which the Church is governed.”
Question 3: What did the Apostles’ teach?
As you can imagine this question could be answered in all sorts of ways, for the apostles taught many things. We could say the entire New Testament is the teaching of the apostles like we just saw. We could say they taught what Jesus taught. We could say they taught the gospel. We could say they taught the truth. We could say they taught repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ. We could even quote 1 Cor. 15:3-5 or 1 Tim. 3:16 where we see the apostles writing creeds of their own.
But generally we could answer this question by speaking of the apostles teaching as a summary of all right doctrine, or say their teachings are the core/essential teachings of Christianity; teachings that are so central to the essence of Christianity that if you reject them you reject Christianity altogether and cannot be a Christian in any real sense of the word. So what are these core/essential teachings of Christianity? Well, we’re not the only ones to ask this question, in fact, the early church asked this question after the 1st century came to a close, and the result was (surprise, surprise) the Apostles Creed. What does the Creed say?
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and buried, He descended into hell. The 3rd day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From which He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, a holy, catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
This is a clear summary of what the core/essential teachings of Christianity are. It doesn’t detail 100% the things we hold dear; for example it mentions nothing about justification by faith alone, or the inspiration and infallibility Bible, but it is a great summary of our faith. Did you notice how the creed is largely a summary of the work Jesus has done? His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming judgment. The Apostles Creed is all about Jesus. This shouldn’t surprise you, Christianity is all about Christ: who He is, what He did, and what He’s going to do.
Therefore, all of this leads to a final question:
Question 4: How will you respond?
The pressing issue for each of you and for me is how we respond to this Christ, and the teaching about Him from His apostles. The most important thing any of us have to deal with in life is not where we’ll live, what job we’ll work, how much money we’ll make, what we’ll drive, what kind of house we live in, or even who we’ll marry – no, the most important thing you and I will face is what we do with Jesus. And what you do with Jesus isn’t something to put off for a later time, it’s importance sweeps all other issues into the background. So, will we reject these teachings? If you reject them you reject Christ, and you’ll spend an eternity in agony wishing you did otherwise in Hell. Will you embrace these teachings? If you do you embrace Christ, and you’ll spend an eternity grateful for the work He did on your behalf.