The Apostles in the Christian Community
The relation of the apostles to these office-bearers and to the Christian community is a problem not without difficulties. Apostle primarily denotes one who is sent on a special mission, and in the Septuagint is used to translate the Hebrew Shaluach, meaning one who has a special commandment from God. The word was in common use among the Jews to denote a special messenger and more especially messengers sent on foreign missions. Thus the Jews who were sent from Palestine to stir up the foreign synagogues against the Christians are called apostles. All these ideas help to show us what the Christian apostles were. It should be remembered, however, that the term apostle is used in its Christian sense in two ways at least, in a wider and in a narrower sense. In the narrower and more strictly technical sense the apostles were the eleven whom Christ chose to be special witnesses for Him because they had been with Him from the beginning, together with Matthias, selected by the apostles to fill the place of Judas before the descent of the Holy Spirit, or as some with more probability think, Paul, who was selected for this place by Christ Himself. On the other hand, many others are called apostles who did not belong to this company, -- Barnabas, for example (Acts xiv. 14), Andronicus and Junias (Rom: xvi. 7), and others (2 Cor. viii. 23; Phil. ii. 25). This vagueness in the New Testament use of the term makes it somewhat difficult to speak with anything like precision of the relation in which the apostles stood to the office-bearers and members of the early Christian community. But one or two statements enable us to see what were the functions of the apostles strictly so called. It is said, for example, that Christians are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone (Eph. ii. 20), and the capacity of the apostles to act in this way as a foundation is explained by passages which seem to say that the qualifications for apostleship were -- to have been with the Lord from the beginning, to have seen and recognized Christ after the resurrection, to have been witnesses of the ascension, and to have been gifted with peculiar spiritual gifts. And we may say generally, that just as the prophets of the Old Testament were the links between their own generation by their speech, and between future generations by their writings, and the Saviour that was to come, so the apostles were the links between the first generation of Christians by their presence and influence, and between all succeeding generations of Christians by their writings, and the Saviour who had come. They were to serve as the connection between the first generation of Christians and Jesus, and were to have no successors but the writings of the New Testament canon, which has taken their place and done their work for all succeeding generations.
The relation of .the apostles, therefore, to the primitive church was altogether unique, as indeed is implied in their name; and when they act or give official advice apart from their apostolic office, which they did in certain cases, they do so as elders chosen to act along with the other elders who did not possess apostolic gifts. If these views are correct the autonomy of the early Christian communities was complete during the lifetime of the apostles, and was quite independent of the apostolic office and authority.
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