Paul the apostle wrote to the Ephesians declaring that the household of God is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ Himself as the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20). In the context of Ephesians 2, Paul is speaking of the Church being the new creation made up of both Jew and Gentile. He speaks of the Church as a building or temple being erected as the habitation of the Spirit. With this in mind, he explains that it is the fulfillment of all that the prophets had declared and the reality of the revelation of the apostles. Peter expressed this same understanding when he wrote, I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2).
In writing to the Corinthians, Paul said that Christ Himself is the foundation, and there is none other (1 Cor 3:10-11). “The meaning is, that no true church can be reared which does not embrace and hold the true doctrines respecting Him-those which pertain to His incarnation, His divine nature, His instructions, His example, His atonement, His resurrection, and ascension.” Apostles must lay this foundation. Paul identified himself as a wise master builder laying that foundation. The Greek word for “master builder” is architekton, which means chief constructor or architect. As an apostle, Paul saw himself with the responsibility to build the Church upon the solid foundation of Christ.
Other apostles, such as Apollos and Cephas (Peter), are recognized as fellow laborers helping to build upon that foundation, but Paul spoke of himself as the apostle who did the planting or primary foundational work among the Corinthians, with Apollos as one who watered or added to the work (Acts 18:1). When Paul speaks of the work of an apostle involving laying the foundation of Christ, we are given insight into apostolic government. It does not imply that he had pre-imminence among the other apostles, but he had preceded the others in laying the foundation. Thus, he served as a father to the work. Recognizing the order in which God has set gifts in the church can help one to see the foundational work of apostles. Paul wrote, And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers. . .” (1 Corinthians 12:28).
The word “first” is better understood by the idea of how the gifts function. In other words, we could give the following example: Which numbers are the most important in the process of counting to ten? The numbers needed to count to ten are all important. It could be said that each number is equally important in order to count to ten, but the order is vital or necessary for the process. So it is with God’s gifts. It is not appropriate to say one gift is more important in the concept of the Church, but the process of order is imperative. However, in an attempt to not develop an artificial hierarchy of ministry, one must be careful not to quickly dismiss the order that Paul gives. Paul offers an order of first, second, and third, and then certain gifts after that. He does so, after previously stating that each member is set with his own distinct place and function. So he is not simply naming gifts in sequence, but he is giving a significant emphasis upon proper order. An apostle is not first because he arrives on the scene first, nor is it necessary to have an apostle physically present, but an apostle is first by order and function. It speaks of government and authority as well as the foundational aspects of the gift.
Paul was one of those apostles who knew his measure was to establish new churches with the foundation of Christ. Apparently, that is why he said his ambition was to preach where Christ was not known so as to not build upon another man’s foundation (Rom 15:20). By pioneering new frontiers and opening the way for the spreading of the Gospel through church planting, Paul was on the front lines of apostolic ministry. Apostolic work includes more than planting new churches, but Paul was certainly one who served in this foundational capacity.
Apostles and prophets are often referred to as “foundational gifts” in that they are the two gifts to which the revelation of the mystery of Christ was revealed, as Paul wrote, You will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:4-6).
The fact that these two New Testament gifts were given the mystery of Christ shows us they are considered revelatory gifts. It was not given to the teacher, nor to the evangelist or pastor, but rather to the apostles and prophets. Once again, it points to the foundational aspects of these two gifts. We often see the apostle and prophet mentioned together. They are often seen working together helping to strengthen and establish existing, as well as new, churches. As shown earlier, they are listed together and set as first and second in order in the Church (1 Cor 12:28).
When Jesus was referring to the apostate Israel, He declared, God in His wisdom would send that generation apostles and prophets and that some of them would be rejected and crucified (Luke 11:49). He does not mention the other five gifts, only the apostle and prophet, as they serve in the foundational work of the Church.
The word for apostle (Greek, apostolos, apos’tolos); means “the sent one, an ambassador, a delegate, one who is sent forth, one commissioned and authorized by another to represent another and carry out his will and purposes.” The original use of the word apostle referred to an admiral leading a fleet of ships “to establish a new colony, all of these were called apostles—the fleet, the admiral and the newfound colony.” The commission was to found a group of people that reflected the intentions of the sender. Apostles, therefore, establish the Church as God’s community to reflect the mind and purpose of God in the earth.
To be sent as an apostle in the Church means to represent Christ as an ambassador or delegate for a specific work. The Scripture tells us that Saul (Paul) and Barnabas were sent out from the Antioch church as apostles. Once they left Antioch, though the Antioch church sent them, they were not representing the local church of Antioch but the Lord Jesus Himself who had sent them for the “work” in which they had been called (Acts 13:1-3). They moved with a special grace, commission, and authority of Christ.
We see that apostles are “sent ones,” and their influence resides within a sphere of labor called the “work” of an apostle. “Apostles are God’s workmen, sent out by the Holy Spirit to do the work to which He has called them. The responsibility of the work is in their hands. Broadly speaking, all believers are responsible for the work of God, but apostles are a group of people specially set apart and bear a peculiar responsibility for its conduct.”
An apostle is an apostle not because he has great gifts, abilities, or anointing, but because he has a divine commission or mandate. Not every apostle has the same commission; therefore, the authority of each apostle is not equal. Watchman Nee expands on this thought in his book, The Normal Christian Church Life,
Many called of God are not as gifted as Paul, but if they have received a commission of God, they are just as truly apostles as he. The apostles were gifted men, but their apostleship was not based upon their gifts; it was based upon their commission. Of course, God will not send anyone who is unequipped, but equipment does not constitute apostleship. It is futile for anyone to assume the office of an apostle simply because he thinks he has the needed gifts or ability. It takes more than mere gift and ability to constitute apostles[hip]; it takes God Himself, His will, and His call. No man can attain to apostleship through natural or other qualifications; God must make him an apostle if he is ever to be one. ‘A man sent of God’ should be the main characteristic of our entering upon His service and of all our subsequent movements.
Prophets are named second in the list of five gifts in Ephesians 4:11, and second in the order of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:28. As already mentioned, New Testament prophets, like apostles, serve as the foundational gifts in the church. A prophet has the special ability to speak prophetic utterances to the body of Christ through divinely anointed messages. These words include foretelling and forth telling. Since prophets are named among the five-fold gifts, they carry the responsibility to equip the saints.
The ministry of the prophet serves to encourage, strengthen, and build up the saints (Acts 15:32). By operating in several of the revelatory gifts of the nine manifestations of 1 Corinthians 12, prophets serve the church through a word of wisdom, word of knowledge, visions, and other revelatory insights. A prophet does more than prophesy. A prophet is often able to see what is needed in a situation. Working closely with an apostle, the prophet is invaluable in helping to establish the members in their proper functions.
Prophets prophesy, but not everyone who prophesies is a prophet. The gift of prophecy is given to all as the Holy Spirit wills (1 Cor 12:10). This manifestation of the Spirit encourages and comforts the saints, but may operate through whomever God chooses to use but that does not necessarily mean that person is a prophet.
New Testament prophets and prophecy are not infallible, nor are they equal to Scripture. Paul calls for prophetic utterances to be judged by the other prophets who are sitting in the church (1 Cor 14:29). These utterances bring insight and encouragement in line with the written Word of God. When the Church fails to embrace the ministry of the prophet there is a level of power and revelation lost in the Church.
The Other Three Gifts
Though apostles and prophets are understood to be the foundational gifts, all five gifts in Ephesians 4:11 are equally important. For the sake of this article I only mention the other three briefly since this writing is about the foundational gifts of the church.
An evangelist is one who shares the Gospel with dynamic effect that draws men to Christ and discipleship. The gift of the evangelist is rarely mentioned in the New Testament, yet it is exemplified in the life of Christ. Philip was named as an evangelist (Acts 21:8), while Paul told Timothy, an apostle, to do the “work of an evangelist.”
The little that we see of Philip points to a model that was both transit and local. Philip was called to Samaria from Jerusalem to bring the Gospel through great power and signs. However, we also see him residing in Caesarea, raising his family and, no doubt, equipping the saints to do the work of evangelism.
A pastor is one who God has given the ability to assume a long-term personal responsibility for the spiritual welfare of a group of believers through feeding and guarding. The word pastor comes from the Greek word poimen. It means to feed or shepherd the flock. Out of the eighteen times it is used in the New Testament, it is translated as shepherd every time but once. Only one time is it used as a noun. That is in Ephesians 4:11, translated as pastor.
A teacher is one with the ability to explain and apply the Word of God to people’s lives. Some see the teacher and the pastors as the same. However, a distinction appears to be made when Paul identifies the ministry of the teacher as third in the order of placing gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:28. He lists the teacher after the prophet. Prophets and teachers were mentioned as leaders in the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1).
All of these five gifts are given to equip the saints in the local church. The gifts are given to equip and because of that, members should be able to do the work of any of the five without necessarily standing in gift of the five-fold. The equipping is done not by what they do but simply by who they are.
About the Author:
Glenn Shaffer is the author of Apostolic Government in the 21st Century, Christianity 101 and Discipleship 201. He has a Masters of Ministry degree in leadership studies from Southwestern Christian University and is working toward a Doctorate in Ministry at ORU in Tulsa.
Glenn and his wife, Ami have been married for 40 years with two sons, Matt and Daniel. Together, they co-see the elder pastoral care of Destiny Life Church, one church in two locations (Owasso and Claremore, Oklahoma) where they have been serving for almost 4 decades. It is a non-denominational church, based on a New Testament Apostolic form of church government. Together, they also serve as the directors of ATI- Apostolic Teams International, an emerging network of churches and ministers.