God: Sovereign over the Prophets and Apostles
Just as God was sovereign or in full control as creator and redeemer of the prophets, so too was he sovereign over the apostles. Neither the prophets nor apostles were ever in ultimate control over the power and authority administrated through them. The keys of the kingdom that Jesus gave to the apostles are identified with God’s revelation of himself that leads to a true confession of him (Matt. 16:13-28). Because the keys of the kingdom are identified with God’s revelation of himself, these keys were never fully controlled by the apostles; this revelation was and always will be controlled by Jesus through the Holy Spirit (contrary to Roman Catholicism). The apostles did not replace Jesus, and the church built upon the prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20-21) does not replace Jesus; God is not dependent on the church, or anyone or anything in anyway at any time. It is in God that all live and move and have their being, not the reverse (Acts 17:28). In their act of first speaking and then writing the authoritative interpretation of Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension, the apostles, like the prophets, were men who were vessels, instruments, or administrators of God’s power and authority. To be sure, the Lord, having created and redeemed each of the men who proclaimed and wrote his word, also developed each man through that man’s whole life so that under the control of the Holy Spirit each one wrote in a way consistent with his personality and history; God’s presence and provision for rescue from sin comes through all that marks creation not simply outside of it so that we should think of salvation and all the means to it as the application of something as an appendage or artificial to creation. Yet, the power to speak and write God’s word was not, strictly speaking, either the prophet’s or apostles’ to control. It was neither theirs to ultimately give to or withhold from others. God did not need them to get his revelation out. Among other things, we learn this through God speaking through Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22:30)! In and of themselves, the prophets and apostles could hardly regard themselves as anything special, and this also applies to those of us who are given the privilege and duty to preach God’s word.
Furthermore, God determined by his Spirit who would understand and bow to the testimony concerning him. There was nothing that the apostles had at their immediate control that determined the success or failure of their declaration; the Spirit of God moves as he wills, as Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:8). Even when the apostles spoke and a miracle was performed they did not speak in their name, or give what was not given to them (Acts 3:6). The life and death of Judas serves as an example that even a particular, exclusive earthly experience that on all accounts appears to human senses to insure God’s covenant blessing, does not in fact insure that blessing. Still, the apostles whom Jesus established carried out a unique office and function in the history of God’s redemption. The apostles and their testimony are the fulfillment of Isaiah 6:9-10 and Matt. 13:10-16. Philip preaching to the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 is an example of the need for and the provision of this authoritative interpretation of the gospel that is about Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament.
Before we go further, though, perhaps we need to remind ourselves that every human deserves God’s covenant curse. It is only through God’s sovereign mercy and grace that a sinner receives God’s blessing. Such blessing only comes through God’s Word and Spirit.
Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and the Church
All that Jesus, the Word made flesh, did in his earthly ministry he did in the power of God’s Spirit (Matt. 3:13-17; Luke 4:14). The union between Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Old Testament, the Gospel and the proclamation of the Scriptures is succinctly expressed in Luke 4:16-21, when Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-2 and announced that in the hearing of those present that text had been fulfilled. Included in Jesus’ works done by the power of the Spirit was his establishing his apostles as the authoritative interpreters of his life, death, resurrection and ascension (Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:1-3). God gave his people himself as they were given the truths of the Old and New Testament. Further, we have seen that part of the Old and New Testament is the truth regarding the authority structure ordained by God through which he gives himself to his people. This ordained authority structure is integral to, and an organic part of, all God’s covenant community (Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament) is and does. In other words, to understand the nature and function of God’s word written, spoken and made flesh is to understand the Church, what it is and does.
Consider the following by B. B. Warfield, “The Right of Systematic Theology,” in his Selected Shorter Writings vol. 2, p.238: “. . . there lies at the basis of Christianity not only a series of great redemptive facts, but also an authoritative interpretation of those facts. Amid the perhaps many interpretations possible to this series of facts, who will help us to that one through which alone they can constitute Christianity? In the ordinary affairs of life we are enabled to arrive at the true interpretation of the facts that meet us, by the explanations of those who have knowledge of their meaning and who have a claim upon our belief when they explain them to us. . . . These great facts of Christianity—is there anyone who has knowledge of their meaning and who has a right to our belief when he explains them to us?—who, in a word, has authority to declare to the world what this series of great facts means, or in other words, what Christianity is? It is evident that we are face to face here with an anxious question. And it means nothing less than this, that the existence of a doctrinal authority is fundamental to the very existence of Christianity. We find that doctrinal authority, ultimately, of course, in Christ.” (italics mine) Notice his affirmation that this has to do with the entirety of what Christianity is.
However much we fail to understand the nature and function of God’s word written, spoken and made flesh we fail to understand what the Church is and does, because the Church is the body of Christ. We could just as accurately say the church is the “body” of God’s Word. I would also add then that to the degree that we fail to understand these matters we fail to understand the church’s worship. This is because true and right worship is the fundamental purpose for which God created his people and the mark of them as God’s redeemed people (Exod. 3:12; 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 7, 8, 11, 24, 26; 12:31; 20:1-17; John 4:23-24). It is why Paul analyzed and summarized all sin as idolatry, or false worship (Romans 1:18-32). The church’s worship is empowered by Christ (God’s Word), is about Christ (God’s Word), nourishes God’s people on Christ (God’s Word), causes us to rejoice about Christ (God’s Word) and makes God’s people to be like Christ (God’s Word). Again, God’s Spirit is integral to all this. The word was made flesh and he by the power of his Spirit creates, sustains, matures and perfects his bride, the covenant community, the church.
The fulfillment of Jesus’ mission is mediated or administered through his apostles (Matt. 10:1-40; Mk. 6:7-13; Luke 6:12-16). Thus, the apostles are established and empowered by Jesus to declare the authoritative interpretation of Jesus. This authority was first expressed verbally and then in written form. The apostles knew they had this authority and that it was about Jesus’ Spirit equipping them for this task. An integral part of it was the recognition that God’s Spirit would continue to bless his church with men who the Spirit had equipped with the ability to rightly interpret the word of God and declare it to others. Upon the dispensing of God’s word by such men, the church would continue to multiply, mature and be perfected. So united is God’s word with God’s people that repeatedly in Acts we read of God’s word increasing or multiplying when it is referring to people being brought into the church. The following texts highlight these matters: Acts 1:1-3; 2:41-47; 3:12; 4:33; 6:7; 8:25, 40; 9:20-21, 28-29, 31; 10:33-48, note especially 10:40-42; see also 12:24; 13:5-7, 47-49; 15:22-27, note the apostolic authority to declare the truth; 15:36; 16:17, note the name she uses for God; 17:13, 22-34, here we have an example, along with previous sermons in Acts that there was in this preaching theological exposition of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension (only those with apostolic authority did this); they did not merely read the Bible; 18:5, 8, 23-26; 19:20; 20:18-32; 28:23, 25-31. We should note that the last words quoted from Paul’s preaching is his quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 and that “salvation has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” Adding people to the church, however, is not the only way in which God’s word multiplies. It also multiplies and bears fruit by Christians being filled with the knowledge of God’s will “in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing him bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:9-10). Of course, none of this is to diminish in anyway the importance of and benefits from reading God’s word. Instead, it highlights how crucially important the preaching of God’s word by God’s Spirit empowered servant is to the creation, multiplying and maturing of God’s people.
Sent to Speak then Write
The authority structure that Jesus established by creating his apostles gave them the power and authority to first speak, and then write the authoritative interpretation of Jesus. This reflects the Hebrew conception of the apostolate in which a representative sent by another could represent the one who sent him, even to the point that the representative in delivering the message was considered the very person whom he represented. (See Herman N. Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures second Revised Edition. Translated by H. De Jongste, revised by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburgh, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1988) for the most concise treatment of these matters.) Thus, Jesus told his chosen apostles, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me,” (Matt. 10:40). Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who receives whomever I send, receives me, and the one who receives me receives the one who sent me,” (John 13:20). To his chosen apostles, after his resurrection, Jesus said, “Peace be with you; just as the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). To receive this revelation regarding Jesus one had to have been an eyewitness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and have received from him the authoritative teaching regarding those events as they pertained to the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-26, see esp. v. 3 and vv. 21-26 regarding the choosing of Matthias; Acts 9:1-31; 2Cor. 12:1-10; Gal. 1:11-2:21). These men fulfilled a unique role in the history of redemption.
The authority that the apostles possessed was first administered through their preaching the gospel and then secondly through their writing its interpretation. 1Thess. 2:13; 2Thess. 2:13-15 and 1Cor. 15:1-11, among others, are helpful in clarifying for us that the apostle’s authority to declare the gospel was first done verbally. These texts also clarify that this declaration of the gospel was synonymous with the term tradition and this term operated as a synonym for the Scriptures, or God’s word.
In the next post we will look in more detailed fashion at the New Testament’s affirmation that the preaching of God’s Word is the primary means or power through which the Church grows both quantitatively and qualitatively.