A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 4:7-10. b). The character of spiritual gifts is extremely varied.
We should not hesitate, therefore, to say that *in this sense* there are no apostles today. In 1975 John Noble wrote and published a booklet entitles *First Apostles, Last Apostles*. In it his concern is ‘to arouse my fellow Christians to look for apostles to shape church life in our day’, who will ‘unite and release an army under God which will accomplish his purpose in these end-times’. His reading of history is that when the original apostles died, ‘they left a vacuum of authority into which the wrong men stepped’, i.e. the bishops. He criticizes both Catholicism and Protestantism, the former for ‘investing absolute authority in one man’ and the latter for ‘giving every individual the right to rule the church’. We can certainly agree with him that throughout the long and chequered history of the church there have been many misuses of authority, but he misses in his exposition the vitally important truths (1) that the original apostles as eye-witnesses of the historic risen Jesus can in the nature of the case have no successors, and (2) that their authority is preserved today in the New Testament, which is the essential ‘apostolic succession’. Once we have insisted, however, that there are today no apostles of Christ with an authority comparable to that of the apostles Paul, Peter and John, it is certainly possible to argue that there are people with apostolic ministries of a different kind, including episcopal jurisdiction, pioneer missionary work, church planting, itinerant leadership, etc.
What about *prophets*? Here again it is necessary to make a distinction. In the primary sense in which the bible uses the word, a prophet was a person who ‘stood in the council of God’, who heard and even ‘saw’ his word, and who in consequence ‘spoke from the mouth of the Lord’ and spoke his word ‘faithfully’ (cf. Je.23:16-32). In other words a prophet was a mouthpiece or spokesman of God, a vehicle of his direct revelation. *In this sense* we must again insist that there are no prophets today. Nobody can presume to claim an inspiration comparable to that of the canonical prophets, or use their introductory formula ‘Thus says the Lord’. If this were possible we would have to add their words to Scripture, and the whole church would need to listen and obey. Yet this is the sense in which Paul appears to be using the word here. He puts the prophets next after the apostles (as in 1 Cor.12:28; ‘second prophets’), and he brackets ‘apostles and prophets’ as the church’s foundation and the recipients of fresh revelation from God (2:20; 3:6). As the foundation on which the church is being built the prophets have no successors, any more than the apostles have, for the foundation was laid and finished centuries ago and we cannot tamper with it in any way today.
But, as with apostles so with prophets, having first established the uniqueness of the original teachers of the church, we then have to ask if there is a subsidiary gift of some kind. It seems right to answer ‘yes’, but then to confess that we do not know for certain what it is! Some see it as a special gift of biblical exposition, an unusual degree of insight into the Word of God, so that by the ministry of the Holy Spirit modern ‘prophets’ hear and receive the Word of God, not however as a new revelation but as a fresh understanding of the old. Others see it as a sensitive understanding of the contemporary world, a reading of the signs of the times, together with an indignant denunciation of the social sins of the day and a perceptive application of Scripture to them. Those who hold this view draw attention to the socio-political oracles of the Old Testament prophets. A third view concentrates on the effect which the ministry of the New Testament prophets had on their listeners, bringing to unbelievers a conviction of sin and to believers ‘upbuilding and encouragement and consolation’ (1 Cor.14:3; cf. Acts 15:32). In these three views the ‘prophetic’ gift is detected in the handling of the Word of God, for one cannot think of God’s prophets in isolation from God’s Word. It is understood as a gift of insight into either the biblical text or the contemporary situation, or both, namely a powerful combination of accurate exposition and pertinent application.
Tomorrow: Ephesians 4:7-10. b). The character of spiritual gifts is extremely varied (continued).