How Do You Spot An Apostle?
The first reason is that almost everyone in church history has answered it with reference to witnessing the resurrected Christ. Individuals like Apollos, Barnabas and Silas, who were apostles but (certainly in one case, probably in the other two) did not witness the risen Jesus, were left out of the picture for centuries, and the answer was made simple: apostles were eyewitnesses, full stop. So we don’t have the wisdom and reflection of the centuries to help us, when it comes to identifying how you might spot an apostle. There is no equivalent of Richard Baxter to help us identify pastors, or John Calvin with teachers, or Charles Spurgeon with evangelists. That makes it trickier.
The second reason is that all the other Ephesians 4 ministries are nouns that are closely connected to active verbs: prophets prophesy, evangelists evangelise, shepherds shepherd and teachers teach. Apostles, on the other hand, are those who are the passive object of the verb (apostellō = I send), rather than the active subject. They are the sendees, if you will, rather than the senders. So whereas you can tell a teacher by their teaching, a prophet by their prophesying and an evangelist by their evangelising, you cannot tell an apostle by their “apostling”; you have to identify them by their having been sent. And that makes things trickier, too.
We’re never told how, or why, Apollos came to be recognised as an apostle, nor how Philip came to be identified as an evangelist, nor how Agabus came to be seen as a prophet. But in the latter two cases, it’s rather obvious: people heard and responded to the gospel through Philip, and Agabus was demonstrably right about what God had said would happen. With Apollos, in contrast, and with apostles in general, it is not completely clear what the equivalent would be, since they are identified not by the things they do, but as those who have been sent. So if you’re appraising someone’s teaching gift, you can appraise their clarity of thought, their grasp of doctrine, their ability to communicate, and so on; but if you’re appraising an apostle, you are not assessing what they are doing (are they any good at preaching the gospel, founding churches, cross-cultural mission, etc) as much as you are assessing whether or not they have been sent by the ascended Christ. There are a whole bunch of things we’d expect an apostle to do, of course - preach the gospel, establish a church as people respond to the gospel, set in leaders, move on and do it again - and these surely serve as clues. (All the apostles we know about were travelling gospel preachers: Peter (Acts 9:32-10:48), John (Acts 4-5; 3 John 4), James (1 Cor 9:5), Apollos (Acts 18:27-28; 1 Cor 3:5), Silas (Acts 16-17), Barnabas (Acts 13-14), and Paul himself. So we can have a fair degree of confidence that apostleship involves a decent amount of this sort of thing.) But the essence of apostleship is sent-ness, not the performing of a particular task. Which is harder to be sure about, all things considered.
I have some ideas of my own, but I’d be interested to know what you think: how do you spot an apostle?