The Apostleship of the Apostle Paul: One Untimely Born

conversion-of-saulOver the last couple of weeks, I examined Acts 1:21–26 for the requirements laid out by the early church for one be an apostle (part 1part 2). The three such requirements were as follows:

1. An apostle followed Jesus during His entire earthly ministry from His baptism by John to His ascension into heaven (Acts 1:21–22a).

2. An apostle saw Jesus after His resurrection (Acts 1:22b).

3. An apostle was appointed by the Lord Jesus Himself (Acts 1:24–25).

When we look at these requirements, we wonder – how was Paul able to claim that he, too, was an apostle?  He met only the last two of these three requirements. He saw Jesus after the resurrection (Acts 9:1–9; 1 Cor 15:8), and Jesus appointed him to be apostle (Acts 26:16–18; cf. 9:15–16). However, Paul was an unbeliever who persecuted the early church (Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2) and could obviously not have been one who followed Christ during His earthly ministry (cf. Acts 1:21–22a). Was the first requirement really not all that necessary? Could this apostolic appointment of Paul set a precedent to open the door for others to later say that they, too, had somehow seen Jesus and been appointed to be apostles as well?

The answer is no because Paul describes himself in terms that imply he was an exception to the rule. Twice in 1 Corinthians he describes his apostleship in correlation to when Jesus first appeared to him (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8–9). In the second of these descriptions, he notes that Jesus appeared to him “as to one untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8), a phrase that describes one of the primary ways in which Paul’s apostleship was distinct from the Twelve. Apart from other ways this phrase could be taken, it seems Paul used the picture of a premature birth to imply that his apostleship was something that came about rather abruptly as opposed to something that had been developed over a longer period of time.1 Teasing out the picture further, one could say that the Twelve underwent the full development of apostolic nurture in being discipled by Christ during His earthly ministry.2 In contrast, Paul’s apostleship came about rather suddenly and apart from such a process.

Putting this all together, the Twelve were the Twelve in part because they  were with Christ from His baptism by John to His ascension into heaven (Acts 1:21–22a). Christ chose Paul to be an apostle apart from such a process, but even Paul knew this type of apostleship was out of the ordinary (1 Cor 15:8). Moreover, if Paul’s apostleship was unexpected for such a reason, it seems all the more unlikely that we would see apostles today.

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.

  1. Cf. David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 690–91, and Anthony C. Thistleton, 1 Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1208–09. []
  2. See the previous posts about Acts 1:21–26 for an explanation as to how Matthias was able to be an apostle as well. []

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