In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul tells us that Christ has given the church gifts, including “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” (v.11) In order for us to rightly understand this passage and the purpose of those gifts, we have to accurately identify them. What exactly did Paul mean when he spoke of apostles and prophets? Is the NT evangelist an itinerant preacher who holds “revivals” from church to church? What about pastors and teachers? Are these two different offices, or simply functions of the same office of the church? These are just some of the questions that arise from these verses.
In one sense, the title of apostle can be used generically of all Christians who have been sent to preach the gospel, as its use in Acts 14:14 shows. However, in this passage, Paul is using the term to refer to a specific gift given by Christ to his church, and so he is using it in its more restricted sense of those who were called by Christ as eyewitnesses of his resurrection. By this, he means the Twelve (with Matthias having replaced Judas according to Acts 1:26) and Paul himself, who said he was an apostle “born out of due time” in 1 Cor. 15:8. The title of prophet is also used in a technical sense, for every Christian can rightly be called a prophet (or preacher) of the gospel. William Hendriksen defines this office as “the occasional organs of inspiration,” and offers the example of Agabus from Acts 11:28 & 21:10-11.
In what sense, then, are these two offices “gifts” to the church? Well, Paul states very clearly that the Gentile believers in Ephesus were “no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.” (2:19-20) Notice that both the apostles and prophets serve with Christ as the foundation of the church, and it is the witness of the apostles and the revelation of the prophets which informs each successive generation of believers about the nature of the gospel, of eternal life in Christ, and of our entrance into his body, which is the church, by means of the power of the Holy Spirit. Richard Lenski explains further: “In Ephesians ‘the foundation’ is to be understood in the same sense, the one laid by God….not, indeed, of their persons as being the first believers, or of their faith as being the original faith, but of their office as ‘the apostles and prophets,’ the recipients of the entire divine saving revelation for inspired transmission to all future ages.” In a very real sense, you and I are the beneficiaries of the gifts of the apostles and prophets, because we have the NT Scriptures which they have written, and by which we can know how we ought to live and serve in the church.