What was the point of APEST in its original context?

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A significant tranche of missional church thinking centres on the APEST paradigm. The argument is that if the church is to become a movement again after the sclerotic institutionalism of the Christendom era, it needs urgently to reactivate the gifts of apostle, prophet, and evangelist. Shepherds and teachers have a necessary function in caring for and building up existing and new communities, but they are not the people to give life and direction to the missional church. I agree with this, but, as so often, I think that the narrative power of scripture—in this case Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—is weakened by not giving enough thought to the historical context. So let’s have a go at rectifying matters.

The apostolic mission

Paul as an apostle has been given the grace to preach Israel’s messiah to the Gentiles and to make this surprising new development or “mystery” known both to people and to the “powers in the heavens” (Eph. 3:1-12). So in the first two chapters he has set out his conviction that Gentiles have been included in the eschatological community of redeemed Israel and have the same rights of “inheritance” as Jewish believers.

His prayer is that his readers will grasp the full power and scope of this development: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17–19).

It’s a great idea in principle, but it’s a bit like mixing oil and water, which is why there is so much about unity in his letters. Here he urges the Jewish-Gentile churches to live together in a manner worthy of their calling to embody this new state of affairs and the new future that it entails (Eph. 4:1-6).

But Paul also makes the point that provision has been made to help the Jewish-Gentile churches of the apostolic mission consolidate the oneness of confession, baptism, and Spirit and grow towards a Christ-like maturity. The novel “grace” that drove Paul—the “very least of all the saints”—to preach Israel’s messiah to the Gentiles was also given to others, “according to the measure of the gift of the Christ,” with the same overall objective in view (Eph. 4:7).

It is important to follow the train of Paul’s thought here. He is writing to them as a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of “you Gentiles” (Eph. 3:1). The “mystery” of the inclusion of Gentiles was not made known in previous generations (it’s not in the Jewish scriptures) but has now been revealed “to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:4-5). He beseeches them, as a “prisoner for the Lord,” to live up to the standards of their calling (Eph. 4:1). But he is not alone in making this appeal and doing this work. The same grace “was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph. 4:7). This “each one of us” is a reference not to the believers in Asia Minor, I think, but to the apostolic teams, to the “holy apostles and prophets,” who have been travelling backwards and forwards across the region, proclaiming the coming régime of YHWH over the nations through his Son and bringing into existence communities of both Jews and Gentiles who would embody in advance that proclaimed outcome.

Having ascended on high, he gave gifts to the people

The critical and transformative significance of this provision is brought out by the quotation of Psalm 68:18 in an amended form: “Having ascended on high, he led captivity captive, he gave gifts to the people” (Eph 4:8). In the Hebrew Psalm the sense is rather different: having routed his enemies, God ascends a great mountain, leading a large number of captives in his train “and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious.” Paul has changed the statement from God receiving to Christ giving. Tut, tut.

The Septuagint reads much the same as the Hebrew, but the statement about the “rebellious” begins to sound like an allusion to the wilderness experience: “You ascended on high; you led captivity captive; you received gifts by a person, indeed, when they were disobedient to encamp” (Ps. 67:19 LXX). We have also had mention of Sinai in verse 17.

This is interesting because the Aramaic Targum on the Psalms not only takes verse 18 as a statement about Moses rather than God but also speaks of gifts being given rather than received:

You ascended to the firmament, O prophet Moses; you captured captives, you taught the words of Torah, you gave gifts to the sons of men, and even the stubborn who are converted turn in repentance, [and] the glorious presence of the LORD God abides upon them. (Targum Ps. 68:19)

The Targum is late but, in the view of Andrew Lincoln, is likely to preserve an older rabbinic tradition, so the possibility arises that Paul has modelled the ascending and descending of Christ on the ascending and descending of Moses. “The tradition has been taken over by [the author of Ephesians] and incorporated into a midrash pesher rendering of the text in which he integrates his exposition of its meaning in the light of fulfillment in Christ into the actual quotation, a procedure which is, of course, not unusual in the contemporary Jewish exegetical techniques or elsewhere in the use of the OT in the NT.”1

In this case, the point appears to be that Christ first “ascended far above all the heavens,” but then—pursuing the analogy with Moses—descended in order to give gifts to people. Moses brought the gift of Torah back down from the mountain in order to form the new life of Israel, but Christ has brought down—figuratively speaking—gifts of the Spirit, such as Paul’s own gift of apostleship, for the purpose of forming radically new communities of Jewish and Gentile believers in advance of God’s transformation of the ancient world.

The APEST gifts in this eschatological outlook

What was given, however, was not the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, and evangelism, but a particular group of people at a particular moment in history: “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). At a critical moment in the story of the people of God the ascended Christ, through the Spirit, gave a particular set of “gifted” individuals to the church to ensure that communities of believers, such as those in Ephesus and the surrounding region, acquired the level of maturity needed for them to bear witness through to the new age.

The apostles were licensed envoys of the risen Christ, sent out to proclaim the good news of his future reign over the nations. Prophets gave voice to their intuitions about the long term significance of the exaltation of Jesus and what lay ahead. Evangelists (cf. Acts 21:8; 2 Tim. 4:5) perhaps had a more localised role, but they nevertheless proclaimed—publicly, not privately—a gospel of far-reaching political-religious significance.

And if we ask, at this juncture, why it is only in Ephesians that we have this categorisation of “gifts” and the apparent prioritisation of the apostles, prophets, in particular, it is undoubtedly because they were critical for formulating and shaping the vision of a hybrid Jewish-Gentile church, which was such a radical departure from both Jewish tradition and the scriptures—the “mystery” that had been revealed precisely to the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20; 33:4-5). This novel development is right at the heart of Paul’s argument in this letter about the purposes of God and his own ministry.

In their book The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim have adapted a model of the life cycle of movements.2 In effect, it is the story of the rise and fall of the Christian West. I have simplified the diagram and overlaid it with the APEST functions.

The historical contextualisation of the original APEST paradigm could be used to sideline apostles, prophets, and evangelists. Hirsch and Catchim note the view of Calvin that these three leading functions “were not established in the church as permanent ones, but only for that time during which churches were to be erected where none existed before” (19). Perhaps an “extraordinary” situation might arise when these offices would be required again, but the church could never go without pastors and teachers.

I think Calvin was dead right from his point of view. Once the transitional period was over and the churches had come into their “inheritance” in Christian Europe, there was little need for these liminal, eschatological functions. But with the collapse of Christendom and the decline of the church in the West an “extraordinary” situation has indeed arisen, and the old dog of the church has to learn some new tricks, which are really old tricks.

The important thing to remember, of course, is that we are going through the current long period of eschatological transition with a different real future in view—indeed, a very uncertain real future—not with the bullish vision of political-religious transformation that galvanised the early missional church.

If you’re interested in finding out more about “missional church,” why it’s a critical part of the church’s response to secularism, and how to go about doing it, check out the brilliant online course we are doing with King’s School of Theology here in the UK, starting February 24th.
  • 1A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians (1990), 242-43.
  • 2 A. Hirsch and T. Catchim, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church (2012), xxx; adapted from L. Cada, R. Fritz, G. Foley, and T. Giardino, Shaping the Coming Age of Religious Life (1979).
Paul Prins | Wed, 02/09/2022 - 19:05 | Permalink

I wonder if the role of prophets (and to some extent evangelists) could have saved the western church from the current “extraordinary” circumstance we find ourselves in? If shepherds and teachers are primarily there to sustain and maintain that which existed before — to who does the task of transformation, reformation, and rediscovery fall?

@Paul Prins:

That would be an interesting question to ask a church historian. There have always been voices calling for reform, but I rather feel that historical change—even self-inflicted historical change—simply has to be lived through. It’s one thing for Josiah or Ezra to call for repentance and a return to the covenant; it’s another thing to predict the rise of modernity and to call the deeply entrenched institutional church to change its ways, change its thinking. So the church falls victim to history, and the best that the prophets and evangelists can do is to subsume the development plausibly into a storyline that must have a hopeful future.