The Apostolic Commission and the three-fold ministry
There are four features by which the Church, which Jesus founded, can be recognised today. These features are One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. Today we are going to think about the Apostolic Church.
The Apostolic Church means the Church of the Apostles. They were the first people to care for the Church which has now spread to all parts of the world. The Church is now governed by Bishops and has the three-fold ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon. Today we shall trace the three stages by which this came about. The first stage began at Our Lord’s Resurrection and lasted two or three years; the second covered St Paul’s missionary journeys and the growth of the Church; and the third was towards the end of the lifetime of the Apostles when they appointed bishops to take their place.
On the evening of the first Easter Day, Jesus gave to his Apostles what is called their Apostolic Commission. In other words, he gave them his own authority (right and power) to act on his behalf and to be his personal representatives. “As the Father has sent me”, he told them, “so I send you” (NRSV, John 20:21). He appointed them to govern the Church and to be Guardians of the Christian Faith and Sacraments. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them…” (NRSV, Matthew 28:19,20).
Forgiveness of sins and celebration of the Eucharist
Most important of all, as Jesus is the Great High Priest, so he gave the Apostles his special authority to act for him as his high priestly representative in two particular ways. It was as the Great High Priest that Jesus on the Cross offered himself as a Sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. Therefore, first of all, he gave the Apostles the authority to celebrate the Eucharist – “Do this in remembrance of me” – because in the Eucharist he continues to offer himself, and is offered by us, to God. And secondly, he gave them the authority to act for him in forgiving sins. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them: if you retain (do not forgive) the sins of any, they are retained” (NRSV, John 20:23). In other words, Jesus appointed the Apostles to act for him as High Priest by entrusting to them the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) (Luke 22:19; I Corinthians 11:24,25).
And so, on and after the first Pentecost (Whitsunday), we see the Apostles, the Governors of the Church and the Guardians of her Faith and Sacraments, looking after the Christians in Jerusalem, teaching them the Faith and administering to them the Sacraments by the authority of Jesus himself.
So the first stage ends and the second begins. The Church was now growing in numbers and the time had come for the Apostles to appoint other people to help them. So they ordained the first deacons, some of whom, besides other duties, also preached and baptised, while the Apostles still administered the other Sacraments themselves, and in particular the Eucharist (Acts 6:1-7).
Soon, as the Apostles, and especially St Paul, set out on their missionary travels, and the Church spread far and wide, they were no longer able themselves to look after all the Christians. So they appointed in every place men who were at this stage called both presbyters and bishops i.e. both elders (senior men) and overseers. To these presbyters they gave Our Lord’s own authority to teach and to administer the Sacraments, and especially to celebrate the Eucharist. So the Christians in each place were able to have the Eucharist every Sunday. But there were two Sacraments which the Apostles continued to administer themselves. They were Confirmation by which they made people full members of the Church, and Ordination by which they made presbyters or deacons (Acts 14:23; 20:17,28).
But apart from that there was another important difference between the Apostles and the presbyters. The Apostles were officers of the whole Church in every part of the world. That was their Apostolic Commission to go, in Our Lord’s place, and make disciples of all nations. But the presbyters were only local officers of the particular Church where they were. This meant that the Apostles had authority in every part of the Catholic Church, presbyters only in their particular church.
So we come to the third and last stage. The Apostles, acting as Our Lord’s personal representatives, appointed and ordained men to take their place as Apostles of the Catholic Church. And Our Lord, through the Apostles, gave them also the full Apostolic Commission so that they too, like the Apostles themselves, now had the authority (right and power) to act as his representatives in any part of the Church. At first they do not seem to have had any special title because they were so well known by name, like Timothy and Titus who were appointed by St Paul (cf 2 Timothy 1:6; Titus 1:5).
Now, you remember we said that presbyters were also called bishops in the early days (cf Philippians 1:1). Well, as time went on, they were just called presbyters, and the title of bishop was used only by the men who had taken the place of the Apostles.
Some of these first bishops were travelling missionaries whom the Apostles appointed to be bishops and who then settled accordingly in this place or that. Others may have been presbyters who were promoted by the Apostles to be bishop of the particular place where each already was.
And these bishops, acting as the personal representatives of Our Lord, appointed bishops as they were needed, and in that way Our Lord gave to these also the Apostolic Commission to act on his behalf just as the Apostles had done, so that each bishop was really a new Apostle.
The three-fold ministry
So gradually each place of importance had its own bishop as a governor of the Church, and guardian of its Faith and Sacraments. And there was everywhere the three-fold ministry of bishop, presbyter (later to be called priest), and deacon. And this three-fold ministry was, as we have seen, formed by the Apostles themselves acting on Our Lord’s own behalf.
1. On the first Easter Day Our Lord gave the Apostles their Apostolic Commission, that is, the authority (right and power) to act on his behalf by governing the Church, teaching the Faith and administering the Sacraments. In particular he gave them a share in his own High Priesthood by giving them the power to offer the Sacrifice of the Eucharist and to forgive sins.
2. The Apostles, acting as Our Lord’s personal representatives, formed the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon, and Our Lord, through the Apostles, gave to these bishops the Apostolic Commission to act on his behalf as the Apostles had done. These bishops in their turn appointed other bishops and in that way Our Lord gave to these also the Apostolic Commission.