Paul’s self-identification in his letters

It struck me as I was reading one of the Apostle Paul’s letters that he has a common way of identifying himself in the salutation of his epistles. I decided to do some analysis, because while there are some divergences, there’s a commonality that is striking.

Let’s look at each epistle and his salutation (usually in the first couple of verses):

RomansPaula servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle
1 Cor.Paulcalled by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus
and our brother Sosthenes
2 Cor.Paulan apostle of Christ Jesus
and Timothy our brother
GalatiansPaulan apostle
and all the brothers who are with me
EphesiansPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
PhilippiansPaul and Timothyservants of Christ Jesus
ColossiansPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
and Timothy our brother
1 Thess.Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy<no identification>
2 Thess.Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy<no identificastion>
1 TimothyPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
2 TimothyPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
TitusPaula servant of God and an apostle of Christ Jesus
PhilemonPaula prisoner for Christ Jesus
and Timothy our brother

What are some general observations about his openings?

  • Paul identifies as an apostle in 9 of 13 letters (exceptions – Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon).
  • Paul’s favorite designation of himself – “apostle of Christ Jesus (or Jesus Christ)” – 7 times.
  • Paul calls only himself an “apostle.”
  • When Paul’s name is immediately combined with another name (“Paul and Timothy,” “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy”), he does not identify the group as “apostles.”
  • When Paul separates names with a personal description (“Paul, <description>, and <Name>, <description>“), he never identifies his companion as apostle, but rather “our brother” (1 Cor., 2 Cor., Gal., Col., Philemon).
  • Paul’s identification of himself as a “prisoner” in the letter to Philemon points to the fact that in this letter, he appeals to Philemon on the basis of love rather than his authority as an apostle (see v. 14).

To Paul, the idea of apostleship was central to the issue of authority in the early church. The household of God was built on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The mystery of Christ, hidden for ages, was “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5). Now, when we read Paul the Apostle, we can “perceive [his] insight into the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). The New Testament presents the office of apostle as foundational, unique, and not to be continued, for once the foundation is laid, we build on it (1 Cor. 3:10), but we don’t lay another foundation.

The one time in Scripture that we see a selection of a new apostle is in Acts 1. After the events of the Passion Week, the days that followed, and the ascension of Jesus, the eleven apostles gathered to await the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Peter took the lead in suggesting that they fill Judas’ empty place with another man to be the 12th apostle. He recounted the type of person they would need to select to fill this role: “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

Here we clearly see what they considered to be the necessary qualifications to be an apostle – 1) to have followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, and 2) to have been an eyewitness to the resurrection so that he can continue to testify to the validity of the resurrection claims of the gospel. The uniqueness of this event in Acts signals that the appointing of apostles is not to repeated in the churches today.

Paul, appointed a preacher and apostle by Jesus Christ himself (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11, cf. Gal. 1:12), described his experience as an eyewitness to the resurrection as “one untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8), in that Jesus appeared to him post-ascension on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Paul was unique in his placement among the apostles.

Because of the foundational role played by the apostles in establishing the church and presenting the “apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), this is an office that has no modern day counterpart. No plan for apostolic succession was ever proposed or executed. Some of the activity that the apostles did, such as taking the gospel to frontier peoples, does continue, but the office does not.

All this is instructive when we observe certain preachers these days who self-identify as an “apostle.” This is unnecessarily self-aggrandizing at best, and harmful at worst. It opens the door to so-called new revelations that undermine the sufficiency and authority of Scripture.

In this age of the church, God’s revelation is complete, and there is no need for further “words from God.” We have God’s prophetic word “more fully confirmed” in the Holy Scriptures (2 Pet. 1:19-21). We need preachers, not to speak new words, but to “devote [themselves] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: