I recently had a conversation with a friend about the Canon of the New Testament and the authority of the writers who wrote the New Testament documents. In our conversation I said that the Apostles had a commission from Jesus to write His Word, but that authority ended with their death. My friend asked me about that, telling me he didn’t see a place in Scripture where this authority was passed on to them. So I did a little biblical research, and shared my thoughts. Since it fits with our sermon topic from this past Sunday, I’ve decided to pass it on here in the blog (with his permission).
So here we go. Lots of Scripture to explain what I think shows a clear pattern and mandate that the Apostles were sent by Jesus with an authoritative message to proclaim and pass on. Does he specifically tell them, “Write this down?” Not in those words, but I don’t think he has to, the implications are that he is the One with full authority, and he invests the authority in the original Apostles to transmit his teaching, first through the authoritative preaching and teaching, but then in teaching through the writing of the texts we now call Scripture. But then as they are nearing end of life, their language changes as they call followers of Jesus to stand on the authority already given and not see themselves as the continuation of that authority.
POINT 1 – Jesus is God and both speaks and is the very Word of God
In this blog, I don’t intend to build a case for the deity of Jesus. That is a different issue. The New Testament claims his divinity in multiple places (John 1:1-4, John 20:28-29, Philippians 2:4-11, Colossians 1:15-23). Jesus then backed his words by rising again from the dead, demonstrating he was God in the flesh. So, if Jesus is God, then He comes with the authority of God the Father and His message is the very Word of God.
POINT 2 – Jesus called the 12, taught them authoritatively, and then sent them with this authoritative message, both before his death and after the ascension.
1. There are countless places in the Gospels where Jesus takes his disciples to the side and teaches them. They are to learn and pass this on (Matthew 5-7 is a good example).
2. Matthew 10:1-24 (Luke 9 is parallel) – Jesus calls the 12 and then sends them out to towns to teach with authority and perform miracles that gives credibility to the authority of their message. They have a clear message about the Kingdom to proclaim, and reception of the apostle and his message is equal to reception of Jesus. Even when they are persecuted they are not to be anxious about what to say because God will show them what to say and the Spirit of the Father will do the speaking. This is an authoritative sending of the 12.
3. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) we see Jesus’ divinity as they worship, his authority declared, and then he sends the 12 and commands them to make disciples and teach everything he commanded. For us, we know this because we have the written Word, but for the 12, the go empowered by the Holy Spirit to declare the authoritative commands of Jesus and call people to repentance and faith. In other words, after the resurrection and just before the ascension Jesus commissions His disciples to go with His authority and teach what He had commanded them. We too are part of this commission, but our access to the commands of Jesus come through the authoritative transmission of these commands by the writers of the New Testament.
4. In John 16:1-14 – This is an important chapter on this topic. Jesus says that people will hate and persecute them because of their faith in Jesus, but then he says, “I have taught these things to you (the 12) that when their hour comes you may remember…” So Jesus is telling the 12 that he has taught them so that they will be able to declare his very Word. He then tells them that He will send the Holy Spirit to come along side of them and He will guide them into all truth, and will declare the things that are to come. He will do this by taking what is from Jesus and declaring it to you (the 12 here). Now, I do believe there is an extension of this passage to all believers, but only because the Apostles received the commission from Jesus first and then taught verbally and eventually through the writing of the Gospels. Point here is that Jesus again is teaching authoritatively, and then telling the Apostles that they are to transmit this and that the Holy Spirit will guide their words.
5. John 14:25-26 – Again, Jesus tells them the importance of His teaching and then tells them that the Holy Spirit will bring to their remembrance all that He has said to them. In other words, as they teach and write the commands and teaching of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will be active in reminding them so that they faithfully pass on Jesus word.
6. John 14:18-24 – Jesus tells the Apostles that they will know who loves Jesus by seeing if a person keeps His Word and obeys His commands. But how would anyone except those sitting in this room (the 12) know the Word of Jesus or know how to keep the commands of Jesus unless the Apostles faithfully passed those on.
7. John 17:6-8, 14-15, 17-20 – This is called the High Priestly prayer of Jesus. Jesus is praying, and most of the prayer is specifically for the 12. Look at his words in this prayer and the implications.
- v. 8 – I have given them the words you gave me, and they have received them and come to know the truth
- v. 14 – I have given them your Word
- v. 17 – Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth
- v. 18 – As you sent me I am now sending them, so consecrate them in the truth
- v. 20 – Now Jesus prays for those who believe in me through their word.
Did you catch this. God sent Jesus with the authoritative Word of God, which he passed on to the Apostles. He is praying for the 12 specifically here, and does not begin praying for other believers until verse 20. Jesus prays that they may know the truth, and may be set apart by the truth of the Word, and then he sends them just as the Father sent Jesus. And as they teach, God’s Word which is Jesus’ Word is now their Word which will lead to belief of others. This is where it ends though. He does not say that you and I teach our Word with this type of authority, but they do.
8. John 20:26-31 – Follow the flow of the text. This begins with the Thomas story, as he sees the resurrected Jesus and his wounds and declares Jesus to be “My Lord and My God.” Jesus responds by blessing those who have not seen but have believed in Jesus. Then John writes his purpose statement for the book, where he declares that there are more signs and stories that could have been written, but John wrote what he did so that people who have not seen Jesus would believe and have life. John gets it and is showing us this progression. Jesus invested in the 12 and even appeared to them after the resurrection. But there would be people after this story who needed the story to be shared so they could too believe. John knew that he was to be a transmitter of this authoritative story to those who would never see, but they would be blessed because they would believe in Jesus. This is confirmed even more in John 21:24-25 which affirms the truthfulness of John’s testimony.
9. 1 John 1:1-4 – The opening prologue of John’s first letter is full of implications on the topic here. He was an eyewitness of the events of Jesus’ life, he saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands the things concerning the Word of Life. Now John is the one who testifies to these people (and us) through a written letter, as he proclaims this message that was manifest to “us” (a reference to the 12 and eyewitnesses). So John is writing so that they will believe that which was manifest to the 12, and they may have fellowship with Jesus resulting in full joy. See what John is saying. They are to believe what he has written because he was an eyewitness of the events of Jesus life and the message of Jesus was given to him. Believing John’s words brings life, and to believe them is equal to believing God, and to disbelieve is equal to to disbelieving God. This mindset runs through this entire letter. Another clear reference from John on the reality that Jesus taught the 12 and commissioned them to faithfully pass on His teaching, which included writing his teaching as Scripture.
10. 1 John 4:6 – John boldly declares that he is from God, “and whoever knows God listens to us.” You can know the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error by how a person responds to John’s authoritative teaching in his writings. Pretty bold statement for someone unless this commission came from Jesus himself. I would never say this about a Sunday sermon.
11. 2 Peter 1:12-18 – These words are from Peter. He tells them that he is near the end of life, his death is imminent and also shares that he feels the need to remind them of the things he has taught, so that after he is gone they may be able to recall these things. But then the next portion of the text is interesting. Peter basically takes us to the transfiguration story and shows us that He was with Jesus when His glory was revealed. Why does Peter do this? It is Peter’s way of authenticating the authority of His message. He was with Jesus when the glory of Jesus was revealed, and this gives him the authority to teach and write with this authority. Peter is demonstrating his authority to teach and write over against false teachers, and is making the claim that his authority is from the transfigured and risen Jesus. So to believe Peter’s writing is equal to believing the Old Testament prophets.
*A note about this – This is one of a few passages in the New Testament where the weight of this issue is clear. The Apostles know that their death is coming. They had been teaching with authority, but they know that if they do not have their teaching recorded in written form that it will be lost with their death and the loss of their voice. With no written record, anyone could twist their words and false teachers could make them fit almost any heresy. So the apostles wrote and they believed their writing came with the authority of Jesus who gave them their message.
12. Revelation 22:18-22 – The closing text of the Bible, John closes his book with a clear warning not to add to or take away from the words of the prophecy of this book. A person can do this in a couple ways. One, they can actually add words to or cut words out of the text. But the other way is to ignore and refuse to believe or obey these words. But John is making a bold declaration about the authority of his writing, saying the plagues of the book will come from Jesus to the one who messes with his book. He then claims that “He who testifies (Jesus) to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.'” John is saying that Jesus is giving testimony that the words of the book are from Him through John.
POINT 3 – The early church recognized the teaching of the Apostles as having the authority of Christ and therefore treated it as equal to Scripture
I won’t share as much here, but a few passages.
1. Acts 2:42 – “They devoted themselves (the early church in Jerusalem) to the Apostle’s teaching” – Notice it doesn’t say devoted themselves to Scripture. Mainly because Luke, the writer of Acts knows that the teaching of the Apostles comes with the same authority as Scripture.
2. Hebrews 1:1-2 – The author says that God has spoken through the prophets (Old Testament scriptures), but in these last day He has spoken through His Son. The author of the book knows that the Gospels contain the faithful transmission of this record.
3. Ephesians 2:20 – Paul says that the church is built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets. I don’t think he is saying that it is built on the men as much as he is declaring that it is built on what these men taught and subsequently wrote. This interpretation is confirmed if you continue reading through Ephesians 3:1-6 as Paul affirms the authority of his writings because he was given revelation into the mystery of Christ with a special revelation just as the Gospel was made known to “his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Paul is making the claim that the writings of the New Testament prophets and Apostles came through special revelation and are already being accepted with authority, and his too should be seen as Scripture.
4. Jude 3 – In verse 3, Jude tells them to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Followers of Jesus have a common salvation that came from Jesus to the saints. This is a reference to the Apostles themselves, who had “the faith” delivered to them. In this case Jude is not using faith with the idea of general belief in Jesus, but to the theological content of “the faith”, a set of authoritative teachings and doctrines. So follow Jude’s progression. We have the content because it was delivered to us by the “saints” who had that content delivered to them. The question is who delivered it to the saints? The answer is pretty easy to see, Jude is telling us that this content came from Jesus to the 12, and then to us. And we have a commons salvation because we are in “the faith” that was delivered once for all, and we need to be willing to contend or fight for this.
POINT 4 – As the Apostles died, they did not pass on the authority to write Scripture or teach authoritatively without their teaching being based on Scripture.
John’s letters written near the end of his life, Paul’s pastoral epistles, and Peter’s second letter are full of this. The authority of subsequent teachers who come after the Apostles must be based on accurate reading, teaching, and preaching of Scripture, which included New Testament Scripture. Nowhere is a second generation Christian given the authority to speak with authority outside of his use of the written Scripture or authoritatively taught Word by an Apostle. I’ll keep this simple and focus on one person in this progression, Timothy. Paul comes and claims he is teaching with the authority of an Apostle, his message was given by divine revelation, and that what he is writing is to be accepted as God’s words. But when he speaks to Timothy his command is to seek the Scriptures and faithfully preach and teach them. Timothy is not encouraged to see himself as the continuation of the office of Apostle who has authority in his position to write or speak the very words of God. Rather, he is to preach the Word. So only when he is faithful to the teaching he received does he stand on the authority of that teaching.
1. 2 Timothy 2:1 – He is to pass on to other men what he received from Paul who will teach others. There is a content already set that came from Paul’s apostolic office.
2 Timothy 3:14-16 – All Scripture is inspired or breathed out by God. Notice Paul does include his words in this idea, but does not give Timothy any sort of permission anywhere to see his message disconnected from Scripture or authoritative teaching. That Paul’s writing is to be seen as Scripture is confirmed by 2 Peter 3:15-16.
2 Timothy 4:1-6 – Based on this the bold charge from Paul is for Timothy to preach the word – that is his commission and everyone after him. It was also Paul’s commission and Peters, and the 12’ves. But their commission came with the Word of the Gospel being spoken words taught to them by Jesus. Our commission to preach the Word is the written word recorded by the Apostles and prophets as they faithfully recorded the life and teaching of Jesus.