In the early Church, the Savior set the pattern for Church leadership: “He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke described the vital role Apostles had in guiding the Church anciently. This model of apostolic leadership continues in the Church today and is further confirmed by revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants and by modern prophets. The striking parallels between the role of Apostles in New Testament times and the role of Apostles today testify of the continuing validity of this sacred office.
The word Apostle is derived from a Greek word meaning “one sent forth” (see Bible Dictionary, “Apostle,” 612). Such an appointment requires a divine commission and priesthood authority. Apostles have the special responsibility to take the gospel to all the peoples of the earth and the unique commission to assist in overseeing the Church. The word Apostle was not applied to the early patriarchs and prophets of God who led His people through their ages; rather, it was restricted for those called as special witnesses of the name of Jesus Christ, His Atonement, and His Resurrection. It pertains likewise to those who carry the same responsibilities in the dispensation of the fulness of times.
The book of Acts affirms that the Apostles were to continue guiding the Church. After the Ascension of Christ, He directed the continuing labors of the Apostles “through the Holy Ghost” (Acts 1:2). The Apostles had been prepared and taught by the Lord to enable them to fulfill their calling and ministry.
In this dispensation the Lord again called Apostles, beginning with “Joseph Smith, Jun., who was called of God, and ordained an apostle of Jesus Christ, … and … Oliver Cowdery, who was also called of God, an apostle of Jesus Christ, … and ordained under his hand” (D&C 20:2–3). The reestablishment of a Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for this dispensation took place on 14 February 1835, when they were chosen and announced (see History of the Church, 2:181–89).
A primary role of the Apostles has always been to teach the gospel: “And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach” (Mark 3:14). While their early ministry was limited to the house of Israel (see Matt. 10:5–6; Matt. 15:24), the Savior later sent them to “teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
The book of Acts shows how the Apostles fulfilled their commission. On the day of Pentecost, the spiritual endowment given to Peter and the other Apostles enabled them to teach even the foreign speakers in their midst, and “every man heard them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6).
Later, Peter, the prophet-leader of the early Twelve, was inspired to extend the work to the Gentiles: “In every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (see Acts 10:34–35). Some at first challenged the new direction, but the Spirit manifested the need for the conversion of those not of Israel (see Acts 11:1–18). The book of Acts describes some of the missionary travels of the Twelve and concludes with the far-reaching missions of the Apostle Paul.
Similarly, under the direction of the First Presidency of the Church, the Apostles called in our dispensation oversee carrying the gospel to the nations. “Whithersoever they [the First Presidency] shall send you, go ye, and I will be with you; in whatsoever place ye shall proclaim my name an effectual door shall be opened unto you” (D&C 112:19). The Twelve are further given the responsibility to oversee others who may be sent to assist them in fulfilling this commission (see D&C 84:62; D&C 107:35; D&C 112:21).
Another apostolic responsibility in both ancient and modern times pertains to the “keys of the kingdom,” or the priesthood authority to preside over and direct the Church of Jesus Christ. The Savior said to the early Apostles, with Peter as the presiding head, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).
To the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in this dispensation, the Lord declared that He had sent Peter, James, and John, “by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles, and especial witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry and of the same things which I revealed unto them;
“Unto whom I have committed the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth” (D&C 27:12–13; see also D&C 112:30–32).
President Gordon B. Hinckley has provided instruction on this matter: “Each man who is ordained an Apostle and sustained a member of the Council of the Twelve is sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. … Therefore, all incumbent members of the Quorum of the First Presidency and of the Council of the Twelve have been recipients of the keys, rights, and authority pertaining to the holy apostleship. … In this authority reside the powers of governance of the Church and kingdom of God in the earth. There is order in the exercise of that authority. It is specifically set forth in the revelations of the Lord. It is known to all of the Brethren and is observed by all.”1
Apostles have a special blessing in connection with their teaching the people. We read, “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets” (1 Cor. 12:28). In another letter from the Apostle Paul, these Church officials were likened unto a building with a “foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph. 2:20). Likewise in this dispensation, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets …” (A of F 1:6).
President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, cites the informative teaching of President J. Reuben Clark Jr. (1871–1961), a Counselor in the First Presidency: “‘Some of the General Authorities [the Apostles] have had assigned to them a special calling; they possess a special gift; they are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators, which gives them a special spiritual endowment in connection with their teaching of this people. They have the right, the power, and the authority to declare the mind and will of God to his people, subject to the over-all power and authority of the President of the Church. Others of the General Authorities are not given this special spiritual endowment.’ The resulting limitation ‘applies to every other officer and member of the Church, for none of them is spiritually endowed as a prophet, seer, and revelator.’”2
In this manner, God has “set up safeguards to protect … members from being tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine and to preserve them from the sleight of men who, with cunning craftiness, lie in wait to deceive. (See Eph. 4:14.) Those safeguards, according to Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, rested primarily in the persons of the apostles and prophets whom God placed at the head of the Church for that specific purpose.”3
The Lord has given the following warning concerning those who are to consider the message of the Apostles: “The day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, should be cut off from among the people” (D&C 1:14). Therefore, because of the special endowment associated with their teaching, the Lord has said that all who teach within the Church or as missionaries should use the instruction of the Apostles for their measure. The scriptures indicate that teachers should say “none other things than that which the prophets and apostles have written,” even “that which they have seen and heard and most assuredly believe” (D&C 52:9, 36).
In the New Testament era of the Church, as new units were formed and grew, the Apostles went about “confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and … ordained them elders in every church” (Acts 14:22–23). They communicated direction and counsel from the Church leaders. The ancient scripture records, “They delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles … , and so were the churches established in the faith” (Acts 16:4–5).
Similarly, Apostles today “officiate in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Presidency of the Church, … to build up the church, and regulate all the affairs of the same in all nations” (D&C 107:33). Likewise, “it is the duty of the Twelve … to ordain and set in order all the other officers of the church” (D&C 107:58). President Howard W. Hunter (1907–95) has provided instruction concerning this aspect of an Apostle’s service:
“The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, called and ordained to hold the keys of the priesthood, have the authority and responsibility to govern the Church, to administer its ordinances, to teach its doctrine, and to establish and maintain its practices. …
“… The governance of the Church and the exercise of the prophetic gifts will always be vested in those apostolic authorities who hold and exercise all of the keys of the priesthood.”4
As in former days, the senior Apostle presides over the Church and has the responsibility to announce new doctrine or changes. With the death of Judas Iscariot (see Matt. 27:3–5), a vacancy existed in the Quorum of the Twelve. Peter, as President of the Church,5 directed the calling of a new Apostle, Matthias, who was “ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:22; see also Acts 1:15–16, 21–26).
In another example, Peter was given a great revelation expanding the ministry of the Apostles from the house of Israel to all the world (see Acts 10:9–16). As he came to understand the revelation, he communicated it to the Church:
“Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:
“But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34–35).
After the announcement and implementation of the revelation, some in the Church contended against the new doctrine, adhering firmly to the Mosaic law. Peter corrected their false teaching and testified of the divine direction he had received concerning the matter (see Acts 11:1–18). In time there grew some additional disagreements as to how this revelation was to be applied to the converts of the early Church (see Acts 15:1–5). The matter was considered in council and resolved under Peter’s leadership. A letter clarifying the earlier revelation and its application was the means used to communicate the decision to the whole Church (see Acts 15:6–31).
As one author explained:
“There is no doubt that Peter and the other Brethren knew that the law of Moses was fulfilled. … Yet still there was that conflict between the doctrine of the Church and Jewish culture. The long-standing cultural tradition persisted among many Jewish members for years, even after the doctrinal question was settled.
“In like manner today, there may be questions on which the doctrinal foundation is clear but on which tradition or custom are so strong that the Brethren are impressed not to take a firmer stand, trusting, as did Church leaders in New Testament times, that if the basic revealed principles are known, the Holy Ghost will eventually lead the adherents to forsake their tradition, or academic popularity, or peer pressure in favor of the word of God.
“The resolution of the problem reported in the book of Acts gives our present generation an informative model as to how both Church members and those of different faiths may react when revelation confronts tradition and long-standing custom. Only living prophets could correctly handle the situation then. Only living prophets can do so in our day.”6
In our own time the pattern of resolving doctrinal issues continues. President J. Reuben Clark Jr. taught that among those of the Twelve and the First Presidency, “only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church, or change in any way the existing doctrines of the Church.”7
When there are cases “of difficulty respecting doctrine or principle, … the president may inquire and obtain the mind of the Lord by revelation” (D&C 102:23). When the First Presidency of the Church and the Twelve Apostles meet in council, they consider “the most important business of the church” (D&C 107:78), and this body is spoken of in the revelations as “the highest council of the church of God, and … [those who make] a final decision upon controversies in spiritual matters” (D&C 107:80).
One of the most important responsibilities of an ordained Apostle is to testify of the divinity of Jesus Christ, that He is indeed literally the Son of God. We see this pattern in the book of Acts when Peter bore powerful testimony that Jesus Christ was “the Holy One,” “the Prince of life,” even “Christ” (see Acts 3:12–18). He taught that Jesus was the “prophet” whom Moses had prophesied that we should listen to—the one foretold by all the prophets, even the Son of God sent “to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities” (see Acts 3:19–26; see also Deut. 18:15–19; 1 Ne. 22:20–22). Peter, John, Barnabas, Paul, and the other Apostles each were special witnesses of Christ in their day.
Of Apostles in the latter days, the Redeemer said they were to be “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world—thus differing from other officers” (D&C 107:23). Concerning this responsibility, President Gordon B. Hinckley said:
“They were called because the Lord wanted them in this office as men who have a witness of his divinity, and whose voices have been and will be raised in testimony of his reality.
“Each is a man of faith. After they are ordained to the holy apostleship and are set apart as members of the Council of the Twelve, they will be expected to devote themselves primarily to the work of the ministry. They will place first in their lives, above all other considerations, the responsibility to stand as special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world.”8
In addition, President Howard W. Hunter testified: “I humbly testify of my privilege to bear the holy apostleship and to work daily with a modern Quorum of Twelve Apostles who are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are to go forth as ‘special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world.’ (D&C 107:23.) And so have the Apostles always testified.”9
The Apostles also serve as special witnesses of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. After His Resurrection, Jesus was seen first by Mary Magdalene (see Mark 16:9), and “he was seen of Cephas [Peter, the head of the Church], then of the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5), and by others (see 1 Cor. 15:6–9).
One of the early appearances to the Twelve was on “the first day of the week, when the doors were shut … , [and] Jesus … stood in the midst” of them (John 20:19; see also Luke 24:36). These early Apostles felt the Savior’s resurrected body. He ate with them, instructed them, and blessed them (see Luke 24:37–48; John 20:20–23).
Eight days later, the Twelve had a similar experience, this time including Thomas, who had been absent before (see John 20:24–29). Other appearances to the Twelve occurred until His eventual Ascension (see Matt. 28:16–18; Mark 16:12–13; Luke 24:13–32; John 21:1–15).
In the book of Acts, Peter affirmed the role of the Apostles in bearing witness of the Savior’s ministry:
“We are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree:
“Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly;
President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) testified of this unique responsibility belonging to all who are Apostles: “As one of those called as special witnesses, I add my testimony to those of fellow Apostles: He lives! He lives with resurrected body. There is no truth or fact of which I am more assured, or know better by personal experience, than the truth of the literal resurrection of our Lord.”10
As we have seen, the book of Acts demonstrates something of the breadth and power of the Apostles’ ministry. The original Twelve and four others mentioned by name served in that earlier dispensation of the gospel.
In our dispensation, 92 men have served as members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They labor under the direction of the First Presidency to fulfill the responsibilities of this sacred office and calling. As these noble leaders in the vineyard fulfill their apostolic service, the Savior refers to them as His friends: “And as I said unto mine apostles, even so I say unto you, for you are mine apostles, even God’s high priests; ye are they whom my Father hath given me; ye are my friends” (D&C 84:63).
“All incumbent members of the Quorum of the First Presidency and of the Council of the Twelve have been recipients of the keys, rights, and authority pertaining to the holy apostleship. … In this authority reside the powers of governance of the Church and kingdom of God in the earth.”
—President Gordon B. Hinckley
“The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, called and ordained to hold the keys of the priesthood, have the authority and responsibility to govern the Church, to administer its ordinances, to teach its doctrine, and to establish and maintain its practices.”
—President Howard W. Hunter
“As one of those called as special witnesses, I add my testimony to those of fellow Apostles: He lives! He lives with resurrected body. There is no truth or fact of which I am more assured, or know better by personal experience, than the truth of the literal resurrection of our Lord.”
—President Ezra Taft Benson