Is it possible that the need for the apostolic office in human form subsided as the gifts of that office became available to the church at large?
Everything that the apostles did could be done by other men, and can be done even in our generation. Stephen had a martyrdom accompanied by a miracle. Philip was transported through space and time, and had daughters that prophesied. Timothy had authority over the church where he served, and could stir up the miraculous gift of God as needed. Agabus could predict the future. Apollos could preach mightily.
Men through the ages have had the power given to them to work mighty signs and wonders, without being known as apostles. Why? Because twelve apostles, the "first" in the church, are all that has been needed to hold up the walls of the city of God. Twelve foundations, built on one Cornerstone, suffices for eternity. Let men today be called pastors, teachers, miracle workers, mighty preachers, men of God. But perhaps better to leave that "first" title go to whom it was reserved.
When did false apostles first appear? What are their characteristics?
Christ, anti-christ. Apostle, anti-apostle. There were false apostles from the beginning. Paul mentions them in II Corinthians 11. They were men who wanted to raise themselves to the same level of Paul. They were deceitful workers. They transformed themselves into apostles. I don't take this to be some miraculous razzmatazz. We see it in our day. Men who may be gifted teachers, who had an answer to prayer that was above the ordinary, perhaps a "miraculous encounter," suddenly begin to believe that they are a cut above. They must be apostles.
Paul is not impressed, and neither should we be. He makes the point that Satan does some transforming too. He is in fact the prince of darkness, but often shows up as an angel of light. No big deal, says Paul, if Satan's ministers follow their Master.
These men, Judaizers and others, were bringing God's people into the bondage of the law. Yet their words seemed so close to Paul's. Some of their actions and lifestyles seemed to match his also. But when Paul lists his own actions next to theirs, the effect is as though one had laid a yardstick next to a fallen branch. Crooked sticks are easy to spot this way. Easy to see crookedness - and crooks - when righteous men are placed next to them.
You say, No one could compare to a Paul or a Peter or a John in our day! That's the point. No one should claim to be an apostle if they cannot compare to these men. And those who do approach their holiness and power in our generation, most often would disdain such a title, preferring to be called servant or brother.
Throughout the church's history, men have arisen who thought they were God's apostles. Bishops of Rome began to believe they were descended from apostles. Muhammad called himself and most heroes of the Bible, apostles, and prophets. Joseph Smith was an apostle, and the twelve apostles of Mormonism still reign from Salt Lake City. Jim Jones was an apostle. Many church leaders of our day have appended the title "apostle" to their string of badges. There are entire organizations now being formed that claim they are apostles that are being restored to the end-time church.
We will see. We will see on that day when the True Apostle descends with the other true apostles to set up the Kingdom of God...
According to Paul, what are the signs of a true apostle?
Paul, totally against his will and character, is forced into relating to the church at Corinth (II Corinthians 12) an episode he had experienced in the Heavenlies.
Why, here are two marks of a true apostle already: First, an account to tell. Second, a hesitancy to tell it. Books of encounters abound today. I cannot tell which are true and which are not. Maybe you can. One thing is sure, there is no hesitancy to get that book out there!
Paul calls this, boasting. He says he had become a fool by using this means to impress the Corinthians that he was the real deal. They ought to have believed him, having seen his works and his ways, and how closely his life measured up to Jesus'.
But no, this was a signs and wonders church. They wanted more evidence. And here it is. In addition to his "event" in Paradise, he says that he had already shown them the signs of an apostle, a series of miraculous "mighty deeds" performed among them.
In further demonstrating his competitiveness in this particular race, he reminds them that he had never been a burden to them... never asked for money for himself. Sarcastically he begs their forgiveness for this oversight, noting that the false apostles had indeed been money hungry.
All of which reminds us today of unscrupulous men fleecing God's people from the airwaves.
Could I be so bold as to add "thorn in the flesh" to the list of marks of an apostle? Paul had an insight into Heaven's glories that was so real that it took physical pain to remind him regularly that God's normal way of working among us is in the sustaining of His peaceand grace through trials, not the supernatural bypassing of difficulty. Paul's life and ours was to be a daily acknowledgement of God's grace and our dependence on it.
The mark of an apostle is a Heavenly Giftedness couched in an otherwise stressful life, says Paul. To be an apostle is to be beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, on the road, in constant danger from enemies without and within, tired, sleepless, hungry, thirsty, cold, naked, weak. To be an apostle is to be given a deposit of Truth that will hold up the church into eternity.
With these descriptions, I still have trouble seeing apostles today.
In what way were the first apostles foundational?
Paul points out in his Ephesian letter that the church has been built first upon the Cornerstone Jesus, but also on the foundation of apostles and prophets. I believe it is for this reason that he calls apostles and prophets first and second in the order of importance in the building of the church.
First also, I suggest, chronologically. In the very first century of this present era, the era of Christ and His Church, God was disseminating His Truth through the outpouring of His Spirit and the indoctrinating of His Word. This process was worked through the apostles first, then confirmed by oral prophecies second, taught by pastors and teachers even to this day, third.
It all started with twelve men.
Paul considers himself one of those foundation-builders, in his first letter to Corinth, chapter 3. "I laid the foundation." Others from the first to the twenty-first century will build on that foundation. They will build with similar materials or their work will be burned up. To teach other than what the apostles taught is considered a defilement of the Temple, per Paul.
The final glimpse of foundations is John's vision (Revelation) of a wall being held up by twelve foundations, each of which carry the name of an apostle. Can it be any more clear what has happened? God has entrusted to twelve men the building of a holy Temple. They have literally given their lives to be sure that the foundation is laid well. They have passed on the building process, not to other foundations, but to rocks and bricks and blocks like you and me, believing we will play our role well, and finish what they started.