What are the characteristics of apostolic ministry? For those who believe the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20) this is a vital question. Because the strength of the church depends on its foundation, the importance of the apostle is non-negotiable.
The Bible identifies apostles such as Peter, John, James, and Paul. But what about the 1900 years since John’s death? Have there been other individuals in church history that exhibited apostolic character and authority? Can we identify men and women who served as apostles and laid foundations upon which others could build? Is there any hope in our day for apostles known by their devotion and deeds?
More than 1300 years ago a man whose Celtic name, Aiden, which means “bright flame,” served his generation as an apostle of Jesus Christ. During a time known today as the Dark Ages, the light of Jesus in Aiden’s life drove back the darkness that covered the northern half of the island now called England.
The year was 616 A.D. A twelve-year old boy named Oswald and his two brothers and sister fled northward after the death of their father in battle. The children sought refuge with Celtic monks on Iona, an island off the western coast of Scotland. Founded more than fifty years before by a name named Columba, the monastery of Iona was the outpost from which the Gospel was proclaimed to the wild, uncivilised people of the highlands. The monks who lived on the island were men of evangelistic zeal and personal piety, part of an indigenous Christian movement without connection to the church at Rome. While on Iona, Oswald became a Christian.
Eighteen years passed. Oswald marched south to reclaim the kingdom of his father. He camped with his band of warriors near Hadrian’s wall, the Roman barrier built four hundred years before to keep out the barbaric Picts. Two larger armies joined forces to oppose him: one commanded by Penda of Mercia, the pagan ruler of central England, and the other led by Cadwallon, the king of the Britons.
On the night before the battle, Oswald had a vision in which Columbia appeared to him and reminded him of the Lord’s instructions to Joshua: “Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is why thee withersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:9). Oswald built a crude wooden cross, set it up in a field, and called his men together. After telling them about the vision, the young leader knelt on the cold ground and committed the battle to the Lord. His small army marched out through the morning mist and launched a surprise attack. Though greatly outnumbered, Oswald’s forces were victorious. Cadwallon was killed, and Penda retreated to the south. Th place of battle was named Heavenfield, and the kingdom of Northumbria had a Christian king.
The King With Open Hands
King Oswald was a man of prayer. He frequently arose in the night and sat in a plain chair with his hands opened upward on his knees, praying until dawn. One of his first acts as ruler was to request aid from the monks on Iona. There were no churches in his kingdom and most of his nobles and subjects had never heard of the good news of Jesus.
The leaders of Iona appointed Corman, one of their most prominent men to lead the mission. Corman selected several others to accompany him on the ten-day journey to Bamburgh, Oswald’s fortress on the northeastern coast of England. After spending a short time in Bamburg, this group returned to Iona, and Corman reported that although King Oswald was sympathetic to the Christian faith there was no open door for effective ministry. Oswald’s nobles were warriors who had no interest in a God of peace.
Aiden listened to Corman’s account of the trip and disagreed with his conclusion. He knew God had opened a door to the kingdom of Northumbria and it was not for man to shut it. After a time of prayer and fasting, Aiden and twelve companions left Iona and arrived at Oswald’s court in 635 A.D. In spite of the failure of Corman’s group, the king welcomed Aiden. However, the Christians were still viewed with suspicion by the king’s nobles and the ordinary citizens.
But Oswald was determined. And Aiden quickly recognised in the king a depth of true spirituality that held promise for the future. He saw the king’s prayer life and generous heart. On one occasion, the king was sitting down to a great feast when he received word that a large group of hungry people was outside the hall. Before eating himself, Oswald ordered that a large silver platter be filled with food for those at the door and instructed his servants to feed the people all they wanted, then break the platter in pieces and distribute it so that each one would have silver to buy what they needed in the future.
Establishing the Beachhead
Oswald wanted the monks to settle in Bamburgh, but Aiden declined. He explained to the king that the monks need a place of solitude away from the activity of the town in a location that would give opportunity for outreach to the common people, many of whom were Celtic Britons, not Germanic Angles like Oswald and his nobles. About two miles from Bamburgh, Aiden found a small tidal island that was only cut off from shore during high tide. The place reminded the monk of Iona, and he asked Oswald if this strip of land could become their base of operations. The king agreed, and the settlement became known as Lindisfarne, the Holy Island.
The monks moved to the island but built nothing. Instead, they spent forty days fasting and praying, cleansing the spot from all evil, and setting it apart for the purposes of God. They prayed facing North, South, East, and West, then knelt on the sandy soil to bless the earth and raised their hands to the sky and asked for an open heaven of blessing. Finally, they looked within, and made sure the ground within their own hearts was consecrated to God.
Once the land and its new inhabitants were sanctified for the Lord’s purposes, Aiden and his men constructed an earthen barrier against the winds coming across the North Sea. Oswald offered workers to help with the hard physical labor but the monks refused. Even physical labor on Lindisfarne would only be done by those totally committed to the cause. Within the earthen barrier the monks built a church of oaken boards with a thatched roof and small individual huts for themselves. Now, they were ready for students and outreach.
The Consecrated Life
Aiden and his companions began with twelve students, training them one-on-one as they had been taught at Iona. Each student memorised all 150 Psalms and one of the Gospels. Why the Psalms? The Psalms are the songs of the heart. The Christians on Holy Island knew large portions of Scripture in their heads, but their faith was from their hearts. The Psalms were the lyric for their lives. They quoted verses from the Psalms as they walked along the road and sang them antiphonally in their meetings. Years later another Celt, William Wallace of Braveheart fame, quoted the Psalms as he sung his sword in battle. Why did the students memorise one of the Gospels? Total familiarity of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John immersed the new disciples in the life of Jesus, the One they were following.
The teachers and students divided the day into three parts: prayer, work, and study. Like devout Jews the inhabitants of Holy Island viewed all aspects of life in relationship to their God. They didn’t consider one activity more holy than another; Jesus was Lord of every thought, word and deed. His presence was in their spirits whether they were in silent prayer, planting a field of grain, or singing Scripture. Often the monks would intercede in what they called, “cross-vigil,” standing in the church with their arms stretched out like Jesus on the cross.
The Celtic Christians of Lindisfarne also recognised three types of martyrdom, each one identified by a different colour. Red martyrdom was the type familiar to everyone, typified by Stephen whose blood was spilled on the ground at the hands of the angry mob in Acts 7. Green martyrdom was the sacrificed of a life committed to prayer and fasting - the dying to self that makes it possible to follow the will of God. Green martyrdom was expected of all Christians, not just those on the Holy Island. Five times in the Gospels Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16.24). See also, Mark 8:34; Mark 10.21; Luke 9.23; Luke 14:27. White martyrdom was the call to leave everything: home, family possessions, and follow Jesus. This level of commitment was for those who, like Paul, heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles” (Acts 22.21). When Aiden left Ireland for Iona and moved from Iona to Lindisfarne, he chose the pathway of white martyrdom, becoming a sojourner and pilgrim who went wherever the Holy Spirit sent him.
Gifts poured into the new work. Oswald was a generous as only a king can be. Many others joined him in giving. Just as rapidly, alms poured out from the monastery to the surrounding countryside. The monks liven simply, freed from the entrapment of material possessions.
As the ministry expanded, Aiden would walk as far as 150 miles to visit far flung missions. To enable him to be more efficient with his time, the king gave the monk a magnificent horse to ride, but after passing several groups of peasants who would previously have become his roadway companions, Aiden gave the animal away to the next beggar he met.
The Highways and Byways
There was a constant flow of activity onto the island and away from it. The generosity of the monks attracted the poor, and the wisdom they offered drew the seeking. But the monks and their pupils didn’t wait for people to come to them. They went into the countryside. On many occasions King Oswald himself traveled with Aiden, translating the messages from Celtic into the language of the Germanic Angles.
Aiden taught that to meet people you had to have your feet on the ground. By walking everywhere, the Christians had opportunity to come alongside other travellers and either encourage them in their faith or lead them to the source of eternal life. Within a short time, the monks were known and welcomed throughout an increasingly large region. Churches sprang up everywhere. Leaders trained at Lindisfarne went to other towns and villages in an ever-widening circle of influence.
One day, Aiden visited a local slave market and to the surprise of those standing around, bought a young man and brought him back to Lindisfarne. Instead of putting him to work, Aiden set him free, and the former slave became a student at the school. Other ordinary people came. Commoner and noble learned the same lessons, ate the same food, and served with equal sacrifice. Promotion came as the result of spiritual merit and service, not worldly position.
Signs and Wonders
Several years after the battle of Heavenfield, Penda of Mercia returned with another army and laid siege to Bamburgh. Tearing down the houses in the town outside the walls, his men piled the wood from the dwellings against the gate of the citadel and started a great fire. Aiden could see the column of smoke from Lindisfarne and offered a simple prayer, “Lord, see what evil Penda does.” The wind that had been blowing the flames against the gates of the stronghold, turned direction and blew smoke and fire back onto Penda’s army with such ferocity that it was forced to retreat. The kingdom was saved.
As ministry activity on Lindisfarne increased, Aiden found it increasingly difficult to follow the example of Jesus, who “…often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5.16). So, the monk decided to establish a solitary refuge on a nearby island that was little more than a series of large rocky outcroppings. Oswald and others tried to dissuade him because the place Aiden selected was rife with demonic manifestations and the site of many shipwrecks. The monk responded with fasting and prayer, and after several harrowing nights alone cleansed the place of evil.
Aiden also exercised authority over the sea. One of the king’s nobles was sent to the south of England to bring back a royal bride. To reach his destination, the emissary would have to cross Penda’s kingdom. Travelling along he could ride a horse and avoid detection, but when returned with the young woman and her entourage, the nobleman would have to sail in a boat in order to avoid the enemy. Aiden gave the man a vial of oil and told him to use it if the ship entered a storm. On the return voyage, a fierce tempest came out of the north and threatened to capsize the boat. When all hope appeared gone, the nobleman fought his way across the deck and poured the oil into the sea. Instantly, the waters calmed.
After reigning eight years, Oswald decided to march south and deal with Penda once and for all. Initially, he met with success, but then Penda obtained reinforcements from Wales and counter-attacked. Oswald was defeated and killed. A jubilant Penda cut off Oswald’s head and arms and stuck them on poles outside his citadel as trophies to the power of his gods. Oswald’s younger brother, Oswy, ascended to the throne. A year later, Oswy and a handful of brave warriors, like the men of Jabesh Gilead who retrieved Saul’s body from the Philistines, recovered Oswald’s remains and brought them to Bamburgh.
Passing the Mantle
The influence of the Christians on Lindisfarne continued to increase. The legitimacy of any spiritual work is judged by its fruit. True fruit remains. Aiden’s days of planting seeds and harvesting crops for the kingdom of God came to an end on the night of August 31, 651. When the monk took his last breath, a young man watching sheep in a field near Lindisfarne saw a vision of angels descending and ascending as they ushered a soul of great brightness into heaven. This young man, Cuthbert, eventually took Aiden’s place of leadership of Holy Island.
Will all apostles and apostolic centres look like Aiden of Lindisfarne and Holy Island? No. Every Christian is uniquely different. No two apostles share identical ministries. However, as the restoration of the apostolic office takes place in the church, it is important to consider the characteristics that mark a true apostle. Aiden’s faithfulness to the call of God for his generation reveals some of those traits. His vision, devotion, unselfishness, prayer-life, love of the Scriptures, influence on other leaders, and spiritual authority are signposts from the past that can guide the church in the future.
All quotes to source documents are taken from Flame in My Heart by David Adam, Triangle Press, London.
Biography: Robert Whitlow is a best-selling author of legal novels set in the South and winner of the prestigious Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction. A Furman University graduate, Whitlow received his J.D. with honours from the University of Georgia School of Law where he served on the staff of the Georgia Law Review. A practicing attorney, Whitlow and his wife, Kathy, have four children. They make their home in North Carolina.