The first group mentioned is the apostles. The word apostles means “sent ones”. In the sense used here apostles refers strictly to the apostles of Christ – the 12 chosen, Matthias chosen to replace Judas, and Paul who was personally called by Christ on the Damascus road. The word “apostle” is used in a more general sense elsewhere in the New Testament in referring to “sent ones” from the churches, for example Barnabus, Silas, and Timothy. Anyone titled “apostle” today would fit into the latter category. The apostles were instrumental in the spread of the early church, establishing church doctrine, and writing Scripture through the revelation of Christ. The office as it existed in them cannot exist today.
The prophets do not refer to the Old Testament prophets but the New Testament ones. (This differs from those with the gift of prophecy mentioned in 1 Cor. 12:10.) As the apostles moved from town to town to establish a church, the prophets would stay behind to continue to preach to those churches. They would continue to teach the apostolic doctrines and fight against false prophets. Sometimes, like Agabus in Acts, they would receive a revelation from God. This office also does not exist today.
“Evangelists” are technically those who proclaim the good news. These evangelists traveled to places where the gospel was unknown, taught believers the Word, built them up, established church leadership, and moved on to another area. They would have much in common with today’s missionaries.
“Shepherd-teacher” likely refers to the same person because the Greek sentence uses a different word for “and” between these words. The shepherd-teacher ministered to the local congregation, teaching God’s word and leading in the ministry. The Ephesian church had several pastors. This office can be seen in the pastors of today. As they teach the Word of God to their local body the believers are built up and enabled to serve with their spiritual gifts. A wise person once told me that the job of a minister is to work himself out of a job, meaning that the main purpose should be to equip members to do the work of the church, not to do it all or try to control it all. Christ does not purpose to build up religious superstars but instead that each member of the body reach maturity to show the world all the attributes and qualities of Christ.
In verse 3 we were told to maintain unity as if it were a reality, but in verse 13 we are told to attain unity as if it were a goal. There are not two kinds of Christian unity, but Christian unity has in one sense already been accomplished and in another sense has not. The blood of Jesus has united us into one body and has broken down dividing walls through his atonement (Eph. 2:13-16). But the unity he purchased with his blood must now be brought to fruition through the work of the Spirit in the church. We should have common conviction in the primary truths of Christianity as well as exhibiting a supernatural love for one other.
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. – James 1:2-4.