What is an apostle?

The word apostle in Scripture is close in meaning to our word missionary.


Were not the twelve disciples the only apostles?

Initially, this seems correct.  In Mark, we find this verse:

And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach (Mark 3:14)

Mark clearly says that the term apostle was used as a term meaning the twelve disciples whom Jesus chose.  This usage is also followed later where again Mark uses the term to refer to the twelve:

And He summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits; … (30) The apostles gathered together with Jesus... (Mark 6:7, 30)

Matthew and Luke use the term similarly. (Matthew 10:2;  Luke 6:13; 9:10)  As we study further, however, the we see the term used in a broader sense than simply referring to the twelve.  Luke writes:

For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute (Luke 11:49)

Here the meaning of the term apostle is not limited to the twelve.  The focus is more on being sent.  Hence, the English term missionary is a rough synonym with apostle.  Hort writes:

Taking these facts together respecting the usage of the Gospels, we are led, I think, to the conclusion that in its original sense the term Apostle was not intended to describe the habitual relation of the Twelve to our Lord during the days of His ministry, but strictly speaking only that mission among the villages, of which the beginning and the end are recorded for us; just as in the Acts, Paul and Barnabas are called Apostles (i.e. of the Church of Antioch) with reference to that special mission which we call St Paul’s First Missionary Journey, and to that only. source

Hort suggests the translation “envoys.”  Lindsay writes that apostles were basically missionaries who preached to unreached people.  He writes:

The distinguishing characteristic of an apostle was that he had given himself, and that for life, to be a missionary, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of Christ to those who did not know it. He had received the “gift” of speaking the “Word of God,” and he was distinguished from others who had the same “gift” in this, that he had been called either inwardly or outwardly to make this special use of it. The prophet and the teacher had the same “gift” in the same or in less measure than the apostle, but they found their sphere of its use within the Christian community, while the apostle’s sphere was for the most part outside, among those who were not yet within the Church of Christ.  They built on the foundation laid by the apostle; he laid the foundation for others to build upon. The apostles were men who in virtue of the implanted “gift” of “speaking the Word of God” and of the “call” impelling them, were sent forth to be the heralds of the kingdom of Christ. This was their life-work. They were not appointed to an office, in the ecclesiastical sense of the word, but to a work in the prosecution of which they had to do all that is the inevitable accompaniment of missionary activity in all ages of the Church’s history. source


What other reason do we have to believe that the term apostle is not meant to refer only to the twelve disciples?

Paul gives us reason to believe that the term was not limited to the twelve.

  • He includes Barnabas in the number of the apostles in his first letter to Corinth. (1 Corinthians 9:6)
  • In Romans, Andronicus and Junias are commended for being “outstanding among the apostles.” (Romans 16:7)
  • Paul identifies Apollos as an apostle. (1 Corinthians 4:6, 9)
  • James is called an apostle. (Galatians 1:19)

Furthermore in 1 Corinthians, Paul is giving a list of those who had seen Jesus after His resurrection.  In this list, he gives Peter’s name first, then the twelve, then the 500 brethren, then James, then all the apostles.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Clearly, the twelve and the apostles are two different groups of people.


Was not James one of the twelve?

This is a different “James.”  James the son of Zebedee (Mark 3:12) was the disciple and one of the twelve.  James the Just was the brother of Jesus, is the man mentioned in Galatians, and authored the letter of James.  He was never a member of the twelve.


Does not the term apostle have the meaning of someone who has a position of authority in the church?

This meaning is hinted at in the gospels (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30) and becomes fully realized in the church after the ascension of Jesus.  This is when Jesus extended the mission to the Gentiles.  Initially, Jesus had instructed His disciples not to preach to the Gentiles or the Samaritans. (Matthew 10:5)  Now, however, the command is different.  Directly before His ascension, Jesus gives the following command:

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  “You are witnesses of these things.  “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49)


Why did this expansion of the mission involve a new understanding of the term apostle?

First, because Jesus was no longer with them.  He could not make authoritative pronouncements on points of doctrine.

Second, because the ministry now became about Him.  The apostles preached Christ and reconciliation to God through Him.  Hence, as time went on, it became important to know who Jesus was and what He had taught.


How do we see this in the early church?

Immediately after Pentecost, we see the first believers, who were all Jews, abandoning their Jewish teachers and committing themselves to the teaching of the apostles.

So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.  They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:41-42)


What were the qualifications of an apostle?

The main qualification was that an apostle had to be someone who had personally seen the risen Lord.  He had to be an eyewitness of Jesus’ resurrection body.  This is clear from Acts 1 where the disciples are discussing the need to choose a successor to Judas.

It is therefore necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning with the baptism of John, until the day that He was taken up from us, one of these should become a witness with us of His resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22)

This is also one of the reasons Paul insists on his having seen the risen Christ. (1 Corinthians 9:1)  John also makes much of this in his first letter:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life–and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us–what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

Also, we find the apostles making frequent reference to their being witnesses of the ministry of Jesus in the sermons given us in the book of Acts.  Consider these:

  • This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. (Acts 2:32)
  • but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses. (Acts 3:15)
  • And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. (Acts 4:33)
  • And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.” (Acts 5:32)
  • And we are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. And they also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. (Acts 10:39)
  • God raised Him up on the third day, and granted that He should become visible, (Acts 10:40)
  • not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us, who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. (Acts 10:41)
  • and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people. (Acts 13:31)


Why is this important?

It means that apostleship was not something that could be handed down from one person to another as the Roman Catholics teach.  Vatican I pronounced:

Chapter 2. On the permanence of the primacy of blessed Peter in the Roman pontiffs

    1. That which our Lord Jesus Christ, the prince of shepherds and great shepherd of the sheep, established in the blessed apostle Peter, for the continual salvation and permanent benefit of the church, must of necessity remain for ever, by Christ’s authority, in the church which, founded as it is upon a rock, will stand firm until the end of time.
    2. For no one can be in doubt, indeed it was known in every age that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, the pillar of faith and the foundation of the catholic church, received the keys of the kingdom from our lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that to this day and for ever he lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors the bishops of the holy Roman see, which he founded and consecrated with his blood.
    3. Therefore whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole church. So what the truth has ordained stands firm, and blessed Peter perseveres in the rock-like strength he was granted, and does not abandon that guidance of the church which he once received.
    4. For this reason it has always been necessary for every church–that is to say the faithful throughout the world–to be in agreement with the Roman church because of its more effective leadership. In consequence of being joined, as members to head, with that see, from which the rights of sacred communion flow to all, they will grow together into the structure of a single body.
    5. Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole church; or that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy:  let him be anathema. source


What does Paul mean when he speaks of “signs of an apostle?”

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:

I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me. Actually I should have been commended by you, for in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody.  The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles. (2 Corinthians 12:11-12)

Lightfoot notes, however, that similar miracles were done by many others in the church at the time; and thus, could not be conclusive signs of an apostle in and of themselves.  He writes:

But essential as was the possession of these gifts of the Spirit to establish the claims of an Apostle, they seem to have been possessed at least in some degree by all the higher ministers of the Church, and therefore do not afford any distinctive test, by which we are enabled to fix the limits of the Apostleship. source


Who and what were the “false apostles?”

Paul mentions these in 2 Corinthians: “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 11:13)  The mention of these men is important since it shows us that at this time in the church, the term apostle was not a synonym with “the twelve.”  Lightfoot writes that the term apostle could not have been a technical term for the twelve otherwise these imposters would have had no argument at all for their claim. source  Onderdonk uses this fact to prove that the apostolic office continues in the church today.


Did the Paul then see himself as having unique place of authority in the church?

Yes, but not unique to himself.  Paul understood himself to be an apostle along with the others.  He explains this in his letter to the Galatians.  There Paul explains that his authority as an apostolic teacher rests on the fact that he had received direct, divine revelation from Jesus Himself. (Galatians 1:11, 12)  Paul did not learn the gospel from the apostles. (Galatians 1:16-17)  While Paul did confer with the apostles in Jerusalem, his authority did not rest on their approval. (Galatians 2:6)  We also note that in the first letters that Paul wrote, he does not introduce himself as an apostle. (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1)  In all the following letters (except Philippians), Paul introduces himself not only as an apostle, but as an apostle by the will of God.  Here is Paul’s opening greeting in his letter to the Galatians:

Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), (Galatians 1:1)

Later, Paul claims an equality with the other apostles:

…seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. (Galatians 2:7-9)




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