Q: #399. What is an apostle?
A: The word “apostle(s)” is used 79 times in the New Testament (KJV). The Greek word used for “apostle” is apostolos, which according to Strong’s means, “a delegate; spec. an ambassador of the Gospel; officially a commissioner of Christ.” Strong’s continues saying, “Apostolos is, lit., “One sent forth” [apo, “from,” stello, “to send”].” Being an apostle is listed as a “spiritual gift” in (Eph 4:11), along with prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher (often called “the five-fold ministry”)(Also see: 1 Cor 12:28). However, there is a fair amount of controversy as to whether this “gift” is still in operation today, or not (called cessationism). Let’s look at what the Bible says about apostles.
First, I think it is important to see that Jesus was called an Apostle (Heb 3:1). If we use the above definition, we might say Jesus was “one sent forth” from the Father. He mentions this several times in the book of John (Jn 6:57)(Jn 8:16,18)(Jn 3:16-17)(Jn 5:37). In turn, Jesus then commissioned the 12 disciples, and “sent them forth” (Jn 20:21-22)(Jn 15:16). Depending on what version of the Bible you use, you can see that the 12 disciples are also called “apostles” in several places in the Gospels (i.e. Mt 10:2, Mk 6:30, Lk 6:13). However, the 12 are primarily called “disciples” (meaning “follower or student of a teacher”) until after Pentecost (when their “teacher” [Jesus] was no longer on Earth).
The vast majority of times that the word “apostle” is used in the New Testament, it is referring in some way to one of the original 12 disciples/apostles. We find in (Acts 1:21-26), when the disciples/apostles were preparing to choose a replacement for Judas, that they gave several key characteristics for an apostle (“apostleship” – Acts 1:25):
(Verse 21-22): He must be: “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 He was taken from us (Jesus’ Ascension).”
(Verse 23): He must have “become a witness with us of His (Jesus’) resurrection.”
Paul also added to the definition in (2 Cor 12:12), saying that an apostle should have God-given power to perform “signs, wonders, and miracles” (Compare with: Acts 2:43, Acts 5:12, Acts 8:6-7, Heb 2:3-4).
However, we also find in the New Testament that 8 other people are called “apostles” who do not seem to fit these definitions perfectly: Paul (Acts 14:14)(1 Cor 9:1-2)(1 Cor 15:9)(Gal 1:1,17)(2 Cor 11:5), Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Silas & Timothy (1 Th 2:6 – see 1 Th 1:1), James [the Lord’s brother] (Gal 1:19), and Andronicus and Junias (Rom 16:7). Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25), and others (“brethren”) (2 Cor 8:23) are spoken of as “messengers” = Gr. apostolos). For example, Paul called himself an apostle who had “seen (the risen) Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 9:1)(1 Cor 15:8), he performed “signs and wonders” (Acts 14:8-10)(Acts 19:11-12)(Acts 20:9-12)(Acts 28:7-9), but he does not fit the definition found in (Acts 1:21-22). James (Jesus’ brother) does not appear to fit the definition of (Acts 1:21-22) either (he was not a believer: Jn 7:5), nor it is recorded that he ever performed any “signs or wonders,” but he had seen the risen Christ (1 Cor 15:7) (apparently becoming a believer afterwards).
Having said this, it seems possible to me that being an “apostle” can mean several things. Much like we discussed earlier when speaking of “prophets,” and if they are for today (see: Q: #231.), perhaps there some aspects of being an apostle that are for today, and some that are not for today. For example, “apostles” in the New Testament “built the foundation for the church” (Eph 2:20)(1 Cor 3:10-15)(Rom 15:20)(Mt 16:18). Since a foundation need only be built once, this aspect of apostleship would not be for today. Apostles were commissioned by God to write Scripture, and since we now have God’s completed Word, this aspect is not for today. There were apostles who were commissioned DIRECTLY by Jesus (verbally speaking to them) (Lk 6:13)(Acts 1:2)(Rom 1:4-5)(Jn 20:21-22)(Jn 15:16), with “signs and wonders” (Mt 10:1,8)(Mk 16:20)(Lk 9:1-2)(Acts 2:43) confirming this commission, but this is not occurring today.
***Note: Some scholars attempt to make a division between the “office” of apostle, and the “spiritual gift” of apostle.
However, if we take the more general meaning of an apostle, “one sent forth,” then perhaps this aspect IS for today. For example, we have “The Great Commission” of Jesus in (Mt 28:19-20) to “make disciples, baptize, and teach.” This certainly seems to be a direct commission by Jesus, “to go forth” and do this, right? Jesus commanded us to: feed the hungry, give someone thirsty a drink, take in a stranger or the poor, visit someone in prison, and clothe someone who has none (Mt 25:34-45). Isn’t this also a commission? In addition, we have missionaries all over the world who have (hopefully) received a direct call (unlikely verbal though) from Jesus to “go forth” and serve in the different ways they are serving.
As I have stated before on this site, I am not a cessationist. In other words, I do believe that ALL spiritual gifts are still for today. However, I also believe that some gifts have several ways that they can be administered (i.e. prophecy can be “forthtelling” as well as “foretelling”), and one aspect of that gift might be for today, while another aspect may not. This would include the gift of “apostle.” As such, I urge caution in naming oneself such things as “prophet,” or “apostle,” because we do not want to give the impression that we believe we can do things that were meant only for a certain time (i.e. We don’t want people to think that the words we write or speak are equal with Scripture).
P.S. Two random things: the Bible mentions “false apostles” (2 Cor 11:13)(Rev 2:2). Also, in the future, the wall to the holy city, New Jerusalem, will have 12 foundations, with each foundation bearing the name of one of the 12 apostles (Rev 21:14) (perhaps in relation to what we stated above, that they “built the foundation for the church” while they were alive on Earth).