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Apostles in the Bible January 29, 2015

Posted by TJ Friend in Word Studies.
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I have been pondering the idea of apostles for the last couple weeks. I have been thinking about how we view apostles today and if that lines up with how Scripture describes apostles. In thinking about and studying this topic I have come to realize that the idea of apostles and apostleship is very confusing. There are many differing ideas of what apostles are today and even the Bible itself does not come to one clear definition of apostles. I want to do my best to describe what I think is the Biblical understanding of an apostle. Hopefully, this will bring some clarity on how we use the term today.

There are some people today who don’t believe there are any apostles left today. That all depends on how you define apostle. I believe there are at least 3 different Biblical understandings of the term “apostolos” (apostle) in the NT. If you combine the qualifications and roles of all three you will end up with conflicting ideas on what an apostle is. My goal in writing this is to break down these three categories and show why there are distinctions between them.

1. Apostle as Messenger

In the Greek the word for Apostle is the word “apostolos”. This word comes from the verb “apostello” which means “to send”. At its most general definition an apostle is one who is sent. This usage is found in John 13 (see also 2 Cor 8:23 and Phil 2:25).

16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him (John 13:16).

This was the common, secular usage of the word at the time. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that it was during the time of the Bible that the more specific usage of the word was coined. Up until that point people used the word apostle for someone who was sent with a message (like a delegate). It had the idea of commissioning someone with a message.

In a way, every Christian fits this category. We are all sent out with a message to proclaim (Matt 28:19-20). So, if we take this as our only definition of apostle then clearly there are still apostles today, since we all fit that category. However, this is not the only way to define apostles.

2. Apostles as the Twelve

The twelve disciples are also called apostles: 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles (Luke 6:13). This is the most common use of the term apostle in the Bible. After the loss of Judas, the eleven remaining disciples wanted to find someone to replace him. They set forth some requirements of what it would take to be one of the Twelve.

21 Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

In looking at this passage there seems to be a specific role for these 12 “apostles”. They were to be “witnesses of his resurrection”. This understanding of an apostle is limited to those who had been with Jesus since the beginning and could be a witness of his resurrection. Paul fits into this category because of his encounter with Jesus (Acts 9). He was the last person to see Jesus after the resurrection as shown in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8,  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

These apostles are also sent with a message. For Paul, he received a special message that the Gospel, which was primarily for the Jews, was now open to the Gentiles. These apostles were sent out specifically by Jesus to proclaim the message of salvation. In order to validate their message God worked many miracles through them. 12 I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles (1 Cor 12:12). 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles (Acts 2:43).

Some people will take these verses as universal qualifications for apostles. But, this is just the qualifications for this particular type of apostle. If these are the requirements for all types of apostles then there is no way we could have any apostles today, since no one today has seen Jesus or been with him since the beginning of his ministry.

Unfortunately, people will take it one step further saying that since there are no more apostles, then there is no more need to validate their unique role as witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection and therefore signs and wonders have also died with these apostles. I think this only applies if you take this view of apostles as the only view and if you believe the only purpose for signs and wonders was to validate their message. As we have seen their are at least two descriptions of apostles in the NT (and we are about to see the third). Also, the Bible talks about many different reasons for signs and wonders besides validating apostles (one of the most common being Jesus’ compassion on people).

3. Apostles as Gifts

This third understanding of apostles is harder to define. There are only a few passages that talk about the gift of apostleship. One of them is Ephesians 4:11-12:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

The reason why I label these categories as “gifts” is that it specifically says that they are given to the Church. In this understanding of apostles they are given to equip the people of God for service and build it up so that the Church may be united in faith/knowledge and be mature. As of yet, we as the Church have not attained to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. It is for that reason that we still need apostles (and prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) to help us grow and develop in our faith.

Ephesians 2:20 says that the Church was built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets. So, as some would claim, since the foundation has been laid, there is no longer need for apostles or prophets. To some degree this is true. We don’t need to re-lay the foundation that has already been laid. But, if apostles and prophets were necessary for the foundation how much more are they necessary for the building itself.

Another passage that shows this idea of apostleship is in 1 Corinthians:

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. (1 Cor 12:27-31)

This passage first of all separates the gifts of healing from the gift of apostleship. Because they are separate this shows that healings and miracles were not limited to the apostles. This passage is talking about the different gifts that people have. Here Paul lays out a hierarchy of the gifts. He says that first are apostles and then at the end he says to eagerly desire the greater gifts. It seems clear that Paul wants us to desire the gift of an apostle, even more than the other gifts.

Trying to discern what this gift actually is, is a challenge. It must be in someway related to the idea of sending, because it is from the root apostello – to send. Also, it is separated from the gifts of evangelism, pastoring, teaching, and prophecy as we just saw in Ephesians 4:11. From what I can tell, this gift is most similar to that of a missionary. I would say it is someone with a specific message (the Gospel) being sent to a specific group of people. This could also involve church planting.

The Title of Apostle

I want to add one more thought on the idea of apostles. There are some people today who claim the title of an apostle. Although there are some people in the Bible who claimed that title, I believe they were only those in the second category – those who had specifically seen Jesus and were witnesses to his message. For people today to claim status based on a gifting seems prideful. A gift is something that is freely given. It should be used with humility to serve others, not to put yourself on a pedestal.