What is an Apostle?

What is an Apostle?
- John Guzzetta

Some churches today give their leaders the title “apostle” and declare that they have the authority to introduce new revelation. What does the Bible say about apostles?

The word “apostle” (Gk., apostolos) simply means “one who is sent.” The roots of the word are apo- “from” and -stello “to send.” Often in Scripture apostolos is used in a general sense to designate a person sent out by one in authority, to perform a job or deliver a message on his behalf. For example, in John 13:16 we read, “a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.” The phrase “one who is sent” is actually the word apostolos. In this general sense, Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25) Barnabas (Acts 14:14), James the brother of the Lord (Galatians 1:19), Titus and his companions (2 Corinthians 8:23), and even Jesus Himself (Hebrews 3:1) are all apostles.

In most New Testament contexts, however, the word “apostle” refers to one of the twelve Apostles whom Jesus handpicked and sent out with the charge to spread the gospel.

He called His disciples to Him and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as Apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James and John; and Philip and Bartholomew; and Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon whom was called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor (Luke 6:12-16).
Their first commission on Christ’s behalf came in Luke 9:1-10, in which “He called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over the demons and to heal diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing...”

But it is beyond the earthly life of Christ that their role really emerges. When the disciples chose a man to replace Judas and restore the number of Apostles to twelve, Peter said, “...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 must become a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22). Matthias was chosen by lot.

Jesus could have had them do any number of things, but the most essential description of their mission was “to become a witness of His resurrection.” Not only was it necessary for the Apostles to have seen the risen Jesus with their own eyes, but their central job was to proclaim good news of the reign of the risen Jesus. After they received the Spirit, these twelve Apostles became ambassadors for Christ. Through them Jesus revealed His word (Galatians 1:11-12; Ephesians 3:1-10, 4:11). Jesus gave them signs and miracles to confirm the words they spoke as God-breathed truth (Hebrews 2:3- 4). Entrance into the heavenly city is granted through obedience to the word they revealed (Revelation 21:14, Matthew 16:19). They strengthened the church by bestowing the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon the members (Acts 8:14-17). Crucially, the fact that all of them (except John) died a martyr’s death for their eyewitness testimony, it provides us powerful evidence that the resurrection is a historical fact.

Paul is a special case. He received a commission by Jesus Himself to serve as an Apostle, though he was “one untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8; c.f. Galatians 1:17) and did not have the benefit of walking with Jesus when He performed his earthly ministry twenty years earlier. Nevertheless, Jesus made Paul an eyewitness of the resurrection by appearing to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Jesus had a special mission for Paul: “he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

Though Paul always stood awestruck that Jesus forgave his sins and commissioned him for the work (1 Timothy 1:12-17; Ephesians 3:8), Paul staunchly defended his calling as a true Apostle. He insisted that he was an equal to Peter, entrusted with an “apostleship” to the Gentiles while Peter’s apostleship was to the Jews (Galatians 2:7-10).
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. For in what respect were you treated as inferior to the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not become a burden to you? (2 Corinthians 12:11-13; c.f. 11:5; 1 Corinthians 9:1-5).
In almost every letter, he introduces himself as an apostle, which would establish his authority to be revealing doctrine. He begins the letter to the Romans, for example, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God...” (Rom. 1:1; c.f. 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:1; Tit. 1:1). Furthermore, as a true Apostle, Paul was able to bestow the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit upon another person through the laying on of his hands (2 Timothy 1:6; Romans 1:9-11).
Anyone who claims the title or role of “capital-A” Apostle today is a false apostle (2 Corinthians 11:13, Revelation 2:2). Is he an eyewitness of the resurrection? Do miraculous signs prove his words? Can he bestow the gifts of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands? Of course not. Remember Galatians 1:6-9 suggests there will be no new teachings:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we [the true apostles], or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
Now that we have the fully revealed word and the church is firmly established, the need for an Apostle is gone. God has preserved their testimony and His teachings in their epistles. We may continue in their true doctrine (Acts 2:42) by reading the Bible.