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Apostles And The Apostolate In The New Testament by Robert Duncan Culver

By April 10, 2011April 12th, 2016Leaders & Elders

A number of currents of thought in contemporary church life invite fresh attention to the precise nature and purpose of the New Testament apostolate. Some Roman Catholics and ‘charismatics’ are presenting new ideas about revelation. In this age of lawlessness, persons in many denominations and sects are raising questions about ecclesiastical authority. Others have misconceptions about ‘the signs of an apostle.’ In addition, there is the growing habit of referring to certain foreign missionaries or strong religious leaders as apostles — apparently intended literally rather than metaphorically.

The word apostle is a loan word from Greek by way of Latin. As with the word baptize, another such loan word, the reader of the Bible must decide what it means from the way it is used. The bare elements of the Greek word ajpovstolo’ mean ‘one sent forth.’ The root meaning of the word, however, does not indicate how, when, by whom, nor for what purpose he is to be sent.

Linguistic Background

New Testament use alone is decisive for the meaning of an apostle and for the theological significance of the apostolate. This is true of many important theological terms of Scripture but peculiarly true of this one. Though the word was already old, and there is a near-equivalent Hebrew word used in the Old Testament and in Rabbinical literature, the New Testament use is unprecedented.

Background in Greek Usage

The word apostle (ajpovstolo’) in the older Greek literature was a special maritime term or military term. A dispatched fleet was known collectively as ‘the apostle.’ The same was true of a military expedition. Such an ‘apostle’ was utterly impersonal, without responsibility as such; it simply had the quality of being sent away. In the Greek world, ajpovstolo’ never became a term for a personal emissary or representative. ‘Thus its later Christian usage was an innovation to Greek ears or to those familiar with Greek.’ In Greek culture, religious messengers were called by other names, some of which are used in the Greek Now Testament and are translated by such words as angel, niessenger, preacher, etc.

Ordinarily in the case of important terms in the New Testament, the Septuagint shows that those Greek words already had a biblical usage before the New Testament authors employed them. Righteousness, for example, in the Greek New Testament is dikaiosuvnh. This word is widely used in the Septuagint and is almost always the rendering of idx and its cognates, So all the Old Testament uses of idx bear directly on the meaning of the New Testament word.

But such is not the case with apostle. There is a word in Hebrew (jylv) which means about what apostle means but it is not rendered apostle by the Septuagint, except for one case, which hardly furnishes a precedent (1 Kings 14:6). The writings of Philo and Josephus, usually helpful, furnish no aid either.

Background In Jewish Usage

The Christian usage, however, does seem to have some connection with a Jewish legal custom and name thereof with roots in the Old Testament. The Hebrew verb for ‘sending an authorized messenger’ is jlv (2 Chron. 17:7). The simple passive participle of this verb is used of authorized messengers. This word jwlv (1 Kings 14:6), though apparently not attaining technical status in the Old Testament or in postbiblical Judaism (and perhaps earlier) does seem to attain that status in the form sometimes modified to jylv. As such, it is a legal term, not a religious term. Insofar as there is a background for apostle in Jewish or Hebrew words and uses it is the jylv. This word and usage appears sometimes, with modifications from Aramaic, in the Rabbinical literature. The Rabbis said of a jylv ‘the one sent by a man is as the man himself,’ i.e., the sent person is a minister plenipotentiary for the one who sent him. The idea has deep roots in the Old Testament. When David’s servants said to Abigail, ‘David sent (jlv) us to thee to take thee to wife,’ she prostrated herself to them and in every respect treated them as if they were David himself (1 Sam. 25:40-41). Later when David sent (jlv) his servants to commiserate Hanun, king of Ammon, and those servants were insulted and shamefully treated by that hapless king, David went to war with Ammon, showing that such an insult to the persons of the messengers was an insult to the king himself and his country. The apostolate and Jesus’ words to His apostles come immediately to mind: ‘He that receiveth you receiveth Me, and he that receiveth Me receiveth Him that sent Me’ (Matt. 10:40).

This office is frequently mentioned by name for official representatives of various groups, communities, and official bodies of Judaism in the early centuries of the Christian era and earlier. Authorities furnish many examples. Apparently Saul of Tarsus was functioning as a jylv for the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem when be met Christ on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-2).

It is this word and its Jewish precedents, not the Greek use of ajpovstolo’, which furnishes the true source — insofar as a source may be sought — for Jesus’ innovation of the apostolate. Further support for this assertion is seen in the fact that the Aramaic translation of the Bible (the Syriac Peshitta) uses this very word jylv to translate ajpovstolo’ in the New Testament and for ‘he that is sent’ (John 13:16).

In all Jewish use the central idea is official delegatedness. The jylv is not a preacher, as such, or missionary, or herald (though these may be true of him). His capacity is that of one empowered by a sending party or group to act with full authority for the sender. Hence prophets of the Old Testament were not, as such, (yjylv). Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel are sometimes called (yjylv), however, because they performed actions ordinarily reserved for God alone (e.g., causing water to flow out of a rock, causing rain, raising the dead, etc.).

New Testament Occurrence of Apostle

Apostle appears seventy-nine times in the New Testament times in Luke’s writings; thirty-four times in Paul’s; only once each in Matthew, Mark, and John (though not in the usual sense in John 13:16), Hebrews, 1 Peter, and Jude; twice in 2 Peter; and three times in Revelation. Over eighty-six percent of the occurrences are in the writings of Paul and of his companion, Luke.

In all these occurrences the word always designates a man sent with plenipotentiary authority. This is clarified in the only three texts where in the Authorized Version the word is translated rather than transliterated: ‘he that is sent’ (John 13:16), ‘messengers of the churches’ (2 Cor. 8:23); ‘your messenger’ (Phil. 2:25). The apostle may be commissioned by Christ — and this is the normal sense — or he may be a person commissioned by a congregation, in which case he is the church’s apostle, not as such Christ’s apostle (2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25).

The Origin of Jesus’ Apostolate of Twelve

The first known followers of Jesus came from John’s disciples, as seen in the first chapter of John. Several of the followers known as the twelve apostles were with Him during His first year of ministry (largely in obscurity) in Judea, but they must have spent time in Galilee too, for there is no reason to believe they were yet instructed to leave their customary occupations. Early, however, in His second year of ministry, mainly in Galilee, ‘He called them to give up their ordinary employments and be with Him constantly. And probably not many weeks afterwards, He promoted them to the third and final stage of nearness to Himself, by ordaining them to be apostles.’ (See Mark 3:13-19; Matthew 10:1; Luke 9:1-10; cf. 6:13-16, esp. v. 13).

The initiative in becoming a disciple came partly from the men who became disciples — and there were multitudes of them. There were other Jewish teachers who had disciples (maqathv’, ‘learner, follower’). The initiative for becoming Jesus’ apostle, however, came entirely from the Master Himself: ‘He called unto Him His disciples; and of them He chose twelve, whom also He named apostles’ (Luke 6:13; cf. John 15:16).

The initial purposes of Jesus in constituting twelve of His disciples apostles was threefold: ‘that they should be with Him, and that He might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out devils’ (Mark 3:14-15). That Jesus called them from the first with a view to instructing them fully as founders of the church in the period after His ascension can hardly be doubted (cf. Matt. 28:19-20). The second purpose was to have them serve as His accredited representatives in announcing the presence of the Messiah-King and His kingdom (Matt. 10; Luke 9:2). In a sense this purpose of the apostolate ended when a few days later they returned and reported the mission accomplished. The third purpose — to have miraculous powers — was similar to the Lord’s purpose in using those powers, viz., to provide credentials as divinely certified heralds of the arrived kingdom (cf. Matt. 10:2 with 11:1-6). Whether this apostolate did indeed come to an end with the completion of this initial mission is a moot question. The Twelve certainly failed in later efforts to provide the ‘signs of an apostle’ (Matt. 7:14-17; cf. 2 Cor. 12:12; Rom. 15:19; 1 Thess. 1:5). They also forsook their Lord (Matt. 26:56). There was indeed a later renewal of the endowment of power. Yet the discourses of Jesus with the Twelve, especially the Upper Room Discourse of John 13-18, do clearly imply that their Lord was addressing the Twelve as accredited plenipotentiaries for an age about to begin at Pentecost, however sad their temporary lapse may have been. Further, the several promises and charges given by Jesus to the apostles during their years with Him compel one to believe that from the moment of their first commission Jesus constituted them the first chronologically in the church to be founded. Likewise, as the ‘founders’ of the church, they were its first teachers (Matt. 16:18-19; cf. John 20:19-23; Eph. 2:20; see also Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:28-30).

The Confirmation of the Apostolate of Twelve After Jesus’ Resurrection

The risen Christ consorted with His disciples for forty days after the Resurrection, giving the Twelve (reduced by one through the defection of Judas) renewal of their commission. The Twelve, scattered after they left the Upper Room, then reassembled. Then over a period of forty days they witnessed several Resurrection appearances of Jesus. At these appearances the Lord renewed their commission as His apostles (Matt. 28:16-20; Luke 24:33-49; Acts 1:8). With the commission, they received orders to remain together at Jerusalem until endued with the promised Holy Spirit (Luke 24:46; Acts 1:4-8). It was by this renewal of commission that the Eleven became definitively constituted as Christ’s apostles (ajpovstoloi = (yjylv). Thereby they also became the first missionaries of Christianity to the world, but unique among Christian missionaries in that only apostles could be Christ’s ministers plenipotentiary in the critical matters connected with the foundation of the church.

Essential Features of the Apostolate

An examination of the New Testament yields six essential features of the apostolate — some of which appear as qualifications, and some of which appear also as privileges.

An apostle of Messiah (Christ) must be of Messiah’s nation, i.e., a Jew. Messiah’s mission was first to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 10:6). In their first mission they were ordered neither to go nor to preach to any others than Jews. Their Lord amply illustrated this limitation from the very first of His public ministry to its very end. Also these men were to become organs for delivery of divine oracles. According to the law of Deuteronomy 18:9, confirmed by Paul (Rom. 3:1-2; cf. Matt. 10:1-5), the oracles of God are given to the Jews. Divine messengers to Hebrew people will in every case be Hebrew people. This has at least some bearing (if not a decisive bearing) on the question of apostolic succession and the possibility of apostles in the church today.

An apostle must have received a call and commission to his office directly from Christ. The nature of the office — minister plenipotentiary — required it; the precedent set by the Master (Luke 6:13) demonstrated it; and the case of Paul, as he elaborately argues in 2 Corinthians and the first part of Galatians (esp. Gal. 1:1), confirms it. The choice of Matthias by the lot (Acts 1:24-26) conforms to it (see Prov. 16:33) and, though somewhat irregular, is no exception.

An apostle must have the Lord Jesus, being an eyewitness of His doings and an ear-witness of His sayings. If they were to be founding witnesses (i.e., founders of the church), this was essential. This is why early in His ministry, Jesus invited twelve men (among others) to follow Him and some months later commissioned the Twelve as apostles, insisting on their being constantly with Him (John 15:27; cf. Luke 22:28). The requirement is spelled out in the case of Matthias (Acts 1:21-22). By personal observation of the events of redemption they were able to testify to them, and as Jesus said, one of the purposes of their later special enduement with power from the Holy Spirit was to enable them to remember infallibly what they had heard Jesus say (John 14:28; 15:26-27; 16:13-15). Paul was at special pains to let it be known that he met this requirement as an apostle (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Acts 22:6-21).

An apostle must possess authority in communicating divine revelation, and what he wrote under divine inspiration was indeed ‘the voice of God.’ A reading of Deuteronomy 18:9 shows how this gift is related to Old Testament Scripture. New Testament passages which declare this are 1 Corinthians 2:10 and Galatians 1:11-12. Apostles were thus enabled to give in the New Testament Scriptures the true sense of the Old Testament (Luke 24:27; Acts 26:22-23; 28:23) veiled from the Jewish nation then as now (Rom. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:11-18; 1 Thess. 2:14-16), and to set forth the revelation of the New Testament as an inerrant standard for the new dispensation (1 Pet. 1:25; 1 John 4:6; John 14:26; 1 Thess. 2:13). Accordingly, later generations of believers — and believers to the present hour — have regarded apostolicity of some degree as an undoubted, essential quality of New Testament Scripture.

An apostle is required to furnish ‘the signs of an apostle.’ These consist of power at some critical juncture to perform undoubted miracles (cf. Acts 4:16). Deuteronomy 18:9 and 13:1 furnish the Old Testament background. The Gospels consistently show that Jesus’ human nature was enabled to be the palpable vehicle of such miracles by the special bestowal of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16-4:25 and parallels) and the same was to be true of the apostles after their post-Resurrection recommissioning by Christ (Acts 1:8; cf, Mark 16:14, 19-20). The apostles performed such acts (Acts 2:43; 5:12). Furthermore, there is reason to believe that only they and they to whom they conveyed such powers performed miraculous acts in the early church (1 Cor. 12:8-11, 28), and that when the Word had been thus confirmed the miracles ceased (Heb, 2:1-4). As in the Old Testament epoch God furnished signs for His accredited messengers, so He furnished ‘signs of an apostle’ (2 Cor. 12:12; cf. Pss. 74:9; 105:27-28). These signs were God’s means of ‘bearing witness with them’ (Heb. 2:4).

The several Gospel reports of how Jesus rebuked the demands for miracles — demands made by shallow-thinking crowds of thrillseekers or of debauched kings — cannot do away with the evidential and certifying function of New Testament miracles. Neither do the remarks of Paul near the end of 2 Corinthians regarding the perverse reasonings of the Christian citizens of Corinth regarding his ministry do away with this function of miracles. The miracles were not for edification of the believers primarily, and neither Jesus nor Paul says so. The believers of today do not need them for edification and should not ask for miracles for such reasons. Faith has another method.

An apostle must possess plenary authority among all the churches. In this he differed from the holders of other New Testament ecclesiastical office, for in the New Testament, bishops (or elders) and deacons wielded only local-church authority and had only local function. But Peter could judge an Ananias or Sapphira by personal authority (Acts 5:1-11), not church authority. Paul asserted a personal responsibility for ‘all the churches’ (2 Cor. 11:28), and in distant Philippi, Paul could judge concerning a matter of moral discipline in a congregation at Corinth (1 Cor. 5:3). Apostles could and did write most of the epistles of the New Testament canon, giving commands to churches far away, claiming inerrant divine authority for themselves and even for one another (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. 2 Pet. 3:16). They had power to furnish faith and order as a model for all future generations, and to exercise discipline over all disorderly Christians (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10).

Alleged Perpetual Apostolate and Succession

A considerable segment of Christendom claims two further essential qualities of the apostolate — perpetuity and power of succession. But perpetuity is inconsistent with the very nature of the work of the apostles. Furthermore, there could not be successors displaying the above particular set of qualifications, since many of the qualifications are essentially supernatural in character and some are historically impossible for others besides the contemporaries of Jesus. Also the New Testament texts cited to ‘prove’ apostolic succession and papal primacy simply do not support either one.

That the bishops of episcopally governed churches are true apostles in lineal succession through successive passing down of the office by laying on of the hands of ordination is held in dogmatic form by the Roman Catholic Church — being set forth strongly not only in the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent but also by several relatively mild post-Vatican II publications. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the only church with true apostolic authority and therefore the only church with a valid ministry. Similar claims, though less formally made, are asserted by Anglican High-Churchmen, by Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, and other Oriental churches deriving from Christian antiquity.

For evidence of their claim to apostolicity, Roman authorities cite

  1. the choice of Matthias,
  2. reference to apostles other than the Eleven and Paul,
  3. Jesus’ statement about the apostolic mission (Matt. 10:14), and
  4. His words to Peter about his having the keys (Matt. 16:18-19).

A recent article in an important Roman Catholic dictionary of biblical theology summarizes the position and the arguments for it:

During Jesus’ public activity a portion of the disciples was, at appointed times, commissioned to represent Messiah. Likewise the extensive preparation of the disciples for their apostolic office, as particularly defined promises (cf. Mt 16:19; 18:18) makes it clear, that with this short apostolic function [their first preaching mission?] not all could be realized which Jesus had intended. After his departure Jesus would not leave his flock behind shepherdless (cf. Mt 9:36; Jn 21:15-17); therefore he promised his disciples the transmission of power of binding and loosing. Their decrees in the church will be the decisions of the risen Lord (Mt 16:18; 18:18). The transmission of this power, limited neither by time nor space, followed through the resurrection (Mt 28:18ff.). Now is Jesus no more sent only to the lost sheep; therefore, he entrusted also the full power of all the peoples to the pastoral care of his fully empowered representatives. These representatives of the good Shepherd were employed at the beginning till the end of the time when the Lord comes again [Mt 10:24?]. It is thereby made necessary that the full power of Christ-representation also be transmitted through the entire history of the church. Or should the certainty of sins forgiveness be established only for the first generation of the church? Jesus conveyed this divine power which had so amazed the Jews (cf. Mt 9:8) to his apostles (Jn 20:21ff.), whereby this gift of grace, even after the day of his ascension to heaven, should remain in the world till his second Advent.

John 21:15-17 signifies, finally (as also previously Mt 16:18f.) the special position of Peter as first among the fully commissioned. Thereby [i.e., in the Roman papacy] Christ created a principle of regulation and gave the apostolic company an inner structure. The large number of the apostles [all the bishops in every generation] necessitated quite certainly essential arrangement [or order] and subordination.

The reader is directed to the article ‘Succession, Apostolical’ in McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia for a valuable refutation of this claim. Suffice it to say here that

  1. none of the Scriptures cited above in the distinguished Roman Catholic work really support the claim,
  2. no one after the Apostolic Age has truly seen the Lord, and
  3. no one has the signs of an apostle — specifically to confer supernatural powers by the laying on of hands.

Supernatural ‘sign gifts’ were prevalent in that first generation, but none except apostles had the power to pass the sign gifts along to others.

Problems and Questions

Beyond the essentials of the apostolate treated above, some subordinate topics merit brief attention: the question of Peter’s special place, if any, among the Twelve; the extraordinary apostolate of Paul; the relationship of apostles to prophets; the question of a possible general but less strict employment of the term apostle for a certain class of Christian missionaries.

The extraordinary pronouncement of the Master on Peter after the latter’s great confession (Matt. 16:16-19), though variously interpreted, does seem clearly to make Peter stand out among the apostles in the founding of the church. However, after Jesus’ resurrection, He did extend some of the features of that pronouncement to all the Eleven, perhaps to all the ‘disciples’ (John 20:21-23; cf. v. 19). Whatever was distinctive to Peter, in the Lord’s mind, appears to have been fulfilled in the prominence of Peter’s leadership in the first twelve chapters of Acts, especially his distinct work of officially opening the door of entrance to the church progressively, first to the Jewish nation who had rejected the Savior (Acts 2:14-47; esp. v. 41), then to the mixed Jew-Gentile Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17), and then auspiciously to Gentiles (Acts 10:1-48; esp. v. 44). Peter himself seems so to have interpreted the Lord’s famous pronouncement on him (Acts 15:6-9; esp. v. 7). The supernatural sign gifts were closely connected with apostolic ministry in all the above passages.

The extraordinary apostolate of Paul has already been mentioned. Though he did not company with the Savior from the beginning of His ministry, as had the others, Paul met all the qualifications of an apostle and did so by the risen Lord’s special grace. It is to be emphasized that Paul regarded none of this experience as ‘vision’ or ‘in the spirit.’ It was all sober space-time reality. The testimonies to the Damascus Road incident in Acts are indefinite about some aspects of the experience, but they are clear that it was an event in the space-time world. Not only was Paul, the chief subject of the occasion, aware, but all those present sensed that something unusual was going on (Acts 9:6; 22:9; 26:12-14). Some of the pertinent passages are 1 Corinthians 15:9-10; Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:7-8, along with Paul’s numerous epistolary salutations such as Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; etc. (also see Rom, 15:19; 1 Cor. 3:5; 14:1-2, 37; 2 Cor. 5:20; 6: 1; 12:1-2, 12; 1 Thess. 1:5). Articles on Paul in reliable biblical and theological dictionaries and encyclopedias as well as numerous monographs on Paul and the commentaries support this assertion.

The relationship of apostles to prophets is largely a matter of interpreting certain passages, mainly in Ephesians, which speak of ‘apostles and prophets’ — always in that order. These passages are Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11. In the last of these texts ‘prophets’ appears after ‘apostles’ and before ‘evangelists’ and ‘pastor-teachers.’ One would be bold indeed to understand ‘prophets’ as designating Elijah and Jeremiah rather than, say, Mark and Luke. To these Ephesian passages may be added Revelation 18:20.

If one comes to these texts, as many do, with the assumption that the church is a continuation of Israel, then his interpretation reverses the order and he finds Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles to be specified. Then our Lord’s reference to twelve apostles ruling the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30) falls into line as predicting their prominence in the church, said to be the ‘new Israel’ (an expression, however, which is never found in the New Testament). But ‘prophets’ in Ephesians 4:11 clearly seems to designate New Testament prophets, not Old Testament prophets, for in Ephesians the church is prominently in view. Those prophets of Ephesians 4: 1 1 shared in a lesser way one of the functions of the apostles, that of being instruments of divine revelation. Some of those prophets (and the matter is common in the New Testament) not only spoke inspired words but wrote Scripture. The names of some of them are known, e.g., Mark and Luke. Perhaps such a prophet wrote Hebrews. (See Romans 16:26, ‘the scriptures of the prophets.’)

Roman Catholic authors and other advocates of a continuing apostolate seek to find an extension of the office to numerous individuals mentioned on the pages of the New Testament. Other more disinterested writers are puzzled by the passages involved but come to different conclusions. Were there, indeed, apostles other than the twelve original ones plus Matthias and Paul? Is there a ‘lesser sense’ in which a class of prominent persons engaged in missionary work, then and now, may be called ‘apostles’? This writer thinks not. A better way may be followed in interpreting and employing the New Testament data offered.

Reference has already been made to the fact that persons commissioned to act as ministers plenipotentiary for congregations, in the manner of the Jewish jylv were called by the word apostle (ajpovstolo’), though often translated ‘messenger’ (2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25), Attention has also been called to the fact that once Jesus used apostle in the sense of ‘he that is sent’ without direct reference to the Twelve (John 13:16). This seems to furnish an explanation of Acts 14:14, in which Luke refers to ‘the apostles, Barnabas and Paul,’ thereby directing attention to their commissioning as apostles (i.e., authorized messengers) of the Antioch church (Acts 13:2). The connection seems unmistakable. Romans 16:7 states that Andronicus and Junia, Paul’s ‘kinsmen’ are ‘of note among the apostles,’ but this does by no means necessarily affirm that these two obscure persons were apostles of Christ in any special sense. First Corinthians 9:8 shows that the Lord’s brothers (presumably Jude and James?) were prominent persons but fails to state that they were apostles.

The same can be said of 1 Corinthians 15:7, which likewise falls short of clearly affirming James to be an apostle, though it is quite capable of being understood in that way. The passage shows that James held a position of leadership as prominent as that of an apostle. Galatians 1:19 seems to say that James the Lord’s brother was an apostle. He is thought by some to be none other than ‘James the Less,’ though this seems unlikely since Jesus’ brothers appear to have rejected Him until after His resurrection. However, James could have been, like Paul, an apostle ‘born out of due season.’ There is thus no strong evidence that any New Testament persons except the original Twelve, Matthias, Paul, and possibly James the Lord’s brother, were ever esteemed in New Testament times to be apostles of Jesus Christ. Thus the so-called ‘lesser sense’ of apostleship cannot be defended successfully.