The word Apostle is from ancient Greek ἀπόστολος (apóstolos). According to the word’s original meaning, an apostle was a sent one’.
Jesus gave the name to his chosen twelve because, after their time of preparation with him, he sent them out in the service of his kingdom (Mark 3:13-15; Luke 6:13). As twelve tribes had formed the basis of the old people of God, so twelve apostles would be the foundation on which God would build his new people, the Christian church ( Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:12; Revelation 21:14).
In Attic Greek the term is used to denote A Fleet or Naval Armament. In earlier classical Greek there was a distinction between an ággelos or messenger and an apostolos, who was not a mere messenger, but a delegate or representative of the person who sent him. In the later Judaism, again, apostoloi were envoys sent out by the patriarchate in Jerusalem to collect the sacred tribute from the Jews of the Dispersion.
The term ‘Apostle’ (Gr. ἀπόστολος) is more definite than ‘messenger’ (Gr. ἄγγελος) in that the apostle has a special mission, and is the commissioner of the person who sends him. This distinction holds good both in classical and in biblical Greek.
There is no good reason for doubting that the title ‘apostle’ was given to the Twelve by Christ Himself (Luke 6:13, Mark 3:14, where ‘whom he also named apostles’ is strongly attested). That the title was used in the first instance simply in reference to the temporary mission of the Twelve to prepare for Christ’s own preaching is a conjecture which receives some support from the fact that, in the Apostolic Church. Barnabas and Paul are first called ‘apostles’ ( Acts 14:4; Acts 14:14) when they are acting as envoys of the Church in Antioch in St. Paul’s first missionary journey. On this hypothesis, the temporary apostleship, though not identical with the permanent office, was typical of it and preparatory to it (Hort, The Christian Ecclesia , 1897, p. 28f.).
2. The Twelve
In the New Testament history we first hear of the term as applied by Jesus to the Twelve in connection with that evangelical mission among the villages on which He dispatched them at an early stage of His public ministry ( Matthew 10:1; Mark 3:14; Mark 6:30; Luke 6:13; Luke 9:1 ). From a comparison of the Synoptics it would seem that the name as thus used was not a general designation for the Twelve, but had reference only to this particular mission, which was typical and prophetic, however, of the wider mission that was to come (compare Hort, Christian Ecclesia , 23-29). Luke, it is true, uses the word as a title for the Twelve apart from reference to the mission among the villages. But the explanation probably is, as Dr. Hort suggests, that since the Third Gospel and the Book of Acts formed two sections of what was really one work, the author in the Gospel employs the term in that wider sense which it came to have after the Ascension.
When we pass to Acts, “apostles” has become an ordinary name for the Eleven ( Acts 1:2 , Acts 1:26 ), and after the election of Matthias in place of Judas, for the Twelve ( Acts 2:37 , Acts 2:42 , Acts 2:43 , etc.). But even so it does not denote a particular and restricted office, but rather that function of a world-wide missionary service to which the Twelve were especially called. In His last charge, just before He ascended, Jesus had commissioned them to go forth into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature ( Matthew 28:19 , Matthew 28:20; Mark 16:15 ). He had said that they were to be His witnesses not only in Jerusalem and Judea, but in Samaria (contrast Matthew 10:5 ), and unto the uttermost part of the earth ( Acts 1:8 ). They were apostles, therefore, qua missionaries – not merely because they were the Twelve, but because they were now sent forth by their Lord on a universal mission for the propagation of the gospel.
The very fact that the name “apostle” means what it does would point to the impossibility of confining it within the limits of the Twelve. (The “twelve apostles” of Revelation 21:14 is evidently symbolic; compare in Revelation 7:3 the restriction of God’s sealed servants to the twelve tribes.) Yet there might be a tendency at first to do so, and to restrict it as a badge of honor and privilege peculiar to that inner circle (compare Acts 1:25 ). If any such tendency existed, Paul effectually broke it down by vindicating for himself the right to the name. His claim appears in his assumption of the apostolic title in the opening words of most of his epistles. And when his right to it was challenged, he defended that right with passion, and especially on these grounds: that he had seen Jesus, and so was qualified to bear witness to His resurrection ( 1 Corinthians 9:1; compare Acts 22:6 ); that he had received a call to the work of an apostle ( Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1 , etc.; Galatians 2:7; compare Acts 13:2; Acts 22:21 ); but, above all, that he could point to the signs and seals of his apostleship furnished by his missionary labors and their fruits ( 1 Corinthians 9:2; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 2:8 ). It was by this last ground of appeal that Paul convinced the original apostles of the justice of his claim. He had not been a disciple of Jesus in the days of His flesh; his claim to have seen the risen Lord and from Him to have received a personal commission was not one that could be proved to others; but there could be no possibility of doubt as to the seals of his apostleship. It was abundantly clear that “he that wrought for Peter unto the apostleship of the circumcision wrought for (Paul) also unto the Gentiles” ( Galatians 2:8 ). And so perceiving the grace that was given unto him, Peter and John, together with James of Jerusalem, recognized Paul as apostle to the Gentiles and gave him the right hand of fellowship ( Galatians 2:9 ).
4. The Wider Circle
It is sometimes said by those who recognize that there were other apostles besides the Twelve and Paul that the latter (to whom some, on the ground of 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19 , would add James the Lord’s brother) were the apostles par excellence , while the other apostles mentioned in the New Testament were apostles in some inferior sense. It is hardly possible, however, to make out such a distinction on the ground of New Testament usage. There were great differences, no doubt, among the apostles of the primitive church, as there were among the Twelve themselves – differences due to natural talents, to personal acquirements and experience, to spiritual gifts. Paul was greater than Barnabas or Silvanus, just as Peter and John were greater than Thaddaeus or Simon the Cananean. But Thaddaeus and Simon were disciples of Jesus in the very same sense as Peter and John; and the Twelve and Paul were not more truly apostles than others who are mentioned in the New Testament. If apostleship denotes missionary service, and if its reality, as Paul suggests, is to be measured by its seals, it would be difficult to maintain that Matthias was an apostle par excellence , while Barnabas was not. Paul sets Barnabas as an apostle side by side with himself ( 1 Corinthians 9:5 f; Galatians 2:9; compare Acts 13:2 f; Acts 14:4 , Acts 14:14 ); he speaks of Andronicus and Junias as “of note among the apostles” ( Romans 16:7 ); he appears to include Apollos along with himself among the apostles who are made a spectacle unto the world and to angels and to men ( 1 Corinthians 4:6 , 1 Corinthians 4:9 ); the natural inference from a comparison of 1 Thessalonians 1:1 with 1 Thessalonians 2:6 is that he describes Silvanus and Timothy as “apostles of Christ”; to the Philippians he mentions Epaphroditus as “your apostle” ( Philippians 2:25 the Revised Version, margin), and to the Corinthians commends certain unknown brethren as “the apostles of the churches” and “the glory of Christ” ( 2 Corinthians 8:23 the Revised Version, margin). And the very fact that he found it necessary to denounce certain persons as “false apostles, deceitful workers, fashioning themselves into apostles of Christ” ( 2 Corinthians 11:13 ) shows that there was no thought in the primitive church of restricting the apostleship to a body of 12 or 13 men. “Had the number been definitely restricted, the claims of these interlopers would have been self-condemned” (Lightfoot, Galatians , 97).
5. The Apostleship
We are led then to the conclusion that the true differentia of the New Testament apostleship lay in the missionary calling implied in the name, and that all whose lives were devoted to this vocation, and who could prove by the issues of their labors that God’s Spirit was working through them for the conversion of Jew or Gentile , were regarded and described as apostles. The apostolate was not a limited circle of officials holding a well-defined position of authority in the church, but a large class of men who discharged one – and that the highest – of the functions of the prophetic ministry ( 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11 ). It was on the foundation of the apostles and prophets that the Christian church was built, with Jesus Christ Himself as the chief corner-stone ( Ephesians 2:20 ). The distinction between the two classes was that while the prophet was God’s spokesman to the believing church ( 1 Corinthians 14:4 , 1 Corinthians 14:22 , 1 Corinthians 14:25 , 1 Corinthians 14:30 , 1 Corinthians 14:31 ), the apostle was His envoy to the unbelieving world ( Galatians 2:7 , Galatians 2:9 ).
The call of the apostle to his task might come in a variety of ways. The Twelve were called personally by Jesus to an apostolic task at the commencement of His earthly ministry ( Matthew 10:1 parallel), and after His resurrection this call was repeated, made permanent, and given a universal scope ( Matthew 28:19 , Matthew 28:20; Acts 1:8 ). Matthias was called first by the voice of the general body of the brethren and thereafter by the decision of the lot ( Acts 1:15 , Acts 1:23 , Acts 1:26 ). Paul’s call came to him in a heavenly vision ( Acts 26:17-19 ); and though this call was subsequently ratified by the church at Antioch, which sent him forth at the bidding of the Holy Ghost ( Acts 13:1 ), he firmly maintained that he was an apostle not from men neither through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead ( Galatians 1:1 ). Barnabas was sent forth ( exapostéllō is the verb used) by the church at Jerusalem ( Acts 11:22 ) and later, along with Paul, by the church at Antioch ( Acts 13:1 ); and soon after this we find the two men described as apostles ( Acts 14:4 ). It was the mission on which they were sent that explains the title. And when this particular mission was completed and they returned to Antioch to rehearse before the assembled church “all things that God had done with them, and that he had opened a door of faith unto the Gentiles” ( Acts 14:27 ), they thereby justified their claim to be the apostles not only of the church, but of the Holy Spirit.
The authority of the apostolate was of a spiritual, ethical and personal kind. It was not official, and in the nature of the case could not be transmitted to others. Paul claimed for himself complete independence of the opinion of the whole body of the earlier apostles ( Galatians 2:6 , Galatians 2:11 ), and in seeking to influence his own converts endeavored by manifestation of the truth to commend himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God ( 2 Corinthians 4:2 ). There is no sign that the apostles collectively exercised a separate and autocratic authority. When the question of the observance of the Mosaic ritual by Gentile Christians arose at Antioch and was referred to Jerusalem, it was “the apostles and elders” who met to discuss it ( Acts 15:2 , Acts 15:6 , Acts 15:22 ), and the letter returned to Antioch was written in the name of “the apostles and the elders, brethren” ( Acts 15:23 ). In founding a church Paul naturally appointed the first local officials ( Acts 14:23 ), but he does not seem to have interfered with the ordinary administration of affairs in the churches he had planted. In those cases in which he was appealed to or was compelled by some grave scandal to interpose, he rested an authoritative command on some express word of the Lord ( 1 Corinthians 7:10 ), and when he had no such word to rest on, was careful to distinguish his own judgment and counsel from a Divine commandment ( 1 Corinthians 12:25 , 40). His appeals in the latter case are grounded upon fundamental principles of morality common to heathen and Christian alike ( 1 Corinthians 5:1 ), or are addressed to the spiritual judgment ( 1 Corinthians 10:15 ), or are reinforced by the weight of a personal influence gained by unselfish service and by the fact that he was the spiritual father of his converts as having begotten them in Christ Jesus through the gospel ( 1 Corinthians 4:15 f).
It may be added here that the expressly missionary character of the apostleship seems to debar James, the Lord’s brother, from any claim to the title. James was a prophet and teacher, but not an apostle. As the head of the church at Jerusalem, he exercised a ministry of a purely local nature. The passages on which it has been sought to establish his right to be included in the apostolate do not furnish any satisfactory evidence. In 1 Corinthians 15:7 James is contrasted with “all the apostles” rather than included in their number (compare 1 Corinthians 9:5 ). And in Galatians 1:19 the meaning may quite well be that with the exception of Peter, none of the apostles was seen by Paul in Jerusalem, but only James the Lord’s brother (compare the Revised Version, margin).
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