I’ve written on apostles on two occasions– consider the meaning and the usage today. Today we take a closer look at the term apostle— both what it means and who they were. In his short essay, Michael J. Wilkins provides a clear, biblical understanding and application of the term.
As I’m doing all year long, I am giving away a free HCSB study Bible to a commenter. To be entered to win this week’s giveaway, share with us your thoughts on the term and the people we know as apostles.
The apostles of the New Testament lived through what is arguably the most significant era of human history. They experienced the personal entrance of God into history in the person of Jesus Messiah, and their lives were permanently changed. Their transformation catapulted them into the entire then-known world with the message of what they had experienced–the arrival of the kingdom of God and salvation in Jesus’ name.
The term apostle has a significantly different meaning than the word disciple. “Disciple” is the term used to designate all those who have believed in Jesus and have followed Him as their Savior. The title “apostle” designates those who have been commissioned to be leaders of the church and Jesus’ representatives with the gospel message. From out of the large group of His disciples, Jesus chose the Twelve to be sent out as His apostles (Lk 6:13-16).
Therefore, coming from the verb apostello, which means “to send someone away to achieve an objective,” the noun “apostle” indicates a “sent one” or “messenger.” It occurs in the NT in at least four ways.
Four usages of “Apostle” in the New Testament
First, the term is used especially to refer to the “twelve apostles” who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ earthly ministry. They were first sent out to Israel with the gospel message of the arrival of the kingdom of God (Mt 10:1-7), and after Jesus’ death and resurrection they were sent out with the gospel message to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:18-20). They witnessed Jesus’ resurrection appearances, which Luke tells us demonstrated the reality of Jesus’ victory over death and the certainty of the kingdom of God in this age (Ac 1:2-3). They were among the first to receive the filling of the Spirit at Pentecost (Ac 2:1-4), and their preaching of the gospel established them as the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20). After Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and killed himself, another eyewitness of Jesus’ earthly ministry and resurrection, Matthias, was added to the Eleven (Ac 1:21-26).
Second, the term apostle also refers to those who saw the risen Lord and were commissioned by Him for ministry (cp. 1Co 9:1). This is the sense in which Paul identifies himself as an “apostle of Christ Jesus” (1Co 1:1; 2Co 1:1; Col 1:1). He was not one of the Twelve (e.g., 1Co 15:3-11; Gl 1:17-19), but Jesus granted him a unique apostleship to the Gentiles (Gl 2:8-9).
Third, the term apostle can have the more general sense of “missionary.” This was the case for Barnabas (Ac 14:4,14), perhaps Timothy and Silvanus (cp. 1Th 1:1; 2:7), and Andronicus and Junia[s] (Rm 16:7). The last may have been a husband-wife team; they were commended by Paul for spreading the gospel along with the other apostles.
Fourth, the term apostle sometimes referred more broadly to “messengers of the churches” who were sent out to perform certain tasks (2Co 8:23). This includes among others, Epaphroditus, who was sent as a messenger to minister to Paul by the church at Philippi (Php 2:25-30).
These different types of apostles had different roles, but what they had in common was either their encounter with Jesus in His earthly ministry or in His risen and ascended ministry, or else their being directly commissioned by one who had met these qualifications. And their transformation in understanding Jesus’ identity as God incarnate, offering salvation to the world, became the foundation of their message. The Twelve and Paul are dramatic examples.
Diversity and unity among the Apostles
The Twelve displayed a remarkable personal diversity. For example, Peter, Andrew, James, and John were partners in a successful fishing business on the Sea of Galilee (Mk 1:16-20; Lk 5:9-11). Matthew was a hated tax collector (Mt 9:9-13), seen as a traitor because he worked for the Roman occupying government extracting as much tax as he could from his own people. Simon the Zealot was a revolutionary who was willing to die for the cause of liberating Israel from Rome. In normal circumstances these men might be ready to stick a knife in each other, but their individual encounters with Jesus transformed them into a cohesive unit dedicated to declaring Jesus to be the only way to eternal life (cp. Jn 6:67-69).
Peter’s preaching at Pentecost is an example of his dramatic transformation from one who denied Jesus to one who fearlessly preached to the multitudes in Jerusalem. His message was clear: “Repent . . . and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. . . . Be saved from this corrupt generation!” (Ac 2:38,40). For over 30 years Peter traversed the ancient world proclaiming the same message, until finally the Roman government executed him. But Rome couldn’t silence the message, for the church continued to proclaim the gospel fearlessly in the face of persecution.
The apostle Paul was a former Pharisee (Php 3:4-6). The Pharisees were well-known critics of Jesus (Mt 12:14), and Paul himself actively persecuted the church as a Pharisee (Ac 22:3-4). But after his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was radically transformed from an enemy to one who gave the rest of his life as a servant of Jesus. Paul’s own testimony of what produced the transformation
is found in his letter to Titus. He speaks of his former life of foolishness, malice, envy, and hatred (Ti 3:3), but then says:
“But when the goodness of God and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us–not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life” (Ti 3:4-7).
The apostles seem an unlikely group to be used by Jesus to establish the church and proclaim His message of salvation and transformation. But what empowered them was not their own charisma or powerful preaching, nor an ambition to create a movement. Rather, it was the operation of the Spirit that caused their transformation into the image of Jesus, which then impelled them to proclaim Jesus’ glorious message of salvation and hope of change to the entire world.
Michael J. Wilkins
Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary