What Is An Apostle?
by Keith Giles
As I've been studying the early church the question came to me, "Where did the word 'Apostle' come from?" Looking at the New Testament the word simply appears out of nowhere as the twelve disciples are suddenly, without explanation, referred to as apostles. I started to wonder, "What was the origin of this word? What did it mean to those first century followers of Jesus who heard the word? Was it foreign or strange to them? Did it carry the same meaning for them that it does for us today?"
A quick search online revealed the following over at Wikipedia:
Apostle - Ancient Greek: (ἀπόστολος) or "apostolos", which is translated as "someone sent out", or "missionary".
According to the Bauer lexicon, Walter Bauer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT: "Judaism had an office known as apostle (שליח)". The Friberg Greek Lexicon gives a broad definition as one who is sent on a mission, a commissioned representative of a congregation, a messenger for God, a person who has the special task of founding and establishing churches. The UBS Greek Dictionary also describes an apostle broadly as a messenger.
With this we can understand a little more about how the early church viewed the apostles. They were church-planting missionaries who preached the Gospel of the Kingdom and continued the ministry of Jesus, the Messiah.
When we look at the New Testament we see plenty of evidence to support this. Peter, James, John, Paul and the other apostles were primarily concerned with traveling to share the Gospel, plant churches and establish a framework for what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.
Christians today seem to hold the apostolic gifting as one above and beyond the common persons of Christendom. Many even go so far as to suggest that there are no apostles in today's church Bbody, which is to suggest that there are no longer church planters or missionaries who are called by God to evangelize the nations and establish the Church of God in the community.
When we read passages like Ephesians 4, verse 11-13 with this in mind it should give us a new perspective on the term "apostle" and the way the early church thought of these people within the Body itself - "It was he (Jesus) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 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."
Apostles (church-planting missionaries) were necessary to communicate the Gospel of the Kingdom and establish the Church in Jerusalem, and Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the Earth. They were "first" in a chronological sense because, unless there is someone to go out and preach the Gospel and do the work of an evangelist or missionary, the Church couldn't be established. Once the Gospel is preached, people respond, groups are formed and the Church is established within a community, THEN the Holy Spirit provides for some to become their teachers, their shepherds, and to do the works of service.
NOT A HIERARCHY
I've been involved quite a bit lately defending the idea that the early church had no hierarchical form of leadership and this practical understanding of an apostle further solidifies the position that hierarchy wasn't part of the original Christian experience. Instead, we see Jesus commanding the disciples (future apostles) not to be like the secular Romans or the religious Pharisees who love to "lord it over" their followers. Instead, Jesus both commanded and modelled a bottom-up form of servant leadership, not a top-down form of CEO leadership. (SEE NOTE BELOW FOR MORE)
MORE THAN 12 APOSTLES
Another surprising discovery in the New Testament is that the apostles are not limited to just "The Twelve" we usually hear about on Sunday morning. These additional Apostles (or "Missionary Church-planters") include Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7), Silas and Timothy(I Thessalonians 1:1; 2:6, Acts 15:40), and Apollos (1Corinthians 4:6; 4:9; 3:22; 3:4-6).
It's quite fascinating also to consider that many scholars believe that the apostle Junia was female (see Romans 16:7) which gives further weight to the idea that the apostolic gifting was simply about doing missionary work and planting churches.
Even more interesting is that Jesus himself is named among the apostles in Hebrews 3:1 where he is referred to as the "apostle and high priest of our professed faith". In this passage Jesus is identified as the first missionary church-planter who called the twelve disciples to follow him so that he could teach them to be "fishers of men".
While there is a special and unique connection between the original twelve disciples who walked and talked with Jesus personally, and even Paul who encountered the risen Christ in a vision, the actual functional position of an apostle is nothing special. Apostles were very simply and practically the ones who did the work of missionary evangelism and planted churches, and God is still calling His people to be missionaries into the community and plant churches that interact with the culture.
Apostolic succession, then, is simply a continuation of the traditional preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom, making disciples, planting churches within the community and raising up others who will continually do the same.
NOTE: For an extensive exploration of the subject of church hierarchy please read the following articles and the resulting commentary found within.
"Where Are The Pastors?"
"First Century Pagan Talks to First Century Christian"
"Biblical Scholarship in Support of Non-Hierarchy in the Church"
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