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Further, and this information prevents neat and tidy definitions of an apostle, there are others who are called “apostles” in the NT. James, brother of the Lord Jesus (Gal.1.19; Gal.2.9); Barnabas, a fellow worker with Paul (Acts.14.4, Acts.14.14); Andronicus and Junias (Rom.16.7); and Silas (1Thess.2.6) were probably known as “apostles” within the early church. But they were not of the Twelve (Rev.21.14) and not on the same footing as Paul, who was uniquely the apostle to the Gentiles.

The teaching contained within the pages of the NT is apostolic teaching, and its authority rests on the relation of the apostles to Christ.

Bibliography: A. T. Hanson, The Pioneer Ministry, 1961; E. M. B. Green, Called to Serve, 1964; Leon Morris, Minister of God, 1964; C. K. Barrett, The Sign of an Apostle, 1970.——PT

The Greek word apostolos means “one sent out.” In the New Testament it derives part of its meaning from the Hebrew shaliah, who acted as a representative for others. It is conferred on Jesus in Hebrew 3:1, but is normally reserved for those appointed for a special function in the church. From the large number of disciples who followed Him in His ministry, Jesus chose twelve whom He called apostles (Luke 6:13). They were to act in His name (Mark 9:38-41). After Jesus' resurrection there had to be found a replacement for the traitor Judas so that the number could be made up to twelve, and Matthias was chosen (Acts 1:15-26). There is no record of a replacement for James bar Zebedee (Acts 12:2). The qualification was to have been with Jesus from John's baptism to the Ascension and to have been a witness of the Resurrection. This meant an experience of the saving events and therefore the ability to preach the kerygma firsthand.

To Paul, who did not have the same contact with Jesus during the ministry, there was given a special resurrection appearance and a special commission to go to the Gentiles (Acts 26:16-18; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8). There was a division of spheres of responsibility arranged between him and the Jerusalem apostles (Gal. 2:1-10). The apostles were seen as a gift of the Spirit to the church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11), and the work of the true apostle was accompanied by signs and wonders and mighty works (2 Cor. 12:12; cf. Acts 8:14-19). The apostles were seen as part of the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20), and it was through them as witnesses to the saving events and as interpreters of them, as well as chief ministers in the church and propagators of the Gospel, that the mission of Christ was completed. The term is also used of others such as James the brother of Jesus apparently (Gal. 1:19; 2:9; cf. 1 Cor. 15:7), Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14), Silvanus and Timothy (1 Thess. 2:6), and Andronicus and Junias (Rom. 16:7).

J.B. Lightfoot, Epistle to the Galatians (1902), pp. 92-101; K.H. Rengstorf in TDNT I (1964), pp. 398-447; C.K. Barrett, The Signs of an Apostle (1970).

APOSTLE ə pŏs’ əl (ἀπόστολος, G693, one sent out). Title of the Twelve and others in the NT.

Background and usage.

Secular Greek.

Derived from the verb ἀποστέλλω, G690, to send, it often means a “ship,” “fleet,” “naval expedition” or “naval commander,” but rarely “a person sent.”

Old Testament and Judaism.

The word apóstolos occurs only in the LXX in 1 Kings 14:6, where it is used in a non-technical sense to represent the Heb. שָׁל֥וּחַ, from the verb שָׁלַח, H8938, “to send.” The idea of God sending His servants the prophets is frequent in the OT, and the verb is normally tr. by apostéllō in the LXX. The noun שָׁלִיחַ is used of Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel. In later Judaism this word was used to refer to those who acted as representatives for others (“a man’s shalīaḥ is as himself”). In particular it referred to accredited agents, often sent out in pairs, going from the authorities in Jerusalem to the Diaspora. These men had authority for only a limited commission and were in no sense missionaries.

New Testament.

The apostles and Christ.

During the ministry.

After the Resurrection.

The apostles and the Gospel.

Paul could not be numbered among the Twelve, for he had not fulfilled the conditions laid down. But, he had been a witness of the Resurrection (Acts 26:16-18; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8), and the way in which he describes the appearance of Christ to him suggests that he had a unique objective experience really belonging to the period before the Ascension. James, the Lord’s brother, had likewise seen the risen Christ (1 Cor 15:7), as had more than 500 others (15:6). It was necessary for those who had not been among the disciples during the ministry to rely on the common παράαδοσις, “tradition,” of the apostles concerning the events of that period. Paul, while claiming authority directly from Christ, nevertheless shows his dependence upon the parádosis (1 Cor 11:23-26; 15:1-5). This shows that he was concerned about the historical Jesus.

The apostles were not simply witnesses of facts, they were also interpreters of them. God had sent men to interpret His saving acts in the OT, particularly Moses who had been a witness of and participant in the Exodus (Ps 103:7; Mic 6:4). So there was a common apostolic teaching, and appeal was made to that even against the foremost apostles (Gal 2:11). The preaching and writing of the apostles and their companions taken together therefore provide both the basic historical evidence and the norm of interpretation through which alone future generations could reach the facts about Christ.

The apostles and the Spirit.

The power of the Spirit.

The apostolic witness could be accomplished only in the Spirit. Their missionary journeys depended on Him (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). Their proclamation of forgiveness was effective through Him (John 20:22f.). They realized their full apostolic vocation only at Pentecost. It was the Spirit who was to teach them and remind them of things (John 14:26). He was to lead them into all the truth about Jesus (John 16:13-15). The direct witness of the Spirit on the existential level was closely connected with the witness of the apostles on the historical (John 15:26 f.). The ministry of the Gospel is a ministry of the Spirit (2 Cor 3).

The gifts of the Spirit.

Various forms of ministry, of which the apostolate was first, were gifts of the Spirit to the Church (1 Cor 12:28). The work of a true apostle was accompanied by signs and wonders and mighty works (2 Cor 12:12), though such things are regarded as peripheral compared with Christian converts (1 Cor 9:2). It is through the laying on of the apostles’ hands that special manifestations of the Spirit come upon groups of people at significant stages in the missionary advance of the Church (Acts 8:14-19; 19:1-7). There is no suggestion that these manifestations are permanent and on one important occasion the outward signs are shown without the laying on of apostolic hands (10:44-48).

The apostles and the Church.

Paul tells us how areas of work were allotted, with his mission field being the Gentiles and that of James, Peter, and John being the Jews (Gal 2:7-10). At first the Twelve stayed in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), but in due course some at least seem to have gone further afield. There is no reason to suppose that the areas were too strictly kept as Paul was accustomed to preach first to the Jews (13:5, etc.), and Peter was the first to preach to Gentiles (ch. 10). As traveling representatives of Christ and of the universal Church they sought to open up new places to the Gospel (Rom 15:14-24). James, the Lord’s brother, seems to have had a resident ministry which distinguished him from others called apostles.


It was through the apostles that Christ continued much of His work. Their position was unique and normative and many of their functions were not transmissible. There is no evidence that their numbers were to be made up as the original loyal apostles died (Acts 12:2), nor that Paul should have taken the place of Judas, and James, the Lord’s brother, that of James bar-Zebedee. They appeared at a turning point in history, and they, through the Spirit, both founded the Church and, with their companions left the NT for us. It is through them that we have to go to find the historical Jesus. It is to them that the appeal has been made with varying degrees of justification for “Catholic” order, “Evangelical” faith, and “Pentecostal” life.


J. B. Lightfoot, Epistle to the Galatians (1902), 92-101; K. E. Kirk (ed.), The Apostolic Ministry (1948), 113-182; T. W. Manson, The Church’s Ministry (1948), 31-52; A. Ehrhardt, The Apostolic Succession (1953), 11-34; J. N. Geldenhuys, Supreme Authority (1953); O. Cullmann, The Early Church (1956), 57-99; A. T. Hanson, The Pioneer Ministry (1961), 89-107; M. H. Shepherd Jr. in IDB I (1962), 170-172; A. F. Walls in NBD (1962), 48-50; L. Morris, Ministers of God (1964), 39-61; K. H. Rengstorf in TDNT I (1964), 398-448; C. K. Barrett, The Signs of an Apostle (1970).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

For the meaning of this name as it meets us in the New Testament, reference is sometimes made to classical and Jewish parallels. In earlier classical Greek there was a distinction between an aggelos 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. It seems unlikely, however, that either of these uses bears upon the Christian origin of a term which, in any case, came to have its own distinctive Christian meaning. To understand the word as we find it in the New Testament it is not necessary to go beyond the New Testament itself. To discover the source of its Christian use it is sufficient to refer to its immediate and natural signification. The term used by Jesus, it must be remembered, would be Aramaic, not Greek, and apostolos would be its literal equivalent.

1. 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 (Mt 10:1 ff; Mr 3:14; 6:30; Lu 6:13; 9:1 ff). 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 Ac 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 (Ac 1:2,26), and after the election of Matthias in place of Judas, for the Twelve (2:37,42,43, 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 (Mt 28:19,20; Mr 16:15). He had said that they were to be His witnesses not only in Jerusalem and Judea, but in Samaria (contrast Mt 10:5), and unto the uttermost part of the earth (Ac 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.

2. Paul:

3. 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 1Co 15:7; Ga 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.

4. Apostles in Didache:

When we come to the Didache, which probably lies beyond the boundary-line of New Testament history, we find the name "apostles" applied to a whole class of nameless missionaries--men who settled in no church, but moved about from place to place as messengers of the gospel (chapter 11). This makes it difficult to accept the view, urged by Lightfoot (op. cit., 98) and Gwatkin (HDB, I, 126) on the ground Of Lu 24:48; Ac 1:8,22; 1Co 9:1, that to have seen the Lord was always the primary qualification of an apostle--a view on the strength of which they reject the apostleship of Apollos and Timothy, as being late converts to Christianity who lived far from the scenes of our Lord’s ministry. Gwatkin remarks that we have no reason to suppose that this condition was ever waived unless we throw forward the Didache into the 2nd century. But it seems very unlikely that even toward the end of the 1st century there would be a whole class of men, not only still alive, but still braving in the exercise of their missionary functions all the hardships of a wandering and homeless existence (compare Didache 11:4-6), who were yet able to bear the personal testimony of eye-witnesses to the ministry and resurrection of Jesus. In Lu 24:48 and Ac 18:22 it is the chosen company of the Twelve who are in view. In 1Co 9:1 Paul is meeting his Judaizing opponents on their own ground, and answering their insistence upon personal intercourse with Jesus by a claim to have seen the Lord. But apart from these passages there is no evidence that the apostles of the early church were necessarily men who had known Jesus in the flesh or had been witnesses of His resurrection--much less that this was the primary qualification on which their apostleship was made to rest.

5. The Apostleship:

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 (Ga 2:6,11), 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 (2Co 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 GentileChristians arose at Antioch and was referred to Jerusalem, it was "the apostles and elders" who met to discuss it (Ac 15:2,6,22), and the letter returned to Antioch was written in the name of "the apostles and the elders, brethren" (Ac 15:23).

LITERATURE. Lightfoot, Galatians, 92-101; Hort, Christian Ecclesia, Lect II; Weizsacker, The Apostolic Age, II, 291-99; Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry, 73-90.

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