I’ve been studying the word “apostle” recently. While I don’t have any “ground-breaking” things to say, I did realize some things that I hadn’t noticed before.
Before getting to the things that I found surprising, let me just say…. I know people tend to freak out when anyone starts talking about apostles, especially when that person believes in the present gift and calling, but bear with me. Don’t freak out. Yet.
Okay, now that that’s done, let’s start with some basics:
1) The term “apostle” used to be a normal Greek word, not a religious word with a capital letter on the front of it. That capital letter and the religious context only came later, much later. In the beginning, it was a word just like any other, just like how “born again” used to mean simply being born a second time, not “prayed a prayer and go to an evangelical church somewhat regularly.”
2) The Bible itself records more than 12 apostles. Let’s start with the twelve with whom we’re all familiar: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus (seems he changed his name from “Judas,” a name that probably stopped being popular right around the time Jesus died), Simon the Zealot, and Judas. But then there’s obviously Paul, about whom references are too many to be disputed now. But to these are added Matthias in Acts 1:26. Later, Barnabas is called an apostle (Acts 14:14) during his journeys with Paul. Paul himself greets Andronicus and Junias as “my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7); maybe they were really great guys who happened to hang around the apostles, but it sure seems he’s calling them apostles in their own right. Paul sends Epaphroditus to the Philippians, calling this man “a fellow worker, a fellow soldier, an apostle of the Philippians, and a minister to Paul’s needs” (Philippians 2:25). Even Jesus is called an apostle by the writer of Hebrews; considering he gives all the gifts and callings, I guess he can be an apostle, too. Paul describes certain “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11) with whom he has some major bone to pick, and Jesus rebukes certain men “who call themselves apostles, and they are not” (Revelation 2:2); what this means is the whole possibility of having more than the original 12 must have been accepted and considered normal at least by the time of the writing of 2 Corinthians and Revelation, so normal in fact that Paul and Jesus have to come kick some major butt and straighten things out. If there never were more than the original 12, no one would have incorrectly started calling themselves apostles, and neither Jesus nor Paul would have had to rebuke anyone about it. But there were more than the original 12.
3) There’s no reason to think the calling of “apostle” has disappeared anymore than we should think the calling of pastor or evangelist has disappeared. (Which, honestly and sadly, may be how more and more people would try to argue.) Ephesians 4:11-13 reads, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” I added the emphasis so you can clearly see exactly when the need for apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers will disappear. I don’t know what he means when he says “until we all attain… to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” but I know we’re not there yet. You’d have to be blind to think we were. So, we need apostles. (And anyone who wants to try to pull 1 Corinthians 13:10 out of context and try to argue it *doesn’t* refer to the perfection of our future existence in the new heavens and the new earth but rather refers to the coming of the Word of God and the completion of the Bible and so the cessation of apostles… good luck! You’re gonna need it!)
Okay, so what does “apostle” mean? If you take a quick look at any dictionary, a normal one will tell you something like, “a delegate, a messenger, one sent forth with orders, specifically applied to the twelve apostles of Christ, in a broader sense applied to other eminent Christian teachers” (word for word from biblestudytools.com, an awesome site). It’s a basic definition that does look a bit into the Greek.
But, if you’re like me, you won’t be satisfied with what someone else says this word means. You want proof. (Because, after all, when someone defines “apostle” as “sent one” simply because it comes from a root word meaning “to send,” I want some proof that looks at historical context, how it was used, etc. and not just roots of words, which are often misleading.)
So you go to the Perseus search engine, type the word in (like “a)postolos” because your keyboard can’t do this: ἀπόστολος), and click on LSJ to get some more information, including references to ancient Greek and first-century literature. (Here’s the link, to save you the time.) So you search around, look up original sources… And you start to get an idea for what the word meant before Jesus hi-jacked it for use in his ministry.
In ancient Greek texts (Demosthenes’ On the Crown and Olynthiac for instance), the term was used to talk about a naval squadron or expedition sent out on some special business, especially military in nature. Herodotus, still further removed from the context of the Bible, used the term to refer to a herald or messenger of some sort. Lysias, just as far removed, uses the term to refer to some official naval squadron sent out, or even the very act of sending them out to make war and establish alliances. From these sources, the term seems to be primarily related to naval squadrons.
But these sources are all 300 or 400 years old. Languages change over time, so we want some more contemporary sources.
Josephus (living in the first century, so he’s perfectly contemporary to the Bible) used it to refer to ambassadors sent from the Jews to Rome to represent the nation and petition for more freedom. That’s a lot different from the naval term we saw being used 400 years ago!
And it also seems to line up more with what the men we call “apostles” in the church were actually doing.
But, we all know that Jesus and his first followers were not raised in Roman families with purely Roman culture but in “turn-of-the-century” Jewish families, where a hybrid of biblical and Rabbinic Judaism was the norm. The word apostle, though Greek in origin, does not come to us through Greek or Roman culture but rather through the culture of the people who began to use this word, namely the Hebrew culture. To understand what’s going on with the word “apostle,” we’ve got to look here, at the roots of the Jewish culture during the first century.
Much of the rest comes from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, an amazing resource that’s worth every penny. There’s a bunch of boring, theological things and an all-pervasive cessationist teaching that normal charismatics wouldn’t want to wade through. But I’ve never been a normal charismatic, so we’re gettin’ in the river.
There’s a lot–and I mean A LOT–of stuff I could write about relating to the word’s origin and use, but for the sake of time and space, I’m going to just bring up one aspect, in particular the Hebrew roots of the word in the term sh’lycha.
Sh’lycha (technically שְׁלִיחָא because the Latin alphabet wasn’t being used by ancient Israelites for some odd reason) was commonly used in Rabbinic Judaism. What’s important is that the word sh’lycha comes from the root for “to send” (shallach) and was considered a normal translation for the Greek “apostolos”, which also comes from a root word meaning “to send” (apostello). We see this even in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX), so you can technically find Old Testament “apostles” if you want to. Even Jerome (he was an Christian theologian who, before he died on 30 September 420, managed to translate the whole Bible into Latin; he was so important that he didn’t need a last name) mentioned the Jews had certain leaders called “Slias” who resembled the apostles in form and function. Don’t worry, his spelling wasn’t bad; slias was just the latinized version of שְׁלִיחָא. In the Syriac church, the term sh’lycha is still used to refer to the original twelve apostles.
But the term sh’lycha goes back, way back, back even before the time of the Babylonian Exile (ooooo, sounds menacing). The concept (but not the word) can be traced to 2 Chronicles 17:7-9, in fact, which I think is pretty sweet. Around the first century is when the whole concept starts to really take shape, though.
The sh’lycha was a person or group sent out to accomplish a specific task, given all the appropriate authority with which to accomplish the said task and given the right to act in the name of the one who sent him. It was about authority for the first time. And this is the most important thing that connects the term to Jesus.
A sh’lycha is not merely a messenger but a representative of the one who sent him. In Rabbinic terms, “The one sent is as the man himself.” This legal position was strong enough to allow the sh’lycha to enact a betrothal on behalf of the man who sent him. (“I really wanna get to the baseball game today, Mosheh. Can you go ask Deborah’s mom and dad if I can marry their daughter?” “Sure, Iosef, no problem.”) He could even enact a divorce. And it was all considered not only legal but as if the man himself had been there. Why? Because the sh’lycha is not a mere messenger but a representative of the man who sent him. He has authority, the authority of the man who sent him.
The Sanhedrin used such men to organize and lead the vast diaspora of Jews now living in the Roman empire. Because the Internet hadn’t been invented yet and the pony express was far from express (and probably far from pony), the Sanhedrin relied on men invested with the power and authority of the Sanhedrin, men who acted as their representatives. The sh’lychas traveled to the vast edges of the diaspora carrying information regarding dates for the important religious celebrations, such as the Passover, and bringing order and unity to the rabbinic Judaism of the first centuries BC.
One could argue even that Paul himself was acting as a sh’lycha on his way to Damascus to jail the early Christians, in Acts 9.
The sh’lycha was not a missionary, of which the Jews had plenty, but a representative of the established religious order in Jerusalem.
When Jesus established apostles, when the early church established apostles, they were commissioning men to act as representatives, first of Jesus and then also of the church (and, by extension, also of Jesus). This is seen clearly in the gospels, where the apostles begin to do and say the exact same things Jesus is doing and saying, proclaiming the kingdom of heaven is at hand, healing the sick, casting out demons. But we see it later in church history, too, where the epistles are corrective in tone, offering instruction in what is the heart and will of Jesus. Paul writes, for example, representing the will of Jesus for the churches at Corinth, Philippi, Galatia, and others.
So… If apostles continue to be needed in the body of Christ, which I contend is the only correct biblical interpretation, then what does all this interesting stuff mean for today?
The body of Christ is sorely in need of instruction, men of God who are solid in the Word, walk with tested and true godly character, move in the power of signs and wonders, and teach the heart of God.
Just as there are many self-proclaimed prophets crying out their dreams, self-proclaimed teachers spouting their ideas, self-proclaimed evangelists claiming converts by the thousands, so too there are self-proclaimed apostles “instructing” the church with their pet doctrines. But a true apostle, like a true prophet and a true pastor or a true evangelist, is appointed by God and recognized by the people of God as a representative to the body of Christ of the will of God.
Is he infallible? No, far from it. In fact, even Paul was not infallible, though a portion of his writings, inspired by God and infallible, bear his name and are collected in what we call the Bible. But, an apostle will have a lot of wisdom because he has walked with God and both his character and his wisdom have been tested and proven.
Is he at the top of the “ministerial ladder” like a CEO sits at the top of the occupational ladder? Well, yes and no. Notice that Timothy, Paul’s closest co-worker and “son in the Lord”, is never called an apostle. His close relationship to Paul and faithful work alongside him never earned him that “promotion”. Why? Because it’s not a promotion but a calling. Men with big ministries or men with long lifespans or men with lots of opinions aren’t necessarily apostles. But, with that said, an apostle’s decisions and insights carry a certain weight over that of others.
Is he instructing the Church at large? Not necessarily and probably not even primarily. Even Paul, an apostle in his own right, submitted to the leadership of the church in Jerusalem and claimed to be “an apostle to the Gentiles” but not to the Jews, and he called Epaphroditus an apostle to the Philippians. Still, some men will be recognized by the Christian community at large as being men who convey the heart and will of Jesus to the body.
How is this different from what all of us are called to be? It’s interesting that Philip the evangelist moves in incredible signs and wonders but is never called an apostle. Similarly, in John 14:12, Jesus tells his followers, referring to all believers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” Plus, we’re all called to admonish and counsel one another (Romans 15:14), encourage each other (Hebrews 3:13), preach the gospel and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Are apostles doing any different?
There’s something else, something besides signs and wonders, something besides counseling and teaching, that sets an apostle apart, and my gut feeling is that it has to do with authority. Authority given by Jesus to represent Him as well as authority respected by the body of Christ to lead them.
But I haven’t finished studying yet! Feel free to give me your comments and thoughts below.