The status of the twelve disciples in the early church significantly obscured the meaning of the original Greek word for “apostle.” At the time, apostolos meant a delegate, a messenger or one sent forth with orders.

That was the sense in which Jesus appointed the disciples as apostles. They were “sent out” in pairs to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom in surrounding villages (Matthew 10:2; Mark 6:30). The sending is what made them apostles.

After the resurrection, a certain mystique attached to the disciples in the minds of the people around them. They were “The Twelve,” the designated inner circle of Jesus, who performed great miracles and who launched the church. Others were recognized as apostles, that is, people sent forth in ministry, such as Paul, Junia and Andronicus (Romans 16:7), but the twelve disciples were “The Apostles.”

As happens when stories are retold many times, the legends grew until the term “apostle” became associated with more than just the aspect of being sent. The Twelve were given special authority to sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). It wasn’t long before this authority was tied in people’s thinking to the title of apostle. Apostle was elevated in perception to the level of the highest office of church government. With that perception, the word gradually lost much of its original meaning. The Latin word missio took over the meaning of “one sent.” Apostolos eventually became the English word “apostle,” and the original root idea of being sent forth survived in the modern word “missionary.”

Use of the word apostle today reflects the change in perception regarding the Twelve.

Some people call themselves apostles or claim an apostolic ministry. Generally they mean by that a claim to be in the highest ranking office of the five fold ministry, the office of apostle. This perception not only identifies an often blatant desire for status and position, but it loses sight of the original meaning of the word.

Apostolos in ancient Greece was a nautical term, describing a freighter or a naval force. Over time, the meaning focused on a naval force sent out with a specific mission, and eventually narrowed to the leader of the expedition who was an envoy representing the nation. The Romans used the word in this sense. The New Testament use of the word borrows the idea of envoy or representative, but adds nuances from a related Hebrew word.

The idea of representation was especially prominent in the Jewish use of apostolos at the time. The Hebrew word sheluah referred to a person commissioned with specific tasks, with the emphasis on authorization. This term represented the person who was sent forth by the patriarch at certain times each year to collect silver and gold from various synagogues. Called apostoloi in Greek, representatives of the Jewish rulers were sent to collect the half-shekel tax for the Temple.

A bridge is clear between the Hebrew term sheluah and the New Testament concept of an apostle. Paul called himself an apostle because he had been sent forth first as a representative of Jesus and also as a representative of the church in Antioch. The emphasis is not on the position of the apostle but on the one who sent him.

Within the context of the early church, Jesus gave grace through the Holy Spirit to enable some to be apostles. This refers to the process of someone being sent as a representative of God and of the congregation. The emphasis is not on the office or the honor due to one holding the office, but on the sender.

Most who claim apostleship today think of the church as a representation or embodiment of their vision and calling. Biblically, they are supposed to be the representative of the church. They see the church as being there for them, when they are supposed to be there for the church. The missing element is usually humility.

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13 thoughts on “Apostolos

  • April 29, 2012 at 12:45 am

    Hey Don.
    I would like to highlight something.
    An apostle is not merely sent with orders, or commissioned to go somewhereas a representative, but also holds the right to make Kingdom determinations. That IS an apostle’s commission.
    To use the old idea of “one sent” (as is usually done) seriously belittles to scope of apostolic ministry. One sent for insignificant purpose is a deacon. I have heard numerous preachers talk about Mary being the “first apostle” because she was sent with a message for the boys. No. Couldn’t be further from the truth. In that limited instance, Mary was a Deaconess. A minor servant without authority.
    Let’s say you want some chocolate. You send two people to separate stores to buy the chocolate: A Deacon and an Apostle.
    The Deacon reaches the store and the salesperson asks, “Milk chocolate or Dark chocolate?” The Deacon calls you up to ask you which you prefer.
    When the Apostle reaches the store and the salesperson asks, “Milk chocolate or Dark chocolate?”, the apostle makes the decision right there in his authority and you get what you get and are darned pleased to get it.
    Apostolic determinations are binding in heaven and earth. That’s the commission. That’s the representation. That’s the ambassadorship.

    • April 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm

      I think we’ve found another topic of debate. We haven’t disagreed for a while, and I was starting to worry.

      I think what you’ve illustrated is actually the traditional view of an apostle that I don’t find in the actual use of the word in the Bible. The apostolic commission, as you describe it, is a very real thing, but I believe it would be more accurate to call it a Kingdom of God commission. The definition of the word “apostle,” as it is used everywhere I’ve been able to find it, precludes the idea of an apostle making decisions on his own that are inconsistent with the commission. The emphasis, from early Greece through the time when koine Greek was no longer used, is on the one who sends the apostle, not on the person sent or on his authority. The identification of an apostle with the one who sent him is absolute, so much so that the apostle is supposed to lose his identity in the fulfillment of the commission.

      I also don’t find any evidence for the distinction between an apostle as the top place of authority and the deacon as a minor servant. The word for deacon simply means servant or minister. Every office of service, including apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, elders and bishops or overseers were called deacons, that is, ministers. The Twelve Apostles were not called apostles until they were sent. The authority given to them was part of their Kingdom of God position, not part of a special apostolic reference. It was the sending that made it apostolic, not the authority. They came to be called “Apostles” by the early church, partly out of respect, but also in connection to the idea that the establishment of the church was connected to the Great Commission, the act of sending them. Their lives became so associated with the sending that the title was a natural fit. It was still the sending that distinguished apostleship, not the authority. I find no evidence for expanding apostleship beyond that.

      From what I’ve seen, both biblically and in other writing of the time, the connection between the apostles and the commission was made after the fact by church historians who elevated the Twelve to the status of demigods and instituted prayer to the saints. It is not the belittling of the apostolic ministry that seems to be a problem, it is the elevation of apostolic ministry to a level of esteem that engenders worshipful reverence for the office.

      • April 29, 2012 at 5:35 pm

        You know, when we disagree, I enjoy you so much more!
        Here’s the deal: Apostles make Kingdom determinations. I assumed the “in the interests of the King” portion as I thought you also would assume that. I do not, and would not, make any determination that I wasn’t absolutely convinced came from Jesus Himself. Neither did the rest of them. [Note the extreme condemnation for those who call themselves apostles but aren’t]
        As for being “sent”: Peter, James and John were apparently not “sent” anywhere. They remained in Jerusalem until their arrests. Yet they are considered the pillars of the apostles.
        As for the failures of human nature that elevate one position above another, I cannot address that. I don’t know why weak minds fail.

        • April 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm

          Let’s face it, when we do agree, we never have good debates. And the debate is so much fun.
          The point at issue, I think, is that I don’t think those Kingdom determinations are limited to apostles. The Twelve were first appointed as apostles when they were sent out in pairs. Until the sending out, they were called disciples. And as for later, according to church history, they all traveled extensively. Quite a bit of evidence connects Peter with the church in Rome. John was in Asia, living in Ephesus, and James traveled around Israel until he was executed by Herod. So they may have looked at Jerusalem as their base, but ultimately, they all left there.
          I would guess that some of the esteem in which the apostles were held came from the association with the Jewish apostoloi mentioned in the post above. But the Hebrew version, while carrying greater esteem than Greek apostoloi appears to have had even less freedom of action when it came to representing the ones who sent them. I contend that the church did not hold the Twelve in high regard because they had an apostolic commission, but because they were held in high esteem, the name “apostle” became associated with a Kingdom commission.

          • April 29, 2012 at 10:55 pm

            Not unlike Caesar. One guy’s name, the rest “titles”.
            I see where you are headed with the idea that all offices make Kingdom determinations. However, it is not a function of the office to do so.
            A prophet does not “make” a Kingdom determination. He proclaims only what he hears. (or sees, as the case may be)
            An Evangelist doesn’t make Kingdom determinations. He operates in previously determined positions. They are vast and powerful, no doubt, but they are predetermined.
            Pastors raise youth. Not by age, but by time in grade. They do not make Kingdom determinations so much as they help people learn and implement previously determined concepts, goals, outreaches etc.
            Teachers take that which is known, unfold it on the table, and drill it into their students until they all know as much as that teacher can possibly teach. Then, like the dentist guy, they graduate and start doing it themselves.
            Apostles do all of the above, but when a situation arises for which there is no direct Scriptural reference, no insight, no prophecy, no understanding, then the apostle looks to Christ and makes Kingdom law. At this point, the declaration of the apostle becomes arguable before God as His Word. God cannot, and will not, let the determinations of apostles fall to the ground void. I think this may have a lot to do with the outrage over false apostles.

          • April 29, 2012 at 11:05 pm

            Caesar is a good analogy. Regarding the rest of your comment, I believe part of the problem is that we consider the office of apostle, prophet, etc, in a way that is not consistent with New Testament practice. But that’s actually what Part 8 of the series on Questioning Church Authority is about, so I suggest we table this excellent discussion until later in the week after that is posted. Don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here.

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  • May 28, 2016 at 9:16 am

    I think that your view of apostles today is slightly skewed by your experience of so called apostles. Setting aside the argument over cessationism and it’s application to apostles, it is obvious that apostles do exist today and are still sent out either by Christ himself or the Body. The focus should not be on “Title” or “Office” but on doing what does a Biblical apostle does. Are they doing the work of establishing the saints, of laying on of hands to impart spiritual gifts, are they fathering and mentoring, are they lifting up the body and reproducing themselves in love? These are the hallmarks of true apostles, if we focus on the truth, the false will be evident and dismissed by the Body of Christ. One of our problems is being argumentative over the false things and eventually drowning out truth in a sea of discussing the false. The early believers knew how to do this by the spirit, judging those who claimed to be apostles. It is this failure to judge all things that has us in this mess, we are called to be judges over all “things” (not people). Religion has put a fear in the Body to be proper judges and thus we accept all falseness and deception. I personally do the work of an apostle. I do not usurp authority, I do not demand it, I do not claim to be but am constantly referred to one by the recognition of my peers. Let our lives clearly show what we are called to be and lets stop arguing about it. God gets all the glory when we simply live out who we are and what we are called to do. LOL

    • May 28, 2016 at 12:43 pm

      I find nothing in your comment I disagree with. You make excellent points. I especially like a couple of statements, most notably the hallmarks of a true apostle. We do tend to emphasize discussing the false over the true, for which I am often guilty. The nature of this ministry tends to force me in that direction. No doubt my view is affected by my experience, which has been rich with abusive leadership, though I expect it is not so much a skewed perception as an emphasis. Nevertheless, I appreciate the function of genuine apostles and am certainly not a cessationist. Thanks for your observations.

  • May 6, 2017 at 4:06 pm

    Regarding the word ἀπόστολος, if Christians knew koine fluently, then they could read directly from the source material and stop relying on and arguing over the ridiculous number of translations. Masloms can speak the Arabic their Kerahn is based on; why can’t Christians speak and read Koine Greek? If they could, then they could see phrases like “ἀπόστολοι ἐκκλησιῶν” translated in the New King James as “messengers of the churches” in 2 Corinthians 8:23 and realize two things: 1) the Bible describes churches as having their own apostles, and 2) the context demonstrates that the King James version contains a poor translation here. From verses 16 through 24 the concepts of Titus GOING to Corinth (v. 17), Titus being SENT to Corinth (v. 18), being CHOSEN BY THE CHURCH TO TRAVEL with others (v. 19), being SENT (v. 22), and certain brothers being ἀπόστολοι are all in the same context. Therefore, it is not a great stretch to understand that the concepts of “being sent” are closely related to, if not equivalent with, being an apostle. Such understanding could free one from the erroneous teaching that I learned years ago that apostle only means those who were trained by Christ, and, therefore, the apostleship died off with those mentioned in Scripture. Did anyone notice that Jesus is called an Apostle in Hebrews 3:1?

    The point is: Christians need to know Koine Greek so they can read the New Testament in its original tongue and stop relying on the translations they bury themselves in. If they did this, then they would quickly understand what the word ἀπόστολος meant.

    • May 17, 2017 at 7:42 pm

      Unfortunately, it’s not likely most Christians will take the time to learn Greek or Hebrew. So those who do know the original languages must do what we can to expound as much as we can. Also unfortunately it often involves a little more than just translation. There are cultural considerations and background material that often colors the meaning of various texts. It’s no small task to understand Scripture.


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