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.