By James Sanders
Our English word apostle is taken from the Greek apostolos: Originally apostle was not thought of as a religious word. The most basic meaning of apostolos (apostle) is connected with a “sending forth” of a “commission.” One who was sent forth with a commission or to represent another was called an apostolos. A naval expedition (with ships ready to` depart) was sometimes spoken of as an apostolos. At other times an apostolos would be a “bill of lading” or a “dispatched letter.” The basic idea was that of “sending forth.”
To the ancient Greek, apostolos was a “sending forth” or a “commission.”1
When Jesus named the twelve He had chosen apostoloi (apostles:), it was to describe their purpose and work. These were the ones He would commission or send forth. The epithet, apostolos, would serve as a constant reminder to them that they were men with a mission.2 Apostolos was the Lord’s way of telling them that they had a job to do and that He was depending upon them.
In the NT, however, apostolos means more than “sending forth” or “dispatching.” Here the word takes on added significance and importance. The concept of “authority” and especially “a warrant or charge of authority” is attached to the meaning of apostolos. In the NT, an apostolos is not just one who is sent forth; he is one who is sent with authority.3
The Twelve were such men. Christ had dispatched them with authority or commandments. Luke wrote: “Until the day in which he was taken up after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments (authority) unto the Apostles whom he had chosen” (Acts 1:2).
Because Christ had delegated authority to the Apostles, their word was binding. The commandment of an Apostle was nothing less than a delegated commandment from the Lord. Paul said to the Thessalonians: “For this cause also we thank God … because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God. . . .” (1 Thess. 2:13).
The power, then, to bind and to loose was given unto the Apostles. The Lord told Peter: “Whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Mtt. 16:19b, NASB). The Apostles had the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” because they had authority from Heaven. When Christ sent His Apostles forth, He dispatched them with divine power and authority. In the NT, apostolos meant one sent forth with a commission and with authority.
Apostolos is found some seventy-nine times in the NT.4 The writings of Luke and of Paul account for sixty-eight or about four-fifths of those occurrences. There are at least four different usages of apostolos in the NT: 5
1. A commissioned representative of a congregation. The word apostolos is sometimes used to describe a commissioned representative or messenger of a congregation. Epaphroditus is referred to by Paul as the messenger (apostolos) of the Philippian church (Phil. 2:25).6Epaphroditus was an apostolos because he had been sent and commissioned by Philippi.
In 2 Cor. 8:23 the same usage of apostolos occurs. Here, those who aided in the collection for the needy saints were called messengers (apostoloi) of the churches: “They are the messengers (apostoloi) of the churches and the glory of Christ.”
Luke depicts Barnabas and Paul as apostles though neither were members of the original Twelve. In fact, it is not even certain that Barnabas ever saw the risen Christ. “Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out” (Acts 14:14). The thirteenth chapter of Acts explains that Barnabas and Paul had been dispatched by the church at Antioch: “The Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them…. And when they had fasted and prayed … they sent them away” (Acts 13:2,3; Italics mine). Because Barnabas and Paul had been commissioned by the Spirit and sent out by the Antiochian church, they were called apostles. Apostolos sometimes means a commissioned representative of a congregation.
2. Those commissioned by the resurrected Christ. Apostolos is also used of those who: (1) had encountered the risen Christ, and (2) had received a commission from Him personally. Paul was an apostolos for this very reason. He was a witness of the resurrection and had been commissioned by Christ. Asked Paul, “Am I not an apostle? … have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). Paul had seen the Lord and therefore was qualified to be an apostle. To the Galatians the apostolos Paul wrote: “Paul, an apostle, (not of man, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead) . . .” (Gal. 1:1; Italics mine). Paul was an apostolos because he had seen the Lord and because he had been commissioned by Him.
James, the Lord’s brother, is likewise referred to as an apostolos: ‘Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:18, 19). The apostolate of James is directly linked with his personal encounter with the risen Christ: “After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also . . .” (1 Cor. 15:7,8). James, though never a disciple until after the death of Jesus, e became very prominent in the early church. He was, as Paul declares, a pillar in the Jerusalem church. (Cp. Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12; Acts 15:13-21). Apostolos in the NT was sometimes one who had seen and had been commissioned by the risen Christ.
3. The Twelve. Apostolos also has reference to the Twelve whom Jesus had chosen. These were the divinely appointed witnesses (or ambassadors) of Christ: “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Twelve are examples of an apostolos in the most proper sense of the word. They were messengers (angeloi) who carried the gospel but they were also ambassadors. An ambassador is one who represents and speaks for another. The twelve were ambassadors (apostolos) who represented Christ.9They preached His word but they represented Him. As ambassadors, the Twelve were authorized to act and govern upon His behalf. In response to Peter’s question (“Behold we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?”), the Lord replied: “In the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). Thrones denote glory and power. The Apostles would govern spiritual Israel by the word which they had preached. Christ had delegated to the Twelve the right of ambassadorship; He had given them the right to represent Him and to act upon His behalf.
4. The Apostle of our profession. In Hebrews 3:1, Jesus Himself is called an apostolos: “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus.” Here the word, apostolos, is used to describe the absolute authority of Christ. He is the One who is uniquely sent out by God. He is the Son in whom God had finally spoken (Heb. 1:1). He is the High Priest who has completely expiated the sins of His people (Heb. 2:5ff.). Christ is an apostolos because He was commissioned and sent out by God. God speaks through Him because He is the Ambassador (Apostolos) of God.
1. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: and Other Early Christian Literature (Limited ed. licensed to Zondervan Publishing House; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 99.
2. Jas. Hastings (ed.), “Apostle,” A Dictionary of Christ and The Gospels (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1907), I, p. 104.
3. Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, “Apostello,” Theological Dictionary of The New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1904-), 1, p. 421. Cited hereafter as Kittel, TDNT. All transliterations are mine.
4. Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), p. 68.
5. Kittel, TDNT, pp. 421-423.
6. Joseph Bryant Rotherham in his translation, The Emphasized New Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1959), renders apostolos literally. Epaphroditus is called an apostle.
7. A qualification for the Apostolate was to be a witness of the resurrection of Christ (Acts 1:21-22).
8. John 7:5: “For neither did his brethern believe in him.”
9. “The proper meaning of apostolos is an ambassador who not only carries a message like an angelos, but also represents the sender.” (Transliteration mine). Jas. Hastings (ed.), “Apostle”, A Dictionary of The Bible (New York: Cas. Scribner’s Sons,1900),1, p.126.
Truth Magazine, XVIII:4, p. 13-14
November 15, 1973