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Apostle

Apostle [N] [E] [S]

(Gk. apostolos [ajpovstolo"]). Envoy, ambassador, or messenger commissioned to carry out the instructions of the commissioning aget.

Etymology and Usage of the Term Pre-Christian use of apostolos [ajpovstolo"] in the sense of messenger is rare. More common is the verb apostello, referring to the sending of a fleet or an embassy. Only in Herodotus (1.21; 5.38) is it used of a personal envoy. Josephus employs it once (Antiquities17.11.1) in the classical sense of an embassy. Epictetus (Discourse3.22) speaks of the ideal Cynic teacher as one "sent by Zeus" to be a messenger of the gods and an "overseer" of human affairs.

The Septuagint uses apostello [ajpostevllw] or exapostello [ejxapostevllw] some seven hundred times to translate the Hebrew salah [j;l'v] ("stretch out, " "send"). More than the act of sending, this word includes the idea of the authorization of a messenger. The noun apostolos [ajpovstolo"] is found only in 1ki 14:6, where the commissioning and empowering of the prophet are clearly in mind. Thus, the Septuagint uses the apostello [ajpostevllw] word-group to denote the authorization of an individual to fulfill a particular function, with emphasis on the one who sends, not on the one who is sent.

The noun apostolos [ajpovstolo"] appears seventy-nine times in the New Testament (ten in the Gospels; twenty-eight in Acts; thirty-eight in the Epistles; and three in Revelation). The vast majority of these occurrences are found in Luke-Acts (thirty-four) and in the Pauline epistles (thirty-four), and refer to those appointed by Christ for a special function in the church. Their unique place is based not only on having witnessed the resurrection, but also on having been commissioned and empowered by the resurrected Lord to proclaim the gospel to all nations.

In the New Testament apostolos [ajpovstolo"] is applied to Jesus as the Sent One of God ( Heb 3:1 ), to those sent by God to preach to Israel ( Luke 11:49 ), to those sent by churches ( 2 Col 8:23 ; Php 2:25 ), and most often, to the individuals who had been appointed by Christ to preach the gospel of the kingdom. This latter category, however, is understood differently by New Testament writers. For example, Luke-Acts uses the term "apostle" to refer almost exclusively to the Twelve, while Paul uses it in relation to a broader group of individuals. The expression "all the apostles" in 1 Corinthians 15:7 seems to include more than the twelve referred to in verse 5. James is considered here, and in Galatians 1:19, to be an apostle. Barnabas is referred to as an apostle in ac 14:14 ( 11:22-24 ; 13:1-4 ). Paul calls Andronicus and Junias apostles in Romans 16:7. In this broader sense, an apostle was a witness to the resurrection of Christ, sent by him to make disciples of all nations.

Christ the Apostle Although there is only one explicit reference to Jesus as an apostle ( Heb 3:1 ), implicit references to his having been "sent" by the Father are found throughout the New Testament. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Gospel of John, where Christ's entire ministry is qualified by the term apostello [ajpostevllw] ("send"). As the Father sent his Son into the world ( John 3:17 John 3:34 ; 5:36-38 ; John 6:29 John 6:57 ; 10:36 ; John 17:3 John 17:8 John 17:18 John 17:21 John 17:23 ; 20:21 ), Jesus in turn "sends out" his disciples ( 4:38 ; 17:18 ) to continue and extend his mission. Thus, all apostleship finds its meaning in Jesus the Apostle, sent by God to be the Savior of the world ( 1 Jo 4:14 ).

The Twelve Jesus had a large number of disciples during his ministry, but not all of them were apostles. The Twelve were chosen out of a wider group both to be with Jesus as disciples and to be sent out to preach and teach as apostles. There are four lists of the Twelve in the New Testament, one in each of the three Synoptic Gospels ( Matt 10:1-4 ; Mark 3:13-19 ; Luke 6:12-16 ) and one in Acts ( 1:13 ). These lists are roughly the same, representing four variant forms of a single early oral tradition.

Matthew and Mark identify the Twelve as apostles only once, and in each case, in the context of a missionary journey ( Matt 10:2 ; Mark 6:30 ). Here the word designates function rather than status. Luke, however, frequently and almost exclusively calls the Twelve "apostles" ( 6:13 ; 9:10 ; 17:5 ; 22:14 ; 24:10 ; Acts 1:26 ; 2:43 ; Acts 4:35 Acts 4:36 Acts 4:37 ; Acts 5:2 Acts 5:12 Acts 5:18 ; 8:1 ). Except for Luke 11:49 and Acts 14:14, Luke applies apostolos [ajpovstolo"] only to the Twelve. Because they had been called by Jesus, had been with Jesus throughout his ministry, and had witnessed his resurrection, they possessed the best possible knowledge of what Jesus had said and done. Commissioned by the risen Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, they became witnesses to the saving work of God in Christ. The identification of the Twelve as apostles finds its basis not only in the use of this title for them in the Gospel narrative, but also in the post-Easter task given to them by Jesus ( Matt 28:19-20 ; Mark 16:15-18 ; Luke 24:48-49 ; John 20:21-23 ; Acts 1:8 ). Thus, the essential qualification of an apostle is being called and sent by Christ. In the case of Matthias, additional qualifications come to light. In addition to the divine call, the person must have been a disciple of Jesus from John's baptism to the ascension, and specifically a witness of the resurrection ( Ac 1:21-22 ).

Jesus' choice of twelve disciples to form an inner circle of followers served to symbolize the truth that he had come to build a new house of Israel. The Twelve formed the nucleus of this new people of God, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, and signifying God's saving activity at work in Jesus and his followers. Their number implies that they were destined primarily to work among the children of Israel. Although not confined to the Jews, the mission of the Twelve had special relation to the twelve tribes of Israel, as emphasized in the promise of Matthew 19:28.

Paul the Apostle Since Paul had not accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry, he did not meet the apostolic criteria of ac 1:21-22. It is clear, however, that he considered himself to be an apostle. Even though the only place in the Book of Acts where Paul is called an apostle is in reference to the apostles of the church in Antioch (14:4, 14), Luke's portrayal of Paul's ministry as paradigmatic for the church gives implicit support to his apostolic claims. Not only does Acts depict Paul as manifesting the signs of an apostle, but in its three accounts of the Damascus Road encounter, his apostolic task is presented as the direct action of the risen Christ (9:3-5; 22:6-8; 26:12-18; cf. 2co 4:6; Gal 1:16).

Paul's own claim to apostleship is likewise based on the divine call of Christ ( Rom 1:1 ; 1 Col 1:1 ; Galatians 1:1 Galatians 1:15 ; cf. 2 Col 1:1 ; Eph 1:1 ; Col 1:1 ; 1 Tim 1:1 ; 2 Tim 1:1 ; Titus 1:1 ). He is an apostle, "not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead" ( Gal 1:1 ). His encounter with the resurrected Jesus served as the basis for his unique claim to be an "apostle to the Gentiles" ( Rom 11:13 ). Paul bases his apostleship on the grace of God, not on ecstatic gifts or the signs of an apostle ( 2 Cor. 12 ). His apostolic commission is to serve God primarily through preaching the gospel ( Rom 1:9 ; 15:19 ; 1 Col 1:17 ).

Paul uses the word "apostle" in more than one sense. At times he employs the term in the broader sense of messenger or aget ( 2 Col 8:23 ; Php 2:25 ). More often, however, Paul uses the term to refer to those who had been commissioned by the risen Lord to the apostolic task. Included in this category are the Twelve (although he never explicitly applies the title of apostle to them as a group), Peter ( Gal 1:18 ), Paul himself ( Rom 1:1 ; 1 Col 1:1 ; 9:1-2 ; 15:8-10 ; Gal 2:7-8 ), James the brother of Jesus ( Gal 1:19 ; cf. Acts 15:13 ), Barnabas ( 1 Col 9:1-6 ; Gal 2:9 ; cf. Acts 14:4 Acts 14:14 ), and possibly others ( Ro 16:7 ). In addition to understanding apostleship in terms of its basis in a divine call, Paul views the life of an apostle as being one of self-sacrificial service that entails suffering ( 1 Col 4:9-13 ; 15:30-32 ; 2 Col 4:7-12 ; 11:23-29 ).

Apostles and the Spirit The primary function of the apostles was to witness to Christ. The Twelve had intimate knowledge of his life, and a wider group had been witnesses to his resurrection. Their commissioning by the risen Lord to worldwide witness ( Ac 1:8 ), however, was incomplete without the anointing of the Spirit. Only after Pentecost were they empowered by the Spirit for their ministry of word and deed. Their witness to Christ was not only empowered, but also guided and validated by the Spirit ( John 14:26 ). Thus, their full apostolic vocation was realized only in the Spirit (John 14-17). Paul viewed apostleship as a gift of the Spirit ( 1 Co 12:28 ), which was often accompanied by miraculous signs and mighty works ( 2 Co 12:12 ). Such signs and wonders, however, were clearly secondary to the apostolic functions of preaching and teaching.

Apostolic Authority Having direct knowledge of the incarnate Word, and being sent out as authorized agets of the gospel, the apostles provided the authentic interpretation of the life and teaching of Jesus. Because their witness to Christ was guided by the Spirit ( John 15:26-27 ), the apostles' teaching was considered normative for the church. They were regarded as the "pillars" ( Gal 2:9 ) and "foundation" ( Eph 2:20 ; cf. Rev 21:14 ) of the church, and their teaching became the norm for Christian faith and practice. The deposit of revelation transmitted by the apostles and preserved in its written form in the New Testament thus forms the basis of postapostolic preaching and teaching in the church.

It is evident that the apostles formed the nucleus of primitive Christianity. The New Testament highlights their function as apostles, without delineating in detail the authoritative nature of their office in relation to the church. What is emphasized is that their apostolic commission authorized them to preach ( 1 Co 1:17 ); to be ambassadors for Christ ( 2 Col 5:20 ; Eph 6:20 ); to be witnesses to all nations ( Luke 24:48 ); and to make disciples of all peoples ( Matt 28:19 ).

R. David Rightmire

Bibliography. F. Agnew, JBL105 (1986): 75-96; C. K. Barrett, Signs of an Apostle; W. Baur, New Testament Apocrypha2 (1965): 35-74; O. Cullmann, Early Church; E. J. Goodspeed, The Twelve; L. Goppelt, Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Times; J. B. Lightfoot, Galatians, pp. 92-101; H. Mosbech, ST2 (1948): 166-200; D. Mller, NIDNTT, 1:126-33; J. Munck, ST3 (1949): 96-100; K. Rengstorf, TDNT, 1:398-447; W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha2 (1965): 25-34; R. Schnackenburg, Apostolic History and the Gospel, pp. 287-303.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Apostle'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.