What is an apostle?


There are many views about the ministry of an apostle. It is supposedly been established by the Lord Jesus. Some think that it is the ministry of those who lead a mission. According to the church however the ministry of an apostle came to an end in the first century. The missionary command however was never abolished. This seems a contradiction. What is written about it in the Bible?

The Greek word ‘apostolos’ suggests someone who is sent [1] with a charge (seemingly directed outwards to the unbelievers). In Christianity it has been seen as the proclamation [2] of the one and only true teachings of God (inward direction) [3]. In many churches this became the charge of the church ruler, like a pope, patriarch or (arch)bishop, or of an (temporary) overarching church authority, like a synod. A church ruler of church authority is however bound to a denomination and has hardly an outward direction. In the Bible the apostle is described as a position (status) with a specific ministry (function) of the people of God.

Word study
The Greek word ‘apostolos’ is a combination of the words ‘apo – away from/out of’ and ‘stellomai – avoiding/guard against’ and is found in 80 instances [4] in the New Testament (NT) [5]. The word ‘apo’ suggests that an apostle represents someone else. In Biblical sense it is God [6] Who charges an apostle.

Most commonly the word apostle is equated with the present day ‘missionary’ (a believer that goes out to unbelievers, often living in countries where there are few or no Christians, to proclaim the Christian faith). However, the word ‘kéruks – he who proclaims, from the verb kérussoo – proclaim/making known, is problematic since it is used as an activity which distinguishes itself from apostleship (1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11). Thus, an apostle has to be someone other than he who proclaims – kéruks. According to the hierarchy of positions mentioned in de Bible (Ef 4:11), the position of an apostle is mentioned ‘at the top’ of the governance hierarchy. Thus, it represents the most senior authority in governance and education [7].

What is an apostle?
The ministry of the apostle is mentioned in most books of the NT, but not in the Old Testament (OT). However, for the OT this only seems so, for a case could be made to compare the apostle with the kohen gadol (the Israelite high priest (Josh 20:6)), since he also had the highest authority in teaching and justice. This suggestion seems confirmed by the fact that the Lord Jesus received the position of kohen gadol for the Temple service in heaven and it is also stated in Hebrews 3:1 that He is an apostle [8].

Still, this comparison cannot be completely right, because the Lord Jesus appointed [9] apostles before [10] He became high priest (Lc 6:13). According to the Bible the sons of the kohen gadol, the kohaniem (Israelite priests), were disciples of him and one of them would succeed him. Also, the priests had, like their father, the kohen gadol, supreme rule and teach authority amongst the Israelites. Although delegated. So, in that case an apostle in a sense seems more like the kohaniem [11], which would also solve the problem of the single kohen gadol compared with multiple apostles. Together with the NT-prophets these ministries serve the global collective of the New Covenant community of believers. That is a fundamental difference compared with, for example, the overseer and an elder who serve the local community of believers and which are both mentioned in the OT. This latter point by the way confirms a piece of continuity between OT and NT.

What is the Christian definition?
Christian dogmas and creeds have defined the ministry of the apostle further. Some major statements are:

1. The apostle had to be a disciple/eye-witness of the Lord Jesus
Eye-witnesses were seen as the most trustworthy sources.

2. The ministry of apostles has ended after the death of the 12
Supposedly, no other apostles were appointed next to the 12 apostles, and the office was also supposed to have become irrelevant. Their authority was supposed to be limited to establishing the world church, the people of God (equal to the 12 tribes of Israel), which they represented.

3. The local leader is an apostle
Supposedly, the new titles for apostleship were overseer (episkopos – bishop) and/or the elder (presbuteros – priest), since they have the supreme authority in the local congregation of believers. The teacher in the local congregation was under the authority of the apostolic ministers and the teacher was seen to minister as a prophet.

4. The missionary is an apostle
The word apostle was interpreted as the one who was sent out like the Biblical apostles which all went out to tell the word of God. Firstly, among their own countrymen, the Israelites, in the promised Land and later they went further into the wider world.

5. Christianity has no need for central leadership
Supposedly, it would be better that believers are guided and helped in their local needs and spiritual life. Since the Reformation an individualistic mentality became common amongst believers. A form of spiritual emancipation. Every believer was suggested to take its own responsibility for its spiritual life and would be able to maintain direct contact with God without ministers as liaisons in between. Central leadership would have little or no appreciation for local needs whilst it is supposed that God specifically would only be active on the local level.

What is written in the Bible?
In the Bible the following specifics can be found about the above given Christian definition of the apostle:

1. The apostle had to be a disciple/eyewitness of the Lord Jesus
In the Bible several persons are called ‘apostle’ without being eyewitnesses (Acts 14:14), like Paul. It would be incomprehensible for God to organize the congregation of believers hierarchical with on ‘top’ the apostle (1 Cor 12:28) if the apostle position would only exist for one generation. Even more so, since the other positions, like the prophet, mentioned in that hierarchical organization clearly remained until this day. In a religion in which there is more emphasis on believe, rather than on absolute certainty, the following generations of non-eyewitnesses would be more ‘highly’ regarded then eyewitnesses. It seems appropriate that these would have apostles among them.

2. The ministry of apostles has ended after the death of the 12
Nowhere in the Bible can be found that God had determined a specific moment in time at which the position of the apostle is to be abolished [12]. It would be much more logical to suggest that the position of the apostle is changed through the ascension of the Lord Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a consequence [13]. The Christian statement has another reason though: preventing deviations [14]. There is some sense in that, since there are wolves [15] that threaten the people of God.

When the 12 apostles finally will govern the tribes of the recovered Israel as leaders then this proves that there is continuity of that position. That Christianity became a world church must be seen as a threat rather then something good. That it is supposed to represent the people of God thus cannot be exclusive. The people of God always are more than the church. To assume that the whole world already has been reached with the Gospel would be a mistake. Still there are parts of the world, countries, peoples and territories where the word of God has not yet been proclaimed (Mt 24:14). Also, each new generation needs to be reached [16]. Then there is also the given that the unity and fullness in the Lord Jesus needs to be reached (Ef 4:13), which is an apostolic charge. Who knows when that is reached? But what is certain is that it cannot be reached without apostolic guidance.

3. The local leader is an apostle
In Biblical sense the authority of the apostle is aimed at the whole of God’s people and less concerned with local issues [17]. So, it has to be a mistake to see church leaders on a local or regional level as apostles. Their scope of responsibility is simple too limited and too specific. But the minister without a local congregation, like the apostle or the prophet, therefore has his own challenges (1 Cor 4:9-13).

4. The missionary is an apostle
That apostles in Biblical times also were travelling preachers doesn’t mean that every travelling preacher is an apostle. Times have changed. If the position of an apostle represents central authority, then in comparison missionary work is something different. The apostle focuses internally, whilst the missionary focuses externally. That there was a link between the apostle and missions proves that mission work has top priority in Christianity. Not that these are the same field of responsibility.

5. Christianity has no need for central leadership
This is a mistake. Specifically, when central authority is lacking many deviations and confusion occurs in Christianity [18]. Division weakens authority. Still, this is not so everywhere. Especially in orthodox denominations, like the Roman-catholic and the Eastern-Orthodox churches, which are lead centrally and apostolically, there still remains overarching authority. When the Lord Jesus, after His ascension into heaven, is made Head of His people by God, then that proves that spiritual central, overarching authority has remained and that He represents it. Also, according to the Bible the positions are hierarchically organized, which points to dependence on His central authority. The question however is whether the local leaders accepts His central authority and the positions He appoints ‘above’ and amongst them.

The apostle as successor of the Lord Jesus
According to the Roman-catholic church Peter was the one who succeeded the Lord Jesus in His position as Head of the people of God on earth. But the question is whether this successor position is the same as that of an apostle. Likewise, the position of a leader of a local congregation of believers is confused with that of the apostle. The Lord Jesus was the Leader of a group of disciples which He called and who followed Him, but there is no proof that He founded a congregation of believers as a church. His ministry as Bible Teacher was aimed at the whole of Israel and not on a local or separate congregation. In that sense His ministry was connected to the Temple. When Simon Peter was supposed to be the successor of the Lord Jesus, then not as local leader (bishop of Rome).

A second problem is that the kohen gadol Kajafas was the spiritual head of Israel on earth in those days and the Lord Jesus recognizes him in that position. Also, His disciples. Nowhere is it written in the NT that the authority of the Temple and its ministers were to be rejected. On the contrary, they are acknowledged it (Mt 8:4; Mc 1:44; Lc 5:14). Even after the death of Kajafas his position remained. Peter was executed in Rome way before the position of kohen gadol was ended. So, Peter can never have been the head of the people God on earth.

Then there remains the question whether the Lord Jesus needed a successor, because the Holy Spirit succeeded Him on earth and His disciples would even go further then Him in developing faith (Jh 16:13). The Lord Jesus was also unique. He would not return to earth in the ministry as Bible Teacher, but as Messiah (vassal-King)

Question remains how it is possible that the Lord Jesus in heaven also seems to be Apostle. This causes problems for the assumed Trinity. But His position as Apostle is explained through the necessity of upholding apostolic authority on earth.

In Biblical sense the apostolic charge seems to be guarding (improving/enforcing/enlarging) the foundation (Heb 6:1-2) which was laid by the Lord Jesus. This becomes noticeable in keeping the unity of faith and to promote the fullness of the knowledge of God. This doesn’t mean that there cannot be diversity or tolerance for those who think differently. People need to be thought how to be obedient to the Lord, like the Lord Jesus is also. God will confirm the position of an apostle.

[1] Thus bound to a person. Not replaceable by an impersonal authority, institution or organization, since it is dependent on inspiration of the Spirit of God which is limited to a person and makes a person responsible for the ministry.
[2] By the leaders of the church.
[3] The ‘truth aspect’ of the Christian doctrine.
[4] In 20 instances as ‘apostle’, in 57 as ‘apostles’ and in four as the authority of an apostle.
[5] It is not mentioned in the Gospel of John, Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, James and 1-3 John.
[6] Not a collective, like a congregation of believers or a counsel. It’s a calling from God, but it is the Lord Jesus Who appoints apostles.
[7] For religious counseling and determining the religious boundaries and to guard those. The apostle is delegated by the religious Head of the people of God.
[8] The pope of Rome, is named the highest apostle of the Roman-catholic church and is also called pontifex maximus (high priest).
[9] It was a new ministry.
[10] This continued even after His ascension (Acts 1:26).
[11] However, apostles do not have a Temple function. Therefore, their ministry survived the destruction of the Temple. So, an apostle is not completely the same as a kohen.
[12] The abolishment could however come when the Messiah rebuilds the Temple in Jerusalem. That would lead to the necessary reestablishment of the kohaniem (Temple priests). If this is so, then the position of the apostle has its cause in the destruction of the Temple.
[13] An apostle cannot exist with the Spirit of God, since the One who charges the apostle, the Lord Jesus is not on earth.
[14] For that same reason Judaism has determined that after Malachi God stopped sending prophets. So, the Lord Jesus could not have been a prophet.
[15] For example, false prophets.
[16] Large parts of what used to be completely Christian Europe have now again become missionary areas.
[17] See for example the primary apostolic issue that Paul brought forward about the unity of the people of God; the brotherhood between Jews and non-Jews on the issue of Torah.
[18] The common ancient creeds and dogmas are often the last remaining apostolic framework.