Answers to Some Questions About the Word “Apostles”


Recently, a friend of mine asked for permission to use some of the material we have posted here on the apostles to teach in the congregation he works with.  I told him that was fine with me, and so he began.  But he ran into some objections from the get-go regarding my definition of the word “apostle.”

Here’s the email I received:

So, I started to teach on the apostles and the congregation had some surprisingly not so positive feed back……..before we ever really got started on Epaphroditus

They were surprised by your definition of apostle being so broad.  

  • ‘Didn’t an apostle have to see Jesus, like it says when Matthias was chosen?’  
  • ‘I thought being an apostle meant you could do miracles and give the ability to do the miraculous to others?’   
  • ‘Using his definition, is there even a difference between disciple and apostle?  Or is it Apostle and apostle?’ 
  • ‘Where do we draw the line?  Does the fact that we help support _________ on missionary trips to Honduras make him an apostle since the church sent him on a mission?’
  • ‘Aren’t we all apostles then because we all have a message to take from Jesus himself: the Gospel?’

I was quite surprised by this resistance to how you presented it in your material.  I really didn’t have anything to answer other than this is how you had chose to tackle the subject.

Pretty sure this is not what you expected … but I promised them I would pass their questions along and see what you said about it.

So, in order to clarify, and to eliminate anymore possible difficulties with his using the material there, I sent the following letter as an answer to their questions.  I am posting it here, because perhaps some of you may have had the same thoughts as you read through the original introduction to this series… WAY back in January.  🙂

My brethren,

__________ wrote me and conveyed some concern that many of you had regarding my initial definition of the word “apostle.”  I appreciate the opportunity to try to clarify and hopefully dispel any worries that you might have with me (though we’ve never met) and the material.  With that in mind, I offer the following three points, followed by answers to some of the specific questions that were asked:

(1) The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word “apostolos,” which means “one sent [with a specific mission].”  It is said in many Bible dictionaries that by the time the New Testament was written, this word had taken on the sense of an emissary, a delegate for someone else.

God inspired the writers of the New Testament to use this word, in its many forms (noun, verb, singular, plural, etc.) to describe the fourteen men we consider to be “Apostles” (i.e., the original twelve plus Matthias and Paul).  However, this exact same Greek word is used in other places in the New Testament to describe people who weren’t of that number.  Since God inspired men to use this word to describe more than just the official “Apostles,” then we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that He used it in a broader sense than we’re used to.

*Webster’s 1828 Dictionary gave this as the definition of “Apostle”:

APOS’TLE, n. [Gr. to send away, to sent.]

A person deputed to execute some important business; but appropriately, a disciple of Christ commissioned to preach the gospel. Twelve persons were selected by Christ for this purpose; and Judas, one of the number, proving an apostate, his place was supplied by Matthias. Acts 1.

The title of apostle is applied to Christ himself, Heb 3. In the primitive ages of the church, other ministers were called apostles, Rom 16; as were persons sent to carry alms from one church to another, Phil 2. This title was also given to persons who first planted the Christian faith. Thus Dionysius of Corinth is called the apostle of France; and the Jesuit Missionaries are called apostles.

Among the Jews, the title was given to officers who were sent into distant provinces, as visitors or commissioners, to see the laws observed.

*Smith’s Bible Dictionary start’s itsdefinition this way:

Apostle. (one sent forth). In the New Testament, originally the official name of those twelve of the disciples whom Jesus chose to send forth first to preach the gospel and to be with him during the course of his ministry on earth. The word also appears to have been used in a non-official sense to designate a much wider circle of Christian messengers and teachers.  See 2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25.

*Fausset’s Dictionary includes this sentence in its article on “Apostle”:

“Apostle” is used in a vaguer sense of “messengers of the churches” (2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25).

(2) There is a difference between an “apostle” [a “sent one”] and someone who wore the title or held the official office of an Apostle of Jesus Christ.  Epaphroditus was said to be an “apostle” of the church (the KJV says “messenger,” though it is the exact same word as what is translated “apostle” in the NT).  Jesus Christ was called an Apostle–because He was sent by God with a mission.  James, the brother of the Lord, is called an “apostle.” Barnabas is called an “apostle.”  But none of these men wore the title, or held the office of “Apostle.”  Only Paul and the “twelve” could lay claim to that.  These others were simply ones who were sent by someone with a specific mission–the actual meaning of the word “Apostle.”

A similar case exists with the word “elder.”  There is a difference between someone who holds the title/office of “elder” in the church, and someone who is just an “elder” — an older person (as in 1 Tim 5:1-2).

(3) If we wish to use Bible words in the way the Bible uses them, then we could say that a missionary sent out by the congregation is an “apostle” of that congregation–but given the way denominations have twisted and tortured the word in applying it to offices within their ranks, as well as the exclusive way we’ve traditionally used “apostle” to refer only to the twelve and Paul, it wouldn’t be very expedient to do that; in fact, it would be downright confusing.

1. Didn’t an apostle have to see Jesus, like is says when Matthias was chosen?
  In order to hold the office of an apostle, to be one of the specific twelve men that Jesus chose to be his miracle-working and miracle-giving representatives to the world, then yes, absolutely he had to see Jesus.  But this was not a requirement for someone to be called an “apostle” in the general sense of the word.

2. I thought being an apostle meant you could do miracles and give the ability to do the miraculous to others? That is 100% true, so long as we are talking about the office or title of “apostle,” which was only held by fourteen men (the twelve, plus Matthias, plus Paul).  There are other men who were called “apostles” in a general sense (Barnabas was called an apostle in Acts 14:14), but who are distinguished from those who held the office of an “apostle” (Barnabas was not a member of “THE apostles,” Acts 4:36, 9:27).

3. Using his definition, is there even a difference between disciple and apostle?  Or is it Apostle and apostle? A disciple is a follower, and a learner from someone else.  An apostle (in the general sense of the word) is someone who is sent away with a mission from someone else.  Not all disciples of Jesus were mature enough or trusted enough to be sent by Him as His delegate.  Even when the Bible speaks of Epaphroditus, who Paul calls “your messenger” (the Greek word is apostolos), it shows that he was someone who was mature and trusted by the congregation to be sent on their behalf to help Paul.  So, there is a difference between disciple and apostle.  I think that the second half of the question really gets the emphasis: Apostle (as a proper name, a title, the name of an office in the first-century church) is something describing the “twelve” and Paul; apostle is the general sense of the word, meaning anyone who was sent away with a specific mission.

4. Where do we draw the line?  Does the fact that we help support ________ on missionary trips to Honduras make him an apostle since the church sent him on a mission? I’ll answer the second part first.  From a strict definition of the word “apostle,” then yes, one could call Tony an “apostle” of the church there where you meet.  In fact, the Bible uses it that way in 2 Cor 8:23.  Titus and his companions were called “messengers (Greek, apostolos) of the churches.  However, using it that way today would get confusing as all get-out to people–both in the church and out of it–because of how we’ve traditionally understood the word “apostle” (referring to the twelve and Paul), and because of how some denominations have perverted the word to refer to their leaders (i.e., the Mormons and others).  The line between an “apostle” in the general sense and an “apostle” in the sense of people like Peter, Andrew, James, and John is this: Jesus selected twelve men to be called (or given the title of) “apostles.”  Judas fell by transgression, and God chose Matthias to be his replacement so that there were again “twelve” on the Day of Pentecost.  Paul repeatedly lays claim to the title of “apostle” and says that he is not one whit behind the other apostles.  Peter calls Paul’s writings Scripture (2 Peter 3), so we know that Paul was also among this group.  There is where the line is drawn.  No one outside of those fourteen men were ever “called” (or given the title of) an “apostle.”

5. Aren’t we all apostles then, because we all have a message to take from Jesus himself: the gospel?  The idea of an “apostle” is that a person is sent away from somewhere.  The men called “apostles” in the Bible (in either the general sense or the specific sense of the twelve plus Paul) all left their homes and went somewhere else to carry out the mission in other cities or areas.  Jesus (called an apostle in Hebrews) left heaven and came to earth.  Paul left Tarsus and Jerusalem and traveled the whole Roman Empire.  Peter preached in many places within Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.  John did the same thing, as well as spreading God’s word from Patmos (an island west of Asia Minor).  We’re not given the travels of the other apostles in the Scriptures, but they all stayed in Jerusalem for a time, which was not their home–they were all from Galilee (see Acts 2).  So, in answer to the question, while we have been given a message to spread, the gospel, we haven’t been called to leave our home behind and personally go and take the gospel to other lands.  We are not apostles in either sense of the word.

In conclusion, there are THE apostles (the twelve plus Paul) and then there are “apostles” in the general sense of the word.  The purpose of the material I’ve written is to look at the Christians whom God saw fit to call “apostles” (apostolos) in the Bible.  We first look at the ones who are not part of THE apostles (though they all almost certainly were able to perform miracles after having hands laid on them by one of the twelve or Paul).  Then we look at the “Twelve” (including Matthias), and finally, Paul.

If you have any specific questions or desire clarification on a specific point, feel free to email me or send a question through __________ and he will get it to me.  I will answer it as promptly (and with biblical support) as I can.

-Bradley S. Cobb

2 thoughts on “Answers to Some Questions About the Word “Apostles””

  1. All of the Greek New Testament is written in capital letters. It is similar to the use of the word for “wine.” It depends on the context as to whether the word refers to the original Apostles or just to apostles.

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