What is an apostle?

He gave some to be apostles…” (Ephesians 4:11)

Recently we took a brief look at Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus-commonly known as the “pastoral epistles”-and saw how contrary to popular belief these men were not pastors (not in the modern sense of the word) but apostles. This begs the question, what is an apostle? From superhuman Christian to a relic of bygone ages, concepts of apostleship abound in the Christian world.

To start with, the basic meaning of the word apostle is “sent one.” An apostle, therfore, is one who is sent by another. Interestingly enough, the New Testament reveals four different orders of apostles. Let’s consider these now, beginning with  

The Lord Jesus Christ, the first apostle.

The writer to the Hebrews refers to Jesus as “the apostle… of our confession” (Heb. 3:1). The Lord Jesus was the original apostle of God, sent by our Father into the world for the salvation of man and the bringing back into play of God’s eternal purpose. As an apostle, as in every other way, there is none like Christ. He is pre-eminent in His apostleship. After Him, we have

The twelve apostles of the Lamb.

When Jesus began to travel and teach as a rabbi he gathered twelve men to himself who then spent the better part of three or four years following the Lord wherever he went. They became learners, or disciples, of Jesus. At the end of that time, after the Lord was crucified and had risen from the dead, he appeared to them and said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). With this sending the disciples became apostles. The apostleship of the twelve is unique and not to be compared with the many sent ones who would follow in their stead, as evidenced by the vision of the New Jerusalem given to John in Revelation 21:14, where he saw inscribed on the foundation of the city the names of these twelve men and none other.

However, contrary to the belief of some, apostleship did not end with the deaths of the twelve. The idea that the first century was marked off as some special apostolic “age” after which there would cease to be apostles, prophets, miracles, signs and wonders forms the teaching commonly known as cessationism. Cessationism is a man-made doctrine that holds no water when held up to the light of scripture. One simple proof of this can be seen in Revelation 2:2. Here the Lord commends the church at Ephesus for testing those who claimed to be apostles but were not. If the only genuine apostles to exist in the first century were the twelve disciples of Jesus then such a test would be ridiculously unneccesary, for all you would need to know is whether or not such a one claiming to be an apostle was in fact Peter, James, John, or one of the others. No actual testing would be required. But there were indeed other apostles besides the twelve, starting with

Paul and Barnabas, the apostles of the Spirit.

Acts 13:1-4-“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.”

Here we have another unique set of circumstances. Barnabas and Saul had been living and teaching in the church at Antioch for some time. When they and a few of the other leading brothers were together ministering to the Lord the Holy Spirit witnessed to each of their spirits in such a profound way that all present knew the Lord’s intention for these two. They were called by the Lord, they had been trained and prepared for their ministry through years of experience in the church life, and now the Holy Spirit was signifiying that the time was right. So they left for foreign fields, “sent out by the Holy Spirit.”   As the Father had sent the Son so the Son had sent the twelve, but now we see the Spirit doing the sending. This is a new and different kind of sending, and therefore a different order, so to speak, of apostleship.  

What is the fourth order of apostleship revealed in the New Testament, the kind which is still being carried on by the Lord to this day? We find mention of it in 2 Corinthians 8:23, where Paul is speaking of Titus and the other brothers who often accompanied him on his travels and shared in his labors. Here it is we find

The apostles of the churches.

Little is known about the young men who travelled and labored with Paul on his journeys. We know of Barnabas and Silas, his co-workers for journeys one and two. What we are left to piece together is the story behind men such as Timothy, Titus, Gaius, Aristarchus, Secundus, Epaphras, and others. Paul himself refers to them as “partners… fellow workers… apostles of the churches, the glory of Christ.” But who were they? They were young men who grew up in the church life of their respective cities. Young men who burned with a passion for Christ and God’s eternal purpose, who over time showed evidence of being gifted by the Lord for a certain kind of work, namely that of apostleship. Eventually each of these men were recognized by both Paul and their fellow brothers and sisters in the church as being chosen by God for His work, and the churches sent them to join Paul on his journeys.

These are the kinds of apostles who have never in any generation been absent from the pages of church history. There were a good number of them in the first century, and it is possible their ranks were even populated by women such as Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7). The Lord has continued giving such brothers and sisters as gifts to His church, and their contribution to the building up of the Body of Christ is beyond value.

Having established all this, you might now be wondering, what is the mark of an apostle? How can I, like the church in Ephesus, know whether a man or woman is truly an apostle? To answer this I refer you to consider both

The sign and the seal of apostleship.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:12 of the signs of a true apostle. Most people take this passage to mean Paul is saying a true apostle will perform signs and wonders and mighty works. While this may certainly be the case, such signs may also be counterfeited or done by those who are not themselves apostles (such as Philip or Stephen). The real emphasis in this verse seems to be on “utmost patience.” An apostle, therefore, is one who draws from a seemingly endless source, whose well runs deep in Christ and is incredibly difficult to dry up. In the words of Watchman Nee, “endurance is the greatest proof of spiritual power, and it is one of the signs of an apostle. It is the ability to endure steadfastly under continuous pressure that tests the reality of an apostolic call.”

Paul was certainly an example of this kind of steadfast endurance. So much more the Lord Jesus. An uncanny ability to go to the cross, despite the pressure, the pain, the persecution, the ridicule, or the hardship is one sure test of an apostolic claim. Does a man bear suffering well? Does he in one way or another bear in his body and in his being the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ?

More convincing than the signs is the seal of an apostle. This is something Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 9:1,2 when speaking of the church in Corinth. Two things are of note in this passage. First, Paul says “if to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you…” This seems to imply that one who is really an apostle is not necessarily an apostle in every setting. For instance, Paul was sent out by the Spirit from the church at Antioch where he made his home. In Antioch Paul may have been a gifted teacher, even a prophet according to the scripture, but to the saints in Antioch Paul was just a brother. He was simply brother Paul. A good brother, yes, but just a brother nonetheless. There was nothing of the superstar mentality that permeates so much of western Christianity today. Paul was not the resident priest of the Antioch church, he had no special status, he worked a job like everyone else, and though men respected him for the measure of Christ he possessed, no one was afraid of him or looked to him in any way that puffed him up and set him apart from others. Again, Paul was just a brother.

There are many men today who claim to be apostles or who view themselves and wish to be viewed by others as apostles based simply on some gifting they think they have from the Lord. Very little witness is given to this by other brothers and sisters, often based upon the fact that there are no other brothers and sisters present to give such a witness! Years of tested, proven experience in the local church life precede any development or recognition of apostleship. This is the Lord’s way, the only safe way to guarantee that the man who is sent out to minister (not the man who simply goes out of his own accord) is no threat but rather a help to the Lord’s people. This is a very vital element that is missing in most circles today. “Apostles” form vast networks, connect with people online, build charitable organizations and speak at conferences but have no local church life in which they are nothing more than just another brother. This is a great need in the Body of Christ today.

To get back to my point, the other thing Paul mentions in this passage from 1 Corinthians 9 that is worthy of note is found in his reference to the Corinthian believers themselves as “the seal (or proof) of my apostleship in the Lord.” Here we have something that cannot be denied. Basically Paul is saying that the proof of apostleship-the proof that one has been called, prepared, and sent of the Lord by his own local church to build up God’s House elsewhere-is in the churches raised up through a man’s ministry. In other words, an apostle raises up churches, plain and simple. Real flesh and blood churches, that is.Visible, locatable assemblies that can be visited and have letters written to them. Organic churches that exist apart from the supporting structures of human organization, institution, and headship. And also, churches that go on living and moving and being after the apostle has left town.

If a man or woman can do this, there’s a good chance he or she is an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This principle of an apostle raising up a church and then leaving it to the headship of the Lord is all throughout the New Testament. The reasons for it are many, the examples more than evident. Even the Lord Jesus Himself said to the twelve, who would form the nucleus of the first church in Jerusalem, “it is good for you that I go away.” Every true apostle will have this same sentiment in his heart toward those he is working with to build up as the House of the Lord. It is good for every church that the apostle goes away so the members of that church can develop into a real priesthood of believers and learn how to know and follow the Lord on her own with no man, minister or “pastor” doing the work for her. Shepherding will abound in the organic expression of the church, just not in the modern official sense we see so prevailing in Protestant Christianity.

Well, perhaps that is enough to say for now on this subject. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed considering this issue the last few days. How we need apostles in the church! How we need men and women who are called and sent of God-broken, meek, well-trained servants who are thrust forth into His harvest field for the raising up of the testimony of Jesus Christ as Head over all things! May the Lord give us more such men, and may the expression of the church they raise up be of a higher quality and a deeper reality than anything any of us have yet seen! 

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About Joshua

Writer, husband, father, friend. View all posts by Joshua

5 responses to “What is an apostle?

  • Apostles, Church Gatherings, and the Great Commission | The Assembling of the Church

    […] First, Josh at “Called to Rebuild” talks about the different apostles found in Scripture in his post “What is an apostle?” […]

  • david

    You have covered your bases well in this article. I really enjoyed it reading it you have a great writing style and it has given me so new stuff to think about and challenge me… What prompted you to write it?

    I like that you start off by focusing on the meaning of the word ‘apostle’ which has been key in grounding it in the New Testament rather than all the concept that has developed in scholarly writings.

    What do you feel the process of ‘sending’ apostles should be?
    Do you think the modern concept of a missionary is closest to the NT understanding of apostle?
    Do you think that an apostle should be able to function in all areas of gifting or that just having a pastoral gifting is enough?

  • Josh

    Thanks for the comment, David.

    These are just thoughts I’ve had for a while. Nothing in particular prompted the post other than some of my own experiences over the past couple years with those I meet with receiving ministry from a brother who functions more in this apostolic kind of way rather than the traditional pastoral.

    I think the modern-day concept of a missionary bears some resemblance to the example of an apostle we have from the first century but still in most cases is not the same thing.

    The method of sending does not matter so much as the nature, I would say. If a man or woman is truly called, if they have experience of the Lord in the church life and others bear witness and are ready in the Lord’s name to send them out, then how they do it is up to them.

  • Hannah

    Thanks so much for this post, Josh. What exactly the apostolic is, is an issue that has been bothering me for a few years now and your article has illuminated it wonderfully for me. Bless you.

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