by Josh Blake
The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word ‘apostolos,’ and it simply refers to a “sent one.” This is where we get the term for missionary.  The word today is surrounded with confusion. This may be due partially to an unclear cultural concept of the term apostle in the west.  The word can also be used generally or specifically. In its verb form, “to send out,” the term is used generally. In the noun form, an apostle or “sent one,” is a specific title with a focused function.  Originally, the word apostle was used for military expeditions and at times referred to a fleet of ships and the commanding officer of the fleet.  Over time, the term came to mean one who was sent out by a higher power to act with full authority and permission on behalf of that power.
As the Roman Empire sought to spread its influence across the lands that it conquered, the term began to take on even more meaning. According to Scheidler, “In order to bring Greek or Roman rule to alien cultures, apostles would be authorized by the state and sent on an expedition with a fleet of ships filled with colonists. These colonists would then set up a model city or colony with a model culture in the newly conquered lands. These colonies became regional centers from which Greek or Roman culture could be spread to the smaller cities and regions round about. In this way, those nations that had been physically conquered militarily could be conquered ideologically and culturally as well.” 
This brings clarity to how the disciples would have understood Jesus’s use of the term. Given this context, it is clear that the focus is on both the authority of the sender as well as on the specific purpose for which the apostle is sent. Scheidler concludes by saying, “he (the apostle) was to be the embodiment and true representation of the sender. The sent one was to be absolutely faithful to the purposes and intentions of the sender.”  It seems that Jesus may have been redeeming a previously used word for the sake of His Kingdom.
Considering Jesus’ ministry and the subsequent generation of the church that followed, it is clear that the apostle is significant and unique. Jesus Himself was called the Apostle and High Priest of our confession (Hebrews 3:1 [HCSB]). Jesus often referred to Himself as having been sent by the Father. After His initial phase of ministry, Jesus chose twelve men and called them apostles (Luke 6:12-‐16 [HCSB]). Commonly referred to as “The Twelve” by Luke, these twelve men were chosen by Jesus to be with Him, so that He could send them out to proclaim and heal (Mark 3:13-‐15 [HCSB]).
Jesus used the word to identify those whom he had chosen to replace him (Mark 3:13-‐15 [HCSB]). These twelve men would continue the work Jesus started. Near the end of His ministry, Jesus even tells them, “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you” (John 20:21 [HCSB]). After Judas hanged himself, this same group chose a replacement to join The Twelve, and they did so with the specific qualification that this man be one who had accompanied them from Jesus’ baptism until Jesus’ ascension.  Later Saul, also called Paul, is identified as an apostle. Along with him, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Apollos, Epaphroditus, Andronicus, and Junia are all identified as apostles.  In fact, the word “apostle” occurs more than eighty times in the New Testament, as compared to the term “pastor” or “shepherd,” only occurring four times.  Seeing that the term continued after The Twelve, and the frequency with which the term is used, it seems that others could have been apostles.
So then, what is an apostle? Why are they important? Do they exist today? If not, who are modern day “sent ones?” And if not, how does the church grow into full maturity today? If so, how are apostles different than The Twelve? And if they do exist, how does the church discern who they are and how much authority they have? The answers to these questions could drastically affect ecclesiology, missiology, and pneumatology in the western church as well as the global body of Christ. There are a few stances on this issue, which we will explore in the coming posts.
Neil Cole, Primal Fire: Reigniting the Church with the Five Gifts of Jesus, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2014), 139.
Bill Scheidler and Dick Iverson, Apostles, the fathering servant: a fresh biblical perspective on their role today, (Portland, Or.: City Bible, 2001), 12.
Bill Scheidler and Dick Iverson, Apostles, the fathering servant: a fresh biblical perspective on their role today, (Portland, Or.: City Bible, 2001), 14.
Acts 14:14, 1 Thess 2:7, 1 Cor 4:6-‐9, Phil 2:25, Romans 16:7