What is an Apostle?

In preparing for this past Sunday, I did a little research in unpacking a term that was in my text (Titus 1:1) and, since I basically have no time for blogging anymore, decided to share it with my 5 or so readers.

The term I was studying was the term apostle, which has a whole lot of confusion about it.  Some fellows think that the reason the church is struggling is because it is lacking an apostolic ministry, like in the New Testament.  Some people think that anyone who is a church planter is an apostle.  Some people think that they’re an apostle.  Some people think everyone is an apostle.

So, what is an apostle?

Here’s the fruits of my study for you:

–          Apostle = Messenger

  • A term with two senses
    • Gal 1:1 – “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father…”
      • The idea here is that there are apostles of regular men, but Paul is an apostle of Christ.
    • It can be used in the general sense of “messenger”.
      • In this sense, Barnabas is called an apostle (Acts 14:14)
      • In this sense, Titus and the other brothers are “apostles” of/to the various churches (2 Cor. 8:23)
      • In this sense, Jesus is called an apostle (Heb. 3:1)
    • It can also be a technical term that refers to only the 13.
      • Paul clearly doesn’t apply his apostolic title to anyone else in his epistolary openings;
        • 1 Cor. 1:1 – Paul the apostle, Sosthenes the brother.
        • 2 Cor. 1:1 – Paul the apostle, Timothy the brother.
        • Gal. 1:1 – “Paul, an apostle…and all the brothers who are with me…”
        • Phil 1:1 – Paul & Timothy are servants of Christ.
        • Col. 1:1 – Paul the apostle, Timothy the brother.
        • 1 & 2 Thess. 1:1 – Simply 3 names (Paul, Silvanus and Timothy).
        • Phil. 1 – Paul the apostle, Timothy the brother.
        • All other letters have Paul alone as an apostle.
  • Criteria for apostleship:
    • 1. People who have witnessed the entire earthly ministry of Jesus.
    • 2. People who have witnessed the resurrection.
      • So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” – Acts 1:21-22
    • 3. Miraculous verification.
      • The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” – 2 Corinthians 12:12.
  • Who were apostles:
    • There were 13 apostles; men commissioned directly by Jesus Christ as his messengers.
      • There were 12 that were sent to the 12 tribes of the Jews.
      • There was 1 that was sent to the Gentiles; Paul.
        • Paul was made an apostle to the Gentiles in Acts 9:15.
        • Galatians 2:7-9 comments on how Paul understood and supported that the 12 were sent to the Jews and the 12 understood and supported that Paul was sent to the Gentiles.
  • Was Junia(s) an apostle in Romans 16:7?
    • No.  Junia was well known/famous “among the apostles”, meaning “in the sphere of the apostles” or ‘to the apostles”, not “as one of the apostles”.
    • For an exhaustive treatment of this issue, consult:
      • M. H. Burer and D. B. Wallace, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16.7,” NTS 47 (2001): 76-91.
      • Heath, Curtis R. “A Female Apostle?: A Note Re-examining the Work of Burer and Wallace Concerning epishmoV with en in the Dative,” Concordia Journal, (October 2002), 437-440
  • Are there currently any apostles on the earth?
    • Not in the specific sense like Paul or the 12.  Once one is clear on the definition of “apostle”, one cannot call anyone an apostle in the same sense of Paul or the 12.
  • Is there a difference between the office of apostle and the gift of apostle?
    • No.  Arguments that attempt to separate the office from the gift (arguing from Eph. 4:11) betray the clear definition of apostle in the NT and garner support from texts that use the term in the general sense of “messenger” (i.e. Acts 14:14 or 2 Cor. 8:23).
    • There is no compelling reason to doubt that the office was the gift; God gave the gift of the apostolic office (and the apostles that held that office) to the church for the purpose of founding the church (Eph. 2:20).
  • What about what some call the 4-fold ministry in Ephesians 4:11?
    • Again, arguments that try to argue for modern apostles betray the definition of apostle in the NT.
    • If the apostles had to be witnesses of Jesus earthly ministry and resurrection, as well as be verified by miraculous signs and wonders, then the only way for someone to be an apostle (in the specific sense) is to be 2,000 years old.
      • There are apostles all over the place in the general sense of “messenger” (in that sense, I’m an apostle too), but nobody who calls themselves an “apostle” is using the term on the same level of authority as “mailman”.
      • As a general rule; “doctrines” that are built on a single verse of scripture are highly suspicious.
  • Relation of prophets and apostles:
    • Jesus paralleled prophets and apostles in Luke 11:49, and they’re spoken of in parallel language in Eph. 2:20, 3:5; 2 Pet. 3:2; Rev. 18:20.
    • Both prophets and apostles speak for God, but only the apostles were messengers of Christ that were personally sent by him.
      • The big difference is Jesus.
      • In the NT, you have prophets who are not apostles (i.e. Agabus), but no apostles who are not prophets.

I hope that gives some food for thought and possibly clears up at least a little confusion.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “The Armchair Apostle, or is it apostle?” Unger


16 thoughts on “What is an Apostle?

  1. Thanks for the clear and concise study. Alot of confusion out there, what with the reestablishing of the Five-Fold pillars or foundations doctrine floating around these days.

    • Thanks for the comments Ed. I did the study because of exactly what you say; there is a TON of confusion out there on the issue of apostles and apostleship, and there’s some big names in evangelicalism who apparently haven’t done their homework when they toss out the term.

  2. Pingback: Cessationism and Continuationism and Strange Fire, Oh MY! (part 3) | Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely...

  3. Pingback: 7 Anvils part 1 – The Inspiration of Scripture | Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely...

  4. Just wondering, what are your thoughts on 1 Corinthians 15 specifically verse 5 and verse 7 where it appears that there is a difference between “the twelve” and “the apostles”? It appears to me that the term apostle(s) here seem to be referring to an apostle of Christ since Paul uses the term “apostle” in reference to himself shortly after in verse 9.

    • Sorry, just to clarify a bit. Maybe not (or maybe it is) “apostle of Christ.” What I’m asking is whether “the apostles” in 1 Cor. 15:7 is the same “apostles” in Eph. 2:20.

      • Hey Andy, thanks for the thoughtful question and helpful clarification. Let’s look at the two texts at hand:

        1. 1 Corinthians 15:5-9:

        “and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

        – It seems that the category of “the twelve” is paralleled with “Cephas”, but the “apostles” in vs. 7 is paralleled with both James and Paul. This would suggest that the category of “the twelve” and “apostles” is different, and I’d suggest that “the twelve” is the twelve disciples (which didn’t include Paul but did include Judas…before he died), but “the apostles” is the remaining disciples plus Matthias, Paul and possibly James, the brother of Jesus. So “the twelve” and “the apostles” are similar groups, but not entirely identical. I would suggest that the term “apostle” here is the technical term, not the common term.

        2. Ephesians 2:19-20:

        “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,”

        – Here it seems like the category of “apostles” is paralleled with “prophets”, both of which are the foundation of the household of God. I would suggest that the term “apostle” refers to the generic office of apostle. That’s also referencing the technical term, not the common term.


        So, I would suggest that “apostle” is used similarly in both 1 Corinthians 15:5-9 and Ephesians 2:20.

  5. Pingback: Thoughts on taking on a book writing project | Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely...

  6. The term “Apostle of Christ” is applied to more than Paul and the other “Apostles”. Check 1 Thessalonians 2:6. Ask yourself who are the Apostles in this passage. Who went with Paul? None of the other Apostles are mentioned as traveling with Paul. While I generally agree with your position, imposing categories on words beyond what the text requires is dangerous.

    • I love how I spend 10-15 hours doing hard lexical work, then someone comes along and thinks that they can overthrow a well-established pattern in scripture with a single verse. When I take a stab at building a lexicographical outline by going through every single occurrence of the word “apostle” in the NT, why do you think I somehow missed 1 Thess. 2:6?

      Just so you understand, that comes across as really, REALLY arrogant.

      Seeing that the clear pattern of usage has been established, and seeing that the whole thrust of the first two chapters of 1 Thessalonians is one of the proclamation and reception of the gospel, it’s well within reason to suspect that Paul is using the term in the general sense rather than making an appeal to authority or his apostolic office.

      You’ve heard the axiom about the clear texts interpreting the unclear? I’d dare suggest that applies here.

      • Forgive me for my arrogance. I mean that sincerely.

        I don’t believe that the doctrine of there being Apostles of men (Is this even in the text?) and Apostles of Christ is clear from the text. I think it is a distinction used to interpret the text, but it is not necessarily required by the text. I was hoping to point out a counterexample. Please note that a counterexample to a claim does not have to be the point of the text. I don’t think you could claim that the distinction between the two is *the* major point of any of the passages you reference.

        I would appreciate a rebuttal to the substance of my claim instead of appeals to your authority.

        Again, I am not a skilled writer or theologian, etc. Please forgive the presentation and respond to the argument. I would be *very* happy to be shown to be wrong and *very* happy to be affirmed as correct.

        • Okay. I’m pleased to have misread you quit badly.

          I don’t know where I appealed to authority. I’m not sure what you’re referring to with that comment.

          Either way, I’ve responded to the substance of your claim: I would suggest that 1 Thess. 2:6 is a general usage of the term, since there are two possible usages of the term (general and specific office).

          Do you want more than that or are you challenging the very idea of two usages of the term?

          I fear I’m misunderstanding you again.

      • I think David’s post kinda relates to the post I asked above, that there may have been more “apostles of Christ” than 13 (12+Paul), or 15 (11+Judas+Matthias+James+Paul). This thought comes mainly from the 1 Corinthians 15 passage I asked above.

        Christ appeared to Peter and the Twelve, then James and the apostles [of Christ], and *last of all*, Paul.

        I read the commentary in the below link saying that “all the apostles” may have included the 70 whom Jesus sent out in Luke 10:1. Or perhaps Cleopas and/or the unnamed with him whom Jesus appeared to on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24).


        In 1 Cor. 15:9 Paul backs up the fact that he is referring to the office. And he defined that unique office earlier by passing in 9:1.

  7. Pingback: A Little Authentic Fire Announcement | Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely…

  8. Have spent the last couple of hours reading posts on your blog. I like your manner of beginning with understanding the words – it is impossible to understand The Word if would do not have at least some grasp of the meaning of the words that make it up. Though I am significantly older than you, it is obvious that I do not have the academic grasp of the original languages that you possess – 2 years of undergraduate Greek (which I mostly slept through) and a short on-line course in Hebrew. However, I am true amateur of language – one who loves it – the very idea of it and how it is used.
    In my 40 years of preaching, I have always learned what I could from referencing the original languages. It has normally been my practice to look at as many texts using a particular word so as to gain the broadest meaning of the word I could find then study to see how that broad meaning is applied in different ways. As I am certain you know, one cannot understand a word by its simple lexical definition.
    When it comes to “apostle” the most generic meaning I can ascertain is “a sent one.” While “messenger” would qualify for most uses of it, a person can be sent to do something as well as say something. Within the context of the Scriptures, it would seem to be “someone who is sent under the authority of another to say and/or do something. With such a generic definition, I see three sorts of apostles.
    The Apostle of God, of which there is only one, Jesus Christ.
    The Apostles of Christ, of which there were 12. The Book of Revelation speaks of the City built on the foundation stones of the twelve apostles. Maybe you include Judas the Betrayer, for Christ did signify him as an apostle, or maybe your 13th apostle is Matthias. I think the authorizing of Matthias was another example of Peter’s rushing ahead of the Lord. Even Peter’s description of the necessary qualifications for apostleship would have made it impossible for Paul to be an apostle seeing he was not a disciple of Christ during the three years of the Lord’s prophetic ministry. Even though Peter and the others had been designated by Jesus as apostles, they had not yet received the Holy Spirit to perform their office. The remaining eleven after Judas’ death were not authorized or properly enabled to choose a twelfth. God replaced Judas with Paul. But that is a small matter. The Twelve were distinctly called the apostles of Christ.
    The Apostles of the Church. There is no reference to any of them under that specific designation. Yet we do read in acts 14.4 that Paul and Barnabas were in Iconium, “some sided with the Jews and some sided with the apostles.” So far as I know, Paul was the only one who would be designated as an apostle of Christ, However, I am not certain that his apostleship in this sense was yet acknowledged by the others or even yet known to himself. The point is that Acts 4.14 reefers to apostles in the plural, yet we have no record that anyone ever considered and apostle of Christ, other than Paul, was there. So, it seems that the word “apostle” was sometimes used in the more generic sense of those sent out under the authority of the church. It seems it would have very much the same significance as our modern word “missionary.”
    If my understanding is correct, it is quite possible that Paul was first recognized as an apostle of the church and only later confirmed by God and acknowledged by the others as an apostle of Christ.
    So, there can be no more than the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb. That office was a foundational office – the business of a wise master builder to whom the blueprint had been given and who could lay the foundation upon which later generations would build the superstructure. There are no more such men.
    But there are those who are “sent out” by the church who have demonstrated the unique gifts necessary to go to places where the gospel is not known, and, according to the pattern laid down by The Apostles of the Lamb, preach the gospel and establish new churches.
    Just my take on it. Would be glad to hear your comments if you are so inclined.

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s