December 3, 2013

So What Exactly is an Apostle?

by Lyndon Unger

I have heard it said before that the lack of modern day apostles is a large part of the reason for the struggles of the North American church, and I’ve also heard it said that the presence of modern day apostles are a large part of the reason for the struggles of the North American church. I don’t think both positions can be correct, unless they’re working with different definitions of the word “apostle”.

So what exactly is an apostle? Some suggest that a church planter is an apostle.  Some people suggest that they are an apostle.  Some people suggest that nobody after the first century could possibly be an apostle.  Some people suggest that everyone is, in some way, an apostle.  Before you toss your hands up in the air and reach for a painkiller, let’s take a quick, but thorough look at the Biblical usage of the term “apostle”:

Apostle(Not even close partner…)

An apostle = A messenger

  • The term can have two senses
    • 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 (Gal. 1:1).
    • 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 those messengers personally sent by the incarnate Christ.
      • Paul clearly doesn’t apply his apostolic title to anyone else in his epistolary openings:
        •  Paul the apostle, Sosthenes the brother (1 Cor. 1:1).
        •  Paul the apostle, Timothy the brother (2 Cor. 1:1).
        •  “Paul, an apostle…and all the brothers who are with me…” (Gal. 1:1)
        •  Paul & Timothy are servants of Christ (Phil. 1:1).
        •  Paul the apostle, Timothy the brother (Col. 1:1).
        •  Paul simply names himself, Silvanus and Timothy (1 & 2 Thess. 1:1).
        •  Paul the apostle, Timothy the brother (Philemon 1:1).
        • All other letters have Paul alone as an apostle .
  • The Biblical 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 Cor. 12:12)

      Resurrection(unless you were part of this group of folks, namely witnesses of the risen Christ, you’re not an apostle like they were…)

  • Who were apostles:
    • There were 13 apostles; men commissioned directly by God incarnate 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.
        •  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 (Gal. 2:7-9).
  • 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 the following journal articles (for those of you who really want to hammer through this question):
      • 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 sense of “holding the office of apostle” 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 a misunderstanding of the different usages of the term “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).
    • I cannot find a compelling reason to doubt that the office of apostle was the gift in Eph. 4:11 (or 1 Cor. 12:28-29); God gave the specific apostles to the church for the purpose of founding the church (Eph. 2:20), and the church isn’t continually being founded in each successive generation.
  • What about what some call the 5-fold ministry in Ephesians 4:11 or 1 Corinthians 12:28-29?


  • Again, arguments that try to argue for modern apostles betray a misunderstanding of the different usage 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 I’ve never once heard of someone who calls themselves an “apostle” in order to insinuate the same level of divine authority as this fellow.
    • As a general rule; “doctrines” that are built on a single verse of scripture (like Eph. 4:11, which is the only passage I’ve ever seen used to defend the concept of the “five-fold ministry”) are highly suspicious.
  • What was the 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; and 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.

So, if someone calls themselves an “apostle” and is not a miraculously verified witness of both Christ’s earthly ministry and resurrection, then they’re basically using the term as synonymous with the term “Christian”.  If someone is not a miraculously verified witness of both Christ’s earthly ministry and resurrection but they call themselves an “apostle” because they’re planting churches, then they’re basically using the term as synonymous with the term “pastor”.

I hope that gives some food for thought and clears up the terminology confusion for you as much as it did for me!

Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him didn’t.
  • pearlbaker

    Anybody know the email address to the Crenshaw Christian Center? Not sure “Apostle” Frederick K. Price, Sr. is gonna like this, but I do! I do not see at all how any man (or probably any woman, these days) can call themselves an apostle. Thanks for the excellent article, Lyndon!

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks for the kind words Pearl! I hope it helped!

      I don’t understand how others call themselves “apostles” either, but I have noticed a rather consistent correlation between the orthodoxy of doctrine and the honorific. People called “pastor” are almost always a fair bit more orthodox than people called “apostle”…

  • I remember reading a billboard around Houston of some “apostle” and I wonder, did this guy really witness the earthly ministry of Jesus? He’d have to be like, 2000 years old or something…

    • Lyndon Unger

      Was his last name “McLeod” or something?

  • Coupla comments Lyndon:

    1. You wrote – The term can have two senses The idea here is that there are apostles of regular men, but Paul is an apostle of Christ (Gal. 1:1).

    My understanding of this verse has always been that Paul was clarifying that he was given his authority directly from God, not from the other apostles – not that he was differentiating his type of apostleship. What sayest thou?

    2. Are we able to say for certain that there were only 13 apostles? It is possible that others were made apostles who met the other quals? I tend to agree with you, just wondering if we can prove that. Why not Barnabas or Titus…?

    3. You wrote: “People who have witnessed the entire earthly ministry of Jesus.” as a qualification. I’m wondering if “entire” is necessary as I’m guessing that would have disqualified Paul.

    Good post, that was very helpful and it is nice to have a concise resource to bookmark for future use.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Michael – I’d agree with you regarding Galatians 1:1, but I’d also suggest that the reception of authority from Christ is what actually makes one an apostle in the technical sense, so the ideas are intimately related.

      As for the limitation of the 13, I’d say that the scripture doesn’t refer to Titus, or Barnabas, or anyone other than the 13 as “apostles” (outside of the “false apostles” in 2 Cor. 11-12…but they’re false apostles…). I’d also refer you back to where I looked at all the introductions to the Pauline epistles, where Paul repeatedly calls himself an “apostle” and everyone else a “brother”. That would give me good precedent to doubt that anyone outside the 13 were called “apostles”.

      Acts 1:21-22 is pretty clear; only people who had been around during John’s baptism of Jesus could qualify as an apostle. I don’t think that would disqualify Paul as he was a prized student of Gamaliel. If he was the Pharisees’ hitman within a year of the church getting established, I’d dare suggest he didn’t climb the ladder of success in a matter of months. He was first mentioned at the stoning of Stephen, but there’s no real reason to believe he wasn’t part of the posse of Scribes and Pharisees that followed and harassed Jesus.

      In modern terms, Paul might not have been the rapper, but he may have been driving the Escalade.

      • Thanks. Good answers. I agree about the 13 apostles for the reasons you gave – although I probably wouldn’t separate over it if someone thought it possible more were chosen.

        It seems Matthias qualifies as received authority from Christ as the lot cast was decided by the Lord, eh? Kinda neat, actually, to think of the Lord allowing His will to be made known at that time in that fashion.

        As far as 3) I guess I’d question whether Acts 1:21-22 was a statement of fact or more of just how Peter phrased stuff.

        What I mean is that just because Peter stated it that way – that doesn’t necessarily imply that is the God given rule for apostleship.

        In fact, the word used in Acts 1 for accompany, I would argue, actually implies that the person was synthesized with the group in a sense already, that is, that the person was already considered a disciple – to the exclusion of a man such as Saul of Tarsus.

        Certainly it doesn’t sound like Peter was saying “Anyone who followed us or harassed us but now believes or someone who was with us from the baptism of John.”

        • Lyndon Unger


          Glad we’re agreeing on the 13, and it definitely is amazing that Matthias got his authority from Christ via the lot. I’ve always wondered exactly when Christians stopped using the lot as a reliable way of making decisions, but that’s a study I haven’t done and a totally separate post that will likely be forgotten.

          As for Acts 1:21-22, if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re suggesting that Peter was suggesting that only those who had been accepted into the circle of the apostles/disciples of Jesus (rather than just anyone who tagged along) was the idea communicated by Luke’s usage of “synerchomai”?

          I’d say that you’d have a hard sell with that one. If we look at the usage of synerchomai, it appears 15 other times in Acts. In Acts, Luke uses it for:

          – The assembling of the disciples in Acts 1:6.

          – The mixed group of Jews that assembled in Acts 2:6.

          – The mixed groups of believers, sick, and demon posessed that assembled to be healed in Acts 5:16

          – Peter going together with the 2 men who were sent to get him to revive Dorcas in Acts 9:39

          – The brothers that went with Peter in Acts 10:23 & 10:45.

          – The people who had assembled at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10:27.

          – Peter going with the disciples of Cornelius in Acts 11:12.

          – John Mark who has not gone with Paul into Pamphylia in Acts 15:38.

          – The pagan women who assembled together at the river near Philipi to pray in Acts 16:13.

          – The confused crowd that assembled in Ephesus in Acts 19:32.

          – The disciples that accompanied Paul in Acts 21:16.

          – Paul coming together with the Christians in Jerusalem in Acts 21:22.

          – The assembling of the Roman tribunal in Acts 25:17.

          – The assembling of the Roman Jewish leaders in Acts 28:17.

          So in Luke’s own usage of the term, I see term referring to mixed groups, disassociated groups, and homogeneous groups…

          …and 2/3 of Marks usage of the term (3:20 & 6:33), 1/2 of Lukes’ other usage of the term (Luke 5:15) and 1/2 of John’s usage of the term (John 11:33) talk about mixed groups that simply were standing in proximity to one another.

          It seems that the general meaning of the term carries the idea of simply “accompanying” or “assembling with”. I’d have a hard time making any solid case that “synerchomai” was used in the more nuanced sense that you suggest.

          • Again, I don’t think from the context that Peter was speaking from God as “here is a rule of apostleship” but rather, he was simple stating his preference or belief as to how they’d choose.

            And I would still say that the implication of Peter’s statement is that the person was somehow with them.

            I do not think Peter meant: “Anyone who followed us or harassed us or persecuted us in any way but was gathered around us.”

            In each case you mentioned, there was a sense of gathering, unity and accompaniment that diverges from your description of how the pharisees “followed and harassed” Christ. In every case you provided, there is a clear sense of a group coming together for something common, even if they weren’t thought of as common beforehand.

            But you are a smarter man than I, so who knows. I just still don’t see Peter’s statement as God’s authoritative Word that this is what qualifies an apostle.

          • Lyndon Unger

            That’s fine Michael. I would still suggest that you’re seeing a definition of synerchomai that is more specific than I do when I look at Luke’s usage of the term…but even if you see some sort of definition that suggests “coming together for something common”, the “common” could be something general, like hearing a message. In many of the crowds, there could be those who “synerchomai’d” for the purpose of hearing to understand and those who “synerchomai’d” for the purpose of hearing to mock.

            We can disagree here with little risk of some sort of abject heresy coming out of things. So, out of curiosity, what were the qualifications for apostles if not what I’ve suggested based on Acts 1?

            And you’re far too kind; the appearance of intelligence is actually the smoldering remains of decades of flaming stupidity. I have a few seminary co-students and professors who would facepalm at you suggesting I was smart. Ha!

          • I think the qualifications you suggested are fine, with the exception that I would not be so sure about “People who have witnessed the entire earthly ministry of Jesus.”

            Not that it isn’t so, just that I don’t think I’m convinced that is one of God’s qualifications. I actually find it really hard to believe that Paul traveled with Jesus and the 12 ALL THE TIME.

            I would concede that it at least means someone witnessed Christ before He was crucified and could testify to what he saw (as well as after He was risen) — it is the word “entire” that is catching me.

          • Lyndon Unger

            Oh…then I think we have just talked past each other. I used “entire” not in the sense of “every event” but rather in the sense that Peter said; from the baptism of John to the ascension (i.e. not joining in the crowd half way through Christ’s ministry). I don’t think Peter was suggesting that apostles had to have attended everything that Jesus did or heard all he said.

            None of the disciples did THAT.

          • Maybe we’re not as smart as I supposed…

          • Lyndon Unger

            Doh. I always suspected that I was a dingleberry, but the problem with suspecting if you’re a dingleberry is that if you ARE a dingleberry, you’re likely unable to figure it out since you’re too much of a dingleberry to discern your dingleberriness.


    God’s timing is amazing! Just a couple weeks ago in church I was going through spiritual gifts and someone asked me about the spiritual gift of apostle. They challenged the existence of the spiritual gift of apostleship. Honestly I did not have a good answer at the time. Your post was just what I needed!

    • Lyndon Unger

      So glad the Lord could use me to bless you Jonathan!

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  • Ben Thorp

    I’m confused as to how you identify 2 usages in the New Testament, and then disqualify one of them completely with your criteria?

    • Lyndon Unger

      I’m missing you somehow. Could you please explain?

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