What Is an Apostle?

Apostles of Jesus
Christ Exhortation to the twelve Apostles, by James Tissot. SuperStock / Getty Images

The definition of an apostle (from the Greek apostolos) is "one who is sent" or "one commissioned." The term (pronounced uh POS ull) appears more than 80 times in the New Testament. In Hebrews 3:1, the word was applied to Jesus Christ, who was sent by God:

Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. (NIV)

What is an apostle?

  • An apostle was an official representative charged with a commission.
  • Jesus chose twelve men from among his followers to be his apostles.
  • An apostle of Jesus Christ is a messenger sent to spread the gospel of salvation.
  • The apostles of Jesus Christ were sometimes referred to as "The Twelve."

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus used "apostle" to refer to messengers sent by God to preach to Israel:

Because of this, God in his wisdom said, "I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute." (Luke 11:49, NIV)

The Apostles of Jesus

However, the primary definition of apostle applies to a singular group of men who held a supreme role in the early church. The apostles were Jesus Christ's 12 closest disciples, chosen by him early in his ministry to spread the gospel after his death and resurrection. In the Bible, they are called Jesus' disciples until the Lord's ascension into heaven. Thereafter, they are referred to as apostles:

"These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him." (Matthew 10:2-4, NIV,)

Jesus assigned these men specific duties before his crucifixion, but it was only after his resurrection—when their discipleship had been completed—that he appointed them fully as apostles. By then Judas Iscariot had hanged himself and was later replaced by Matthias, who was chosen by lot (Acts 1:15-26).

Jesus Sends Out the Twelve Apostles
Jesus Sends Out the Twelve Apostles (Matthew 10), published 1886. ZU_09 / Getty Images

An Apostle Is One Who Is Commissioned

The term apostle was also used in the New Testament to describe an individual who was commissioned and sent by a community or church to preach the gospel. Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of Christians who was converted when he had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, is also called an apostle. We know him as the Apostle Paul. Paul spread the gospel to the gentiles throughout the Mediterranean.

Paul's commission was similar to that of the 12 apostles, and his ministry, like theirs, was guided by God's gracious leading and anointing. Paul, the last person to witness an appearance of Jesus after his resurrection, is considered the last of the chosen apostles:

But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles. When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus. (Galatians 1:15–17, NLT)

Limited details are given in the Bible of the apostles' ongoing evangelistic work, but tradition holds that all of them, except John, died martyrs' deaths for their faith.

Qualifications of an Apostle

An apostle as defined strictly by the New Testament, no longer exists today, since these three conditions had to be met: The person had to have been an eyewitness to Jesus after his resurrection (1 Corinthians 9:1); had to have been chosen by the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:15); and had to have ministered with miraculous signs and wonders (Acts 2:43; 2 Corinthians 12:12).

A modern-day apostle would typically function as a church planter—one who is sent out by the body of Christ to spread the gospel and establish new communities of believers.

Key Bible Verses

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, "Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mark 6:7-13, ESV; see also Luke 9:1-6 and Matthew 28:16-20)

Sources

  • T. Alton Bryant. The New Compact Bible Dictionary.
  • Paul Enns. Moody Handbook of Theology.