What is an Apostle?

Question from a Site Viewer
What is an apostle? Do they still exist? How can I identify them?

Tim’s Answer
Thank you for your questions. The word that we translate into English as “apostle” comes from a Greek word of a similar sound that means “sent one.” An apostle is one who is sent by someone else. In the Bible, the word is found 81 times, generally translated as “apostle” or “apostles,” but in John 13:16 it is translated as “he who is sent,” in 2 Corinthians 8:23 as “messengers,” and in Philippians 2:25 as “messenger.” The word is used in reference to the twelve whom Christ chose (Luke 6:13; 22:14), and of the Matthias who was chosen to take Judas Iscariot’s place (Acts 1:26). The word is also used of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 3:1); of Barnabas (Acts 14:14); of James, the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19); of the messengers of the churches (2 Corinthians 8;23); of Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25); and of course of Paul (Romans 1:1; 11:13; Galatians 1:1; 1 Timothy 2:7). Thus, in a general sense, everyone who is sent by God is an apostle. That would include all of us, as we are sent to bear witness to Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19-20).

Nevertheless, Scripture also uses the word in a far more restrictive sense, as referring to those twelve men who had seen the resurrected Lord and were chosen by Him to bear witness to what they had seen (Acts 1:2, 21-22; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:7-9). These men held the special office of an apostle. Paul speaks of God displaying him and the other apostles as men condemned to die (1 Corinthians 4:9). God built His church first on these apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 2:20). They were a select group (2 Peter 3:2) who had authority to command the churches and to whom the churches needed to obey (1 John 4:6; Jude 17). Into eternity, these twelve men are known as the apostles (Revelation 21:14).

No one today is an apostle in the same sense as the twelve apostles (taking Paul to be the real substitute of Judas Iscariot). Ignatius, who was the third bishop of Antioch, the church that sent out the Apostle Paul on his three missionary journeys, and a very godly man who personally knew the apostles and who, according to early church history, was appointed to lead the church at Antioch by the Apostle Peter, writes to the church at Rome around 108 A.D. and states: “I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man…” This early leader in the church had the sense that the office of apostleship was special to those first generation men who were chosen by Christ. These twelve men formed the foundation of the church. And, as Revelation 21:14 states, God is not adding a thirteenth, fourteenth, or fifteenth apostle to the twelve. There are and will always be only 12 apostles in the sense of this special apostolic office in the church.

I realize that some people today claim to be apostles. To the extent that they are sent out by Christ and His church, they may be apostles with a small “a” much like we all are called to be, but they are not apostles in the same sense as the Twelve Apostles were. They do not carry the authority of the Apostles.

You ask how you might identify apostles today. Your question indicates that apostles are somehow special. I do not accept that premise. As noted above, if there are apostles today they are not the same as the Twelve Apostles. They do not have the same office. Paul did not appoint in the churches apostles (Acts 14:23) and the offices Paul established for the church did not include apostles (1 Timothy 3:1-13), nor did Paul include apostles as those who should be counted worthy of honor in 1 Timothy 5:17-19 (see also Titus 1:5-9). The authority in the church today Scripturally resides in the elders and bishops (1 Timothy 3:1-7 and 1 Peter 5:1-5), not in those who claim to be apostles. If there are apostles today in any sense other than what we all are called to be, they would be appointed by the church to go and bring the gospel of God to others. We might think of such as being missionaries of God. We would recognize them by their gentleness, the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (Galatians 5:22-23), and their work in proclaiming Christ to others. If they sought to equate themselves with the early apostles, we would know that they are false apostles (2 Corinthians 11:12-13).

Ultimately, we are never called in the Bible to recognize apostles. We are called to follow Christ. We are called to desire the Word of God, to obey His Word, to love God and to love others with a tangible love. If we add to our faith such Christian character, we will be pleasing to God (2 Peter 1:5-11).

May the Lord guide you in loving Him, the Bible, and others.

only a servant,


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