The term "apostle" (Greek, apostolos) simply means, "a sent one." An apostle is a messenger, an ambassador. The idea is that of representation: an apostle is a personal representative for the one(s) who sent him. He comes in the place of, representing the interests of, and bringing a message from someone else.
"Apostle of the Church"
An apostle of a church, then, is one sent by a particular church to represent that church's interests and/or deliver its message. Paul mentions that Epaphroditus was the apostle from the church at Philippi: "Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellow soldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants" (Philippians 2:25). The Greek word here translated "messenger" is apostolos. The relationship between Paul and the Philippian church was a close one, and this is one indication of it: they sent a messenger to assist Paul in his labors for Christ. He (Epaphroditus) was their apostle; he represented the church at Philippi to the apostle Paul. II Corinthians 8:23 also mentions such church apostles ("messengers," Greek, apostoloi).
"Apostle of Christ"
The gift of apostleship, however, refers to that carefully select group of men who were the personal representatives of Jesus Christ Himself. "Apostle of Christ" is a much more specific and technical use of the term "apostle." In a sense, all Christians are to be apostles for Jesus Christ, but this gift of apostleship belonged only to a very few. An apostle of Christ was a personal messenger of Jesus Christ, sent by the Lord Himself. He was a vicar of Christ (if you will pardon the expression!). He was one who represented the interests of Jesus Christ to men.
Like the gift of Pastor-Teacher, one was an apostle not only by calling or gifting but also by meeting certain qualifications. As already noted in the previous chapter, an apostle must have been one who could personally testify to the risen Christ. This was Paul's argument in I Corinthians 9:1 which established his own apostleship: "Have I not seen the Lord?" This was also one of the requirements stipulated by the eleven for the replacement of Judas (Acts 1:21-22). The credentials of Christ's apostles also included the ability to perform miracles. Jesus Himself gave this power to the twelve when He commissioned them (Matthew 10:1). Again in defending his apostleship to the Corinthians Paul mentioned this as something which identified him as a true apostle: "Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds" (II Corinthians 12:12).
The apostles were miracle workers who could bear personal witness to the risen Lord.
Christ's apostles occupy a position of unique honor. In I Corinthians 12:28 they are listed as "first" in importance. Jesus Himself affirmed this when He prophesied that in the coming Kingdom they would "sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Luke 22:29-30). Revelation 21:14 speaks of their names on the twelve foundation stones of the wall of the New Jerusalem. In Matthew 16:18-19 Peter, the representative of the apostles, is the one who holds the keys of the kingdom and is the rock on which Christ will build His church.
Why should they enjoy such honor? Not only because they were the personal representatives of Christ but also because in bearing witness to Christ and His work, they were the foundation of the church (see chapter 13). It is their teaching on which the church is built, hence, their great honor.
Closely associated with this honor is their unique authority. They were personal ambassadors for Jesus Christ, and as such their words carried divine authority. There was no appeal above their words, no discussion, no debate. They were Divine legates, bringing the very word of God to men. Their authority in the church was absolute.
A few examples should establish the point. In Acts 4:35-37, it is the apostles who are entrusted with the church's financial matters. In Acts 6:2-6, the record of the first church split, they are telling the church exactly what steps to take to settle the dispute. I Corinthians 4:17 declares the apostle Paul's example to be binding. In I Corinthians 14:37 Paul says, in effect, "anyone who disagrees with me is not spiritual." He claims that when he speaks it is Christ speaking through him (II Corinthians 13:3). Galatians 1:8-9 pronounces a curse on anyone disagreeing with Paul's teaching. I Thessalonians 2:13 declares that the word of the apostle is the word of God. II Thessalonians 2:15 says, in effect, "do what I tell you to do, and believe what I tell you to believe." II Thessalonians 3:6-15 commands harsh treatment on any who do not follow the apostle's instruction and practice. This is real authority! The New Testament plainly teaches the authority of the elders in the local church, but this kind of authority goes much further. This is the authority of Christ Himself through His personal messengers.
This is not to say that the apostles were infallible in every detail of their lives. Paul's rebuke of Peter for not practicing what he preached makes this clear (Galatians 2:11ff). Furthermore, after years of service for Christ Paul himself still claimed to be the chief of sinners (I Timothy 1:15). But nonetheless, the apostles were the authority: their word ended disputes and settled doctrine.
Nor is their authority limited to their first century contemporaries. The words of the apostles (now inscripturated) are no less binding today. Their word is the Word of God. They were God's mouthpiece, Christ's own representatives to His church.
Many think that the term "apostle" simply means "missionary." The word "missionary" does come from a Latin root which means "to send," so the inference is understandable. Paul was involved in much mission activity, as were other apostles, but it is also clear that many, if not most, of the apostles remained in Jerusalem for several years. So the function of an apostle was much more than only missions.
Their function was basically to, 1) lay the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20, Matthew 16:18), 2) give God's revelation to men (Ephesians 3:5), and 3) demonstrate the truth of that revelation by the exercising of their sign gifts (II Corinthians 12:12). These three functions were discussed in the previous chapter.
It is a surprise to some to learn that there were more than only the twelve apostles. It is an offense to others to limit that apostolic number to only fifteen, or so. The New Testament, however, provides the evidence for this plainly.
First of all, of course, there were the original twelve apostles, minus Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ. They were Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew (called Nathaniel in John's Gospel), Thomas, Matthew, James (the less), Lebbaeus (surnamed Thaddaeus, also called Judas, the brother of James the less), and Simon Zealotes. These men are listed in Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, and Acts 1:13.
In the first chapter of the book of Acts, these eleven, after much prayer and under the direction of the Holy Spirit, chose Matthias as the replacement for Judas Iscariot (verses 12-26). Some think that Matthias was not, after all, the replacement God appointed, but rather Paul. This view seems to rest more on assumption than Scriptural evidence. The fact of the matter is that Matthias was chosen, not Paul, and no hint to the contrary is ever given. Nowhere is it stated that the eleven were too hasty in their choice. In fact, verse 26 directly states that Matthias "was numbered with the eleven"; in other words, he was number twelve.
Furthermore, Paul did not meet the qualifications stipulated in Acts 1:21-22 which required that the replacement be one who companied with Christ during His earthly ministry up until His ascension. Matthias was the twelfth apostle.
James, the half-brother of the Lord and writer of the epistle which bears the name, was another apostle. His is an interesting biography, unbelieving until sometime after the resurrection. He is identified as an apostle equal to the others in Galatians 1:19, and in Acts 15 his high standing among the apostles is evident.
Barnabas ("the consoler") was an apostle as well. He is so designated in Acts 14:4 and 14. Some today question his apostleship; however, note that he is referred to as an apostle equal to Paul.
Paul, then, was the last man to enjoy the position of apostleship. He was "one born out of due time" in that he was a later (indeed, the last) addition to the apostolic company (I Corinthians 15:8-11). Because of this, evidently, some questioned his apostolic authority, which was no small matter to the apostle. Several times he was forced to defend his own apostleship (cf., I Corinthians 9:1ff, Galatians 2, etc.). In nine of his thirteen epistles, he is careful to identify himself as an "apostle of Jesus Christ" (e.g., I Corinthians 1:1). He does so most forcefully in Galatians, specifying that his apostleship is a commission of Jesus Christ Himself, not Paul or any other man (Galatians 1:1). It was a very important matter to him that it be recognized that his commission was indeed from Christ personally. He further emphasized that he learned his theology from the Lord first-hand, not from anyone else (Galatians 1:11-24).
It is a carefully guarded group of men who enjoyed the gift of apostleship, fifteen total -- the original eleven, Matthias, James, Barnabas, and Paul. Evidently, this elite group was not open to any others. Others are called apostles (II Corinthians 8:23 and Philippians 2:25), but these are church apostles. There is no small difference between one commissioned by and representing a church and one personally commissioned by and representing Jesus Christ! These were the men with the unique honor and authority in the church. There were also apostolic legates, such as Timothy and Titus, who possessed some degree of authority as well, but their authority was invested by the apostle Paul, not by Christ directly. Their authority was not absolute as it was with the apostles. A man today claiming apostleship should carefully consider the implications of such a claim.
Throughout the history of the church, apostolic succession has been claimed by some; the Roman Catholic church is well known for such claims. But many arguments militate against the possibility of any modern apostles.
1) The qualifications for the office cannot be met today (see above).
2) The nature of their work prohibits their continuance -- they were foundational with a revelatory ministry; the church now is in the superstructure phase of its building, and revelations have ceased (cf., chapter 13).
3) The ability to perform sign gifts, the accompanying credentials of the apostles, is absent today (chapter 13).
4) Paul was the last apostle.
5) No one today has such absolute authority over the churches. Pastoral authority and leadership is one thing, but apostolic authority is quite another. Furthermore, no one today has the privilege of doctrinal infallibility as did the apostles (the pope's claims to the contrary notwithstanding). Quite the contrary, Christians today are simply to measure all teachings by the foundation-standard given by the apostles themselves (Jude 17).
6) New Testament examples of successors to the apostles (eg, Timothy and Titus) are never called apostles or regarded with full apostolic authority. They were to carry on the apostle's work as, in a sense, all Christians are, but genuine apostolic succession was never considered; indeed, those first generation Christians themselves recognized the uniqueness of the apostles of Christ.
7) The early church (just after the apostles) recognized their absence.
Apostleship was a temporary and very important gift. But only a very few received it. No one today is so called or gifted, nor can anyone meet the necessary qualifications (see chapter 13).