What is an apostle? Are there apostles today?
The word “apostle” is a Greek word. It simply means, “one who is sent.” It carries with it the notion of one sent with special authority, an emissary of sorts. The New Testament writers seem to employ the word in two senses, one general and another more specific.
Apostle: The General Sense
In its more general sense, the word “apostle” describes those first century messengers sent officially by the church to advance its work in the world (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:23). This would make them somewhat akin to what we mean by missionary today. We see several examples of this wider usage in the New Testament, some more debatable than others: Acts 14:14-15 (Barnabas), 1 Corinthians 4:6-9 (Apollos); Galatians 1:19 (James, the Lord’s brother); Philippians 2:25 (Epaphroditus); 1 Thessalonians 2:5-6 (Silas and Timothy).
Apostle: The Specific Sense
It is very important to distinguish this general sense from its more specific and narrower usage in the New Testament. In its more specific usage, the word “apostle” describes those personally sent by Jesus Christ, himself – not simply his church. Paul refers to these as “The Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:5). These held the office of apostle and were entrusted with its extraordinary authority.
Qualifications for the formal office of apostle were twofold. First, one had to be an eyewitness to the entire public ministry of Jesus Christ, from his baptism to the time of his death, resurrection, and ascension (cf. Acts 1:21-22), Second, one had to be personally and specifically commissioned by Jesus Christ as an apostle (cf. Matthew 10:1-7; Acts 1:8). This involved sharing in our Lord’s ministry, even its miraculous aspects, as well as the authority to impart the inspired teaching of the New Testament church after his ascension.
Who held the office of apostle?
The Gospel of Matthew lists Christ’s appointed apostles in Matthew 10:2-4:
2 The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
After the suicide of Judas Iscariot, the remaining eleven apostles asked Jesus Christ to reveal his replacement through prayer and the casting of lots. Discerning the Lord’s will, they added Matthias to their number (c.f. Acts 1:24-26).
In what sense was Paul an apostle?
All of this prompts an important question: “In what sense did Paul refer to himself as an apostle, the more general or the more specific?” For several reasons, we favor the second, more specific sense.
First, and although Jesus Christ did not appoint Paul in the same manner as the Twelve, he did personally and specifically set him apart as an apostle to the Gentiles – that is, non-Jews (cf. Acts 26:16-17; Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:1; 1 Timothy 1:12; 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11). With Twelve apostles representing each of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus engrafted another into their number – one devoted to reaching the Gentiles and engrafting them into the number of the church.
Third, the Twelve appear to have received Paul as a fellow apostle, one sharing in their office and work. He details some of these interactions in Galatians 1:11-2:10, and we see the same described throughout Acts.
Finally, the Apostle Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to author much of the New Testament scriptures. Even the Apostle Peter referred to Paul’s writings as inspired scripture (2 Peter 3:16).
For all these reasons and more, we view Paul as an apostle in the second, more specific and authoritative sense.
Do any hold the office of apostle today?
No. The office of apostle was a temporary, extraordinary, and foundational office, one fulfilling its purpose in the generation of Christ’s first disciples (Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:14). Several New Testament evidences substantiate this.
First, Scripture’s very narrow qualifications for the office of apostle preclude others from holding it today. No one living today is an eyewitnesses to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, from the time of his baptism until the time of his ascension (cf. Acts 1:21-22). Further, no one can credibly claim, like the Apostle Paul, to have seen the resurrected Jesus Christ with their own eyes, or received his direct call to the office of apostle.
Second, there is no biblical example of the continuation of the office of apostle. Instead of establishing a line of apostles to succeed them after their deaths, the apostles ordained elders to shepherd the churches entrusted to their care, as well as deacons to assist them in caring for the daily needs of Christ’s followers, especially the most vulnerable (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). For this reason, many church historians note that no major leader in church history ever referred to themselves as an apostle.
Finally, Paul referred to himself as the last one to whom Christ appeared and appointed to the apostolic office (1 Corinthians 15:5-9). As such, after Paul, there is no clear New Testament evidence of others called to apostleship.
Why does this matter?
Some today refer to themselves as apostles. I believe this is confusing, unnecessary, and even potentially dangerous.
It’s confusing because, as we’ve seen, the title “apostle” can be used in two senses. When people use the term to describe themselves or their work, it’s not always clear what they mean by the term.
If they mean the more general sense, it’s completely unnecessary. The word “apostle,” in its general sense, has many sufficient synonyms that avoid creating confusion. Words like “missionary,” “church planter,” and even “messenger” all carry the same approximate meaning, and are much more readily and clearly understood by people today.
If they mean the more specific sense, they do so without biblical warrant, and are potentially dangerous to the flock of God. In claiming more power and authority than God intends any in the church to have today, they loose themselves of biblical accountability structures designed to protect not only the church, but them.
Instead of apostles, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, shepherds his church today through a plurality of ordained elders, none more authoritative than the rest. They are assisted in their work by ordained deacons. Together, these build on the foundation of Christ and his apostles as they continue the ministry of shepherding and serving the Church today.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998.
Grudem, Wayne A., and K. Erik. Thoennes. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.
All Scripture quotations from The ESV Global Study Bible®, ESV® Bible. Copyright © 2012 by Crossway. All rights reserved.