Biblical Definition Of
According to the word’s original meaning, an apostle was a sent one’. Jesus gave the name to his chosen twelve because, after their time of preparation with him, he sent them out in the service of his kingdom (Mark 3:13-15; Luke 6:13). As twelve tribes had formed the basis of the old people of God, so twelve apostles would be the foundation on which God would build his new people, the Christian church (Matt 16:18; Eph 2:20; Rev 21:12,14).
Mission of the twelve
Jesus’ purpose in sending out the twelve was to spread the message of his kingdom throughout Israel (Matt 10:5-7), as preparation for the worldwide mission to follow (Matt 28:19-20). He gave them a share in his messianic powers so that they could demonstrate the triumph of his kingdom through healing the sick and casting out demons (Matt 10:1,8). They were to move through Palestine as quickly as possible, avoiding anything that would hinder progress or waste time, so that they might complete the first stage of their mission during Jesus’ lifetime (Matt 10:9-14).
The apostles’ early activity proved to them that the special powers Christ had given them worked (Mark 6:13,30). Even after Christ had returned to his Father, they continued to perform miraculous works, because the Spirit of the risen Christ now indwelt them. These miracles were evidence that they were truly Christ’s apostles (Acts 3:12,16; 4:10; 5:12; cf. 2 Cor 12:12).
Part of Jesus’ purpose in choosing the twelve to accompany him in his ministry was that, after his departure, they might be able to preach about him with the first-hand knowledge of eye witnesses (John 15:26-27; Acts 1:8; 5:32; 10:39-41; cf. Mark 3:14). Realizing that they had a specific ministry to the people of that generation, the apostles tried to maintain a unit of twelve personal associates of Jesus as the basis of the new community. They insisted, therefore, that the person to replace Judas in the apostolic group be one who, like the other apostles, had been a genuine eye witness of the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to his ascension (Acts 1:21-22; cf. Luke 24:46-48).
With the establishment and growth of the church, the apostles had fulfilled part of the mission for which Christ had chosen them. They provided the leadership for the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42; 4:37; 5:1-5; 6:1-4), and were general overseers of the expansion of Christianity into the regions throughout Palestine and beyond (Acts 8:14-17; 10:46-48). Because of these developments, they were no longer constantly in Jerusalem and were no longer moving together as a group. When James was executed, they saw no need to replace him in order to maintain the unit of twelve, for it had now largely fulfilled its purpose (Acts 12:2; cf. Matt 28:19; Acts 1:8).
Apostles in the church
Initially apostles were concerned with announcing the good news that, through Christ, the new era had arrived (Matt 10:7; Acts 2:22-40). They then had the added responsibility of passing on the teachings of Jesus to those who believed (Matt 28:19-20). In this they had particular help and enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, as Christ had promised (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15). Teaching therefore became one of the apostles’ main duties in the church (Acts 2:42; 5:21,42; 6:4).
As the church grew, other people were acknowledged as having equal authority with the original apostles. They were not part of that unique group of twelve, but they were no less apostles. Among these were Paul, Barnabas, and James the brother of Jesus (Acts 14:14; Rom 16:7; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8-11; Gal 1:19). Because people other than the original twelve might now be apostles, warnings were given against false apostles (2 Cor 11:13; Rev 2:2). Regardless of the assertions people made about themselves, a true apostle could be appointed only by God (Acts 1:24; 1 Cor 1:1; cf. Mark 3:13-14).
Although apostles increased in number beyond the original twelve, their position was still unique in the church. They were people to whom the Holy Spirit had given special gifts that enabled them to preserve, teach and develop the truths of the Christian gospel (1 Cor 1:1; 12:28; 14:37; 2 Tim 1:11). People accepted the apostles’ teaching as having the authority of God’s Word (Acts 2:42; Gal 1:8; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15; 2 John 10), and added the apostles’ writings to the collection of inspired Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16; cf. John 14:26; 16:13-14).
Authority in teaching was only part of a wider authority that apostles exercised in the early church. Their authority extended over all areas of church life (Acts 5:1-11; 2 Cor 12:12; 13:1-3; 2 Thess 3:4,14; 1 Tim 1:20).
Yet on many occasions the apostles refused to use their authority to force Christians to submit to their rulings. They preferred that the Christians make decisions and take action themselves, and in so doing grow in spiritual maturity (Acts 11:2-4; 15:6; 2 Cor 1:24; 4:2,5; 10:8; 13:10; Philem 8-9). By helping such growth, they were again fulfilling their ministry (Eph 4:11-13).
The apostles did not pass their office on to the next generation. They were God’s specific provision to link the ministry of Christ with the birth of the church, and to ensure that the church was built upon the right foundation (Eph 2:20). As the authoritative interpretation of Christ and the gospel became firmly established in written form (2 Thess 2:15), and as the churches became firmly established through their local leaders (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23; 20:28), the necessity for apostles decreased. The apostolic office had served its purpose, and after the first century it died out.