In his letters, Paul frequently referred to himself as an apostle, and claimed authority as an apostle. Throughout his ministry this apostleship was regularly challenged by his opponents, or even rejected totally, particularly in Corinth. The purpose of this study is to look at what apostleship meant in the first century and its significance in the ministry of Paul, and to discuss the meaning of apostleship in the modern church.
The Greek word for “apostle”
The Greek word is “apostolos”, which seems to have had a particularly Christian usage. It is used frequently in the NT (35 times by Paul, and 45 times in the rest of the NT), but only very occasionally in secular Greek writing, where it is used to mean someone sent as a messenger, or in the sending of a naval fleet. Within the NT, including Paul’s letters, it has two main meanings or associations. One is a non-technical meaning for a messenger. For example, Titus and the brothers are described as messengers of the churches (2 Cor 8:23), where the Greek word is “apostolos”. The other is a more solemn meaning describing a person who is sent with divine authority (1 Cor 1:1).
There is a continuing debate over the origins of the concept of apostle. Some claim that it is a uniquely Christian concept, developed as a fresh idea by the early church to describe the leadership of this new movement. Others see a connection with gnostic ideas of a redeemer myth with the church first using the title apostle in Antioch rather than Jerusalem. Otherwise it could have connection with a term used to describe a messenger in Jewish rabbinic literature: “shaliah”, meaning “sent one”. This person could act in personal, legal or financial matters. However, it is mostly found in writings written later than the NT, so does not give a helpful explanation for the origin of its use in the NT, unless it was already in usage in earlier times. The Hebrew equivalent of the word is found about seven hundred times in the OT, meaning to be sent with a commission, and is translated as the verb“apostollein” in the Greek Septuagint. In both the OT, and in rabbinic texts it is used to describe a secular messenger, similar to its non-technical meaning in the NT. When Paul went to Damascus with letters from the high priest, he would have effectively been acting as a shaliah of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 9:2). However, there does not appear to be any counterpart of it meaning someone being sent with divine authority in either the OT or rabbinic writings. This use appears to be unique to the NT.
Jesus and the apostles
The origin of the Christian use of the word “apostle” is probably to be found in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus himself was very aware that he had been “sent” by the Father. This is particularly found in John’s Gospel (eg. Jn 5:36, 17:3). To welcome Jesus is also to welcome the one who sent him (Mk 9:37). Jesus claimed that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt 15:24), and that he was sent for the purpose of preaching the good news of the kingdom of God (Lk 4:43). The word for “sent” used in each of these three verses has the same root as the word “apostle”. Jesus probably thought of himself as the apostle of God, sent into the world to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. The author of Hebrews uniquely describes Jesus as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb 3:1).
The authority of the twelve as apostles was rooted in the fact that Jesus had sent them, and Jesus only had that authority to send them because he was sent by the Father, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (Jn 20:21). He appointed the twelve to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message with his authority, and named them as“apostles” (Mk 3:14). He sent them out and gave them authority over unclean spirits (Mk 6:7). They preached the coming of the kingdom of God, called people to repent, cast out demons and healed the sick (Mk 6:12f). This was the same message that Jesus himself preached, and they had authority delegated from him (Mk 1:14-15, 39). It is likely that Jesus was familiar with the Jewish concept of a “shaliah” (messenger), which he first applied to himself as the “one sent by God” and then to his disciples, who he sent out to preach the message of the kingdom, firstly in Israel, then to the nations.
Apostles in the Book of Acts
The most characteristic quality of the apostles described by Luke in the Book of Acts, is the empowering by the Holy Spirit. The apostles received the promised Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, and witnessed in the power of that Spirit (2:4, 4:8). The Samaritan believers received the Spirit through the laying on of hands of the apostles (8:14ff), and after Paul was called to be an apostle he was filled with the Holy Spirit through the prayer and laying on of hands by Ananias (9:17). The household of the Gentile Cornelius received the Spirit during the preaching of the apostle Peter (10:44). Paul and Barnabas were called and set apart for ministry through a word from the Holy Spirit (13:2). According to Luke, it was the presence and work of the Holy Spirit that raised up the apostles and sent them out into the mission to the Gentiles, as well as guiding and empowering their ministry. During his ministry Jesus promised that he would send the Spirit as the Helper or Advocate, who would enable his disciples to continue his work (Jn 16:7-15). So through the Holy Spirit, the apostles continue to be sent by Jesus and in his authority.
Apostles in Paul’s letters
As noted above, Paul uses the word “apostle” in two distinctly different ways: as a simple messenger, and as one who has divine authority. There are only two places in his letters where he describes people who are acting as messengers as apostles. The first is in his commendation of the three men who are shortly coming to Corinth to complete the collection for the Jewish believers in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8:16-24). He describes Titus and the two brothers with him (one is possibly Luke) as “apostles of the churches” (8:23), translated as “messengers” or “representatives” in English translations. They were acting as representatives of the Macedonian churches sent for the practical purpose of taking up a financial collection. The second instance of this use of this word is when he describes Epaphroditus as an “apostle” (Phil 2:25), translated as “messenger” in English translations. Again his role was more practical. He had been sent to Paul from Philippi, as their representative, with a financial gift from the church, which ministered to Paul’s need. In both these instances the role of the apostle is similar to the Jewish “shaliah”, someone sent as a representative or a person or an institution, with a particular task to perform.
In the majority of places where Paul refers to “apostles” it refers to leaders of the church who have been sent with divine authority. They have been sent out by Jesus himself, with his and the Father’s authority to preach the coming of his kingdom. In his letters, Paul refers both to the other apostles, or to himself as an apostle.
The other apostles
In his letters, Paul refers to “those who were apostles before him” (Gal 1:17), these being the apostles in Jerusalem. In 1 Corinthians, he lists the resurrection appearances of Jesus to Cephas, the twelve, 500 at once, James, all the apostles, and lastly himself (1 Cor 15:5-8). It appears that the twelve were given the status of apostle from the time of the ministry of Jesus. The qualification needed for the person to replace Judas was that they were with the Lord from the baptism of John until the Ascension, and were witnesses to the resurrection (Acts 1:22). Paul considers the twelve as a group distinct from other apostles.
There are two interesting questions to consider from this list. One is how many apostles were there in the first century, and the other is whether Paul considered that there were any apostles after himself.
Paul refers to “all the apostles” (1 Cor 15:7), and the “other apostles” (1 Cor 9:5), descriptions which would indicate that there were a larger number in total. The twelve appeared to be the central group, initially based in Jerusalem. James, the Lord’s brother, held an honoured position, and later became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. When Paul first visited Jerusalem he met with Cephas (Peter) and James (Gal 1:19). On the next visit, James, Cephas and John were described as the acknowledged pillars (Gal 2:9), suggesting that they were the primary leading apostles. Later, it was James who presided over the Jerusalem Council and made the final decision (Acts 15:13-21). The brothers of the Lord are also included with the apostles (1 Cor 9:5). These would include James, but possibly three other brothers, including Jude (Mk 6:3), the author of the Book of Jude. Barnabas is also referred to as an apostle, possibly because of him being a co-worker with Paul (1 Cor 9:6, Acts 14:4).
In Romans, Paul sends greetings to Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7), who he says are prominent among the apostles, and believers from before the time of Paul’s conversion. There is debate over whether the second name should be Junias (male) or Junia (female). Junias is a rare or even unknown name, but Junia is a familiar woman’s name. If it should read Junia, then Andronicus and Junia would probably have been a married couple. Interestingly this would also indicate that there was at least one woman who was considered to be an apostle in the early church. However none of the other women in the first century church, such as Mary the mother of Jesus, were ever described as apostles. Altogether seventeen people are specifically named as apostles in the NT, plus the Lord’s brothers, making a total of twenty. However, it is likely that there were a larger number than this in total.
The second question is whether Paul thought of himself as the last of the apostles, so that there would be no other apostles after him. Again in the list of resurrection appearances, Paul says that “last of all ... he appeared to me” (1 Cor 15:8). He is claiming that historically the last resurrection appearance was to Paul himself, a number of years later after the Ascension. This was when Jesus appeared personally to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). According to Paul, the qualification to be an apostle is that he has seen the Lord (1 Cor 9:1). He describes himself as “one untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8), probably because he did not see Jesus immediately following the resurrection, but only a few years later. The appearance to Paul was late and unique, which would suggest that he considered that this was the final resurrection appearance, and therefore his was the final appointment to be an apostle. It may be that the uniqueness of his call would lead to some people doubting his authority to be an apostle.
Paul as an apostle
In nine of his thirteen letters Paul introduces himself as an apostle. The longest introduction and description of himself and his Gospel is in the Book of Romans (1:1-6). In this, he introduces himself as a servant (or slave) of Jesus Christ, who is called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God (1:1). He received this apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles (1:5). In his introduction to the Book of Galatians, he describes himself as an apostle, who is sent not by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father (Gal 1:1). It is evident that Paul considered that he received his call to be an apostle to the Gentiles directly from the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. In his testimony before Agrippa, Paul recalled that the risen Jesus had told him that he was “sending” him to the Gentiles (Acts 26:17). The word for “sending” here is “apostello”. However Paul believed that God had set him apart for this ministry before he was even born (Gal 1:15).
It is significant to note that Paul emphasises his authority as an apostle in the introduction of those letters written to places where his apostleship is being challenged or even rejected. In the two letters to the Thessalonians he gives no description of himself, probably because there was no challenge to his authority in the church in Thessalonica. However in Galatians, he was responding to the Jewish legalists who had come to the churches and who were criticising him. Here he emphasises that his apostleship was from God (Gal 1:1), and that he was not sent out as a representative (as a human messenger or shaliah) of the church in Jerusalem. He carefully lists his visits to Jerusalem, and shows that the apostles in Jerusalem recognised his apostleship as equal with theirs, giving him the right hand of fellowship, and dividing the ministry to Jews and Gentiles between them (Gal 2:9).
Challenges to Paul’s apostleship
The first major challenges to Paul’s authority as an apostle came from the church in Corinth. When he wrote 1 Corinthians, some in the church were criticising Paul and questioning whether he was a true apostle. By the time he wrote 2 Corinthians a few years later, opposition to Paul had hardened to a stronger rejection of his authority.
At the time of 1 Corinthians, some in the church (probably a minority) were criticising Paul because his style of ministry did not match up to their expectations of a travelling preacher. They were particularly offended when he refused to accept payment from them. If he was a genuine apostle, then he would have surely accepted their patronage. In chapter nine, Paul defends himself and his apostleship against their criticisms by using a series of strongly worded questions. He gives his defence against those who would examine him (1 Cor 9:3), showing that although he has the right to receive money from them, he has given up that right for the sake of the gospel. He bases his claim to be an apostle on the fact that he has seen the Lord (9:1), and proves his apostleship by the actual existence of the church in Corinth, which he calls his work in the Lord (9:2). It was the work of an apostle to preach the gospel and to establish churches, so the Corinthian church was living proof of this.
Soon after this, a number of people came to the church claiming to be apostles. Paul refers to them as “false apostles and deceitful workers” (2 Cor 11:13), and sarcastically calls them “super apostles” (11:5). These people considered Paul to be inferior because of his defeats, and were attempting to take his place as the apostle over the church in Corinth. They appeared to be Jewish believers (11:22), who were preaching a different gospel (11:4), claiming to be ministers of righteousness (11:15). They boasted about the many visions and revelations of the Lord they had received (12:1). They claimed to have letters of recommendation from human leaders, but had no call from Christ (11:13). Paul’s response was to emphasise his authority and the call to be an apostle he received on the road to Damascus (1:1, 4:1, 10:8, 13:10). Then, perhaps surprisingly, he responds to their charge of him being weak and defeated, by turning it around and boasting as a fool in all his defeats and weaknesses, and stressing that his ministry is purely as a result of the grace of God (12:9). According to Paul, the messenger may be weak, but he preaches a glorious and powerful message (4:7).
Paul also claims to have “the signs of a true apostle”, the signs, wonders and mighty works performed among them (12:12), which were evidence of the empowering of the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:5). For Paul, a true apostle comes with divine authority, and is completely submitted to the authority of the risen Jesus and his Holy Spirit, being exclusively devoted to Jesus. A true apostle is not self-seeking and does not lord it over the churches (1:24), but selflessly serves Jesus as their co-worker. He does not proclaim himself, but proclaims Jesus as Lord, to serve those who he ministers to (4:5).
Apostles as the foundation of the church
Paul saw that the apostles had a distinguished, honoured and unique position as the first leaders in the early church. He declared that of God appointments in the church, the first were the apostles (1 Cor 12:28). He places apostles at the top of the list of gifts that God gave to the church (Eph 4:11). This can be seen as first in chronology, as well as being first in importance. The apostles and prophets had a primary role in the preaching of the gospel, making known the mystery of God that had been hidden from former generations (Eph 3:5-6). He described the church as the household of God being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets to form a holy temple, a dwelling place for God (Eph 2:20). The revelation received through the apostles became the foundation of the church. This revelation was brought to the Gentiles by Paul writing letters such as Romans (Rom 16:25ff), and in his preaching of the gospel (1 Cor 2:13). In the vision of the heavenly city Jerusalem, the foundations of the city were the twelve apostles, again showing that the apostles acted as the foundation of the church (Rev 21:14). In these passages apostles and prophets are linked together, presumably because an apostle was considered a prophet because they brought the Word of God. However not all prophets were apostles, Agabus being one example.
When the church was in the process of recognising the inspired canon of the NT, the criterion they used was whether the book had “apostolic authority”. To be included in the canon of the NT, it had to be written by one of the apostles of the church or someone closely associated with them, so another unique function of the apostles was to be the authors of the New Testament. As the canon is now considered to be closed, that would suggest that there are no more apostles since Paul.
According to Paul, the definition of an apostle is that they must have seen the risen Lord (1 Cor 9:1). The early church appointed Matthias as an apostle because he had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, until the ascension, and be a witness to the resurrection (Acts 1:22). Paul considered himself to be the last of the apostles (1 Cor 15:8), who had received a unique call from the risen Lord, even after his ascension. By this definition, then it appears that apostleship was restricted to the early years of the church, and cannot be repeated.
The question is whether the position of apostle and the gift of apostleship are still valid in today’s church. Some modern churches give their main leader the title of apostle, while other churches refuse to recognise any person today as an apostle. Others suggest that even though the title of apostle is not used, the gift of apostle is still given today to those who have an apostolic ministry. This can involve anything pioneering something new, whether church planting in an area where the gospel has not yet been preached, or leading the church in to new forms of ministry. This is argued from the fact that the gift of apostle is listed with other gifts in the church which are still in use today, such as evangelist and pastor (Eph 4:11). Whatever is decided, it is certain that the first apostles have a unique and unrepeatable position in the church, as the eye-witnesses to the risen Jesus, the foundation of the church, and inspired writers of the New Testament.
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Ladd, G.E. A Theology of the New Testament. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1974, revised 1993.
Kruse, C.G. “Apostle” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Green, McKnight & Marshall (eds.). IVP, Leicester 1992.
Apostle, Apostleship in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Martin & Davids (eds.). IVP, Leicester 1997.
Robinson, W.C. “Apostle” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE). Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1979.