Published: 11 April 2022

What Is An Apostle?

Apostle

The word apostle is one of several words in the Bible that has not been translated from the original biblical language into English. Instead, the word apostle is a transliteration from Greek into English. Transliteration is the process of taking the letters of a word from one language and substituting them with the equivalent letters of a different language. Translation, on the other hand, is the process of choosing a word in the destination language that has the same meaning as the word in the source language. The word apostle came into the English language from the Greek word apostolos (ἀπόστολος). 

ἀπόστολος  →  apostolos  →  apostle 

As you can see, our English word apostle is composed by substituting the Greek letters with the equivalent English letters. The word hasn’t been translated at all, but is really just an approximation of the sound of the Greek word.

Definition

BDAG defines apostolos as a “delegate, envoy, or messenger.”[1]Danker, Frederick W., et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed, University of Chicago Press, 2000: BDAG, s.v. “ἀπόστολος,” 122. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon says the word means “one sent forth with orders.”[2]Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, s.v. “ἀπόστολος,” paragraph 1660. There are a few places in the New Testament where apostolos has been translated as messenger: 

Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. (John 13:16 ESV)

As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker for your benefit. And as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ. (2 Cor. 8:23 ESV)

I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, (Phil. 2:25 ESV)

In the most basic sense, an apostle is a person who is “sent“ with authority to perform their assigned task. This is plainly seen in a verse like 1 Timothy 1:1:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, (1 Tim. 1:1 ESV)

Command, in this verse, means an authoritative directive or order.[3]Danker, Frederick W., et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed, University of Chicago Press, 2000: BDAG, s.v. “ἐπιταγή,” 383. “An apostle is someone sent as an official representative, bearing the authority of the one who sent the apostle.”[4]Mounce, William D. Word Biblical Commentary, Pastoral Epistles, Vol 46, Nelson, 2000, 224.

Are there apostles today?

Since an apostle is a delegate or messenger who has been sent on a mission of some sort, then yes, strictly speaking, there are apostles today. “Everyone who is sent by someone is an apostle of the one who sent him.”[5]Hans Dieter Betz, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, s.v. “APOSTLE,” 1:308. Perhaps the most obvious examples are missionaries. Missionaries are typically sent out by some organization and given the task of sharing the gospel with a target audience. They have whatever legitimate authority is necessary to carry out this job.

Who did the sending?

Perhaps the question should be, are there any apostles today who are in the same category as Peter, John, Paul, etc.? The fact that these men were hand picked and commissioned by the Lord Jesus Himself puts them in a class apart from any other person who has been “sent.” They had a special job with special authority that no one today can equal. 

For example, the scriptures indicate that the apostles had authority and oversight of all the churches. Notice Paul’s authority in the following verses.

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Cor. 7:17 ESV)

the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. (1 Cor. 14:34 ESV)

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. (1 Cor. 16:1 ESV)

And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:28 ESV)

No one today has such authority

Who today could claim to exercise legitimate influence over all congregations of God’s people? This type of influence rested only in the Lord Himself and in the men He personally chose as His delegates. Today no such (legitimate) authority has been delegated to a person or group of people.

The apostles we read about in the New Testament were special because of the One who sent them. They were ordinary men empowered and equipped by God.

References

References
1 Danker, Frederick W., et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed, University of Chicago Press, 2000: BDAG, s.v. “ἀπόστολος,” 122.
2 Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, s.v. “ἀπόστολος,” paragraph 1660.
3 Danker, Frederick W., et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed, University of Chicago Press, 2000: BDAG, s.v. “ἐπιταγή,” 383.
4 Mounce, William D. Word Biblical Commentary, Pastoral Epistles, Vol 46, Nelson, 2000, 224.
5 Hans Dieter Betz, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, s.v. “APOSTLE,” 1:308.