Christians around the world joyfully confess “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, AD 381). That is, the sole church (one) that God has set apart (holy) in all times and places (catholic) consists of those whom He has assembled out of the world and into the redemptive reign of the only true Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. But those descriptors hold true only as the church is also “Apostolic,” that is, built up through the ministry and message of Jesus’ Apostles, with the exalted Christ as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). It is the Apostles who have delivered the body of doctrine—revealed by the Holy Spirit, centered on God’s accomplishment of redemption through the work of the incarnate Christ—that defines the church today. For the church to be “Apostolic,” therefore, is to hold to the teaching of the Apostles concerning God and the gospel. But what exactly is an Apostle?
The Identity of the Apostles
The New Testament, and especially Paul, uses the Greek word apostolos (apostle) in at least two senses. Broadly, it means one who is sent on a specific mission as an envoy or representative of the sender. For example, when Titus’ two companions traveled to collect the Corinthian church’s full contribution for the saints in Jerusalem, they arrived as “messengers [apostoloi] of the churches” in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:23). Likewise, the Philippian church dispatched Epaphroditus as their “messenger [apostolos] and minister to [Paul’s] need” (Phil. 2:25). This broad use of the term apostolos may reflect an older Jewish legal concept that the messenger resembles the sender insofar as his activity reflects the sender’s will and authority. As Jesus observed, “A servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger [apostolos] greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16).
In its more focused and familiar sense, the word apostolos designates one who was uniquely commissioned by Christ to bear authoritative witness to His person and work. Originally, Jesus chose twelve for this role (Luke 6:13). After Judas’ betrayal, Matthias was “numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26). After Christ confronted Saul of Tarsus from heaven on the road to Damascus, Saul—later Paul—became “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9).
Others, about whom the New Testament describes no specific appointment by Christ like the examples above, were closely associated with the Apostles and were viewed as functioning within their orbit. This category includes James, the Lord’s brother (1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19), Luke the physician (Col. 4:14), Silas and Timothy (1 Cor. 4:17; 2 Cor. 1:19), Barnabas (1 Cor. 9:5–6), Apollos (1 Cor. 4:6), and perhaps Andronicus and Junias or Junia (Rom. 16:7), among others. The flexibility in how the New Testament uses the term apostolos makes it difficult to determine precisely who among this group were emissaries of churches, close associates of Paul, or official “apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13). Whatever the exact number, Apostles in the sense of the specific Apostolic office were those who had seen the risen Christ (1 Cor. 9:1) and were appointed by Him to proclaim and to inscribe divinely approved testimony regarding the facts and meaning of His finished work.