- Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors-and-teachers. (Eph 4:11)
- Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church: first (πρῶτος) are the apostles, second (δεύτερος) are prophets, third (τρίτος) are teachers, then (ἔπειτα) …. (1 Cor 12:28).
Usage of “apostle”
In the New Testament, the term “apostle” ἀπόστολος/apostolos can refer to any of the following:
- Someone sent as a messenger, envoy (John 13:16)
- A commissioned representative of a congregation, delegate, missionary (2 Cor 8:23)
- A messenger from God as a general term (Luke 11:49)
- A person who has the special task of founding and establishing churches, apostle, messenger (Eph 2:20)
In the context of a Pauline gift list, the labels “first” (πρῶτον ἀποστόλους) and “second” refer to the foundational figures of the church, “the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph 2:20). In this case, it speaks of preeminence. As Thiselton notes, “The apostles are first not least in the sense that the church does not ‘raise up’ its apostles, but responds to the apostolic witness.”1Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), 1014. This refers primarily to those who were with Jesus and sent out by him (Acts 12:21–22, cf. Mark 3:14): The twelve, then Matthias (Acts 1:15–26), Paul (Rom 1:1, etc.), and perhaps Barnabas (Acts 4:36) and Jesus’s brother James (Acts 15). These exercised an unrepeatable role like Jesus assigned to Peter: “I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:18).
It will not do for us to react against Rome’s over-reaching claims for an apostolic succession for its priesthood, using that as an excuse for diminishing the unique foundational role of Peter and the other apostles. That would be Protestantism run amuck. But neither can we see this as a continuing office; rather, we see it as a unique and unrepeatable foundational office. Barrett writes:
The apostles confront the church with a word which it did not originate, and by which it is both created and judged. Are all apostles? Perhaps some in Corinth thought the answer should be Yes (see Barth, D.D III.ii.309; and cf. iv. 8); but it must be No, for the apostles confront the church with a word which it did not originate (cf. xiv.36), a word by which it is both created and judged.
This is true of only the apostles and could not be said of any subsequent figures in church history.
General Use of “apostle”
The New Testament also applies “apostle” to figures outside the circle of the Twelve. For example, “Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called “the black man”), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul” (Acts 13:1).
If we speak of modern day apostles, it would be in this more general sense. This would refer to the ongoing missionary arm of God’s work, to those who pioneer new fields and then the disciple and appoint pastors in every place (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). In this case, the “first” would refer to the primary role wherever the church is established anytime throughout church history.