Understanding the Term “Apostle”
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, He called His disciples to Him and chose twelve of them, whom He also designated apostles… (Luke 6:12-13)
Anyone who has read any part of the New Testament has encountered the word apostle at some point. Most people, like me, during their first glance of this word probably did not understand its true meaning and significance. Just what actually is an apostle? What does an apostle do? Are they active in the church today? How can we recognize a true apostle from a false one? Before any of these questions can be answered one must go back into history to see the initial intent and the meaning of the word. An apostle is one who was (and is today):
• Appointed by a higher authority,
• Given gifts of grace to function in this capacity,
• Trained and anointed for a specific mission,
• Sent to overthrow an existing culture; an opposing form of government, and establish a new one in its place.
No one person can take this mantle by his or her own authority. The appointment and mandate of an apostle is given by a higher authority for the purpose of fulfilling that authority’s purpose. The apostle is vested with powers and carries the mantle of authority of the one who sends them. In turn they are accountable to that authority in all areas. Apostles were and are given a delegated responsibility to enact and establish someone else’s agenda. The term “apostle” is not just a New Testament term or idea, but one that has existed long before the first century. The apostolic concept is imbedded into the wisdom of the Old Testament literature.
An Old Testament Pattern
When the northern portion of Israel was invaded and defeated by the Assyrians, the Israelites were removed and transplanted to other parts of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians then took people from their own culture and transplanted them in the northern parts of Israel. Their purpose was to destroy an existing culture by creating a whole new one in its place. This was done by exchanging and mixing people groups together, thereby, distorting the traditions and practices of one culture. The Israelites would be forced to learn the ways of their conquerors. The Assyrians would ensure a change in culture by planting their own people in the northern parts of Israel. Over time any remaining Israelites left in the northern parts of Israel became the mixed people known as the Samaritans. It says in the book of 2 Kings:
In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria. He settled them in Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in the towns of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:6)
Then it goes on to say:
The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. (2 Kings 17:24-25)
The concept of conquering people and changing their culture and customs are evident in the literature of the Old Testament. These foreign kings had an apostolic mindset and strategy to increase their kingdom domain and to spread their influence over the entire world by transplanting or mixing people groups.
Likewise, Israel was called to be an apostolic nation that would bring God’s light, wisdom, knowledge and the glory to the nations of the earth. As a people group they were to be a light to the Gentile nations. The prophet Jeremiah was given an apostolic call to:
• Tear down
This first part of Jeremiah’s commissioning is negative in tone. The reason for this commissioning is that a worldly mindset settled within Israel and God wanted to confront it. Jeremiah was God’s approved and anointed prophetic apostle to do just that, to change the mindsets and hearts of His own people and bring them back to God. The second part of Jeremiah’s commissioning is positive in nature. God commissioned him to:
Jeremiah received a calling with a ratio of two parts negative to one part positive. We can conclude from this ratio breakdown that more work is required to overthrow something than is required to build a new work or culture. Jeremiah was sent to a difficult place; a backsliding, adulterous Israel who was going into exile. Jeremiah was getting ready to face a sad and difficult situation, but with an apostolic call upon his life he was able to confront the dangers that faced him. The apostolic mission is laced with grave dangers but it also experiences great triumphs as we will see in the life of Gideon. In Judges 6, Gideon was commissioned with an apostolic call to fight, defeat and save the Israelites from the oppressive Midianites. It says:
The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (Judges 6:14)
Gideon was sent to remove a foreign and oppressive form of government and re-establish their theocratic form of government. He was sent to change an anti-Israeli culture. The word “sending” in this reference is the Hebrew word shalach, a word meaning “to send out or to stretch forth.” According to Barnes’ commentary of this passage, “Sending implied a valid commission and sufficient powers and the term ‘apostle’, as applied to our Lord and to the twelve.” As you can see the concept of sending someone forth to establish a kingdom mindset and culture was not just reserved for the New Testament but a concept that is found throughout the Old Testament as well. The same word shalach is used twice for Isaiah’s commissioning in Isaiah 6:8:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Isaiah heard the call of God and responded to an apostolic call, which also included the office of a prophet. It was an apostolic / prophetic mantle. He was sent into a difficult situation, to be a voice for God between Israel to turn a stubborn and backslidden people back to God. Isaiah had some success under Hezekiah’s reign in keeping Israel aligned with God’s purposes. Throughout Israel’s history God sent the apostle-prophet to establish his culture in and among His people.
The Greek Paradigm
The Greeks were very familiar with the term “apostle.” As the Greeks conquered new lands they would appoint and send an apostle to plant the Greek way of life, which included their language, customs, literature and form of government. Their goal was to spread Hellenism (the Greek way of life) around the world. Guess what? It has worked to a large extent. Today, we live under their influence and have gained a refined language because of their apostolic vision and mission.
One of the prominent Greeks was a young man who was later known in history as Alexander the Great. Although he was a military apostle, he took with him historians, scholars, and educators to influence and conform the people that he conquered to reflect the Greek culture. In the article Between the Testaments, the Hellenistic Period it states, “Alexander began his career as an apostle of Hellenism. Completely convinced that the Greek way of life was superior to any other, he began his crusade with a missionary zeal.”
Nicholas Martis in his article Alexander and Christianity observes that “Alexander with his deeds transformed the shape of global history…with the propagation of the Greek language as the official language of his Asiatic and African Commonwealth; Greek became the formal tongue of communication between the multiethnic peoples of the East. Alexander and his Successors became not only the bearers of the Greek tongue, but they also offered to the world the Greek culture and knowledge, elements that further prepared nations to accept the teachings of the Savior of Nazareth on the Holy Mountain.”
In my opinion, Alexander was a military and cultural apostle. Alexander not only conquered places of the ancient world by military might, he also injected the Greek culture into these conquered regions thereby uniting them by a single language. He was able to connect estranged people groups by binding them together with a common language. These people groups may not have been connected since a cultural and linguistic divide existed between them. Alexander united the ancient world by a vision to conquer, subdue and recreate a whole new culture. This is the fundamental work of an apostle.
The New Testament Paradigm
The God of the Jews, Jehovah, understood the depravity of humanity so He sent forth His only begotten Son in the person of Jesus Christ to redeem them (1 John 4:14, Hebrews 1:1). Jesus came as the apostle of peace and war with a message of repentance that if humanity would turn from their evil deeds they would receive this new way of life. Instead of conquering people with military might, Jesus conquered people by His teachings, displays of supernatural power and His central message of love and forgiveness of sins. The Scriptures abound with sayings that “crowds followed Him everywhere” (Mathew 8:1, 14:13 and 19:2). Jesus was able to attract and move the masses simply by His message of salvation by grace alone; whereas, the existing religious culture held them in bondage to the Law, the traditions of men and certain ceremonial rites.
Jesus selected a term that was familiar in His day to convey the purpose of His mission. He used the word apostle to describe the type of mission and ministry that He and His disciples would carry out on the earth. In the New Testament, Jesus uses the Greek word apostello, a word meaning “to send out on a mission; set apart, sent forth, and sent out” to describe the term apostle. In the following Scripture we see references of Jesus’ apostolic mantle:
• Matthew 10:40 – He who receives Me receives the One who sent Me.
• Mark 9:37 – Whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me.
• Luke 4:18 – He has sent Me to proclaim…
• John 8:42 – I have not come on my own; but He sent Me.
Each of the four gospel writers attested to Jesus’ commissioning as an apostle, for the very word apostle means “a delegate, an ambassador of the gospel, a commissioner of Christ with miraculous powers, one that is sent” to bring a change of culture. Jesus was known as heaven’s apostle, one who was sent to fulfill a specific purpose and mission statement. This statement encompasses a laundry list of items as stated in Luke’s gospel.
An Apostolic Mission Statement
The purpose of Jesus’ ministry on earth is found in Luke 4:18-19. He was to:
• Preach good news to the poor. This statement unveiled a prevailing worldview or mindset of that day that kept people in bondage to poverty. Jesus came to set them free of this “poor man’s” mentality.
• Proclaim freedom for the prisoners. Jesus came with a powerful message that convicted and freed the hardened captives.
• Proclaim recovery of sight for the blind. Jesus received and administered heavenly powers to reverse the curse of sickness, disease and human physical disabilities.
• Release the oppressed. Jesus invaded the realm of darkness and freed those who were oppressed and harassed by Satan and his hoard of demons.
• Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus proclaimed a new revelation and ushered in a new dispensation; the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures became a reality in the midst of Israel.
We can learn many things from Jesus’ apostolic mission statement. First, it speaks of His purpose. He was appointed and anointed to fulfill this specific mission statement. Second, the mission statement itself speaks of the type of ministry needed to change the existing culture; a culture held hostage by the prince of darkness. This culture was in dire need of salvation and deliverance. Third, the statement was proof of an authentic apostolic mandate, one that could overthrow an existing form of government and transplant a legitimate one in its place. Finally, His central message was one of freedom; a freedom that would bring a new and everlasting life full of the Holy Spirit. He shared the free gift of salvation and authenticated His teachings by demonstrating signs, miracles and wonders. As a result people were set free from their bondages and old mindsets. A new kingdom was being formed within the hearts of the people. Jesus, the apostle from heaven, legitimized His mission by fulfilling every aspect of His mission statement.
The Purpose of the Post Resurrection Meetings
After His suffering, He showed Himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that He was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)
Jesus’ disciples entered into a “master-disciple” relationship where they lived with their Master for an undetermined period of time. John expounds on this experience in his epistle, “That which was from the beginning [Jesus], which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). As first hand eyewitnesses John and the other disciples saw, heard, touched and experienced God in human form. Can you imagine experiencing God in this way? Did you know that Jesus is just as tangible today as He was in the first century? His works still manifest all around us, and we can still experience Him today in all His fullness through the Holy Spirit.
In the forty days of His post resurrection appearances, Jesus appeared to His disciples and discussed one important subject with them in order to reveal an important strategy. Throughout Jesus’ ministry He authenticated the kingdom of God to His disciples by demonstrating signs, miracles and wonders, and by teaching them kingdom principles. The disciples were now full of kingdom theology but lacked the strategy to execute it properly. In the last few days before Jesus’ ascension into heaven, He brought the disciples into alignment with God’s purposes by revealing a progressive strategy of world evangelism. There was one problem. Jesus’ disciples were still a bit clueless to the big picture. A brief description of Jesus’ post resurrection conversation with his disciples is mentioned in the first chapter of the book of Acts. In these few verses Jesus reveals a very important strategy.
Without a Clue
So when they [Jesus and his apostles] met together, they asked Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
As Jesus spoke about this new strategy for their lives, the apostles had another vision in mind. They asked Jesus if He was going to “restore the kingdom to Israel?” They had developed a hindsight vision while Jesus’ vision was much more than they could ever fathom. Man gauges and guesses the future with a link to the past while Jesus knows the future. They had no clue whatsoever of what their role would be because their intentions were quite different from those of Jesus. One thing they desired for sure was for Jesus to take His rightful place on Israel’s throne and begin His earthly reign. In their natural minds they presumed a different vision from that of their leader. James Montgomery Boice, the author of Acts, an Expository Commentary states the following three presumptions in his book (1-3). I will elaborate on each of them.
1. The apostles presumed a political kingdom.
The Jews were proud of their past history, especially the 120-year period of King Saul, King David and King Solomon. These years were known as the golden years for Israel. It was a time of stability, security, expansion and prosperity. There was a time at the end of David’s reign when their enemies were subdued and at peace with Israel. The apostles looked forward to the restoration of this golden period. They believed Jesus to be this new king who would usher in a new age much like that of the early era of Israel’s monarchy. Little did they know that Jesus was going to do it in a different way.
2. The apostles presumed an ethnically restricted kingdom.
The Jews were proud of their heritage as God’s messianic nation. As the children of Abraham, they came under a covenant relationship with God, and became the people of promise. From this patriarch’s seed would come the promised Messiah, their Savior-King. However, sometime later they were put under a heavy bondage in Egypt. Over time God delivered them from this bondage and took them on a long journey into their Promised Land. They became His people and He became their God, as the messianic nation they were to glorify God and be a light to the Gentile nations. However, in the days of Jesus they repudiated the Gentiles. At this time the Gentiles, under Roman rule, occupied the land of Canaan. The Jews were looking for liberation from their captors and eagerly desired a kingdom that would be strictly Jewish.
3. The apostles presumed a geographically restricted kingdom.
The Jewish people were proud of their homestead under King David and Solomon, when their boundaries extended to the south toward Egypt, reaching the regions of Mesopotamia to the north, and Egypt to the south. It was the largest portion of land ever conquered and occupied by Israel in their history. They would not possess this portion of land again. They wanted to go back to this period of glory and grandeur. They wanted a geographically restricted kingdom that would conform to their brightest time in history; an epoch of their greatest expansion and economic growth. Can you blame them for desiring this? As Americans we are territorial by nature, and we are proud of our own country. The Israelites also had a love in and extreme pride of their own country.
Ah, Now We Get It!
God’s ways are always better and bigger than our tiny vision of what should be. God does not limit Himself to history. Instead He has eternity in view, after all history is about His-story. Soon after Jesus’ departure, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the apostles became aware of the big picture that Jesus conveyed to them during His forty day, post resurrection appearances. After the day of Pentecost the apostles understood the three principles that Jesus attempted to convey to them. I then reinterpreted Boice’s original statements and added the following premise (mine are in italics):
1. His kingdom would not be political but spiritual.
Jesus established His kingdom on earth; it was not a political one but spiritual in nature. His kingdom would dwell on the inside of those who would believe in His name. They would take His kingdom wherever they went because the kingdom now resided on the inside of His people. It was to be a “kingdom on feet”, a mobile kingdom without boundaries and restrictions. This meant that wherever His disciples would travel they would take this kingdom with them; from the palaces to prisons, from the synagogue to the marketplace, and everything in between. A new age had emerged, and the kingdom would now live within God’s people. The people became the temple of the living God, they would move with God and God with them. It resembled God’s original design of the mobile tabernacle.
2. His kingdom would not be restricted to one ethnic race but would include everyone.
John 3:16 states, “For God so love the world that He gave His one and only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” God is inclusive of all races, while man is protective of his own kind and his own culture, norms and traditions. God’s kingdom would not be strictly Jewish but would include every person from every tribe, tongue and nation.
3. His kingdom would not be restricted to mere geographical boundaries but would have global implications.
Man, by nature, is a territorial creature. They are concerned about protecting their own boundary lines, but God is not limited by any boundaries. His wish is that no one should perish but that all should come to repentance. This inclusive attribute of God shows that God means to include everyone, everywhere and at all costs. God desires to penetrate every country in the world with the good news of salvation. If people would perhaps occupy the moon one day, then this gospel must even reach those who would live there. God has no borders, boundaries or restrictions. Wherever you have people living, you will have a need to preach the gospel. His kingdom reaches beyond national boundaries to global proportions. These post resurrection meetings had a strategic purpose. It was during these forty days that Jesus shared His last secret with them, an eight-point strategy to reach the world.