"And Christ himself gave some to be apostles..."
Some years back we were driving through a large Midwestern city on the way to visit some dear friends. As we exited the freeway, there was a large billboard advertising one of the local churches in the area. The billboard depicted the smiling face of a middle-aged man, dressed in an expensive suit and his hands sparkling with gold rings. The message read "Come hear God speak through the Apostle __________". I've long since forgotten this man's name, but I clearly remember the implied message of that billboard. Does the church still have apostles who give us new revelation? Do these men speak authoritatively for the church?
Or consider another example. You can look online and find a number of spiritual gift tests, most of which list the gift of apostleship. However, when you look at the questions it becomes clear that the test seems to be equating apostleship with missions. For example, one such test suggested that if you have a desire to take the Gospel to unreached lands, then you just might have the gift of apostle.
So what exactly is an apostle?
The word apostle appears some 80x in the New Testament and comes from the Greek word apostolos. That word simply meant 'delegate' or 'messenger' (or more literally, 'one who is sent'). In the Greek and Roman world, it could be used for something as important as an official messenger sent from the Roman government or something as mundane as a servant sent into town with a message from his master. In our modern ears, the word has taken on a special significance because of its association with the Twelve Apostles of Christ, but originally it was a very simple word.
In the New Testament the word almost always has something to do with the Gospel. As such, although it was a simple (and even common) word in the Greek world, for Christians it carried an importance because the message that was spoken originated from God. In the Bible we see this word used in three distinct ways:
Christ: The Messenger/Apostle from the Father
In Hebrews 3:1 we are told to "fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest...." Yet in what sense is Jesus an apostle? In John 12:49 Jesus provides the answer: "For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken." In John 8:28 he said something similar, "I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me." Scripture tells us that not only is Jesus the perfect Message (the Gospel), he is also the perfect Messenger, revealing all that the Father wishes to communicate regarding himself. As such, Jesus is an apostle in a very unique and distinct sense.
The Messengers/Apostles from Christ
Most typically when we think of the word 'apostle' we think of the twelve apostles that Christ commissioned to be his authoritative messengers. These men were given authority by Jesus to do many things to establish the church, including writing Scripture and performing miracles (John 14:26; 2 Peter 3:15-16; 2 Corinthians 12;12). In Mark 3:14 we are told that Jesus "appointed twelve--designating them apostles --that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach." As part of this role, these men were commissioned to lay down the theological and doctrinal foundation of the church. Of course, this wasn't a license to teach anything they wanted, but rather those things that Christ has previously taught them. Ephesians 2:20 tells us the church was "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone."
Technically, this wasn't limited to just the Twelve. The Lord told Ananias that Paul was "a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel" (Acts 9:15) and Paul rightly refers to himself as an apostle numerous times in the New Testament. He even vigorously defends his apostleship in 1 Corinthians 9:1-2. But there were perhaps others, as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15. There, discussing the resurrection of Jesus, Paul notes that Jesus "appeared to Cephas and then the Twelve" (v.5). However, in v.7 Paul says "then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles". Clearly the apostles of v.7 were different than the apostles of v.5 (the Twelve). Whereas the Twelve appeared to hold a place of prominence and special significance, there were others who were called by Christ to be his delegates and authoritative representatives to the church. James, for example, is one of these as were perhaps some of the Seventy witnesses that Jesus had commissioned (Mark 10; Luke 10). The teachings of these men were binding upon the church and they spoke with the full authority of Jesus. Such men needed to be called directly by Jesus, had known Jesus during his earthly ministry and seen him alive after his death and resurrection (Acts 1:21-22), and performed signs, wonders, and miracles in the name of Jesus (2 Corinthians 12:2). Their authority derived from Christ.
The Messengers/Apostles of the Churches
There is a third, and very distinct, use of the term apostle in the Bible. Often Bible translators render this as "messenger(s)" in our translations, but the word in the original Greek text is apostolos. As the apostles of Christ and the newly formed churches grew in their desire to see the message of the Gospel spread, others were commissioned/sent to declare the good news of Jesus and/or carry out aspects of Gospel ministry outside the sphere of their local church. For example, Epaphroditus was sent by the church in Philippi with a financial gift to help Paul while Paul was imprisoned. In Philippians 2:25 Paul refers to Epaphroditus as their apostolos (often translated 'messenger' in some English translations). In 2 Corinthians 8:23 Paul refers to the apostoloi (plural form of apostolos). These men were part of a delegation sent by their churches to carry a special offering to the church in Jerusalem. We also see Barnabas being called an apostle (Acts 14:1-4, 14) and in 1 Thessalonians 2:6 the "we apostles" Paul was referring to was himself, Timothy, and Silas (1 Thess 1:1).
We should note that during the period of the New Testament, believers readily made a distinction between the messengers/apostles sent by the churches and those sent by Christ himself. No one considered Epaphroditus to be authoritative. Neither were the apostles of 2 Corinthians 8:23 allowed to write new revelation of sacred Scripture. Furthermore, there is no indication that these men performed miraculous signs and wonders as part of their ministry. Believers of that period intuitively understood that while these men were communicating the authoritative message which had been previously given, they were not an authority in themselves.
What if someone today claims to be an authoritative messenger of Jesus, insisting they have received new revelation that is binding upon the church? They are to be considered false teachers and removed from our churches. Scripture makes clear that apostolic authority was tied directly to being an eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus and his physical resurrection. In addition, 2 Corinthians 12:2 tells us that signs and wonders must accompany their ministry. Most charismatic Christians readily acknowledge that this type of Apostleship was limited to the New Testament era.
However, there is an ongoing gift of apostleship in the third sense mentioned above. There are individuals, uniquely gifted by God, who are commissioned by their local churches to do ministry abroad. Today we generally refer to these individuals as Missionaries, partly to avoid the confusion that the word apostle brings. Whereas the believers in the first century seemed to be able to easily make the distinction between the various categories or types of apostle, the modern believer (removed by language, culture, and time) tends to get confused.
Our churches must actively strive to find, equip, and send out those who have this third type of apostleship.