The word apostle is a transliteration of the Greek word apostolos, meaning one who is sent. Its general meaning can be seen in John 13:16, where the Lord said "Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him." The Greek word translated he who is sent in this verse is apostolos. We see more of its meaning in 2 Corinthians 8:23, where the Apostle Paul wrote "if our brethren are inquired about, they are messengers of the churches." Again in Philippians 2:25 he wrote "Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need." The word translated messenger in each of these verses is a form of apostolos. The ancient Greeks used this word to refer to ambassadors and delegates. We thus realize that the Greek word apostolos meant a person specifically commissioned as a representative or a messenger.
There was a particular group of men so commissioned by the Lord Jesus. Luke 6:13 tells us that "when it was day, He called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles." These twelve became a distinct group. So distinct, in fact, that they were repeatedly called "the twelve." This specific group was called by this name in Matthew 26:14, 20 and 47; Mark 4:10, 6:4, 9:35, 11:11, and 14:10, 17, 20, and 43; Luke 8:1, 9:12, 18:31, 22:3 and 47; John 6:67, 70, and 71, and 20:24; Acts 6:2; and 1 Corinthians 15:5. In Matthew 19:28 Jesus told this group that "Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." This is repeated in Luke 22:30. Finally, in describing "the holy Jerusalem", Revelation 21:14 says, "Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." We have examined these Scriptures in detail to understand that these twelve men were sent ones in a unique way that far exceeded the commissioning of any other messengers.
"Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him." (Matthew 10:2-4)
After Judas betrayed the Lord he committed suicide. (Matthew 27:5) In Acts 1:15-26, the apostles appointed Matthias to replace Judas as one of "the twelve." They did not do this on their own authority, but on the basis of Psalms 109:8, which specifically said "Let another take his office." (Acts 1:20) After this Paul was called to be an apostle "not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles." (2 Corinthians 11:5) He was called an apostle in Acts 14:14; Romans 1:1 and 11:13; 1 Corinthians 1:1, 9:1-2, and 15:9; 2 Corinthians 1:1 and 12:12; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Timothy 1:1 and 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:1 and 11; and Titus 1:1.
These men were appointed to be witnesses to Jesus and of His resurrection. (Luke 24:48; John 15:27; Acts 1:8, 22) In addition to this, they, with the New Testament prophets, were the foundation of the church; "Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone." (Ephesians 2:20)
But in the New Testament the word apostle also had a wider sense. "The twelve" included two men named James. One was a son of Zebedee, the other of Alphaeus. But Galatians 1:19 expressly calls "James, the Lord's brother" an apostle. This was clearly a different James, for as "the Lord's brother" his father had to be Joseph, not Zebedee or Alphaeus. Again, Acts 14:14 expressly calls Barnabas an apostle. We do not know how many other apostles there may have been, but we know that "the apostles" were not a specific, well defined group. We can see this in 2 Corinthians 11:13, where it speaks of some who were "false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ." The Lord commended Ephesus because "you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars." (Revelation 2:2) If the number and identity of "the apostles" had been clearly defined it would not have been possible for false pretenders to convince anyone that they were apostles; it would not have been necessary for Ephesus to "test" false apostles; and Paul would not have needed to defend his position as an apostle. (2 Corinthians 11:16-12:13; 1 Timothy 2:7)
It was evidently in this wider sense that Paul wrote to the Corinthians that "If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you." (1 Corinthians 9:2) He went on in this verse to say that "you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord." The fact that these people had been converted was proof that God had indeed sent Paul to them. This proved that, whatever he may have been to others, Paul was at least an apostle to the believers in Corinth.
There can be no doubt that in our day a man can be specially called of God to do a particular work. If this is the case, then that man is one who is sent and is thus an apostle. But as this is the first of all spiritual gifts, it is a very serious matter to claim to be an apostle. If a man has not been truly called of God, claiming to be an apostle would indeed be a serious offense. For this reason it would be a very grave mistake to simply accept such a claim. It should be judged; as the church of Ephesus did in Revelation 2:2.
Some scriptural tests for such a claim are:
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