Charting a Course for the Church
Part II: Understanding the Apostolic Foundation

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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Say that the Christian church must be "apostolic" and you will find little argument from most Christians. Try to define what people mean by "apostolic" today and you will often find yourself enmeshed in controversy! This is no small issue for the church. Christians struggled with this issue in the first century A.D. and at certain other pivotal times in Christian history, and it has emerged as a major issue in our own time. This is because this term, like a rudder, has the ability to steer the church in widely different directions. It is being used differently by different groups of Christians today. This must be a matter of concern for all Christians, not just those in Christian leadership, because every Christian must decide whose teachings (doctrines) to follow and which teachers represent the Christian faith. If the Christian community is to chart a course for the church in our time, one that is truly pleasing to Christ, we must understand the role of the apostles and explore what it means for the church to be truly "apostolic" (Revelation 2:2).

Before looking at the word "apostle," it is helpful to take a moment to think about word studies. Word studies can be very helpful. But they can also be very misleading if not done in an intelligent manner. The same word, or different forms of the same word, often change meaning over time and in different contexts. For instance, a ship is a large vessel, usually one that travels in water; although we also have "airships" and "spaceships." However, when we say we are going to "ship" a package to someone, we are fully aware that the package may travel across country solely by truck - not in an ocean-going vessel or in an aircraft. In a sloppy word study of "ship," a person who does not know English may check the primary meanings of "ship," then conclude that the package had to have traveled in an ocean-going vessel because it was written that the package was "shipped" to its destination. Likewise a "boat" is smaller than a ship; generally considered a vessel small enough to be carried aboard another vessel. But in the jargon of the Navy, a submarine is always a "boat," even those built to be ocean-going warships. On language alone, a careless student might conclude that the Electric Boat shipyard of Groton, Connecticut constructed small vessels. However, Electric Boat has built the massive Ohio-class nuclear powered, Trident missile submarines -- among the most powerful vessels of any Navy.

Another common mistake in word studies is to assume that once we have studied every occurrence of a word (and perhaps its synonyms), we have finished our study. Words represent concepts. It is always possible for a concept to be discussed without the use of a particular word. Perhaps a metaphor is used, or the subject is understood. To say "The Indianapolis 500 is a famous race" doesn't mention "autos" or "cars," but the Indianapolis 500 is a car race nonetheless, and we should not ignore this sentence if we are studying cars. The word "Trinity" is never used in the Holy Scriptures; but the concept is there and so we are justified in using the term. In the same manner, words that do occur in Scripture present concepts that may be discussed in other places without those words being used.

To summarize, word studies are most helpful when we remember that the same word doesn't necessarily mean the same thing in different contexts, that words are sometimes filled with new meaning when used by new groups and in new situations, and that word studies supplement, but don't replace, other forms of Bible study. I might also add, they are most useful when we are humble enough to check our results against those of knowledgeable Christian teachers, preachers, and scholars.

The word "apostle" (apostolos) and its related forms were taken from Greek language and culture, but filled with new meaning by Christians. They are used much more frequently in the New Testament than in other ancient Greek writings. The verb form, apostello, is often used to mean "send on a mission," "send with a message," or "send with a commission." It is used to describe sending an emissary or envoy.i The Christian use of the word was strongly influenced by the Hebrew root shalach and its derivatives shaliach and shaluach. Shalach and its derivative forms are often translated by apostello in the Septuagint -- the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament.ii

The basic meaning of shalach is to "let go" or "send out." From this general meaning came a series of more specific meanings. Among them was the special sense in which a person who was a shaliach was the personal representative of a sending person or group. The shaliach was the legal representative of those who sent him. To conduct business with the shaliach was equivalent to conducting business face-to-face with the sender. The shaliach was often sent by a king or someone in authority (I Samuel 25:40ff., II Samuel 10:1ff., II Chronicles 17:7-9). Saul acts in the capacity of the shaliach of the high priest when he obtains letters to the synagogues in Damascus giving him the authority to arrest Christians and return them to Jerusalem for punishment (Acts 9:1ff.). But the shaliach might also be sent as the official representative of a group, such as a court or synagogue. The shaliach of a synagogue was often a rabbi who was commissioned to represent that synagogue by the laying on of hands.iii

Although shalach may be used as a verb to describe the sending of a prophet, as in Isaiah 6:8, only some prophets in Israel's history came to be known as sheluchim of God, notably Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel.iv These were distinguished by miracles that were usually associated with the presence of God. The status of Moses as a commissioned representative of the one true God is established to Pharaoh and the Egyptians by the plagues. The restoration of dead bones to life in Ezekiel 37 qualifies Ezekiel to be on this list. Otherwise, the shaliach is not considered to be an authorized person but a person authorized for a specific task. Authorization ended when the task was completed. Most prophets, for example, are not considered sheluchim even when a verb form of shalach is used to indicate that God sent them to deliver His word. The same situation exists in the Greek New Testament when John the Baptist is described as "a man sent from God," where "sent" is apestalmenos, a present-perfect form of the verb apostello. Yet, John the Baptist is never referred to as an apostle. On the other hand, in Hebrew culture, the shaliach might be someone taking care of secular legal tasks on behalf of someone else or a group with no religious significance whatsoever.

All of this background provides a foundation for the language of the New Testament. We recognize a number of aspects of prior Greek and Hebrew usage in Christian terminology. For instance, there are apostles who are sent by churches to represent those churches to others, whether as missionaries or as representatives to other churches, as in II Corinthians 8:23 where Paul writes of "apostles of churches" (apostoloi ekklesion) and Philippians 2:25 where Paul calls Epaphroditus "your apostle" (humon apostolon). However, for Christians, "apostle" becomes the office of certain selected individuals, and in this sense, Christian usage is unique. Those who hold this office are distinguished in that they are:

  1. chosen for this office by Jesus Christ Himself,
  2. given the authority of Christ within the scope of their mission,
  3. given a defined message and mission by the One who sent them,
  4. forbidden, as personal representatives of Christ, from deviating from that message and mission in any way,
  5. enabled to perform their task by the indwelling Holy Spirit,
  6. confirmed (as were Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel) by the working of deeds normally performed by God alone, and
  7. sent as missionaries to those outside the Jewish community as well as to the Jews - in contrast to the Hebrew shaliach, whose mission, when pertaining to spiritual things, was generally within the Hebrew community.

The establishment of the office of "apostle" would not have been necessary had Jesus remained on the earth bodily. However, in the plan of God, Jesus ascended into heaven to assume His priestly work of intercession and to await the time when He would return bodily to establish His kingdom over all the earth (Hebrews 9:27-28). In His absence, it was necessary to establish reliable and authoritative human agents through whom to found the Christian church. Therefore, the apostles were chosen by Jesus to:

  1. witness to His life and resurrection,
  2. be certain that the teachings of Jesus Christ were conveyed accurately to the church,
  3. establish the first churches both in and outside the Jewish community, and
  4. establish an orderly system of leadership within the churches to protect and transmit the apostolic testimony and teachings.

Clement I was bishop of Rome at the end of the first century AD. His first letter to the Corinthians was written not long after the Revelation to John; in other words, shortly after the writings of the New Testament were completed. More than a few Christians in the first few centuries of the church believed this letter to be part of Holy Scripture. Later, Clement came to be known as one of the "Apostolic Fathers" of the Christian church - so-called because they were the last generation to know the apostles personally. His letter to the Corinthians is important to us here because Clement describes the role of the New Testament "apostles."

42 1The Apostles received for us the gospel from our Lord Jesus Christ; our Lord Jesus Christ received it from God. 2Christ, therefore, was sent out from God, and the Apostles from Christ; and both these things were done in good order, according to the will of God. 3They, therefore, having received the promises, having been fully persuaded by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and having been confirmed by the word of God, with the full persuasion of the Holy Spirit, went forth preaching the good tidings that the kingdom of God was at hand.v

Clement orders the role of the apostles here in the same manner as the New Testament. First, he recognizes that Jesus Himself was an apostle of God the Father. While there is just one passage that specifically refers to Jesus as an "apostle" (Hebrews 3:1), Jesus' role is made very clear in the Gospels, and perhaps clearest in John's Gospel, although it would be a mistake not to see this in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as well. John shows that Jesus is supremely conscious that He represents God the Father. The Father is the source of everything Jesus says and does (John 5:19-21, 7:16, 28, 8:19, 28-29, 40, 10:37-38, 14:6). As with the Hebrew shaliach, to reject Jesus is to reject the Father (John 5:23), and the Father has committed authority to the Son, who will be the Judge of all mankind as the representative (shaliach, apostle) of the Father (John 5:22, 27, cf. Acts 17:31). However, we should not miss the point that, as God, Jesus is also representative of the Father to a degree that is impossible for any other apostle or shaliach (John 8:19, 58-59, 10:30-33, 14:8-11).

It is with the keenness of understanding of His own mission as an apostle of the Father that Jesus chooses "the twelve" to represent Him. Luke is clear that before Jesus called the twelve disciples He prayed for an entire evening, and when He chose the twelve He called them "apostles" (Luke 6:12-13). It is also Luke who, both in the 24th chapter of his Gospel and in the first chapter of Acts helps us to understand the unique role of the twelve apostles. Of central importance here is not only the personal commissioning by Jesus, accompanied by authority and signs (the ability to work signs and wonders), but also the ability to give personal testimony to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

In the choosing of Matthias to replace Judas as one of the twelve apostles, Peter stipulates that the person chosen must have been with Jesus from the time of Jesus' baptism until the time of Jesus' ascension into heaven. This means that all of the twelve had to participate in some manner in the revival under John the Baptist, even if they were not all "disciples of John" in the strictest sense, or they would not have been present when Jesus was baptized, an event that was not pre-announced. The importance of this is not only that they were all intent upon seeking a closer relationship with God and receptive to John's witness to Jesus, they were also committed to the moral integrity John required in his preaching of repentance from sin. Therefore, their self-centeredness and immaturity before Pentecost notwithstanding, they were men of outstanding integrity, men who saw the bearing of false witness as terrible sin.

The witness of "the twelve" was both to the message of Jesus and to His life - especially to His bodily resurrection from the dead (I Corinthians 15:1-8, I John 1:1-4, II Peter 1:16-18). Therefore, both in the sense of authorization by Jesus and in the sense of personal experience and instruction, these twelve were completely unique. Notice the twelve foundations representing the twelve apostles in Revelation 21:14. No one can ever add to their number or assume their mission. Paul not only acknowledged this in I Corinthians (15:8-11), he told the Galatians that he went to Jerusalem specifically to check the Gospel he preached against the message of the twelve (Galatians 1:18-19, 2:1-10). Paul wanted his readers in Corinth and Galatia to know that his message and calling came directly from God (II Corinthians 12: 1ff., Galatians 1:15-17). However, at the same time, Paul recognized the importance of the twelve apostles and the uniqueness of their mission.

Paul himself was an "apostle," but not in exactly the same sense as "the twelve." Paul is the best-known representative of a second group of Christians who were personally commissioned by the risen Christ (Galatians 1:1, I Corinthians 9:1, 15:7). Because of this, they too could see themselves in the role of shaliach of God. The Holy Spirit helped them to preach accurately and they were able to perform signs and wonders as an indication of their commission from God (II Corinthians 12:12). However, they were not commissioned to be a part of "the twelve," whose authority this second group recognized. In fact, part of the authority of these apostles lay not simply in their commission by Christ, but in the approval of their ministry by the twelve. Most, unlike Matthias, could not claim to have been with Jesus throughout His entire ministry. Paul was especially unique in that he was met by Christ after the ascension and, as far as we know, was never present during Jesus' earthly ministry. His conversion testifies that the Jewish authorities had no conclusive evidence that Jesus did not rise from the dead. If they had, Paul, their close fellow-worker, would have known this, and would not have pursued a life of suffering in the service of Christ.

Paul was recognized by both friend and foe for his broad educational background. In his letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians, Paul indicates that he received revelation and instruction directly from the Lord, and spent time contemplating what the Lord showed Him before setting out to instruct others. However, even this background could not qualify Paul for a place among the twelve. Paul had not been with Jesus throughout the time of Jesus' earthly ministry. He could not provide a personal witness to Jesus' life and teachings.

Therefore, there are three distinct groups of apostles in the Scriptures: The twelve, those commissioned by Christ and approved by the twelve, and those commissioned by churches as representatives of the churches in the work of Christ. Only the third group existed past the first century. The "Apostolic Fathers" were those Christians who knew the members of the first two groups, and especially the twelve, personally, but had no personal commission from Christ.


i Spicq, Cerlas, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Volume 1, translated and edited by James D. Ernest. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994, pp. 186ff.

ii Kittel, Gerhard, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume I, Translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964, pp. 398ff.

iii Kittel, op. cit., p. 417.

iv Kittel, op. cit., p. 419.

v "The First Epistle Of Clement To The Corinthians," translated by Charles H. Hoole, 1885, downloaded April 14, 1998 from The Saint Pachomius Orthodox Library,

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VI, Part 5, May 1998.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.