Paul regarded the ministry of apostles as foundational in the life of the church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 2:2; 4:11). However, not all ministers who were called apostles in the New Testament were involved in foundational leadership and teaching ministries. Instead, as shown in various verses, there seems to have been different kinds of apostolic ministry. In this article I look at a the men and women who were apostles in the New Testament, and at their qualifications. I also look at what they did as apostles.
The Apostles in 1 Corinthians 15
In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul clearly indicates that there were more apostles in the New Testament church that just the Twelve:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 1 Corinthians 15:3-9 NRSV (My underlines)
In this passage Paul outlines the vital elements of the gospel. He emphasises that Jesus became alive again after his death and burial, and that he was seen by three groups of people. Paul states here that there were two groups of apostles among the people mentioned in this passage.
The first group of witnesses of the resurrected Jesus includes Cephas (i.e. the apostle Peter) and the Twelve (i.e. the twelve apostles)(1 Cor. 15:5). This group, of which Peter was the leader and spokesman, is the best known group of apostles.
Paul then goes on to mention a group of more than five hundred believers who Jesus appeared to at one time (1 Cor.15:6). No apostles are identified as belonging to this group.
The third group includes Jesus’ brother James, who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and “all the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:7 cf Gal. 1:19). Paul had previously mentioned the twelve apostles in verse 5, so who are these other apostles in verse 7? Perhaps Jesus’ other siblings, such as Jude, were regarded as apostles too.
Lastly, Paul refers to himself as an apostle or, more specifically, as “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9). However he is mentioned alone; Paul does not identify himself as belonging to “the Twelve” or to the group of “all the apostles”.
The passage in 1 Corinthians 15 mentions two groups of apostles among the followers of Jesus, but, if we take into account other verses from the New Testament, there appears to be three or possibly more groups, or categories, of apostles and apostolic ministry.
Different Kinds of Apostles and Apostolic Ministry
Category One – The Twelve
The first category of apostolic ministry is that of the Twelve. These twelve men held a unique position in the primitive church, especially among the followers of Jesus in Israel. Apart from Judas Iscariot, the apostles in this group were not replaced when they died.
When choosing Judas’ replacement, Peter outlined the necessary qualifications of the Twelve and said, “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22 NIV).
The number twelve corresponds with the twelve tribes of Israel, and one of the functions of the Twelve may have been symbolic. By choosing the Twelve, Jesus may been signifying that his message, ministry, and new covenant were for all of Israel. (See Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:29-30.)
Category Two – Disciples who Knew Jesus Personally
The second group of apostles mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:7 consisted of people who had known Jesus during his earthly ministry and had seen him alive after his death and resurrection. Seeing the risen Jesus seems to have been a criterion for both “category one” and “category two” apostles (Acts 1:21-22 cf 1 Cor. 9:1-2). Performing signs, wonders and miracles may also have been a criterion (2 Cor. 12:12).
Kevin Giles highlights four credentials that Paul used to defend his own apostolic ministry: for Paul an apostle was: (1) Someone who had seen the resurrected Lord; (2) Someone who had brought a church into existence; (3) Someone who proclaimed the true gospel; (4) Someone who has suffered in the service of Christ. Perhaps there were many people in the second group of apostles who met these criteria.
As well as Jesus’ brothers (and sisters?) some of the Seventy (or seventy-two) disciples probably belonged to this second group of apostles (Mark 10:1ff; Luke 10:1ff). Andronicus and Junia may have belonged to this group also. Andronicus and Junia had been Christians longer than Paul and they may have known Jesus personally. We know that they had suffered in the service of Christ by being imprisoned. They may even have been instrumental in founding the church at Rome (Rom. 16:7).
Junia is not the only New Testament woman who was an apostle. Mark Goodacre observes that Mary Magdalene “seems to be depicted in the narratives of the four canonical Gospels as the first woman apostle.” Perhaps she was Judas Iscariot’s replacement(?) Mary Magdalene, and other women who were close followers of Jesus, may have been category two apostles. Many women from Galilee had left their homes to travel with Jesus and support his ministry. These women may have continued to travel after Pentecost, as eyewitnesses, evangelists, and apostles, spreading the Gospel message of their beloved Messiah.
Paul placed himself in a special category of apostle. He is unique in that he met Jesus in a vision after Jesus’ ascension (return to heaven), and was then personally commissioned by Jesus to be his apostle to the Gentiles. Yet Paul still fits in this second group of apostles and meets its criteria (cf 1 Cor. 15:8a).
Paul Barnett understands 1 Corinthians 15:9 to mean that Paul was the last of the apostles. He writes “the apostles are a group of limited number . . . From Paul’s standpoint the unusual nature of Christ’s resurrection appearance to him serves to mark him out as the end point of such appearances and therefore the end of apostolic appointment.” However, the Didache, a church manual that dates from the late first or early second century, indicates that the ministry of apostles continued into the post-apostolic period.
Who or what an apostle was in New Testament times is debated in modern times, but it was also debated in Paul’s time. In his first letter to the Corinthians it seems that Paul had to defend his own apostolic credentials and ministry, and he was compared unfavourably to other apostles such as Apollos. It was not always clear who or what an apostle was.
Category Three – Messengers and Missionaries
There is still another category of apostleship in the New Testament, a category not mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:7. Category three apostles were Jesus’ followers who did not have a direct connection with Jesus while he was on earth.
The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word apostolos and means “a person who is sent”. It is synonymous with the word “missionary”, which comes from the Latin. Some people were sent, or commissioned, by their church for a ministry that involved travel. For example, Epaphroditus was sent by the church in Philippi with a gift to help Paul while Paul was imprisoned. Paul refers to Epaphroditus as “their apostolos” in Philippians 2:25. This is sometimes translated as “messenger” in English. Another example of category three apostles is the apostoloi (plural) in 2 Corinthians 8:23 who were part of a delegation to carry a special offering to the Jerusalem church.
These category three apostles, or messengers, were involved in practical ministries, but there were still other apostles, seemingly without a direct connection with Jesus, who where involved in ministries that involved preaching and teaching.
Barnabas (Acts 14:1-4, 14; cf 1 Cor. 9:5-6; Gal 2:9), Apollos (1 Cor. 1:12; 4:6, 9), Silas and Timothy (1 Thess. 2:6 cf 1 Thess. 1:1), Sosthenes (1 Cor. 1:1), and others who were commissioned for ministry by the church, rather than being personally commissioned by Jesus, were called apostles, and their ministry included the ministry of the word. These ministers continued a ministry that began with the category two apostles.
While I believe that there is evidence of several types of apostles in the apostolic church and post-apostolic church, Paul Barnett refers to two main senses, or ministries, of apostles in the New Testament church.
“Despite wide-ranging opinions of the origins, character and significance of apostolos within the NT, there is broad agreement that apostolos is used in two main senses—solemn, in the sense of bearing divine authority (e.g. “apostle of Christ Jesus,” 1 Cor. 1:1), and non-technical (e.g. “messengers from the churches,” 2 Cor. 8:23).”
What did apostles do in the early church?
Using Barnett’s terminology, “non-technical apostles” were messengers who acted as agents and envoys of churches. “Solemn apostles” were preachers of the gospel who were often involved in itinerant ministries. The New Testament provides evidence that “solemn apostles” preached and taught with divine authority. Paul, for example, travelled and preached and taught. He also occasionally baptized new converts and administered the Eucharist as part of his apostolic ministry. (See Acts 20:7-11.)
In chapter eleven of the Didache there are instructions about how travelling apostles and prophets were to be welcomed and treated. These instructions suggest that apostles had a ministry that was on par with that of the prophets. Moreover, it suggests that these apostles were not few in number.
Valeriy Alikin sheds light on what travelling apostles did in the course of their ministries. He states that if an itinerant apostle was present in a house church gathering, “this apostle would conduct the gathering. If not, the master [or mistress] of the house and host [or hostess] of the meeting would normally play this part, or one of the members who were able to hold a leading position.”
“Itinerant apostles and prophets continued to conduct gatherings and communal meals of Christian communities during the first half of the second century, as appears from the Didache. The apocryphal Acts, too, often present apostles as presiding at Christian gatherings and conducting eucharistic meals. These narratives are legendary to a large extent but reflect correctly the practice of travelling apostles and prophets conducting gatherings of Christian communities in the first and early second century.”
As well as leading and teaching at church gatherings, some apostles wrote the gospels and letters that have made it into the New Testament canon. In chapter sixty-seven of his First Apology (155-157 AD), Justin Martyr refers to New Testament writings as “the memoirs of the Apostles”. In Against Marcion (circa 207 AD), Tertullian refers to the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and John as apostles, and the writers of the Gospels of Mark and Luke as apostolic men.
Some people believe that the ministry of apostles no longer operates, yet healthy churches still send men and women on important missions and itinerant ministries. Other men and women, spurred by a personal calling and conviction, are involved in ministries that can be called apostolic, without necessarily being sent by their church. I personally believe that there are numerous apostles operating throughout the world, bringing Christian teaching, hope and healing into new frontiers, all in the name of Jesus.
Like many of the ministry terms used in the New Testament, the word “apostle” is not so much used as a title, but as a description of the kind of ministry a person, or group of people, was involved in. Whether a church today uses the word “apostle” as a ministry title, or not, is irrelevant. What is important is that we acknowledge that God is still calling some of his sons and daughters into apostolic ministries. As well as acknowledging this, we should also be cooperating with what God is doing by equipping, sending, and supporting his apostolic ministers.
 In Ephesians 2:20 the community of God’s people is metaphorically referred to as a building, a temple to be specific. This building is said to be built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus being the corner stone. The inspirational leadership and teaching ministries of apostles and prophets were fundamental in the primitive (very early) church.
 None of the four canonical gospels record this event.
 In another passage in First Corinthians, Paul mentions the apostles, the Lord’s brothers, and Cephas in the context of apostolic ministry (1 Cor. 9:5). It’s interesting that in chapter 9, as in chapter 15, Cephas seems to be mentioned as distinct from the Twelve.
 The Twelve are only infrequently called “apostles” in the gospels. Kevin Giles notes that the Twelve are referred to as apostles, “only once in Matthew and Mark, not at all in John, and five times in Luke . . . Many scholars in fact argue that Jesus did not at any time call the twelve ‘apostles’ during his lifetime.” Giles goes on to pose the question, “Did Luke introduce the title ‘apostle’ in his role as editor of the historical sources he used, or was it already there?” Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (North Blackburn, Vic., Australia: Collins Dove, 1989) pp. 155 & 157.
Similarly, Dan Nässelqvist states:
Arnold Ehrhardt, Günter Klein, and Walter Schmithals argue that the origin of the notion of apostles cannot be traced back to Jesus. According to them, the notion of apostle developed in the early Jesus movement and its post-Easter mission. The majority of passages that use the word apostle are found in Acts and in the Pauline Letters, writings that are closely related to the missionary experience of the early Jesus movement. Thus, these scholars claim that the idea of apostles originated in the early missionary work, as new leadership figures emerged, and provided the background to the abundant use of apostle in the Pauline Letters and Acts. The Gospel writers then included the idea in their descriptions of how Jesus called His disciples (Ehrhardt, The Apostolic Ministry, 4–5; Klein, Die Zwölf Apostel, 22–52; Schmithals, The Office of Apostle in the Early Church, 1969:98–110). D. Nässelqvist, “Apostle” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Eds J. D. Barry and L. Wentz (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012)
 Paul also indicates that a mark of a true apostle is the proclamation of the true gospel. Moreover, in defending his claim of apostolic ministry, Paul points out that the Corinthians are his ‘workmanship in the Lord’. “The importance of this Paul underlines in the following sentence: ‘If to others I am not an apostle [i.e. if they reject me as an apostle], at least I am one to you; for you are my seal of my apostleship in the Lord (1 Cor. 9:2; cf 1 Cor. 3:1-2; 2 Cor. 12:11). (Giles, Patterns of Ministry, p. 162)
 “Paul’s broader usage leads us to think that apostle was similar in function to a church planter. For one, the term appears in contexts that stress the person’s role as a coworker in the church planting process” (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:1–6; 1 Thess. 2:6–8).” Linda L. Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 2000) p.54
 Giles, Patterns of Ministry, p.162-3.
 Tradition associates Andronicus and Junia with the Seventy, but this cannot be verified and may well be false.
 Mark Goodacre, NT Pod 13: Mary Magdalene: the First Woman Apostle
 P.W. Barnett, “Apostle” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) p.48
 The modern debate about the nature of apostles began when J.B. Lightfoot wrote “The Name and Office of Apostles” (published in 1890 as an excursus to his commentary on Galatians.) In his essay Lightfoot showed that people, other than the Twelve, were called apostles in the New Testament, and that apostles were mentioned widely in post-apostolic writings. Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry, p152.
 “The word apostolos (“apostle”) was used only infrequently in the Greek language prior to NT times . . . In classical Greek its use is more or less confined to seafaring contexts. Herodotus uses it twice for “messenger,” while the LXX has it only once with the same meaning. With the word occurring thirty-five times in the Pauline corpus and eighty times in the NT, it is evident that apostolos must have been very important within the early Christian movement.” P.W. Barnett, “Apostle”, p.45.
The LSJ entry for apostolos is here.
 “Apostoloi was the official name given to the men sent by the rulers of Jerusalem to collect the half-shekel tax for the Temple, the tax itself being called apostolē.” “Apostle and Apostleship” in JewishEncyclopedia.com It seems that the Paul borrowed this usage and applied it to the collection for the church in Jerusalem.
 P.W. Barnett, “Apostles”, p.45
 Didache, Translated by M.B. Riddle. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0714.htm>.
 Several New Testament women are identified as being the mistresses of their own homes, and as being hostesses of churches that met in these homes: Mary of Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), Lydia of Philippi (Acts 16:40), Priscilla with her husband Aquila in Ephesus and Rome (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3-5, etc) , Nympha of Laodicea (Col 4:15), the Chosen Lady (2 John 1:1, 5), and possibly Chloe of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11).
 Valeriy A. Alikin, The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill KV, 2010) p.64
 Alikin, Earliest History, p.66
 Justin Martyr, The First Apology, chapter 67. Translated by Marcus Dods and George Reith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe.(Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm>.
 Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book 4, chapter 4. Translated by Peter Holmes. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/03124.htm>.
It is important to note that the writers of the four Gospels do not identify themselves in their writings. The names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are based on early church traditions and do not have a biblical basis (in the Greek texts.) Also, only the writer of John makes the claim that he was an eyewitness of the events he recorded (John 21:24).
Image credit: Old wooden statue of Jesus and his followers, © kwerensia (Source: iStock 2378892)
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