The word “apostle” means “one who is sent.” So the word can have a very general meaning of some persons sent by others on a special mission (e.g. 2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:25). In that case no special religious authority is implied because the sender is not an authority and does not intend to invest the “apostles” with authority they don’t possess.
In determining what authority an “apostle” has, we should ask: What authority does the sender have who sent the apostle as his authorized spokesman? And: How much of that authority did the sender give to his representative?
Jesus chose Twelve Apostles for a unique, unrepeatable role in the history of redemption. This can be seen in the following five passages of Scripture.
- Luke 6:13 – “And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles.”
- Matthew 19:28 – “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
- Acts 1:21-22 – (After Judas had committed suicide, Peter realized that the number of the 12 needed to be re-established for the authorized eyewitness ministry of the Twelve. So he said…) “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
- Revelation 21:14 – (Describing the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, John says that the foundations of the city were the twelve apostles.) “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
- Ephesians 2:19-20 – (Similar to this Paul speaks of the apostles as the foundation of the church.) “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”
In a sense all missionaries, truly called by God, are sent by Christ as his representatives and should be able to say, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). In order to be an authentic missionary one needs to be “sent.” “How shall they preach unless they be sent?” (Romans 10:15)
So these missionaries are authorized by the risen Christ, but we would not say that Jesus imparts to them the degree of authority that he gave to the original apostles whose teaching now stands in the New Testament. Their authority must constantly defer to the New Testament and prove itself by conformity to what the original spokesman of the Lord taught.
Between the Twelve apostles chosen by Jesus and the ordinary missionary sent by the Lord today, there seem to be also another group (or groups) of men called and authorized by Jesus in the New Testament, some of whom are on a par with the Twelve in their teaching authority. Paul certainly believed that his call and commission by the risen Christ put him on a par with the Twelve in his teaching role (Galatians 1:1, 12-16; 2:8; 1 Corinthians 9:1-2; 15:8-10; 2 Corinthians 12:12). There were others as well who may have had more or less authority as representatives of the Lord (Galatians 1:19; Acts 14:14; 1 Corinthians 15:5-7; Romans 16:17).
We would probably do well to avoid using the term today for missionaries and church planters, because using it may well create a confusion that could serve to lessen the unique authority of original apostolic teaching.
Less than apostolic,