Apostles And The Apostolate In The New Testament -- By: Robert Duncan Culver

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 134:534 (Apr 1977)
Article: Apostles And The Apostolate In The New Testament
Author: Robert Duncan Culver


Apostles And The Apostolate In The New Testament

Robert Duncan Culver

[Robert Duncan Culver, Pastor, First Evangelical Free Church, Lincoln, Nebraska.]

A number of currents of thought in contemporary church life invite fresh attention to the precise nature and purpose of the New Testament apostolate. Some Roman Catholics and “charismatics” are presenting new ideas about revelation. In this age of lawlessness, persons in many denominations and sects are raising questions about ecclesiastical authority. Others have misconceptions about “the signs of an apostle.” In addition, there is the growing habit of referring to certain foreign missionaries or strong religious leaders as apostles—apparently intended literally rather than metaphorically.

The word apostle is a loan word from Greek by way of Latin. As with the word baptize, another such loan word, the reader of the Bible must decide what it means from the way it is used. The bare elements of the Greek word ἀπόστολος mean “one sent forth.” The root meaning of the word, however, does not indicate how, when, by whom, nor for what purpose he is to be sent.

Linguistic Background

New Testament use alone is decisive for the meaning of an apostle and for the theological significance of the apostolate. This is true of many important theological terms of Scripture but peculiarly true of this one. Though the word was already old, and there is a near-equivalent Hebrew word used in the Old Testament and in Rabbinical literature, the New Testament use is unprecedented.

Background in Greek Usage

The word apostle (ἀπόστολος) in the older Greek literature was a special maritime term or military term. A dispatched fleet was known collectively as “the apostle.” The same was true of a military expedition. Such an “apostle” was utterly impersonal, without responsibility as such; it simply had the quality of being sent away. In the Greek world, ἀπόστολος never became a term for a personal emissary or representative. “Thus its later Christian usage was an innovation to Greek ears or to those familiar with Greek.”1 In Greek culture, religious messengers were called by other names, some of which are used in the Greek Now Testament and are translated by such words as angel, messenger, preacher, etc.

Ordinarily in the case of important terms in the New Testament, the Septuagint shows that those Greek words already had a biblical usage before the New Testament auth...

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