SYMPOSIUM: Who Really Is an Apostle?

by Nate Rasmussen

Perhaps it is time to reconsider what we are trying to read into the office of an apostle. Rasmussen proposes a new view of the term and four others respond.

There’s a lot of talk about apostles these days. Page through the ads in certain Christian magazines, and you see conferences featuring apostles everywhere. Here in East Africa where my family and I minister, there’s no shortage of apostles, either. But really, who is an apostle?

Originally, the word meant a “sent one” or a “special messenger who has been sent out.” Paul introduced himself to the Roman church as “a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his good news” (Rom. 1:1). But if we look at Paul and his ministry, we see that he wasn’t one of the top leaders in the early Church. He wasn’t a Peter or a James. Peter took a leading role at the council meeting in Jerusalem (Acts 15), and James gave what turned out to be the final word. Paul, on the other hand, was just one of five leaders of a local church in Antioch (Acts 13:1-3)—and he was the last one on the list, in fact.

He was sent out by that local church to take the gospel to places it had never been proclaimed. He was a frontier missionary. In fact, the very word missionary comes from the Latin missionis, which is what the Vulgate and other Latin translations use for apostle or sent one.

Hebrews 3:1 calls Jesus himself “our apostle and high priest.” Jesus was the ultimate example of an apostle (missionary) in that he was sent to demonstrate the love of the Father to us. He left heaven, sent by the Father, to show us the Father. He said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). This is what an apostle or missionary is: he or she leaves his or her comfort zone to go to those who have never heard the good news. In John 20:21, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

Jesus taught his disciples by word and deed to have a heart for the nations. Before he went back to the Father, he told them to “go and make disciples of all the nations [peoples]” (Matt. 28:19). In fact, we have a Great Commission in each of the Gospels (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; and John 20:21).

Nothing New

The Great Commission was not a new teaching to the disciples. According to Jesus,

“When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said, “Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.’” (Luke 24:44-47)

Jesus tells us that we see two things in the Old Testament: (1) that the sacrifices, ceremonies, etc. are fulfilled in Christ and (2) that this gospel will be preached to all nations, not just Israel. In fact, the Old Testament often shows God’s heart for the nations. God called Abraham to not only bless him, but to bless all the families of the earth through him (Gen. 12:1-3). God called the nation of Israel to be a “light to the Gentiles. You will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).

We as a Church often look a lot like the Old Testament nation of Israel. We can be very focused on our blessings as children of God. This is good, but we also need to focus on our responsibility to be God’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. We can often live as if the world isn’t our responsibility. Look again. It is.

Before the Resurrection, Jesus chose twelve men who were primarily called “disciples”. The truth is, they were apostles in training. Once Jesus was resurrected, he specifically told them their responsibility was to make disciples of all nations.

But these men didn’t immediately go. Even with Jesus as their mentor, it took time. In Acts 2, they were empowered, but they didn’t go (perhaps there were too many new believers to follow up; vs. 41). In Acts 3, a lame man was healed. Nobody wanted to leave a place of miracles. In Acts 4, they had problems with the government. In Acts 5, they had internal church problems with hypocrites (Ananias and Sapphira). In Acts 6, they had more church problems (complaining widows). Most churches have enough problems with hypocrites and complainers to keep them from going anywhere.

At the end of Acts 7, God used the Sanhedrin and Saul to persecute the Church, so that finally in the beginning of Acts 8, they went!

But who went? Acts 8:1 reads, “All the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria.” At last they were doing what God had commanded them to do. Unfortunately, the ones going were not the apostles, the sent ones. They stayed in Jerusalem.

Others went, such as Philip. But he wasn’t an apostle—he was a deacon, one of those guys in Acts 6 who had been assigned to take care of complaining widows. But he obeyed, and there was blessing in obedience. Revival broke out in Samaria; people were saved, healed, and delivered, “so there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8).

Further on in Acts 8, Philip was directed by God to leave the revival in Samaria and go to the desert. He left the place of miracles to talk to an Ethiopian eunuch. Philip shared the gospel with a member of an unreached people group. As a result, the gospel reached a population that had never heard.

So why is Philip not called an apostle? He certainly seems to have done the work of an apostle. He obeyed and went. Acts 21:8 calls him an “evangelist”, but never an apostle.

Perhaps this is because when he went to Samaria, he concentrated on people like himself—fellow Jews who were scattered in Samaria. How do we deduce this? Acts 11:19 reports that “the believers who had been scattered during the persecution after Stephen’s death traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch of Syria. They preached the word of God, but only to Jews.” Although the saints were scattered by the persecution under Saul, they typically went to their own kind. Even when Paul entered a new city, he would often start by sharing the gospel with the Jews. If they believed, they could more easily reach the local Gentile population. If they refused, however, Paul would go to the Gentiles himself.

But the next verse introduces something new:

However, some of the believers who went to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching to the Gentiles about the Lord Jesus. The power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:20-21)

Just a few more verses down (vs. 26), we read, “It was in Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.” Why this name? Maybe because they looked like Jesus Christ! Jesus taught his disciples to have a heart for the nations. He looked with admiration on the Roman centurion (Matt. 8) and the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15). He healed their household members in need and went on to applaud their great faith.

When we look at the ministry gifts in Ephesians 4:11, many of us see the apostles listed first and assume this is because they are the top leaders. Apostles are actually the founders of the work, the fathers of the faith. Perhaps they are listed first because without pioneer missionaries, there is no church. To whom do the prophets speak, from whom are the evangelists sent, or to whom do the pastor/teachers care for and teach if there is no church?

Perhaps it is time to reconsider what we are trying to read into the office of an apostle. Is it not possible that these individuals are actually sent ones—missionaries to those who have never heard?

Many times, those we call missionaries are actually evangelists. They are working among people like themselves. They are like Philip, who went to fellow Jews in Samaria. Philip only did true missions (the work of an apostle), however, when he went to the Ethiopian eunuch.

“Home Missions”—an Oxymoron?
This does not mean the work of an evangelist is any less important or less needed. We simply need to clarify the difference. Much of what we call home missions isn’t missions at all—it’s evangelism. Missions is when you cross multiple barriers to get the gospel to those who have never heard. If we call everything missions, then in the end missions loses its very meaning.

So, what is an apostle? It is a “sent one” who has been called of God to “go and make disciples of all nations.” This is a command Jesus gave to his disciples. He patiently taught them for three years to have a heart for the nations.

How many years have you been a disciple, learning at Jesus’ feet? Have you ever considered God’s call on your life to be an apostle? We have a world where over two billion people have never heard the gospel. What can we do to reach them? We need prophets, evangelists, pastors/teachers, and apostles. We need sent ones, missionaries willing to go to those who have never heard. Are you willing to be one?


Nathan Rasmussen and his wife, Karen, have worked in East and Central Africa for thirty years. They and their four children train the reached of Africa to reach the unreached through mission mobilization seminars, mission training schools, and development projects among Unreached People Groups.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 314-320. Copyright  © 2013 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 



1. A Deeper Look at the Criteria of the Apostle, Jude Hama

2.  Apostles as Dream Awakeners, J.R. Woodward

3. A Closer Look at Epheisans, Doug Beacham

4. Creating Systems and Relational Structures for the Gospel, Jessica Flick

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