by Nathan Rasmussen.

There seems to be a lot of talk about apostles these days. Paging through the ads in certain Christian magazines, you’re bound to see numerous conferences featuring apostles. There’s also no shortage of apostles here in East Africa. where my family and I minister. But the question remains, what exactly is an apostle?

Originally, the word meant “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” (1:1). Interestingly, if we look at Paul and his ministry, we see that he was not one of the top leaders in the early church. He wasn’t a Peter or a James. In Acts 15, Peter took a leading role at the council meeting in Jerusalem, and James, the brother of Jesus, 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 in fact, the last one on the list.

Paul was sent by the 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 (NIV) calls Jesus himself “our apostle and high priest.” Jesus was actually 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. Jesus Himself said in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” Isn’t that really what an apostle or missionary is? They leave their comfort zone and go to those who have never heard the Good News. Jesus says in John 20:21, “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 one of the Gospels: Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:47, and John 20:21.

Nothing New Under The Sun
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, italics added).

Jesus tells us that we see two things in the Old Testament. First, that all of the sacrifices, ceremonies and other requirements of the Law are fulfilled in Christ. Secondly, 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 bless not only him and his family but all the families of the earth through him (Genesis 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” (Isaiah 49:6).

Sadly, 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. We need to realize not only our top-line blessing but our bottom-line responsibilities as well. We have been called to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Yet often, we live as if the world isn’t our responsibility.

Before the resurrection, Jesus chose twelve who were called “disciples.” The truth is, they were apostles-in-training. Once Jesus arose, He specifically told them their responsibility was to make disciples of all nations.

Slow Start
The disciples didn’t go immediately. Even with Jesus as their mentor, it took them time to move out. 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 Chapter 3, a lame man was healed and as a result, nobody wanted to leave a place of miracles. In Chapter 4, they had problems with the government. In Chapter 5, they had internal church problems with hypocrites (Ananias and Sapphira). In Chapter 6, they had still more church problems (complaining widows). Most churches have enough problems with complainers and hypocrites to keep them from going anywhere for a long time.

At the end of Chapter 7, God used the Sanhedrin and Saul to persecute the church, so that in the beginning of Chapter 8, they finally went! But who went? “All the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria” (vs. 1). At last, they were doing what God had commanded them to do. Unfortunately, the ones going were not the apostles, the sent ones. Instead, they stayed in Jerusalem.

Others such as Philip went. He wasn’t an apostle. He was just a deacon, one of those guys in Chapter 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 into the desert. He actually left the place of miracles to go and talk to one man, an Ethiopian eunuch. Philip shared the gospel with a member of an unreached people group.

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.

Maybe it is because when he went to Samaria, he focused 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.”

Though the saints were scattered by the persecution under Saul, they basically went to their own kind. Even Paul, when he entered a new city, 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 straight to the Gentiles himself.

Crossing Boundaries
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). And it is interesting that just a few more verses down (verse 26) it says, “It was in Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.”

Why this name? Maybe because they looked like Christ! Christ taught his disciples to have a heart for the nations. Notice how He had looked with admiration on the Roman centurion (Matt. 8) or the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15). Jesus healed both of 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 it is because they are the top leaders. Apostles are actually the founders of the work, the fathers of the faith. Maybe they are listed first because without pioneer missionaries, there is no church. Whom do the prophets speak to, whom are the evangelists sent from, or whom do the pastor/teachers care for and teach if there is no church?

Maybe we need to think again about all the things we are trying to read into the office of an apostle. Is it not possible they 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, which is fine. They are like Philip going to fellow Jews in Samaria. Philip only did true missions, however–the work of an apostle–when he went to the Ethiopian eunuch.

Home Missions: Oxymoron?
This does not mean the work of an evangelist is any less important or less needed. We simply need to clarify the difference. A lot 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,” in the end it loses its very meaning.

So, what is an apostle? I think we need to return to the root meaning of the word, “sent one,” one who has been called of God to “go and make disciples of all nations.” This is a command that Jesus gave to his disciples. He patiently taught them for three-plus years to have a heart for the nations.

How many years have you been a disciple, learning at Jesus’ feet? Of course we are disciples all our lives, but have you ever considered God’s call on your life to be that of an apostle?

We have a world where more than 2 billion people have never heard the gospel for the first time. Sixty-six thousand people die every day never having heard the name of Jesus, not even once. What can we do to reach them? We need prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers–and we need apostles. We need sent ones, missionaries willing to go to those who have never heard. Are you willing to be one? Are you willing to enable someone else to be one?

Nathan & Karen Rasmussen ( can be reached at P.O. Box 349, Kigoma, Tanzania. Their sending church is Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, Smithtown, N.Y.

All Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.

One thought on “Defining Apostles

  1. Hey guys, know I’m late to the party, but I loved this article. I’m serving in Namibia, in southern Africa, and love the breakdown of the terms missionary and apostle. Thanks for your willingness to cut through the mess and get back to basics. Bless you guys!

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