The Greek word a·poʹsto·los is derived from the common verb a·po·stelʹlo, meaning simply “send forth (or off).” (Mt 10:5; Mr 11:3) Its basic sense is clearly illustrated in Jesus’ statement: “A slave is not greater than his master, nor is one that is sent forth [a·poʹsto·los] greater than the one that sent him.” (Joh 13:16) In this sense the word also applies to Christ Jesus as “the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” (Heb 3:1; compare Mt 10:40; 15:24; Lu 4:18, 43; 9:48; 10:16; Joh 3:17; 5:36, 38; 6:29, 57; 7:29; 8:42; 10:36; 11:42; 17:3, 8, 18, 21-25; 20:21.) Jesus was sent forth by God as his appointed and commissioned representative.
The term is principally applied, however, to those disciples whom Jesus personally selected as a body of 12 appointed representatives. The names of the original 12 selected are given at Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19, and Luke 6:13-16. One of the original 12, Judas Iscariot, proved to be a traitor, thereby fulfilling earlier prophecies. (Ps 41:9; 109:8) The remaining 11 faithful apostles are again listed at Acts 1:13.
Some of the apostles had been disciples of John the Baptizer before becoming Jesus’ disciples. (Joh 1:35-42) Eleven of them were evidently Galileans (Ac 2:7), Judas Iscariot being considered the sole Judean. They were from the working class; four were definitely fishermen by trade; one had been a tax collector. (Mt 4:18-21; 9:9-13) At least two of them appear to have been cousins of Jesus (James and John, the sons of Zebedee). They were men who were viewed by the religious leaders as “unlettered and ordinary,” indicating that their education was elementary and not from the schools of higher learning. A number of them, including Peter (Cephas), were married men.—Ac 4:13; 1Co 9:5.
Of the 12, Peter, James, and John seem to have enjoyed the closest relationship with Jesus. They alone witnessed the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter (Mr 5:35-43) and the transfiguration of Jesus (Mt 17:1, 2), and they accompanied him farther into the garden of Gethsemane than the other apostles on the night of his arrest. (Mr 14:32, 33) A special affinity appears to have existed between Jesus and John, and John is accepted as being the one referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus used to love.”—Joh 21:20-24; 13:23.
Selection and Early Ministry. The 12 were selected out of a larger group of disciples and were designated “apostles” by Jesus, “that they might continue with him and that he might send them out [a·po·stelʹlei] to preach and to have authority to expel the demons.” (Mr 3:13-15) Thereafter they did “continue with him” in very close association during the remainder of his earthly ministry, receiving extensive personal instruction and ministerial training. (Mt 10:1-42; Lu 8:1) Since they continued to be Jesus’ pupils, they were still called “disciples,” particularly in accounts of events prior to Pentecost. (Mt 11:1; 14:26; 20:17; Joh 20:2) Thereafter they are consistently called “apostles.” At the time of their appointment, Jesus gave them miraculous powers to heal, as well as to expel demons, and they used these powers to some extent during Jesus’ ministry. (Mr 3:14, 15; 6:13; Mt 10:1-8; Lu 9:6; compare Mt 17:16.) This activity, however, is shown to be always subordinate to their principal work of preaching. Though forming an inner circle of followers, their instruction and training included no mysterious rituals or ceremonies.
Human Weaknesses. Though greatly favored as apostles of God’s Son, they manifested normal human failings and weaknesses. Peter was inclined to be rash and impetuous (Mt 16:22, 23; Joh 21:7, 8); Thomas was slow to be convinced (Joh 20:24, 25); James and John manifested youthful impatience (Lu 9:49, 54). They quarreled over the issue of their future greatness in the earthly kingdom that they expected Jesus to establish. (Mt 20:20-28; Mr 10:35-45; compare Ac 1:6; Lu 24:21.) They acknowledged their need for greater faith. (Lu 17:5; compare Mt 17:20.) Despite their years of intimate association with Jesus and though knowing him to be the Messiah, they all abandoned him at the time of his arrest (Mt 26:56); the matter of his burial was handled by others. The apostles were slow at first to accept the testimony of the women who first saw Jesus after his resurrection. (Lu 24:10, 11) Because of fear they met behind locked doors. (Joh 20:19, 26) The resurrected Jesus gave them further enlightenment, and following his ascension to heaven on the 40th day from his resurrection, they manifested great joy and “were continually in the temple blessing God.”—Lu 24:44-53.
Activity in Christian Congregation. The outpouring of God’s spirit upon them at Pentecost greatly strengthened the apostles. The first five chapters of the Acts of Apostles testify to the great fearlessness of the apostles and their boldness in declaring the good news and the resurrection of Jesus in spite of jailing, beatings, and threats of death from their rulers. During those early days after Pentecost, the dynamic leadership of the apostles, under the power of the holy spirit, resulted in amazing expansion in the Christian congregation. (Ac 2:41; 4:4) Their ministry was at first concentrated in Jerusalem, then extended to Samaria, and in time, throughout the known world.—Ac 5:42; 6:7; 8:5-17, 25; 1:8.
Their primary function as apostles was to be witnesses as to Jesus’ fulfillment of Jehovah God’s purposes and prophecies, particularly of his resurrection and exaltation, and to do a discipling work among all nations; and this commission was emphasized to them by Jesus just before his ascension to heaven. (Mt 28:19, 20; Ac 1:8, 22; 2:32-36; 3:15-26) Their testimony concerning the resurrection was that of eyewitnesses.—Ac 13:30-34.
Miraculous powers. Additionally, to fortify their testimony, the apostles continued to exercise the miraculous powers previously granted them by Jesus, and also other gifts of the spirit received from Pentecost forward. (Ac 5:12; 9:36-40; see GIFTS FROM GOD [Gifts of the Spirit].) While others, too, received such miraculous gifts of the spirit, the account shows that such was the case only when one or more of the apostles were present, or by the laying on of the hands of the apostles. Paul, though not one of the 12, also served in this way as an apostle personally appointed by Jesus Christ. (Ac 2:1, 4, 14; 8:14-18; 10:44; 19:6) Thus the power to transmit such gifts was unique with these apostles. Such miraculous gifts would therefore pass away with the passing away of these apostles and of those who had received these gifts through the apostles (1Co 13:2, 8-11), and thus we read that these powers were “missing in the 2nd-century church, the writers of those days speaking of them as a thing in the past—in the apostolic age, in fact.”—The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, edited by J. D. Douglas, 1980, Vol. 1, p. 79.
Administrative position. In the formation, organization, and subsequent direction of the Christian congregation, the apostles occupied a primary position. (1Co 12:28; Eph 4:11) Although they were joined by others of the “older men” in such supervision, they formed a principal part of the governing body of the expanding Christian congregation, and this body was recognized by the early Christians everywhere as the channel of communication used by God to render decisions and direct the affairs of the congregation throughout the earth. (Ac 2:42; 8:14-17; 11:22; 15:1, 2, 6-31; 16:4, 5) This was possible for these men only because of the fulfillment of the promises about guidance by God’s holy spirit. (Joh 15:26, 27) Such help enabled them to recall Jesus’ instructions and teachings, to clarify points of doctrine, and to be progressively guided “into all the truth” revealed through them at that apostolic period. (Joh 14:26; 16:13-15; compare Joh 2:22; 12:16.) They made appointments to positions of service within the congregation and also designated areas in which certain ones would engage in missionary activity.—Ac 6:2, 3; Ga 2:8, 9.
The apostles, therefore, served as a foundation, resting on Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone, for the building up of the “holy temple for Jehovah.” (Eph 2:20-22; 1Pe 2:4-6) There is no evidence of the primacy of any one apostle in the established Christian congregation. (See PETER.) Peter and John appear to have been especially prominent at Pentecost and immediately thereafter, with Peter acting as the principal spokesman. (Ac 2:14, 37, 38; 3:1, 4, 11; 4:1, 13, 19; 5:3, 8, 15, 29) However, in the decisions made at that time neither of these appears to have had a superiority over the others of the governing body, and when news arrived of the baptisms taking place in Samaria, the apostles in Jerusalem “dispatched [a·peʹstei·lan] Peter and John to them,” so that these two served, in effect, as apostles of the apostles. (Ac 6:2-6; 8:14, 15) Following the death of the apostle James, the disciple of the same name, James the half brother of Jesus, appears to have presided in the governing body. Paul speaks of this James and also Peter (Cephas) and John as “the ones who seemed to be pillars.” (Ac 12:1, 2, 16, 17; Ga 1:18, 19; 2:9, 11-14) It was James who announced the final decision on the important issue of circumcision as involving the Gentile believers, at which meeting Peter and Paul both presented testimony.—Ac 15:1, 2, 6-21.
Who replaced Judas Iscariot as a twelfth apostle?
Because of the defection of Judas Iscariot, who died unfaithful, there were only 11 apostles remaining, and during the 40 days from Jesus’ resurrection until his ascension to heaven he made no appointment of a replacement. Sometime during the ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the day of Pentecost it was viewed as necessary that another be selected to fill the vacancy left by Judas, not simply on the basis of his death but, rather, on the basis of his wicked defection, as the Scriptures quoted by Peter indicate. (Ac 1:15-22; Ps 69:25; 109:8; compare Re 3:11.) Thus, by contrast, when the faithful apostle James was put to death, there is no record of any concern to appoint anyone to succeed him in his position of apostle.—Ac 12:2.
It is evident from Peter’s statements that it was then considered that any individual filling the position of an apostle of Jesus Christ must have the qualifications of having been personally conversant with him, having been an eyewitness of his works, his miracles, and particularly his resurrection. In view of this it can be seen that any apostolic succession would in course of time become an impossibility, unless there were divine action to supply these requirements in each individual case. At that particular time before Pentecost, however, there were men meeting these requirements, and two were put forth as suitable for replacing unfaithful Judas. Doubtless having in mind Proverbs 16:33, lots were cast, and Matthias was selected and was thereafter “reckoned along with the eleven apostles.” (Ac 1:23-26) He is thus included among “the twelve” who settled the problem concerning the Greek-speaking disciples (Ac 6:1, 2), and evidently Paul includes him in referring to “the twelve” when speaking of Jesus’ postresurrection appearances at 1 Corinthians 15:4-8. Thus, when Pentecost arrived, there were 12 apostolic foundations on which the spiritual Israel then formed could rest.
Congregational Apostleships. Matthias was not a mere apostle of the Jerusalem congregation, any more than the remaining 11 apostles were. His case is different from that of the Levite Joseph Barnabas who became an apostle of the congregation of Antioch, Syria. (Ac 13:1-4; 14:4, 14; 1Co 9:4-6) Other men also are referred to as “apostles of congregations” in the sense that they were sent forth by such congregations to represent them. (2Co 8:23) And, in writing to the Philippians, Paul speaks of Epaphroditus as “your envoy [a·poʹsto·lon] and private servant for my need.” (Php 2:25) The apostleship of these men was clearly not by virtue of any apostolic succession, nor did they form part of “the twelve” as did Matthias.
The correct understanding of the wider application of the term “apostle” can help to clear away any apparent discrepancy between Acts 9:26, 27 and Galatians 1:17-19, when applied to the same occasion. The first account states that Paul, on arriving in Jerusalem, was led “to the apostles” by Barnabas. In the account in Galatians, however, Paul states that he visited with Peter and adds: “But I saw no one else of the apostles, only James the brother of the Lord.” James (not the original apostle James the son of Zebedee nor James the son of Alphaeus, but the half brother of Jesus) was evidently viewed as an “apostle” in the wider sense, namely, as “one sent forth” by the Jerusalem congregation. This would allow for the Acts account to use the title in the plural in saying that Paul was led “to the apostles” (that is, Peter and James).—Compare 1Co 15:5-7; Ga 2:9.
The Selection of Paul. Probably about the year 34 C.E., Saul of Tarsus was converted and is later referred to as Paul. He did become a true apostle of Jesus Christ and was the direct choice of the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ. (Ac 9:1-22; 22:6-21; 26:12-23; 13:9) He argued on behalf of his apostleship and presented as his qualification the fact that he had seen the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, that he had performed miracles, and that he had served as a channel for imparting the holy spirit to baptized believers. (1Co 9:1, 2; 15:9, 10; 2Co 12:12; 2Ti 1:1, 11; Ro 1:1; 11:13; Ac 19:5, 6) Since the apostle James (the brother of John) was not killed until about the year 44 C.E., “the twelve” were yet alive at the time of Paul’s becoming an apostle. He nowhere includes himself among such “twelve,” while at the same time he acknowledges no inferiority in his apostleship compared with that of such ones.—Ga 2:6-9.
Matthias’ and Paul’s apostleships were both valid for the purpose for which those men were “sent forth,” yet when the apostle John saw the vision of the heavenly New Jerusalem in the Revelation (given about 96 C.E.) he saw only 12 foundation stones and on them inscribed “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Re 21:14) The testimony of the Holy Scriptures is clear that the apostle Paul was never referred to as one of “the twelve.” Therefore, it logically follows that one of “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” inscribed on the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem is that of Matthias and not that of Paul. This means that the vision of the apostle John reflects the situation that existed at the start of the Christian congregation on the day of Pentecost in the year 33 C.E.—See PAUL.
End of the Apostolic Period. Though the Bible does not relate the death of the 12 apostles, aside from that of James, the evidence available indicates that they maintained their faithfulness until death and therefore needed no replacement. Concerning history in the following centuries, the observation is made that “whenever it [the term “apostle”] is applied to individuals in later Christian literature, the use of the term is metaphorical. The church has never had apostles in the N[ew] T[estament] sense since the first century.”—The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by G. A. Buttrick, 1962, Vol. 1, p. 172.
During their lifetime the apostles’ presence served as a restraint upon the influences of apostasy, holding back the forces of false worship within the Christian congregation. It is evidently to this “restraint” that the apostle Paul referred at 2 Thessalonians 2:7: “True, the mystery of this lawlessness is already at work; but only till he who is right now acting as a restraint gets to be out of the way.” (Compare Mt 13:24, 25; Ac 20:29, 30.) This apostolic influence, including the authority and powers unique with them, continued until the death of John about 100 C.E. (1Jo 2:26; 3Jo 9, 10) The rapid influx of apostasy and false doctrine and practices after the death of the apostles shows that any pretended apostolic successors had none of the restraining influence of the apostles.
The reference to Andronicus and Junias at Romans 16:7 as “men of note among the apostles” indicates, not that they were apostles, but, rather, that they were held in high repute by the apostles. That some made false pretenses of being “apostles of Christ” is shown at 2 Corinthians 11:5, 13; 12:11, 12; Revelation 2:2.