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Holman Bible Dictionary
Background of Apostle The English word “apostle” comes from the Greek term apostolos , which means a messenger, envoy, or ambassador. Related to the verb, “to send,” it refers to one who is “sent” on behalf of another. The conceptual background of the New Testament term apostolos has been variously represented. Many scholars believe that the rabbinic office of the shaliach —attested by 150 A.D.—constitutes the proper background for understanding the New Testament term “apostle.” The shaliach was established as a legal institution in rabbinic Judaism to insure that an appointed “messenger” was given due regard as the legal representative of his sender. The shaliach functioned with the full authority of the one who commissioned him. According to Jewish tradition, “A man's agent ( shaliach ) is like to himself” (Mishnah Berakoth Leviticus 5:5; Rosh ha-Shanah Leviticus 4:9; compare 1 Samuel 25:40-41; 2 Samuel 10:1-19 ). It is not certain that the legal rabbinic notion of a shaliach was established before the time of Christ. Moreover, even if it were in use by that time, the differences between the rabbinic of shaliach and that of the New Testament term apostolos are significant enough to urge caution in relating the two terms too closely. The shaliach , for example, had a function that was more legal than religious (to serve documents, collect money, carry information), was applied generally to human representation (whether individuals or groups), and lasted for only a limited period. The New Testament apostle, on the other hand, emerges as a divinely appointed, lifetime witness to the saving acts of God, specifically, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Old Testament notion of a shaliach also differs from the rabbinic conceptions of that term and appears to be of more significance for understanding the New Testament term “apostle.” The “sending” and commissioning of the great prophetic figures Moses and Isaiah ( Exodus 3:10; Isaiah 6:8 where the Hebrew verb for sending, shalach , is translated by apostello in the Septuagint , the Greek Old Testament, as divine spokesmen surely influenced the New Testament word, “apostle.” We may also note that the same “sending” terminology is applied to other noteworthy characters such as Elijah (2Kings 2:2,2Kings 2:4,2 Kings 2:6 ), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:7 ), and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 2:3-4 ). As a reference to a divine spokesman, Old Testament ideas of a “sent one” are certainly in line with the New Testament term “apostle.” Compare Jeremiah 7:25 .
Apostle in the New Testament The term “apostle” in the New Testament is used primarily to designate that group of leaders within the early church(es) who were historical witnesses of the resurrected Lord and proclaimers of God's saving mercies enacted through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus originally gave the title to His closest circle of friends, the twelve (Luke 6:13 ). He especially indicated their status as emissaries He had set apart to announce (as He had done) the good news of the kingdom (Matthew 10:1-23; Luke 8:1; Luke 9:1-6 ). After the first Easter, the term was expanded by the early church to refer not only to the twelve, but to a wider circle of authoritative preachers and witnesses of the resurrected Lord (Acts 14:4 ,Acts 14:4,14:14; Romans 16:7; 1 Corinthians 4:9; 1 Corinthians 15:5-9; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:7-9 ).
The early church's expansion of the term was certainly justified given both the self-understanding of Jesus as One sent from God (Matthew 5:17; Matthew 10:34; Mark 2:17; Mark 10:45; Luke 4:18; Luke 9:48; John 5:19-47; John 6:29-57; John 8:14-42; compare Hebrews 3:1 ) and His designation of His followers as those who, as His representatives, carried on His work (Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21; Acts 1:6 ). Those facts coupled with the early church's actual sense of continuity with the person and mission of the historical Jesus made rather natural their extended application of the term “apostle” to more than the original twelve, though not, as we shall see, to all Christian witnesses. Thus, the choice, meaning, and ongoing use by the early church of the term “apostle” as a reference to a unique class of witnesses is in large measure derived from its actual use by Jesus.
The term “apostle” did not, however, have limitless application in the New Testament period. It extended to gospel witnesses other than the twelve but not to all proclaimers of the gospel. It was never so broad in New Testament use as to be an ancient equivalent to the modern term “missionary.” The term “apostle,” most immediately brought to mind its central function: to preach the gospel; but all those who preached the gospel were not designated “apostles.” There is, for example, a striking absence of the term with reference to Timothy (2 Corinthians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1 ), Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 1:1 ), and Silas (1 Thessalonians 1:1 , 2 Thessalonians 1:1 ), who were certainly not only Paul's fellow workers but also preachers of the gospel (compare 2 Corinthians 1:19 ). Thus, others in the Pauline missionary party were called, for example, “brother,” “fellow worker,” or “bond servant” (Romans 16:3; Philippians 2:25; Colossians 4:7-14; 1 Thessalonians 3:1 ); but the term “apostle” had a more exclusive, and thus more restricted, meaning.
The decisive criterion for the term's application seems to have been the eyewitness status of some with respect to the resurrected Lord. Though the criteria employed for replacing Judas among the twelve (Acts 1:12-22 ) included being an eyewitness not only of the resurrected Jesus but also of the ministry of Jesus from the days of His baptism by John, there developed in the early church a slightly broader application of the term “apostle” which did not demand an eyewitness knowledge of Jesus' ministry. James the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55 ) was certainly no follower of his Brother during His ministry (Mark 3:21 ,Mark 3:21,3:31-35; John 7:3-5 ). He still became an “apostle” and leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:1-21; Galatians 1:18-19 ) following his encounter with the resurrected Lord (1 Corinthians 15:7 ). In a similar way, Paul's vision of, and calling by, the resurrected Lord won for him the designation “apostle” (1 Corinthians 9:1; 1 Corinthians 15:8-11; Galatians 1:11-2:10 ); though this distinction was apparently not conceded by all (2 Corinthians 3:1; 2 Corinthians 12:11-13 ). We may presume that Barnabas (Acts 14:4 ,Acts 14:4,14:14 ), Apollos (1 Corinthians 4:6-13 ), and also Andronicus and Junias (Romans 16:7 ) were likewise witnesses of the resurrected Lord.
To be sure, Paul did speak of certain others as “apostles” who likely were not eyewitnesses of the risen Lord (2 Corinthians 8:23 NAS and RSV notes; Philippians 2:25 ); but such passages are only apparent exceptions, for the helpers in question are called “apostles” (normally translated “representatives” or “messengers”) of the churches , clearly suggesting a status different from that of the “apostle of Jesus Christ .” Therefore, because it referred to a specific set of historical witnesses, the New Testament office of apostle, by definition, died with its first representatives. The New Testament certainly speaks of a succession of witnesses to the apostolic tradition ( 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14 ), so that the gospel they preached—the apostolic theology —has been handed on (the New Testament itself being the inspired, literary remains of that theology). No true personal or ecclesiastical succession of apostles continues in any New Testament sense of that term.
Background of Disciple The term “disciple” comes to us in English from a Latin root. Its basic meaning is “learner” or “pupil.” The term is virtually absent from the Old Testament, though there are two related references (1 Chronicles 25:8; Isaiah 8:16 ).
In the Greek world the word “disciple” normally referred to an adherent of a particular teacher or religious/philosophical school. It was the task of the disciple to learn, study, and pass along the sayings and teachings of the master. In rabbinic Judaism the term “disciple” referred to one who was committed to the interpretations of Scripture and religious tradition given him by the master or rabbi. Through a process of learning which would include a set meeting time and such pedagogical methods as question and answer, instruction, repetition, and memorization, the disciple would become increasingly devoted to the master and the master's teachings. In time, the disciple would, likewise, pass on the traditions to others.
Jesus' Disciples In the New Testament 233 of the 261 instances of the word “disciple” occur in the Gospels, the other 28 being in Acts. Usually the word refers to disciples of Jesus, but there are also references to disciples of the Pharisees (Matthew 22:16; Mark 2:18 ), disciples of John the Baptist (Mark 2:18; Luke 11:1; John 1:35 ), and even disciples of Moses (John 9:28 ).
The Gospels often refer to Jesus as “Rabbi” (Matthew 26:25 ,Matthew 26:25,26:49; Mark 9:5; Mark 10:51; Mark 11:21; John 1:38 ,John 1:38,1:49; John 3:2 ,John 3:2,3:26; John 6:25; John 20:16 NIV). One can assume that Jesus used traditional rabbinic teaching techniques (question and answer, discussion, memorization) to instruct His disciples. In many respects Jesus differed from the rabbis. He called His disciples to “Follow me” ( Luke 5:27 ). Disciples of the rabbis could select their teachers. Jesus oftentimes demanded extreme levels of personal renunciation (loss of family, property, etc.; Matthew 4:18-22; Matthew 10:24-42; Luke 5:27-28; Luke 14:25-27; Luke 18:28-30 ). He asked for lifelong allegiance (Luke 9:57-62 ) as the essential means of doing the will of God (Matthew 12:49-50; John 7:16-18 ). He taught more as a bearer of divine revelation than a link in the chain of Jewish tradition (Matthew 5:21-48; Matthew 7:28-29; Mark 4:10-11 . In so doing Jesus announced the end of the age and the long-awaited reign of God (Matthew 4:17; Luke 4:14-21 ,Luke 4:14-21,4:42-44 ).
The Twelve As the messianic Proclaimer of the reign of God, Jesus gathered about Himself a special circle of twelve disciples, clearly a symbolic representation of the twelve tribes (Matthew 19:28 ). He was reestablishing Jewish social identity based upon discipleship to Jesus. The twelve represented a unique band, making the word “disciple” (as a reference to the twelve) an exact equivalent to “apostle” in those contexts where the latter word was also restricted to the twelve. The four lists of the twelve in the New Testament (Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:13 ,Acts 1:13,1:26 ) also imply from their contexts the synonymous use of the terms “disciples”/”apostles” when used to refer to the twelve.
A Larger Group of Followers The Gospels clearly show that the word “disciple” can refer to others besides the twelve. The verb “follow” became something of a technical term Jesus used to call His disciples, who were then called “followers,” (Mark 4:10 ). These “followers” included a larger company of people from whom He selected the twelve (Mark 3:7-19; Luke 6:13-17 ). This larger group of disciples/followers included men and women (Luke 8:1-3; Luke 23:49 ) from all walks of life. (Even the twelve included a variety: fishermen, a tax collector, a Zealot.) Jesus was no doubt especially popular among the socially outcast and religiously despised, but people of wealth and of theological training also followed (Luke 8:1-3; Luke 19:1-10; John 3:1-3; John 12:42; John 19:38-39 ).
The twelve were sent out as representatives of Jesus, commissioned to preach the coming of the kingdom, to cast out demons, and to heal diseases (Matthew 10:1 ,Matthew 10:1,10:5-15; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6 ). Such tasks were not limited to the twelve (Luke 10:1-24 ). Apparently Jesus' disciples first included “a great multitude of disciples” (Luke 6:17 ). He formed certain smaller and more specifically defined groups within that “great multitude.” These smaller groups would include a group of “seventy” (Luke 10:1 ,Luke 10:1,10:17 ), the “twelve” (Matthew 11:1; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1 ), and perhaps an even smaller, inner group within the twelve, consisting especially of Peter, James, and John—whose names (with Andrew) always figure first in the lists of the twelve (Matthew 10:2; Mark 3:16-17; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13 ), whose stories of calling are especially highlighted (Matthew 4:18-22; John 1:35-42 and the tradition that John is the “Other”/”Beloved Disciple” of the Gospel of John 13:23; John 19:26; John 20:2; John 21:20 ), and who alone accompanied Jesus on certain significant occasions of healing and revelation (Matthew 17:1; Mark 13:3; Luke 8:51 ).
All Followers of Jesus The Book of Acts frequently uses the term “disciple” to refer generally to all those who believe in the risen Lord (Acts 6:1-2 ,Acts 6:1-2,6:7; Acts 9:1 ,Acts 9:1,9:10 ,Acts 9:10,9:19 ,Acts 9:19,9:26 ,Acts 9:26,9:38; Acts 11:26 ,Acts 11:26,11:29 ). In addition, the verb form “to disciple” as it appears in the final commissioning scene of Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 28:19-20 ) also suggests a use in the early church of the term “disciple” as a more generalized name for all those who come to Jesus in faith, having heard and believed the gospel.
Conclusion We have seen that, as references to the twelve, the words “apostle” and “disciple” could be synonymous. However, just as the term “disciple” could mean other followers of Jesus than the twelve in the time of His ministry, so also after His resurrection the term “disciple” had a wider meaning as well, being clearly applied to all His followers. Whereas the term “apostle” retained a more specific meaning, being tied to certain historical eyewitnesses of the resurrected Lord, the word “disciple” tended to lose its narrower associations with the twelve, and/or those who followed the historical Jesus, or who saw the risen Lord, and became a virtual equivalent to “Christian” (Acts 11:26 ). In every case, however, the common bond of meaning for the various applications of the word “disciple” was allegiance to Jesus.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Disciples'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/d/disciples.html. 1991.