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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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αποστολος , one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ, commissioned by him to preach his Gospel, and propagate it to all parts of the earth. The word originally signifies a person delegated or sent; from αποστελλω , mitto; in which sense it occurs in Herodotus, and other profane authors. Hence, in the New Testament, the term is applied to divers sorts of delegates; and to the twelve disciples by way of eminence. They were limited to the number twelve, in allusion to the twelve tribes of Israel. See Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30; Revelation 21:12-14; and compare Exodus 24:4; Deuteronomy 1:23; and Joshua 4:2-3 . Accordingly care was taken, on the death of Judas, to choose another, to make up the number, Acts 1:21-22; Acts 1:26 . Of the first selection and commission of the twelve Apostles, we have an account, Luke 6:13 , &c.; Matthew 10:1 , &c. Having chosen and constituted twelve persons, under the name of Apostles, our blessed Lord determined that for some time they should be continually with him, not only to attend upon his public ministry, but to enjoy the benefit of his private conversation, that he might furnish them the better for the great work in which they were to be employed; and that, at length, after suitable preparation, he might, with greater advantage, send them abroad to preach his Gospel, and thus make way for his own visits to some more distant parts, where he had not yet been; and to enable them more effectually to do this, he endowed them with the power of working miracles, of curing diseases, and casting out demons. About the commencement of the third year of his ministry, according to the common account of its duration, he sent them out two by two, that they might be assistants to each other in their work; and commanded them to restrict their teaching and services to the people of Israel, and to avoid going to the Gentiles or to the Samaritans, to declare the approach of the kingdom of heaven, and the establishment of the Gospel dispensation; to exercise the miraculous powers with which they had been endowed gratuitously; and to depend for their subsistence on the providence of God, and on the donations of those to whom they ministered. Their names were, Simon Peter; Andrew, his brother; James the greater, the son of Zebedee; and John his brother, who was the beloved disciple; Philip of Bethsaida; Bartholomew; Thomas, called Didymus, as having a twin brother; Matthew or Levi, who had been a publican; James, the son of Alpheus, called James the less; Lebbeus, surnamed Thaddeus, and who was also called Judas or Jude, the brother of James; Simon, the Canaanite, so called, as some have thought, because he was a native of Cana, or, as Dr. Hammond thinks, from the Hebrew קנא , signifying the same with Zelotes, or the Zelot, a name given to him on account of his having before professed a distinguishing zeal for the law; and Judas Iscariot, or a man of Carioth, Joshua 15:25 , who afterward betrayed him, and then laid violent hands on himself. Of these, Simon, Andrew, James the greater, and John, were fishermen; Matthew, and James the son of Alpheus, were publicans; and the other six were probably fishermen, though their occupation is not distinctly specified.

After the resurrection of our Saviour, and not long before his ascension, the place of Judas the traitor was supplied by Matthias, supposed by some to have been Nathaniel of Galilee, to whom our Lord had given the distinguishing character of an "Israelite indeed, in whom there was no guile;" and the twelve Apostles, whose number was now completed, received a new commission, of a more extensive nature than the first, to preach the Gospel to all nations, and to be witnesses of Christ, not only in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and in Samaria, but unto the uttermost parts of the earth; and they were qualified for the execution of their office by a plenteous effusion of miraculous powers and spiritual gifts, and particularly the gift of tongues. In consequence of this commission, they preached first to the Jews, then to the Samaritans, and afterward to the idolatrous Gentiles. Their signal success at Jerusalem, where they opened their commission, alarmed the Jewish sanhedrim, before which Peter and John were summoned, and from which they received a strict charge never more to teach, publicly or privately, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. The noble reply and subsequent conduct of the Apostles are well known. This court of the Jews was so awed and incensed, as to plot the death of the twelve Apostles, as the only effectual measure for preventing the farther spread of Christianity. Gamaliel interposed, by his prudent and moderate counsel; and his speech had so good an effect upon the sanhedrim, that, instead of putting Peter and John to death, they scourged them, renewed their charge and threats, and then dismissed them. The Apostles, however, were not discouraged nor restrained; they counted it an honour to suffer such indignities, in token of their affection to their Master, and zeal in his cause; and they persisted in preaching daily in the courts of the temple, and in other places, that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised and long expected Messiah. Their doctrine spread, and the number of converts in Jerusalem still increased. During the violent persecution that raged at Jerusalem, soon after the martyrdom of St. Stephen, several of the leading men among the Christians were dispersed; some of them travelled through the regions of Judea and Samaria, and others to Damascus, Phoenicia, the Island of Cyprus, and various parts of Syria; but the twelve Apostles remained, with undaunted firmness, at Jerusalem, avowing their attachment to the persecuted interest of Christ, and consulting how they might best provide for the emergencies of the church, in its infant and oppressed state.

When the Apostles, during their abode at Jerusalem, heard that many of the Samaritans had embraced the Gospel, Peter and John were deputed to confer upon them the gift of the Holy Spirit; for to the Apostles belonged the prerogative of conferring upon others spiritual gifts and miraculous powers. In their return to Jerusalem, from the city of Samaria, they preached the Gospel in many Samaritan villages. The manner of its being sent to Ethiopia, by the conversion of the eunuch who was chief treasurer to Candace, queen of the country, is related in Acts 8:26 , &c. After the Christian religion had been planted in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and sent into Ethiopia, one of the uttermost parts of the earth, Acts 1:8; and after it had been preached about eight years to the Jews only, God, in his wise and merciful providence, disposed things for the preaching of it among the Gentiles. Caesarea was the scene in which the Apostle Peter was to open his commission for this purpose; and Cornelius, one of the devout Gentiles, and a man distinguished by his piety and charity, was the first proselyte to Christianity. After Peter had laid the foundation of a Christian church among the devout Gentiles, others imitated his example, and a great number of persons of this description embraced the Christian faith, more especially at Antioch, where the disciples, whom their enemies had hitherto called Galileans, Nazarenes, and other names of reproach, and who, among themselves, had been called "disciples," "believers," "the church," "the saints," and "brethren," were denominated, probably not without a divine direction, Christians.

When Christianity had been preached for about eight years among the Jews only, and for about three years more among the Jews and devout Gentiles, the next stage of its progress was to the idolatrous Gentiles, in the year of Christ 44, and the fourth year of the emperor Claudius. Barnabas and Saul were selected for this purpose, and constituted in an extraordinary manner Apostles of the Gentiles, or uncircumcision. Barnabas was probably an elder of the first rank; he had seen Christ in the flesh, had been an eye witness of his being alive again after his crucifixion, and had received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, as being one of the hundred and twenty. Saul also, since his conversion had preached as a superior prophet, about seven years to the Jews only, and about two years more to the Jews and devout Gentiles. They had both been born in Gentile countries; and therefore may be supposed to have had more respect and affection for the Gentiles than most of the Jews, who were natives of Judea. Saul had been converted, and had hitherto preached chiefly on Gentile ground; and he had joined with Barnabas in teaching devout Gentiles for a whole year, at Antioch in Syria; by all which previous steps they were regularly conducted to the last gradation, or the conversion of the idolatrous Gentiles. But it was necessary, in order to the being an Apostle, to have seen our Lord Jesus Christ alive after his crucifixion, for the Apostles were in a peculiar manner the witnesses of his resurrection. Some have supposed that Saul saw the person of Jesus, when he was converted, near the city of Damascus; but others, who conceive from the history of this event, that this could not have been the case, as he was instantly struck blind, are of opinion that the season, when his Apostolic qualification and commission were completed, was that mentioned by himself,

Acts 22:17 , when he returned to Jerusalem the second time after his conversion, saw the Lord Jesus Christ in person, and received the command to go quickly out of Jerusalem, that he might be sent unto the Gentiles. See also Acts 26:16-20 , where he gives an account of the object of his commission. He also received a variety of gifts and powers, which, superadded to his own genius and learning, as well as fortitude and patience, eminently qualified him for the office of an Apostle, and for that particular exercise of it which was assigned to him. St. Paul is frequently called the Apostle, by way of eminence; and the Apostle of the Gentiles, because his ministry was chiefly employed for the conversion of the Gentiles, as that of St. Peter was for Jews, who is therefore styled the Apostle of the circumcision. The Apostles having continued at Jerusalem twelve years after the ascension of Christ, as tradition reports, according to his command, determined to disperse themselves in different parts of the world. But what were the particular provinces assigned to each, does not certainly appear from any authentic history. Socrates says, that Thomas took Parthia for his lot; Matthew, Ethiopia, and Bartholomew, India. Eusebius gives the following account: "Thomas, as we learn by tradition, had Parthia for his lot; Andrew, Scythia; John, Asia, who having lived there a long time, died at Ephesus. Peter, as it seems, preached to the dispersed Jews in Pontus and Galatia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, and Asia; at length, coming to Rome, he was crucified with his head downward, as he had desired. What need I to speak of St. Paul, who fully preached the Gospel of Christ, from Jerusalem to Illyricum, and at last died a martyr at Rome, in the time of Nero?" From this passage we may conclude, that at the beginning, of the fourth century, there were not any certain and well attested accounts of the places out of Judea, in which several of the Apostles of Christ preached; for if there had, Eusebius must have been acquainted with them.

The stories that are told concerning their arrival and exploits among the Gauls, the English, the Spaniards, the Germans, the Americans, the Chinese, the Indians, and the Russians, are too romantic in their nature, and of too recent a date, to be received by an impartial inquirer after truth. These fables were for the most part forged after the time of Charlemagne, when most of the Christian churches contended about the antiquity of their origin, with as much vehemence as the Arcadians, Egyptians, and Greeks disputed formerly about their seniority and precedence.

It appears, however, that all of the Apostles did not die by martyrdom. Heraclion, cited by Clemens Alexandrinus, reckons among the Apostles who did not suffer martyrdom, Matthew, Thomas, Philip, and Levi, probably meaning Lebbeus.

To the Apostles belonged the peculiar and exclusive prerogative of writing doctrinal and preceptive books of authority in the Christian church; and it sufficiently appears that no epistles or other doctrinal writings of any person who was of a rank below that of an Apostle, were received by Christians as a part of their rule of faith. With respect to the writings of Mark and Luke, they are reckoned historical, not doctrinal or dogmatical; and Augustine says, that Mark and Luke wrote at a time when their writings might be approved not only by the church, but by Apostles still living.

The appellation of Apostles was also given to the ordinary travelling ministers of the church. Thus St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans 16:7 , says, "Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and fellow prisoners, who are of note among the Apostles." In this inferior sense the appellation is applied, by Clement of Alexandria, to Barnabas; who was not an Apostle in the highest sense of the word, so as the twelve and Paul were Apostles. Tertullian calls all the seventy disciples Apostles; and Clement calls Barnabas Apostolical merely in another place, and says that he was one of the seventy, and fellow labourer of Paul. These, says Dr. Lardner, are the highest characters which he really intends to give to Barnabas, and what he means when he styles him Apostle; therefore he need not be supposed to ascribe to Barnabas that large measure of inspiration and high authority, which was peculiar to the Apostles, strictly and properly so called. In a similar subordinate form, St. Clement of Rome is called Apostle. Timothy also is called by Salvian, Apostle, meaning merely Apostolical, or a companion and disciple of Apostles.

Apostle was likewise a title given to those sent by the churches, to carry their alms to the poor of other churches. This usage they borrowed from the synagogues, who called those whom they sent on this message, by the same name; and the function or office itself αποστολη , that is, mission. Thus St. Paul, writing to the Philippians, tells them, that Epaphroditus, their Apostle, had ministered to his wants, Php_2:25 . It is applied in like manner to those persons who first planted the Christian faith in any place.

Apostle is also used among the Jews, for a kind of officer anciently sent into the several parts and provinces in their jurisdiction, by way of visiter, or commissary; to see that the laws were duly observed, and to receive the moneys collected for the reparation of the temple, and the tribute payable to the Romans. These apostles were a degree below the officers of the synagogues, called patriarchs, and received their commissions from them.

Some authors observe, that St. Paul had borne this office; and that it is this he alludes to in the beginning of the Epistle to the Galatians: as if he had said, Paul, no longer an apostle of the synagogue, nor sent by men to maintain the law of Moses, but now an Apostle and envoy of Jesus Christ.

&c. St. Jerom, though he does not believe that St. Paul had been an apostle of this kind, yet imagines that he alludes to it in the passage just cited.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Apostle'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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