James E. Woods

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The Historical Meaning of the Word ‘Apostle’

The Historical Meaning of the Word ‘Apostle’

And He Himself gave some to be apostles….
— Ephesians 4:11 NKJV

Today I want to cover some of the historical usages of the word “apostle.” You will see that it had many uses in the Greek language of early New Testament times, and you’ll also see how all these uses have application to a New Testament apostle. I believe this discussion will not only enrich your understanding of this ministry gift, but it will also help you more fully receive from this gift that, among other purposes, is given to help establish and strengthen you in the faith. And if you’ve ever sat under a true apostolic ministry, you will probably recognize the operation of that gift by many of the distinct characteristics that are found within the meaning of the word apostolos.

The Admiral of a Fleet of Ships

During the time of the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes (384-322 BC), the word apostolos was a naval term that described an admiral, the fleet of ships that traveled with him, and the specialized crew who accompanied and assisted the admiral.10

The fleet would be sent out to sea on a mission to locate territories where civilization was nonexistent. Once an uncivilized region was identified, the admiral (called the apostolos) — along with his specialized crew and all their cargo and belongings — would disembark, settle down, and work as a team to establish a new community. Then they would begin the process of transforming a strange land into a replica of life as they believed it should be. Their purpose was total colonization of the uncivilized territory.



Within this special fleet of ships were both the personnel and the cargo required to establish a new culture, a new life, and a new community. When that fleet pulled up to shore, it contained workers trained to build roads, construct buildings, and teach uncivilized natives how to read, write, and function in a new kind of social order. Thus, the admiral became the team leader for the construction of a new society.

Once the job was completed, a majority of the team members got back on the ships and launched out to sea again to find another uncivilized area and repeat the entire colonization process all over again. Thus, we find that the word apostolos described an admiral or team leader who led a team to establish new communities in uncivilized territories.

10David Francis Bacon, Lives of the Apostles of Jesus Christ (New Haven: L. H. Young, 1836), p. 8.

You can easily see how this definition had application to a New Testament apostle, whose primary task was to travel with an apostolic team to establish the Church in places where the Church was non-existent. This is one historical usage of the word apostolos that has bearing on its meaning in the New Testament.

A Passport or Travel Document

The word apostolos was so closely associated with the idea of traveling that it also eventually became synonymous with a passport or a travel document.

If a person wanted to exit a country, he had to possess a travel document that was essentially an exit visa or a passport. This legal document was called an apostolos — the same word translated “apostle.” The document guaranteed the right of passage and the ability to move freely from one place to another.

When the word apostolos was applied to early New Testament apostles, it implied that an apostle was a spiritual passport that gave believers right of passage into heavenly realms and into deeper spiritual truths. One can certainly see that those who were under the apostleship of Paul were taken into realms of revelation that they could have never attained on their own. His ministry was a spiritual passport that gave them right of passage into spiritual revelation.

It should be noted that any person who operates in a genuine apostolic calling will lead people into new spiritual realities.

An Ambassador or Envoy

The word “apostle” also described a person who had the authority to act much the same way an ambassador represents his government to another government. This classical and secular meaning of the word apostolos meant an envoy sent to do business on behalf of the one who sent him. Thus, a governmental apostle served as a personal representative, emissary, messenger, agent, diplomat, ambassador, or charge d’affaires.

This person officially possessed the clout and influence to speak and act in the place of the one who sent him on his assignment. So when the ambassador — apostolos — spoke, his words were counted as the words of his sender. When the apostolos acted, his actions were interpreted as those of his sender. The connection between the sender and the person who was sent was almost inseparable.

This reveals the New Testament apostle’s position to speak and act on behalf of the Lord. This is a governmental position within the Body of Christ, and as such, an apostolic ministry gift should be received as one with great spiritual clout and the backing of Heaven.

It is very important for you to understand this truth and its powerful implications. You see, when a genuine apostle ministers, he is authorized by Heaven not only to lead you into new spiritual realities, but also to help mobilize you into position to fulfill your unique function in the Body of Christ!

But we are only getting started, as there is so much more to learn about the word “apostle” and how it is applied in the New Testament. In tomorrow’s Sparkling Gem, you’re going to discover a surprising new answer to the question “How many people in the New Testament were called apostles?”

The answer to this question may shock you and open you to the reality that there are still apostles functioning in the Body of Christ today. They may not be called or recognized as apostles; nonetheless, they carry an apostolic calling and anointing. Don’t miss tomorrow — it will be a real eye-opener!


ather, what I’ve read today describes a whole world of information about the function of the apostolic ministry both in the New Testament and today. I thank You for accurate knowledge that reveals the enormity of Your great plan and the significance of every distinctive part of the Body of Christ. Lord, I ask You to open the eyes of my heart to see and understand more about the role and value of this fivefold ministry gift overall and to me personally, because I want everything You have to offer me and Your Church!

I pray this in Jesus’ name!


I confess that I believe in and honor the ministries of prophets, apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers according to Ephesians 4:11, which says that each ministry gift, including the apostolic ministry, is essential for the growth and the building up of the Church. So I will embrace in my life this aspect of Christ’s character and function that He expresses in His Body through each ministry gift to the Body of Christ! As a result, I grow strong in my own identity in the part I am ordained to fill as a member of the Body.

I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!


  1. Historical definitions of the word apostolos shed light on the function of the apostle’s ministry. What is the modern application of the three definitions shared in today’s Sparkling Gem?
  2. Have you ever observed the work of an apostolic team that traveled extensively to establish churches in new places? Have you ever been a part of such a team either directly or by supporting it in prayer or with your finances?
  3. As you’ve read these descriptions of how apostles work, do you recognize that certain individuals or ministries whom you’ve known were actually doing an apostolic work that you did not realize at the time?

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