As a student studying missions, I have learned what missions are and what they aren’t. I have learned greater depths about spiritual gifts and how God chooses to equip His body for the work of the Kingdom. This knowledge has helped me understand my role in the Kingdom, as well as the additional roles that complement one another. There are many differences in how the various roles influence the Kingdom. However, one overall purpose remains: to bring the Kingdom of God through our lives and work.
What are the differences between missionaries and apostles? The differences between missionaries and apostles are typically the length of time that they spend in one location, and the culture in which they spend their ministry. Missionaries always go cross-culturally to spread the gospel and to establish humanitarian aid. Apostles do not always cross-cultural barriers. Their ultimate goal is to preach the gospel where it has never been heard. They may help in physical needs when possible, yet, it isn’t the focus of their ministry.
There are additional differences between missionaries and apostles to note. There are also many similarities, connections, and correlations between the two. In this blog, I will be explaining each side thoroughly with scriptural references. I also designed two charts to easily display similarities and differences.
What is a Missionary?
A missionary is a person who crosses a cultural barrier to present the gospel of Jesus Christ to another people group, nationality, or culture. Missions can include elements of evangelism, church planting, and spiritual development. Missions additionally tend to include humanitarian type work. This involves the start of hospitals, sanitation opportunities, women’s centers, schools, housing, and job opportunities.
Missionaries work to develop an entire area holistically. The physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental needs of the community and society are addressed. They are then modified in relation to Biblical principles.
There are short term mission trips that many churches and organizations will attend or head up. However, most short term mission trips are only possible because of the long term missionaries planted in an area. For many missionaries, they work long term or permanently in an area.
Mission work is a groundbreaking endeavor. In areas that are not developed and that have never heard of the gospel, it tends to be a long process. There are language, cultural, and religious barriers that missionaries must breakthrough in order to spread the gospel.
In cases that the gospel is received quickly, it usually spreads throughout the community and into bordering communities. Missionaries can either choose to remain in an area to maintain and support the movement, or they can move on to another area that needs the gospel. This is mostly dependent on the capabilities of native leadership.
Biblical References to Missions
The term “missionary” is never used in scripture. The word is actually derived from a Latin group called the Jesuits. When they went out to spread the gospel, they used this term. Although the term is never used in scripture, it still is a Biblical concept.
The main push for mission work is due to Jesus’ final commandment in the books of the gospels. He commanded His disciples to go out into the whole world and preach the gospel of Christ. These disciples acted in obedience.
With the help of other apostles and early Church believers, the gospel was spread throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Throughout history, believers have followed this model.
- Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Biblical Inspiration for Mission Work
In addition, Jesus explained to His disciples that the harvest of souls is ripe, but that there aren’t enough workers. He exhorted them to pray for workers who would bring in the harvest. Today, these prayers are still being prayed. Some individuals believe they are called to missions and that they are a part of the answered prayer. Others, take initiative and desire to fulfill the mission, even if they didn’t feel a divine revelation.
- Luke 10:2: “He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Furthermore, the book of Acts explains the movement of God’s Spirit during the time. It explains how the Lord commanded them to be a light to the Gentiles. As this spread from those who were first with Jesus, the other believers also became a light and a vessel to spread the gospel.
- Acts 13:47: “For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Scriptural Calling to Love
Scripture also describes a religion that is approved in the eyes of God. This is a religion that is concerned for and is caring for the needs of others. Many believers see the immense need across the globe and feel compelled to respond to it through mission work.
- James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Likewise, believers see how much they have been given and the desire to give that to others. They have encountered the love of God and therefore, cannot help but love others and meet their spiritual and physical needs.
- 1 John 4:19: “We love because He first loved us.”
Christians also apply the commands that Jesus gave Peter. In their dialogue, Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him. When Peter responded “yes”, Jesus gave him the command to feed, tend and care for His sheep. This has been interpreted as the sheep of Israel, yet some believe it is a correct concept to use concerning all souls and peoples in need.
- John 21:17: “The third time He said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love Me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.”
Verses that are Commonly Referred to in Mission Work
The following verse is commonly used in reference to mission work. There seems to be a recognition of willing surrender and desire to follow the Lord.
- Isaiah 6:8-9: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!”
Missionaries work to proclaim the message of God’s glory. They seek to portray His work among humankind. They respond to the call to declare His glory to all the nations.
- 1 Chronicles 16:24: “Declare His glory among the nations, His marvelous deeds among all peoples.”
In addition, missionaries preach repentance and forgiveness of sins because of this verse in the gospel of Luke.
- Luke 24:47: “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Christians also hold the value of living as Jesus did. Jesus went through various places, where He taught and proclaimed the good news of His Kingdom. Jesus healed the sick, and had compassion on the people. Missionaries build their lives on these principles and actions of Jesus. When possible, they follow this same example by praying for the healing of the sick and preaching the message of the Kingdom.
- Matthew 9:35-36: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
What Is an Apostle
An Apostle is similar to a missionary in the fact that they seek to spread the gospel of Jesus. Apostles may also cross-cultural barriers to spread the good news. One of the main differences is that apostles spend less time in one location. Apostles were and are indeed sent on a particular mission. Perhaps before the term missionary came about, “apostle” could have been used to describe those who travel to spread the gospel.
In a sense, the Apostle Paul was the first missionary. He traveled far and consistently to preach the gospel and spread churches. Following the example of Paul, apostles work to first bring about converts. Initially, they do the work of an evangelist. Then, apostles teach the principles and necessary elements of scripture. They establish a church and then raise up local church leaders to take the position when they leave.
Apostles may still remain in contact with these churches and people. The Apostle Paul certainly did. His letters to his church plants were to correct, exhort, and lead the people in the truth of God. He did return occasionally to the churches when it was possible. However, he did not establish himself or reside in an area for a permanent amount of time.
Essentially, apostles were the missionaries of the day. The verses that are commonly used by missionaries today would have been the same verses to inspire the apostles. In fact, the apostles were often the ones first hand being told the scripture through the Holy Spirit.
Biblical References to Apostles
Apostles are witnesses. A witness is someone who has seen or experienced something. Witnesses have the authority to speak on behalf of the content at hand because they were present at the moment. The Early Church and apostles became witnesses because they experienced the Holy Spirit. Some of them experienced both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They followed their call to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. The apostles then, and the apostles today, travel great lengths to bring the gospel.
- Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The Early Church prayed, asking the Holy Spirit for guidance before major decisions. In this case, the church was fasting, worshiping, and praying. During this time, the Holy Spirit called apart Barnabas and Saul for apostleship. The laying on of hands was a response to this instruction from the Holy Spirit. Some may even say that the laying on of hands is what imparts the gifting or calling.
- Acts 13:2-3: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”
Biblical Role of Apostleship
Apostleship is a specific gift in the body of Christ. God places the apostles first in the church. Scripture makes it clear that not all members of the church are apostles. Rather, apostleship is a particular role that is to be played. Apostles have a unique purpose in the spreading of the Kingdom.
- 1 Corinthians 12:27-29: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Or are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?”
Apostles respond to the need explained in Romans. People cannot be saved if they do not call on the name of the Lord. These individuals cannot call on someone they have not believed. In order to believe, they must first hear. Hearing comes from individuals preaching to them. Apostles preach the gospel to those who have never heard it before.
- Romans 10:13-14: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
Biblical Work of Apostles in the Body of Christ
Furthermore, apostles must be sent from the body of Christ. They must assume their role and gift. From there, they are sent by the body of believers who have different giftings. Together, all these giftings work to preach freedom to captives, to bring the Kingdom to earth, and to glorify God. Apostles are “the feet” that bring good news.
- Romans 10:15: “And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Paul was an apostle. As an apostle, his goal and ambition was to preach the gospel where Christ was not known at all. He went to unreached people. This is common in apostles. They go where no one else has gone before. They go where there is no opportunity for people to hear from another source.
- Romans 15:20: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”
In addition, apostles work together with other apostles and with the rest of the body of Christ. They do not work alone, even if their travels may be alone at times. Apostles recognize that their gift is only one aspect needed to bring fruition to God’s plan. These individuals may “plant the seed” of the gospel. Others may come to water it. Ultimately, nothing grows without the work of God. There is humility in this understanding.
- 1 Corinthians 3:6–7: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
There are many similarities between missionaries and apostles. Part of this reason is that the work of an apostle has practically been renamed as “missions.” For this reason, the term “apostle” is used less frequently. The term “missionary” is never stated in scripture. Instead, it is assumed to fulfill the role of discipleship and spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth.
The following chart will show you the main similarities between missionaries and apostles. As you can see, the ultimate goal of both missionaries and apostles is the same. They work to spread the gospel to those who do not have the gospel. They long to see the lost come to Christ.
Missionary vs. Apostle Chart: Similarities
|Works to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
|Travels to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
|Can work in unreached areas where people have never heard of the gospel.
|Typically focus on unreached peoples.
|Follows many of the principles outlined in scripture about reaching the lost and helping those in need.
|Responds to the call in scripture to spread the gospel and reach the world.
|Are part of the global body of Christ and the work to spread the Kingdom.
|Scripture explains “apostle” as a particular spiritual gifting. This is part of the global body of Christ and the work to bring God’s Kingdom on earth.
|The same scriptures that drove the apostles forward inspire missionaries today.
|The scriptures that are used to inspire missionaries today, were originally used by the apostles.
|God is the one who makes the work of a missionary grow.
|God is the one who makes the work of the apostle grow.
|Missionaries are needed to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.
|Apostles are needed to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.
|Missionaries make great sacrifices in this life for the purpose of the gospel and people in need.
|Apostles sacrifice their time, energy, and comfort to spread the gospel.
|The work today, that is considered “missions”, was first recognized in the work of the apostles.
|The apostles were essentially the first “missionaries.”
Since the term “missionary” is not used in scripture, it has been given its own meaning in today’s world. There are numerous connotations with missions. Many people confuse this word with the action of telling people about Christ. While it is true that missionaries tell people about God, they do so in a cross-cultural setting.
The term “apostle” is a Biblical word. The Bible clearly states the role and purpose of apostles. Although people may assume what apostleship is, the ultimate authority is what scripture explains. Apostles may work cross-culturally, but they are not restricted to it. Apostles go where the gospel needs to be spread, whether this is close to their home, or far from it.
The following chart will show you the main differences between missionaries and apostles. This will effectively and efficiently explain the role, purpose, and projection of these two roles.
Missionary vs. Apostle Chart: Differences
|Typically works long term in one area or culture.
|Moves from one place to the next, usually planting churches and establishing local leaders.
|Historically, mission work has been regularly done where the gospel has already been preached or is already accessible.
|Apostles, like the Apostle Paul, specifically go where there has not been a spokesperson for Christ. They are the pioneers.
|Missionary work is almost always accompanied by physical relief and humanitarian work.
|Apostles may help as much as possible concerning the physical needs of the people, however, their greatest role is spreading the gospel.
|All believers are called to the work of discipleship and leading others to the Kingdom of God. Missions may be one way to do this.
|Apostleship is a specific gift of the Spirit used to strategically spread the Kingdom of God.
|The term “missionary” usually has a specific connotation in Christian circles and church culture.
|The term “apostle” isn’t used as often in Christian settings. Nearly everybody talks about missionaries but rarely anyone talks about apostles.
|Missionaries can also be apostles, however, not all missionaries qualify as apostles.
|Apostles can be considered missionaries but not all missionaries can be considered apostles.
|Missions are always done in a cross-cultural setting that is different than that of the missionary.
|Apostles can work in a different culture than their own, but they may also work in their own culture.
Here are some additional questions you may be asking about missionaries and apostles.
Where Does the Word Missionary Come From?
The term missionary comes from the Jesuit group. The term was first used in 1598. Missionary has its roots in the Latin word, missionem. Missionem means “to send”. The Latin translation of the Bible uses this word when Jesus described the Great Commission. It is in these verses that Jesus gives the command of discipleship and preaching the gospel in His name.
The Jesuits are a part of the Societ of Jesus, which is part of the Catholic Church in Rome. This society does evangelism and apostolic work. It also focuses on education, research, hospitals, social ministries, and cultural pursuits.
Who Were the First Apostles?
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, He sent out His 11 remaining disciples to do the apostolic work of ministry. He commanded them to go into all the world and preach the good news and all that He had commanded them. These first apostles then were Matthew, John, Luke, Mark, Peter, James, Andrew, Bartholomew, Jude, James the younger, and Simon. Paul, previously known as Saul, also became an apostle.
What is the Difference Between a Pastor and an Apostle?
Now that you know what an apostle is, you will be able to easily recognize the traits, role, and calling of apostleship. The role of a pastor is also a spiritual gift in the body of Christ. A pastor is known as the “shepherd” of the “flock,” also known as the body of believers.
Biblically speaking, a pastor did not have the same role that would be recognized as a pastoral role in today’s church. The elders of the Early Church were the ones who preached and led scripture reading. The pastor wasn’t the sole leader of the church as we see today. In modern churches, we often recognize a church by who the pastor is. This simply wasn’t so in the Early Church.
The pastor did in fact have spiritual authority over the group of people, in a protective and humble manner. Jesus is recognized as the Cheif Shepherd or pastor. Those on earth are to lead in a worthy manner, knowing they will stand before Christ on account of their work.
1 Peter 5:1-4 explains the role of Elders and shepherds. These two are addressed together. “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”