All truth originates with the Father: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (Jas 1.18). The Father first sends his Son into the world to bear witness to the truth (see Jn 18.37). The teaching of Jesus is not his own (see Jn 7.16–18). He teaches only and all that the Father has handed over to him (see Jn 8.26–28, 47). But he does not teach everything to everyone; only his chosen friends receive everything he has heard from the Father (see Mt 13.11; Mk 4.11; Lk 8.10; 10.23–24; Jn 15.15–16).
“Apostle” means one who is sent.46 Jesus himself is an apostle of the Father (see Heb 3.1). As one authorized to carry out a mission, he has the full authority of the one who sends him to do what he is sent to do (see Mt 28.18; Jn 17.1–8). Like a minister or envoy sent with unconditional power by a government, an apostle’s act within his sphere of authority is of itself the act of the one for whom he speaks.
The salvation announced by Jesus was confirmed to others by those who heard him (see Heb 2.3). God gave witness to their teaching by signs—miracles and gifts of the Spirit (see Heb 2.4). Jesus had chosen men to be his apostles, to bear witness to him (see Jn 15.16). When he first sent them out, he told them they would speak for him (see Mt 10.40; Lk 10.16). “He who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Jn 13.20). Subsequently, he sent them to convey his gospel and gave them all the authority necessary to act for him on earth (see Mt 16.18–19; 28.16–20; Mk 16.15–20; Lk 24.44–49; Jn 20.21–22; Acts 1.8).
“Apostle” can be used loosely for others sent to preach the gospel, but it applies in a special way to the Twelve.47 Paul, although not one of the Twelve, was an apostle in the same sense as they, for he also had seen the risen Jesus and been sent to bear witness to him (see Acts 26.16–18; Rom 1.1, 5; 11.13; 1 Cor 9.1–2; 2 Cor 11; Gal 1.15–16; 2.8). Hence the Church is built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles (see Eph 2.20); the faithful are the living stones of this structure (see 1 Pt 2.5).
In the apostolic foundation, which Jesus himself lays, Peter has a special place; his confession of faith is the rock (see Mt 16.13–20; S.t., 2–2, q. 174, a. 6).48 His faith wavers, but is strengthened by a special grace for which Jesus prays, so that Peter can firmly support the faith of the rest (see Lk 22.31–32). Peter’s role is to be a service of love (see Jn 6.68–70; 21.15–17). In general, the work of the apostles is to serve the faith of others, just as Jesus served others and communicated God’s truth and love to them (see Mt 20.24–28; Mk 10.41–45; Jn 13.12–17, 34–35).
After Jesus returns to the Father, the apostles proceed to carry out the work he set them. Peter takes the initiative in replacing Judas (see Acts 1.15). All are filled with the Spirit on Pentecost; Peter takes the lead in preaching (see Acts 2.14, 38–41). Before the Sanhedrin, the apostles claim their teaching and the witness of the Spirit are the same (see Acts 5.29–39). Peter takes the lead in accepting non-Jews as Christians (see Acts 10; 15.7–11). When the decision is adopted by all, it is asserted as the decision of the Spirit (see Acts 15.28). Paul also carries on the work of Jesus; the Lord comes to reassure him (see Acts 18.9–10; 23.11; 2 Tm 4.17).
The position of the apostles is unique, since they are original witnesses of Jesus (see 1 Jn 1.3). With the gift of the Spirit, they appropriate the revelation of God in Jesus, in this way completing the communication relationship, which cannot exist without a recipient (see Jn 14.26; 16.12–13).49 The apostolic testimony is the necessary medium of our own faith in Jesus (see Acts 10.39–42). As a result, those who believe the apostolic testimony accept not the word of men, but the word of God (see 1 Thes 2.13). The apostle conveys the commands of Jesus (see 1 Cor 14.36–38). God appeals through the apostle and Jesus speaks in him (see 2 Cor 5.20; 13.3).
But the faith does not end with the apostles; it only begins from them its tradition through history until Jesus comes again (see Mt 28.20). Paul makes it clear that he only hands on what he has received (see 1 Cor 15.1–3; 2 Thes 2.15). Those who receive the teaching are to preserve it carefully (see 1 Tm 6.12; 2 Tm 1.14; 3.14). In a departing statement to the presbyters of the Church of Ephesus, Paul exhorts them to guard the flock and defend the faith (see Acts 20.28–31). That part of the apostolic task which is not unique is handed on to successors (see 2 Tm 1.6–8; 4.1–5).50
The Catholic Church firmly teaches that her bishops are the successors of the apostles of Jesus: “To the Lord was given all power in heaven and on earth. As successors of the apostles, bishops receive from him the mission to teach all nations and to preach the gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain to salvation by faith, baptism, and the fulfillment of the commandments (cf. Mt 28.18; Mk 16.15–16; Acts 26.17 f.). To fulfill this mission, Christ the Lord promised the Holy Spirit to the apostles, and on Pentecost day sent the Spirit from heaven” (LG 24).
The mission of the apostles lasts until the end of the world (see LG 20). In the bishops Jesus himself is present to believers to preach the gospel and administer his sacraments (see LG 21). The teaching office of the apostles belongs to the bishops (see DV 7). Vatican II asserts with great clarity the special role of the Twelve, of Peter, and of Catholic “bishops with Peter’s successor at their head” (UR 2). Bishops are not merely appointed by men, but are appointed by the Holy Spirit and empowered to act by Jesus (see CD 2).
46. See Michael Schmaus, Dogma, vol. 4, The Church: Its Origin and Structure (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1972), 132–99.
47. See Raymond E. Brown, S.S., “The Twelve and the Apostolate,” Jerome Biblical Commentary, 795–99 (78.160–82).
48. See Peter in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars, ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S.. Karl P. Donfried, and John Reumann (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House; New York: Paulist Press, 1973), 157–68.
49. See René Latourelle, S.J., Theology of Revelation (Cork: Mercier Press, 1968), 369–72.
50. See International Theological Commission, op. cit., 197–99; Daniélou, loc. cit.