Common Words Used with Special Meaning ? DIAKONOS and APOSTOLOS

At one time, scholars thought that New Testament Greek was a special “divine” language. However, since scholarship proved in the early 1900s that the Greek of the New Testament was commonly spoken by the average businessman in the Roman Empire, the focus on Greek vocabulary in the New Testament has changed. Instead of looking at the entire language as being “special,” scholars now look at individual words to see if they have been commandeered for theological or ecclesiological meanings./1 This happens often enough in the New Testament to discuss a word or two.
Two such words that have been lifted from common discourse to have special ecclesiological meanings are the words DIAKONOS and APOSTOLOS, transliterated deacon and apostle, respectively. Each of these words have both an ordinary sense and a special, unique sense in which they are used in the New Testament. In their ordinary sense, DIAKONOS means “a servant” and APOSTOLOS means “one who is sent.” Each word has corresponding verb forms as well: DIAKONEW (to serve, wait, or minister) and APOSTELLW (to send away, dispatch, dismiss). DIAKONOS is found thirty-one times in the Greek New Testament. In the authorized version, it is translated “minister” twenty times, “servant” eight times, and “deacon” three times (1 Timothy 3:10 and 13 are from a different Greek word). APOSTOLOS is found eighty-one times in the Greek New Testament. In the authorized version it is translated “apostle” 78 times, “messenger” two times, and “he that is sent” once. This last translation is found in John 13:16, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.”/2
Some examples of the non-special usage of DIAKONOS are found in passages such as Matthew 20:26, “But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;” Luke 12:37 is another which says, “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” In John 2:5 we read, “His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.” In the specialized sense, we find the word in Philippians 1:1 “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons;” also in 1 Timothy 3:8 “Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre;” and in 1 Timothy 3:12 “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.”
Some examples of the non-special usage of APOSTOLOS are found in such passages as Luke 11:49, “Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute;” also John 13:16, which we have already discussed, and Acts 14:14 where both Paul and Barnabas are described as apostles because they were sent by the Holy Spirit from the church at Antioch (see Acts 13:2). Of course, the vast majority of the usage of this word in the New Testament is in the specialized sense of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus. See Matthew 10:2, Luke 6:13, Luke 22:14, et.al.
It has been suggested that because Phoebe is referred to by the Greek word “DIAKONOS” that she was a deacon of the church at Cenchrea in the specialized sense (Romans 16:1). However, there is no evidence to suggest that the word “DIAKONOS” in this context is used in a specialized sense. The vast majority of the times it is used in the New Testament it simply means one who is a servant in the generic sense. Moreover, it is clear from 1 Timothy 3:12 that to be a deacon, in the specialized sense, one had to be the husband of one wife. It simply doesn’t follow that such a qualification would be ignored throughout the rest of the churches especially considering Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to teach the things that he has learned to others as well (2 Timothy 2:2).
/1 R. C. Trench, Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2000), 17. See especially footnote 1 on this page.
/2 George V. Wigram and Jay P. Green, Sr., eds. The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1982), s.v. “DIAKONOS” and “APOSTOLOS”.

One thought on “Common Words Used with Special Meaning ? DIAKONOS and APOSTOLOS

  1. Another common words with special meaning is the obvious “baptise” and its associated words transliterated from the Greek (I assume). I am curious however as to why more preachers refrain from using the descriptive “John the baptist” in favour of “John the baptiser”. Both are correct but does the original Greek allow for this?

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