The terms apostle and disciple are often used interchangeably. This stems from the fact that the Bible refers to the 12 people that Jesus called to help him both as disciples and as apostles. But even though the two terms are used interchangeably, they do not necessarily mean the same thing. Let’s take a close look at each of these terms to understand the differences and similarities between the two.
What is the Difference Between an Apostle and a Disciple?
The main difference between an Apostle and a disciple is that a disciple refers to a follower or student of Christ. On the other hand, an Apostle refers to a messenger/one who is sent to preach the gospel. This means that all apostles are disciples but not all disciples are apostles.
Meaning of Apostle
The word apostle is derived from the Greek word ἀπόστολος (apóstolos), which means to send or one who is sent. An apostle is therefore one who is sent on a mission. Jesus started his public ministry by appointing 12 disciples who he trained as they assisted him for at least 3 years. After his death and resurrection, he gave them the following command;
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.” Mathew 28:19-20
The above scripture is often referred to as the great commission. It was Jesus sending the 12 disciples into the mission field (Even though Judas had committed suicide, he was replaced by Matthias before they started the mission work) As per the meaning of the word Apostle, this commission meant that they were no longer just disciples but were now apostles.
The 12 apostles hold a special position because they were the original apostles. Several scriptures illustrate this unique position. For starters, the Bible says that the church was built on the foundation of the Apostles (as well as prophets) (Eph. 2:20). According to Revelation 21:14,
“The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” This means that they also hold a unique position in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Even though we have modern-day apostles in the church today, they are quite different from the 12 apostles. In the Bible, there were a couple of qualifications that had to be met for one to be an apostle;
- An apostle needed to have been a witness of the resurrected Christ ( 1 Cor. 9:1)
- An Apostle needed to have been chosen by the Holy Spirit (Acvts 9:15)
- An Apostle needed to have the gift of miracles (Acts 2:43, 2 Cor. 12:12)
However, as the church continued to grow beyond Jerusalem and Judea, it became necessary to have more than 12 apostles. So the initial qualifications of apostles started collapsing. For instance, we see people like Barnabas, Andronicus, and Junias being called apostles (Acts 13:2, Romans 16:7) even though they had not witnessed the resurrected Christ like the 12. The same Greek word that was translated as Apostle is also used to refer to Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25 as well as Titutsin 2 Cori. 8:23. These examples serve to show that there is room for someone who was not among the 12 to be referred to as an apostle.
While the role of the modern apostle is not very clear in the Bible, we can compare his role to that of a missionary. That’s because a missionary is a Christian who is sent to spread the gospel in a new region – especially among people who have not yet received the gospel.
Meaning of Disciple
The Greek word for disciple is mathētḗs (μαθητής). It translates to “one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice.” To put it simply, a disciple is a student or a learner. Jesus began his ministry by calling 12 disciples who served under his tutelage for the entirety of his ministry on earth. During this time, they learned from Him which was a time of preparation for the apostolic work that he would charge them with upon his resurrection
It could also mean a believer since a believer is typically a student. For instance, the Bible records the following in the book of Acts,
“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing.” Acts 6:1
This implies that those who believed in Jesus were/are termed as disciples. This meaning also emerges clearly from the great commission where Jesus tells the apostles to “go make disciples of all nations.” They were to do this by spreading the gospel to win new converts.
Characteristics of Disciples
- Believers – as we have already established, every believer is a disciple of Christ. Unlike the term apostle whose use is debatable and subject of controversy, most Christians agree on the fact that all believers are disciples of Christ.
- Learner – once you have believed in Jesus, the next thing that is expected is that you will learn from him. In Mathew 11:28-30, Jesus invites all to come to him (believe in him) and thereby learn from him because “his yoke is easy and his burden is light.” As we have already established, the word disciple means student so it makes sense that one of the main characteristics of disciples is they must be students of their master.
- Servant – being a disciple of Christ also means being a servant of Christ. Jesus demonstrated servant leadership to his disciples and expected them to do the same. For instance, he washed his disciples’ feet in John 13:5. Afterwards, he commanded them to do likewise (John 13:14-15).
- Witness – Even before he died, Jesus expected his disciples to help him preach the gospel. In Matthew 10, he sent out the 12, and in Luke 10, he sent out 72 of his followers. The goal of discipleship is, therefore, to “know Christ” and to “make him known”
In conclusion, while the terms “apostle” and “disciple” are often used interchangeably in reference to the 12 individuals chosen by Jesus, they carry distinct meanings and roles. A disciple is a learner, believer, servant, and witness of Christ, encompassing all followers of Jesus. On the other hand, an apostle, deriving from the Greek word “apóstolos,” denotes a specific role as a messenger or one sent to preach the gospel.