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The Difference Between an Apostle and a Disciple

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

Jesus chose twelve ordinary Jewish men to be His disciples. None of these men were scholars or among the elite in society. They witnessed many physical healings and miracles – the feeding of the 5000, giving the blind sight and causing the lame to walk, Jesus walking on water, the raising of Lazarus, etc. They saw how Jesus interacted with the low-life of society and the leaders of their religion. Jesus taught them, ate with them, traveled with them and they were eye-witnesses to everything that occurred. These twelve disciples were personally chosen by the Lord for a mission. (For more information on the disciples see my post Twelve Ordinary Extraordinary Men.)

Why 12? It has been suggested just as God chose the 12 tribes of Israel to bless all nations (through the Messiah), Jesus chose twelve disciples to send out to bless all nations. Jesus taught these men as they followed Him around for over three years. Being a disciple just means they were a pupil or a student. We most often refer to disciples as followers. There were more disciples of Jesus when He walked the earth than just these twelve. But these twelve men were in Jesus’ inner circle. They were specifically chosen by Him for a reason.

Everyone who is a student or follower of Jesus is a disciple.

Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31b,32 (NIV)

These 12 men were Jesus’ disciples and doing life with Jesus and then the most astonishing historical event happened. They witnessed Jesus being arrested. They fled into hiding (except for Judas Iscariot who had betrayed Jesus and later went out and hung himself.) Jesus was put on trial, scourged, crucified, died and was buried. And these eleven disciples of Jesus hid. I think they had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But then for these events to occur, they must have had doubts. How could this happen to their Lord? Were they going to be arrested? Who was Jesus? And so in fear and grief they hid wondering what to do next.

Three days go by and Jesus rises from the dead! He comes to them. They see Him in flesh and bones. They see Him eat. They touch His scars on His hands and His feet and His side. I love Thomas’ reaction – Thomas had not been with the other disciples when the disciples first saw Jesus alive and he said, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25b) And then Jesus came and told Thomas to touch the scars and Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28b).

The risen Christ walked on earth for 40 days (Acts 1:3) and appeared to over 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:6.) He demonstrated to His followers that He was truly alive with "many convincing proofs" (Acts 1:3) - that He was the Christ. The last thing our Lord did before He ascended into heaven was to tell them to proclaim the repentance for forgiveness of sins in His name to all nations. They were to go into all of the world and preach the kingdom of God to all creation.

Jesus used the verb apostello which means “to send.” Apostle is a title given to the disciples to indicate their authority. After His resurrection Jesus sent out His apostles to represent Him and teach in His name. In the rest of the New Testament books there is a clear distinction between people mentioned and the apostles. The New Testament restricts the noun apostolos to the special apostles of Christ – His twelve disciples (Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot, see Acts 1:26); along with Paul (Acts 14:14 and Galatians 1:1); James (Galatians 1:19), the Lord’s brother; and Barnabas (Acts 14:14).

Apostles were:

  1. Personally commissioned by Jesus

  2. Had been with Jesus

  3. Were given a special inspiration of the Holy Spirit

You and I are disciples. The apostles were men who had special authority from Christ. But the great commission to spread the gospel to all nations applies to us all.

Why is it important to distinguish between an apostle and a disciple? The reason for the distinction is because one of the criteria for establishing the New Testament Canon of Scripture was the books had to have apostolic origin. To be included in the Canon and therefore to be authoritative for our lives, the books had to be written by an apostle or someone very close to an apostle.

Apostolic origin speaks of the authority these men had to represent Christ. It speaks of the authority of their teaching for us today. The Canon of Scripture is our rule of faith.

The only non-apostles to write in the New Testament were:

  • Mark- accompanied Peter and recorded his preaching

  • Luke- had investigated everything carefully (Luke 1:3) and traveled extensively with Paul and recorded Paul’s ministry

  • Jude- Jesus’ brother and early follower of Christ

  • Hebrews – unknown author – but met the criteria because although they think one of three men wrote it; all three of those men were either an apostle or very close to an apostle and it met the other criteria for being included in the Canon.

So did these apostles and disciples do what Jesus commissioned them to do? Yes! They went from being scared men and women in hiding to courageously proclaiming the gospel. The gospel message spread like wildfire despite hardships and persecution. Today approximately one third of the world’s population considers themselves Christians.

How do people know we are a disciple of Jesus?

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

John 13:34,35

They will know if we love each other.

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