What is the difference between a “disciple” and an “apostle?”
I will define the terms, and then we will take an in-depth look at how they are used in Scripture.
- Disciple: Greek—mathetes, a learner or pupil. In the New Testament, it is one who accepts the instruction given to him and makes it a part of his daily living and conduct.
- Apostle: Greek—apostolos, someone who is sent, ambassador, messenger. As we will see, Jesus chose 12 men to be His witnesses with authority.
In general terms, a disciple is a follower of a teacher. Most of us can look back over our school years and point to one or two teachers who had an impact on our lives and education. We attempted to absorb all that they had to teach us. This is especially true in our chosen field of work. There was one professor in Seminary that I admired a great deal. I wanted to learn as much as possible from him. I became a “disciple” under his teaching and lifestyle, and he had a profound affect on my ministry throughout the years.
Jesus chose twelve of the most unlikely men to be His disciples: fisherman, tax collectors, others known for their bad temper. They would sit under his teaching and example for almost three years before being sent out as “apostles” to be witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ. The list of the names of the disciples, chosen by Jesus, can be found in Matthew 10, Mark 3, and Luke 6. In Luke 10, Jesus appointed seventy others and sent them out two by two, ahead of Him, in preparation for His visit to that particular area.
In the definition above, we said that a disciple is one who not only learns from a teacher, but also makes what he learns a part of his daily life. Let me suggest four characteristics of a disciple, and you could certainly add additional ones.
- Obedience. Jesus says in John 14:15—”If you love Me, you will keep my commandments.” You have often heard, “don’t talk the talk, if you don’t walk the walk.” It’s important for us to live by what we profess. If I say “I love Jesus,” then I should reflect his life and teachings in my daily walk, talk, attitude, and actions.
- Faithfulness. Again, the words of Jesus—”By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” A disciple, who has learned much under the teacher, wants to so live his life that others will know that Jesus sits on the throne of his life and controls his actions.
- Love. In John 13:35, we read: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Our relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ, how we love, treat, and respect one another, indicates to the world whether we are truly followers of Jesus or not.
- Guided by the Holy Spirit. Speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus proclaims in John 16:13—”But when He, the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak, and He will disclose to you what is to come.” The work of the Holy Spirit is to guide the disciple in learning the truth, then to live it out in our daily lives.
A disciple is one who learns from the Master, Jesus, and then reflects what he has been taught in his daily life. Next we will help you understand the role of the “apostle.”
A “disciple” is a learner and follower of a teacher. The 12 men chosen by Jesus followed and learned from Him. As you read through the New Testament, you find these two words used interchangeably. For example, look at Matthew 10:1- 2: “And having summoned His twelve disciples, He have them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Now the names of the twelve apostles are these….” (cf. Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:13-16)
Remember that we said a disciple was a “learner and follower of a teacher.” In this case, the teacher is Jesus. As long as we live, we will and should continue to learn from Jesus. At some point in time, however, we are to put into practice what we have learned. An “apostle” is one who is sent out, an ambassador or messenger. Notice that Jesus gave the disciples/apostles authority over unclean spirits, casting them out, and the ability to heal every kind of disease and illness. He sent them out with authority to act in His name.
What do we learn from the above referenced passages concerning apostles?
1.Jesus chose them. In Luke 6:13 we read: And when day came, He called His disciples to Him; and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles.” As a child, when we were playing baseball on the school field, we would choose up sides. Each person choosing his team wanted players who would help to win the game. Jesus chose the twelve and He chooses us because He has a planned job for us to accomplish under His guidance. Recall Isaiah 6:8? “Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?” God has chosen many men and women throughout biblical history, through today, for a task that needs to be accomplished in His Kingdom through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
2. Jesus called them. Jesus did not compel them, but called them. He offers us work to do. He does not coerce, He invites. He desires volunteers. We are free to be faithful or free to be faithless.
- He appointed them. Mark 3:14 states that Jesus “appointed twelve, that they might be with Him, and that He might send them out to preach.” In many of our churches today, persons are appointed (ordained) to a specific office for a specific task to do. In our denomination, we elect and ordain Pastors, Ruling Elders, and Deacons—each with a special calling of ministry.
There are two basic qualifications for being an apostle:
- In the New Testament, an apostle had to be a witness to the Resurrection. The real mark of an apostle today is not that he knows about Jesus, but that he knows Jesus. Jesus is a living presence, and the Christian is one who’s life is a witness to the fact that he knows and reflects, in word and deed, the Risen Savior.
- The second qualification for an apostle is that he lives day by day with and for Jesus. Every aspect of our lives should clearly reflect a relationship with Jesus—whether it be at home, at work, on the golf course, or a church. I hope that these two articles have helped our understanding of the disciple and apostle.
Rev. Sam Harris studied theology at the Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, VA. He was a contributing guest author to The John Ankerberg Show in the late 1990's and early 2000's. His ability to concisely and clearly present the Gospel in a easy to understand, relatable manner has continued to be an asset to the ministry. Sam is currently retired in Lookout Mountain, Georgia and lives with his wife of 50 years, Sandy Lee.
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