Apostles and Disciples, Then and Now
Q: What is the difference between apostles and disciples and how does this relate to us today? My question may seem trivial but has been confusing to me as I study God’s Word.
A: Even if the answer isn’t earth-shattering, anything leading to a greater understanding and application of the Scriptures is certainly worth the asking. In English, “disciple” looks suspiciously like “discipline.” That makes sense, since they both come to us from Latin via Old English and French. Originally, discipulus meant a student of a particular teacher. During the Middle Ages, it took the special meaning of one of the followers of Jesus during His earthly ministry.
The Greek word mathetes similarly meant a follower of a particular teacher. The idea grew out of Hebrew, where a limmud was one under instruction. It was rarely used in the Old Testament, although Isaiah wrote concerning some of his own followers, “Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. (8:16)” The idea of the student attaching himself to a particular rabbi (teacher) grew during intertestamental times and the Gospels regularly mention such followers. Mark 2:18 speaks of “John’s disciples” and “the disciples of the Pharisees.”
When Jesus healed the man born blind (see John 9), some of the Jewish leaders investigated the circumstances. Upset that the healing happened on the Sabbath, they sought to discredit Jesus. They questioned the man, who called Jesus “a prophet. (v. 17)” They questioned his parents, who worried so much about being put out of the synagogue that they passed the buck back to their son (see vv. 18-23). When they returned to grill the man further, he grew tired of their continuing questions and “answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ (v. 27)”
Their growing hatred toward Jesus is evident in their response. Verse 28 says that “they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.’” The bitter exchange continued briefly, until the leaders gave up on the man. “They answered him, ‘You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?’ And they cast him out [of the Jerusalem synagogue].’ (v. 34)”
In almost every usage of either limmud or mathetes, the disciple joined himself to a suitable teacher. An established rabbi might actually have to reject some pupils in order to keep his “class” to a manageable size. The Lord, however, works differently. We don’t choose to follow Him, He calls us to be His followers. He chose His own people by calling Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and He made certain men to be His prophets.
Instead of waiting for students, Jesus began His public teaching by calling men to follow Him. First, John the Baptist pointed out Jesus as “the Lamb of God” to “two of his disciples. (John 1:36-37)” When they left John, Jesus invited them to stay with Him. After hearing Him, they reached out to gather family and friends to hear Jesus and Jesus, in turn, called them to be the first of His special learners (vv. 38-51). It seems that in those early days, some of the disciples may have gone back and forth between following Jesus and staying with familiar work and family. He may have even issued multiple invitations to the same men, but Christ finally gathered the Twelve to Himself.
These comprised the core but others were added to form a wider group. Some chose to follow Him for various reasons. At other times, Jesus extended an invitation to join with Him. Much in the manner of later seminaries, Jesus first kept His students close-by, focusing on the Scriptures and their interpretation and application (theology). After He’d taught them for a time, Jesus “called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. (Luke 9:1-2)”
This is where some of the “disciples” also became “apostles.” In Greek, apostolos meant a person who was sent. It usually implied that the person was sent out to perform a specific and often very special task. In secular writings, apostles were often emissaries or ambassadors of a ruler. So also here, the King sent out His emissaries to “proclaim the kingdom of God” — His own kingdom that He was establishing.
Some time later, after the first apostles returned, “the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. (Luke 10:1)” His sending instructions were quite similar to those heard by the original twelve: “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (vv. 8-9)”
We don’t know the exact chronology, but not everyone who came to Him remained either a disciple or an apostle. Well before Christ’s crucifixion, His teachings drove off numerous followers. John 6 specifically notes the difficulty that “many of his disciples (v. 60)” had in believing His teaching that He was the “Son of Man” and that no one would have “eternal life” unless he would “eat the flesh” of the Son and “drink his blood (vv. 53-54)”
John 6 continues, “After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (vv. 66-68)” Also in this narrative, Jesus emphasized that the one who chooses establishes the real difference between His disciples and those of the world. He told the larger crowd, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. (v. 44)” After the mass desertion, He reminded the Twelve, “Did I not choose you? (v. 70)” However, He warned in the same verse that still another deserter still lived among them, for “one of you [obviously Judas] is a devil.”
Finally, the Bible sometimes uses “apostle” for those not commissioned by Christ but rather sent out by the early church. Matthias was chosen by lot to succeed Judas (Acts 1:26). Paul, of course, was commissioned by Christ, but not in the same manner as the original disciples. That more than just the twelve were, at least sometimes, considered to be apostles is clear from 1 Corinthians 15. In verse 5, he tells how Jesus appeared “to the twelve” and “then to all the apostles (v. 7)” while Barnabas is named an apostle along with Paul in Acts 14:14.
What does all this mean for our day? In a parallel, all Christians are disciples, called by the Holy Spirit through Gospel and Holy Baptism to be “students” of Christ’s Word. While Jesus no longer directly ordains apostles to go out with His message of salvation, His Church continues to commission and send forth their heirs. The successors to the apostles are the missionaries, evangelists, teachers, and, particularly, the pastors who carry the Word of Salvation to the believers within the Church and to those living in unbelief, that they might be saved.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #537