“And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles:”
Luke 6:13 ESV
Through the Bible: Matthew 12, Mark 3, Luke 6
I noticed something in today’s reading I had not picked up on before. There seems to be a difference between disciples and apostles. Jesus had lots and lots of disciples. But he chose twelve apostles from among His disciples.
So what’s the difference?
The Greek word for disciple is mathetes. A mathetes was simply a learner or a pupil. John the Baptist had disciples (Matthew 11:2). So did Paul (Acts 9:19). In addition, there were others who were called disciples, such as Ananias (Acts 9:10), Timothy (Acts 16:1), and even Tabitha (Acts 9:36), the only woman specifically named as a disciple.
You could argue from Acts 6 that anyone who was a follower of Jesus was considered a disciple (see Acts 6:1-7). The word shows up 256 times in Scripture (interestingly, only once in the Old Testament– Isaiah 8:16). It is Matthew’s favorite term for the Twelve. He uses it 72 times, compared to 43 in Mark, 37 in Luke, and 74 in John. After the book of Acts, however, we don’t see the word disciple again.
“Apostle” is the Greek word apostolo. It is used overall much less frequently than mathetes, only 79 times. Of those, it is used once each in Matthew and Mark, never in John and only six times in Luke. However, it is used 30 times in the book of Acts. The word literally means “one who is sent.” The Blue Letter Bible defines an apostle as “a delegate, messenger, or one sent forth with orders.” Other than the original twelve apostles and Matthias, who was chosen to replace Judas (Acts 1:26), only Paul (1 Corinthians 9:1), and James, the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1:19).
Unlike “disciple” the word “apostle” describes a specific office, held by only fifteen men, ever. It is implied from the election of Matthias that an apostle had to have been with Jesus and the disciples from the day Jesus was baptized until the day He ascended (see Acts 1:16-23). Paul and James both had Jesus appear to them personally after the resurrection (see and 1 Corinthians 15:7-8). It has been argued that there were never more than twelve apostles alive at any one time in the first century–that Paul was not named as an apostle until after James was martyred (Acts 12:1), and that another of the original twelve had been executed before James the Lord’s brother was designated as an apostle. That may or may not be true. What is true is that there are no apostles, in this specific sense of the word, who are alive today.
That is not to say there aren’t people who are sent out today. I am thankful that the Holy Spirit hasn’t stopped setting aside men and women and sending them out to the nations with the gospel. In fact, every one of us who claims to follow Jesus has also been sent out by Jesus. He told us to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
So to sum up, all of us are disciples. All of us are apostles, with a small a. But none of us are Apostles, with a capital A.
So live as a learner, and live sent.
For more on this, check out these articles:
What is the Difference Between a Disciple and an Apostle? (from GotQuestions)
Were Others, Apart From the Twelve, Called Apostles? (from blueletterbible).