As a pastor and church leader, I’m passionate about carrying out evangelical duties to spread God’s word. Since this is a holy and noble mission, Christians need to follow in the footsteps of Christ’s disciples and apostles without exaggerating their roles and abilities. To achieve this, we need to understand the difference between apostles and disciples.
The New Testament suggests that apostles are individuals who were chosen and sent by God, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit to carry out divine duties, while disciples are individuals who follow, spread, and believe in the teachings of God. For example, during one of his teachings (Luke 14:26–33), Jesus called those who believed in him and followed his teachings his disciples. On the other hand, Luke 6:13–16 suggests that Jesus chose twelve apostles from the disciples who had gathered around him, and he sent them out to preach the gospel.
In this article, I’ll share with you how the Bible defines apostles and disciples and the differences in their meanings and etymology. Keep reading to find out your Christian role in Christ’s ministry.
The word “apostle” is used in the New Testament to refer to a person chosen and sent by God, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit to spread the gospel and lay the foundation for the building of the church.
Hebrews 3:1 refers to Jesus as an apostle because he was chosen and sent to spread God’s word to people on earth.
In Luke 6:13–16, Jesus called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles. In Mark 6:7–13, Jesus then sent them out two by two and gave them the power to cast out demons and heal the sick. Luke 9:2 adds that Jesus instructed the twelve apostles to proclaim the kingdom of God. Mark 6:30 reiterates the divine roles of the apostles by confirming that when they returned from spreading the gospel, they gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.
Aside from the 12 apostles initially chosen by Jesus, the New Testament uses the word “apostle” to refer to other Christians who received the holy calling of spreading the gospel. After Judas betrayed Jesus, the remaining 11 apostles chose Matthias to replace him in Acts 1:26. In Acts 13:1–3, Barnabas and Saul, who changed his name to Paul, were chosen by the Holy Spirit to carry out God’s work. They are later referred to as apostles in Acts 14:14. In 1 Thessalonians 1, the Bible suggests that Silas and Timothy were chosen by God to become apostles, and Paul also refers to James as an apostle in Galatians 1:19.
Theologians, however, agree that the first 12 apostles of Jesus Christ held authority and uniqueness over the other apostles because they witnessed Jesus’ ministry on earth. After his resurrection (Matthew 28:16–20), Jesus appeared to the remaining 11 apostles and commissioned them to be the founders and governors of his holy church.
The difference in meaning between apostles and disciples is that apostles are individuals sent out on a mission, while disciples are individuals who follow and learn from a teacher. In Luke 14:26–33, Jesus uses the word “disciple” to refer to everyone who believed in and followed him. Acts 6:1 also suggests that “disciples” refer to all Christians or those who believe in God.
On the other hand, the Bible uses the word “apostle” when referring to individuals whom Jesus Christ chose and sent out to spread his word and lay the foundation for the building of his church. Jesus gave them his authority to cast out demons and heal the sick. In Luke 6:13–16, Jesus called all his disciples to him, and then, out of them, he selected 12 apostles who would be his messengers. Other Christians who are referred to as apostles in the New Testament are Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Matthias (Acts 1:26), and Timothy and Silas (1 Thessalonians 1). Jesus Christ himself is also called an apostle in Hebrews 3:1 because God chose and sent him on earth to redeem Christians from sin (John 3:16).
The word “apostle” is borrowed from the Greek word apóstolos, which means “messenger.” Apóstolos comes from the verb apostéllein, which means “to send off.” You can also trace the word “apostle” back to Old English apostol and Late Latin apostolus, both of which can be translated to mean messenger, envoy, ambassador, or one who is sent.
On the other hand, the word “disciple” is borrowed from the Latin word discipulus, which means “follower” or “student.” The Greek word for “disciple” is mathētēs, which roughly means “pupil.”
The word “apostle” comes from Old English apostol, which comes from Late Latin apostolus, which comes from ancient Greek apóstolos. The Greek noun apóstolos comes from the verb apostéllein, where apo- means “off” and -stéllein means “to send.” Therefore, the Greek word for “apostle” was used in a broad sense to refer to a messenger and in a narrower sense to refer to one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. Today, the word “apostle” is mainly associated with the apostles of Jesus, and the word “missionary” is widely used to refer to church leaders or Christians who spread the word of God.
On the other hand, the word “disciple” comes from Old English discipul, which comes from Latin discipulus. This word is used to translate the Greek word mathētēs, which is used in the New Testament to mean “pupil” or “apprentice.” In ancient times, people used the word “disciple” to refer to individuals who followed the teachings of a religious leader or teacher of philosophy. Today, this word is used to refer to all Christians because we follow and believe in the teachings of God.
As explained above, the word “apostle” refers to one who is sent out on a mission, while the word “disciple” refers to one who follows and learns from a teacher. During Jesus’ ministry on earth, he called the people who followed and believed in him his disciples (Luke 14:26–33). It was from these disciples that he chose his twelve apostles to go out into the world and spread the gospel (Luke 6:13–16, Matthew 28:16–20).
Therefore, based on the usage of the terms “disciples” and “apostles” in the New Testament, many theologians agree that the 12 men Jesus chose were both apostles and disciples. They followed and believed in Jesus Christ, and they also spread his word and carried out the mission he had tasked them with.
You should note, however, that even though all apostles were disciples, not all disciples were apostles. The New Testament dictates that for one to be considered an apostle, he had to have:
- Witnessed Christ’s ministry on earth (John 15:27).
- Seen Jesus after his resurrection (1 Corinthians 9:1).
- Been anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit to perform miracles (Mark 16:20, Acts 2:4).
As a devout Christian, I have always been passionate about the Christian faith. This inspired me to pursue a degree in Religious studies and a Masters in Theology in college. I have also been privileged to teach 4 Christian courses in a college and university. Since I am dedicated to spreading the word of God, I am actively involved in the Church. Additionally, I share his word online and cover diverse topics on the Christian faith through my platform. You can read more about me on the about us page.