What are the differences between being a disciple and being an apostle?
What is a Disciple?
Jesus told the disciples just before He ascended to heaven to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20). The Greek word for disciple is “mathēteuō” and it means a “student, learner,” or “pupil.” The word “disciple” is only found one time in the Old Testament in Isaiah 8:6 where it says “Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples.” The Hebrew word for disciples is “limmuwd” and means the very same thing as it does in the New Testament. What Jesus was telling His own disciples in Matthew 28 was to go out and make disciples of others and this discipleship should be self-replicating so that the disciples of Christ will spread throughout the world as those who become disciples will make disciples of others. That is exactly what has happened. The word disciple is similar to the word “discipline” because we must discipline ourselves and not satisfy the flesh but follow the commands Christ has given us and part of Jesus’ commands is the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations.
What is an Apostle?
The word apostle is from the Greek word “apostolos” and means “a delegate, messenger,” and “one sent forth with orders” and that is exactly what Jesus commanded the apostles to do in Acts 1:8 which says “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Not only does Jesus give them the authority to go out in His name, He also says that they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and they are then to go to the ends of the earth (sent out) to be His witnesses. Believers are also commanded to go out and witness to the ends of the earth but not all of us can go that far but we can go next door at least.
Who can be a Disciple?
There are a lot of people that claim to be disciples of Christ but what are the qualifications that Jesus gives for being one of His disciples? Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). To be a disciple of Jesus is more than just making a decision because Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26) for “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Jesus must be preeminent in our life as He said that “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). It’s easy to say you’re a disciple of Christ but the test is do we bear our own cross? Do we hate (or love exponentially less) our own family compared to loving Christ? Do we deny ourselves and follow Him? Only these can truly claim to be a disciple of Jesus.
Who can be an Apostle?
Can anyone be an apostle of Christ? There are two different ways to look at this. We are all sent as a delegate or messenger of Christ to be ambassadors for Christ. Paul wrote that “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2nd Cor 5:20) so in a sense, we are all apostles but not “the Apostles” which is a proper noun. Jesus choose twelve as Apostles and when Judas betrayed Jesus, they had to find another Apostle (capital “A”) so how did they know how to find an Apostle to replace Judas? Acts 1:21-22 shows the qualifications as an Apostle must be “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” Note that the qualification for being an Apostle is that the man must have accompanied the other disciples “all the time that the Lord went in and out among us” and “beginning from the baptism of John until the day that [Jesus] was taken up” and finally, he must have been “a witness of his resurrection.” If anyone claims to be an Apostle, not just an apostle, then they must have been with Jesus from the beginning, witnessed His ascension, and His resurrection, otherwise if they are a self-proclaimed Apostle, they are deceived or just self-designating themselves as one and God does not recognize them as one.
What are the Similarities?
The similarities are that both an apostle and a disciple are sent out to be a witness for Jesus Christ. This is commanded for all believers and not just the original Apostles and Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had hundreds of disciples but only twelve Apostles but we are all sent out as ambassadors and witnesses for Christ to the ends of the earth, both apostles (little “a”) and disciples, and this means that in our own “ends of the earth” we are Christ’s witnesses to our family, our friends, our co-workers, or anyone else we come in contact with.
What are the Differences?
The difference between disciples and Apostles is that God had specially commissioned the twelve Apostles in the first century but He has also commissioned His disciples to be witnesses of His wherever they go. One has apostolic authority while the others have discipleship authority to make disciples of others. The twelve Apostles will have a special place in the New Jerusalem as it says, “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14).
It is not easy to be a disciple of Christ. You will be hated, you will be despised, you will be ridiculed, and you will be scorned by unbelievers, but that’s a small price to pay to be witnesses for Jesus Christ. If you claim to be a disciple, I ask you and ask myself these questions; do we bear our own cross? Do we hate (or love exponentially less) our own family compared to loving Christ? Do we deny ourselves and follow Him? If not, we cannot truly claim to be a disciple of Jesus.
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Blind Chance or Intelligent Design available on Amazon.