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Difference Between An Apostle And A Disciple From A Christian Perspective

Updated on September 10, 2016
beverley byer profile image

Beverley Byer has been writing professionally for a number of years. Her work has been published in magazines and newspapers.

I was thinking about writing this article when a friend sent me an invitation to attend a six-week course on discipleship in Christian faith. As a student of and writer on spirituality and religion, I was delighted. I missed the first class but thankfully, there were handouts.

The first paragraph of which explained that spiritual life was about “movement, discovery, challenge, change, adversity, joy, uncertainty, and fulfillment.” Jesus Christ experienced all of these and yet remained faithful. Some biblical authors claim that He felt one could not become an apostle without these encounters. Jesus invited all of humanity to become disciples, but chose only 12 for apostleship. What then is the difference between an apostle and a disciple?

Last Supper, oil on canvas painting by Alessandro Allori (1535-1607), location: Palazzo della Regime, Bergamo
Last Supper, oil on canvas painting by Alessandro Allori (1535-1607), location: Palazzo della Regime, Bergamo | Source


The secular definition of apostle states that the word stemmed from the Greek word ‘apostolos,’ which meant “one who is sent,” “sent forth” or chosen and sent out with a specific message / lesson (s) on behalf of another. The messenger is actually an ambassador of the one who is doing the sending.

The non-secular or Christian definition of apostle is one who is sent to spread the Word of God. Jesus Christ appointed 12 ambassadors to go out and preach, teach, heal, cast out demons, and perform miracles after His earthly demise. The Bible calls it the Great Commission (Matthew 28: 18-20). According to the article “Definition of Apostle” by Eric W. Von Anderseck for, Book 1 Corinthians, Chapter 3, Verse 10 (3: 10) in the New Testament, apostles were labeled “master builders” because their job was to lay the foundation of truth/ Christ in believers’ hearts. In 1 Corinthians 4: 1-2, they were called stewards or protectors of the life of Christ. What does all of this mean? First, let us find out about the 12 men Jesus handpicked to be apostles.

The names of the original 12 depend on which of the gospels you read. In the New Revised Standard Version Bible (from which my references are made), Matthew’s gospel (10: 1-4) names Simon who is later called Peter, his brother Andrew, James and John who were sons of Zebedee, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Thaddaeus also called Judas, James the son of Alpheus, Matthew or Levi the tax collector, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot.

In Mark’s gospel (3: 13-19) Matthew is not called the tax collector and James’ brother John was named Boanerges or Son of Thunder. The gospel of Luke (6: 12-16) replaces Thaddaeus with Judas son of James; Matthew is not referred to as the tax collector; James is not listed as one of Zebedee’s sons, and Simon is called the Zealot.

The gospel of John does not name 12 apostles. In fact, the author interchanges the words apostle and disciple (6: 67-71). He names disciples as they did apostles in the first three gospels, which incidentally are called the synoptic gospels because of their similar viewpoints. Nathanael of Cana, who some scholars say is Bartholomew (21: 2), Thomas called the Twin (11: 16), and an unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” (13: 23) are mentioned.

Judas Iscariot is mentioned as a traitor or the one who betrayed Jesus in all four gospels. According to the Book of Acts (1: 15-26), after his betrayal and eventual suicide, the remaining 11 apostles chose Matthias as his replacement.

Now Paul, originally Saul of Tarsus, who despised and killed Christians, became an apostle much later in what is called the Apostolic Age (from the Great Commission about AD 33 to the death of the last apostle about AD 100). Biblical account tells us that he was converted after being blinded by light and hearing Jesus’ voice, while he was on his way to Damascus (Acts 9). Paul also believed that his mentor Barnabas was an apostle.

Paul was considered the apostle of the gentiles or non-Jews because he was chosen to spread the gospel throughout the Mediterranean. The 12 chosen by Jesus were considered apostles of the Israelites or Jews because that was the community to which they were to take the Great Commission. In an article on apostles from the website, Abraham and Moses of the Old Testament section of the Bible, and Jesus are also considered apostles because they were called by God to perform specific acts on behalf of the Israelites. So, what characteristics must an apostle have?

Well now we know that Jesus Himself was considered an apostle, and earlier we read about His tribulations and how He felt about them in lieu of the term apostle. In the Book of 2 Corinthians (12: 12, 20), Paul wrote a letter to the church in which he stated that patience, the ability to perform “signs, wonders, and mighty works,” love, and forgiveness are the qualities of an apostle. We have the full picture. As we continue though, you will discover that disciples too must have these same attributes. Before Jesus’ resurrection, His chosen 12 were termed disciples. Also, recall that in John’s gospel the word disciple is interchanged with apostle. The key then is that apostles are chosen once they pass the test of discipleship.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City
St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City | Source


The secular definition of disciple is student, pupil or follower of a particular doctrine or teacher. Some scholars say that the word itself comes from the Latin ‘discipulus’ meaning “to learn.” Others refer to the Greek word ‘mathetes’ meaning “pupil or apprentice.”

The Christian definition of disciple is one who studies and follows the teachings of Jesus Christ because they believe in Him and wants to pass the knowledge of Him on to others. It is also defined as one who loves and has a relationship with God.

Some Books of the Bible tell us there were several disciples. For instance, Luke’s gospel (10: 17) mentions 70. And whereas no women were called apostles (though there are scholars who consider Mary Magdalene as such), many were called disciples, for example Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of Jesus, Joanna wife of King Herod. In the article “What is Discipleship” by Dr. Richard Krejicir, disciples have to possess several good characteristics. The article cites many Biblical passages as references.

Listing a few: Disciples must believe in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (1 John 3: 23, Acts 16: 30-31); be an example of Christian living (Matthew 28: 16-20, Ephesians 2:10); must be a supporter of other Christians in their journeys (Mark 1: 35-2:12); must stand up for his/ her own Christian beliefs even if it means facing ridicule (James 1: 2-4); must be obedient and faithful (1 Peter 2: 13-15 and 25: 29); willing to wait on God’s timing (Saul vs. David); a good listener (James); be honest (1 John 1: 9); humble (Matthew 18: 4, Ephesians 4: 2-3); must forgive (Matthew 5: 46); must confess and repent (2 Corinthians 12: 9), and must serve (Ephesians 2:10).

According to my friend and course instructor, neither discipleship nor apostleship is stagnant. One must weave back and forth between the two for sustainability: to keep learning and teaching. Both roles are difficult, take a lot of work, devotion, and could be quite costly. Jesus saying one cannot be an apostle without first being a disciple, if indeed He said it, makes sense. For like Him, you must be certain that you are willing to be in service to all of God’s creation, and ensure their fair treatment, even if it means becoming a martyr.


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