“What’s the difference between a disciple and an apostle?” The word apostle doesn’t even appear in the gospels of Matthew and John, and even there the terms seem to be used interchangeably. And though there are no “apostles” in Matthew and John, the twelve “disciples” clearly have a different role than the crowd of disciples who followed Jesus across the countryside. So, what’s the difference?
The word disciple simply means pupil or learner. Disciples were later called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26). Today, all Christians are pupils and learners of God’s Word. However, some arise to the be teachers or preachers. Some are called to be elders or deacons of the church. Therefore, all Christians are learners, but not all are preachers, elders, or deacons. Even so, not all disciples became apostles in the time of Christ, though all apostles were disciples. Today, none are called to be apostles.
Jude wrote, “But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 17). There is certainly a great deal written in the New Testament concerning these men known as “the apostles of Christ.”
The apostle Paul describes the work of Christ’s apostles in the following manner: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ; till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).
The apostles of Christ were sent to carry out the work of edification among the churches of our Lord in order to bring about unity among God’s people through proclaiming God’s word. However, it is important to note that this work was only conferred upon a few select individuals. The Scriptures teach that there were certain qualifications that one had to meet in order to be able to serve as an apostle of Christ. In order to qualify, a man must have been:
1. A witness of Jesus Christ. Shortly before his death, Jesus told his twelve apostles, “And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:27). The apostles were a special group of messengers sent by Christ to spread the gospel message throughout the world. These men must have been with Christ during his ministry in order to qualify as his witnesses. This point is made clear in Acts 1 where we are told that the remaining eleven apostles sought a man to replace Judas Iscariot as an apostle in order to fulfill the prophecies concerning Judas. The apostle Peter pointed out on that occasion that for a man to qualify to serve he must “have accompanied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). Even the apostle Paul was a personal witness of the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-9).
2. Chosen by Christ. All of Christ’s apostles were personally called and chosen by Christ himself. Luke writes that Jesus “called unto him his disciples; and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles” (Luke 6:13). Christ carefully selected twelve men from all of his disciples to serve as apostles. Paul refers to himself as, “Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead)” (Gal. 1:1). No man had the right or authority to take it upon himself to become an apostle of Christ. According to the Scriptures, only those who were personally chosen by Christ could qualify to serve as apostles.
3. A personal student of Christ. The apostles were also personal disciples of Jesus (Luke 6:13). Therefore, they were constantly learning the truth of the gospel from their teacher during their time with him. They were able to teach others the same truth that they had learned directly from the Lord. Not only did they learn from Christ, but they were guided into a further and more complete disclosure of the truth through the Holy Spirit after the resurrection and ascension of Christ (John 14:26; 16:7-15). Even the apostle Paul learned the truth directly from Christ, for he says, “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12).
4. Able to perform miracles. In Acts 2 we are told that “many wonders and signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43). While these miracles confirmed the truth of the apostles’ message, they also proved that a man was qualified to serve as an apostle. Paul made this clear to those who questioned his own right to apostleship when he said, “For in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds” (2 Cor. 12:11-12). Not only were the miracles themselves proof of apostleship, but the ability to confer miraculous gifts on others through the laying on of hands was also exclusive of the apostles. While Philip the evangelist enjoyed much success in preaching the gospel and performing miracles (Acts 8:5-13), he had to wait for Peter and John to come and lay hands on the converts so that they could receive the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17). Simon the Sorcerer rightly observed, “that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given” (Acts 8:18).
Conclusion: Yes, the apostles in the time of Christ were all disciples, but not all disciples were apostles. The apostles were a special group of carefully selected messengers. Only those who meet the qualifications given in the New Testament can rightly serve as apostles of Christ. No one today meets those qualifications. Therefore, let us guard against those whom Paul warns are “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13). We would do well to follow after the example of the Ephesians whom the Lord commended because they “tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and has found them liars” (Rev. 2:2).