As you read through the gospel accounts recorded in the New Testament, you see the men who followed Jesus Christ referred to in a couple of different ways. They are specifically called “the 12 disciples” in some locations, and “the 12 apostles” in other locations.
So which is it? Were they disciples or were they apostles?
…well, they were both.
The Greek word used to describe a ‘disciple’ is mathetes, which describes a student or an individual who is learning from another in a mentor-like relationship. The person who is mathetes is learning from the individual whom they are following.
When Jesus Christ initially called His disciples to Him (Matthew 4:19 Matthew 4:19And he said to them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
American King James Version×; Luke 5:27 Luke 5:27And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said to him, Follow me.
American King James Version×; John 1:43 John 1:43The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and finds Philip, and said to him, Follow me.
American King James Version×), He called them into a discipleship relationship. He was teaching them His ways, and helping to instruct them in what God expected of them.
As time went on, however, and they began to understand more of God’s Way, it became time to send them out as messengers to take the gospel to the world.
In Luke 9:1 Luke 9:1Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases.
American King James Version×, Christ calls His disciples together and gives them authority over the spirit world, and the authority to heal diseases, and then sends them out to preach the good news (“gospel”) and to heal the sick. While Luke 9 doesn’t specifically reference the 12 disciples as apostles, the parallel scripture in Matthew 10 does.
The Greek word for “apostle” is apostolos which is used to convey someone being sent out for a specific purpose or goal. So when the disciples were called to Christ in Matthew 10 and Luke 9, and given specific objectives to go out and preach the gospel to the world, they became apostolos, or apostles—in addition to being disciples.
The 12 disciples that are listed in Scripture are: Peter, James, John, Andrew, Nathanael (Bartholomew), James (son of Alphaeus), Judas, Thaddeus (Jude), Matthew, Philip, Simon and Thomas. These same men became the 12 initial apostles. There were many more disciples referenced within Scripture who were not considered to be apostles. In that sense, all apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles.
After Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus Christ, disqualification as a disciple and subsequent death, Matthias was chosen by lot to replace Judas, becoming one of the 12. Additionally, Paul and Barnabas are described as apostles by Luke in Acts 14:14 Acts 14:14Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out,
American King James Version×, though they were not part of the original 12.
We are all called to become disciples of Jesus Christ, to become followers of Him and to walk in God’s Way. The transformation that comes from yielding ourselves and living His way should mirror the kind of transformation that we see in the lives of the disciples and apostles throughout scripture.
For more information on the transformation in their lives, please read “The Apostles: A Case Study in Conversion”.