Apostles vs. Disciples | What is the Difference?

Though the terms Apostles vs Disciples are seemingly similar, these two terms are actually different.

No one is a lone wolf in Christianity. Even Jesus, the central figure of the Bible, was not alone in His earthly ministry. He was with twelve individuals who were called the apostles and, sometimes, disciples. Though seemingly similar, these two terms are actually different. But what is the difference between these two words? This article will shed light on the question. Read ahead to learn more.

What is the Difference Between Apostles vs Disciples?

Apostles vs Disciples

Etymology and Origin of Apostles vs Disciples

The term disciple originates from the Latin word discipulus. In Greek, the word disciple means a learner or student. On the other hand, the word “apostle” comes from the Greek term apostolos, which means “the one who is sent” or a messenger. This individual is someone who is sent on a special mission.

Meaning of Apostles vs Disciples

The word emphasizes an individual’s mission or special assignment. The term “disciples” centers on a person’s relationship and interaction with a teacher or mentor. Therefore, in the context of the Bible, all apostles were disciples, but not all disciples were apostles.

Examples of Apostles vs Disciples

Among his disciples (believers in Jesus), he selected twelve to be his apostles (Mark 3:14). These twelve individuals were Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Nathanael, Thomas, Matthew, James (the Less), Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot.

Other apostles in the Bible are Matthias, Timothy and Silas, Barnabas, Apollos, Epaphroditus, Paul, and two unnamed apostles (2 Corinthians 8:23). Although these persons were not part of Jesus’ Twelve, the New Testament still names them as “apostles.”

The Bible also calls Jesus an apostle (Hebrews 3:1), as His Father sent and chose him to redeem the world.

Scholars say that the apostolic period ended around 100 AD. At this time, the last apostle of Christ had already passed. Thus, there are no apostles alive today. Many Christian groups still use the word “apostles” to mean a missionary or church leader. However, they do not satisfy the requirements of the twelve apostles in the Bible.

The disciples are all those mentioned in the Bible who believed in and followed Jesus. Followers of Christ at present are also called disciples.

What is the Biblical Definition of Apostles vs Disciples?

Definition of Apostles in the Bible

Took part in the ministry of Christ and witnessed His resurrection

The twelve apostles of Jesus were alongside Jesus. They witnessed his earthly ministry, including healing the sick, forgiving sins, and raising the dead to life. Before the crucifixion of Jesus, these apostles dined with Jesus when he shared what would happen to him. They were present during Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, and crucifixion. 

The apostles were also the witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. An exception to this is Paul. Paul did not accompany Jesus but saw Jesus on the way to Damascus. Jesus chose Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 26:14-18).

These individuals did not merely serve as Christ’s company. The Lord gave all these apostles a purpose and mission – to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.

Chosen and sent by God

God specifically chose and sent the apostles to participate in Christ’s ministry. They did not apply for the role, like a job, but Jesus chose them (John 14:16). The Gospel of Mark beautifully  paints this with words as he refers to the Twelve Apostles:

“And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” Mark 3:13-15, emphasis mine.

Scripture mentions the name of the twelve apostles inscribed in the twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem’s walls (Revelation 21:14).

The Lord also chose Paul, as written by Luke in the Book of Acts:

“But the Lord said to him [Ananias], “Go, for he [Paul] is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.” Acts 9:15, emphasis mine.

Apostles vs Disciples

Empowered by the Holy Spirit to do miracles and wonders

The apostles of Jesus were not only witnesses to His ministry and miracles, but they, too, performed miracles. Jesus called the apostles and gave them the authority to cast out demons, cure diseases, and heal. Here are a few Bible verses narrating how the apostles were empowered for miracles:

“And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name, they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Mark 16: 15-18

But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up, he stood and began to walk and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. Acts 3:6-10

And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. Acts 2:43

Definition of Disciples in the Bible

A disciple in the Bible basically means pupil. A disciple is a follower of Jesus and his teachings (John 8:31). Therefore, Christ had many disciples, not just twelve. The Book of Acts notes a growing number of disciples from one hundred twenty (Acts 1:15). In this light, disciples are not just people mentioned in the New Testament but all the individuals who follow Jesus Christ from then until now. The Great Commission of the Christian faith centers on disciple-making:

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. Matthew 28:19-20, emphasis mine.

Significance of Apostles vs Disciples

Although there is no apostle at present times, the Lord still sends His followers on a mission and purpose. People who believe in Jesus are the extension of His hands, feet, and heart. All individuals who declare to follow Christ are His disciples. They are also ambassadors who represent Jesus and spread the Good News of His redemptive and salvific work (2 Corinthians 5:20).

As disciples, we continue to learn by reading Scripture, listening to preaching, and heeding the counsel of godly mentors and leaders. As ambassadors, we put what we learn into action (James 1:22). In Matthew 5:13-14, we should be salt and light in a broken and fallen world. We are set apart to do the godly mission of pointing people to the One who can save and restore them. We are bearers of the amazing grace and living hope in Christ, our Lord.

Apostles vs Disciples

In Conclusion

The apostles were a chosen group of early believers. God sent and chose them for a special mission. The majority of them were with Jesus Christ in His earthly ministry. They witnessed His crucifixion and resurrection. God also gave them the authority to perform miracles and wonders.

In contrast, every person who follows Christ is called a disciple. You and I are disciples of Christ—we put our faith in Him and spread the Gospel’s good news. We continue to be learners and doers of the Word. The apostles and all the disciples focused on the One who saves, forgives, and redeems—Jesus Christ, our Lord.

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Alex Shute
Alex Shute, MBA
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow.

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