This week's question comes from my mom who is teaching a kid's Sunday school class. She asks, "What's the difference between a disciple and an apostle?"
It is an easy thing to get confused between these two terms, especially if you're a serious reader of the gospels. For one, 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 comes from the Latin word for pupil or learner. In ancient times, there were few higher learning institutions. Instead, those who wanted to learn a skill or a philosophy attached themselves to a journeyman or a teacher and spent significant time with them to learn the trade. For instance, in the trade fields, an apprentice would devote literally years to assisting the master. In the case of those learning a philosophy, the student would follow the teacher for years, traveling wherever they would go, and the teacher would expound as they walked, teaching the intricacies of the faith. The disciples of Jesus did just that. Wherever Jesus went, the disciples would follow, and Jesus would teach them as they moved across the land.
The twelve disciples, as they were so named in Matthew's gospel-John's gospel simply calls them "the twelve"-were specially chosen from the rest of the disciples to be specifically mentored as Jesus' closest associates. These twelve disciples would later be sent out by Jesus to become the first church planters of the Christian church.
Which is what the word "apostle" means. The stem of the word apostle means to send out, and that's exactly what Jesus did. In Mark and Luke's gospels, Jesus chooses twelve from his band of disciples and calls them his apostles.
But why would Mark and Luke give them a special designation, when Matthew and John do not?
I believe the answer lies in the authorship of the gospels. Most scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was penned from the reminiscences of Simon Peter. In the gospels, Peter is the disciple who is perhaps best known for foot-in-mouth disease-it seems every time Peter spoke, he was putting his foot in his mouth. But in the book of Acts, Peter becomes the leader of the missionary movement of the church. In Acts 2, he powerfully preaches to the Jewish peoples of Jerusalem and 3,000 became followers of Jesus-an act that could be called "home missions." Then in Acts 8 we see the church sending Peter to Samaria to verify that the gospel had been received by the Samaritans there, thus Peter verified the mission's work there. Next, in Acts 10 Peter was sent by God to Cornelius, a Gentile (non-Jew), and Cornelius' household received the gospel and become follower of Jesus. This conversion would be similar to what we call "foreign missions" today. Thus, Peter set the stage and opened the doors for all the missionary activity to follow, and missionaries, by definition, are those who have been "sent out"; therefore, Peter would have been very conscious of his role as an apostle, and this can be seen in Mark's gospel.
Luke is the only other gospel that uses the term apostle. Luke was a Gentile physician who became a part of the church sometime after Jesus' departure. What we know about Luke is primarily found in the book of Acts, which he also wrote. In this book we learn that Luke traveled with Paul, who was the early church's greatest foreign missionary and church planter. Paul claimed to be an apostle, but he was clearly not one of the original disciples who followed Jesus. Indeed, Paul spent a good bit of time persecuting the early Christians, arresting them, and bringing them before the Jewish courts in Jerusalem-Paul was anything but a good disciple of Jesus. However, Paul experienced a conversion and became a Christian and he was "sent out" by the church to travel to Asia Minor and Europe to begin churches. Thus, Paul too was an apostle, a term he used to describe a certain role in the church. Because of Luke's close association with Paul, he would have been sensitive to the term apostle and would most likely have applied it in the writing of his gospel.
So, in the scriptures, an apostle is someone sent out on a mission-specifically to start churches in other cultures. A disciple, on the other hand, is someone who chooses to be a follower or a student of Jesus. Certainly all of the apostles were also disciples, but just as certain is the fact that not all of Jesus' disciples became apostles. And so too today. A disciple in the church is someone who has chosen to follow the teachings and the practices of Jesus. And it is just as true today that an apostle is one sent out to begin churches cross culturally.