While growing up and hearing stories of Jesus and his followers, and later reading them myself, the two terms disciples and apostles just kind of mushed together. They were interchangeable, weren’t they?
One of the joys of Bible study is learning distinctions that open new vistas that actually make a difference in our everyday lives. The variation in these two terms has been one of those big door openers for me.
Disciple is from the Greek math’-a-tais, where –you guessed it — ‘mathematics’ derives. It means learner, disciple or pupil. The Greek (μαθητής) is used in the New Testament, however, in a more technical way as apprentice, someone who attaches himself to a spiritual leader, such as Jesus.*
These two verses from Luke show how Jesus used the two terms, and the important distinction between them that would cause him to stay up all night in prayer.
And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles (Luke 6: 12, 13, emphasis added.)
It implies that Jesus had a number of people who had attached themselves to him, considered him their leader and teacher, and themselves his students. But Jesus wasn’t praying about them but rather, those who could become apostles.
The Greek a-pos’-to-los (ἀπόστολος), means a messenger sent on a mission with full authority. The New Testament uses it to mean a messenger for God, specifically someone who tells the gospel message.
So what’s the big distinction? It’s the difference between being a perpetual student or graduating by putting into practice what you know and sharing it with others. While being a lifelong learner is of course necessary to keep growing, that office of apostle means you take what you know and put it to use. Even when you don’t think you’re ready. Even when you don’t feel worthy to even be in your teacher’s shadow. And especially when you don’t want to speak up and be identified as a follower of Christ Jesus.
So what did Jesus realize the apostle title would demand? Relying on the Holy Spirit to guide every step and interaction. Being a Christian requires graduating from the sole act of inhaling, or taking in information and always looking to others as more expert, and begin the deliberate and sometimes bumpy process of exhaling—sharing, speaking up, self-identifying as a Christian. None of this is easy in a culture that cheers the agnostic or atheistic intellectual as the end all of knowledge and wisdom.
Since it’s the time of year of graduations, you might have attended a ceremony and witnessed an old tradition of degree candidates starting out with the tassels on the front right side of the cap. When the degree is conferred, they switch their tassel to the left front side of the cap—a visual sign that the individual can claim the degree they earned.
Time to flip our tassels!