Often times, when discussing the calling of the first followers of Jesus, the disciples are lumped into the same category as apostles. Over the course of history, there has not been a clear distinction between their roles both as disciples and apostles. In fact, in the book of Acts, the first twelve disciples (minus Judas) were called apostles, not disciples. This fact was given for the audience to understand their vital role in the early church as apostles. But what was the difference between roles?
Today, the term disciple has a mixed meaning. Depending on the audience, the verb is defined differently. Because of the lack of understanding, there is a disconnect when it comes to following Yeshua and becoming his disciple. More so, becoming his disciple and stepping into an apostolic anointing. This misunderstanding can be corrected when studying the meaning of the word disciple.
What Is A Disciple?
In his book, Following the Master, Michael J Wilkins provides a thorough definition of what it meant to be a disciple. He states, “Behind our English word disciple lie the Latin terms discipulus (masculine) /discipula (feminine) and the Greek words mathētēs (masculine) /mathētria (feminine). Since these Latin and Greek nouns have a linguistic relationship to verbs for “learn” in their earliest history, they were used to refer to “learners” and “students.” Eventually the meaning broadened so that they were used to refer to “adherents” of a great master. The Greek term especially, by the late Hellenistic period during the time when the New Testament was written, was used increasingly to refer to an adherent. The type of adherence was determined by the master, but it ranged from being the companion of a philosopher, to being the follower of a great thinker and master of the past, to being the devotee of a religious figure. Therefore, in most common usage, whether in the Roman or Greek world, “disciple” was a person who was committed to a significant master.”
Michael Wilkins does a great service for us in providing an accurate depiction of what a disciple meant in the first century. It was not a term that was exclusive to Christianity. In fact, it was a term used to describe the relationship between the “learner” and the master. Therefore, the title of disciple didn’t carry much weight in and of itself. The term was dependent upon who it was associated with. The only reason the term meant anything in the first century was that it corresponded with Jesus.
The same reality is true for us today, the only real value we have from the term is when it is associated with Jesus. There are many disciples alive today, but not many follow Jesus. A disciple can “follow” anything or anyone. Nowadays, many follow their careers, political parties, possessions, movements, etc.. Some are followers of themselves only. Whatever the case, the value of the term stems from its relationship with its master.
Jesus Called His Disciples Out Of Discipleship
The first followers of Yeshua were already disciples before they met him.
“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.” (Mark 1:16-20)
When Yeshua called His first disciples, he was calling them out of their own discipleship. Notice that Jesus used the language of their occupation as a way to discover their masters. What was their response? They immediately left their masters. This reveals to us that it is not the term of disciple that makes a disciple who they are, it’s their response to the invitation.
Today, we have many “disciples” that still are holding onto to their former “nets”. They follow Jesus, but only when it seems logical. They walk with Yeshua with their nets in their back pockets. In the Gospels, what made a disciple a “disciple” was their response to Yeshua’s invitation to leave their former masters behind (see John 1:35; Mark 1:16; Matthew 4:18). The same is true for us today. We can’t follow Jesus with an escape plan.
What Is An Apostle?
Now that we have established what a disciple is, we can move towards defining apostleship. Over the years, the definition of what it means to be an apostle has been convoluted just as much as the term disciple. In fact, it’s worse.
Many churches use the term apostle as a benchmark for the highest disciple that keeps getting redefined. In other words, as soon as a person gets close to apostle status, the definition changes so that no one ever truly becomes one. To a greater degree, some fellowships use it as a status that is almost divine.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some churches do not even mention the term, as if it doesn’t exist. This is not an attempt to discredit any church or organization, only to emphasize that the term “apostle” has been confusing to follow, to say the least.
In order to correct this error, we need to go back to the original language. The term “apostle” in the Greek looks like this, “ἀπόστολος”. Transliterated to English, it becomes “apostolos”. It is used as a noun in a sentence and means “a messager, one [that is] sent on a mission.” The term was primarily used as a military designation.
In the third chapter of the book Mark, we learn who the first apostles Jesus called were.
“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. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Mark 3:13-19)
After naming the first apostles, Jesus uses the term as a way of sending out the apostles on their first “assignment.”
“And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” (Mark 6:7)
“So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” (Mark 6:13)
After calling the first apostles, Yeshua gave them their assignment chapters later in the book of Mark. What was their assignment? To inaugurate the kingdom of heaven through the apostolic authority Jesus gave them over sickness and disease.
As we can see, the term was as a way of inaugurating the disciples to a special assignment, thus making them apostles. Therefore, apostles are those who have a unique anointing to deliver the “sent” message from the King.
Kingdom of Heaven
Rather it be through the stream of disciples or apostles, the mission is the same - the inaugurate the kingdom of God. Disciples are marked by the master. Apostles are those that are chosen to deliver the mission of the King. This is all accomplished through the finished work of Yeshua on the cross. Ultimately, it is the Father’s heart for all of mankind to hear the kingdom of heaven message through disciples and apostles. Through this accord, it is God’s desire for all of humanity to be saved by the lamb of God (see 2 Timothy 2:4).