Yesterday I preached a sermon for our Vision Sunday called Moving Forward in Mission where I laid out the call from Matthew 28:18-20 for us to be confident in the authority of Jesus for the mission and clear on discipleship as the mission. Jesus has commissioned us to be disciples who make disciples. This means that we should regularly be spending time with those who are not yet disciples, so that we might see them made disciples and also spending time with those who are disciples so that they (and us) can mature as disciples. The mission is to make and mature disciples. By God's grace that is what Christ Church will be about until our Lord returns.
In follow up to the sermon I received this question,
Question: Can you please define the difference between Disciple and Apostle?
Good question as we see in Matthew 28:16 that the men that Jesus was giving this commission to were those who would go on to become apostles. Were they disciples? Were they apostles? How we answer this questions determines whether we see Jesus' commission as something just for them or something that continues on for us.
The word "disciple" comes from the Greek word "mathetes" which means student or pupil. It was used to describe anyone who was a follower of Jesus (Matt 5:1, 8:21, Luke 10:1, John 19:38). However, amongst the many disciples of Jesus, Jesus chose 12 specific men to be more closely discipled and given the office of Apostle.
And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: (Luk 6:13 ESV)
In the biographies written about Jesus (known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) these 12 men who were appointed as apostles would go on to be referred to as the 12 disciples as a way to differentiate them from the many other disciples.
When Jesus was commissioning the 12 disciples to go make disciples of all nations, he was not commissioning them to go make other apostles. It is clear that the requirement for apostleship was that one had to have been a disciple of Jesus during his entire earthly ministry and an eyewitness of his resurrection. (Ats 1:21-22). Interesting side note, but this collaborates Paul's testimony in 1 Corinthians 15 that there were many eyewitnesses to Jesus' resurrection. Apparently, there were so many that a process had to be set up to sort through all the potential candidates, which is another compelling evidence of the reality of the resurrection. Back to the question at hand though, it is obvious that there is a distinction between disciple and apostle as it would be impossible to fulfill Jesus' command to make disciples of all nations and to the end of the age if these disciples had to have the same eye witness requirement as the apostles. Thus, the 11 apostles (Judas was gone at that point), did not take this commission of Jesus to go and make other apostles, but rather to go and make other followers of Jesus. This is what we see happening all throughout the book of Acts. The 11 apostles did appoint one other apostle to take the place of Judas (Acts 1:21-22), but that was clearly different from their mission of disciplemaking.
So a disciple is any follower of Jesus, but an apostle is one of the 12 men who were eyewitnesses to Jesus' resurrection. In fact, the term "Christian" did not come into used until well after disciple. The early followers of Jesus were not called Christians, but disciples. And so, while this word has fallen out of use in our culture, I think it is crucial for us to recapture it as it speaks to a whole identity that we are meant to have as followers of Jesus, students at his feet, who are seeking to use our lives to see others come to learn from Him as their Lord.
However, where things get a little murky is that while it is clear that the original 12 Apostles were an unrepeatable office in redemptive history, and saw themselves as such, there are other people referred to in the Bible as apostles who were clearly not eyewitnesses of Jesus' resurrection and who did not receive a commission from him. And so there is a distinction that needs to be drawn from the original 12 Apostles (13 including Paul) that Jesus gave to help establish the church and an ongoing role of apostle that is meant to serve the church. We see this ongoing role through Barnabas being called an apostle (Acts 14:14), Paul talking about the role of apostles in equipping the church (Eph 4:11) , Titus, Timothy and Epaphroditus functioning as apostles in various NT letters. This can be confusing, because why would Apostles be given an unrepeatable office by Jesus and yet, there still be other apostles commissioned that did not meet the criteria for apostleship that the original 11 apostles applied in Acts 1?
The confusion is somewhat cleared up when we consider that the word Apostle comes from the Greek word "apostolos" which means "sent one". And so while there were the original 12 "sent ones" who had been sent into the world to bear witness about what they had seen in the resurrection of Jesus as a way to build the foundation for the church (Eph 2:20), there continue to be other "sent ones" who are not eye witnesses, but have an important role to play. The role that we see being played by apostles, outside of the original 13, is that these men were taking the gospel to places that Christ had not yet been named and coordinating missional efforts between churches (The examples of Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus). In our modern context I think that church planters are playing an apostolic role in the church, as well as, church planting network directors.
I hope that helps, or maybe I just opened up whole new can of worms. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any follow up.
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