In my last several posts I have reviewed the primary Scriptures that Protestants use to promote a doctrine of sola-Scriptura. My next several posts will review the authority that Christ gives to the apostles, and to his Church. But before doing that, we need to look at the difference between being an apostle, and being a disciple.
The meaning of the word disciple is one who follows. An apostle is one who is sent out by Christ with his authority.
Within Scripture, all followers of Christ are disciples. But not all our given the role of apostles. That initially is limited to the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and followers. They become the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). In the book of Acts we also see others who become apostles, like St. Paul. They are apostles, but not counted among the twelve.
This distinction is important when studying the topic of authority in Scripture. In the Gospels, we see the twelve “apostles” named and called (Matthew 10:1-4,Mark 3:14-19, Luke 6:12-16 ). However, in the Gospels these twelve are most often still referred to as “the disciples” or sometimes “the twelve,” because during the time of Christ on earth they are primarily in the role of followers. After the Ascension and Pentecost, they are sent on their mission to evangelize the world, and are consistently referred to in the book of Acts and forward as apostles.
So for example in Matthew’s Gospel, he uses the term apostle only once, where it is documented that Christ calls them by name – “And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zeb′edee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Matthew 10:1-14)
In other references in Matthew’s Gospel, when he uses the term disciples it is clear he is referring to the twelve apostles, like Matthew 26:17-20 – “Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?’He said, ‘Go into the city to such a one, and say to him, “The Teacher says, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples.”’ And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the passover. When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples.” At other times in Matthew’s Gospel there is no clear distinction that when he refers to “the disciples” his intention is to refer to only the twelve.
Mark’s Gospel names the twelve apostles but simply refers to them as twelve who were appointed to be with him (Mark 3:14-19). He only uses the term apostle one time — in Mark 6:30 when he notes that the apostles returned to Christ after the twelve had been sent out for ministry. Other times when he uses the term “disciples” it is made clear he is referring to the twelve (Mark 14:12-17). We can also infer he is only speaking about the twelve for example when he records that the disciples went out into a boat and see Jesus walking across the water to them (Mark 6:45-52). This event would certainly not refer to all the people who were following Christ. As in Matthew’s Gospel though, sometimes there is no clear distinction that when he refers to “the disciples” his intention is to refer to only the twelve.
Luke tends to use the term apostle more frequently in his Gospel than Matthew and Mark, but there is still a mixture of the usage of apostles and disciples. And John never uses the term apostle at all. He doesn’t name the twelve, and he consistently uses the term “disciples” even when we know he’s referring to the apostles (John 6:8-9, John 11:16, John 12:4).
It is clear that the Gospel writers in general most often refer to the twelve as the “disciples” instead of the “apostles” as recognition while Christ was among them they were truly “followers,” and after Pentecost they fully become those who are sent.
So, when we come across a reference in the Gospels to the term “disciples” how do we interpret that? Do we think Jesus is referring to only the twelve, or to all of his followers?
As a general rule, the most consistent way to understand the usage of the term “disciples” in the Gospels is to view that the writers are referring to the twelve apostles unless there is a reason to think otherwise. So for example, when the “disciples” are in a boat and Jesus walks on water to them (Mark 6:45-52), it is not reasonable to assume this is referring to all of Christ’s disciples, or a random small group of his disciples, but rather the twelve.
This understanding becomes very important in how we understand the authority given to the apostles and to the Church. Since some verses related to this authority in the Gospels refer to the “disciples,” some want to make them about all believers receiving the same authority the apostles do. That would not be consistent with an understanding of apostleship as receiving Christ’s authority, nor does it lead to a consistent reading of Scripture. As I discuss the authority given to the apostles in future posts I will highlight where there is a possible conflict, but consistently interpret that when Scripture refers to Christ’s disciples in the Gospels, it is referring to the twelve apostles unless there is a clear indication otherwise.