The difference between disciples and apostles is a bit tricky because they are used almost interchangeably not only in the current church but also in the Bible. So in one sense, both words are used to refer to the same group of people and thus either term is correct. HOWEVER, the two terms do have very different meanings and it is at least useful to be aware of the meanings.
A disciple is a student. That’s all it is. We are called to be disciples – we are called to be students. The twelve men who followed Jesus were called disciples specifically because they were his students. Generally when we discuss the disciples, we are referring to these twelve men. That being said, the term disciple is used in reference to other believers in the New Testament as well as the early church forms and grows. So it can accurately be used for any believer as they are a student.
The term apostle means to be sent with a commission. This is where things get a bit trickier. The twelve disciples are also referred to as the twelve apostles. Except Judas Iscariot is never called an apostle. Judas was a student, but for lack of a better term, he flunked out. The rest of the disciples graduated and were then “sent with a commission” and became apostles. In case you need evidence of that commission, the Great Commission is recorded at the end of Matthew 28.
So if Judas is not an apostle, who is the twelfth apostle? This will be discussed in another article but the short answer is either Matthias or Paul. The eleven remaining disciples, plus one of these two men are the twelve who are going to turn the world upside down with the gospel of Jesus.
So, anybody can be a disciple, but can anyone be an apostle? Just like the other questions, this isn’t quite as easy as you’d think. There are twelve apostles, and regardless whether Paul is one of the twelve, he is also called an apostle. But in Acts 14:14, Barnabas is referred to as an apostle as well. So at the very least there are thirteen men who are referred to in scripture as apostles.
In 1 Corinthians 12:28-29, Paul states being an apostle is a spiritual gift and that not all are called to be apostles. So not everyone could be an apostle, but everyone is expected to be a disciple.
Some will differentiate apostleship as a spiritual gift that was only possible in the early church. Using the definition in Acts 1, the reason is given that to be an apostle, a person must have been with Jesus and have been a witness of His after the resurrection. All applicable candidates would have thus died in the first century.
Others today believe that the gift of apostleship is still alive and well today. We would call modern day apostles missionaries or preachers. They are anyone who has been commissioned to preach the Word of God.
So, is there really a difference between disciples and apostles? It depends on how you want to think of things. You can use the terms interchangeably in reference to the men in the New Testament. Everyone who was an apostle was also a disciple – even if we never speak about someone such as Paul being a disciple – because every Christian is to be a disciple. However, not every disciple is an apostle.
And just in case you aren’t mixed up enough already, here’s two more verses to either confuse you or set you straight. In Matthew 10:1-4 in verse 1 the men are called disciples, and then in verse 2 they are called apostles.
Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Finally in Revelation 21:14 we’re told that the names of the twelve apostles are written on the foundations of heaven:
The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
I feel confident in saying that one of those names will not be Judas Iscariot. But there is a twelfth man that God specifically chose and commissioned for the job. He is the twelfth apostle (even though there are more than twelve who are given that title in the Bible.)