Between now and the end of July, we celebrate the feasts of three Apostles: Peter (June 29), Thomas (July 3) and James (July 25). The Eastern Orthodox churches also honor all 12 Apostles with a feast on June 30.
We all know “the Twelve”: Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew, the brothers James and John, Philip, Bartholomew (Nathanael), Thomas, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Jude (Thaddeus), Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who was replaced by Matthias. There are others, such as Paul (also honored on June 29), Barnabas (June 11) and Mary Magdalene (July 22) who are ranked with the Twelve and called “apostles” by the church.
The Twelve, and any other “apostle,” were disciples, first, and became apostles later. At least twice in John’s Gospel (8:31 and 13:35), Jesus calls his followers “disciples.”
So what is the difference between a disciple and an apostle?
It’s generally the relationship with Jesus and the mission given by Jesus to that disciple that makes the difference.
A disciple is one who follows a teacher. The ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates had disciples (such as Plato); Moses had disciples; John the Baptist had disciples. The word “disciple” is derived from the Latin discipulus which, in turn, comes from the Greek word mathetes.
Greek was the first language of the Gospels, so matethes was the word used for “disciples” in the first Gospels. Matethes means “a learner” or “a pupil.” (Yes, it is similar to the Greek word mathema — for “a subject of learning” — that gave us the word “mathematics.”)
So a disciple is a student, not unlike those in any math class today. We can see this student relationship when Jesus’ disciples ask him to instruct them (“teach us how to pray”) and the Lord’s Prayer was the result (Mt 6:9-13 and Lk 11:2-4).
Once a disciple learns enough from the teacher, he or she can spread the teachings of their mentor. Sort of like a teaching assistant. We can see an example of this when Jesus sends the 70 (or 72) out in pairs (Lk 10: 1-24).
The word “apostle” comes from another Greek word — apostolos — which means “one who is sent,” as with a messenger, emissary or ambassador. Each apostle has a specific task, based on the specific mission the disciples received from Jesus as he prepared to ascend to the Father: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).
We hear about this mission in action in the New Testament book that follows the Gospels: The Acts of the Apostles. As we enter the scene in its first chapter, Jesus has just ascended and the disciples are staring up at the sky where Jesus has vanished into the clouds:
“While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?’” (Acts 1:10-11).
After that question, the disciples are recalled to their new mission and return to Jerusalem to await the outpouring of the Spirit. But clearly, the angels were telling them to “get on with it,” instead of just “standing there looking at the sky.”
The U.S. bishops, in their 2012 teaching on the New Evangelization, used the same scene from Acts to remind us that we, like the disciples on that Ascension hill, need encouragement to follow our mission.
“How often do we fail to realize that we are called to be Christ’s witnesses to the world?” the bishops wrote in “Disciples Called to Witness.” “Do we realize that our baptism, confirmation and reception of the Eucharist bestow on us the grace we need to be disciples? Are we like the disciples staring at the sky rather than inviting those around us to experience Christ’s love and mercy through the church?”
Apostolic Age ended
For that, we, just like those first disciples, need the Holy Spirit.
Now, “the apostolic age” ended with the Twelve, who were sent on mission “to the ends of the earth.” However, the role of “an apostle” — with a small “a” — belongs to many more people. That is why people like Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Junia and Andronicus are all called “apostles” in Acts. Mary Magdalene is also called an apostle by the church — in fact, she is the Apostolorum apostola, the “Apostle to the Apostles” because the risen Lord sent her to “go to my brothers and tell them … ‘I have seen the Lord’” (Jn 20:17-18).
After the coming of the Spirit, the disciples were sent around the world, each with a very specific task. For Peter, it was to build up the church on the foundation of Christ. Paul, called the Apostle to the Gentiles, preached to those outside the Jewish faith. Later disciples were sent to bring the church to specific peoples in various places: So SS. Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century became the “Apostles to the Slavs.”
Today, we ourselves are both disciples — because we are always learning about Jesus — and potential apostles (with a small “a”) — because we have also been sent.
The bishops reminded the modern church of our mission today: “Through our baptism, we become witnesses to the Gospel and disciples of Christ. … If we truly believe in the Gospel, then, as a church, we must take seriously Christ’s commandment to ‘go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,’ … We bring the Good News to all people and nations, including those who have never heard of Christ, those who are no longer actively practicing their faith, and all those who are fervent in the faith.”
As we have learned, so we must go out and fulfill our mission.
Sources: “Disciples Called to Witness”; The Didache; Catechism of the Catholic Church; the documents of Vatican II; The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; Online etymology at etymonline.com; usccb.org; diffen.com; “Ask a Priest” at xt3.com; and bibleodysssey.org.