When I was growing up, I thought that the terms “disciples,” “apostles,” and “the Twelve” all referred to the same group of twelve men who followed Jesus around between his baptism and his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. In fact, I often heard the terms combined as in “the twelve disciples” or “the twelve apostles,” and I rarely heard the terms “disciples” or “apostles” used to refer to anyone other than “the Twelve.”
Now, I understand that “the Twelve” were “apostles,” but other people were apostles as well. I also understand that “the Twelve” and the “apostles” were “disciples,” but other people were disciples as well.
Believe it or not, Matthew only uses the term “apostle” once. He uses the term “twelve” eight times. But he uses the term “disciple” over 30 times. A few times, Matthew combines the terms: “twelve apostles” or “twelve disciples.” That clarification (i.e., the fact that Matthew occasionally says “the twelve disciples”) indicates that at times Matthew is using the term “disciple” to refer to a group that does not include ONLY the Twelve.
It’s clear from reading the Gospels and Acts that many people – not just the Twelve – followed Jesus as his disciples. In fact, we learn in Acts 1, that at least 2 people – but probably more – followed Jesus from the time of his baptism by John and were still with the 120 when they were gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension. (See Acts 1:21-23.)
Here’s a passage from Matthew, for example, that indicates that the term “disicples” was used to refer to more than just the Twelve:
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:47-50 ESV)
Why is this important? Well, think about these questions:
Who was in the boat with Jesus when he calmed the storm? (“And when he [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him…” Matthew 8:23 ESV)
Who did Jesus teach privately? (“Then he [Jesus] left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’” Matthew 13:36 ESV)
Who did Jesus eat ‘the Last Supper’ with? (“He [Jesus] said, ‘Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, “The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.”‘” Matthew 26:18 ESV)
In the same way, we know that other people (besides the Twelve) were referred to as “apostles,” especially in Acts and Paul’s epistles. Therefore, when we read that apostles said or did something, we cannot assume that the author was referring to the Twelve. (However, as an interesting aside, perhaps Matthais was chosen to replace Judas as one of “the Twelve” in Acts 1:15-26.)
This passage by Paul specifically points out this difference:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 ESV)
Did you notice that Paul makes a distinction between “the Twelve” and “the apostles”? Notice that we see that Jesus also appears to “more than five hundred brothers (and sisters).”
So, we should be careful when we read these terms in Scripture. Otherwise, we might limit the scope and reference more narrowly than the authors intended.
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Alan Knox is a PhD student in biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a web developer. His interests include PHP and ecclesiology. His dissertation topic is the purpose of the gathering of the church in the New Testament. By God’s grace, he tries to live what he is learning about the church.
He writes about how our understanding of the church affects (or should affect) the way the we live our lives among other brothers and sisters in Christ. He's found that many aspects of our understanding of church (gathering, leading, teaching, etc.) are woven together such that it’s almost impossible to focus on only one aspect.
Find out more on his website, The Assembling of the Church.