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The Disciples, the Apostles, and the Twelve

Posted by on Jun 12, 2013 in discipleship, scripture | 8 comments

The Disciples, the Apostles, and the Twelve

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.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 6-12-2013

    I recently did a study on the wife of Zebedee, who was one of the women who came with Jesus from Galilee and watched the crucifixion (Luke 23:49). If we look at when Jesus left Galilee, that means she was with him during the events that take place from Luke 9, or from Matthew 19. We know she was there in Matthew 20 because she asks for prominent positions for her sons in Jesus’ kingdom. (The Mark account of this only talks about the disciples and as your post reveals, it would be easy to assume that only meant the 12.) She could easily have been one of the 70 sent out in Luke 10. She was probably there for the resurrection of Lazarus and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and for several other key events. I’m guessing she was in the upper room. at Pentecost. It’s been a fascinating study.

  2. 6-12-2013

    Wonderful post and awesome points. How do you feel about those who attach the word, Prophet and Apostles to their ministry or events they hold? Just curious. Personally, I do not like it. As much as I tend toward the belief and practice of the gifts of the Spirit [without hype, self-attention and manipulation] I do not feel the need for titles. Unless I have some wrong misunderstanding? As one theologian said… there is a difference between “A”postles and “a”postles.

  3. 6-12-2013

    I recently did a fascinating study on the wife of Zebedee. Here’s the key verse that relates to your post: But Jesus’ friends, including the women who had followed him from Galilee stood watching (the crucifixion)–Luke 23:49. Jesus left Galilee for Jerusalem in Luke 9 and in Matthew 19. This means that Zebedee’s wife could have been one of the 70 sent out in Luke 10. She was probably there for many other key events including the resurrection of Lazarus and the triumphal entry. We know she was there in Matthew 20 because she asks Jesus for prominent positions for her son in his kingdom. However, if you only went on the Mark account of this, and if you assumed that when it says “disciples” it means the twelve, it would be easy to miss the fact that there were probably many others there.

    Thank you for an interesting post

  4. 6-12-2013

    I can identify with your childhood confusion, Alan. I used to think exactly the same. Perhaps many people do.

    I agree with Vince too. I’m uncomfortable with people giving themselves titles or allowing others to do so. Strange how few decide to call themselves ‘Helper Smith’ or ‘Administrator Jones’ :-)

    I posted on the ‘apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers’ thing a few days ago (‘Five colours of the rainbow‘). We’ve introduced some distortions over the centuries but there are many out there now rethinking this topic. Alan Hirsch, Neil Cole and Steve Addison to name just three. Tony and Felicity Dale too.

    Thanks for setting us all thinking again, Alan!

  5. 6-12-2013

    Thanks for this teaching. So why has there been so much significance put on the 12? vs. all the others? when did that exactly happen & why?

  6. 6-12-2013

    Edward Irving, a Presbyterian minister, became involved in the outbreak of tongues, prophecy and healing that took place during that time. He and many others concluded that the charismatic gifts were not confined to the early church. He could no longer accept cessationism. However,
    as with most rediscoveries of truth, there was a reaction to the previous distortion of truth. The Irvingites started a new denomination called the Catholic Apostolic Church, dedicated to the ‘restoration’ of apostolic and prophetic ministries. They took this to a literal extreme and appointed, or recognized twelve apostles after the pattern of the original twelve. Closely associated with this emphasis was the
    expectation of the imminent, premillennial and pretribulational return of Christ (the rapture). The restored apostles would live to see the second coming. Various movements developed in the United States build on the idea that the apostolic age has been ‘restored’ for the first time in the modern movement. The thinking behind this restoration concept is a-historical, that is, it ignores the entire history of the church between the apostolic age and the modern movement concerned. Such thinking is not only historically naive, it always produces
    arrogance and elitism, or what may be termed a messianic consciousness where people imagine vain things about their own, unique, historic or ‘prophetic’ importance.

    The Church and Its Leaders, Dr. Derek Morphew

  7. 6-13-2013

    As Alan points out, scripture uses these words as descriptions not titles. To my mind, calling someone “Pastor Jones” or “Apostle Smith” is not much different from calling a football player(American style) “Tackle Jones” or “Quarterback Smith”.

    When my wife and I were saved(40+ years ago), the couple that got us saved pointed out that there were people other than ‘the twelve’ referred to as apostles in the scriptures. This couple lived a few hundred miles away so we didn’t see them but 2-3 times. They followed the Pauline method of church planting. That is, one or two contacts in a lifetime and we were left on our own to press into God and the things that pertain to him. It didn’t take us long to learn to feed ourselves. We’ve never been fond of spoon-feeding since then. We’ve always called them our pastors. Maybe we should call them our apostles.

    Maybe this is a good place to bring up an interesting item. Scripture says, “if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body'” It’s interesting because it does not say, “Because you are not an ear, you are not part of the body.” The member in question is excluding itself, not another. In the context of this discussion, a parallel would be, “I am not an Apostle or a Prophet or an Evangelist or a Pastor, therefore I am only a layman.” According to scripture, saying it doesn’t make it so.

    Thanks Alan, for reminding me of these things.

  8. 6-15-2013

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I agree that neither “disciple” nor “apostle” is a title. They are descriptions. “Disciple” describes someone who follows Jesus, and “apostle” describes someone who travels from place to place proclaiming the gospel and building up other Christians.