The word “disciple” refers to a learner or follower. The word “apostle” means “one who is sent out.” While Jesus was on earth, His twelve followers were called disciples. The twelve disciples followed Jesus, learned from Him, and were trained by Him. After His resurrection and ascension, Jesus sent the disciples out to be His witnesses (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). They were then referred to as the twelve apostles. However, even when Jesus was still on earth, the terms “disciples” and “apostles” were used somewhat interchangeably.
There is one account where Jesus called seventy as disciples in order to establish the power of God in His name, but these were not part of the chosen inner circle of twelve disciples. Luke 10:1–24
The original twelve disciples/apostles are listed in Matthew 10, “Now the names of the twelve apostles are these; The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.” Matthew 10:2–4
The Bible also lists the twelve disciples/apostles in Mark 3:16–19 and Luke 6:13–16. A comparison of the three passages shows a couple of minor differences in the names.
Thaddaeus was also known as “Judas, son of James” (Luke 6:16) and Lebbaeus (Matthew 10:3). Simon the Zealot was also known as Simon the Canaanite (Mark 3:18). The Gospel of John uses the name “Nathanael” instead of “Bartholomew,” but Nathanael and Bartholomew were the same person. Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, was replaced in the twelve apostles by Matthias (Acts 1:20–26).
The twelve disciples/apostles were ordinary men whom God used in an extraordinary manner. Among the twelve were fishermen, a tax collector, and a revolutionary. The Gospels record the constant failings, struggles, and doubts of these twelve men who followed Jesus the Christ. After witnessing Jesus' resurrection and ascension into heaven, the Holy Spirit transformed the disciples/apostles into powerful men of God (Acts 17:6).
Every apostle was a disciple, but not every disciple was an apostle. Every person who believes in Jesus is called His disciple.
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” Matthew 28:19–20
The Greek word for “disciple” simply refers to a learner and is used throughout the New Testament to refer to people who believed in Jesus (Luke 14:26–33).
“And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied” Acts 6:1 The word disciples simply means “believers” or “Christians” in this context.
The Greek word for “apostle” literally means “one who is sent” and can refer to an emissary or anyone sent on a mission.
An apostle is given the authority of the one who sent him. All of the apostles were disciples—they were among the many believers in Jesus—but only a select group of disciples were chosen as the Twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:1–4; Mark 3:14; Acts 26:14–18). This included the original twelve disciples (although Judas Iscariot eventually reversed his loyalties and rejected Christ).
This select group of twelve apostles is seen in the foundations of the walls of the New Jerusalem: twelve foundations, each inscribed with a name of an apostle (Revelation 21:14).
Other men who are named “apostles” in the New Testament—although not members of the Twelve—include Matthias (Acts 1:26), Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Apollos (1 Corinthians 4:6–9), Timothy and Silas (1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2:6), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), and two unnamed apostles (2 Corinthians 8:23), possibly already included in the previous list.
These men were “sent ones” in that they were chosen for specific work on behalf of the church, but they were not part of the Twelve who were hand-picked by Jesus. Jesus is also called an “apostle” in Hebrews 3:1, indicating that He was sent by and had the authority of His Father.
Ephesians 4:11–16 speaks of apostles, along with other church leaders, whose role was to equip believers for works of service. The main distinction of an apostles is regarding their authority. The apostles’ teaching forms the foundation for the truths of the Christian faith (Acts 2:42; Ephesians 2:20).
The qualifications for being an apostle included having been with Christ during His ministry, having personally witnessed Jesus after His resurrection, and having been empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform miracles or signs (Acts 1:21–22; 10:41; 2 Corinthians 12:12). Paul was an exception to part of the qualifications. Although he did not accompany Jesus on His earthly journeys, Jesus made a special appearance to him on the road to Damascus and set him apart as an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 26:14–18). This is why Paul compared his place among the other apostles as “one born at the wrong time” 1 Corinthians 15:8.
There are no apostles, in the special sense of the word, alive in this world today. There were only twelve, and they had a special task in the founding of the church. The word apostle, however, is still used by some Christian groups in reference to a missionary or entrepreneurial leader in a general sense. But these people do not meet the same qualifications as the twelve apostles in the Bible.
In summary, every person who believes in Jesus as his or her Savior is a disciple of Jesus. However, only a select group of early believers were chosen as apostles and given authority to perform signs and share the revelations found in the New Testament.