What is the difference between apostles and disciples?
Answer: When we look at the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, we see two special titles applied to his followers: apostles and disciples. At first glance, we might think that these two words are interchangeable, but when we look at what each one means, we quickly see that the evangelists were using them very specifically. When we look more closely, we see that while Jesus had many disciples, the group of apostles was much more limited and referred to Jesus’ closest collaborators.
The word apostle essentially means “one who is sent forth” or, as we might think of it today, “an ambassador.” The group of apostles — sometimes called the Twelve — included those twelve men who formed Jesus’ inner circle (see Mark 3:13-14; Luke 6:12-13). It was this group that received the gift of the Holy Spirit and who were sent out by Jesus with the special mission of forgiving sins on that first Easter Sunday (see John 20:19-23). In time, the Catholic Tradition also recognize Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas as apostles, recognizing that they also shared the mandate of going out in the Lord’s name to pray, to bless, and to preach. In 2016, during the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis raised the liturgical celebration of Saint Mary Magdalene to the rank of feast, recognizing that she also received a special mandate to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the Eleven, becoming the “apostle to the apostles.” In a particular way, the bishops continue the mission of the apostles in our own time.
When we think of the word disciple, we see that it has a very different meaning. Rather than referring to those who were sent out to carry on the mission of Jesus, disciple literally means “student” or, more specially, an “apprentice learner.” The task of the disciple is to learn and integrate into their lives the teachings, values, and way of life of their master teacher. Although a disciple might be called on to explain or represent aspects of their life, in light of the teachings they receive from this master teacher, Christian discipleship is ultimately about living our lives with faith and integrity, guided by the life and mission of Jesus, our Master Teacher. The call to discipleship is the common vocation of all Christians.