The New Testament has many references to disciples and apostles.
Strictly speaking, a disciple is anyone who follows another’s teachings. In the Bible, the name “disciple” comes from the Greek word, “mathaytes,” which means learner, student or pupil. We read that the loyal disciples were not just learning, but also, that they agreed and followed their leader, Jesus Christ. However, many turned away who at one time were His followers during His 3½ year ministry. We read in Acts 1:15 that there were only about 120 disciples just before the day of Pentecost. This was after preaching to many thousands of people, feeding miraculously more than 10,000 people, and performing many healings!
As Jesus was teaching, we read in John 6:60: “Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’” A few verses later, we read in verses 66-69: “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also want to go away?’ But Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”
We see that many departed, but the twelve apostles stayed firm at that time. Later, however, Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, betrayed Christ, and after his suicide, he was replaced with Matthias who became known as an apostle (see Acts 1:26). Tradition has it that all of them, with the possible exception of John, suffered martyrdom.
Both John the Baptist (Matthew 9:14) and the Pharisees (Matthew 22:16) are shown as having disciples. Even the twelve apostles were originally called disciples (Matthew 10:1). It is interesting to note that there were far fewer apostles than disciples – all apostles were disciples, but very few of the disciples became apostles.
The word apostle is derived from a Greek word, pronounced “ap-os-tol-os,” which means a messenger or one who is sent. From His disciples, that is, His students, Jesus selected a group of twelve men as His apostles. We read in Luke 6:12-13:
“Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, He called His disciples to Himself, and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles.”
Then, He sent them to do His work. First, He sent them to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 20:5-15), but later, Jesus told them to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations… ” (Matthew 28:19).
Still later, Paul and Barnabas were ordained to the rank of apostle to carry out the Work of God (Acts 13:1-3; 14:14). In Romans 16:7, we find a reference to Andronicus and Junias, who might also have been apostles. The passage says that they were of note among the original apostles. This could mean that they were well known to the apostles, or that they themselves were distinguished as apostles.
In our Q&A on ministerial ranks in the church, we state the following:
“We read that Paul referred to himself as an apostle and a preacher and a teacher (1 Timothy 2:7). He is also described as a prophet and a teacher in Acts 13:1. He even clarified that there were ‘ranks’ and different functions within the office of ‘apostle,’ calling some of the apostles ‘chiefest apostles’ (Authorized Version) or ‘most eminent apostles’ (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11). These would have included Peter and James, the half-brother of Jesus (compare Galatians 1:18-19). We read that the gospel to the uncircumcision [non-Israelite nations] was entrusted to Paul, while the gospel of the circumcision [Israelite nations] was entrusted to Peter (Galatians 2:7-8).”
In 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 we read that Satan the devil has his own apostles: “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.”
One other important factor should be noted. Christ’s disciples are followers of Christ, whether they are ministers or members. A disciple may not be ordained to any ministerial function, but an apostle, as well as an evangelist or a pastor or an elder, are always ordained ministers, as we read in Ephesians 4:11-13: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Please see again our Q&A, which addresses the question of ministerial ranks in God’s Church.
Today, in the true Church of God, we are all disciples of Jesus Christ, and a number have been ordained to the rank of evangelist, pastor and teacher or elder. We do not believe that there are any apostles in the Church of God today. Due to his fruits, the late Mr. Herbert W Armstrong, who was Pastor General of the Worldwide Church of God until he died in 1986, was acknowledged in the Church as an apostle (one sent out), as he met many world leaders and preached the gospel of the Kingdom of God in many parts of the world. It is not, of course, a requirement for an apostle to have to meet world leaders, but the fruits of his activities should clearly establish that God has approved a minister as an apostle. We do not believe that there are today any prophets in the Church of God, either. This is not to say that in the future, God might not ordain some of His ministers to the rank and office of apostle and prophet. For further information, read our Q&A answering the question whether there are today any prophets in the Church of God.
Lead Writers: Brian Gale and Norbert Link