Since twelve of those who were disciples of Christ later became His Apostles, the two terms disciple and apostle are often confused. Although the terms are used interchangeably, they are not exact synonyms. A disciple is defined in the Bible as a “learner,” one who entered into the fellowship of Jesus’ rabbinic instruction. Though the Apostles were disciples, not all disciples became apostles.
An Apostle enjoyed a special office in the New Testament church. The term apostle means “one who is sent.” Technically, however, an apostle was more than a messenger. He was commissioned with the authority to speak for and represent the One who sent him. The chief apostle in the New Testament is Jesus Himself. He was sent by the Father and spoke with the authority invested in Him by the Father. To reject Jesus was to reject the Father, who sent Him.
Likewise, the Apostles were called and commissioned directly by Christ and spoke with His authority. To reject apostolic authority was to reject the authority of Christ, who sent them.
In the New Testament, twelve disciples were commissioned as Apostles. After Judas’s death, the church replaced the vacancy by selecting Matthias, as Acts records. To this number Jesus added the Apostle Paul as the special Apostle to the gentiles. Paul’s apostleship was a matter of some debate because he did not meet all of the requirements for apostleship set forth in Acts. The criteria for apostleship included being: (1) a disciple of Jesus during His earthly ministry, (2) an eyewitness of the Resurrection, and (3) called and commissioned directly by Christ. Paul was not a former disciple, and his vision of the resurrected Christ occurred after Jesus’ ascension. Paul was not an eyewitness of the Resurrection in the same way the other Apostles were. Nevertheless, Paul was directly called to the office by Christ. His call was confirmed by the other Apostles, whose apostleship was not in doubt and was authenticated by the miracles God performed through him, attesting his authority as an Apostolic agent of revelation.
By the late first century, the postapostolic fathers clearly recognized that their authority was subordinate to the original Apostles. There are no official apostles alive today as no one can meet the biblical criteria for the office or be confirmed by the original Apostles, as Paul was. The Bible is the only Apostolic authority for us today.
This article is part of the The Reformation Study Bible collection.