ANSWER: In Luke 6:12-16 we read that after a night spent in prayer, Jesus “called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles.” Then the Twelve are named. Mark 3:13-19, commenting on the same occasion, gives a clue as to what differentiated disciples from apostles. The Twelve were appointed “that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons.”
A religious leader or teacher’s followers were referred to as his disciples. Early in His public ministry Jesus had many such disciples. They followed Him in order to learn from Him. Some of those who followed Jesus were really interested in what He taught. Others followed Him out of curiosity, hoping to see a miracle (Jn. 6:2). Still others followed because of the food He provided for them (6:26). However, when He said things they didn’t like or didn’t understand, we read this: “Many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’” and, “from that time many of His disciples … walked with Him no more” (6:60,66).
The twelve apostles are often simply referred to as “the Twelve.” When many had left Jesus, He turned to the Twelve and asked whether they also wanted to go away. Simon Peter gave a wonderful answer on behalf of the group while quite unaware that one of them would betray the Lord: “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” (Jn. 6:67-71). These twelve stayed with Jesus until Judas betrayed Him and He was arrested. Then they all forsook Him and fled, Peter even denying Him three times.
After Judas had taken his own life, and the Lord had risen and gone back to heaven, Peter pointed out that, according to prophecy, Judas’ place had to be filled. Matthias, who had accompanied them during Christ’s ministry, was chosen to fill this place. Later, the Lord also added Saul of Tarsus, whom we know as Paul, to the ranks of the apostles (Acts 26:16). But Paul, always set apart from the Twelve, was recognized by them as having his own special ministry to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9), their own ministry being to the Jews. Barnabas, who for a while worked with Paul, also is once referred to as an apostle (Acts 14:14).
In Acts 1:22 we see that the special mission of the apostles was to be witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. To be a witness of His resurrection, an apostle had to have seen the Lord (1 Cor. 9:1). This, of course, rules out the idea of scriptural apostles today. Also, Ephesians 2:20 points out that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.” The apostles and prophets were a special gift from the ascended Christ to the Church in its earliest stages. The prophets mentioned in Ephesians 2:11-16 are New Testament prophets, for the Church was a mystery not revealed in Old Testament times.
The foundation of the Church has been laid once and for all. God builds on this foundation, but does not continue to keep laying a foundation once the superstructure has been erected. The writings of the apostles and prophets in the New Testament are foundational for the Church while it is here on earth. Sadly, many do not build on these but, like Jeroboam in the Old Testament (1 Ki. 12:25-33), seek to build on patterns of their own devising which are generally an imitation in some measure of what is of God.
Answered by Eugene P. Vedder, Jr.
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org