Disciples and Apostles

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 10:1-15

Here’s a simple way of remembering what we are as Christians: followers of Jesus are called disciples, or “learners.” And disciples are called apostles, or missionaries.

Years ago when my kids were small, they came home from Sunday school with a little song that helped them remember the names of Jesus' twelve disciples. (Actually, it's helped me do that too.) The words of the song went like this:

There were twelve disciples Jesus called to help him, Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John, Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon, Judas, and Bartholomew.

That is essentially the text of Matthew 10:2-4, except that Matthew lists Judas last, for reasons you can guess. But the song shifts Bartholomew to the end of the list, so that his name can rhyme with the chorus:

He has called us too, he has called us too, We are his disciples, we his work must do. He has called us too, he has called us too, We are his disciples; I am one, are you?

The Missionaries

Several things in the way that Matthew describes the call and commissioning of Jesus' twelve disciples ought to catch our attention. Here is Matthew's introduction to the list in verse 1:

And [Jesus] called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter,

and then the list continues on down through “and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”

The first thing that stands out here is the precise number of names because Jesus clearly had many more close and faithful disciples than these twelve men. For one thing, all the gospels emphasize the important role played by the women who followed Jesus, none of whom are mentioned here (see, for example, Luke 8:1-3).

Acts 1 says that a few weeks after the crucifixion and resurrection 120 of Jesus' followers gathered to choose a successor to Judas (Acts 1:15-26). According to Peter, the person they chose had to “have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (vv. 21-22).

Two men were put forward as candidates, and there must have been others who were qualified as well, disciples who loved Jesus just as keenly, and followed him just as faithfully as the other eleven surviving disciples.

So the fact that Jesus chose exactly twelve of his followers to set apart as his disciples in this special sense means that the number has particular significance. And it doesn't take a great deal of Bible knowledge to see what that significance is. Twelve was the number of Israel's tribes. By choosing and naming twelve disciples Jesus intends to convey the message that his church is both a continuation of God's Old Testament people and a new beginning, one that will expand the covenant until it embraces all the nations and peoples of the world.

In the visions of the book of Revelation the redeemed community surrounding the throne of God in heaven is represented by twenty-four elders (Revelation 4:4). Twelve tribes plus twelve apostles signals that when God's saving work is complete Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church will be united in one glorified company of the blessed.

The second thing that jumps out from this passage about the calling of the Twelve is the vocabulary used to describe them. Jesus called to himself his twelve disciples, we read. Then Matthew says, “the names of the twelve apostles are these.” So the disciples are also apostles. We often use those two terms interchangeably, but they mean quite different things. The word disciple means “learner.” A disciple is somebody who watches and listens to Jesus, who wants to be taught by him, who is committed to believing his words and following his will and imitating his example.

But an apostle is a missionary. The word apostle literally means “one who is sent,” which is exactly what the word missionary means. Apostles are those who have been authorized by Jesus to go out into the world as his emissaries. That's another word (like “mission” and “missionary”) from the Latin root that means the same thing as the Greek word apostolos. So disciples follow after Jesus, always moving towards him; apostles move out from Jesus, as he sends them into the world.

The Mission

Having called the twelve disciples and named them his apostles, Jesus next explains the mission he intends for them. The rest of Matthew 10 is devoted to a description of that mission, and these verses have sometimes caused misunderstanding and confusion for later generations of Christians. There's some hard bits in here. The main difficulty in interpreting what Jesus says in this chapter lies in understanding which parts of his instructions to the Twelve were unique for them and which are intended for all disciples, all missionaries.

Let's start with what's unique. First, Jesus gives a unique authority to the Twelve, authority over unclean spirits, says Matthew, and authority to heal every disease and affliction. While it's clear from the New Testament, I believe, that gifts of physical and spiritual healing continue in the church today, it's also clear to me that the twelve apostles had special authority to cast out demons and to heal the sick and even to raise the dead, as we see from the book of Acts. And this unique authority was intended to reinforce the apostles' unique role as eyewitnesses to Jesus' resurrection and as the authoritative writers of the New Testament scriptures.

Second, Jesus gives unique instructions to the Twelve. In Matthew 10:5ff. he tells them to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles . . . but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And then Jesus says they must not take any money with them or extra possessions, but they are to rely entirely upon peoples' hospitality for their daily needs.

Some sincere believers have tried to apply these instructions to all Christian mission, but that's a misguided interpretation. At the end of the gospel we know, for instance, that Jesus famously tells his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. Moreover, the particular instructions about how to go that Jesus gives here in Matthew 10 applied to the disciples' temporary work in Galilee, which was a sort of trial or practice mission when they walked about for a limited time reproducing the earthly ministry of Jesus himself. But the later careers of the apostles as described in the New Testament show that Jesus' very strict instructions here in Matthew 10 were not meant to be applied literally everywhere for all time.

But if some things about their mission were unique to them, other elements are common to all Christian ministry. And first and foremost is the work itself. Jesus sent his apostles primarily to preach – “proclaim as you go, saying, 'the kingdom of heaven is at hand'” (v. 7) – and then he added, “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (v. 8). So gospel proclamation is the primary work of Christian missions.

The good news of the gospel is that in Jesus God has come near to us, and through Jesus we may be brought near to God. If we don't share that good news with the world and invite people to believe in Christ, we are failing to do the mission he's given us. But as we preach we will also help and heal and seek to meet peoples' physical needs as well. I have traveled to many countries around the world, and everywhere I go I am impressed by the Christian hospitals and hospices, by the feeding programs and water wells and the host of development projects that testify to the ongoing commitment of Jesus' followers to bring the whole gospel to the whole world. Our message is the same, our work is the same, and our methods are the same. Like the Twelve we are committed to humility and simplicity, we are willing to embrace poverty, we will accept hardship and even persecution, all for the sake of fulfilling the mission Jesus has entrusted to us.

He Has Called Us Too

So Jesus' disciples are also his apostles. If we are following Jesus, we are also sent out into the world on behalf of Jesus. No, we don't possess the unique authority of the Twelve. None of us is authorized to write scripture. Despite occasional claims to the contrary, no one in the church today can heal the sick or literally raise the dead like the Twelve did. But we are Jesus' apostles as well, or perhaps I should say his “lower-case apostles.” The Twelve were “capital A” apostles; you and I are “small a” apostles. But we are just as much missionaries as they were, sent out into our world to proclaim the gospel and to be agents of healing and deliverance to the poor, the suffering and the oppressed.

A friend who directs an evangelical mission agency in the United States had some pertinent comments about the failure of the church to deploy every disciple as an apostle.

The American church needs to get back on course . . . [it] needs to get beyond its clergy and building-centered approach to ministry and reclaim the marketplace of office, school, factory, playground and home. That's the most significant location for Christian service, and lay people are the ministers. . . . Most churches pay lip service at best to the importance of anything beyond staff led programs. But most real mission occurs in the workplace and only workers in the real world can penetrate and transform society, in America or . . . in the Arab world and Asia.

(Doug Van Bronkhorst, The Interserve Times)

When every believer becomes not just a disciple but an apostle, the Lord's mission gets done.

He has called us too, he has called us too,

We are his disciples; I am one, are you?