Much to our discredit, the Church is notoriously sloppy with its use of language. I am probably the worst offender, especially in my role as a blogger, as my stream-of-consciousness writing often leaves me saying things incorrectly. One place where we have a particular struggle with nomenclature is in the difference between disciples and apostles.
Disciple is derived from the Greek “mathetes” and means “one who is taught.”
Apostle is derived from the Greek “apostolos” and means “one who is sent.”
All apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles, and that makes a real difference. Jesus’ closest group of male disciples were twelve in number. They are often referred to as “The Disciples,” “The 12 Disciples,” or, more rarely these days, “The 12 Apostles.” They were, most certainly, taught and sent. Jesus also sent 70 (or 72), also known as apostles, though less likely to be The Apostles.
The largest group that Jesus had a personal bearing on was the group of disciples. It is likely that at no point in his three years of ministry, did Jesus have all of his disciples together at one time. As an itinerant Rabbi, Jesus taught people in towns and cities, lakeside and on the road. His disciples were spread throughout the Judean countryside, with two notable large gatherings where Jesus fed 4,000 and 5,000, not counting women and children, respectively.
All of that to say, in the story of Palm Sunday from Luke’s Gospel, we see disciples playing two very different roles. First, Jesus sends two of “the disciples,” I’m guessing that means “of the twelve” ahead to secure transportation into Jerusalem. Second, and more importantly, we are told that as people spread their cloaks on the ground, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God.” The Passover being a compulsory feast, there would have been upwards of three-million pilgrims in and around Jerusalem as Jesus approached on Palm Sunday, which means that this triumphal entry is most likely the largest single gathering of disciples, literally, students of Jesus. (Barclay, “The Gospel of Mark” p. 378) And what did they do? They praised God in a loud voice.
I look forward to Palm Sunday, when modern-day disciples will gather and praise God in a loud voice singing, “All glory laud and honor.” I take great joy in joining the multitude of disciples in honoring Jesus as King and Messiah. There is a difference between apostles and disciples, and today I’m grateful to be counted among the latter.