The twelve disciples of Jesus were also the twelve apostles. These two words describe the same set of men at different points in their ministry. The word "disciple" means a student who follows a specific teacher, i.e. "disciples of Jesus" or "disciples of John." The word "apostle" comes from the Greek word apostolos meaning "messenger." In the context, the apostles were messengers of Jesus to the world (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). So, these twelve men were the appointed leaders among the learners (disciples) and missionaries (apostles) of Jesus. The two terms are used interchangeably throughout the Bible to describe these twelve men.
Matthew 10:2-4 gives us the names of the first twelve disciples/apostles. They are: Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew, James and John—the sons of Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas (known as 'doubting Thomas'), Matthew the tax collector, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. They are listed again in Mark 3:16-19 and Luke 6:13-16. When the three passages are compared, there are a few differences in the names. Thaddaeus was also known as "Judas the son of James" (Luke 6:16) and Lebbaeus (Matthew 10:3). Simon the Zealot was also called Simon the Canaanite (Mark 3:18). In Acts, chapter 1, we also see that Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, was replaced by Matthias (see Acts 1:20-26).
The twelve disciples/apostles were average people. They were not chosen from among the religious elite or the rich and, in fact, were even among the more despised in society—fishermen, a revolutionary, a tax collector. They were not educated and had no influence with important people. Furthermore, throughout the Gospels we see them fail, struggle, and doubt God. They are very average men with whom we can identify. What should astonish us is that God used this small group of insignificant men, with all their problems, in such a mighty way that, through them, the world was literally changed (Acts 17:6). How did they accomplish so much? By God's power. Acts 4:13 says that when the people heard the disciples/apostles speak and realized that they were ordinary men, they knew that they had "been with Jesus." The strength of God evident in the human weakness of the disciples/apostles was a witness to the world of God's power.
The same is true for us today. The twelve were not the last of his disciples/apostles. Paul was not one of the original twelve, but his ministry was very powerful. We are also his disciples/apostles when we learn from Him and convey His message to the world. And, just as the weakness of the original twelve was used by God to change the world, our weakness is used by God today to save unbelievers and to encourage the church (2 Corinthians 5:20; Romans 1:16). The apostle Paul tells us that God expressed it to him in this beautiful way: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).
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