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Part Two: Disciples or Apostles?

February 23, 2015

Last week Nathan Hitchcock, SFS alumnus and Associate Professor of Church History and Theology, shared his story with us in the first entry of a two-part series.  Today, in part two, he reflects upon what it means to participate in God’s mission while continuing to learn and grow.

Part Two: The Twelve: Disciples or Apostles?

In Luke’s gospel, we find a subtle but profound verse: “When day came, [Jesus] called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles” (Luke 6:13, NRSV).  Did you catch the parenthetical comment?  The Lord calls the disciples together and picks out twelve as special representatives.  They will be a special cohort, the prototype cohort: disciples who are also apostles.

In Greek, we are dealing with the terms mathētēs and apostolos.  Mathētēs is translated “disciple” but in its plain sense simply means “learner.”  Apostolos is translated “apostle” but very literally denotes a “sent-out one.”  The first word seems to be about someone in training, the other about someone in action.  Mathētēs suggests a ministry follower, apostolos a ministry leader.

Now common sense would say that one is a student first and only then a worker; a disciple first and an apostle only once fully trained as a disciple.  Educational models are sometimes built on this very ordering.  Notably, however, Jesus doesn’t do it this way at all.  The twelve disciples are “also named apostles.”

It’s a permeable line between mathētēs and apostolos in Luke’s gospel.  Jesus calls seventy disciples and says “I am sending [apostellō] you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3) – then re-educates them as disciples as soon as they return.  One moment Jesus discipled his students through parables then, the next moment, he “sent [apesteilen] two of his disciples” to find a colt (Luke 19:29).  Jesus “apostles” his disciples, and he “disciples” his apostles.

Truly, if we go on into the book of Acts, we discover that the apostles never stop being disciples.  They may be experts in mission, but they are always “the Twelve,” the representative students of Jesus.  As apostles they still have to follow and learn.  As apostles they still require retraining and occasional rebuke.  They never reach a point at which they no longer need their Master to teach them.  They never graduate as disciples.

Seminary Graduates: Disciples or Apostles?
So what does this mean for students when they finish their seminary education?  Truth be told, most students are already apostles of some sort when they come to be disciples at Sioux Falls Seminary.  Even as students they are teaching, counseling, leading, ministering.  Even as students they are sent out in the world preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Students at Sioux Falls Seminary are called by God and used by him long before we begin walking alongside them.  That’s why we seek to develop students contextually in order to equip them for bigger, wiser, and more effective ministry.

Again, even though students at Sioux Falls Seminary eventually graduate and get sent out to serve others, it does not mean that they are done being disciples.  In fact, it could be argued that only after years of development and training students are finally able to learn.  It’s true for professors too!  I am continually amazed at how much I learn each year, even though my formal education is long over.  For example, just this past year I learned:

  • that Jesus was a tektōn, which English translations usually translate “carpenter,” but is actually a more generic word for a “craftsman” or “builder;”
  • the difference between allegory and allegorical interpretation;
  • how to read an institutional budget;
  • how to use a two-screen computer to run PowerPoint;
  • that Methodists and Calvinists actually share a lot of hermeneutical presuppositions;
  • that most churches desperately need someone to give them a sex talk;
  • that real estate transactions are from the devil.

Most importantly, I have had impressed upon my heart a paradox: The farther you are sent out by Jesus, the closer you must follow behind him.  A mature disciple is not someone who has achieved autonomy.  Rather, in Marva Dawn’s words, a true Christian leader is one who trusts the triune God so radically as to become “a living doxology.”

Disciples are being sent out from Sioux Falls Seminary each year, commissioned as apostles.  Rejoice in that.  But remember: a true apostle never dares to preach anything but the gospel learned at Jesus’ feet.  And a true disciple never dares to walk in front of the Master.

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