Disciples, Apostles, Bishops, and Sacred Tradition


A Japanese Erhu

About a dozen years ago in Tokyo, Karen and I visited Jin Nakamura, a friend from the MIT Sloan Class of 1990. Jin had learned to play the erhu, a beautiful ancient Japanese musical instrument and, during our visit to his home, demonstrated it for us.

We asked how and why he had learned. He said he had heard a master play the instrument and was so impressed and inspired that he went to that master and asked to be his disciple.

I remember that conversation clearly because it clarified what it means to be a disciple. I don’t know how Jin was doing in the eyes of the “master,” but he played beautifully and impressed us. It was clear that, to Jin, being a disciple meant focus,  serious study, and hard work leading to new skills and knowledge.

Disciples and Apostles in The New Testament

Today Father Linsky talked about 21st Century Church structure and how that is related to the disciples and apostles of the New Testament. Both get lots of mentions in the New Testament, apostle or messenger mostly by St. Luke in Acts and by St. Paul in 1st and 2nd Corinthians. Maybe apostle was not commonly spoken during the ministry of Jesus and his search for good messengers but had become common by the time  the Gospel was written by Luke and St. Paul addressed the Corinthians.

The Greek word translated disciple, pupil, or follower is found only in the Gospels and Acts and in none of the Epistles.

Here is some more information for those interested in the language issues. It may help to remember that all NT apostles were disciples but not all disciples were apostles.

A Few Interesting Uses of “Disciple” in the NT:

Some Disciples Had Distractions
Matthew 8:18-23
 When Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side. A scribe approached and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Another of (his) disciples said to him, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But Jesus answered him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.” He got into a boat and his disciples followed him.

John the Baptist Also Had Disciples but no Apostles
Matthew 9:14
 Then the disciples of John approached him and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast (much), but your disciples do not fast?” (See also Matthew 11:2, 14:2, John 1:35.)

The Twelve Were Both Disciples and Apostles in Matthew and Luke
Matthew 10:1-4
 Then he summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon called Peter, and his brother Andrew; James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus; Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him. (Interesting to have both Greek words so close together.)

Luke 6:12-16  In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called a Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Note capitalization of Twelve which has nothing to do with the Greek and seems to be peculiar to the NAB translation.)

Disciples of Jesus Received Special Instructions in Private
Mark 4:33-34
 With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.

Jesus Considered His Faithful Disciples to Be His Family
Matthew 12:49-50
 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Not All Disciples Had Staying Power
John 6:66
 As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. (This after the Bread of Life discourse)

At the Last Supper, the Twelve Were Referred to as Disciples in Matthew
Matthew 26:17-19
 On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The teacher says, “My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.” The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered, and prepared the Passover. (They are apostles in Luke.)

After the Resurrection, Jesus Gave the Great Commission to Eleven Disciples
Matthew 28:16 – 20
 The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Before Pentecost. Makes it clear that we are all to be disciples.)

Perhaps in Humility, the Writer of John Refers to Himself as a Disciple
John 21:24
 It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.

A Few Interesting Uses of “Apostle” in the NT:

At the Return of the Twelve Sent Out to Proclaim the Kingdom and Heal
Luke 9:1-10
 He summoned the Twelve and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal (the sick). He said to them, “Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there and leave from there. And as for those who do not welcome you, when you leave that town, shake the dust from your feet in testimony against them.” Then they set out and went from village to village proclaiming the good news and curing diseases everywhere. Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was greatly perplexed because some were saying, “John has been raised from the dead”; others were saying, “Elijah has appeared”; still others, “One of the ancient prophets has arisen.” But Herod said, “John I beheaded. Who then is this about whom I hear such things?” And he kept trying to see him. When the apostles returned, they explained to him what they had done. He took them and withdrew in private to a town called Bethsaida. (Here again, in Luke, Twelve is capitalized, not Greek and peculiar to the NAB. But I like it.)

In Luke, the Twelve at the Passover Are Called Apostles
Luke 22:13-14
 Then they went off and found everything exactly as he had told them, and there they prepared the Passover.  14 When the hour came, he took his place at table with the apostles. (They are disciples in Matthew.)

Matthias Chosen as 12th Apostle to Replace Judas
Acts 1:26 – 2:1
  Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles. (No voting and no politics!)

Paul Identified Himself as an Apostle
Romans 1:1-3
 Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh, (Remember that the word meant messenger and did not imply status as much as responsibility and burden.)

St. Paul Had a Global Diocese
Romans 11:13
 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I glory in my ministry. (Good thing he didn’t know how many “gentiles” there were on the planet.)

Only Apostles Had This Special Gift Not For Sale
Acts 8:17-19
 Then they laid hands on them and they received the holy Spirit. When Simon saw that the Spirit was conferred by the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me this power too, so that anyone upon whom I lay my hands may receive the holy Spirit.”

Decisions Were Reached by the Apostles and Presbyters in Jerusalem
Acts 16:4
 As they traveled from city to city, they handed on to the people for observance the decisions reached by the apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem. (The Greek word translated Presbyters generally means elders. This is why Presbyterian churches generally have Elders and Deacons in leadership roles.)

Paul Mentions Two Believers Not Apostles but well known to the Apostles
Romans 16:7
 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and my fellow prisoners; they are prominent among the apostles and they were in Christ before me. (Some scholars have argued that these two were also apostles, but that argument has been lost, at least in the Catholic Church.)

Not Only Apostles Have Gifts and Responsibilities
1 Corinthians 12:27-31
 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work mighty deeds? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. (Striving eagerly for those gifts makes us good disciples.)

The Catechism on Apostolic Tradition (How we got from Apostles to Bishops)

  1. The Apostolic Tradition

75 “Christ the Lord, in whom the entire Revelation of the most high God is summed up, commanded the apostles to preach the Gospel, which had been promised beforehand by the prophets, and which he fulfilled in his own person and promulgated with his own lips. In preaching the Gospel, they were to communicate the gifts of God to all men. This Gospel was to be the source of all saving truth and moral discipline.”

In the apostolic preaching. . .

76 In keeping with the Lord’s command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways:
– orally “by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received – whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit”;
– in writing “by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing”.

. . . continued in apostolic succession

77 “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.” Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”

78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” “The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”

79 The Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: “God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church – and through her in the world – leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.”

What About The Rest of Us?

Most of us don’t have to worry about the burden of being part of that Apostolic Succession but we can all do the serious study and hard work required to be better Disciples.

2 Timothy 2:15  Be eager to present yourself as acceptable to God, a workman who causes no disgrace, imparting the word of truth without deviation.

1 Peter 3:15-16  Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.


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