In reading John’s Gospel recently, I was suddenly impressed with the difference in detail between the Gospel writers about how the first disciples decided to follow Jesus. John gives us the impression that before they were followers of Jesus they had been followers of John the Baptist. Some of them were with John the Baptist when he saw Jesus and pointed to him as “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” When JB said this, they turned and followed Jesus who turned around and asked them what they wanted. They said they wanted to know where he lived. He invited them to follow him and evidently spent the day with him.
Andrew was so impressed with what he had experienced that he went out and found his brother Peter so he could introduce him to Jesus. Jesus immediately renamed Peter from him previously being known as Simon. Then Jesus went up to Galilee and found Philip and Nathanael inviting them also to be his disciples. These appear to be providential meetings with the first disciples that were quite different than those described by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Matthew and Mark both speak of Peter and Andrew, James and John, being called while they were mending their nets on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Presumably, they had been on a fishing expedition and were now simply doing some clean-up work when Jesus happened along the shore, saw them, and called them to follow. There we read that they left their nets immediately and took up with following Jesus.
Luke’s account is somewhat different again. It tells us that Peter’s call came on an occasion of Jesus speaking to crowds of people who were gathered on the beach of the Sea of Galilee. In order to have a speaking advantage Jesus asked the owner of a boat, which was Peter’s, to take it off shore a bit so he could speak to the people from there. Peter obliged. After the talk, Jesus asked Peter to launch the boat into deeper water to catch some fish. Peter resisted saying they had fished all night and caught nothing. Nevertheless, upon Jesus’ request, he responded and ended up scooping a huge quantity of fish. Peter, we read, was overwhelmed by the majesty of Jesus and felt ashamed of his sin. But Jesus told him not to be afraid and that henceforth he would be fishing for people. We read that James and John, his partners, were likewise amazed by what had happened.
What are we to make of these varied accounts?
Obviously, at least at first sight, the means by which Jesus called the first disciples appear not to be totally congruent. One explanation, of course, is that different writers have different perspectives based on the main point of what they are trying to communicate. John’s purpose is to demonstrate the deity of Jesus, the profound impact that his revelation had on his original followers. He remembers and points to decisive events in the lives of Jesus’ first followers that hi-light the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah.
Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts are similar to one another because for them, the decisive event in becoming followers of Jesus was the time Jesus came along the shore and called them to follow him. Their purpose is to demonstrate the Lordship and servant-hood of Jesus respectively. The accounts are related because they are evidently using the same source of information which serves their respective purposes. Luke, on the other hand, recounts another incident that was significant from his perspective in Peter’s calling. He is seeking to provide an accurate account of Jesus’ true humanity against the backdrop of his divinity.
If we were to try and reconstruct a chronological account of what actually took place, it might easily include all of these events in some kind of sequence. Undoubtedly, these men were among some of the first to respond to the preaching and baptism of John the Baptist. They were hungry for deeper spiritual reality. And they are there when John the Baptist points them to the significance of Jesus. These are introductory days of connection with Jesus. Their relationship with him has elements of both crisis and process.
One of those critical meetings had to do with Jesus’ call to them while they were still fishermen. But even then, their response may have involved a process. Certainly, the addition of Luke’s account regarding Peter’s experience on the Sea of Galilee seems to demonstrate that. It might have occurred before or after the net-mending call described by Matthew and Mark. But all of these accounts seem to demonstrate that the calling of the first disciples was both decisive and progressive. These stories, taken separately, teach us that Jesus’ call still follows a similar pattern. There is some initial exposure to Jesus — his love and truth — before a more personal experience of his call in our lives.
I love this story in the Gospels of the first disciples’ call because for one thing, it demonstrates the authenticity of these accounts and the Scriptures. But I also love these stories because, taken together, they show a marvelous pattern of God’s providential work to draw people to himself. It is something to remember as we live out our faith in relation to family and friends. Through prayer and providential meetings, God is able to still work in amazing ways to bring people to himself. ed