The Gospels contain records of Jesus calling his disciples that can be very confusing. The key to understanding Jesus’ calling of his disciples is to read all four Gospels, and then we can piece the records together. It is also important to have some knowledge of the first-century culture, especially the rabbinic practices. The four Gospel records we will compare are: Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:4-11; and John 1:29-2:2.
The record in Matthew shows that Jesus’ calling of the disciples can be confusing.
18) And walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers—Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother—casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.
19) And he says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
20) And they immediately left the nets and followed him.
21) And going on from there he saw two other brothers—James the son of Zebedee and John his brother—in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.
22) And immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
This behavior of Peter, Andrew, James, and John just dropping their fishing gear and immediately following Jesus seems abrupt, possibly even reckless. If we start reading at Matthew 1:1, and read until 4:20 and 4:22 when the disciples left their work and followed Jesus, it seems Jesus had never met those four men before. It seems unreasonable that just because a rabbi, even a powerful one, said “Follow me,” that someone would immediately leave their profession.
The key to understanding Matthew (and Mark and Luke) is to read it in the context of all four Gospels and pay close attention to the details. When we read all four Gospels, we see that Peter, Andrew, James, and John knew Jesus. In fact, not only did they know him well, they were already his disciples when he called them from their boats. Actually, as this study develops, we will see that he called them from their boats on two different occasions. The key to the records in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is the Gospel of John.
Andrew and Peter were brothers, and were deeply spiritual men, something that is obvious from reading John 1. Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist before he ever met Jesus (John 1:35-40). That speaks volumes about Andrew. As a disciple, not just a “listener” or someone in John’s audience, Andrew understood the message of the Baptist, which included that the Messiah was coming soon. Of course there would have been many things John taught about the spiritual situation of the times, and so Andrew would have seen through the religiosity and corruption of the spiritually bankrupt Pharisees and Sadducees. John the Baptist’s opinion of those religious leaders is clear from when he met them because he called them “offspring of vipers” (Matt. 3:8). Furthermore, John would have taught his disciples much more about the truth and error of the religious system of his time. The Four Gospels do not say much about the teaching of John, which is understandable since the Gospels are about Jesus, not John. What is clear though is that John was a great prophet, and since his followers were actual “disciples,” John would have taught the truth on many different subjects.
One of the great truths that John would have taught his disciples was that he was the forerunner of the Messiah who was to come shortly. When asked who he was, John said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23, a quotation of Isaiah 40:3). In this context, the “way of the Lord” is a metaphor, in which the “way” refers to the road the Lord would travel on. As well as referring to the “way” (manner) in which something was done, in both Hebrew and Greek the word “way” referred to a “road” just like the word “way” in the USA is used to designate a small road. The tradition in the Middle East was that roads were fixed up (“made straight”) for passing dignitaries. Shortly before a king or dignitary would travel, a messenger would go out and tell people to “make straight the way” of the king, and people would come out and fix up the road. However, because the roads deteriorated quickly, there was no need to repair them until just before the arrival of the dignitary. The fact that John declared that he was the voice who shouted to repair the road of the Lord meant the Lord would come on the scene shortly after he did. Of course John did not tell people to fix the roads Jesus traveled on, rather, John told people to fix themselves and the culture so they were ready for the arrival of the Lord.
When John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “Look!, the Lamb of God,” (John 1:36), Andrew believed his teacher. But before going to Jesus, he first went and got his bother Peter and said, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:42). Then Peter and Andrew both went to Jesus, who immediately changed Peter’s name from “Simon” to “Rock” (“Cephas” in Aramaic, “Peter” in Greek; John 1:42). In the biblical culture, when a person changed someone’s name, it meant that he had some kind of control over the person’s life. We see this practice in the Old Testament where God, as well as other rulers, changed people’s names. For example, Abram to Abraham (Gen. 17:5); Sarai to Sarah (Gen. 17:15); Jacob to Israel (Gen. 32:28); Joseph to Zaphenath-Paneh (Gen. 41:45); Eliakim to Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34); Mattaniah to Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:17); Pashhur to Magor-Missabib (Jer. 20:3); Daniel to Belteshazzar (Dan. 1:7). That Peter would accept what Andrew said and also immediately accept the new name Jesus gave him shows us that Peter was a deeply spiritual man too, and immediately willing to become a disciple of Jesus.
The next day Philip and Nathanial began to follow Jesus, along with Andrew and Peter, and this was before John was arrested and before Jesus started ministering in Galilee (John 1:43-51). This is important because it shows that Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanial were “following” Jesus, and even believed he was the Messiah before John was arrested, which was before Jesus called them from their boats the first time (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20). Jesus called the disciples from their boats after John was arrested, so they had already been following Jesus for some time (Matt. 4:12-22). The record shows us that Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanial were following Jesus, and we can also assume that since James and John were business partners with Peter and Andrew, and also deeply spiritual men, they believed what Peter and Andrew said about Jesus.
But if Peter and Andrew were following Jesus before John was arrested, why were they fishing when Jesus called them? In the biblical culture a person could be a disciple or follower of a rabbi without giving up his occupation. Although some men were full-time disciples, discipleship often did not require that. For example, Andrew was a disciple of John (John 1:35-37) but still made a living as a fisherman, which is what he was doing when Jesus called him (Matt. 4:18). Chronologically then, Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanial first became aware that Jesus was the Messiah and became his disciples while they were in Bethany beyond Jordan where John was baptizing, and yet they still worked for a living. This was before Jesus lived in Galilee. Then, after Jesus moved to Capernaum (Matt. 4:14), Jesus called them to intensify their discipleship with him, which they did (Matt. 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20). Jesus told them “Follow me, and I will make [future tense] you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19; cp. Mark 1:17). Even after this calling to more intense discipleship, however, they still continued to fish for a living.
The final time Jesus called Peter and the other fishermen is recorded in Luke 5:1-11. This record is significantly different from the records in Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee and Peter and the others were in the boats fishing or washing nets. In Luke, Jesus was teaching the people and the boats were empty, while the fishermen were washing their nets from the previous night’s work. This time Jesus got into the boat with Peter, and James and John were close by, likely in another boat so they could help with the nets. This time, in Luke 5, Jesus calls the apostles from fishing to being full-time disciples. He said, “From now on you will be catching people.” Jesus’ words, “From now on” are important—they mark the start of the apostles’ full-time discipleship. So it was at this time the apostles left the fishing for fish to others and followed Jesus on a full-time basis.
This last calling of the Apostles was associated with a miracle—the catching of such a huge haul of fish that those professional fishermen were amazed. It seems certain that this miracle was designed to comfort and encourage the disciples, who had families to take care of. It seems as if God was saying by this miracle, “You can leave your human wisdom and your fishing and I will take care of you and your loved ones.” The disciples were comforted and convinced, and left their boats and equipment to the care of others while they followed Jesus.
Wisdom and logic are a part of good biblical interpretation, and they are certainly necessary when understanding the calling of the disciples. When Luke 5:11 says they “left everything and followed” Jesus, it does not mean they just walked away from the fish they had just caught, leaving them in the boats. It is a concluding statement, summarizing what happened after catching all the fish. It would have made no sense for the apostles to just abandon their boats or leave the fish to rot in the sun. The fish would have been divided up as usual to feed their families or sold so their families were provided for, and the fishing equipment would have been entrusted into the care of others. It is clear that this calling in Luke was the turning point at which those future apostles started in full-time ministry.
Even so, it is likely that these future apostles never completely left the fishing business; it seems likely that they simply handed their business over to managers or other family members so they could then follow Jesus on a full-time basis, which explains how they could go back to fishing so quickly after Jesus was crucified (John 21:3). While acquiring the boats, nets, and other equipment for successful fishing would have certainly taken at least a few weeks and perhaps longer, simply stepping back into an ongoing business would have been something they could have done easily and very quickly. This also explains the seaside setting after the resurrection when Jesus makes his final call to Peter as he is fishing. Near the shore of the Sea of Galilee Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these [fish]?” (John 21:15). Even after seeing the resurrected Messiah both individually (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5), and as part of various group appearances (cp. John 20:19ff), Peter returned to the fishing trade rather than continuing in the footsteps of Jesus and making disciples—which admittedly was a risky business. So Jesus met Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and challenged him: “Do you love me more than fishing?” Peter said “Yes,” and Jesus pressed forward, asking three times if Peter loved him, always following it with an exhortation to feed the sheep, that is, to become the shepherd for the new and at that time very confused and frightened flock of the developing church. Their conversation led to Jesus giving Peter the command, “Follow me!”
In summary, many of the apostles, certainly Peter, Andrew, Philip and Nathaniel, and likely James and John as well, became followers of Jesus before he lived in Galilee, while John the Baptist was alive. Months later, after Jesus had performed many miracles and John the Baptist had been killed, Jesus told some of the Apostles he would make them fishers of men, and their discipleship intensified. At some time after that, in Luke 5, Jesus said, “From now on you will be catching people,” and at that time the disciples started into full-time ministry. So when we study the full chronology of the calling of the Apostles, Jesus did not simply tell people who barely knew him to give up their occupations and follow him. He cultivated a relationship with his future Apostles, discipled them to some extent, and then finally called them into full-time ministry.
The full account of how Peter and Andrew came into full-time ministry is helpful to those of us today who are not aware of the customs and processes involved in becoming a disciple of Jesus, or for that matter, of any rabbi of that time period. We can see that it was not an instantaneous and mysterious event in which Jesus just said “Follow me” to total strangers who then gave up the work that supported them and their families and trotted off to follow someone they did not know. Understanding that, we should also understand that the Bible does not need to give us an account of the discipleship process of all the Apostles. For example, we do not know how Matthew became a disciple of Jesus, but we know by custom and logic that it was not magical or mystical. Jesus and Matthew must have somehow developed a relationship, and then at the right time Jesus asked Matthew to follow him. The fact that the Bible does not give us the details of how Matthew became a disciple does not mean it was a mystical experience. Quite the opposite! If the process was ordinary, normal, and usual, then the Bible would not have to say anything about it because the reading audience would understand the process from their culture. However, if the calling of the disciples was mystical and unusual, then we should expect the Bible would say something about that for the benefit of the reading audience.