Question 167, from Debbie, United Kingdom
I would like to know the viewpoint of the 4 gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) when we talk about the “call of the first disciples”. What are the likenesses and differences between the 4 readings and who’s the audience?
Although there is general agreement between the Gospels that Jesus began his ministry by selecting people to become ‘disciples’, there are differences between the accounts. The version of events usually thought of as the call of the first disciples is found in Mark chapter 1 and Matthew chapter 4, where Jesus tells fishermen on the shores of Lake Galilee to leave their nets and follow him.
In John’s gospel, however, one of those fishermen, Andrew, is already John the Baptist’s disciple, and is one of two disciples who latch onto Jesus by the Jordan River after Jesus’ encounter with John and baptism (John chapter 1, verses 35-39). The author does not reveal the identity of the other disciple of John the Baptist who follows Jesus, but it has been proposed that it is John, who is traditionally ascribed authorship of the fourth gospel.
This divergence between Mark and Matthew, and John, is interesting, although attempts have been made to harmonise the different texts, for example, by suggesting Andrew following Jesus at the Jordan was later ‘made official’ in Galilee, when Jesus called him along with his brother Peter, and his business colleagues (or, perhaps rivals) James and John.
A key difference in the ‘call’ of the first disciples is in the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ natures of those who are ‘called’. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus takes the initiative, calling the disciples away from their regular lives and into following him. In John, the disciples take the initiative. Jesus asks Andrew and his unnamed comrade why they are following him. Andrew seeks out Simon Peter to tell him that he thinks he has found “the Christ” (chapter 1, verse 41). A similar action then happens with Philip, who meets Jesus and then searches out Nathanael (John chapter 1, verses 43-46).
The contrast between those for whom the call is sudden and unexpected, and those who were looking for the messiah is quite marked. John is a seeker’s gospel, which uses Gnostic and other mystical terminology. It seems quite fitting then, that in John, the disciples are looking for the messiah, that is, salvation. John is written in a way that is accessible to those looking for salvation in the various mystery cults of the time.
Mark and Matthew, however, seem to be written out of a more Jewish context, where divine revelation was a feature of belief and theology. In the Jewish tradition, God chose people, such as Abraham or Moses, so it would be only natural for God’s Son to do the choosing, rather than to be ‘discovered’ by a seeker. Like the heroes of the Jewish faith, the disciples hear the voice of God and respond.
Luke’s gospel has a different story. The event does take place in Galilee, but is accompanied by a miracle (chapter 5, verses 4-11). Additionally, Jesus had already been to Simon Peter’s house and performed a miracle of healing (chapter 4, verse 38-39). In Luke’s version, Jesus already had a relationship with the disciples and it was only later that he specifically ‘called’ them.
One aspect of Luke’s account that is different to the others is Simon Peter’s declaration that he is a sinful man and therefore unworthy of following Jesus (Luke chapter 5, verse 8). Luke possibly includes this to illustrate the need for self-awareness of one’s own sinfulness in the journey of discipleship. Jesus ignores Peter’s protestations and accepts him anyway. This is an example of Luke’s over-riding message of universal salvation that is available to any, and every, one.
There are many similarities under the surface of these stories. The main likeness is that those called followed Jesus, leaving their livelihoods and regular lives behind to become disciples. All four gospels want to make this point – and they all allude to the reason the disciples were prepared to do this: because they recognised Jesus as the Messiah.