Many who read the calling of Jesus’ first disciples tend to gloss over it. At first glance, these accounts appear trivial in comparison to Jesus’ overall ministry of healing and inclusion of the marginalized, his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
But either the calling of Jesus’ first disciples tells us nothing…or it tells us something.
Let’s take a look at Matthew 4:18-22. This short narrative simply tells us that Jesus walked alongside the Sea of Galilee and saw two brothers Simon Peter and Andrew throwing their fishing nets into the water. Jesus makes a single statement: “Come, follow me…and I’ll show you how to fish for people” (Matt 4:19, CEB). The next verse reads, “Right away, they left their nets and followed him” (4:20). If we’re honest, this is a seemingly mundane text that beckons little reflection.
The text continues. As if a single, mundane scenario wasn’t enough, a similar narrative follows for a different set of brothers: James and his brother John. They, too, were in a fishing boat – this time with their father. At the end of verse 21 we read: “Jesus called them and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (vv. 21-22). Both of these episodes appear rather straightforward and empty of significance. Many will read this text and move on seamlessly.
However, I would encourage anyone who identifies as a follower of Jesus or is considering what it means to follow Jesus to slow down, read, and re-read this passage. For this passage contains paramount implications of what it means to actually follow Jesus.
First, that Jesus says little more than “Come, follow me…and I’ll show you how to fish for people” reveals the fishermen’s recognition of Jesus’ authority. Followers of Jesus heed this authority with obedient action. But because the chapters of our lives are not summed up in short five-verse passages, we walk this obedience amidst various challenges, questions, and heartaches. So whether in the biblical text or the messy reality of life and society, the bottom line is this: Jesus followers follow Jesus out of the recognition of his authority. And we do so while saying “no” to competing authorities.
Second, that Jesus targets two sets of brothers as his first disciples suggests his interest in the family unit for his mission. Jesus is doing something new with humanity and he involves the family unit in this process. I say this as an Evangelical who believes the gospel inherently concerns matters of social justice: it is not only about right-relatedness “out there” in society, but it is also about right-relatedness “in here” at our dinner tables. It is both! As Rev. Dr. King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!” So Jesus is reorienting and restoring humanity, and he uses the family unit toward this larger mission.
Third, Jesus reorients the vocational course of his followers. To inject words like “vocation” or “career” into the ancient world would be anachronistic. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people didn’t have multiple trades or “careers” to pursue. A person did one or two things well for most of her/his life. It may be more accurate to say people had a means of survival rather than a “career” of choice. For these fishermen, dropping their nets and leaving their boats may be analogous to closing your Macbook and abandoning your desk at the one job you’ve invested in for years. Following Jesus disrupts our purpose and vocation in the world. In America, where much of our identity is constructed based on how we make money (and how much), this can be a real hindrance to following Jesus.
These implications for life change are amplified when framed in the proper context of the preceding verse. Right before Jesus called his first disciples, he makes the familiar announcement: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17). Repent simply means to turn around, to change, to do things differently in light of God’s reigning presence amongst humanity. The Common English Bible (CEB) captures the Greek word for “repent” in fresh and accessible ways: “Change your hearts and lives!” To repent is to “change our hearts and lives!”
Jesus makes this announcement to change your hearts and lives in verse 17 and then goes on to call his first disciples by inviting them to literally change their hearts and lives in verses 18-22! Although only five verses long in the Gospel of Matthew, the calling of Jesus’ first disciples implies profound life-changes for us who have said “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to “Come, follow me.”