When, Where, and How Did Jesus Call His First Disciples?

John 1:35-51 says:

  • 2 followers of John the Baptist (one was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, and the other is unnamed) start following Jesus after John the Baptist points Him out and testifies of Him (Jn. 1:35-40).
  • Andrew brings Simon Peter to Jesus, and Jesus tells him that he will be called Cephas (Jn. 1:41-42).
  • The following day, Jesus tells Philip to follow Him (Jn. 1:43).
  • Then, Philip brought Nathanael, who is initially skeptical, but later believes Jesus after meeting Him (Jn. 1:44-51).
  • Summary: First, Andrew and an unnamed man (traditionally believed to be John the apostle and writer of the gospel) begin following Jesus.  Then, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael follow Him, in that order.  Thus, five men begin following Him.

Matthew and Mark write:

  • Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, sees Simon and Andrew in a fishing boat, and tells them to follow Him to become fishers of men.  They immediately left their nets to follow. (Mt. 4:18-20; Mk. 1:16-18)
  • Jesus walked further, and there saw James and John in a fishing boat.  He called them and they also immediately followed Him. (Mt. 4:21-22; Mk. 1:19-20) 

Luke writes:

  • Jesus taught a crowd of people near the Sea of Galilee (also known as, “Lake of Gennesaret,”). (Lk. 5:1)
  • After seeing two boats, He sat down in the one belonging to Simon. (Lk. 5:2-3)
  • After teaching, Jesus told Simon to try fishing again. (Previously, they had not caught anything.)  Simon was hesitant, but still followed. (Lk. 5:4-5)
  • Simon, his unnamed partner, James, and John caught a miraculous number of fish. (Lk. 5:6-7)
  • Simon fell down in awe to worship Jesus, and Jesus told him that he will now catch men, instead of fish. (Lk. 5:8-10)
  • After bringing in their boats, all of them “forsook all and followed Him.” (Lk. 5:11) 

In comparing the four gospel writers, it is clear that John’s account speaks of a different instance than that of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, because so many of John’s details are mutually exclusive to the other gospels.  Therefore, John provides us with the very first encounter Jesus has with five of His disciples: (1) Andrew, (2) Simon Peter, (3) Philip, (4) Nathanael, and (5) an unnamed disciple traditionally believed to be John. 

They followed Him in some capacity, but after returning to Galilee, they went back to fishing (something they also do after Jesus is resurrected, as John records in ch. 21 of his gospel).  And while later fishing in the Sea of Galilee, four of these five early disciples (Andrew, Simon Peter, and John), along with John’s brother, James, start following Jesus in a more committed sense when Jesus calls them again. 

This second calling is described by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, though Luke’s gospel has a completely different focus than that of Matthew and Mark.  I believe all 3 gospel writers refer to the same event in their accounts, because:

  1. Luke describes them as leaving “everything” to follow Jesus after the event (Lk. 5:11).  And Matthew and Mark tell us, “they immediately left their nets…they left the boat and their father…and followed Him,” (Mt. 4:20-22; Mk. 1:18-20).  If these were two separate events, it seems unthinkable that they would leave “fishing” to follow Him only to be found fishing a short time later. 
  2. The characters are the same in all accounts: (1) Simon Peter, (2) John, (3) James, and (4) Andrew (though Andrew is unnamed by Luke, but can be inferred in Lk. 5:7 when he tells us that Simon Peter had someone else with him in the boat).
  3. The phraseology is similar in both accounts.  Luke records Jesus saying to Simon, “From now on you will catch men,” (Luke 5:10), and Matthew and Mark record Jesus saying to Simon (and Andrew), “I will make you fishers of men,” (Mt. 4:19; Mk. 1:17).
  4. Both accounts record this incident happening early in Jesus’ Galilean ministry, around the time He moves to Capernaum.

In harmonizing these different versions of the same story, I believe the events of Luke 5:1-5 happened before Matthew and Mark begin their account (which parallels the order of events in John 21’s recounting of a similar episode). 

Thus

  • John records Jesus’ first calling of five followers
  • Luke records the full event of Jesus’ second calling of four followers with a special focus on Peter
  • Matthew and Mark record an abbreviated version of this second calling

This interpretation is bolstered by the following points:

  1. Though John does not record the disciples fishing when Jesus calls them, he does tell us that Simon and Andrew originally come from Bethsaida, which means “Fishtown,” (John 1:44, see D.A. Carson’s Commentary on Matthew), and records seven disciples fishing after Jesus was resurrected, including Simon, Nathanael, and the sons of Zebedee (John and James), three of whom were present at Jesus’ first calling of disciples (see John 21).  Thus, John is clearly aware of the early disciples being fishermen, and sees no problem with them fishing after Jesus originally called them, all of which are compatible with Jesus’ second calling of disciples as described by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
  2. In Luke 5:1-2, Jesus is clearly captivating the attention of a large crowd while He is teaching, and is doing this in the vicinity of Simon, Andrew, John, and James.  Yet, we read that they all, “were washing their nets,” (Luke 5:2).  Their choosing to fish instead of listening to Jesus’ preaching is all the more peculiar when considering how eagerly they permit Jesus to use their boats (see Luke 5:3), and obey His words, even when they seemed outrageous (see Luke 5:4-5).  Such activity makes the most sense if these men had already developed a certain familiarity with Jesus (to the point where they felt comfortable fishing while He was speaking, and He felt comfortable casually asking to use their boat), as well as respect and awe of Him (to the point that they willingly obey His words), yet not to the point where they gave up their trade to follow Him.  All of these circumstances point to the truthfulness of John’s record of Jesus’ first calling of the disciples, as well as the truthfulness of the other three gospels in recording Jesus’ second–more committed–calling of the disciples.
  3. In light of the disciples making such radical decisions to completely and instantly follow Jesus (cf. Matt. 19:27), as is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ calling, it is very plausible to assume that they were formerly familiar with Jesus.  This is seen when comparing their accounts with John’s gospel.  Furthermore, Matthew and Mark’s account of them following Jesus instantly after He speaks to them could additionally indicate that the miracle of the catching of fish as recorded in Luke’s account (that took place shortly before this) served as an impetus, along with the Holy Spirit, for their making such a bold and seemingly rash decision (cf. Luke 14:25-33).
  4. Matt. 4:21 and Mark 1:19 say that James and John were, “mending their nets.”  The Greek word for “mending,” is katartizontas, and literally reads that they were, “restoring their net to a former condition,” (see D.A. Carson’s Commentary on Matthew). This implies that a significant event took place that required them to toil at restoring their net to the condition it was before the event occurred.  Matthew and Mark do not record such an event, but Luke records the event of their supernatural catch of fish (5:6), showing a harmony among the three accounts.

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