Jesus—His Life and Message: The Disciples (Part 1)
April 28, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Disciples (Part 1)
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
After John’s arrest, Jesus returned to Galilee and at some point moved from His hometown of Nazareth to take up residence in Capernaum.
Capernaum was a town on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Lake of Gennesaret or Sea of Tiberias), about four kilometers west of where the Jordan River enters the lake. It was located along the road from the Mediterranean coast of Palestine to Damascus.
At the time of Jesus, Capernaum was a town of about 1,000–2,000 people.3 Fishing and farming were the basis of the town’s economy. There was a tax/customs booth in Capernaum, where Jesus called Levi (Matthew) to follow Him.4 The town also had the presence of a Roman centurion,5 which would indicate that there was likely a military installation of 80–100 soldiers.
Moving from the remote hill village of Nazareth to the more populated lakeside town of Capernaum put Jesus in closer proximity to other thriving villages along the coast of Lake Gennesaret. From this location, He was in a better position to speak, teach, and minister to a wider range of people, as the Jewish towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Magdala were not far away. The Hellenized city of Tiberias was nearby, but there is no mention in the Gospels of Jesus preaching there.
It was in Capernaum that Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter,6 a demon-possessed man,7 Peter’s mother-in-law,8 a paralytic,9 the centurion’s servant,10 and the woman with an issue of blood.11 Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus spoke a number of parables while there,12 as well as taught about humility, stumbling blocks, and forgiveness.13 He taught in the local synagogue,14 and it was in this synagogue where He said that unless His followers eat His flesh and drink His blood, they have no life in them—which caused many to stop following Him.15
Much later in His ministry, Jesus denounced the cities where most of His miracles had been done but which hadn’t repented. Capernaum was one of those cities:16
And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.17
Capernaum was home to a number of Jesus’ disciples, and it was there that they made their decisions to follow Him. The synoptic Gospels all tell the story of the events surrounding the decisions of Peter, Andrew, James, and John to become followers of Jesus. As explained earlier (see First Contact), the Gospel of John tells of an encounter Andrew and Peter had with Jesus in the area where John the Baptist was baptizing. John may have been describing an earlier encounter, or it may have been John’s way of giving an example of how some of Jesus’ disciples came to follow Him. An earlier encounter is how I like to see it, as it gives some added context to their immediately leaving their livelihoods upon Jesus’ call. Having already met Jesus and having had some experience with Him, makes it more plausible that they would immediately respond to His call than if a perfect stranger approached and called them to follow him.
Matthew’s Gospel tells the story like this:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 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. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.18
The Gospel of Mark adds that Zebedee had hired servants who also helped with his fishing business. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.19 Luke tells us that Peter was in partnership with James and John.20
This was the start of Jesus calling a number of people to follow Him. His calling had similarities to how Jewish teachers (rabbis) had students (known as talmidim) who often traveled with, lived with, and imitated their teacher. They learned not only from what their teacher said, but from what he did. The task of these followers was to become as much like the teacher as possible.21 The talmidim, having chosen their teacher, dedicated themselves to intense study of the law and their teacher’s interpretation of it.
While there were similarities between the typical Jewish students and Jesus’ disciples, there were also differences. Jewish students sought out their teacher, rather than the teacher choosing the students. But Jesus called His disciples; they didn’t come to Him and ask if they could study under His teaching. Jesus’ goal with His disciples wasn’t for them to learn and transmit His teachings of the Law in the manner of Jewish rabbis, but rather to share in His life and ministry and to come to a new understanding of Scripture based on their knowledge of Him.22
The rabbis did not call their disciples but were chosen by them because they saw their teachers as guides to following the Torah [Old Testament Scripture]. Jesus’ calling is not to the Torah but to Himself.23
He was calling them to undergo a transformation process. By coming with Him, learning from Him, remaining in His presence, in time they would learn to become fishers of men, which would be a radical break from their present occupation as fishermen.
Jesus’ call wasn’t without consequences. “Come and follow Me” meant leaving some things behind.—Their nets, boats, business, livelihood, and for James and John, their father. Answering the call was economically costly. These men were not poor. They were involved in a family business, and in the case of the Zebedees, the business was large enough that it necessitated some extra hired help. One author comments:
We know that fishermen were indeed regular targets of tax collectors since they had to sell their product quickly and so dealt more often in money rather than relying on the bartering system. If it is true that the Sea of Galilee was famous for being teeming with fish, it would appear that one could have had a reasonably prosperous business as a fisherman.24
The cost of following wasn’t only financial. Besides leaving their livelihood, James and John left their father. While Jesus upheld the importance of honoring one’s parents25 and didn’t downplay the importance of caring for one’s family, At the same time, God’s call requires true disciples to value the demands of God’s kingdom—announcing its good news—more highly than the public shame it brings on their families or the way they feel toward that shame.26
Elsewhere in the Gospels, it’s clear that the disciples remained connected to their families and perhaps to some extent their family business. Jesus and His disciples returned to Capernaum on a regular basis.27 Peter lived there in a house with his wife and mother-in-law. And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him.28 The apostle Paul wrote of Peter (Cephas) and the other apostles traveling with their wives. Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?29 James’ and John’s mother was involved in Jesus’ ministry and was present at His crucifixion.30
Throughout the Gospels we read of Jesus and His disciples regularly traveling by boat in the Sea of Galilee.31 After His death, Jesus appeared to Peter and some of the other disciples by the lake.
Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore.32
Peter taking the others fishing in the boat, and all of the other times Jesus and His disciples were in a boat, could indicate that Peter and/or others of Jesus’ disciples had ready access to such a vessel—possibly one of the boats from their joint fishing enterprise with Zebedee.
Though they stayed connected to their families, the disciples had a major change of lifestyle. Their focus became being part of Jesus’ community, being taught by Him, assisting Him in His ministry, and learning to become fishers of men. They spent substantial time away from their families, traveling around Galilee with Jesus during the years of His ministry.
Besides the call of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, we are also told of Philip and Nathanael initially meeting Jesus33 and of Levi/Matthew’s call to discipleship. The call to Matthew is similar to that of the two sets of brothers, in that the call was given and the response was immediate.
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.34
While Jesus had many other disciples, the gospel writers seem to have seen no need to tell the story of how each one came to know and follow Him. In the specific instances they wrote about, we see the immediate response of those called and the radical change it brought about in their lives. From this we understand that following Jesus calls for more than just assent of the heart—it requires commitment. By their actions, these first disciples set the example of discipleship, of the willingness to sacrifice in order to follow Jesus. They repurposed their lives by changing their priorities. They no longer served their own interests, but focused on the interests of the one who called them to follow Him. This would have held true for all of the disciples who followed Jesus during His lifetime.
Jesus’ call to these men wasn’t only a call to belief, it was also a call to action—to follow Him, to allow Him to make them into those who would “fish for people,” who would change hearts and lives. The call to God’s service, to follow Jesus, wasn’t given only two millennia ago. He gives the same call to believers today. The question is: do we answer it? Are we willing to orient ourselves, our lives, our actions, our hearts, toward Him? Are we willing to apply His teachings in our daily lives? Are we fishing for those who are searching for Him? If we are disciples, the answer is yes.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Carson, D. A., Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the Word. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.
Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.
Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.
Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.
Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.
Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.
Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.
Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.
Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.
Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Stein, Robert H. Mark. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.
Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.
Witherington III, Ben. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.
Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.
1 Matthew 4:13.
2 Mark 2:1.
3 C. H. Miller and J. L. Reed, “Capernaum,” in M. A. Powell (ed.), The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 121.
4 And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him (Matthew 9:1,9). See also Mark 2:1,13–14.
5 After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:1–5).
6 Matthew 9:18–26; Mark 5:21–43; Luke 8:41–56.
7 Mark 1:21–28.
8 Matthew 8:14–15.
9 Matthew 9:2–8; Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:17–20.
10 Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10.
11 Mark 5:24–34.
12 Matthew 13.
13 Matthew 18.
14 Mark 1:21.
15 John 6:59–66.
16 The other two nearby cities which Jesus condemned were Chorazin and Bethsaida. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (Matthew 11:21–22).
17 Matthew 11:23–24.
18 Matthew 4:18–22.
19 Mark 1:20.
20 Luke 5:10.
21 Spangler/Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, 51.
22 Guelich, World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26, 51.
23 Stein, Mark, 169.
24 Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 84.
25 Matthew 15:3–6.
26 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 154.
27 Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 85. See Matthew 8:1–5; 17:24; Mark 2:1; 9:33; Luke 4:31; 7:1; John 2:11–12; 6:16–17.
28 Matthew 8:14–15.
29 1 Corinthians 9:5.
30 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:20–21).
There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:55–56).
31 Matthew 15:39, 8:23, Mark 3:9, 4:1, 35–36, 5:21, 6:31–32, 8:10, 13–14.
32 John 21:3–4.
34 Matthew 9:9. See also Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27–28.