Just before He began His public ministry, Jesus began calling a group of men to be His disciples, or students. What can we learn from their calling?
After His temptation in the wilderness, Jesus began calling a group of men to be His disciples. What can we learn from the way Jesus selected this small group of ordinary men? What did it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
What can the calling of the original disciples teach us about being a disciple of Christ today?
What is a disciple?
The word disciple comes from the Greek word mathetes. The word means a pupil or a student of a teacher. In ancient times, a disciple was not merely a student, but was also a follower. Disciples were students who committed themselves to not just learning what their teacher taught, but following how the teacher lived.
Jesus had two kinds of disciples—a larger and a smaller group. Disciples in the larger group did not follow Him everywhere He went, but they would often gather to hear Him speak or watch Him heal (Luke 6:17; 19:37). The smaller group of committed disciples traveled with Him and dedicated their lives full-time to being His pupils. Of these, a core group of men were nicknamed “the twelve” (Mark 4:10).
Discipleship was a common form of education in the ancient world, especially among the Jews. Some parents would seek out a rabbi of high reputation and send their son to learn from him. This was how Saul of Tarsus was educated in his youth (Acts 22:3).
A committed disciple would spend the majority of his time with the teacher—and would learn by listening to the teacher’s discourses, asking questions and observing the teacher’s example. The disciple was also expected to eventually pass what he learned on to others.
Jesus individually selected His disciples to follow Him as full-grown men. He then gave them a unique and intense training at His side.
Jesus’ first three disciples
We read of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples in John 1.
Jesus was near the Jordan River, where His cousin John the Baptist was working. Upon seeing Jesus, John identified Him as the Messiah (John 1:35-36).
When two of John’s disciples understood who Jesus was, they immediately began following Him. One of those young men was Andrew, the son of Jonah. The other is not named.
Christ’s disciples today are likewise required to rise above their wrong thinking and character flaws through the process of repentance and overcoming.After becoming convicted that he had found the long-awaited Messiah, Andrew sought out his brother Simon and excitedly shared the news and introduced him to Jesus (verse 41). Though Simon was intrigued, he didn’t commit to becoming a full-time disciple at this time.
The next day, Jesus called a man named Philip to “follow Me” (verse 43). Philip, like Andrew, was so excited that he found his friend Nathanael and shared the news about the Messiah’s arrival (verse 45).
Nathanael was initially skeptical. Upon hearing that Jesus came from Nazareth, he responded with prejudice, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (verse 46). Sadly, human beings often prejudge people before they even know them. But it didn’t take him long to change his perspective (verse 49).
So, it appears Jesus’ first three disciples were Andrew, Philip and Nathanael (possibly another name for Bartholomew). The disciples we know the most about were called a little later.
Jesus calls the four fishermen
After traveling north, Jesus settled in Capernaum (a fishing village on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee). It seems Jesus used the town as His base of operations (Matthew 4:13). It’s important to note that Jesus wasn’t a homeless drifter. Though He was often traveling with “nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20), it seems He had a place to go back to.
One day, Jesus was along the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee and approached four commercial fishermen: Simon and Andrew (the sons of Jonah) and James and John (the sons of Zebedee). The families of Jonah and Zebedee had formed a business partnership (Luke 5:10).
In all likelihood, these four men considered their future set—they were comfortably settled in Capernaum and worked in a business that would likely support them the rest of their days. At least one of them, Simon (Peter), had a wife and a home (Mark 1:29-30).
Jesus first approached Simon and Andrew, saying to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). Next, Jesus came to James and John, while they were mending their nets, and called them to follow Him (verses 19-20).
Though all four men accepted Christ’s calling, it seems they didn’t leave the fishing business immediately. They were still fishing a few days later, in Luke 5:1-11, and only fully walked away from the business after Jesus performed an unmistakable miracle (verses 6-7). After they “brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him” (verse 11).
But becoming a disciple was not just a calling to follow.
A calling to change
Three of these men—Peter, James and John—would become the inner core of “the twelve.” Jesus gave them special training to prepare them for the jobs He would give them.
But these men weren’t called because they were perfect. Far from it! They had many weaknesses and rough edges that would need to be changed and smoothed out over the coming years.
Peter, for example, could be impulsive, often saying things without understanding (Matthew 16:22-23; John 13:6-9; 18:10). In one stressful situation, he even resorted to lying, cursing and swearing (Matthew 26:69-74).
In fact, early on Peter tried to convince Jesus to drop him as a disciple. He saw himself as completely unworthy of this calling because of his weaknesses (Luke 5:8). (There’s no record Jesus even considered Peter’s request.)
James and John also had a violent nature that could come out when they perceived an injustice (Luke 9:54). Because of this proclivity, Jesus nicknamed them the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17).
This teaches us an important lesson about the character of Jesus Christ: He looks at people through the lens of their potential. He sees them for what they can become—not what they are when they start.
As for Simon Peter, Jesus saw how his personality could be refined and redirected toward a bold and balanced zeal for serving God. It took time for Peter to change from a brash fisherman to a “fisher of men”—but Christ never gave up on him, not even during his darkest and weakest moments.
Three lessons from the early disciples
We can learn three important lessons from the early disciples:
1. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ requires a change of thinking. This principle is very evident in Nathanael’s initial reaction to Jesus—that He couldn’t be the Messiah because nothing good could come from Nazareth. Dismissing a person because of where he or she comes from is a serious form of prejudice. But instead of rejecting Nathanael for his wrong thinking, Jesus helped him rise above it. Becoming a disciple involves changing one’s thinking and behavior—not leaving it as is.
Christ’s disciples today are likewise required to rise above their wrong thinking and character flaws through the process of repentance and overcoming.
2. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ means leaving one’s old life behind. The four fishermen had to walk away from their old lives and start new ones. They couldn’t fully commit to being Christ’s disciples and being full-time commercial fishermen.
Though God doesn’t require most people He calls to leave their career, He does require them to leave their old lives of sin and live a new way of life (Romans 6:4). The Bible calls this conversion, and it’s only possible because God looks at us through the lens of what we can become—our potential—with His help.
In order to become disciples today, individuals still have to soberly “count the cost” and consider if they are truly willing to leave their old way of life behind and follow Him (Luke 9:23; 14:28).
3. Christ calls ordinary people to eventually do an extraordinary job. None of Jesus’ first-century disciples came from the “who’s who” of Galilean society. But God often chooses to do great things through regular people. For “the twelve,” becoming disciples of Jesus was training for the work He would later have them do as apostles.
God isn’t calling the celebrities and influencers of the world (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). God calls ordinary people and gives them an extraordinary potential that is even greater than being apostles in this life—the high calling of being “kings and priests” in God’s soon-coming Kingdom (Revelation 5:10).
God is still calling disciples today. Their calling is, in many ways, similar to the calling that was extended to Philip, Nathanael, Andrew, Simon, James and John. It is a calling to learn from Jesus Christ and to . . .
Walk as He walked.