Bad hermeneutics and the calling of the Disciples

By David A. Liapis

Thoughts on Matthew 4:18-22

It is important to read the parallel passages in the other Gospels regarding the calling of the first Disciples as each one reveals additional facts. For example, Mark’s accounting is almost word-for-word the same as Matthew’s except that he adds that James and John were in their boat mending the nets along with their father and their hired servants. This addition of the servants doesn’t do a whole lot to change or enhance our understanding of the story except that it shows the “Sons of Thunder” were involved in a what appears to be a successful fishing business and that what they left to follow Jesus was more than just a hard, minimum-wage job. Rather, they left a lucrative family business and what they could have gained financially. They also left their father in a lurch, which might have been viewed as rude at best, and dishonoring at worst. Thus, when they “left everything and followed” Jesus, it was much more significant than if they had been poor fishermen looking for a new line of work, as they are sometimes depicted.

Luke’s account and the additional details he includes about Jesus’ actions and teachings before the disciples are called also contradicts some common descriptions of the event. Some preachers have relied only on Matthew and Mark’s accounts, making the point that these fishermen up and left everything the first time they encountered Jesus. “Oh, how impressive Jesus must have been to them that they would leave everything to follow this stranger,” some have said. However, Luke paints a completely different picture. By the time Jesus called his first disciples, he had not only been baptized and tempted (as both Matthew and Mark include), he had preached in Nazareth and proclaimed Isaiah 61 to have been fulfilled, healed a demon-possessed man, healed Simon’s mother-in-law and many others, and preached in the synagogues of Judea. On top of that, Luke’s accounting of the calling of the first disciples has Jesus preaching to large crowds and using Simon’s boat to teach from, and then instructing the fishermen, who had a poor night of fishing, to cast their nets. The resulting catch was so significant Simon fell to his knees recognizing Jesus’ power as God. It’s with this background and past interaction with Jesus that these men willingly followed him when called.

One fact Matthew and Mark record is that John the Baptist was arrested either during or very shortly after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and before the Disciples’ calling. Luke and John don’t include this detail, but John actually includes quite a bit more information about the first Disciples – information that is difficult to reconcile with the synoptic timelines. John records that Andrew, Simon’s brother, was a disciple of John the Baptist. On a number of occasions, John the Baptist proclaims that Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Andrew hears this and actually leaves John at one point in order to follow Jesus. Andrew then goes and tells his brother, Simon Peter, that he has found the Messiah and brings Peter to him. The next day, John tells us, Jesus called Philip and Nathanael.

Here one of the issues that arise between John and the Synoptics becomes evident. First, John the Baptist’s arrest does not happen for a while longer as he appears at the end of John chapter three baptizing near Aenon. Secondly, Jesus’ turning water into wine at Cana is believed to be his first miracle. Thirdly, Jesus is said to have had disciples (John 2:21) when he cleansed the temple during the Passover. If John’s rendering of the first months of Jesus’ ministry are taken literally, since John the Baptist has yet to be arrested, it would seem to mean Peter was already a follower of Christ when he was called in Matthew, Mark and Luke. This creates an issue for the way many have interpreted the timing and nature of the calling of the first Disciples. While this does not ultimately undermine the authority of Scripture in that there are no actual contradictions, nor does it affect any doctrines, it does however show the importance of looking at the Gospels in parallel so sermon points are not based on erroneous interpretations of timelines or background information.

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