The calling of the first disciples in Matthew 4

This Sunday’s lectionary reading for Year A, Epiphany 3, is Matt 4.12–23. It begins the account of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, which continues until Matt 16.20 (compare ‘from that time on’ in Matt 4.17 with Matt 16.21), and now Jesus takes centre stage as the main actor in the drama. But from the beginning, he does not act alone, but calls a community of disciples to himself, and in Matthew they are with him throughout—until he is deserted in Matt 26.56.

Mark’s account of the start of Jesus’ ministry is quite stark and factual—but Matthew makes it more specific and personal. His ministry begins, not merely ‘after John was arrested’ (Mark 1.14), but ‘when he [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested’. We know from John 3.22 and John 4.1–3 that Jesus had spent some time in the southern area, apparently involved in ministry in parallel with John; as part of the undesigned historical coincidences in the gospels, this fits well with Matthew’s depiction of Jesus as part of John’s renewal movement. The word translated ‘withdrew to Galilee’ (ἀναχωρέω, anachoreo) can in fact mean ‘return to’, but Matthew typically uses it to refer to an escape from danger (as in Matt 2.12, 2.14, 2.22, 14.13). The movement from the danger of Herod Antipas in the South back to Galilee echoes the journey he took with his family when they first came back from Egypt.

Matthew gives us more geographic detail than Mark, though adapts it to suit his purposes. Nazareth was then a small village, whereas Capernaum was in a busy fishing area and on a trade route around the ‘sea’ of Galilee (which Luke corrects to being a ‘lake’), and at that time had a population of at least 10,000 according to archaeological excavations of the site. So it was a natural centre for a ministry which would have an impact on the whole area; it had its own centurion (Matt 8.9) who would have overseen a wide area, as Roman troops were spread comparatively thinly, as well as its own custom post (Matt 9.9) indicating its importance for trade.

The tribal areas of Zebulun and Naphtali covered lower Galilee from the Mediterranean across to Lake Galilee, and in fact Nazareth was in the former region and Capernaum in the latter (these tribal designations were not of much practical use by this era). But Matthew conflates the two to match his next ‘fulfilment’ proof, the longest so far. Matthew only ever mentions the specific writer when citing Isaiah and Jeremiah, and here he has abbreviated the text, which is closer to the Hebrew than the Greek, but does not exactly follow either—with a resulting focus on the geographical reality by ending with a string of place references.

Within the source text in Isaiah, the areas of Zebulun and Naphtali appear to be contrasted with the ‘way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles’ which would naturally be taken to refer to the area to the east of the lake. But, as previously, Matthew doesn’t adapt his history to fit the text, but the other way around; the ‘way of the sea’ (in Latin, the Via Maris) no longer refers to the Mediterranean, but Galilee, and we note Capernaum is ‘by the sea’; and ‘beyond the Jordan’ now means beyond from the vantage point of John’s ministry on the east bank, so that it is on the west! This part of Galilee did indeed have a very mixed population; although Capernaum was Jewish, the bigger towns of Sepphoris and Tiberias were Hellenistic as evidenced by the remains of their buildings and layout. Although Matthew emphasises that Jesus ministry is to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 15.24), the fact that the ‘light’ of his ministry first shines in the land ‘of the Gentiles’—in contrast to the darkness of opposition and betrayal when he reaches Jerusalem—gives us another hint of where the story will end up.

The fact that Matthew uses aorist (past) tenses—the people have seen a great light—shows that he believes that this text has been fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus. In Matt 4.16 the light has ‘dawned’ or ‘risen’, different from Isa 9.2 ‘shone’, perhaps reminding us of the star which has ‘risen’ and guided the Gentile magi to Jesus in chapter 2. The wider context of Isa 9 includes the celebration that ‘unto us a child is born, a son is given’ which we associate indelibly with Christmas because of Handel’s Messiah—but which, remarkably, is cited nowhere in the New Testament!

The connections with the earlier chapters of Matthew continue in the description of his preaching, where the content of his proclamation exactly match that of John the Baptist in Matt 3.2.

The account of Jesus calling the first disciples matches almost word for word the parallel account in Mark 1.16–20. ‘Simon’ was one of the commonest names at the time (along with Jesus, Joseph, John and Levi), and so he is distinguished from others by his nickname, which Matthew assumes he has already been given; we hear of an earlier meeting and the giving of this appellation in John 1. By contrast with the Jewish name Simon, his brother has a Greek name, Andrew, reflecting the mixed Jewish/Gentile culture of the area. Although settled in (Jewish) Capernaum (Matt 8.14), it appear that the family originated from (Gentile) Bethsaida (John 1.44). The early followers of Jesus were clearly of mixed pedigree!

It seems slightly off that both Matthew and Mark note the detail that Simon and Andrew were throwing a casting-net (amphiblestron; see on the right a modern example I spotted in our restaurant in Dubrovnik last year) into the sea ‘for they were fishermen’; is there some significance to the specific action? Apparently so, and the relation between their fishing for fishing and the call to fish for men has both theological and personal significance. In a fascinating reflection derived from Peter Leithart, Chad Bird notes the symbolic significance of fish in relation to God’s call on Israel and the nations:

Throughout the Old Testament, fish, great sea creatures, the sea and raging rivers were all emblematic of the Gentile world. For instance, deliverance from “the waters” is deliverance from “foreigners” (Ps. 144:7). The thundering of the Gentiles is like the thundering and roaring of the seas (Isa. 17:12). Gentile kingdoms and their rulers were likened to great oceanic creatures like legendary Rahab (Dan. 7; Isa. 51:9). Even in the New Testament, John echoes this imagery when he says “the waters” are “the peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (Rev. 17:15).

He goes on to see the symbolic significance of fishing as further hints towards the ultimate reach of Jesus’ good news about the kingdom of heaven:

When Jesus called his disciples, his choice of several fishermen—and the context in which they were called—was not by chance. They let down their nets into the deep and caught so many fish that their nets were breaking. Jesus told them not to fear. From now on they would be “catching men” (Luke 5:11). In Matthew, Jesus calls them “fishers of men” (4:19). These new 12 patriarchs, the apostles, would not be conquering Gentile nations with the sword as did Israelite tribes of old, but would be fishing for Gentiles in the “seas” of the nations, using the net of the Gospel (cf. Matt. 28:18-20).

But this transformative call would change the individuals involved as much as it would change the vocation of Israel. Mike Higton of Durham University wrote a short theology of higher education a few years ago in a Grove Ethics booklet (and later a longer book I think). He draws a parallel between the process of education and the call the first disciples experienced as they went about their business as fishermen on Lake Galilee:

Jesus sees what these two men currently are, and calls them to a transformation—to a strange fulfilment of what they are. They are fishermen (halieis), but he calls them to becomefishermen (halieis anthropon: fishers of people, ‘fishers of men’ in an older translations). Simon and Andrew respond by leaving what they are, and beginning their journey towards this mysterious fulfilment—towards what they will be. They become, in that moment, disciples. They become learners. This is already clearly not about their desire to accumulatesome extra information, or gain some skills. It is about a deep re-making of what they are—a process that will engage with the selves they are now, and which will lead towards the transfiguration of those selves. They are captivated by the possibility of transformation. (p 4)

Although it is unlikely that this was the first encounter between Jesus and those he called, Matthew, like Mark, emphasises the immediacy and urgency of their response, something also echoed in the longer account in Luke 5. In Jewish etiquette, a disciple was expected to literally walk behind the rabbi, and Jesus’ call to them—more a demand than an invitation—is literally to ‘come behind me’. Yet Jesus is very far from a conventional rabbi, not least in choosing his disciples rather than letting them choose him, something that ends up being of key theological significance (John 15.16). His summons is more like that of a prophet than a rabbi (compare the call of Elijah on Elisha in 1 Kings 19.19–21).

And it is striking that, in Matthew, contrasting both John and Luke, the disciples continue to be associated closely with Jesus throughout his ministry.

From this point on we shall not read stories about Jesus alone, but stories about Jesus and his disciples. Wherever he goes, they will go; their presence with Jesus, even if not explicitly mentioned, is assumed. While the Twelve will not be formally listed until Matthew 10.1–4, the stories from here on will assume a wider group of disciples than just these first four. They will be the primary audience for his teaching (Matt 5.1–2) and witnesses of his works of power, but they are also called to be his active helpers in he task of ‘fishing for people’… Until [Matt 26.56], Matthew’s story is not only that of the Messiah, but also of the messianic community which is being formed around him. (R T France, Matthew NICNT p 145).

The illustration at the top is another of the mosaics from Ravenna. It forms part of an early and stable iconographic tradition that Peter had blond curly hair—which rather undermines racial stereotypical depictions of the disciples.

For an exploration of all these issues, join James and Ian as they discuss them here:

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9 thoughts on “The calling of the first disciples in Matthew 4”

  1. Each of the four gospels includes the calling of Jesus’ first disciples; the Synoptic Gospels. As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, called Peter and his brother Andrew.

  2. Regarding Jesus’ participation in whatever form in John’s ministry before John is taken away, it is perhaps significant that when Jesus is challenged about the source of his authority the immediate rejoinder question from Jesus is ‘Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ (Matthew 21:25 and in Mark and Luke as well). Is he drawing another close identification/continuation between the two ministries here? It is surely not a random question that Jesus asks them, perhaps from many ‘hardies’ that he could have lobbed at the chief priests and the elders? (PS Thanks for the blog and discussion – great!)

    • Peter, what a really interesting observation! That had not occurred to me before! Of course.

      I am still taken with the other connection, which only occurred to me when preparing for the video, which is the link between Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah ‘those who dwell in darkness’ and the Benedictus in Luke 1.79. I guess some commentator on Luke must have noticed this…but not me.

  3. Thanks Ian. Another thought from your dialogue was that sometimes we hear that Jesus promised us the kingdom but we got the church. Your framing the announcing of the kingdom as also the beginning of the community of Jesus actually underscores that there is not really one without the other. The other lectionary reading from 1 Corinthians 1 shows that the reality of being that community under Jesus’ lordship is sometimes pretty messy requiring ongoing sorting, metanoia, reconciliation and commitment to love.

    • Thanks—that is really helpful as a crystallisation. I slightly hesitate though to say ‘we got the church’ since the word implies institutions and buildings. We got the ekklesia, the community of faith and repentance gathered around Messiah!

      • Yes agreed. The quoted comment obviously meant to convey in a wry way some sort of disappointment in the outcome of the announcement of the kingdom come. Perhaps the highs and lows, the realities, of the experience of this gathered community around Christ – and you seem to have a few critical issues in the C of E at moment – are indications of the now and not yet nature of both kingdom and church.

  4. Is there a source for Capernaum having a population of 10,000?

    I referred to Jesus’ move to a larger population centre this morning and I’m afraid that the historian in my congregation rather scoffed at the suggestion that Capernaum was a place of any significance…!

    • Well, Michael, it looks like we might have let you down! I am not sure where I picked up the 10,000 figure from. I have checked and it looks like it should be 1,500! Though there is some debate about this.

      But actually the point still holds. That is comparatively big; villages like Bethelehem would have been about 200–250. Nazareth was even smaller. Hope that helps.


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