Did the Disciples Know Jesus Before He "Called" Them? - Studies in Mark, Pt. 1

This post is the beginning of a new study series that I'm going to be doing on Mark's account of the Gospel. Actually, I might consider the old post "Did Jesus Own a Home" the first of these but I wrote that about a month ago; by the way, you might want to check this out again, some more discussion is being generated from it. As I noted in a brief post yesterday, I am going to try to offer more thoughts on Mark's work more frequently on this blog. I hope this generates some good discussion. Enjoy.

When I was a child, I grew up listening to some of the great musicians of the 70’s and 80’s. One of my favorites—who I still enjoy listening to today—includes Bob Seger. Thanks to Chevy, Seger is probably best known for his hit song “Like A Rock.” And though he does have quite a repertoire of songs, his second most famous tune is “Ol’ Time Rock-n-Roll.” The lyrics say, “Just take those ol’ records off the shelf, I sit and listen to them by myself…” And though that was a long way of getting to the point here, it actually is fitting because many times when I hear preachers and read commentaries, I feel like the same ol’ record is being pulled from the shelf. This is especially true when it comes to passages like Mark 1.16-20. The verses read:

“16. As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17. ‘Come, follow Me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ 18. At once they left their nets and followed Him. 19. When He had gone a little farther, He saw James son of Zebedee and His brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20. Without delay He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed Him.”

At first glance, this passage does seem to suggest that fishermen Jesus called “left everything.” In fact, in sermons and commentaries, this point is usually over-emphasized and under-analyzed. Typically, the preacher or commentator suggests that the disciples gave up everything “for good” or “forever,” to follow Jesus. Just as well, it is usually implied and often even stated, that this was the first time these fishermen had ever seen Jesus and that prior to this, they knew nothing about Him. The picture is painted of these men who had no knowledge of Jesus and in an instant, just up and left everything to follow Him. No doubt many a preacher and expositor have used these verses as a springboard into talking about “commitment to Jesus” and “being willing to give up everything we have and everyone we know in a heartbeat, for the sake of the Kingdom.” (Yet, how many preachers do you know that have done this?) Unfortunately, many have also used such passages to desert their families, jobs, responsibilities, etc.

There are many reasons, though, that we should question such thoughts. Indeed, as I am going to show here: 1) The disciples already knew Jesus before He “called them,” 2) The disciples did not leave everything for good but only temporarily, and 3) These verses are not a call to abandon everything and everyone in an instant and to live a life of escapism.

What we need to realize is that Mark opens his Gospel account up with John the Baptist on the scene, on purpose (Mk. 1.1-14). As the narrative reveals, John is in the wilderness preaching about Jesus before the Messiah shows up. Of course, John, though He did not know Jesus as a “close” relative, definitely knew of Him because Jesus was his cousin. More importantly, though, is the fact that John was a Pharisee (though I do not rule out that he had Essene affiliations) and as such, he had his own circle of disciples (Mk. 2.18; Jn. 1.35). Given this, it only makes sense that as their leader, John who was preaching about the coming Messiah (e.g. Jesus) must have been doing this in the midst of his disciples. Moreover, it is probably likely that he was teaching them about this while they were alone. It is only logical that this would be the case!

The point, then, that I am making is that the disciples had at the very least, heard of Jesus, the coming Messiah and had probably already seen Him. And if their own leader, John, thought so highly of Jesus, it only follows that they would have too! Therefore, when we read Mk. 1.14 about John’s arrest, it is no accident that Mark has Jesus filling John’s shoes. Even more, it is no accident that this comes before the episode of Jesus “calling” the fishermen. They are so ready and willing to follow Jesus: 1) because they knew Him, 2) they knew about His mission, 3) they respected John and realized that the one “greater” than John was actually taking his place, and 4) they were angry with the political system against which Jesus was preaching, the very system that had imprisoned John. In other words, when Jesus approaches the fishermen, He already knew them and they already knew Him; the loss of their leader and the harsh political situation made it the perfect time for the disciples to follow Jesus. (I would also posit here that it is quite possibly the fact that Jesus moved to the Galilee area to work with these guys. As a woodworker, it is quite likely that He helped build, restore and preserve boats; thus, He could have known them this way too--though I cannot fully prove this (but why do we automatically assume "carpenter" equals home builder? How does one prove that traditional claim? Further, if He hung out around the lake as much as Mark says He did, then there was no way that they couldn’t have known this guy.)

This leads us to the next point: The disciples did not just up and leave everything forever. In fact, a few scenes later, Mark tells us that Jesus and co. went to Peter’s home. Evidently they hadn’t left their family, home and work behind (Mk. 1.29-34)! Moreover, when we read John’s account of the Gospel, what is it that we see the disciples doing when Jesus (in glory form) comes back to see His followers? They are out on their boats fishing!!! (John 21) They didn’t leave their family business behind; they remained fishermen. They didn’t leave their families behind either. Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 9.6 that Peter’s wife engaged in the ministry of the Gospel with him. So, the age-old picture of the disciples leaving everything behind for good is not a good one. Indeed, the disciples left things temporarily but definitely not forever.

So, what kind of message does it send to the world when the Church teaches people to simply abandon their families and responsibilities in the name of Christ? Not a good one! Not a biblical one either. Sure, we may be called to the mission-field and that call may bring with it the hard choice to spend time away from our loved ones but that is hardly the same thing as abandoning everyone and everything dear to us. And just as well, that is a totally different thing than family members holding us back in our Christian walk.

Thus, I propose that we put the old record of “disciples who didn’t know Jesus and left everything forever to follow Him,” back on the shelf! It is time for a fresh reading, preaching and teaching of these verses. And as a close reading of the text shows, the disciples did know Jesus and given the circumstances and events at the time, they were eager to follow Him as He preached against the empire that had taken their leader. It is this Jesus, who in the opening scene of Mark’s Gospel account is strolling through the wilderness in the likeness of a royal Caesar. It is this Jesus who, like Caesar, has forerunners going before Him announcing His arrival. It is this Jesus who is preaching the Good News, not of Caesar’s kingdom, but of God’s Kingdom. And it is this Jesus who is going to establish a rule founded on truth and equality; it is this Jesus who is taking the place of the empire that kept the whole ancient world in its shadows of oppression. It is this Jesus that we today are called to follow!


  1. I think it fair to think it reasonable to assume that the disciples at least knew of Jesus ahead of time. He and John (the B) were causing quite a stir, after all.

    Unless I'm mistaken, you left off the story of Andrew hearing of Jesus as told in the book of John.

    According to that version, Andrew was one of John the Baptist's disciples and John the B pointed out Jesus to Andrew, who in turn told his brother and partners...

  2. Dan,

    I agree. I actually did mention the precursor to the Andrew story, or rather, I cited it the verses leading up to it.

    By the way, have you ever noticed how in Mark's account, Jesus goes "euthys" (immediately) into the wilderness for 40 days but in John's account, Jesus is walking around town the day after His baptism, and the day after that and the day after that, etc.?

    I try not to mix the Gospel accounts too much (though sometimes you have to) becuase it is clear to me that they each had their own perspectives and agendas! That is what accounts for my lack of mention of the verses in Jn.

    Good stuff!

  3. I would posit that another factor in over-emphasizing this story is the misunderstanding that the disciples who were fishermen were fishermen only, and had nothing else going on in their lives.

    Most likely the disciples pre-Jesus were already heavily involved in some form of first-century Judaism that made up much of the pattern of their daily lives (excepting Matthew possibly). Often, it can seem as if they were just fishermen with no religious practices or inclinations, and when Jesus showed up they got "saved." Then they leave behind their pagan life and become followers of Jesus.

    If anything the biggest thing they left behind was the safety of the Judean Temple practices and observances (sort of, they seem to keep showing up there), and the safety of their ethnically focused community synagogues (such as they were at the time). They had found the Messiah, and left the security of a faith that said he was still to come.

    In my opinion, to not think of the disciples as already deeply religious men, actively practicing their faith every day in ways that form much of their lives leads to a wrong emphasis on this story.

    I would agree with you that it is more likely than not, for a lot of reasons, that the disciples knew of Jesus in some fashion before he called them. Socially, and psychologically, the stories make much more sense that way.

    Then again, it could just be proof that Jesus was a Calvinist putting the I in TULIP.

  4. Scott,

    You have raised some excellent points! Without a doubt, I think that you are correct.

    I don't believe, though, that Jesus called the disciples away from all of their Judaic practices (in fact, I would suggest that Jesus kept many of the practices Himself; e.g. washing His hands before ceremonies and whatnot, as in the Cana wedding story, etc.).

    Even Paul didn't forbid Jewish practices. He told them that they could still be Jews but that the deal was, they couldn't mandate Jewish practices as the means of attaining salvation in Christ.

    Yet, your points are definitely on target. I think there has been a tendency to place so much emphasis on conversion in contemporary Christian circles that when people read these stories, they automatically filter them through that lens.

    Excellent insights and an excellent post. As for the "I" in "TULIP" I would say not so much...it's more like the "E" in "ROSES."

  5. Yes, you are right Jesus and his disciples kept many of the observances, and many of the stories find them at the Temple or synagogues . Perhaps, "re-directed" would have been a better phrase for me to use.

  6. this is a late comment and a side not to an otherwise good post - I think Jesus built farm tools -though he could have worked on boats too - the reason for the conjecture on farming tools is related to all the parables surrounding farming and his commets using farming as an illustrations - also he references to his yoke(sp?) so I think it is fair to consider that Jesus may have been a carpenter who built farming tools and probably repaired them too - though certainly he could have been an all around carpenter too doing lots of things.

  7. What if Levi (Mark 2.13-14) was collecting taxes for the Temple and not the Romans? [caveat - i know some of the Temple money was going to the Romans]...

    That would mean Levi wasn't necessarily the "traitor" we've thought he was, but more importantly for this post:

    Perhaps the reason he went and followed Jesus is because [like you've suggested] Levi was aware that Jesus was making a Messianic campaign. Levi is unaware that Jesus has zero intentions to go to the Temple and rule from there. Perhaps Levi sees this as a political move: the next new boss just gave him opportunity to jump on board before he gets to the Temple.

    Maybe Levi saw it as a way of being faithful to his job to follow the Messiah.

    Yes, no, maybe so?

  8. Jacob,
    very interesting thoughts. the notion of Levi doing this for a promotion might be an interesting notion. was he contending with Peter for this reason (9.30-37) on the road? perhaps.

    you already noted one caveat to this theory though. another one would be that the context portrays him as one who hangs with the "sinners" (which could be a reference to gentiles or those affiliated with the romans). (note by the way that the text does not say levi's house here, that is an english addition--a reference back to our previous convo about JC's house).

    anyways, i think that levi is portrayed as at least affiliated with the empire here and if he is hopping on board for a raise or promotion or even his own political agenda, then JC will evidently be critiquing and fooling him as the story progresses. from mark's view, i'm not sure that i can (as of yet) say much more than that.

  9. RE: the argument on the road.

    I see so much of that in GMark. The disciples are like "anti-heroes" and almost opposed to Jesus' intentions.

  10. No way to know for sure the extent to which the disciples knew Jesus, or his message when they were called to follow Him. I respect the use of logic to explain why they would be willing to temporarily leave their "lives" and follow Him, however, I have another logical reason which I have not seen here: A person with such a strong relationship with God is attractive. Jesus would have had that effect on those who might be open. Not necessarily because they knew Him, or knew of Him. A spirit filled person is attractive to a person who is open to the truth. I think you must admit that even if they knew Him, or of Him, it would not be a forgone conclusion that they would follow Him. They were men. Working men with families, and they chose to follow Jesus. Jesus was an irresistible force to those who were seeking truth, because (I believe) he radiated truth to everyone around Him.

  11. Anon,
    I appreciate you commenting but I must say, for the most part, I quite disagree with you. For one, spiritual people are not always attractive to others and for two, not everyone that Jesus was around was attracted to Jesus (ummm...not to mention the people that wanted to and eventually did kill Him, the crowds and officials that were against Him, etc.). Third, just because someone doesn't accept Jesus doesn't necesarrily mean that they are closed-minded, closed-spiritually or closed-off altogether). Anyway, I could go on with the list. I appreciate your sentiments but in the end, I just don't agree with your main point. I would also argue that your view about not being able to know if they knew of Jesus already is errant; they did know Jesus, as the Gospels suggest. Thanks for commenting. - Michael