So when did Jesus choose his disciples? The Gospels agree it was early on in his ministry, they just don’t agree on when. Did they all get called at the same time? Who was there? Not all things occur in each Gospel, or at the same time.
It is easy to understand how confusing this is because the early followers of Jesus didn’t think they needed to write anything down. They thought Jesus was coming back soon. When time passed, they realized that it was important to write the stories down so that they wouldn’t forget them, and they would be better able to share the stories with others.
This slightly haphazard telling of the stories in four different accounts makes for a difficult time if one is trying to assemble a linear progression of events, like I am.
In the Gospel of Matthew 4:18-22 we read this account of the first disciples –
18 As He was walking along the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea, since they were fishermen. 19 “Follow Me,” He told them, “and I will make you fish for[j] people!”20 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. 21 Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and He called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him.
Simon (later named Peter by Jesus) and his brother Andrew are together. They are called, and then shortly after Jesus calls James and John (the sons of Zebedee), who are in a separate boat a little further along. Are Simon and Andrew on a boat here? It doesn’t say. They could be fishing just using nets while standing on the shore.
It isn’t until MT 9:9 that we get the name of the next disciple – Matthew (sometimes called Levi). Meanwhile, Jesus has delivered the Sermon on the Mount and traveled across the sea with his disciples. We aren’t told how many, so presumably it is just the four that are named up to that point.
However, there is some distinction to be made between “disciple” and “apostle”. “Disciple” could simply mean “student” – not one of The Twelve that are famous. Of course, Jesus didn’t use these words – he used Aramaic, so there might be a huge difference in the words used by him. But I find it significant that two different words are used.
It is in Matthew 10 that we get a complete list, and they are termed apostles at this point. This is MT 10:1-4. Some more people have appeared on the scene, but we don’t get the story of how they met or when they were called.
“Summoning His 12 disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to drive them out and to heal every[a] disease and sickness.2 These are the names of the 12 apostles: First, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother;
James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother;3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him”
Now let us look at the Gospel of Mark.
Jesus calls his first disciples after his Baptism and Temptation, just like in Matthew. MK 1:16-20
“16 As He was passing along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother. They were casting a net into the sea, since they were fishermen. 17 “Follow Me,” Jesus told them, “and I will make you fish for people!” 18 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. 19 Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in their boat mending their nets. 20 Immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed Him.”
The story is the same as in Matthew – he calls Simon (Peter) and Andrew at the same time, and then a little further along the shore, he calls James and John. Here too we don’t know if Simon and Andrew were in a boat.
In both Matthew and Mark, it appears that Jesus is doing a “cold call” – he’s never seen any of these men before. He calls them to follow him and they drop everything to do so.
The disciple Matthew is called in Mark 2:13-14. In Mark 3:13-19, the rest of the disciples are called.
“13 Then He went up the mountain and summoned those He wanted, and they came to Him. 14 He also appointed 12—He also named them apostles -to be with Him, to send them out to preach, 15 and to have authority to drive out demons. 16 He appointed the Twelve:To Simon, He gave the name Peter;
17 and to James the son of Zebedee, and to his brother John, He gave the name “Boanerges” (that is, “Sons of Thunder”); 18 Andrew; Philip and Bartholomew; Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.”
Notice here too that they just simply seem to be there – he summoned them to him. Were they following him all along, and he selected out his favorites? The story does not tell us. Notice they are differentiated as “apostles” here as well, as is indicated in Matthew.
The Gospel of Luke changes things up a little, but it is very subtle. Something interesting happens before they are called.
Notice this – in Luke 4:38-39 we read that
“38 After He left the synagogue, He entered Simon’s house. Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Him about her. 39 So He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up immediately and began to serve them.”
This is Simon (Peter)’s mother in law – but we haven’t even heard about him yet. He hasn’t been named in the story before this point. He’s like a character in a play who drops in out of the sky – it is assumed we know him, with no introduction. They had to know each other well – Jesus didn’t have the habit of going into people’s houses unless he was asked.
It is later, in Luke 5:1-11 that we get the story about how Peter was called.
“As the crowd was pressing in on Jesus to hear God’s word, He was standing by Lake Gennesaret. 2 He saw two boats at the edge of the lake; the fishermen had left them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, which belonged to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from the land. Then He sat down and was teaching the crowds from the boat. 4 When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 “Master,” Simon replied, “we’ve worked hard all night long and caught nothing! But at Your word, I’ll let down the nets.” 6 When they did this, they caught a great number of fish, and their nets began to tear. 7 So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them; they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. 8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, because I’m a sinful man, Lord!” 9 For he and all those with him were amazed[f] at the catch of fish they took, 10 and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s partners. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus told Simon. “From now on you will be catching people!” 11 Then they brought the boats to land, left everything, and followed Him.”
Here, it appears that Jesus has to know Simon (Peter) because he walks right onto his boat and starts telling him where to fish. This is different from Matthew and Mark, because in those stories, Jesus calls them from the shore. They also weren’t in the boat.
It is apparent here that they weren’t in their boats at the time Jesus walks up, but followed him after he climbed aboard. But here the story is different in another way – we don’t hear about Andrew at all, and James and John are in the same boat. Also, it is apparent that Simon knows Jesus, because he calls him “Master” (verse 5) He isn’t a stranger. So Simon has been around Jesus for a while by this point, but wasn’t a full-term disciple.
Matthew is called shortly afterwards, in Luke 4:27-28. Shortly after Jesus calls the rest in Luke 5:12-16. Here too he calls them “apostles” not just disciples.
“12 During those days He went out to the mountain to pray and spent all night in prayer to God. 13 When daylight came, He summoned His disciples, and He chose 12 of them—He also named them apostles: 14 Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John;
Philip and Bartholomew; 15 Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called the Zealot; 16 Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”
It is in the Gospel of John that things change – but this is common with John. John’s telling of the story is radically different – things that occur in the other three Gospels aren’t in John’s, and things that are in John’s aren’t in the other three. It is difficult to determine what actually happened, and when. However, if this were a crime scene, I’d be more likely to go with the three people who agree than the one who differs. I include what John says to fully round out the story, but if there is a major difference, I’m going to side with the majority.
In John 1:29-42, Jesus meets his first disciples the day after his baptism. There is no mention of him going off, led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. This differs from the other three, who all at least mention the Temptation.
“29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the One I told you about: ‘After me comes a man who has surpassed me, because He existed before me.’ 31 I didn’t know Him, but I came baptizing with water so He might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I watched the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He rested on Him. 33 I didn’t know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The One you see the Spirit descending and resting on—He is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God!” 35 Again the next day, John was standing with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this and followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and noticed them following Him, He asked them, “What are you looking for?” They said to Him, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are You staying?” 39 “Come and you’ll see,” He replied. So they went and saw where He was staying, and they stayed with Him that day. It was about 10 in the morning. 40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard John and followed Him. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah!” (which means “Anointed One”), 42 and he brought Simon to Jesus. When Jesus saw him, He said, “You are Simon, son of John.You will be called Cephas” (which means “Rock”).”
Just after that, Jesus calls Philip (JN 1:43-45)
“43 The next day He[ae] decided to leave for Galilee. Jesus found Philip and told him, “Follow Me!” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael[af] and told him, “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law (and so did the prophets): Jesus the son of Joseph, from Nazareth!”
Here, the disciples were following John first, and they weren’t by the sea. Andrew is first, and he finds his brother Simon (Peter) later. As we can see, Nathanael doesn’t make the cut later and become an apostle.
We don’t read about him calling the others, but we can infer that he has before John 6:67 were he speaks to “the Twelve”.
This is making for some very interesting weaving and blending to do on my part, to make this one cohesive story. I want to be true to the story and the timeline, but that is difficult when there are differences. It is important that they all agree that Jesus had these followers that he trusted. Exactly when and how he called them? That is open to debate.
(All translations are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)