And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Matthew 4:19 (NRSV)
John the Baptist and Jesus had been together near Jerusalem where John’s ministry drew in many of Israel looking for a better way and also the unwanted attention of the Pharisees and Sadducees. When John is arrested, Jesus heads north to Galilee to live in the small fishing village of Capernaum. Instead of keeping a low profile, however, he continues to spread John’s message that people should repent because the kingdom of heaven was close.
When it comes to disciples, the pickin’s are a mite slim when you’re in a tiny fishing village. It would be like trying to start a new American Revolution from your home base of Apalachicola, Florida. It’s going to be some slow going, and your initial recruits are probably not going to be a pack of Colin Powells. They are probably going to be more along the lines of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl (“I’m Andrew. This is my brother, Simon. This is my other brother, Simon.”). Here, Jesus just walks up to some fishermen, invites them to join him, and they do.
Because we love Jesus and he means a lot to us, it’s easy to read this and assume this is Jesus’ personal charisma or some kind of supernatural draw that made these fishermen just stop fishing and follow, and that may be the case.
But we should also keep in mind that Jesus has been going around telling people to repent because the restored kingdom of Israel is at hand. Some of these men are probably sick of being fishermen and are looking for a revolution – maybe one that will put them on top. Maybe they’re just bored with their lives and they’re following Jesus to see what happens. The Scriptures don’t really tell us what motivates this initial four.
And in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s these four for a pretty long time. Matthew himself isn’t even called until chapter 9, and we don’t get a full listing of 12 until chapter 10. Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Jesus. It’s these five men for a decent chunk of Jesus’ early activity, which is interesting to imagine. You don’t hear a lot about Jesus and his four disciples.
But whatever the reason these professional fishermen sign on to follow Jesus, we know what Jesus’ motive is. He’s going to have them fish for people. He’s going to have them cast out nets and draw people in (metaphorically). They are going to be Jesus’ point men for bringing people into his movement.
And what is his movement? It’s the kingdom of God, of course. It’s the renewal of Israel. It’s the gathering of the elect. It’s the finding of the lost sheep. He is finding, gathering, and restoring faithful Israel, and he starts with these four – a number which will become twelve, which is a number whose significance is not lost on the Apostles, who see a need to replace their twelfth right away after losing Judas.
For these twelve followers will mirror Israel’s twelve sons.
The significance of building the new, heavenly Israel on the foundation of these twelve Apostles isn’t lost on John, either. Consider what he sees when he sees a new Jerusalem through the lens of a vision:
It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
Revelation 21:12-14 (NRSV)
Jesus is about the work of gathering, renewing, and rebuilding his people. But he does not invite the rich, the powerful, the cunning, the connected, or the pious – at least not as we would normally count piety. Instead, look at the people he invites into the kingdom – small town fishermen, tax collectors, the lame and the sick, prostitutes, children – in other words, everyone who is not on the list of People Who Will Help You Build a Kingdom and Overthrow Oppression. These people are weak, and many of them are grievous sinners.
And thank God that’s who gets invited into the kingdom, yes? Thank God that He recreates faithful Israel out of the weak and the sinful, forgiving and healing and turning hearts back to God, and eventually filling these people with Israel’s promised Holy Spirit – a force so powerful that backwoods hicks start giving eloquent exegetical sermons on the Old Testament and miraculously raising the dead.
But it is an established pattern in the Old Testament that God will purposefully un-stack the deck. He will deliberately choose the weakest resources, or weaken His strong resources, so that success can only be ascribed to Him and His faithfulness will be displayed.
The words to ancient Israel in Deuteronomy would aptly describe the people Jesus called to follow him in the first century, and in many ways would be apt to describe the people who follow Jesus, today:
It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 7:7-8 (NRSV)
- What are some other instances from the Scripture of God deliberately using a person or group of people who are unlikely candidates or seemingly too weak for what He intended to accomplish? What does this tell you about God? What does this tell you about the necessary qualifications for accomplishing His purposes?
- Out of all the categories of “outsider” as the Old Testament defined it, Gentiles were the top of that list. What changed between then and now?