Calling the Disciples – “From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The very wording of the passage indicates a fresh start, a new phase of Jesus’ activity. At the heart of this new ministry is the proclamation of a message identical with that of John the Baptist (3:2), and later to be echoed by Jesus’ disciples (10:7). Jesus calls for a decisive response to a new situation, the arrival in his ministry of the kingdom of heaven.
The first to make that decisive response are the first disciples. The story of the call of Simon Peter and Andrew is very similar to the following story about the call of James and John. Both stories echo the story of Elijah’s call of Elisha (1 Kgs 19:19–21; and the prophets generally, cf Amos 7:15) – people divinely called, uprooted from ordinary existence. The calls similarly possess a four-part structure: (1) the appearance of Jesus (4:18, 21); (2) the comment on the work of the prospective disciples (4:18, 21); (3) the call to discipleship (4:19, 21); and (4) obedience to the call (4:20, 22).
The first disciples encountered Jesus coming to them in their everyday occupation of fishing in the Sea of Galilee — then as now, an important and profitable business in Israel’s economy. It is easy to assume that Jesus has made an ad hoc metaphor. However, the image of a deity calling people to a new life – in both Judaism and local pagan cults – as “fishing” was common. The common theme of this metaphor was that the person was being called to participate in the divine work. Here God’s saving and judging mission to the world is represented by Jesus who calls disciples to participate in the divine mission to humanity. This scene anticipates the formal mission sending (9:36 ff) and the wider mission imperative to the whole world (28:19-20)
Without any preparation and with little or no deliberation, they leave behind their business and their families in order to follow Jesus. Discipleship is first and foremost being with Jesus, and the quick response of the first disciples (“at once” according to verses 20, 22) suggests how appealing the invitation to be with Jesus must have been. But discipleship also involves sharing in the mission of Jesus (“fishers of men” according to v.19), and that dimension too is stressed from the very beginning.
Boring (The Gospel of Matthew, 169) notes that “Despite its small size, this pericope represents a major subsection of Matthew’s structure…The call of the first disciples is the beginning of the messianic community: the church. Jesus’ baptism and temptation were not merely individualistic religious experiences of a ‘great man,’ but the recapitulation of the birth of Israel in the Red Sea and the wilderness testing; they lead to the formation of a new community, the Messiah’s people (1:21).”
It is here that we gain some insight into Matthew’s understanding of discipleship. A modern reader is tempted to refashion this biblical picture of discipleship into more manageable categories: accept Jesus’ principles for living, accept Jesus as a personal savior. Jesus “barges” into our midst and does not call us to admire him or accept his principles, but issues the divine imperative to follow him. The reasonable reply, “Where are you going?” is suborned to discovery along the way. Even without the language, the call of the disciples is a story of “belief,” “faith” and “trust.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, notes that Jesus comes to men already leading useful lives. He does not fill a hole in their lives or fulfill a need, but calls them away from work and family. The divine sovereignty is clothes in the call to human response: “I could not seek you, if you had not already found me” (Augustine, Confessions 1). Discipleship is not an offer man makes to Christ. It is only the call which creates the situation.” (Bonhoeffer, 161)
Matthew 4:17 From that time on: Many interpreters of Matthew think this phrase signals a transition to the second major section of Matthew.
Matthew 4:17 Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand: At the beginning of his preaching Jesus takes up the words of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2) although with a different meaning; in his ministry the kingdom of heaven has already begun to be present (Matthew 12:28). This linkage of the messages of John and Jesus seems to lay a foundation for the similar fates of the two messengers (14:2; 17:12–13).
- Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 166-71