Our text this week moves on from the testimony of John the Baptist to the recruitment of some of the first followers of our Lord. For the attentive bible reader, John 1:35-51 might produce some confusion since it appears to present the calling of the disciples in a way entirely different from what, say, Matthew presents. Because of this apparent contradiction, I want to reflect first on the goals of the gospel writers and then apply that reflection to this particular issue.
As we think about the goals of the gospel writers, we should remember that John tells us explicitly why he wrote his gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31 ESV). John’s main idea, then, is that the Christ is Jesus. At the highest level, everything he has included in his gospel is meant to reinforce this main idea. This is, primarily, a theological and not an historical goal. He is not trying to paint a picture of the historical Jesus; rather, his goal is to present the divine identity of Jesus.
What this means, and John again is explicit about this, is that he has left out many details in the life of Jesus. He has not presented a blow-by-blow account of Jesus’ life with precise markers for time (though sometimes he does provide them). Nor has he presented the total context for each story because he has presented a selective narration of Jesus’ historical life in order to accomplish his theological goal. There are gaps, then, in the narrative, which means we need to be thoughtful about how we compare John to, say, Matthew.
Now, the same is true about how Matthew, Mark, and Luke present their gospels. Their aim is also theological in nature, and so they are not bound to present every single detail in every single situation, nor are they required to order the events of Jesus’ life and ministry in exactly the same way. They have freedom to organize their material in the way that will best achieve their respective goals.
Turning to the specific issue of the call of the disciples, we can now begin to read seemingly conflicting stories side-by-side. This is how Matthew describes the call of the disciples in Matt 4:18-22 (ESV):
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
Note the abruptness with which Simon and Andrew leave their nets. While we do not want to deny the irresistible nature of God’s effectual calling, we should appreciate how unusual it would be for these fishermen to drop their nets at the first sight of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.
But here is where John’s call of the disciples can help us out. If Simon and Andrew had interacted with Jesus prior to their “official” calling as disciples, then the abruptness of their following would make more sense. John certainly appears to present a prior encounter in John 1 because his story is closely connected to the testimony of John the Baptist while Matthew describes his calling of the disciples as happening after the arrest of John the Baptist (cf. Matt 4:12).
What this suggests is that there were at least two encounters between Jesus and his first disciples. John and Matthew chose to present different encounters to support their theological goals, and the selective nature of their narratives does not exclude either encounter from actually happening. Someone, of course, might question why it took multiple encounters before these disciples “officially” followed Jesus, but that someone simply doesn’t understand the heart of man. It is safe to say that all of us, at some point, have needed to be called to do something more than once. So it was also with Christ’s disciples.
Hopefully this brief reflection helps you appreciate the trustworthiness of the gospels and read them more carefully as they each complement each other’s presentation of Jesus as the Messiah.