What do you think of people who ask for followers on social media? Do you think it’s a mark of narcissism? A bit desperate? Or just tacky? Would you follow them? What would influence your decision?
When I think of someone who asks for followers, I imagine they must be a bit full of themselves, or they are not very self-aware, or maybe they might be a savvy marketer. If I don’t know them, I won’t follow. If I do know them, I might consider it after scoping out their feed. It costs me nothing to follow someone on social, so my choice is not that big of a deal.
Mark 1:16-20 depicts a situation where people are asked to become followers, but for them the stakes were much higher than a social follow today. When Jesus asked for followers, he was asking people to go all in. He asked the four fishermen to physically follow him on his mission. The cost was high. It was a big ask. What kind of person asks others to drop jobs, families and personal ambitions to follow him? And, what in the world would make people follow him? Why did the four fishermen follow Jesus?
This is the question Mark is prompting as he edits the event down to its vital parts. Let’s read Mark 1:16-20.
“And passing by the Sea of Galilee, he [Jesus] saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting nets into the sea, for they are fisherman.
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you to become fishers of people!”
And at once, leaving the nets, they followed him. And going on a little way, he saw James Zebedee and his brother John, and they were in the boat mending the nets.
And at once, he summoned them. And leaving their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the employees, they went away after him.”
Mark paints a compelling picture of Jesus’s power of persuasion. These fishermen were in the middle of casting and mending their nets when they left it all to follow his beckoning call. We know from the fourth gospel, likely written by John, that Andrew and Simon already knew Jesus from his baptism and endorsement by John the Baptist. In case you don’t know, Simon is another name for Peter, and Mark is telling us this story from Peter’s memory. Most likely John and James also knew Jesus prior to the call and they may have all witnessed a few miracles by this time. But Mark leaves all this information out and gives us the bullet points. At once, they left everything behind when Jesus summoned. Why? Because of the person and the purpose of the call.
I want to take a break here to discuss a few background items. The first is the mental image you have in your mind when you visualize these four guys. They are often pictured as middle-aged men. Instead, I want you to age them twenty years younger. I doubt any of them were over the age of 25. After all, Jesus was only age 30. These were young men who are willing to drop everything and follow Jesus. Read more about the age of the disciples here.
These are the first four of twelve specific men that Jesus called to follow him, who are designated as “the Twelve.” Jesus also had a group of seventy disciples who followed him. There is also a general name for anyone who follows Jesus as a disciple. Then there are a group of apostles. Who are all these different groups of followers?
Briefly, the Twelve are twelve men chosen for symbolic reasons to indicate the end of Old Covenant where gender and number carried significance. You can read more about my opinions on why the Twelve were all men, here. The Twelve are also a part of a larger group of designated disciples, which included women, and is often referred to as “the Seventy.” Jesus sent this group out two by two to spread the message about the kingdom of God and to wage war against the spiritual world by casting out demons. Jesus calls anyone who listens to him and obeys his teaching a disciple, so the term can be used as a general designation as well. All of the Twelve and some disciples became apostles. Apostle is a Greek noun from the verb that means “to send.” An apostle is someone sent to do something specific. Mary Magdalene was sent by Jesus to tell his disciples he was risen. She is called the Apostle to the Apostles. It was a specific title that indicated authority to the task given and was a much bigger pool of people than the Twelve alone.
Okay, back to the question that Mark prompts us to ask in Mark 1:16-20. Why did the four follow Jesus?
They followed because of the person who called.
Jesus was filled with blazing conviction in himself that convinced the fishermen he was a man to follow. This is Mark’s point and why he sets this story in this brief manner with no preparation. Jesus did not need to present convincing arguments to gather followers, his person created an instantaneous impact.
- At once he summoned, and
- at once they followed.
What exactly was Jesus asking them to follow by saying “Follow me?” Jesus summoned them to follow him. Jesus is the subject of “follow.” This was unusual. All other Jewish Rabbis taught their disciples to follow the Torah, the law. No prophet would tell people to follow himself, but to follow God. But Jesus calls people to follow him.
What did I say earlier about how I viewed those who asked for followers? Lets apply that to Jesus. Either he is a narcissist who thinks way too highly of himself, or he is not very self-aware, or he is a bit tacky. I think Mark wants us to explore those options as long as we also leave the door open to another possibility. The possibility that Jesus believed that if people followed him, they would be following God, and that his example is better than Torah. The personal confidence of Jesus in his own identity marked him as a man to follow.
I doubt that the four completely understood what they were signing up for. Maybe they envisioned a typical rabbi’s entourage, which spent most of its time studying the Torah and arguing. Maybe they envisioned something like a John the Baptist lifestyle with lots of meditation and fasting. But Jesus wasn’t calling them to a life of study sitting at a desk, nor an aesthetic lifestyle. Some wonder if he copied the methods of the Greek Cynics, since there are many similarities between their styles. I don’t think Jesus was patterning his style of teaching after a specific school, he just did what God had called him to do. He came to preach the good news and, in the process, he became good news. This is what inspired these pairs of brothers to drop everything and change their entire lives to join. The way of life was not what inspired them to follow Jesus, it was Jesus himself.
They followed because of the purpose of the call.
Peter, Andrew, James and John caught fish for a living, as did hundreds of families who lived around the Sea of Galilee. Besides olives and wine, dried and salted fish was the major export of Galilee. James Edwards, a Professor of Theology at Whitworth University, says that “Fish, not meat, was the staple food of the Greco-Roman world.” (The Gospel According to Mark, 49.) Galilean fish were eaten everywhere and fisherman were ubiquitous around the region of Galilee. There were 16 ports around the lake and fishing was a vibrant and competitive trade. Josephus records there were at least 230 fishing boats on the water in 68 AD. Bethsaida, a village at one of those ports, means “House of the fisher.” Another town, Magdala, means “fish tower.” Taricheae, another village, means “salted fish.” The people around Galilee ate, lived, breathed and smelled of fish.
It is in this fishy context that Jesus inspires two pairs of brothers that they could do more with their life than haul fish into the boat. Jesus had the ability to see the abilities and talents of these men that they were not even aware of. He inspired them to wonder what was possible if they accepted his call.
Jesus also summoned them in pairs. Jesus wanted them to catch people together. Following Jesus is marked with relationships to others. It is not meant to be a solo endeavor. I think of the scene in the Lord of the Rings where Frodo accepts the call to carry the ring to Mordor to destroy it in the fires of Mt. Doom. He is willing to go alone, but a fellowship forms around him. Others who believe in the necessity of the quest join Frodo to ensure his success. Following Jesus forms a fellowship of fishers with a common quest. It was not a call to a single, lonely venture, but a vibrant, interactive and communal activity, much like the ancient way of fishing.
Even though Mark leaves the question unasked, he poses it nonetheless with his swift account and bullet points. Why did the four fishers drop everything and follow Jesus? Because Jesus had an innate quality that convinced them he was worth following, and that they were worth being his followers.
Why do you follow Jesus?