The Decision To Follow Jesus

Reading the gospels it may seem like the apostles all just jumped across the decision line to follow Jesus the moment the opportunity came.  A more in depth study of who everyone was, and how they were connected actually gives a little more interesting and understandable perspective.  In the end, it helps illuminate how we are inspired
to commit our lives to the most amazing Person in the history of the world.

Let’s begin with the first disciples using the clues the Bible gives regarding how their lives were interconnected.  Jesus as we know, from Luke’s story about Mary’s pregnancy, was related to the man who would become John the Baptist.  Mary and John the Baptist were first cousins.  That means John and Jesus were first cousins once removed.   The story of Elizabeth, John’s mother is not inconsequential.  She is referred to as “a daughter of Aaron.”  It is a statement that authenticates a fact:  Mary’s mother was a Levite and her father was of Judah.  You might wonder if that is the only supporting verse on the subject and the answer is no, but we will look at Mary’s sister in a moment because she too is vital to understanding who the disciples were.  Luke allows us to discover for ourselves that John and Jesus were closely related.  When Jesus stayed in the Temple at the age of twelve, is it possible that Zechariah the priest was among those present?  Certainly the story of the miraculous naming of John and his prophetic destiny were matters of some family commonality.   If Mary’s first inclination was to rush off to Elizabeth’s home we might take into account that at family pilgrimages on holy festivals such as Passover and Pentecost, the boys and subsequently young men may have at least met, if not talked.

When, at the time of Jesus’ baptism, John looks at Jesus and says “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?”  How did John know that?  The testimony of the Baptist was that he didn’t know Jesus was the Messiah until the Spirit of God came upon Jesus (John 1:31).  For John, certainty that Jesus was Messiah occurred after Jesus was baptized.  So, why in the world did he say, “I need to be baptized by You,” before the baptism?  It was either because of what he had heard from his mother, or from his own experiences with Jesus growing up. 

By the way, John’s comment after Jesus’ baptism, “Look behold the Lamb of God,” shows an incredible knowledge of what Jesus would one day do, dying for the sin of Israel.  John’s utterance of the phrase “Lamb of God” before anyone else possessed even an inkling of the work of Jesus is astounding beyond words.  This sets an important stage for upcoming events because Jesus’ first disciple was the result of that very comment. 

Moving on, who were James and John, the sons of Zebedee?  We all remember that they were fishing in their father’s boat and Jesus said, “Follow me” and immediately they left their nets.  Great, but that’s not the whole story.  A woman named Salome is at the crucifixion with Mary.  She is referred to both as “the sister of Mary” (John 19:25), and “the mother of Zebedee’s sons” (Matt 27:6).  This is the same woman who came to Jesus asking that her sons be on Jesus’ right and left when he would come into his kingdom.  By the way, a mother of a disciple might not have the brass to ask their Rabbi for such a posting, but Jesus auntie Salome?  Yeah, that makes sense.  The logical conclusion is then that James and John were Jesus’ first cousins on his mother’s side.  This also informs us that they too had at least one parent who was a descendent of Aaron – their mom.  This explains why John was known to the high priest (John 18:15) being the cousin of one of the men qualified to offer incense in the Holy Place, Zechariah, of the Aaronic family of Abijah (Luke 1:5).  Zebedee’s sons, as with his whole family, knew Jesus well.  They had been to his home in Nazareth undoubtedly at some point.  They were first cousins!  And let me say, hanging out with someone who never sins isn’t something you get over easily, especially if you’re cut from Adam’s cloth.  It isn’t a far stretch to understand why their family became such pillars in the church.  One wonders if Salome ever had regretful wonderings over her marrying a fisherman rather than a priest.

We think of John the disciple standing at the foot of the cross with Mary when Jesus says “Woman behold your son.”  But there is a lot more going on there.  John was with his own mother at the time when Jesus uttered those words.  If ever Jesus was speaking to Salome about John it was then.  I don’t doubt she understood his saying, “You want John to do something important… then he is to take care of my mom the same as he takes care of you.”  

Back to our story, James and John were fishing with their father.   When Jesus walked by their boat, they knew him already.  They knew something unique and special, sinless and important, was already at work in his life.  At the moment he said, “Follow Me,” he had already proclaimed, in Capernaum, “the time is at hand, the kingdom of God is near.”  They left without hesitation.  We think of the story of Zebedee frustrated and upset at the decision of his sons, and their abandonment of he and his fishing trade.  But, uncle Zeb also may have just as likely been a nodding older man saying, “I understand guys, go for it.”  It is even plausible that Jesus may have, at some point, lived with James and John.

Now lets look at the brothers Peter and Andrew.  Andrew wasn’t just fishing when Jesus first met him.  Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist!  When Andrew heard the words, “behold the Lamb of God,” he and another unnamed disciple immediately followed Jesus.  Andrew the brother of Peter, well, creeped Jesus!  Turning around Jesus says, “What do you want?”  That’s such a cool question, because the Lord knew already what they both wanted  and needed.  They had an unquenchable hunger to know.  “We want to see where you’re staying.”  Which means “Please please, please, take us home with you!”  To which Jesus responded saying, “Come and see.”  The bible says immediately after that Andrew hunted down and found his brother Simon and brought him to Jesus.  And Jesus looks at Simon and says, “You are Simon you will be called “cephas” which translated is Peter (petros – stone).  Hold on a second, why isn’t Peter in Galilee fishing?  Why isn’t Andrew?  That’s right, they aren’t anywhere near Galilee.  They are somewhere near Bethany which is just over the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem as you head down to the Jordan.  This brings up a whole bunch of questions.  Why they were that far south?  The most likely answer being that this meeting took place during one of the Holy pilgrimage festivals of Israel.  The next time Jesus sees Peter and Andrew it is at their home in either Bethsaida or Capernaum.

Some time later, maybe a week or two, Jesus has just started preaching at the synagogue of Capernaum, the fishing town on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The whole bunch, James, John, Nathanael, Philip, all converge at Peter’s home after a service at the synagogue.   Peter has already been renamed, and Andrew has previously spent at least two extended times with Jesus.  They day they visit their home, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man in the local synagogue.  Only after those encounters does Jesus call Andrew and Peter.  And even at that Peter wasn’t quite fully committed.  We have the whole “throw your nets on the other side” event after which, Peter cries out to Jesus and says, “Depart from me a sinful man.”  There in the boat Jesus’ call to Peter finally overwhelms his self-doubt.  Why was Peter’s sinfulness such an issue?  It’s because Jesus was perfect.  They had talked, they had met, they had eaten, and he’d seen him preach most likely.  Peter didn’t think he could measure up to the call.  And for everyone who has ever messed up let me just say, Peter’s fear led to one of the most profound failings of his faith during the trial of Jesus.  Peter, ever the devils target, repeatedly found himself blurting out comments, taking actions that would cause anyone to doubt his leadership potential.  Well, anyone except Jesus could see that.

You might say ‘Yeah well what about Matthew?’ Didn’t Matthew, also called Levi, just drop everything?  You might not be surprised to know that he was from Capernaum as well which makes it very likely Matthew had also been at the synagogue when Jesus began his ministry.  Jesus was not unknown to Matthew, who was most likely in the synagogue when Jesus freed the demoniac.  John tells us that after the disciples experienced the whole Resurrection event in Jerusalem they stayed for about a week until Thomas, who hadn’t been present at Jesus’ first visit, arrived almost certainly just for him.  

Afterwards they took the 4 day trip and returned to Galilee, and Jesus went there ahead of them.  John 21.2 Tells us Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Jesus’ cousins James and John, and two other disciples.  We don’t know for sure, but the two other disciples from the area who were both accustomed to fishing were Andrew and Phillip. 

You see after the resurrection, they had to go home.  They weren’t ultimately commissioned to go into the world from Jerusalem no matter what you might believe.  They were sent from where they met Jesus.  That was where their whole world had started.  When Jesus went to Galilee, after the resurrection, it wasn’t because his disciples had failed.  He went there because that was the home of most of his disciples and in fact, for him as well.  Matthew says that they were all responding to Jesus’ direction.

I like to recall that Jesus multiplied food on one of the hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee behind their homes, and it was there that he and taught his famous “sermon on the mount.”  Two years of their ministry together was around that lake.  The great commission happened right there on one of those hills maybe on the hill where he multiplied loaves and fishes.  How fitting.

So you might ask why, then, did they go back to Jerusalem then as Luke informs us.  Most likely because its as coming to be time for Pentecost and Jesus had a plan for that too.

You see, even in the gospels there is time to look, and discover, to allow the cost of following Jesus to really do its work in our mind and heart.  At the core, we have us – imperfect, flawed, sinful, broken – and we have the inexpressible treasure of knowing this amazing Guy who can calm the winds, multiply food, who goes around doing good everywhere, and freeing all who are beset by evil.  We can only say “if you will have me, and you can do anything with me, yes.  I say with all my heart, yes.”  

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