When were the disciples called?

Question from a reader:

I read the other day about the disciples being possibly called at different times throughout Jesus' ministry to follow him, but they did not begin to follow him full-time until the last year and a half. I know some had families and jobs. Can you elaborate on the calling of the twelve? Was it a one time, drop everything and follow me call? Or did they hear about Jesus, come to know Jesus, followed off/on until later in his ministry.

Answer from Julia Stager (EPM Staff):

When Jesus called His first disciples: Simon (who is also called Peter), his brother Andrew, James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John, they are said to have “immediately” left everything to follow Jesus.

  • Matthew 4:20: immediately [Simon and Andrew] left their nets and followed him.
  • Matthew 4:22: immediately [James and John] left the boat and their father and followed him
  • Mark 1:18: “Immediately [Simon and Andrew] left their nets and followed him”
  • Mark 1:20: immediately [Jesus] called them, and [James and John] left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.
  • Luke 5:11: [Simon, James, and John] left everything and followed him

See also:

  • Matthew 8:21: Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
  • Matthew 9:9: As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
  • Mark 2:14: And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him”.
  • Luke 5:29-30: …And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
  • Luke 9:59-60: To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
  • Jesus sends out the twelve: Matthew 10:5, Luke 9:2, Mark 6:7

This question hinges on our understanding of “full-time”. It is true that Jesus called his disciples to follow him before sending them out “full-time” to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This makes sense because they needed to get to know Jesus and his message before they preached the news to others. In every instance but Philip’s the true disciple of Jesus explicitly left everything and immediately followed him. (The exception of Philip, as recounted in John1, shows Philip responding to the call of Jesus by seeking Nathanael and telling him “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote” John 1:43-47.)

The only explanation for a person voluntarily leaving their means of livelihood is a shift in priorities. Following Jesus was more important than fishing, tax collecting, or anything. Jesus himself urges immediacy in his request to the man who wanted to bury his father. During this time in the disciples’ lives it seems clear that they followed Jesus wherever he went and that he was their first priority.

After following Jesus for an unspecified amount of time, Jesus sends the twelve out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. This seems to be a shift in the duties of the disciples, but not an increase of their call. Jesus did not ask them to go out, he sent them out. They had already completely submitted themselves to His leadership by accepting His call to follow. From that moment of dropping their nets on the banks of Galilee the fishermen were “all in”; whether that meant they would fish a little more or travel all over Judea became a question of not their own, but the Lord’s will.

Julia (Stager) Mayo holds a Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary, where she works as an administrative assistant. She was previously part of the Eternal Perspective Ministries staff, and still does occasional research work for Randy Alcorn.