Calling is a word I’ve heard thrown around a lot, particularly in the last few years while studying at the Seminary. And often-times two things appear to accompany this concept: an aura of confidence, and a feeling of being led by God (the former being a result of the latter).
But there is more to being called than this, and it is something we don’t speak about too often. Interestingly, the Bible addresses it somewhat subtly in the first calling of Jesus, as recorded by Matthew. The story occurs in the text right after Jesus’s return from the desert, where he overcame the three temptations of Satan. We’re at the very beginning of His ministry on earth.
And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. 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. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. (Matthew 4:18-22 NKJV)
This short story reads like an act in two parts, both of which mirror each other very closely: two groups of two brothers are called by Jesus, and both follow him immediately. In fact, the story is saturated with parallelisms quite evident at the first reading in the actions described, the structure of the text, and the wording employed. The following table illustrates the similarities:
|Peter and Andrew||James and John
|Introduction/location||walking by the Sea of Galilee (v. 18)||Going on from there
|saw two brothers (v. 18)||saw two other brothers (v. 21)|
|Detail about the first person mentioned||Simon called Peter (v. 18)||James the son of Zebedee
|and Andrew his brother (v. 18)||and John his brother (v. 21)|
|Activity they were engaged in||casting a net into the sea (v. 18)||mending their nets (v. 21)|
|The calling||He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. (v. 19)||He called them (v. 22)|
|What they left before following Jesus.||They immediately left their nets and followed Him. (v. 19)
|and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. (v. 22)|
While the similarities are noteworthy for what they underline, they also serve to highlight the singularities. In this case, the peculiarities refer to three things:
- The description of the first brother in each set
- The description of their activity
- The description of them following Jesus.
Simon is described with his other name, Peter. James is described as the son of Zebedee. We already get a feel of two different personalities: Simon Peter perhaps a bit older, independent, and a strong personality (subtly evident in the double reference to him via his two names), while James is a son of Zebedee, possibly a little younger, and quite likely close to his father (notice how verse 21 refers only to him as the son of Zebedee, and not to his brother as well, singling out their relationship).
Of course, it would not be unusual for families to fish together. On the Lake of Galilee this was a common activity, and entire families relied on this occupation for their living. Yet the text makes no mistake. In such a shortage of words (especially considering the brevity of this story), it is worth paying attention to what the writer chooses to include. About Andrew and John, we are only told that they are “the brother of” (v. 18, 21), suggestive of their secondary prominence in the Gospel.
Next comes the description of their activity:
Peter and Andrew are casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen (v. 18).
James and John are in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets (v. 21).
The first group of brothers is out there in the sea, in the midst of a fishing activity. Their identity is well defined, and stated clearly in terms of their occupation: they were fishermen. The second group of brothers are in the boat with their father – a portrayal suggestive of a safe space, in the company of a safe person (an older, mature, likely respected figure). Unlike Peter and Andrew, who are actively involved in fishing, James and John are mending their nets; they are getting ready for fishing.
Two brothers are casting their nets; two brothers are mending their nets. Two different activities, in two slightly different locations, possibly suggesting two different stages in life and in readiness for ministry.
Lastly, and most interestingly for this article, the description of them following Jesus:
Peter and Andrew immediately left their nets and followed Him (v. 20).
James and John immediately … left the boat and their father, and followed Him (v. 22).
Both groups of brothers are met where they are: Peter and Andrew in the middle of casting their nets, James and John in the middle of mending their nets, by their father. This aspect of following Jesus is often talked about: He meets us where we are, and He calls us where we are.
What is not as often talked about is the loss.
Because calling involves a loss.
Notice how the text clearly follows-up with this aspect as it describes the two groups of brothers following Jesus, each of them leaving that “place” where they were called from: Peter and Andrew left their nets (v. 20). James and John left the boat and their father (v. 22).
In one case, one word: their nets.
In another case, two words: a boat, and a father.
Three words; so much loss.
Both Peter and Andrew, as well as James and John, were called in the midst of an ongoing activity (casting their nets and mending their nets, respectively). Similarly, God always calls us in the middle of something, because we are always doing something. What this means is that anytime we answer God’s calling, we have to leave behind something: a place, a job, people, some or all of which may be difficult, even painful, to leave. A new start always involves a loss, and following Jesus is no different: it always comes with a cost, and some kind of loss.
To be clear, none of this emphasis is to suggest that following Jesus wasn’t, or isn’t, worth it. Certainly, nothing could be worth more on this earth than to follow God wherever He leads, and throughout the Scriptures God makes it clear that this is the single most important thing we are to do in this life (and in eternity).
However, that does not diminish the reality of our losses, and being in denial about them is not a requirement for ministry. Quite to the contrary: being able to assess the losses as we follow God (or continue on the path of following God) and being (as much as possible) aware of the cost is a healthy way to be involved in ministry, whatever this concept means for each of us.
If even Matthew saw it necessary to indicate the cost of following Jesus in this brief story, perhaps we’d do well to linger on this point for a moment. Three personal questions can help dig quite deeply, for some of you possibly more deeply than you are ready for at the moment. Nevertheless, these are questions that need to be asked, and asked more than once, for following Jesus is a lifetime calling:
- Where were you when God called you?
- What did you leave behind?
- How is that working for you now?
The movement in this story is one-directional: as Jesus walks on the shore of Galilee, in His own appointed ministry path, He acquires disciples. This movement has not ceased, even though He isn’t physically among us anymore. He still moves in the same direction, consistent with the plan of salvation and with His single most important desire: to reunite with us in a sinless world and spend eternity in our company.
In this path, He still calls disciples today. And as we are acquired by God in His movement, in this trajectory of our planet, and as we acquire the character and the skills necessary to serve as He has appointed us, we must be genuine about our loss. We must be willing to confront our griefs about what we’ve left behind. Some things, some people, we may be able to recover on this earth. Some we will not. But only in a constant, honest dialogue with ourselves and with God can we become free to follow without regrets, to serve without resent, and to live out our calling with all our heart.