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The Life of Jesus - Series 2: Episode 5

Jesus starts to call disciples

| Martin Charlesworth
John 1:35-51

Andrew, Simon and unnamed disciple transfer allegiance from John to Jesus. Simon is given name of Peter, the rock. Jesus returns to Galilee where Philip and Nathanael are called. They are spiritual seekers which we can be too.

Andrew, Simon and unnamed disciple transfer allegiance from John to Jesus. Simon is given name of Peter, the rock. Jesus returns to Galilee where Philip and Nathanael are called. They are spiritual seekers which we can be too.


Hello and welcome to Series 2 and Episode 5, and it's entitled ‘Jesus Starts to Call Disciples’. We're going to turn in a moment to John's Gospel 1: 35 - 51.

Introduction and Recap

Let's remind ourselves of the events that have happened which I've described in the episodes immediately prior to this one. We started looking at John the Baptist's baptism and preaching campaign down by the River Jordan and the rather dramatic results of that, the thousands of people that came. Then we discussed Jesus' baptism and the remarkable appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the voice from heaven - the voice of the heavenly Father expressing his blessing and pleasure at his Son. We described, in one episode, Jesus going to the Judean wilderness nearby and being tempted by the devil for 40 days, and the significance of that occurrence. and we found Jesus coming back to the River Jordan where John is still operating. We looked at some of the things that John said, in the last episode, when a group of religious leaders (priests, Levites and Pharisees) came down from Jerusalem to interrogate and question him about who he was, what he was doing, what authority he had and so forth. John stated, in the last episode, when Jesus returned to Bethany -the area where he was baptising - and said, “Look the Lamb of God” - and we discussed what it meant for Jesus to be the Lamb of God (a representation of the sacrifice of atonement from the Old Testament) and then through to his death on the cross which we discussed, very briefly, at the end of the last session.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

The location of today's events is still in that place which John's Gospel uniquely describes as Bethany beyond the Jordan - Bethany on the far side of the Jordan. I want to pause for a moment and think about this place. Archaeologists have identified where they think it is, at the southern end of the Jordan river, near the Dead Sea, and just near where the road starts going up the hill towards the capital city of Jerusalem. This is a long way away from Galilee where Jesus came from; it's much further south in the country. It appears that John has encamped there and his followers are staying with him. It seems a religious community has developed there - a temporary community. They are working with John the Baptist. People are coming down to the River Jordan from Judea, from Samaria, from Galilee and from other places. That's the place we're talking about and this place was also on the main road that went from the north of the country to Jerusalem in the south - if you wanted to avoid Samaria - which most of the Jewish people did because they didn't like the Samaritan people in the middle - you went along this particular road, round the edge of their territory. There's quite a few people staying there, it appears, and also a lot of people passing through because people are always going backwards and forwards from the north to the south of the country from Galilee to Judea and Jerusalem - a bit of a thoroughfare, a place where people stopped. That's the place that we're talking about today and John has his group of disciples and followers with him.

Calling Disciples

Today we see the beginning of a process which is very important for our story - Jesus beginning to call his own disciples. A disciple is someone who learns, who studies under somebody, who seeks to copy them, who is their student; and Judaism had a strong culture of discipleship. Teachers, often called rabbis, had their own students who would study with them regularly, both informally and formally in schools. It was a way of learning and many young men wanted to be under the leadership of a Jewish rabbi and to learn the ways of the Jewish religion from such a teacher. It was in their culture and it's that culture which John capitalises on as he gathers followers to himself. As we see today, this is what Jesus begins to do and the whole story of Jesus' life depends upon the formation of a community around him: his disciples and then his Apostles, who become the foundation for his Church, in due course. This is the beginning of that process and it refers to five people - five different individuals - all of whom become, later on, full members of his primary discipleship community known as ‘the Twelve’. Four are named here and one is unnamed and as we read the narrative, I'm going to propose what many commentators think, which is that the unnamed disciple (first of John, then of Jesus) is in fact the writer of this Gospel - John himself (another John, not John the Baptist, but John the Apostle). We can't be sure of that, but that's what it looks like. There are five people mentioned here, and our understanding is that those five ended up being part of Jesus' inner circle. We'll read the text from John 1:35:

‘The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”’

John 1:35-51, NIV

Here we have two remarkable incidents, and I'm going to look at them separately for a moment. Verses 35 to 42 is the first incident: where Andrew, Simon Peter and an unnamed disciple (who I shall call John) are drawn to follow Jesus, but notice they start out as disciples of John the Baptist, willing to follow him around and drawn to his message. As Jesus passed by again (obviously Jesus was staying in the same vicinity because the same thing happened the previous day, as we saw in the last talk), Jesus passed by and John said, “Look the Lamb of God.” Jesus was obviously staying nearby, around the area of Bethany and there's a reference to that fact in this text.  John says (John the Baptist says), “Look the Lamb of God,” and Andrew and the other one, we take to be John the Apostle, receive some revelation as they hear this expression: “Look the Lamb of God.” They've got very inquisitive about Jesus.They call him rabbi, they ask to spend the day with him, and obviously they start talking to him privately. Then Andrew introduces Simon to Jesus, who gives him the name Peter, and we have this wonderful expression: “We've found the Messiah!” You can see what's happening in the minds of these three, bit by bit. They'd followed John; they knew that John was a prophet, and they had become very interested in Jesus. John was pointing them to Jesus and so they're gradually shifting their allegiance from John the Baptist through to Jesus.

Simon Peter

Jesus, when dealing with Simon, says in verse 42: “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas,” which is translated as Peter and which means a rock. From then onwards we see that Peter is either called by the name Peter, or by the name Simon. Jesus later on develops this particular concept; he's naming this man Simon Peter as a definition of his function and his character. A couple of years later, there's a very important moment which I'll refer to briefly because I think it's relevant to this particular prophetic designation that Jesus gives to Simon when he calls him Peter. There's a moment when Jesus draws aside his disciples later on, a couple of years into his ministry, when he says, “Who do people say that I am?” Then they say, “Well, some say Elijah or Jeremiah, one of the prophets,” and he says, “Well who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” and this is in Matthew 16. Verse 17 is very interesting, following directly from what we've read in John's Gospel about Simon Peter. Matthew 16: 17 - 18:

‘“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”’

Matthew 16:17-18, NIV

This idea of Peter being a rock is important. The rock is either a representation of Peter's character and his status, or his confession, but there's something significant about Peter which Jesus identifies. Even at this very early stage, he looks prophetically at him and he identifies what his function will be - he becomes the leading disciple, the leading Apostle, the founding Apostle of the Church. He preaches the first sermon on the day of Pentecost; he helps the Samaritans (the Gentiles) to come into the Kingdom of God; he becomes a kind of father figure in the Church in Jerusalem. Despite a few ups and downs in the lifetime of Jesus, Peter becomes a very stable and key figure for the development of the Church.

The first half of this narrative introduces us to Andrew, to Simon Peter and probably to John the Apostle. As we read later on, we'll find that these three are key members of the Twelve, the inner circle of Jesus. They're called into his discipleship group again, more explicitly, a little bit later on in the story but here's their first meeting with Jesus. They're not even in Galilee; they're not at home. They're away from home following John the Baptist. Jesus is away from home being baptised, being in the wilderness and visiting Jerusalem. They met here at Bethany beyond the Jordan and in that small encampment, where John the Baptist was preaching. They met and these three began to follow Jesus and this would shape their lives. They would become key people in the discipleship band which later became known as the Twelve.

Returning to Galilee

The second half of this story John 1: 43 - 51, describes the following day. It says ‘the next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee’ - so he's going home now, this is very interesting. He's been away from home for quite a substantial period of time as all these various events have unfolded: he's been forty days in the wilderness, he's been with John the Baptist for a period of time. The wilderness experience took him up to Jerusalem, as the narrative tells us; so he's been in that southern area travelling around to different places, but he decides now that he's going to return to Galilee. This is where he is going to be based and going to function for the most part of, probably, a three-year ministry. Then it says ‘Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”’ Philip is another one of those people who appears to be one of John's disciples. Philip introduces his friend Nathanael to Jesus. Probably Nathanael is equivalent to a man who is named in the other Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as Bartholomew - the names are connected - John uses the name Nathanael and Bartholomew becomes one of the Twelve. Jesus speaks to Nathanael and says, remarkably, “I saw you while you were still under a fig tree before Philip called you.” In other words, he could see prophetically where this man was in the encampment and the fact that he was sitting under a tree - it happened to be a fig tree and fig trees were very common. Shade was very much required in a hot climate and Jesus said “Well I could even see you before you saw me.” That's the nature of Jesus and the way he deals with humanity; he sees us before we see him and he calls us before we call on him. Nathanael is very shocked and over-awed by Jesus and quickly he says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” That's a remarkable thing to say! He quickly sees that Jesus is different from John. John is a prophet, with tremendous authority and great charisma, drawing crowds of thousands down to Bethany and the River Jordan for baptism and preaching, teaching and instruction but Nathanael immediately sees that there's something different here and so he is transferring his loyalty across to Jesus.

As this passage comes to an end, we can envisage a situation where Jesus and these five return together to Galilee and this is the beginning of Jesus' discipleship community. It's a fascinating narrative and John's the only one who gives us this narrative - I think it's because he's actually in the narrative and he feels that it's very important to tell this story. There's a lot of interesting human touches here but what we can say, overwhelmingly clearly, is John the Baptist is doing his job really well. What is his job? To point to Jesus. What is his job? ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness’ and preparing the way for the Lord. He is literally preparing the way for Jesus. So some of his disciples and followers are now transferring their loyalty to Jesus but we don't get any indication here that John is upset by that or worried. He would see it as a natural progression, as he said at one other point, “He must increase and I must decrease.” He had to do his job for a period, but when Jesus came his job began to fade away into the background.


Some reflections, as we come to the end of this episode: what we see described here with these five characters in one way or another, are what I would describe as ‘spiritual seekers’. They have taken a difficult journey to get associated with John the Baptist: they've left home; they've left their families; they've left their workplace; and they've taken extended leave to go down to this encampment by the River Jordan at Bethany. No one knows quite when they're coming back. John can't predict exactly what's going to happen next. They're going to have to support themselves in terms of their daily living and their food because John didn't have any financial resources - he just lived in the wilderness all on his own. They must be seeking something. They must have an inner quest for spiritual reality and truth. I think, in these disciples who transfer their loyalty to Jesus (Andrew, Peter, John, Philip and Nathanael), we have examples of spiritual seekers. Are you one of those? I'm sure there are some people reading this who are seeking. Can I encourage you, you're looking in the right place! Just as John spoke to those around him and said, “Look the Lamb of God,” so I can say with confidence look at Jesus, hear his story. I'm telling the whole story, unashamedly. We're going through the whole account and one of the reasons I'm doing it is for those people who are seeking, who haven't yet any certainty of faith but who are fascinated by the person of Jesus. If that's you, can I say you are in the right place, at the right time and you're following in the footsteps of Andrew, Peter, John, Philip, Nathanael and many, many other people in the New Testament - some of whom we'll speak about as the story unfolds before us.

Spiritual seekers can find the truth. Just as Nathanael said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel,” so the Holy Spirit wants to lead you, if you are a seeker, to find the truth about Jesus and become aware that he's more than a prophet, more than a moral teacher, more than a miracle-worker, more than an interesting historical figure. He is actually the Son of God, a unique human individual who died on the cross, rose again with a miraculous resurrection, ascended to heaven and invites you and me to become his followers today just as he invited Andrew, Peter, John, Philip and Nathanael to be his followers two thousand years ago. Becoming a Christian requires a revelation about who Jesus is and that's the revelation you see described just in a few short sentences in this passage concerning these five men. Jesus knows exactly who you are and what you're like as a person. He knew Nathanael and he spoke of Nathanael before Nathanael knew him. He knew Simon, he gave him the name Peter to describe something that would be both his calling and his character - and how true it proved! These men became converts; they began to trust in Jesus, and then they became disciples. There is a difference: a convert is someone who professes faith in Jesus Christ, very clearly, and identifies themselves as a Christian - and that's really good. A disciple is someone who organises their life in order to follow Jesus, to be closely integrated in the Church and to find mentors, disciples, leaders and pastors who can help them grow. I would encourage you to do that, because what we see emerging here is a pattern that's very common throughout the New Testament, which we call the pattern of discipleship - where one person leads another, or a group, to help them become mature in their faith - and that's what we need. If that's not a reality in your life and you want to become a more committed disciple, then try and find people who can help you - go and ask them, go and seek them out.

John is a wonderful example of someone who witnessed clearly about Jesus, just with that very simple statement, “Look the Lamb of God.” He said it again in this passage; he said it in the previous passage that we looked at in the last episode when the group of investigators came down from Jerusalem. You and I, if we are believers in Jesus, can signpost others - can say to them, as it were, “Look the Lamb of God.” We can say, “Look into the life of Jesus, read the Bible.” I've mentioned in a previous episode but I'll mention it again, a great thing to do is to encourage people to read the Gospels (perhaps Luke's Gospel, or John's Gospel, perhaps Mark's Gospel) all of them are good and they have a different way of communicating. John's Gospel is very popular with those who are seeking to find faith for the first time. So let's use this text to help others. If you're a spiritual seeker here today, my last word to you is you're in the right place at the right time and I'm praying that you, too, will find that Jesus is the Son of God and the King of Israel and your Saviour.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. The early disciples changed from following John the Baptist to putting their trust in Jesus. How did that happen? Where are you on that spiritual journey?
    2. What is the difference between a convert and a disciple?
  • Discipleship
    1. Consider how you would explain to a ‘seeker’ that Jesus is more than a good man.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging to look at Simon Peter in the Gospels and then turn to Acts 2. What made him a good leader of the Church?
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