This post is the beginning of a new study series that I'm going to be doing on Mark's account of the Gospel. Actually, I might consider the old post "Did Jesus Own a Home" the first of these but I wrote that about a month ago; by the way, you might want to check this out again, some more discussion is being generated from it. As I noted in a brief post yesterday, I am going to try to offer more thoughts on Mark's work more frequently on this blog. I hope this generates some good discussion. Enjoy.
When I was a child, I grew up listening to some of the great musicians of the 70’s and 80’s. One of my favorites—who I still enjoy listening to today—includes Bob Seger. Thanks to Chevy, Seger is probably best known for his hit song “Like A Rock.” And though he does have quite a repertoire of songs, his second most famous tune is “Ol’ Time Rock-n-Roll.” The lyrics say, “Just take those ol’ records off the shelf, I sit and listen to them by myself…” And though that was a long way of getting to the point here, it actually is fitting because many times when I hear preachers and read commentaries, I feel like the same ol’ record is being pulled from the shelf. This is especially true when it comes to passages like Mark 1.16-20. The verses read:
“16. As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17. ‘Come, follow Me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ 18. At once they left their nets and followed Him. 19. When He had gone a little farther, He saw James son of Zebedee and His brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20. Without delay He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed Him.”
At first glance, this passage does seem to suggest that fishermen Jesus called “left everything.” In fact, in sermons and commentaries, this point is usually over-emphasized and under-analyzed. Typically, the preacher or commentator suggests that the disciples gave up everything “for good” or “forever,” to follow Jesus. Just as well, it is usually implied and often even stated, that this was the first time these fishermen had ever seen Jesus and that prior to this, they knew nothing about Him. The picture is painted of these men who had no knowledge of Jesus and in an instant, just up and left everything to follow Him. No doubt many a preacher and expositor have used these verses as a springboard into talking about “commitment to Jesus” and “being willing to give up everything we have and everyone we know in a heartbeat, for the sake of the Kingdom.” (Yet, how many preachers do you know that have done this?) Unfortunately, many have also used such passages to desert their families, jobs, responsibilities, etc.
There are many reasons, though, that we should question such thoughts. Indeed, as I am going to show here: 1) The disciples already knew Jesus before He “called them,” 2) The disciples did not leave everything for good but only temporarily, and 3) These verses are not a call to abandon everything and everyone in an instant and to live a life of escapism.
What we need to realize is that Mark opens his Gospel account up with John the Baptist on the scene, on purpose (Mk. 1.1-14). As the narrative reveals, John is in the wilderness preaching about Jesus before the Messiah shows up. Of course, John, though He did not know Jesus as a “close” relative, definitely knew of Him because Jesus was his cousin. More importantly, though, is the fact that John was a Pharisee (though I do not rule out that he had Essene affiliations) and as such, he had his own circle of disciples (Mk. 2.18; Jn. 1.35). Given this, it only makes sense that as their leader, John who was preaching about the coming Messiah (e.g. Jesus) must have been doing this in the midst of his disciples. Moreover, it is probably likely that he was teaching them about this while they were alone. It is only logical that this would be the case!
The point, then, that I am making is that the disciples had at the very least, heard of Jesus, the coming Messiah and had probably already seen Him. And if their own leader, John, thought so highly of Jesus, it only follows that they would have too! Therefore, when we read Mk. 1.14 about John’s arrest, it is no accident that Mark has Jesus filling John’s shoes. Even more, it is no accident that this comes before the episode of Jesus “calling” the fishermen. They are so ready and willing to follow Jesus: 1) because they knew Him, 2) they knew about His mission, 3) they respected John and realized that the one “greater” than John was actually taking his place, and 4) they were angry with the political system against which Jesus was preaching, the very system that had imprisoned John. In other words, when Jesus approaches the fishermen, He already knew them and they already knew Him; the loss of their leader and the harsh political situation made it the perfect time for the disciples to follow Jesus. (I would also posit here that it is quite possibly the fact that Jesus moved to the Galilee area to work with these guys. As a woodworker, it is quite likely that He helped build, restore and preserve boats; thus, He could have known them this way too--though I cannot fully prove this (but why do we automatically assume "carpenter" equals home builder? How does one prove that traditional claim? Further, if He hung out around the lake as much as Mark says He did, then there was no way that they couldn’t have known this guy.)
This leads us to the next point: The disciples did not just up and leave everything forever. In fact, a few scenes later, Mark tells us that Jesus and co. went to Peter’s home. Evidently they hadn’t left their family, home and work behind (Mk. 1.29-34)! Moreover, when we read John’s account of the Gospel, what is it that we see the disciples doing when Jesus (in glory form) comes back to see His followers? They are out on their boats fishing!!! (John 21) They didn’t leave their family business behind; they remained fishermen. They didn’t leave their families behind either. Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 9.6 that Peter’s wife engaged in the ministry of the Gospel with him. So, the age-old picture of the disciples leaving everything behind for good is not a good one. Indeed, the disciples left things temporarily but definitely not forever.
So, what kind of message does it send to the world when the Church teaches people to simply abandon their families and responsibilities in the name of Christ? Not a good one! Not a biblical one either. Sure, we may be called to the mission-field and that call may bring with it the hard choice to spend time away from our loved ones but that is hardly the same thing as abandoning everyone and everything dear to us. And just as well, that is a totally different thing than family members holding us back in our Christian walk.
Thus, I propose that we put the old record of “disciples who didn’t know Jesus and left everything forever to follow Him,” back on the shelf! It is time for a fresh reading, preaching and teaching of these verses. And as a close reading of the text shows, the disciples did know Jesus and given the circumstances and events at the time, they were eager to follow Him as He preached against the empire that had taken their leader. It is this Jesus, who in the opening scene of Mark’s Gospel account is strolling through the wilderness in the likeness of a royal Caesar. It is this Jesus who, like Caesar, has forerunners going before Him announcing His arrival. It is this Jesus who is preaching the Good News, not of Caesar’s kingdom, but of God’s Kingdom. And it is this Jesus who is going to establish a rule founded on truth and equality; it is this Jesus who is taking the place of the empire that kept the whole ancient world in its shadows of oppression. It is this Jesus that we today are called to follow!