Why did Peter and Andrew, James and John follow Jesus? According to Matthews narrative (and Marks), these four fishermen had no prior knowledge of Jesus. While they were at work in Capernaum one day, Jesus came along and said, Follow me, and they did. Answering Jesus call meant leaving behind their families and businesses for very uncertain futures. Why did they do it?
One answer appeals to the literary skill of the Evangelists or their sources. The utter simplicity of the narrativeJesus calls, and the disciples followserves to highlight Jesus personal attractiveness and persuasiveness. It leads the reader to imagine how wonderful Jesus must have been to inspire such an immediate and total response on the disciples part. While there is much to be said for this interpretation, there may be more to the disciples action than that.
Todays reading from Matthew 4 places Jesus call of his first disciples in a wider context. It suggests that the first disciples followed Jesus out of hope. Their hope was rooted in the past, looked forward to the future and was based in the present.
Matthew prefaces the beginning of Jesus public ministry with a quotation from Isaiah: The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light. This prophecy was first uttered some 700 years before the time of Jesus. It expressed the hope of a people threatened by powerful political neighbors, looking for some kind of salvation. Isaiahs prophecy also expressed well the political situation of Israel in Jesus timecaught between capitulation to the Romans (and their local supporters) and the promises of greatness made to Gods people. How could these be reconciled? To Jesus contemporaries like the four fishermen and to early Christians like Matthew, Jesus seemed to be a light shining in the darkness. They saw Isaiahs hope being fulfilled before their eyes, a hope rooted in Israels past.
Before recounting the call of the first disciples, Matthew provides a summary of Jesus preaching: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven refers to the future fullness of Gods rule and its acknowledgment by all creation. It is what we pray for when we say, Hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This was the central theme of Jesus preaching and activity. The first disciples looked forward to experiencing and being part of that glorious future kingdom.
Matthew follows the call of the first disciples with a summary of Jesus activities: teaching, preaching and healing. In the Gospels these are the ways in which Jesus manifests the presence of Gods kingdom among us. Jesus showed the first disciples how to live in their present with the hope of experiencing the future fullness of Gods kingdom. Their hope was based on the person of Jesus as their light shining in the darkness, their light of hope.