Jesus Begins His Ministry and Calls the Disciples (Mark 1: 14-20)

Analysis and Commentary

  • 14 Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. 16 Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.
  • 17 And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. 18 And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him. 19 And when he had gone a little farther thence, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets. 20 And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him.
  • Compare: Matthew 4:12-22; Luke 4:14,15; Luke 5:1-11

Jesus & John the Baptist

Only now does Jesus’ ministry begin. The story of John the Baptist has been framed by references to the gospel — first with the introductory line that this text presents the gospel and now here again where Jesus actually begins to preach the gospel. This framing pattern, also called a chiastic device, is used frequently by Mark because it allows him to use both the internal passages and the framing passages to explain and interpret each other.

Once Jesus is baptized and successfully overcomes the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, he begins his actual ministry — but first, we hear that John the Baptist was put in prison (and presumably executed, but that detail doesn’t appear until much later). What was he imprisoned for? By this point, he surely must have ceased his own efforts and become a follower of Jesus, right?

If he really did believe that he was paving the way for Jesus, he should have dropped out of sight by this point. Perhaps he never said such a thing and continued in his own work? If that is the case (as some scholars feel), then the above reference is part of the effort to solidify the connection between John and Jesus in the minds of those who might have followed John or at least had heard about him.

The phrasing of verse 14 makes it sound almost like Jesus was waiting for John to disappear before launching his ministry. Mark specifies that Jesus went into Galilee to preach, suggesting that he didn’t start out there. Because he specified that John worked in Judea, it looks like he used “Judea” in the narrow sense of just the region around Jerusalem, which would mean John and Jesus were working in different areas. If John was paving the way for Jesus, whey didn’t he do so where Jesus would work — or why didn’t Jesus preach in the region John prepared for him?

Jesus’ Gospel

Next we learn what Jesus was preaching to people: the kingdom of God is at hand (the end of the world is really, really close now), so repent (admit that what you were doing was wrong and stop), and believe in the gospel (the details of which are unclear — it may have simply been that God loves everyone or it may have included ideas about God’s judgment for the righteous and the wicked). The word used here for “preaching” is the same used to describe the ministry of John the Baptist — and it is possible that the contents of the messages of the two were very similar.

Jesus’ message sounds simple. Notably absent from this is just about everything that would later become part of Christian theology and doctrine. There’s nothing about having a “personal relationship” with Jesus. There’s nothing about the need for a sinless blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. There's nothing about Jesus needing to die and rise again in order for people to be forgiven.

This makes sense because the average person of the time didn’t have the education and training necessary to understand the complex Christology that would later be developed by Christian theologians. Of course, this raises the question of what purpose that complex Christology has if it is so far divorced from what Jesus is portrayed as having taught.

Another question: was Jesus forgiving people’s sins at this time, following in the footsteps of John the Baptist? Perhaps — and if he was, how and why did a blood sacrifice become necessary? Surely when Jesus personally forgives you, nothing more is needed from him, right?

We do know that he told people to repent — but then what? Just sit around and wait a few years so that he could die and rise again before the process of repentance and forgiveness could be complete? That’s a little odd. We may not know if he was forgiving people’s sins, but if he wasn’t then his actions need further explanation.

This passage of Mark describes the calling of the first disciples (literally: “learners”), people who would come to play an important role in stories about Jesus. These disciples constituted the core group of Jesus’ eschatological community — people who believed his message and would be there to lead in the new order that would follow the apocalypse.

Disciples are called and play a role at the earliest stages in all of the gospels, demonstrating their fundamental importance. Jesus’ message was not one about a purely mystical or heavenly Kingdom of God; instead, the message had a core social dimension which required a community of dedicated believers.

Jesus Takes the Initiative

Unlike traditional stories from Jewish and Hellenistic cultures, these disciples were not already out seeking a master to follow. Jesus is the one who takes the initiative to call them to his side. They are also not students of philosophy or religion; instead, they are regular men engaged in everyday activities in support of their families and communities. All of this they leave behind in favor of a personal commitment to Jesus and in order to establish a new family with him at the head.

One wonders why they chose to follow him. Perhaps if they were portrayed as having listened to him for a bit, the entire scene would make sense; yet all we have is him walking up, telling the two pairs of brothers to come with him, and they do just that. Christians have traditionally thought of their decision as reflecting an inner knowledge of Jesus’ true identity, but there is nothing in the text to support that and it’s a weak rationalization.

What was the attraction? What did they find appealing about the idea of being “fishers of men” — indeed, what did they think that phrase meant? They must have really liked the idea, or Jesus, or both because otherwise, they wouldn’t have left their jobs at a moment’s notice like that. It’s a shame that the author never explored this — a curious fact, considering that Mark was supposed to have been a companion of one of the disciples.

Also curious is how John’s gospel relates that Andrew started out as one of the followers of John the Baptist. When he heard John declare Jesus to be the chosen one, though, he switched allegiance and went to get his brother Simon so they could both became followers of Jesus. This was all before the imprisonment of John the Baptist, the reverse order from what we see here in Mark.

We will keep reading about Galilee because that is the region where Jesus does most of his work. Galilee is a very small area, being only about 45 miles from north to south; according to Josephus, it had only 204 villages in its entirety. At the time Galilee was one of three administrative areas split up among the sons of Herod the Great: Galilee, Judea, and Samaria. Under the control of Herod Antipas, Galilee was also the area where modern Judaism attained its definitive form — both the Mishnah and the Palestinian Talmud were created in this region.