Jesus’s first two students.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 February 2024

John 1.35-39.

Honestly, the gospel of John doesn’t line up with the other gospels, which we call synoptics ’cause they often share the same point of view. John wasn’t really meant to: The author had likely read the other gospels, or at least Luke; and was filling in all their blank spots. So when the synoptics make it sound like Jesus first gathered his students in the Galilee, John corrects that: Jesus met ’em in Judea. John the baptist actually sent him his first two.

John 1.35-37 KWL
35 The next day John, and two of his students,
were standing in that place again.
36 Looking at Jesus walking by,
John said, “Look, God’s lamb!”
37 John’s two students heed what he says,
and follow Jesus.

The word μαθητής/mathitís, “student,” is regularly translated “disciple.” And plenty of Christians have the false idea that a disciple is somehow different from a student. A disciple, they claim, has a deep relationship with their teacher. They’re not just trying to learn from their master; they wanna be just like their master, like an apprentice. They wanna adopt the master’s lifestyle, not just their teachings. And other such profound-sounding rubbish.

Yeah, rubbish. Because any student can become huge fans of their teacher and try to mimic them in all sorts of ways. I saw it in college with my fellow students; I saw it in my own students when I became a teacher. Some students get endlessly fascinated with their teacher’s personal lives, and wanna know what makes them tick. They’re still trying to figure out their own personalities, and figure this is the guy to emulate. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes not!

In fact, there are all kinds of student-teacher relationships. Sometimes they’re all about academics, sometimes lifestyle, and sometimes a little of both. Sometimes teachers think, “I want successors, and that’s what I’m training,” and sometimes all we’re thinking is, “They need to know this stuff,” and nothing more. Certain teachers covet eager, worshipful pupils, and are jealous of other teachers who have ’em; they wanna be worshiped. Some of these relationships are very healthy; some are sick ’n twisted.

But saying, “A disciple is different from a student,” is rubbish. They’re synonyms.

And John and Jesus’s students were seeking religious instruction. They were products of the first-century Judean culture, in which religious kids sought a master, a רַ֣ב/rav, who’d teach them how to follow God, and be a devout Pharisee. (Or Samaritan, or Qumrani. Sadducees weren’t so worried about it.) So they sought a scribe who knew his bible, knew the Law and how to interpet it.

And if you were particularly fortunate, your rav would also be a prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit who spoke to ’em personally. Who might even grant you the Spirit, and now you could hear God. Wouldn’t that be awesome? (Forgetting, of course, people back then were in the nasty habit of killing prophets. But hey—hearing God!)

So when John identified Jesus as God’s lamb, you know his students immediately thought, “Well if John hears God, but John says this is the guy…” and off they went.

Who chose whom?

The gospel makes clear one of these two students was Andrew, Jn 1.40 and implies the other guy was Philip on account of the next story, about Philip and Nathanael. In the Philip and Nathanael story, Jesus spoke to Philip like he already knew him, Jn 1.43 so deducing the other kid is Philip just makes sense.

But since John doesn’t explicitly say the other kid is Philip, a lot of commentators figure it’s John himself. Makes him an eyewitness to these events; isn’t that handy? But there’s no evidence for it. John could’ve easily heard these stories later from Andrew, Philip, and Jesus.

Both Andrew and Philip were from Bethsaida, Galilee. Jn 1.44 Likely they grew up together, chose to follow John together… and maybe John singled them out because Jesus was from their homeland. We don’t know.

Unlike the other gospels’ stories, where Jesus told people, “Follow me!” and they did, these kids didn’t need an invitation. That’s the sort of enthusiasm a lot of us Christians lack: We’re too often waiting for God to call us to do something, instead of following him whether he calls us or not.

But their action kinda rubs certain Christians the wrong way. Y’see, way further ahead in John, Jesus states,

John 15.16 KWL
“You don’t select me, but I select you, and set you up
so you might go out and produce fruit,
and your fruit might last;
so whatever you might ask the Father in my name,
he might give you.”

Christians usually spin this to say, “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jn 15.16 NIV then pull it out of its context and claim it means Christians don’t choose to follow Jesus. Can’t choose to follow Jesus; we’re sinners, and too depraved! So God has to take the initiative, and bring our spiritually dead hearts to life so that we can now live for Jesus.

This passage where John’s students obviously take the initiative to follow Jesus? They don’t care for it so much. It disproves their bad theology. They much prefer the story where Jesus walks along the lakeshore and calls fishermen. This story feels way too much like Andrew and Philip had the sort of free will which they’re entirely sure depraved humans can’t have. Grace doesn’t extend that far.

But isn’t this exactly what Jesus teaches? How people should take the initiative, pursue God, and never give up? Lk 18.1 How, like the Persistent Widow, we oughta keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, Mt 7.7 because God wants to generously give us good things? How he wants eager worshipers, not reluctant ones? How he wants to give us his kingdom? Exactly what is wrong with taking the initiative?

Because the initiative is all going to be for naught unless Jesus goes along with it. Let’s say Andrew and Philip pursued Jesus, and his response was to turn round and say, “Oh, piss off!” Yeah, that’s entirely unlike him, so you see my point: Nobody can follow Jesus unless he invites us to follow him, and he invites everyone to follow him. We might choose Jesus, but he chooses us too, and technically chose us first: Jesus extended his invitation at the beginning of time. Ep 1.4, Rv 13.8

So did Jesus choose Andrew and Philip? Sure. He coulda rejected them, but he did just the opposite; he invited them home.

John 1.38-39 KWL
38 Turning and seeing them following,
Jesus tells them, “What are you looking for?”
They tell him, “Ravvi” (i.e. Teacher), “where do you live?”
39 Jesus tells them, “Come and see.”
So they come and see where he lives,
and stay with him that day;
it’s the tenth hour [about 4:30pm].

And more. He made ’em apostles; two of his Twelve. He not only trained them to understand God and the Law and salvation, but to follow the Spirit, cure the sick and raise the dead, help establish his church, and rule Israel for him after he resurrects them. He chose them for a lot of things. And here they were, thinking they’d just learn the Law from a really clever holy man.

Jesus the rabbi.

As I said in my article on Pharisees, they had established a system of schools (Greek συναγωγή/synagogí, “meeting [place]”) for teaching the Law to the whole community. Any city with 10 adult males could start one. They encouraged local Israelis, both men and women, to attend every Friday night, when Sabbath began. One of ’em would read the bible, translate it into Aramaic or Greek or Latin so the locals could understand it, then explain what Pharisee rabbis understood it to mean, and how to practice it.

Weekdays, Israeli boys and young men went to synagogue to learn the four R’s: R’s: Reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic, and religion. Pharisees believed in a literate society, which could read the bible, not just know vaguely about it. They wanted people to follow the Law, pass it down to their descendants, and keep the cycle (the Judges-style pattern of apostasy, revival, divine rescue, then apostasy again) from repeating. Children would learn the basics; young men, ages 13 and older, would study the Law more intensively under a master, a rav. “My master,” ravvi, became our English word rabbi. Jn 1.38

Jesus was considered one of those rabbis. Because he taught in synagogue—more than once! The synagogues all belonged to Pharisees, and they wouldn’t let him teach in there unless they didn’t just consider him one of them, but considered him a master. Thing is, Jesus isn’t really a Pharisee. He teaches his interpretations of the Law, not theirs. Mk 1.22

And Jesus did way more than merely teach bible and tell parables about God’s kingdom. He taught peripatetic style, a Greek technique popularized by Plato of Athens: His kids followed him around, watched him do stuff, and he’d turn all those things into teachable moments. They assumed Jesus would do everything the right way (and of course he did), so they’d learn by the example of his lifestyle. Any time they had questions, he was right there to answer. And any time he had a lesson for them, they were right there to listen.

Was John the baptist the same kind of teacher? More than likely. He too had students, and they too called him rabbi. Jn 3.26 The way John tends to get depicted—some strange, crazy loner who lived in the desert and screamed at sinners—certainly doesn’t sound conducive to education. But it appears John did instruct kids in his spare time.

I regularly call Jesus’s students his “kids,” because that’s exactly what they were: Teenagers. Movies and art make ’em look like John and Jesus’s contemporaries, because artists and filmmakers don’t know squat about history. But read the gospels. Read how Jesus’s students behaved. Look at their petty squabbles about who’s greatest, or dense misunderstandings about basic stuff Jesus just said. They’re children. Jesus thought a lot of children; far more than his culture, or even our culture, does. Teenagers are way more valuable than we give them credit for.

At age 13, both Jews and Romans gave young people the legal status of adults. Boys cold go to war. They could now marry. Pharisees expected their young men to study under a rabbi and get themselves a basic education. If they had time and money (as Paul apparently did), they could go to academy, a school with a bunch of masters to learn from, and get a really good education. Back then a good education consisted of geometry (’cause algebra hadn’t reached the Roman Empire yet, and calculus wouldn’t be invented for another 16 centuries) and rhetoric (’cause public speaking and logical arguments come in handy). Jewish academies also included a ton of bible.

Though Luke called Jesus’s students ἀγράμματοί/agrámmatí and ἰδιῶται/idióte (“not scribes” and “idiots,” KJV “unlearned” and “ignorant”) that’s more accurately how the Judean senators saw them; not what they were. Jesus really was a one-man academy. Anyone who spent a year or two under Jesus, was more than equal to any scribe.

So when John singled out Jesus to his students, they realized John meant he’s the rabbi to follow. John may have been the best teacher in all Judea, but if you want the best teacher in the cosmos, follow the Nazarene.