Do the differing accounts of the call of the disciples make a contradiction?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: How did Jesus call Peter to follow him? John and Mark's gospels say different things.

Answer: Greetings friend. I will be happy to take you through the resolution of the differing accounts of Peter’s call. You have mentioned two gospels, but three have significant differences, with Mark and Matthew’s accounts being essentially the same. So, we will sort through Mark, Luke and John to find out who was called — and when, and where, and how. I have included all relevant text from all four gospels below my answer, using the same Bible version (the ESV) to ensure that we are comparing like samplings.

Before we analyze the details of the differing accounts, we need to understand when Bible passages are or are not in contradiction. First and foremost, if there is a plausible explanation as to why the passages are not in contradiction, that is, if we can join the accounts in at least one sensible way, then the passages are not in contradiction. This means that we do not look for trouble where there is none. If you think about it for a minute, millions of people read books and magazines, routinely filling in gaps or glossing by the difficult, to capture the author’s essential story. Yet when they come to the Bible, also an authored book with an essential story, they put away their literary skills and cry, foul! Know this well, God used common people and common language tools to communicate uncommon things. The usual rules of reading apply to the Bible as to any other book. We need to understand the author’s intent.

First of all, we need not wait for a perfect (or a preferred) theology before the words say what they say, nor do we have to wait for a passage to have perfect congruency with everything else that we think we know before letting God off the hook. He too is telling a story using human language. Work with him as you would with any author. Use what you know to find what you need.

Second, although the four gospels tell the same overall story, and some include the same incidents, they are not required to relate all the details the same way…and when you think about it, why would God bother writing the exact same thing four times?

Third, do not let extra-biblical information throw you off. Most Bibles are split into chapters and numbered verses. These are study aids and not part of the inspired word of God. In like manner, marginal notes and chapter headings are often helpful, but they are never Scripture. As for your question, where you see headings like “Jesus Calls the First Disciples” over the appropriate sections in each gospel, these are aids to navigation, no more than that. The problem is that they give the impression that the contents under equal headings should be equal in content, but that is not necessarily so. With all that in place, let us unscramble the narratives.

I personally like the Gospel of Mark’s call of Peter best because of its plain drama. Imagine, Jesus just showing up — like a salesman on a cold call — and by the power of his Spirit, calling these men to leave everything and follow him. Wow! But that is not what happened — not according to the Apostle John, anyway. The Gospel of John reveals that Andrew was with John the Baptist one day, and then Jesus came by, so Andrew went and hung out with Jesus. Later, Andrew brought his brother Simon to meet Jesus, and Jesus renamed Simon Peter. Now, my edition of the Bible has “Jesus Calls the First Disciples” over this section of John, but I see no call, and this is obviously not the same narrative as in Mark. So, your question is well taken. You asked “How did Jesus call…?” meaning, which one is correct? The answer is both.

“The call” was not a moment in time. It was a process. The call began with John the Baptist handing Andrew off to Jesus. It was while he was visiting with him that Andrew grew to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. So, he went home and fetched his brother Simon and introduced him to Jesus. Jesus renamed him, Peter. Then we move to Luke’s account of the great catch of fish. This is a new event for us, but it ends with a summary of the call, which joins it in time to Mark’s moment. The call ends in Mark, with what must be the farthest thing from a cold call in the history of the world at this point, the words “Follow me…”

Frankly, the notion of a cold-call call can be hard to swallow — like, who is this guy Jesus? Who does he think he is! It is much more plausible that Jesus met them previously, and that he let them marinate in his initial teachings before calling them finally. I believe that they already knew (at some level) that they were choosing whether or not to follow the Messiah when Jesus “officially” called them in Mark.

By way of proof, we have a time marker that sets John’s and Mark’s narratives at different times. Mark 1:14 says, “After John [the Baptist] was arrested…” Therefore, John the Baptist was in prison when Jesus made the “official” call in 1:16… but the Baptist was still out and about when Andrew met Jesus in the Gospel of John. John’s events obviously occurred first, then the call in Mark. People generally misunderstand that the call was instantaneous. It was not. It was linear. As you can see, the gospels did not say conflicting things about the same incident. They reported two different incidents that are both parts of a linear event known as “the call.”

The best way to stay out of trouble with these gospel “conflicts” (and I highly recommend this as a Bible study exercise), is to create your own linear story of Jesus using every verse in all four gospels. Yes, this is a huge job, but one thing that you would notice very quickly is that many of the incidents that you assumed to be the same are not really the same. Also, many incidents have details included in some gospels and missing in others. Additionally, forcing yourself to assign some verses before other verses (and you won’t always succeed in this) shows how some things thought to be in contradiction are not — and your John versus Mark call of Peter is a great example.

I pray that this has helped you.

(All biblical accounts concerning the calls are listed below. All are ESV)


“While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” (Matthew 4:18–22, ESV)


“Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.” (Mark 1:16–20, ESV)


“On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.” (Luke 5:1–11, ESV)


“The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).” (John 1:35–42, ESV)

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)