When Jesus returned from his 40-day ordeal in the wilderness, he was ready to take up his ministry. As a boy he had learned the scriptures as all Jewish boys were expected to do and had amazed his examiners at the temple of Jerusalem. As a young man he had no doubt continued his preparations to worship in the synagogue, as all young Jewish men were expected to do.
Now at age 30, he was ready to take on his role of Master, or Rabbi, or Didaskalos, as the Greek New Testament has it. He had entered the mikvah, or the waters of baptism that purified him for the work of a teacher. He had received the gift of the Holy Ghost. In the wilderness he had very likely, as Bruce Satterfield suggests, “received the rest of the ordinances necessary for salvation.”[i] This may possibly have included the anointing and robing that pertain to the endowment. Isaiah had prophesied that Christ would receive these ordinances:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; . . . . He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments.”[ii]
The Announcement of Messiahship
On the Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue at Nazareth, “where he had been brought up,” and stood to read to the congregation. This is another indication that the community probably viewed him as a new young rabbi, although the leader of the synagogue could presumably invite any man to read from the scripture.
“And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then he closed the book. This passage from Isaiah 61 was undoubtedly familiar to his hearers as a prophecy about the coming Messiah. They would now expect him as a rabbi to expound the passage, to interpret its meaning as was customary in the synagogue.
Instead he made a stunning announcement: “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.”[iii]
The implication was not lost on the men in the synagogue. They knew he had just declared himself to be the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they said. Some were probably baffled, others shocked. We know they became angry, “rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led them unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong.”[iv]
I’ve stood on a cliff top near Nazareth and tried to picture that scene. It’s a rocky, barren place where stone has been quarried for thousands of years. Perhaps as a youth Jesus had worked in that quarry alongside Joseph, who was a teknon, a carpenter or mason. Now his neighbors wanted to throw him over the cliff to punish his apparent blasphemy, but in some unexplained way he escaped them. And so it began—his destiny was to be “despised and rejected of men.”
What had he said that was so shocking? What was fulfilled that day in the ears of his fellow worshipers?
Jesus announced that the “acceptable year of the Lord” had arrived, the long-promised day of the Messiah. The term “acceptable year” meant the Year of Jubilee, which God had commanded Israel to observe as a type and shadow of the coming Christ. “Ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you.”[v]
Although the Jews had long since ceased celebrating the Jubilee Year, and had lost track of when the “fiftieth year” would fall, they understood its significance. During the Jubilee, all debts were canceled, all property reverted to its original owners, and all prisoners and slaves were freed. This observance was a token to help them look forward to the deliverance the Messiah would bring—restoration of their sacred inheritance and liberty for all captives of sin and death.
Clearly, the men of Nazareth weren’t prepared to see in their neighbor Jesus the great Messiah, nor were they looking forward to a Jubilee Year. Even, though it was a clear requirement of the Law of Moses, they had put a stop to it long before—give up your property? Your slaves? Let the prisoners out of jail? That’s not how business is done in the real world.
But there were others in the Holy Land who anxiously looked forward to the Jubilee Year. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, written near the time of Christ, that pious Jews anticipated very soon the coming of the heavenly high priest Melchizedek, the “king of righteousness,” another title for the Messiah. The scrolls teach that the “captives are the inheritance of Melchizedek, and liberty will be proclaimed for them, to free them from the debt of all their iniquities, and this will happen in the first week of the Jubilee. . . . Atonement will be made for all the sons of light.”[vi]
The Calling of the Apostles
Leaving behind the respectable but worldly congregation of Nazareth, Jesus went in search of men who would honor his calling and rejoice at his deliverance. Soon he stood by the Sea of Galilee “and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets.”
One of the boats belonged to Simon the son of Jonah, a humble fisherman. Jesus asked Simon to push the boat a little out from the land, “and he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship.”
Perhaps Simon listened to Jesus as he worked with his nets. Despite a major effort the night before, he had caught no fish and was probably discouraged. Maybe the words of this new teacher touched something in him. At any rate, when the man told him to put out into the lake again with his nets, Simon was hesitant but hopeful: “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing; nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.”
By calling him “Master,” Simon recognized the standing of Jesus as a rabbi. In Simon’s world, a rabbi was highly respected and usually obeyed. But imagine his shock when the fish catch was so immense the nets broke and nearly swamped both his ship and his partner’s.
Somehow sensing the great spiritual distance between himself, a common fisherman, and the young rabbi who could work such miracles, Simon fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”[vii]
To Simon, Jesus is no longer “master” but “Lord.” This word is probably a translation of the Aramaic honorific term mari, a title of high respect reserved only for the most eminent people. The contrast between Simon’s response to Jesus and that of the worldly Nazarenes couldn’t be sharper. No miracles were done in Nazareth—signs are not for the faithless who are self-sufficient and uninterested in God’s help.
But in Simon, Jesus saw a deep humility and pure awareness of his own sinfulness and dependence on the Lord. These were precisely the characteristics Jesus cherished in his followers, and so the sign came.
Simon and his partners, James and John, were unlearned men or they would not have been fishermen. In the system of the times, the highest calling of a man was to be a rabbi, a teacher and expounder of the Torah. All young men aspired to this position and went to midrash school from ages 12 to 15 to learn to interpret the scriptures. At the same time, they learned a trade. At 15, they would seek out an older rabbi and ask to study with him; if no rabbi took them on, they were fated to practice their trade instead.
So we know that as fishermen, Simon, James, and John had never been called to a rabbi’s side. They were modest men who worked at a lowly job. Still, they were not uneducated and probably understood the Law and the Prophets, like all Jewish men.
Did they therefore see in the immense catch of fish a token of the Messiah’s calling? Did they see the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy that the day would come when the Lord Himself would gather scattered Israel by sending “many fishers, and they shall fish them”?[viii]
We do know that Jesus said unto Simon, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.” Once the ships were safely landed, “they straightway left their nets . . . forsook all, and followed him.”[ix]
Of course they did. The invitation meant that they were at last called to a rabbi’s side, the most coveted role a Jewish man could hope to play in life. From that time, they became the talmidim or disciples of a great rabbi, and in the Jewish world that meant a great deal.
We too must admire and emulate the willingness of these humble men to “straightway” cast aside the worldly in favor of that which is far greater—to follow the Savior and Master wherever he leads us.
The Apostle’s Unique Mission
But unlike most talmidim who sought out a rabbi to serve, the Master Himself had chosen Simon, James, and John. Soon nine others were called, and Jesus drew the Twelve aside to instruct them.
In that day, a rabbi would of course be surrounded by his talmidim. Their role in life was to serve him, learn from him, and imitate him in every way until they reached the canonical age of 30 and could set up for themselves as rabbis (this means the Twelve were possibly all young men). “It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord.” [x] But Jesus soon made clear that the Twelve were to be far more than ordinary talmidim.
In Matthew 10, he commissioned them to “go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils.”[xi] With this charge he gave them his full authority to act in his name as his ambassadors, or in the Greek, apostles.
The word we translate as apostle was the Aramaic shaliah, a legal emissary or agent. Among the Jews, the shaliah was empowered to act in the name of another with full authority to carry out a particular task, known as a mitzvah, or a covenant.[xii] The earliest mention of a shaliah in the Bible is the steward Abraham sent with a solemn covenant to find his son Isaac a wife.[xiii] The relationship between the Lord and his apostles was thus a covenant relationship.
Apostles are therefore sent out as true messengers of the Lord, who expects us to strictly observe what they ask us to do. We learn about the great responsibilities of these apostles from Matthew 10:
They are to preach the gospel to the nations. Although at first limited to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” this commission was later expanded by the Savior to “teach all nations.”[xiv] In carrying out this commission, the original Twelve are said to have journeyed wherever they could gain access. In so doing, they lost their lives as martyrs. Today’s apostles travel tirelessly to spread the gospel.
They are to seek out those who are prepared to hear the gospel and make it available to them. The apostles were to “enquire who is worthy” in every city and search them out. They were also to “shake off the dust of their feet” if they were rejected.[xv] This was in keeping with an ancient Jewish custom. When Jews returned to the Holy Land of Promise after visiting foreign nations, they cleaned their feet of the dust of idolatrous lands.[xvi] Today’s apostles supervise the missionary work in the world, dedicating new fields of labor and overseeing the organization of the Church in those lands.
They are to teach as the Spirit guides them. “Take no thought how or what ye shall speak,” the Savior instructed the Twelve. “For it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.”[xvii] And so it is today, as the Doctrine and Covenants 1:38 advises us that the Lord’s word will be fulfilled, “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” For this reason, we sustain only the First Presidency and the Twelve as “prophets, seers, and revelators.”
They are to give their lives entirely to the work of the Savior. “He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”[xviii]Of their calling, President Gordon B. Hinckley says, “They are men who have a witness of his divinity, and whose voices have been and will be raised in testimony of his reality. Each is a man of faith. After they are ordained to the holy apostleship . . . they will be expected to devote themselves primarily to the work of the ministry. They will place first in their lives, above all other considerations, the responsibility to stand as special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world.”[xix]
It is our blessing to have apostles in the Church today who provide us the priesthood channel of revelation. It is a great protection. It is our privilege to receive their counsel and follow it, for the Lord says: “He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.”[xx]
[i] See Lesson 4, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” Meridianmagazine.com. Posted Jan. 11, 2011.
[ii] Isaiah 61:1, 10.
[iii] Luke 4:17-19, 21.
[iv] Luke 4:29.
[v] Leviticus 25:10.
[vi] 11Q13:4-8, Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, eds. García Martinez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, 1208.
[vii] Luke 5:1-8.
[viii] Jeremiah 16:16.
[ix] Luke 5:10-11.
[xi] Matt. 10:6-8.
[xii] See John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men, Thomas Nelson Inc., 2002, 25.