I want to introduce you to a friend…well, probably, more like an acquaintance, but someone that I love and appreciate very much. He is not here today, but if he were, I am sure you would love him and he would love you.
He is an average looking man, has a manly beard, and wears the rugged outdoorsman-look very well but he is a softy on the inside. You wouldn’t know it from looking at him, but this guy can well up with tears at the drop of a hat. He is probably one of the most loving guys you could ever meet.
He grew up in northern Israel. He was born in a small little fishing town called Bethsaida. His dad’s name was Zebedee and his mom’s name was Salome (Matt. 27:56). His name is Yohanan Ben Zavdai —meaning John, son of Zebedee—but we just call him John for short. He had an older brother named James (Matt 4:21), and together they helped run their family fishing business with their dad. Back when the business was flourishing, they mostly caught fresh water Tilapia in the only lake in the world that contains them, Lake Gennesaret or what other’s call “The Sea of Galilee.”
His dad, Zebedee was a wealthy man. The waters had always been kind to him, yielding what he needed to be one of the most successful fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. He was somewhat wealthy (Mark 1:20; Luke 5:3; John 19:27) and hoped that his boys would take over the business someday. He didn’t let James and John get away with much; he taught them that success didn’t just happen, but it comes through hard work and dedication.
When John was not on the lake, he was in the Bet Shearim or otherwise known as the “House of Life”. This was a small room attached to the synagogue where he would learn from the Jewish priest from the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and occasionally from the Psalms. He would also study the Hebrew language in order to read and write on his own. Little did he or his family know, John would be quite the prolific writer someday – odd for a little fisher-boy from Bethsaida.
Yes, they were Jewish – “People of the book” they were called. The loved the Bible and practiced the traditions and observations written in it. These written and oral laws became the foundation of the Jewish faith. Though their people had been captured and exiled many times from their homeland of Israel, they were not in fear of that anymore. Rome had taken over and was not only ruling, but also protecting their land. Though there always seemed to be some conflict in the Jewish church, Zebedee couldn’t have been more proud to be raising his son in the land their faith was founded in.
Their calling unfolded…
One day, when the boys were now grown men in their early twenties, they were out fishing as they had done hundreds of days before. The two of them, James and John, had been hearing about this prophet who wondered in the wilderness proclaiming that the Messiah was coming.
Neither of these things were new to them—a prophet, a man claiming to speak on behalf of God—or a man saying the Messiah was coming. You see, in the Jewish faith, they always lived with a hope and expectation that God was going to save His people. The read about it and studied it in their Jewish school. They sang about it in their Sabbath day services. Being staunch Jews, they longed for the Messiah.
That, and that prophets were seen as spiritual heroes, intrigued them. The fact that there was one who was said to be walking the earth was thrilling! It had been nearly 400 years since the last notable prophet lived and spoke to the people. This prophet’s impact was ripping through the Nation of Israel. His name was also John, “Yohanan,” but was known as “The Immerser” or “The Dipper.”
Yep, this prophet didn’t just speak, but he would call those he spoke to into water to be dipped or immersed in water. A sort of object lesson. He kept saying, “Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The water immersion was a way that people would physically get wet and say, okay, I repent, I wash myself of my sin.
John and James no doubt had to have long talks under the starry skies of Galilee wondering if there was any credibility to this cleansing that John the Immerser, the Baptizer, was calling them to do.
The idea of being immersed in water wasn’t new to them. Jews had used ritual bathes called micvah’s for centuries. Before making a sacrifice to God, they would go down into these bathes to get clean, or at least symbolize that they were leaving their sin and their past behind. This was the same thing this new strange prophet was doing, except it wasn’t by the temple and it wasn’t in a micvah. He used just about whatever water he could find, mostly making use of the large flowing river flowing down the middle of the country called the Jordan.
After the nets were cast on the open waters of the sea of Galilee, I can imagine these two brothers, perhaps with their dad, sitting there talking about John the Baptist…
John says to his older brother James, “Do you think that John guy is really a prophet?”
“I don’t know… but I think it is odd that eats grasshoppers and honey,” James replied back.
“Yeah, but remember that verse in the writings of Isaiah that says there will be “one crying in the wilderness, making straight the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3)? Do you think that could be this guy?”
After a long pregnant pause, James replies, “Well, only time will tell. If he is that voice crying out, then the Messiah will be here soon… Come on, help me pull this net in.”
Family Conflict Over Dad’s Disappointment
Curiosity gripped John’s soul, or maybe you could say it was a calling, but whatever it was, John couldn’t stay away. One-day John and James packed a few fish and some loaves and headed out to see this John guy for themselves. Sure enough, there he was, wearing nothing but animal skin. He stood in the murky water of the fast-flowing Jordan preaching to the crowd on shore. At the conclusion of his sermons (if which there were many in a day) he would invite people to come into the water to be baptized as a symbol of repentance.
This dirty, and seemingly crazy man, was persuasive. His words gripped your heart as if they were from God. John son of Zebedee grew convinced that this really was a prophet and quite possibly could be the last prophet before the Messiah comes.
John was all-in. He bought it, hook, line, and sinker. It only took one day with John the Baptist to convince him that he wanted to hang up the fishing job for a while and follow this man. James felt the same way.
You can imagine the late night conversation by candlelight back in Bethsaida with their father. They told him that they were going to become disciples of John the Baptist and leave the family business, at least for a while. Their dad’s disappointment had to be felt by the whole family. I am sure they didn’t want to let their dad down, but they also realized this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Their dad was proud they held to the faith so strongly, but why couldn’t they just stay there and hear about this John guy from afar? I am sure it took some mom-help to get dad to be okay with it.
You can almost hear Salome say to Zebedee, “Honey, let them go… this is their dream, don’t confine them to your dream.”
“But dear, really?! You want our boys to go eat grasshoppers and honey and play in the Jordan river all day? What will we tell our friends?”
“Zebedee, you are over reacting. They will be fine. They are men, let them learn. If it doesn’t work out, they will be back.”
So with a dad’s perplexed and perhaps broken heart, they went to become disciples of John the Baptist. Their mission was clear: prepare the way for the Messiah. Little did they know, they grew up at nearly the same age (about 6 years younger), as a part of the same generation, under the same political environment, with the same Jewish rituals, only 40 Kilometers (about 24 miles) from Jesus in Nazareth.
Now for the most climactic time in John’s life…
John had let his dad’s business and all that was familiar to him. He wandered by the Jordan river, in the wilderness of Israel, helping a traveling preacher hold daily revival services. This was not just any preacher, but was the front-runner for God.
John learned the mannerisms and words of John the Baptist. He knew when he was fired up, he knew when he was sad, he knew when he needed a break or some food, but he also knew when he was amazed. And in the writing of John himself, he records the moment he saw his mentor, hero and teacher become paralyzed by the awesome presence of the Messiah, the very moment he was living and preaching for… Look at verse 35 in John 1:
 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.” (John 1:35-39 ESV)
It was a moment that John will never forget. He even remembers the exact time it happened, “about the tenth hour” which was four o’clock in the afternoon.
“Behold the lamb of God!” The Immerser cried out. With those words, John, James, and the other disciples of John’s turned their allegiance to Jesus. They stayed with him, by his own invitation, for that night and that was the beginning of a thrilling life as Apostles of Jesus Christ.