Call and commission in the New Testament

Call and commission in the New Testament

By Jerome Neyrey S.J.

What were they talking about?

“Vocations” in the New Testament? No, and yes. There is no lexical term in Greek for this phenomenon, although many instances of the phenomenon can be found. For example, individual New Testament characters say of themselves or others that they are “sent” (Matthew 10:5; Mark 1:1; John 3:17), “called” (Matthew 4:21; Galations 1:15) “set apart” (Acts 13:2; Romans 1:1; Galations 1:15), “received grace and apostleship” (Romans 1:5; Galations 2:8), “called by the will of God an apostle” (1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1), and “chosen as apostle of God and servant of Christ Jesus” (Titus 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1). Moreover, the Jesus groups are also “called”: “called to be saints” (Corinthians 1:2) and “[to] those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1). Thus “vocation” refers to individuals whom God authorizes for a specific task and to groups who are gathered and groomed by God. The writers of the New Testament emphatically state that mortals should never presume to take these honors to themselves (Hebrews 5:4), but are clients of a generous God who alone can ascribe such honors. The grace to “call” or “chose” is God’s alone to bestow.

Jesus, too, experienced a “call” which tradition identifies as his “baptism.” A pious person like Jesus heard of a prophet who was mighty in word and deed: “Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9). Jesus joined others and made a pilgrimage to the Jordan to hear John. All of these pilgrims separated from their families and homes to enter into a liminal process typical of status transformation rituals. We assume that Jesus and many others remained with John for some time, during which they heard him “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) and proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). John was distinguished for purificatory rites, which took the place of sin offerings in the Temple. Like all prophets, he could read hearts and see through hypocrisy (Matthew 3:7-10). We assume that Jesus observed all of this, and in doing so he himself learned to be a prophet, which in ritual studies is called the liminal state leading to a status transformation. At the appropriate time, Jesus presented himself to John, his mentor, for some conclusion of his stay. John declared that “baptism for the forgiveness of sins” was not appropriate for Jesus, the initiand. Jesus, like all those coming to John, is unlike them because he is fundamentally pious and reverent. Nevertheless, he enters the waters, which John poured over him. At this moment, Jesus ends his initiation, for God speaks to him, giving him a new role and status: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). God, who is the premier reader of hearts, knows the stuff Jesus is made of. Hence of Jesus God says that he is God’s “beloved” one, of whom God is “well pleased.” Since this event at the Jordan is the first narrative about Jesus in public, minimally we think of Jesus now beginning his life as an elder (30 years old), who now is graced with a prophetic call from God. God’s voice and the descent of the Spirit set Jesus apart for a new role (“prophet mighty in word and deed,” Luke 24:19) and a new status, highly God-favored (“beloved son … well pleased”). His role, moreover, is that of a warrior or champion. Since the descending Spirit is “clean” and “holy,” Jesus is empowered to war on the “unclean” spirits, especially those who harm and injure God’s people. He is then, a warrior liberating God’s people. His “baptism,” then, may be seen as a was taught to be a prophet and finally established as a God-favored person with heavenly power to battle evil and Satan.


Recall the pattern seen earlier that God calls, blesses, sets apart, etc. Honor in this case, moreover, is bestowed by God as grace. Those called are passive recipients, because in terms of “call,” it would be presumptive and thus shameful to anticipate God’s pleasure. But may one volunteer? No, it was shameful to do so! Why? What’s at stake here? The answer lies deep in the culture of the New Testament world, which was dominated by the value of “honor.” Honor refers to the reputation, respect, or worth of a person. The sources of honor are basically twofold: honor is either bestowed or earned. Regarding bestowed honor, persons born of noble families automatically enjoy the respect and reputation of their tribes and clans. Similarly, people are authorized by superiors for special tasks, such as the procurator whom Caesar sent out to Palestine.

Some people experience the laying on of hands, authorizing them for a task. This “honor” is bestowed on individuals, not earned. This bestowed honor describes both the variety of people “called” and even Jesus, set aside by God. Yet others earn their reputation the old fashioned way: they work for it. Prowess was always honored, prowess from military, athletic, aesthetic and dramatic achievements. Finally, people earn honor by challenging others and taking it from them, either by putting them in one’s debt or diminishing them in the eyes of others.

No one in the New Testament volunteers, and those who try are dismissed. Take, for example, Matthew 8:18-22 where two people come to Jesus and offer their services. To the person who volunteers “to follow you wherever you go,” Jesus says that, unlike the birds, he and his followers have no place to lay their heads, i.e., no family, no home. A second volunteer wants to follow, but begs time to attend to his family and home, i.e., to bury his father, the kind of thing for which Jesus warned off the first volunteer. Jesus demands that he turn his back on his family and follow Jesus. Both volunteers fail, but why? Volunteers belong to the same class of people who compliment someone, make requests of them, or proffer gifts to them. The ancients interpreted these actions as seeking to impose on someone, to get something from him, to put him in their debt, and so find some social advantage. Jesus refuses the compliment, “Good teacher” (Matthew 19:16-17); people endlessly make requests of him, many of which he refuses (Mark 7:27; 10:35-38; John 4:47-49). There are no narratives of people offering Jesus gifts (i.e., bribes). But as we all know from our lobbyists’ scandals, such people surely expect something in return, maybe not right now, but later. Volunteers are the same. Jesus is put on the spot; does he care to have such people as his disciples? After all, he seems quite selective of his closest disciples (Matthew 10:1-4). Volunteers, then, challenge Jesus in a positive way, not to embarrass him or send him packing in shame. But they are putting him on the spot, trying to get some advantage from him. Jesus dispenses the honor and grace to his discipleship; they will not earn respect and reputation at his expense. In the ancient world, then, volunteering does not measure up to the premier criterion of a vocation, namely “being called” as “given a gift.” Volunteering presumes a role and status (Hebrews 5:4), which dishonors Jesus and his Father.

The rich (young) man

As Jesus travels “on the way” to Jerusalem (directional), he teaches “his way” of thinking, acting and valuing (spiritual “way”). The episode of the rich man occurs in this context as Jesus repeatedly teaches the “way of non-honor,” that is, of being least, last, non-honored by others. The rich man comes to Jesus, itself a significant point. He makes no request, but he begins praising Jesus (“Good Teacher”), a compliment which Jesus rejects: “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18). The man’s question is self-evident: “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus repeats “the way” of Israel, the Ten Commandments, which all should know. Confessing that he has kept them all from his youth, the man gave cause for Jesus to “love” him. Here is a very good man, who is observant, loyal, faithful, evidently a paragon of patriarchal virtue. Thus far, there is no “call” nor is the man a volunteer. But Jesus’ next words are an invitation to walk in his own way, that is, the “non-honor” achieved by the shedding of one source of honor: wealth. But the man left sorrowful, because he had great possessions.

A vocation story? On the one hand it confirms one of the critical criteria for discipleship, namely, freedom from family and land, a key aspect of “the way of Jesus.” On the other hand, he came to Jesus and asked the question of questions: “What must I do to be saved?” He is no volunteer but a person in search of wisdom and grace. Jesus “calls” him to belong to his group: “Go, sell what you have … and come follow me” (Mark 10:21). This is a “call” to discipleship; nothing is said about a new role. He indeed hears Jesus’ invitation to join his group, but the cost proves too dear.

Therefore, let us put the story in context as one of the many aspects of Jesus’ “way.” That way turns from honor as the world defines it to “non-honor” as a disciple, who foreswears the honor games played in the village and the honor value given to land, family, wealth, etc. This becomes clear in the following discourse between Jesus and Peter over wealth and the “honor” that comes from giving up all to be Jesus’ disciple. As such, the rich man is asked to do what all the disciples have done: leave family, lands, wealth. His call to discipleship is refused.

Jesus calls others

Whom does Jesus call? The synoptics narrate that Jesus first called Peter and Andrew and gave them a new role, to fish for people to join his group (Matthew 4:18-22). Similarly the brothers, James and John, followed him. The evangelists consider this an important narrative because they situate it at the start of Jesus’ public career. We note that both pairs of brothers “immediately” responded, suggesting an ideal response for the encouragement of the audience. Moreover, they seemingly separated from their families, their wives, their parents, and their trade or livelihood. This identifies them as special people who put everything else in second place, to gain the prize of being Jesus’ disciples.

Is it likely that Jesus just showed up and called strangers who responded positively? Some describe the situation this way. Jesus, a worker in wood, came to the place where his skill was needed. Fishermen fish from boats which are made of wood (although very little else was made of wood). So, Jesus presumably had prior acquaintance with the two sets of brothers. Hence, when Jesus “calls” them, they already have many strands of attachment to him. What seems important here is that most people who are called in the Gospels are recruited by people who know them already. “Follow me” is but the latest, albeit the most powerful, thread in the tapestry.

This is by no means far fetched, for the same pattern is repeated in the fourth Gospel (1:35-51). First a brother calls his brother: “Andrew first found his brother Simon and said, ‘We have found the Messiah.’” We do not know who recruited, but there is a definite geographical connection: “Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter” (1:44). Finally, Philip called Nathanael, whom we learn later is from Cana in Galilee (21:2). There seem to be many kinds of ties binding these figures: kinship (brothers); social (same town and same area). They are not strangers to each other, which facilitates how and why they contacted one another.

The fourth Gospel, moreover, describes a type of liminal process that initiands go through. First, they are all separated from their previous place and tasks: “Come! See!” Second, they are instructed about Jesus in a statement of his role and status, which instruction is characteristic of transformation rituals. Third, proof of their transformation to the role and status of disciple rests in Jesus’ word to each, indicating that the liminal process succeeded. Andrew heard the word from John, his old mentor, “Behold the Lamb of God”; he separated from John and attached himself to Jesus, whom he labeled “Rabbi.” His liminal period was “they stayed with him that day” (1:39). Jesus’ own invitation to Andrew to “Come! See!” succeeded and Andrew became a disciple, proof of which is found in his catechizing Peter. Andrew announces a discipleship word (“We have found the Messiah”) and invites Peter to separate himself and enter a liminal period, after which Jesus proclaims his transformation to a new role: “You will be called Cephas (which means Peter).” Philip, whose recruitment is difficult to discern in 1:43-44, proves that he is an insider by telling Nathanael, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth” (1:45). But now we meet resistance: the man from Cana looks down on Nazareth, thus putting an obstacle in the way. But his very struggle becomes his badge of honor. “Come and see,” said Philip. Nathanael separated himself from the “fig tree” and came to learn of Jesus, for which he is praised by Jesus, a distinction bestowed on no one else. And in a reversal of the recruitment process, he acknowledges Jesus as “Son of God, King of Israel.” Jesus confirms him as an insider by promising that he will see “greater things than these” (1:50). Thus “vocation” or recruitment is initiated by persons who are already believers, who inform close associates about Jesus under some title and invite them to “Come and see.” The invitee experiences a status transformation by separation from ordinary life and by entrance into a liminal period of development. Jesus acknowledges this change in a face-to-face exchange during which he names the person anew or bestows praises and promises.


Paul wrote his own version of his call in Galatians 1- 2, which we will use for this article, instead of Acts 9, 21, 26. The form of Paul’s narrative derives from the encomium, the genre which instructs authors how to praise someone and whence to find the grounds for praise. The encomium contains five basic topics: 1. origins, 2. nurture and training, 3. achievements, 4. deeds of the soul, and 5. death. The first four are in view in Galatians 1-2. People’s origins speak to their status. Geography looks to ethnos or homeland: Greeks are more noble than barbarians; city folk superior to country folk. While Paul comes from “a no low-status city” (Acts 21:39), Nathanael knows that nothing good can come from Nazareth (John 1:46). Generation looks to descent from a noble family, tribe or clan, and Paul enjoys an honorable pedigree: “of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). Yet even in this orthodox matrix, God had already “called” Paul: God had “‘set me apart’ before I was born, and ‘called’ me through his grace” (Galatians 1:15). From before he was born, then, he had a “vocation” from God. As regards his training, Paul was brought up as a Pharisee’s Pharisee: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age, so zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (1:14; see Philippians 3:6). As regards deeds, he was convinced that he served God most faithfully when he persecuted the deviant followers of Jesus: “I persecuted the church of God and violently tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13). But God changed him. Consistency was the great virtue of noble folk; change was not desirable or expected. In general, change is taken as a weakness or a fault. However, in Paul’s case, God instigates the change by illuminating Paul with favored knowledge. Previously Paul considered Jesus as a maverick, a sinner whose poison in Israel he must expel. But “God revealed his Son to me” (1:16), causing Paul to change his mind about Jesus, now acknowledging Jesus as “Son” (and Christ, Lord). We note the important elements of a “vocation” here: divine favor and grace. This means a change of theology, and a commissioning—all worked by God. Paul states the purpose of God’s revelation, “In order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (1:16), a role which the Jerusalem church ultimately acknowledged (2:7-9). Paul’s experience is often called a “conversion,” but he does not change from being zealous for God; conversion, the experts tell us, means moving loyalty from one god to another. Paul had no such “conversion.” God shows him that his zeal should now be directed to proclaiming Jesus as holy, kosher, etc. Thus it is better to say that, than that he was “converted.” God chose him, revealed his son to him, changed him and commissioned him. As such, then, Paul’s account of his vocation coheres with all the data seen above: it is God who “calls” Paul, who sets him apart, and who freely pours his spirit on Paul.

The risen Lord and the disciples

Finally, let us examine the commissioning of the disciples. Although Mark reported no appearances of the risen Jesus, the other evangelists do. When the risen Jesus appears, these appearances function to commission those to whom he appears. It is our good fortune that scholars have examined the “call narratives” in the Bible, which typically structure the call and consecration of people who are set aside for sacred duties; they contain: 1) an introduction, 2) confirmation, reaction, and reassurance, 3) a commission, 4) an objection, reassurance, and sign, and 5) a conclusion. This form splendidly interprets the commissioning of Moses (Exodus 3:13-4:9), Gideon (Judges 6:11-35); Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:1-10); and the disciples of Jesus.

Introduction Who is standing where, doing what, when?

Confirmation-reaction-reassurance When the heavenly world enters ours, it typically occasions fear and terror, which the appearing figure removes by asserting the benign nature of the visitation: “Peace be with you.”

Commission Moses is sent to Egypt; Gideon to battle the Philistines; and Jeremiah to build up and tear down.

Objection-reassurance-sign Yet Moses objects and suggests that Aaron go; Gideon objects that a mere 300 Israelites can battle thousands of Philistines. God reassures with another “Peace be with you.” A heavenly sign solves the objections: Moses does tricks with his rod; Gideon plays games with the fleece. Thus do the people of the Bible narrate divine commissionings. Apropos of the resurrection stories in the New Testament, this “call narrative” form serves as an indispensable tool for interpreting the appearances of the risen Jesus.

Introduction This varies. Jerusalem or Galilee? Same day or later? To male disciples or female ones?

Reaction-Reassurance when Jesus appears, he says, “Peace be with you”; nevertheless they were “startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit” (Luke 24:36-37).

Commission Immediately following the climax of the appearance they are commissioned by Jesus. To the disciples, Matthew’s Jesus commands: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing … teaching all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). After teaching the disciples how to read Scripture, Luke’s Jesus authorizes them: “You are witnesses of these things” (24:48). John’s Jesus likewise commissions the disciples: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.… If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23). There are objections: Jesus has to eat before Luke’s disciples to acknowledge that he is no spirit (24:41-43). But Thomas voices the premier objection: “Unless I see in his hands … place my finger … place my hand” (20:25). Jesus answers this insulting objection by appearing before Thomas and inviting him to do what he demanded of Jesus (20:27). The point is that most of the resurrection appearances by the risen Jesus function to commission certain select people to tasks both outside the group and inside it too. This pattern would be true of the commissioning of Peter in John 21:15-18 and, I believe, of Paul according to 1 Corinthians 15:5-10. Thus what the ancients describe as a “call narrative” is an excellent illustration of what we understand by “vocation.”


Roles To what roles are people set aside and commissioned? As Jesus was sent, the primary role is that of apostle, i.e., one who is sent. The duties of this role are directed both outside (preaching the gospel about Jesus) and inside (administering a church gathered in Jesus’ name, e.g., release/retain sins). Paul was sent not to baptize, but to preach (1 Corinthians 1:17), which means that he recruited the Corinthians by his word and continued to instruct the growing church. Although mandated by Jesus to serve tables (Luke 22:27), the apostles authorized a new arrangement. They declared that they would now “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), while others were picked by the church to serve the tables (6:3). If this is accurate, the apostles changed the instructions of Jesus. Apostle is only one role to which people were called and commissioned. The Twelve were sent as prophets: to preach the kingdom and to work wonders (Matthew 10:5-15). But a true apostle is authorized by God and sent by Jesus; this is always a commissioning, a grace, a role given them.

Role of the church We do not know how people became “prophets and teachers,” but of their number the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). After the church’s fasting and prayer, others “laid their hands on them and sent them off” (13:3). The church acknowledges and confirms what God has started. Were there “lone rangers” who set out on their own? Evidently, yes, as we find in the Pastorals and the Johannine epistles. But there is always a debate over their legitimacy.

God calls, but we recruit God declares people like Paul to be prophets and/or apostles. But the disciples recruit others to join them. We are passive recipients of God’s call, since God is bestowing a grace and showing a favor by this call. Conversely, those recruited must voluntarily accept this task, unlike Jonah who fled from God’s call. Paul cites both his call and the election of the Galatians as examples of God’s pervasive grace and favor. Since the calls are generally to labor in bringing others to insight, wholeness and holiness, those called become brokers of God’s benefaction. God, of course, is the patron and benefactor; the church is his client, a typical relationship understood throughout antiquity. But brokers abound. Jesus was the primary broker, mediator, intermediary, priest between God patron and the clients of God. Hence all who are called and set aside for sacred duties assume a broker’s role, including Peter, Paul, and the Twelve.

Status transformation rituals The recruitment scenes in the New Testament are structured as transformation rituals: separation, liminal period (a time of learning, discipline), ritual of change and acknowledgment of the new role by others. Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is told in such a way as to appear as a transformation ritual. Moreover, when the risen Jesus commissions the Twelve, it would appear that the liminal period of his arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial are the moments of learning, praying and practicing humility and lowliness which equip them for their commissioning as Christ-bearers.


Clearly, the New Testament clearly has much to say about vocation and call. May our study of these themes in the ancient world enrich and inspire our efforts to build a future for religious life in the contemporary world.

Jerome H. Neyrey, SJ teaches at the University of Notre Dame in the biblical section of the theology department, and he is a weekend assistant at a local parish. He is the author of a dozen books and dozens of articles. His focus is on the social and cultural sciences for biblical interpretation. Father Neyrey also has served on the editorial boards of six journals and is a regular speaker at biblical conventions.

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