17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 18 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. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 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. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. -Matthew 4:17-25 (ESV)
We are already several weeks into this new year and most of us, if not all of us, are back in the swing of things – whether it be at work, at school, at home, or with our various clubs and activities. Some of us are nursing our bodies back to health, others are diligently working on a regiment to shed some of those holiday pounds. It’s also the time of year, when inventory is taken at some companies and when year-end-reports are filed.
In church life, the first Sunday of the new year is often used to give an overview of what happened the year before (akin to a State of the Union Address for church life), while the next few Sundays are spent casting vision and setting the stage for the preaching calendar of the year. Against this backdrop, I would like to take a few moments to give some points of reflection and analysis to see how things are going with you personally. And if the church is comprised of its individual parts, then we need to evaluate how we are doing collectively.
At our last church, we took time as a staff (and then later with our people) to evaluate how we were doing. We would look at obvious markers, such as attendance and giving, we would list the number of small groups and their participants. The number of baptisms would be taken into account as well. When we included our people into the evaluation process, we would conduct a church-wide survey in order to assess whether or not our process of making disciples would yield the results we would want to see. We wanted to make sure that our vision was articulated properly, that our people would grow and mature as believers, and that we would see life transformations, multiplication of groups and ministries, and overall mission engagement.
For our purposes, I want us to look at a passage that serves as the acid test for each individual and for our church as a whole. It answers one very important question: “If you and I are called to be disciples of Christ, how do we know that what we are doing is what he had in mind?”
Before we dig into our text, I want to share with you our key truth for today; everything else will be built on this one truth:
Your call to follow Christ as His disciple is in first instance a call to intimacy with Him. (x2)
Let’s set up the background to our passage: In Matthew 3:1-3, we read, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”” So here you have John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus and preaching a straightforward message: the kingdom of heaven is at hand; how do you prepare for the arrival of this kingdom? You repent! That is, you change your mind about how you live and act on that change! In verse 5 we are given the response of the people: “and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” What happened? The people listened to the messenger, they took message to heart, and then they acted on it by giving the proper response. However, there were also some people in the crowd who came for different reasons. To them John says in verse 7: “you brood of vipers! Who warned you from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” They too heard the message, but they were not ready to act on it with the appropriate response. They wanted to be baptized (going through the motions) without the inward change that would lead them to confess their sins publicly. Please note these observations: there was one message, one right way to act on that message, and there was a clear warning that was given: with the arrival of the coming kingdom comes wrath.
With that said, let me make my first point of observation:
- The prerequisite to intimacy with Christ is repentance (Matt.4:17.23).
Look with me in verse 17: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.””
As we will later see, Jesus started his ministry in northern Israel by the Sea of Galilee. One would expect that he would preach a different message than that of John. After all, John merely prepared the way for the one who would come after him, and now that the one is here the message of preparation would be replaced by a message of explanation. But that is not what Jesus does. He picks up exactly where John left off: same message, same requirement to respond, albeit a different location (for those what want to know, it is also the same message he commands his disciples to preach on their first “mission” of being sent out on his behalf and given his authority recorded for us in Matthew 10:6).
Now, let’s pause here for a moment.
If you’re starting to feel depressed or wonder why it is that some sermons seem to be so harsh and create some tension within you, then maybe it would help if we were to look at what is being said from the vantage point of the amazing, wonderful sequence of events that surround this message.
Think of it this way: Jesus knows what’s coming. He knows who he is and what the Father’s mission is. Yes, judgment will come – but not at this very moment. This moment is for you. It is for you to realize who Jesus is. It is for you to realize what God is after. From the beginning of Creation down the halls of history God has been in heavy pursuit of mankind. Ever since Genesis 3:15, His plan of undoing what has gotten lost in the Fall has been unfolding book by book and verse by verse in the Bible: He desires an intimate relationship with mankind. Jesus is the linchpin to that plan, and he offers the pathway to the kind of fellowship with God for which you were created in the first place.
Another way to look at Jesus’ sermon is to view it from the perspective of the initial audience: God hadn’t spoken to the people of Israel in 400 years. There wasn’t any prophet sent to them, any sermon preached to them, nor any message given to them – there was nothing but silence. God went off the air. And now He breaks that silence. He speaks to His people through two messengers. Think about what an incredible gift these hearers had received – to be a part of the first generation in 400 years that gets to hear a word from God again. His silence had been broken. He had begun to send messengers again. And their message was brim with hope, too. I think all too often, we get stuck on the word “repent” and allocate it to an archaic message of judgment and doom, while missing the real reason for “why” they audience was to repent.
If we are to make sense of the people’s response to John’s message at all, we need to hear what they heard, see what they saw, and understand what they understood. You see, in the immediate context we learn that something bigger was coming: the kingdom of heaven. Repentance was the mere entrance requirement to experiencing what is to come. Their knee jerk reaction to be baptized (which is a sign of identification) and to confess their sins publicly stems from a deep understanding of the term “kingdom of heaven.” They would have equated it with the kingdom Psalms in the book of Psalms: Psalms 145-150. These Psalms contain an exultant celebration of the coming King and His kingdom. Now God’s messenger John as well as Jesus Christ break into their routines and tell them: this kingdom that you have heard about, sung about and put your hopes in – this kingdom is at hand. Get ready for it. Start to practice singing the Psalms, for they are about to become your experience. Whatever you do, be sure to change your thinking. Reorder your priorities. Straighten up your life. Why? Because the trajectory of your life and your day-to-day existence is about to drastically change. Then act on that change. Live accordingly. Live differently.
If you want intimacy with God, there is only one way: Repent. Your call to follow Christ as His disciple is in first instance a call to intimacy with Him. With the backdrop in place, let’s flesh our key truth further out:
- The pathway to intimacy with Christ is a relationship with Him (Matt.4:18-19a.24-25)
Look with me in verses 18-19a: 18 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. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me” […]
Verses 18-25 is what I had been stuck on in preparation of this article. Here’s why. Two sets of brothers were attending to their father’s business. Then Jesus walks along, calls them, and they drop everything – immediately. That is not normal. That Is not the ‘normal’ Christian experience in church life. What’s more, it sounds very irresponsible – maybe even recklessly careless – when you consider the two dads, who just lost four employees.
So, I started digging. What I discovered is that this incident at the lake shore is not the first time the disciples had encountered Jesus. They had “followed” him before, but they returned back to their trade. They were no different than the people mentioned in verses 24-25. Those people followed Jesus for different reasons: his fame had spread, and they wanted to see what this is about. He preached and he taught in their synagogues., which differed from what they were accustomed to hearing taught at their place of worship. In addition he has started healing people now. Their curiosity was awakened. Their interest was peeked. And they were wondering, “could this be ….?”
When you dig a little deeper you’ll find that Matthew uses the word translated with “follow” some 26 times in his Gospel account, most of the time referring to a disciple or group of disciples following Jesus but not always. Even today people, good people, well-intentioned people, follow Christ for various reasons. Maybe it’s out of religious duty or obligation – after all he did die for us. Some may follow him, because they really want a prayer answered – maybe for provision, for healing, or maybe a mere cry out of despair. Maybe his teaching or way of dealing with people is attractive to them. There are countless other reasons that could be named.
In the Western church, we generally use the term “discipleship” when we describe the act of following Jesus. When we use this term, we usually refer either to a process or a program of teaching portions of the Bible to a smaller group of people. It’s more an educational approach on the basis of transferring information. This transfer usually happens in the context of small groups, within a Sunday school setting, or at youth gatherings. In fact, we go “to” church, because that is what Christ-followers “do.” It’s expected. It’s the norm. But net-dropping, tax-booth forsaking following, that is different from anything we experience in any of our familiar church environments.
What’s more, when you study Jewish culture, you’ll find that this is getting even more bizarre the further you look. Here is the pattern you would expect in their culture: usually, a person would go to the Rabbi and present himself before him and petition him to become his disciple. This is echoed in what two Rabbis noted:
“Joshua b. Perahyah said, “Provide thyself with a teacher and get thee a fellow disciple,” which Rabban Gamaliel echoed, “Provide thyself with a teacher and remove thyself from doubt.””
In both instances, it is the responsibility of the prospective disciple to “provide himself with a teacher,” not the other way around. However, in our text, Jesus upsets the normal, expected cultural and religious pattern: He goes to the people and calls them – without an entrance exam, without a discourse, and without looking at their qualifications to be his disciples and to one day “take his yoke” (Matt.11:29-30) and teach others on his behalf (Matt.28:19-20). By calling them to be his disciples, he effectively communicated to them: ‘I believe that you can do what I do.’ ‘I believe you can become like me. I believe you have more than mere potential. I believe that one day you will take my yoke and teach others.
What’s more, when you look at the text in the original language, you will find find that 25 out of 26 times, Matthew uses the same word, translated as “following.” But that is not the word he uses in Verse 19. The very moment Jesus begins his public ministry and calls his disciples, specifically Peter and Andrew, he uses a different word. This is significant in more than one way. On the one hand, you want to note the first act (or words) of Messiah as well as the last act (or words) of Messiah. Like bookends, they provide the necessary framework for everything that he taught and did in between. When you look at the apparent discrepancy in words that are translated as “follow,” one could easily conclude that there might be some error in the transmittal of the text of the Gospel of Matthew. However, it’s the same construct in a parallel gospel account of this incident. This nuance is so significant that most English translations of the text translate it as “follow after me” in order to highlight the difference between the two words, but they don’t translate the full thrust of the word at the beginning of verse 19.
What Jesus is actually saying to Peter and Andrew carefully reveals his heart behind the Rabbi-disciple relationship he wanted them to enjoy. Essentially, he is saying to Peter and Andrew: “Peter, Andrew, come here after me! Find your place here, with me, in following after me.” He is inviting them into a deep, personal, intimate relationship, which serves as the basis for what they are going to experience and become. Their focus, their time, and their effort – everything they were – would be devoted to following Jesus, his teaching, his ministry, everything, but it starts with them finding their place right next to him. Matthew is careful to note right at the outset that this is a different kind of following than that of the crowds. It will be a different form of discipleship than what they had heard about and what they had grown up with in their culture and socio-religious context. The bedrock and starting place of this Rabbi-disciple relationship is intimacy with the one whom they were to follow. Your call to follow Christ as His disciple is in first instance a call to intimacy with Him.
- The purpose of intimacy with Christ is the total transformation of your life (Matt.4:19b)
Look back with me at verse 19 for a moment: “19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.””
Worded differently, ‘as you find your place here with me, following after me, I will make you …’ What a promise! Jesus promises to transform ordinary fishermen to become fishers of men. It is a play on words, no doubt, but there is so much more packed into this one sentence. Charles Spurgeon noted about this verse,
“It is, ‘follow me and I will make you.’ We should repent of what we have been but rejoice in what we may be. It is not ‘follow me, because of what you are already.’ It is not, ‘follow me, because you may make something of yourselves,’ but, ‘follow me because of what I will make you.’ It did not seem a likely thing that humble fisherman what develop into apostles, that men so handy with nets would be as much at home in preaching sermons and in instructing converts. One would have said, how can these things be? You cannot make founders of churches out of peasants of Galilee. That is exactly what Christ did, and when we are brought low in the sight of God by essence of our own unworthiness, we may feel encouraged to follow Jesus because of what he can make us.”
“I will make you…” It is in that place of intimacy where life transformation takes place. It’s the idea that when I am with him – by spending time with him, learning from him, observing him, studying him, talking to him, listening to him, and imitating him and by patterning my entire life after him – I will become like him. This transformation is not dependent upon me – for he said, he will do it – but it does require my obedience to this unique, specific call of his: to come here, to find my place by his side, and follow after him.
“…fishers of men.” With this transformation of my life comes an inclusion both in his mission and into his process of multiplication: His will be a ministry of fishing for men, and so will they. Right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he shares with them both his strategy and his vision for their lives. What’s more, he who could bring about his kingdom in any way he desires, deliberately chooses to do it through his disciples – who, at the time, were a far cry from embodying his mission and vision (just think about James and John’s reaction when they faced their first rejection in ministry).
Over the course of the next 3 ½ years, they will see a lot, learn a lot, experience a lot, ask questions and find answers; they will watch Jesus perform miracles, see what authority he has over life, over death, over sickness, over the created order, over the demonic realm, over sin and forgiveness, over the Law and over any form of government and man-made authority. They will experience what it looks like when he takes his authority and places it on them to do his bidding.
As one commentator said, “Jesus did not simply command his disciples to become fishers of men, but promised that he would make them fishermen for men’s souls…when he <Jesus> called the disciples to commit themselves to him <and his process of transformation and mission>, he also committed himself to train and empower them.” This training finds its climax at the Last Supper with his disciples when at the end of his public ministry, Jesus puts on an apron, takes a towel and a basin of water and washes the disciples’ feet:
“12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:12-16, ESV).
The Gospel writer teaches us that Jesus gave them an example as a master Rabbi. His teaching, his ministering in front of them, his explaining, and his example culminate in this very act at this very point in their season of “becoming fishers of men.” The next instruction he would give them is after his death and resurrection. Here he says,
“16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20, ESV).
At the giving of the Great Commission, Jesus’ training and transforming of their lives was now complete. When once the Holy Spirit had come upon them, they would be empowered to make disciples of the nations, who are able make disciples themselves and thereby expand his kingdom wherever they would go.
Your call to follow Christ as His disciple is in first instance a call to intimacy with Him.
- The prerequisite to intimacy with Christ is repentance.
- The pathway to intimacy with Christ is a relationship with Him.
- The purpose of intimacy with Christ is the transformation of your life.
I would like to conclude with a story I came across in John MacArthur’s commentary on our text. He writes,
“On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks were frequent, a crude little life-saving station was built. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted crewmen kept a constant watch over the sea. With no thought for themselves, they went out day or night, tirelessly searching for any who might need help. Many lives were saved by their devoted efforts. After a while the station became famous. Some of those who were saved, as well as others in the surrounding area, wanted to become a part of the work. They gave time and money for its support. New boats were bought, additional crews were trained, and the station grew. Some of the members became unhappy that the building was so crude. They felt a larger, nicer place would be more appropriate as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with hospital beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Soon the station became a popular gathering place for its members to discuss the work and to visit with each other. They continued to remodel and decorate until the station more and more took on the look and character of a club. Fewer members were interested in going out on lifesaving missions, so they hired professional crews to do the work on their behalf. The lifesaving motif still prevailed on the club emblems and stationery, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club held its initiations.
One day a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in many boatloads of cold, wet, half-drowned people. They were dirty, bruised, and sick; and some had black or yellow skin. The beautiful new club was terribly messed up, and so the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside, where the shipwreck victims could be cleaned up before coming inside. At the next meeting there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities altogether, as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted on keeping lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that, after all, they were still called a lifesaving station. But those members were voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives they could begin their own station down the coast somewhere.
As the years went by, the new station gradually faced the same problems the other one had experienced. It, too, became a club, and its lifesaving work became less and less of a priority. The few members who remained dedicated to lifesaving began another station. History continued to repeat itself; and if you visit that coast today you will find a number of exclusive clubs along the shore. Shipwrecks are still frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.
What a striking illustration of the history of the church. Yet the work of evangelism, of spiritual lifesaving, is nonetheless the purest, truest, noblest, and most essential work the church will ever do. The work of fishing men and women out of the sea of sin, the work of rescuing people from the breakers of hell, is the greatest work the church is called by God to do.”
And if the church consists of its part, that very task rests on you and me before it ever becomes the responsibility of the ‘organization’ (church). To do so, we we better make sure that we follow the right pattern: It has got to start with intimacy with Christ and grow from there into His kingdom mission.
- Have you found your place yet? Have you come to him, stayed with him and followed him?
We cannot afford following Jesus on our terms. We cannot create a process of discipleship that lacks intimacy with him front and center.
- Are you following Christ on his terms or your own?
We cannot engage in making disciples of His, unless we are willing to follow His pattern for our lives ourselves. If we miss what Jesus said and did at the beginning of his ministry, we might miss what He had in mind toward the end. One can only be interpreted in light of the other. Together, the two points – beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry – provide the lens through which his teachings, his actions, and his ministry are to be interpreted and applied to our lives. Ask yourself:
- Are you engaging in his mission or are you fulfilling your own with the hopes that he will approve?
- Are you intentional about expanding his kingdom?
- Are you making disciples of him or of yourself ? Are helping others to follow a “version” of him or the original?
When we drop our own nets, leave our own business behind and follow after him, then we will truly be about the Father’s business.
May God give you grace as you find your place right here, beside Him, following after him. May your life experience the full and total transformation, which He desires for you. Finally, may you fully embrace and engage His mission and vision for your life and through your life as you follow Him.