Following Jesus


Luke 5:1-11

Text Comment

v.1       Luke always calls this body of water a “lake;” the other Gospel writers follow the OT in calling it a “sea.” It had a variety of names, Gennesaret being one of them, which was the name of the fertile region on the northwest corner of the lake. The most common name, of course, is the Sea of Galilee.

v.3       Luke has set the scene. A crowd was following the Lord wanting to hear his teaching. They gathered that he was a prophet and that God was speaking through him. Eager to get a place near him to hear better, people pressed in from all sides. So that everyone might be able to hear him, he sat in a boat a few feet from shore while the people sat or stood on the shore. He spoke of the kingdom of God, though we don’t have a précis of this sermon. As one commentator beautifully puts it: “Christ uses Peter’s boat as a pulpit, whence to throw the net of the Gospel over His hearers.” [Plummer, 143]

v.5       Fishermen know best. The best time for fishing on the Sea of Galilee is at night and they had spent a fruitless night. Now it was day and they hadn’t finished preparing their nets for the next night’s work. The fact that Peter is nevertheless willing to follow a carpenter’s advice in defiance of his professional experience is indication that already Peter knew that the Lord’s word was not to be treated lightly. “The man drives out demons and heals the sick; I’m not going to tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to fishing!”

v.7       In other words, the size of the catch was far beyond anything considered normal.

v.9       Here alone in Luke we find the compound name of the great disciple: Simon Peter. Until 6:14 Luke will call this man Simon; after that he will always be Peter.

v.10     In other words, James and John were partners with Simon in a Galilee fishing business.

            They were going to continue to be fishermen, but they were now going to be seeking a different catch. And they would in time, by the power of God, make as great catches of men as they did of fish on this occasion. Think of the 3,000 added to the church as a result of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost.

v.11     We know from the other Gospels that these men were already disciples of the Lord, but a turning point is reached here. From this time forward they devote themselves entirely to following Jesus.

For the first time in the Gospel of Luke we are introduced to some of the men who would form the inner circle of the Lord’s disciples, the famous “twelve disciples.” We are also introduced to one of the principal dimensions or subjects of the following narrative. The rest of the Gospel of Luke will be primarily taken up with three things: 1) the Lord’s encounters with the people at large, in groups of different sizes, 2) his teaching of and relationship with his disciples and 3) the growing contention with the religious establishment that would eventually lead to his arrest and his crucifixion. Virtually everything else, whether his teaching, his working of miracles, or his encounters with his religious enemies takes place in the presence of his disciples or the crowds or both. We will see precious little of the Lord’s private life, such as it may have been, little has he may have been able to enjoy one. But we are going to see the disciples on every page, listen in on conversations the Lord had with them or that they had among themselves. We are going to watch Jesus draw these men upward in understanding, in character, and in fitness for the great work he would give them to do after he had left the world. A great deal of the Gospels, in fact, concerns these twelve men and their preparation for life and work.

And, of course, as any reader of the Bible knows, these twelve men represent all of the followers of Jesus. What the Lord taught them, apart from that teaching that addressed their special role in the history of redemption – the smallest part of the teaching they received – he taught us. They are the new epoch of the church in a representative form, hence the number 12. They are the new Israel in microcosm. Their presence during the ministry of the Lord Jesus and his attention to them, in an important way, makes it possible for all of us to think of ourselves as having been there, having been a part of this extraordinary moment in the history of mankind, for they were there in our place.

One of the finest books and deepest books ever written on the Gospels is A.B. Bruce’s 19th century work, The Training of the Twelve. It is a study of the Lord’s interactions with these twelve men that runs to more than 500 pages and as one reads it he or she cannot help but be impressed with how much of the Gospels concerns these men and how much of the Lord’s ministry, his time and his attention was devoted to them.

There is nothing surprising about that, to be sure. The Bible has much to say about the unbelieving world and it is full of the proclamation of salvation to the unbelieving world, but far and away the largest part of the Bible concerns the people of God and the life they have been called to live in the world as the children of the heavenly Father, the followers of Christ, and the servants of the kingdom of God.

So supremely important as the disciples are to the Gospel story and important as discipleship is to a right understanding of what it means to be a Christian, it is important that we take careful note of how Luke introduces these men and their calling to us in this first paragraph of his Gospel in which they figure.

Now this was not the first meeting between Jesus and Peter, James, and John. We would know that even from reading this account by itself. They were not strangers to one another that day at the lake. Jesus had been at Peter’s house in the previous episode. But we know from the Gospel of John that Peter, his brother Andrew, and perhaps James and John as well, had been among those who had gathered around John the Baptist and that they were with John when the Lord Jesus stepped on the stage of his public life. They met the Lord then and, as we read in John chapter 1, had very early on come to believe that he was the Messiah, the Christ. In all likelihood they were present when the Lord Jesus had changed water to wine at the wedding feast in Cana and when he had driven the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem, both of which episodes we find in John chapter 2. In fact, they almost certainly accompanied Jesus on his journey north from Judea to Galilee, on which journey, you remember, he had had his immortal conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria. These were believing men before they knew Jesus and upon meeting him they at once wished to be among his followers, his students, his servants, and his disciples.

In this early period of the Lord’s ministry, before it had taken the form it quickly took once he arrived in Galilee, apparently these men continued to work their trade as fishermen, making a living for themselves and their families, and spending what time they could in the company of the Lord. But that day at the lake, the Lord summoned them to a more complete concentration on the work of being his assistants and his pupils, men he would prepare with more comprehensive training for the next stage of the great work of the world’s salvation, a work, at this point, these men could scarcely imagine. Here concludes apparently the period of their part-time discipleship.

It would fall to these men in due time to provide the world with a faithful account of the Lord’s words and deeds, to depict for all time the person and character of the King of Kings, and to that end it was necessary that they be eyewitnesses of the Lord’s ministry from beginning to end. Such was their great privilege, a privilege greater than which has never been granted to any other human beings.

Now Luke has not yet referred to them as the Lord’s “disciples.” You’ll notice that the ESV editors have entitled the paragraph we read “Jesus Calls his First Disciples,” but the word itself is not used here and has not yet been used in the Gospel. But already in John and from this point in Luke these men were referred to as Jesus’ disciples. Now “disciple” means most simply pupil or student. Discipulus is the Latin term for a student. Jewish rabbis of that time regularly had disciples, followers of their teaching. In many cases they such disciples lived with the rabbi and assisted him in his work. The idea of a teacher with disciples was a commonplace in that time and place and so was the idea of a disciple as someone more personally committed and attached to his teacher and with broader responsibilities than simply that of being a student or a pupil.

The fact that in the rest of the New Testament the term disciple is used to describe each and every Christian and, therefore, is regularly used of people who never had any experience of the Lord in the flesh, confirms the point we just made. These twelve men, as the inner circle of the disciples of the Lord – there were certainly many others during his ministry who deserved the name “disciple” –, represented Christian commitment and living and service in its new form.

And so what do we learn of them and so of ourselves in this first episode concerning the disciples in the Gospel of Luke? And if you are not a Christian this morning, what can you learn about what it is to become one and to be one? A Christian is a disciple in the sense that these men were disciples. So how were they disciples? What does it mean to call them that? There is, to be sure, a definition of discipleship here. It stands in the emphatic place as the last half sentence of the paragraph:

“…they left everything and followed him.”

Now that is, of course, a typical biblical hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. There is a great deal of this kind of extravagant speaking in the Gospels’ account of Christian discipleship. It is a form of speech that arrests our attention, compels careful thought, and makes us feel the force of great truth. We will read later in Luke, for example, that a disciple must hate his father and mother, even his own life to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. We will read that they must give up wives and children and houses and fields for Jesus’ sake. Whatever statements like these mean they certainly mean that our relationship to Jesus must take precedence over all other relationships of life, even the holiest and most sacred, such as that with a spouse or with our children. Those relationships exist in and for our relationship to Christ, not vice versa. [Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 151-152] That is, our relationship to our husband, our wife, our children is subject to our relationship to Christ, not the other way around.

Well so here when we read that they left everything and followed Jesus. They didn’t leave everything of course. I doubt very much they left all that fish to rot on the lake shore. And they didn’t leave their wives and children in any final sense. No doubt they saw them and cared for them as much as they could over the next several years as they traveled with Jesus, mostly through Galilee so not terribly far away from their families. They couldn’t have been faithful disciples of Jesus Christ if they were not faithful husbands and fathers, if they didn’t pay their bills, and meet their responsibilities. Even for the twelve, whose lives were to take such an extraordinary turn, life went on and they had to meet their obligations even while they were spending most of their time traveling with the Lord Jesus.

From time to time you will hear someone criticize John Bunyan’s immortal Pilgrim’s Progress because Bunyan seems to make his pilgrim a bad husband and a negligent father. After all in Pilgrim’s Progress Christian flees the City of Destruction to make his way to the Celestial City and leaves his family in the City of Destruction behind him to fend for themselves.

Alexander Whyte was as gracious an over-looker of men’s faults and stupidities as anyone I have ever come to know, but even his legendary patience wore thin when someone had the temerity to criticize his beloved Pilgrim’s Progress.

“There have been wiseacres who have found severe fault with John Bunyan because he made his…pilgrim such a bad husband and such an unnatural father. But nobody possessed of a spark of common sense, not to say religion or literature, would ever commit himself to such an utter imbecility as that. John Bunyan’s pilgrim, whatever he may have been before he became a pilgrim, all the time he was a pilgrim, was the most faithful, affectionate, and solicitous husband in all the country round about, and the tenderest, the most watchful, and the wisest of fathers. This pilgrim stayed all the more at home that he went so far away from his home; he accomplished his whole wonderful pilgrimage beside his own forge at and his own fireside; and he entered the Celestial City amid trumpets and bells and harps and psalms, while all the time sleeping in his own humble bed.” [Bunyan Characters, i, 160]

In other words, Bunyan’s magnificent description of the Christian life as an adventurous journey from one city to another is just that, an allegorical description, not a literal one. We all make that journey, we who are Christians, and we make it while not apart from but within our marriage, our families, our employments, our recreations, and every other occupation of our lives. Well, in the same way, the Lord did not call his disciples to be unfaithful fathers or husbands. No doubt it was probably difficult in some ways for the men of those homes to be away as much as they were over the next years, but the family knew it was in a good cause, the best possible cause, and no doubt every effort was made to mitigate the hardship for wives and children. We learn in the New Testament that later the Apostle Peter traveled with his wife when seeing to his apostolic duties. He didn’t leave her behind. We don’t know what these men did with their fishing business but we know that it remained theirs, as we read of them returning to it briefly after the Lord’s resurrection. Perhaps their sons or other family members carried on the work while they were away. Their families still had to be cared for. In any case, as the Lord makes very clear in his instruction of his disciples, we can leave houses, fields, husbands and wives for his sake all the while we are living in our houses, tending our fields, and loving and caring for our spouses and our children. Indeed, the very best way to love our families and our spouses is to forsake them for Jesus’ sake and devote ourselves to Christ above all else so that we may minister the Lord Jesus to them more effectively.

In the same way we are not all called to be fishers of men in the same way as the twelve would be, who would devote the rest of their lives to what we would nowadays call the Christian ministry, or even missionary work. We are all to be witnesses of the Lord’s truth, love, and salvation, but we are not all called to be missionaries or ministers in the formal sense. You get the point.

Still, the statement is impressive: “they left everything and followed him.” There is a real way in which everyone who wishes to be a Christian must know this to be the truth about himself or herself: I have left everything and am following Jesus. Many people call Jesus Lord and claim to be Christians but it is absurd to do either if your attitude to Jesus is that of vigilant jealousy that he not invade your freedom to live your own life and make your own choices or come between you and the things you want in life. If Jesus is Lord and you are his disciple, you know he has an absolute right to command your loyalty no matter what sacrifices on your part may be required and if you read the Bible you know that many sacrifices will, in fact, be required and that it will be your high privilege to make them. I have left everything and am following him. What good is love and loyalty if it is unwilling to make sacrifices! What every true disciple of the Lord Jesus desires is and always is this:

Lord Jesus, make Thyself to me
A living, bright reality;
More present to faith’s vision keen
Than any outward object seen;
More dear, more intimately nigh
Than e’en the sweetest earthly tie.

That is the spirit of leaving everything to follow Jesus.

Or this:

Make this poor self grow less and less,
Be thou my life and aim;
Oh, make me daily, through thy grace,
More meet [fit] to bear thy name.
            [Johann Lavater, 18th century]

But if leaving everything and following Jesus is a way of describing what a disciple does, there is something here before that. Before they took the momentous step of making such a costly commitment to Jesus something happened that made that commitment inevitable no matter the sacrifices it would require.

The true center of this episode as any reader gathers is Peter’s response to the astonishing catch of fish. He would never have attempted it in the first place, but at Jesus’ word he did what a professional fisherman would not have done, and the result was the greatest catch of fish he or any of his partners had ever seen on the Sea of Galilee. All of it had been done at the behest of the Lord Jesus and Peter did not doubt for an instant that Jesus had once more displayed divine power, as he had at the well in Samaria, as he had at the wedding at Cana, and as he had in curing his mother-in-law.

Without reflection or calculation, in a moment of self-realization before an overwhelming experience of the majesty and transcendence of God, he found himself on his knees, his mind now luminously clear as to his own sinfulness before God. His own true nature obviously lay exposed in the face of such knowledge as Jesus possessed and Peter realized it. He who knew precisely when and where to fish knew what was in Peter’s heart; what kind of man he was. He was unnerved by what he had seen of the knowledge and power of God. He felt more powerfully than he had felt it before the vastness of the difference between himself and Jesus Christ. He found himself on his knees confessing his sins. Perhaps you think you would not have thought to do that but then you’ve never had Peter’s experience. Like some in the ancient scriptures Peter was shattered by his encounter with the divine transcendence. Think of Isaiah when he was given his vision of God in Isaiah 6 or Daniel who was literally left speechless and unable to stand when he was given to see God in the form of a man in Daniel 10.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that everyone who becomes a follower of Jesus, his disciple, will have a shattering experience like Peter had. So far as we know the other eleven disciples didn’t have an experience quite like Peter’s, even James and John who were there that day and saw the same catch of fish. But what the record of Peter’s experience and his confession of his sin in such a magnificent turn of phrase – “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” – I say, what this surely suggests is that Christian discipleship is rooted and grounded in a personal encounter with, and a heart recognition of the divine majesty of God and of Jesus Christ his son. What Peter saw was something of who and what Jesus is and the sight changed his life.

And it is the magnificent claim of our Christian faith that the very same thing can happen and does happen to people who have never seen Jesus Christ with the eye of the body. In Acts 8 an Ethiopian court official, on his way back to Africa, a man who had never laid eyes on Jesus of Nazareth, nevertheless, through the reading of Isaiah 53 and its explanation by Philip became a follower of Jesus himself. And so have vast multitudes of people ever since. And in each case, in some way, at some time in their lives, they came to a realization of who Jesus is and, accordingly, who they are: sinners needing salvation.

Even if, as in my case, that realization came very early in life, so early that I have no recollection of coming to it, still its evidence is everywhere in my life. I see myself in the mirror of Jesus Christ and I see him, luminously clear in my perception, as one in whom I can behold and from whom I can receive the glory, the goodness, the wisdom, the power, and the grace and mercy of God. So it is and must be for every Christian.

A Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ, is one who knows Jesus Christ as Peter came to know him, as impossibly great, and who sees himself or herself according to an honest reckoning in comparison. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” It all begins here in Luke’s telling, in Peter’s intuitive recognition of Jesus as revealing in himself the power and majesty of God.

Think for a moment of Peter’s later life. He knew nothing of this at the time, of course. He could have predicted none of it. If you had asked him, I’m sure he would have thought he would live the rest of his life in Galilee as a fisherman. The few years with the Lord Jesus and the extraordinary things he saw and heard, the things he himself did as an assistant of the Lord; his walking on water, his standing with James and John and witnessing the Lord’s transfiguration on the top of the mountain that night about a year before the crucifixion, the night in the upper room, Gethsemane – it would be Peter, remember, who cut off Malchus’ ear and watched the Lord Jesus put it back! – his betrayal of the Lord, his denial that he had ever even met Jesus of Nazareth, his tortured conscience as a witness of the crucifixion, his own personal, private encounter with the Lord on the day of resurrection, in which encounter he was restored to the Lord’s fellowship and was forgiven, his receiving with the other disciples the great commission,  their marching orders for the rest of their lives and hearing the Lord promise to be with them wherever they were, his presence at the ascension of the Lord, watching him depart from the world and hearing his promise to return, his experience of the descent of the Holy Spirit and his own preaching on the day of Pentecost, his imprisonment and escape with the help of an angel, the vision of the sheet being let down from heaven, his place in the van of the gospel’s advance into the Gentile world, his years of traveling the world establishing churches and telling his story to spell-bound audiences of Jews and Greeks and Romans and all the rest. What a life!

According to an ancient tradition, when persecution broke out against the Christians in Rome during the reign of Nero, the church leadership convinced Peter to flee the city to find safety for himself. He was too important to lose: that was their argument. As he was leaving the city, so the story goes, he encountered the Lord walking into it. “Where are you going, Lord?” Peter asked. Quo vadis, Domine? “I am going to Rome to be crucified again for you,” Jesus replied. At those words, Peter realizing his error, returned to the city where he was arrested and eventually crucified, head downward at his own request. He felt himself unworthy to die in the same fashion as had the Lord Jesus. To the last: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Whatever the details, we know he died a martyr’s death.

And all of that because Peter had recognized in Jesus one who had come from God and in himself displayed the power and grace of God. That one realization on a sunny afternoon on the Galilee lake shore utterly transformed his life and made him such a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ that he would do hardly a single thing for the rest of his days that wasn’t dominated by that loyalty to his Savior. And so that same realization about Jesus and encounter with Jesus has had the same effect on so many of us and on everyone who is a true Christian.

And if there are unbelievers here this morning, let me warn you: coming face to face with Jesus will utterly transform your life as well, inside and out, root and branch. You will find yourself leaving everything to follow him. You too will leave everything to follow him! But let me encourage you too: no one who has experienced that profound transformation has ever wanted it to be undone!