We know from the Gospel of John that after the Lord’s baptism and temptation he remained for a time in Judea and engaged in a ministry that overlapped with that of John the Baptist. Upon John’s imprisonment, however, Jesus returned to Galilee and it was there, Mark suggests, that his public ministry began in earnest. The ministry of the forerunner had run its course; the time of fulfillment had come. [France, 90] Most of Jesus’ public ministry would be conducted in Galilee. It was, of course, the area in which he had grown up; these were the people he was familiar with. The fact that Galilee was regarded as an insignificant place, especially in comparison with Jerusalem, makes his decision to center his ministry there all the more interesting and important. The religious leadership, centered in the capital, confronted Jesus with almost unrelieved hostility and opposition. But in Galilee, far removed from the temple and the religious bureaucracy, Jesus found a willing reception. How often has this been the case in the history of the gospel in the world: clerics and scholars want to have nothing to do with it while ordinary folk welcome it with joy!
In any case, Jesus’ message upon the commencement of his ministry was much the same as John’s. He called upon men to repent and believe in the wonderful news that the kingdom of God had drawn near. Indeed, before he was anything else, Mark says, Jesus was a preacher. The word “proclaim” in the NIV’s translation of v. 14 is the same word rendered “preaching” everywhere else. We will be reminded of the fact that Jesus was a preacher later in this first chapter, in verses 38-39. His message was the good news that the kingdom of God had drawn near in his own person. That was his message. And he brought it to the people. People had gone out to John; Jesus came to them.
The kingdom of God is God’s rule and reign, and the fact that it was near meant that it would be manifest and made public in the world. God is always the king and he always rules, but his rule is often hidden or veiled. Now it will be made visible and it will be obvious that God has come among men. Next to the consummation of the kingdom of God at the end of time, never will the reign of God have been more manifest than it was in the life and ministry of Jesus, who was, as we have seen already in the Gospel’s prologue, God himself come in the flesh. And when God’s reign is made visible and manifest, it calls for a decision on the part of men. And the particular decision called for is that commitment to Jesus described by the familiar terms repent and believe.
But once again, as after the announcement of the coming of the Lord and after the Lord’s baptism, there is a striking anti-climax. The first recorded act of the Lord’s ministry, the opening scene in the drama of the drawing near of the kingdom of God, is not a miracle or even a sermon stirring a great congregation. Rather Jesus summoned four laborers – fishermen – to follow him and serve him. As one writer put it, the kingdom of God may have drawn near but “The world seems very much intact!” [Myers in France, 92] A great theme of this Gospel will be that everyone expected the Messiah to do different things than he did, even to be a different King than he was. And so the hearer of the Gospel of Mark, hearing it for the first time, expects thunder and lightning and gets instead a bucolic stroll along the lakeshore and some conversation with some fishermen.
Jesus finds these men beside the large lake – seven miles by thirteen – that will be the center of his ministry for the next three years. Josephus speaks of the pure sweet water of the Sea of Galilee, its many species of fish, the fertile soil around it. It was a region, he said, in which “nature has taken pride.” [War, 3.516-521] There were many fishing boats. In the Jewish War, some forty years later, Josephus himself was able to commandeer 230 such boats. And the catch was a major part of the Galilean economy. Fish caught in Galilee’s waters were consumed as far away as Alexandria in Egypt. That fisherman in Galilee competed in the large Mediterranean market certainly testifies to their skill and ingenuity as business men but it also makes it likely that they spoke Greek, the language of business and trade in those days in that part of the world. [Edwards, 48-49] Andrew is even a Greek name. [Cranfield, 69] Interestingly, there is no record of Jesus ever visiting the two Hellenistic cities – that is cities Greek in language and custom – that were also located on the Western shore of the lake: Sepphoris and Tiberias. Jesus sought his followers among the Jewish population of the lakeshore towns. He would later make a point of saying that he was called to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; it would be his disciples that would take the good news to the world. [France, 93]
It is interesting; by the way, that Mark’s account of the call of these men has all the features of an eyewitness recollection. Simon and Andrew were caught in the act of throwing a net into the water; James and John were sitting repairing their nets when Jesus happened by: details stuck in the memory of someone who was there, no doubt Peter himself, whose Gospel Mark is.
Jesus said to these men, “Come, follow me.” It is important to note that there is nothing like this among the rabbis of the Jews of those days. To become the disciple of a rabbi, to enter a particular rabbinical school, depended upon the initiative of the aspiring student, not the summons of the rabbi himself. What is more, the chief allegiance of the student was to the Torah, not to the rabbi. But Jesus went looking for his disciples, found them amidst their daily tasks, and by his own authority summoned them to leave their nets and follow him.
What is more, he told them that he would make them fishers of men. That particular metaphor – being a fisher of men – is used in the OT but always in a negative sense. Fishers of men in the OT prophets catch men for judgment not for salvation. They are akin to hunters seeking game. Those caught will be punished. And that makes sense: it is obviously not good news for the fish to be caught! But here, though the idea is not spelled out, it seems obviously positive. They are to catch people to rescue them from not to catch them for the judgment. [France, 95]
Read: Mark 1:14-20
In this justly famous piece of history we are introduced to what will prove to be a most important part of the gospel story and of the Lord’s public ministry. I am speaking of the disciples and, in particular, the 12 disciples who would form, for those three all important years, the Lord’s inner circle. Here Mark introduces us to four of the eventual 12, including Peter, James, and John who would become the most prominent of the disciples and form the innermost circle of the Lord’s followers. In chapter 2 we will read of the calling of Levi, whose other name was Matthew. These five are the only disciples whose calling by Jesus is specifically described in any of the four Gospels. Then in chapter 3 we will be given a full list of the 12. All twelve of these men were called by the Lord Jesus, no doubt in encounters something like these, but space is at a premium in the Gospels and so a few of these encounters are left to represent all of them.
From now on the Lord Jesus will appear in the narrative surrounded by his disciples. Everywhere he goes, they go. They are everywhere in the Gospel. Their training, their development, their preparation will be a primary focus of his ministry. It is not too much to say that they are as much a part of the narrative as Jesus himself. And that is so for two reasons.
In the first place, from the very beginning the Lord set apart these men to be the ones who, after his ascension to heaven, would provide a full and authoritative revelation of the truth about him, organize the church, furnish it with officers and laws, and start it on its career of conquest through the world. [C. Hodge, What is Presbyterianism? 53, 60] As one careful observer of the Gospel history has written, ‘we may say that, but for the twelve, the doctrine, the works, and the image of Jesus might have perished from human remembrance, nothing remaining but a vague mythical tradition, of no historical value, and of little practical influence.’ [A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, 13]
Jesus Christ is the King and Head of the church, but the apostles were, in a very real sense, its founders, and the Lord himself does not hesitate to say this. He will say to Peter, as the natural leader among these twelve men: ‘You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.’ And Paul will teach years later that the apostles were the foundation upon which the church was built, with Jesus Christ the chief cornerstone.
Given the role that they were to play, the immense responsibility which would be entrusted to them, is it any wonder that the Gospels indicate that a great deal of our Lord’s time during those three years of his ministry were spent together with these twelve men, teaching them and preparing them for the work that he would leave for them to do?
Given their epoch making significance as the founders of the new church we should not be surprised to find that some of what the Lord says to them, applies to them and to them only. When, for example, he promised them that, after his ascension to heaven, the coming Holy Spirit would bring again to their minds all that he had taught them and all that they had seen of him and his works, we naturally understand that this is a promise made to the Twelve in their office as the apostles of Jesus Christ. Many other statements which the Lord makes to them and which are recorded in the Gospels could not apply to anyone else but to these twelve men.
But there is a second
reason why the twelve disciples play such a prominent role in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s ministry and why the Lord gave so much of his attention to them.
The twelve disciples served for him and they serve in the Gospels as a representation of the people of God. They are a microcosm of the church of Christ, a small, manageable congregation to which the Lord says what he wishes to say for time and eternity to each and every one of his followers. The Twelve are a part for the whole: no doubt that is the chief reason why there were twelve of them, so that they might clearly represent the twelve tribes of Israel, the whole people of God in its renewed form. They are the new Israel of God in a representative form. They are the church in miniature.
And for this reason most of what Jesus will do for and say to these twelve disciples applies as much to every believer, to every member of the church, to you and to me as it did to those twelve men who accompanied Jesus, witnessed and participated in his ministry, were eye-witnesses of his miracles and eventually his resurrection, and, as his apostles, reconstituted his church in the new epoch.
One of many demonstrations of this is that it is just this title, “disciple,” the term that especially and characteristically is used to describe the Twelve in the Gospels, that in Acts becomes the ordinary term for a Christian. All believers are disciples of Jesus Christ as the Twelve were in the first place, and so what he said to them about following him applies to every Christian.
To be sure, in a very few places it is more difficult to determine whether the Lord is speaking to the Twelve as his “apostles” or is speaking to them as “representative Christians,” the church in miniature, but these are their two roles in the Gospels and these two roles account for the great importance and the obvious prominence of the Twelve in the Gospel narratives.
Now let me say that it seems clear enough that the piece of history which we have before us this morning sets before us the disciples of the Lord chiefly in their second role, that of representative believers. So what Jesus says to Peter and Andrew and James and John he is saying to the entire church and to every one of his followers: “Come, follow me!” “I will make you fishers of men.”
The proof of that is simple enough. Jesus says nothing here that he will not say elsewhere in the Gospels to his other disciples and says nothing here that he will not have his apostles say to every Christian in the rest of the New Testament. No doubt these men were fishers of men in a different way and to a different degree than other Christians, but they were different only by degrees. Every Christian is to seek to catch men in this sense.
In other words, we have before us in this account of the call of these four men to follow Jesus a picture of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, or more simply, what it means to be a Christian, for that is what the word “Christian” means, a follower of Jesus Christ. That is, you may see in Peter, Andrew, James, and John any believer anywhere at anytime. To be a true follower of Christ you must do as they did and be as they were. All right; but what is that? What do we learn here of true discipleship, of true Christianity, of true following after Christ?
Well, if I may reduce it to a single sentence I would say that true discipleship, a true and saving response to Christ is here described as a “thorough, personal, and activating conviction of the absolute supremacy and decisiveness of Jesus Christ.” It is first believing and then acting on the conviction that Jesus Christ is infinitely more important than anything or anyone else and that following him is therefore the fundamental obligation of one’s life.
Let me show you how this definition of Xian discipleship is taught in this account of the calling of these four disciples.
- The first essential element of Christian discipleship is a relationship with Jesus.
Perhaps from the vantage point of this distance it is hard for us to appreciate the remarkable thing that happened here. The Lord comes along unexpectedly and without preamble, without explanation he tells these men to drop what they are doing, to leave their livelihoods, effectively to leave their families – at least to some degree and for some time – to follow him. “Follow me,” he told them, as if in saying that he had said everything. He made this outrageous demand and he gained their instant obedience. Imagine yourself in the same situation, with your job, your bills, your wife, your children, and imagine yourself doing the same thing.
We know from the Gospel of John that these men had had some contact with Jesus before this. They were not completely clueless as to who and what he was. They knew that John had identified him as the one coming after him. Still, Jesus demanded a great deal of them and all at once and they did not hesitate. They dropped what they were doing, they left the business with which they provided for their families, and followed Jesus. Indeed, leaving their nets at Christ’s command apparently made perfect sense to them. Such is the authority of the Lord when he calls a man or a woman. Just as the wind and waves will later obey his voice, or the demons, or even the dead, these men can do no other. Christ has summoned; they must follow him.
There is nothing else that makes a man or a woman a disciple of Jesus Christ apart from this conviction about Jesus and this relationship to him. There are no prerequisites, no natural abilities or virtues. The Gospels never once commend these men to us as somehow special. We are never given any reason to think that Christ chose them because they were particularly gifted, or virtuous, or because in someway or another they were better qualified for the work which he had for them to do than other men might be. They were fishermen. No one would have chosen them to be the founders of a worldwide movement or to be the authors of the most influential books that would ever be written. They never imagined such a thing about themselves. These were very ordinary men. Had Jesus not appeared that day on that lakeshore, we would never have heard of any of them. There is nothing about them which calls attention to them, nothing which made their contemporaries regard them with any special honor. I suspect not a one of them was elected “Most likely to succeed” in his senior year of high school! We meet them here as small independent business men. They ran a few fishing boats. As we learn in Luke 5:10, James and John were partners in the business with Peter and Andrew. They certainly weren’t rich but they weren’t poor.
But, more than this, the Gospels make no attempt whatever to hide from us how very ordinary these twelve men were in every spiritual way. The narrative that follows in Mark will show them all too often to be thick-skul1ed and thin-skinned; sometimes petty, jealous, greedy, and selfish. They were, in fact, totally unworthy of the honor which was being bestowed upon them, the greatest honor ever given to any man or woman: the privilege of close and sustained fellowship with the Son of God and Savior of the world.
There is simply nothing very special about these men when they are set apart by Christ to be trained for the apostleship; the Gospels make that clear. They were people just like you and me in their ordinariness. Under the tutelage of the Messiah, and by reason of his example and his calling, and because of the history of which they will be the most intimate witnesses, they become very special men indeed: but when they begin they are not.
There is a most important lesson in this simple fact. There are no natural or worldly prerequisites for Christian discipleship. You not only may, you must answer Christ’s call and follow him, as you are, where you are. You may have thought that you had first to learn more, or become more religious, or put away some of your bad habits before the Lord would call you or before you could be his disciple, but nothing could be further from the truth. Coming to Christ, giving your life to him must be the first step. It is your relationship to him that matters; all the rest comes after. If he is calling you, you must answer and follow!
- The second essential element in Christian discipleship is the active promotion of and total commitment to Jesus’ mission.
Christ was proclaiming the drawing near of the kingdom of God in his own person. He would baptize the world, John said, with the Holy Spirit. He had come on a mission and when these men left their nets to follow Jesus, they became a part of that mission and servants of that kingdom. The reign of the living God was being manifest in the world. The salvation of mankind was drawing near. Compared to this nothing in all the world mattered at all, certainly not a fishing business. When summoned to share in this great work, in however small or pedestrian a way, one has been summoned to be and do the noblest, the mightiest, the highest, the holiest work to which a human being ever applies himself or herself. Failing to share in that work, however otherwise successful and happy by the world’s standards, one’s life is, at last, utterly and tragically wasted. By a holy instinct these men understood that. They were fishermen. They knew how to catch fish. They did not know how to catch men. Christ was going to give them completely different work to do. Hard work. Work that would require great sacrifices of them for the rest of their lives. But they did not hesitate.
They committed themselves unalterably and unconditionally to Christ’s cause, they got on his bandwagon, and prepared to spend their lives furthering his program in the world. Compared to this – their actions indicate, however clearly or not they may have articulated this to themselves or to one another at the time – every other purpose in life seemed to them, and rightly, bare and pale, dull and insipid. This and this alone mattered for eternity. Heaven and Hell were at stake, the interests of Jesus Christ were now to be their life’s work.
And in all of this, they were only the original and the representative disciples of Jesus Christ. Nothing else is demanded of any who would follow the Lord Jesus today. Nothing else is required of us but that we live our lives for his sake or cause and for the cause of his kingdom in the world. “Thy kingdom come” is not merely our prayer, it is our agenda for life, our calling: that by word and deed, in our own hearts, in the life of our families, in the church, and in the world, the Lord’s great program of salvation may be furthered by our efforts. Such is what it means to follow Jesus.
A relationship to Jesus that expresses itself in the active service of his cause: that is Christian discipleship; that is the Christian life.
It is today the same call the Lord issued to those four. They appear in this history as representative of us all, of all followers of Christ. The picture of these disciples leaving their nets is a simple but powerful picture of true discipleship and Mark and the Holy Spirit through Mark intend for us to ask ourselves if there is that in our lives which resembles what they did. Have we left our nets to follow Jesus? Have we heard and answered his summons to follow him? Have we joined up and become a member of his entourage in the world? Are we now serving him and doing his work in the world? If you wish to be a true disciple there must be this net-leaving in your life and the more of it, the more of a disciple and the more faithful a follower you are. Can you see how you have left your nets?
I read sometime ago a biography of A.W. Pink, the influential 20th century Christian writer who died not so many years ago. Pink was raised in a Christian home, but for some time in his later teens and early 20s he rebelled against his parents’ instruction and went his own way. He actually became active in the Theosophist Society, a rather strange eastern cult which believes in reincarnation, is rabidly anti-Christian, and claims to be the preserver of some ancient wisdom of a spiritual nature.
In his early 20s Pink, on account of his considerable gifts, ascended the ranks to a position of leadership and became a Theosophist public speaker. Young A.W. was still living at home and when he would arrive home in the evening his loving but very concerned father would meet him at the stairway and, to Pink’s annoyance, add to his goodnight some simple but pointed word of Scripture. One evening, as Pink dashed by his father and up the stairs, his father’s word was from Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” There was no reason for him to pay any attention to that remark. He had no intention of doing so. Indeed he planned to spend the later evening hours working on a major speech he was to deliver to a Theosophist convention. But those words his father had said to him burned in his heart and, try as he might, he could not concentrate on anything else. He took a bath to clear his head, but still could not get those words out of his mind: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”
That upstairs bedroom that night might just as well have been that faraway and ancient lakeshore. Christ was summoning one of his disciples and with an instinctive recognition that he was being summoned by no one less than the Lord himself he found himself leaving his nets to follow Christ.
Pink kept his next appointment with the Theosophist society, but the speech he gave was like nothing he had expected to give or they had expected to hear. He set before them the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. A groan went up from the audience. One of Christ’s man-fishers was trying to catch them.
Later Pink would write: ‘In 1908 [The Lord] saved me in my bedroom. I knew right then he had also called me to be his servant.’ It is always the same. Whether Peter and James or A.W. Pink or you or me. Leave your nets, follow Christ, and serve him. It is who Christians are; it is what Christians do.
Do you see yourself this morning in Peter, Andrew, James, and John? They were no less ordinary, no less plain, no less unremarkable than you; no one would have picked them out ahead of time as world-beaters or great religious figures. But they saw clearly that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God and Savior, was the dead center of human history and the secret to the destiny of all mankind. That being so they knew as surely as they knew that they were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee that their lives must be spent in no other way than by following Jesus and advancing his cause in every way. It never occurred to them to ask what that might mean or what it might cost them: it didn’t matter!