With this short paragraph begins Matthew’s long account of the Lord’s public ministry, an account that will take us to the Lord’s passion in the final three chapters of the Gospel. The largest portion of Matthew’s account of the Lord’s ministry, that from here in 4:18 to 16:20 is set in Galilee.
v.18 The Sea of Galilee is, of course, actually a lake, as the NIV translators render the Greek word “sea” in the second instance. It was mentioned in the prophecy of Isaiah cited in v. 15 and so its mention here confirms the fulfillment of that prophecy in the ministry of Jesus. The Galilean fishing industry was prosperous and so its fishermen were not necessarily poor. We learn, for example, in Mark 1:20, that the Zebedee family employed workers. Simon’s name is Jewish, his nickname is Greek. Andrew is a Greek name. These names reflect the mixed culture of Galilee in those days. Matthew does not translate the name, Peter, or refer to its significance at this point. That will come later in chapter 16.
v.19 “Follow me” would immediately suggest to the Jewish mind a rabbi whose students followed him everywhere to absorb his teaching. But Christ has more in mind than simply that his disciples learn from him, though he will be their teacher to be sure. He is also going to make them active participants in his work. Jeremiah (16:16) spoke of fishing for men but he meant to catch them for God’s judgment. Here they will fish to spare men from the judgment. Obviously the Lord is summoning them to more than a stroll along the beach.
v.20 This was not their first meeting with Jesus. John’s Gospel tells us of an earlier meeting in Judea. These men had been followers of John the Baptist. But, for the first time, Jesus summons them to leave home and work behind to follow him. Christ’s call had authority in it and these men answered immediately.
Matthew uses the verb “to follow” 25x, more than any other Gospel writer. It is his understanding of what it means to be a Christian: to be a follower of Jesus.
v.21 In Luke 5:10 we learn that Zebedee’s family was in a business partnership with Peter’s family.
We have only four of the disciples called here in vv. 18-22. Later, in 9:9, the call of Matthew will be reported. Otherwise, no information is given about the call of the other disciples. In 10:2 we are given a list of the disciples of Jesus, twelve names of which seven have not been mentioned up to that point. So there were other disciples, but Matthew allows the calling of these four to stand for the rest. Though the word “disciple” is not used in these few verses, it is used a few verses down the page, in 5:1. There we learn, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus had other disciples, that is other followers of him like Peter, Andrew, James and John. In this short section, therefore, Matthew is giving us a representative account. As the account of the Lord’s ministry begins, the matter of his gathering disciples to himself is introduced because the disciples will, of course, play a large role in the history that follows. So Matthew is telling us that this is how Christ’s disciples came to follow him, this is how they were gathered into a group of twelve. He assumes, as he has already done on a number of occasions in his Gospel so far, that his readers know already what he is talking about and know about the 12 disciples, the inner circle of the Lord’s following. Three of these four, whose call is reported here, Peter, James, and John, were to form the innermost circle of the Lord’s following. But if this is a representative account, it is also clearly Matthew’s explanation of what a disciple is and what following Jesus Christ means.
Again and again in the Gospels the word “disciple” is used as a synonym for what we now call a “Christian.” If you won’t take up your cross and follow him, you cannot be his disciple, Jesus said. We would say the same about any Christian. He called his followers his disciples as we call them Christians today. Joseph of Arimathea, we learn in John’s Gospel (19:38), was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. So there were other disciples than just the twelve; all followers of Christ were his disciples. And, so, in Acts 11:26 we learn that in Antioch, for the first time, the disciples were called Christians. A Christian is a disciple and a disciple of Jesus is a Christian. The word “Christian,” by the way, is formed in a typical fashion to indicate the follower of some person. That also links “disciple” with “Christian” for disciples were followers. For example, we meet Herodians in the New Testament, followers or partisans of King Herod and his house. Well by the same token a Christian is a follower of Christ and “disciple” is an earlier name for Christian. It largely fell out of use later, perhaps in large part because of its special use in the Gospels for the followers of Christ who knew him in the flesh. But, we could very well use the term today instead of Christian or as an alternative for it. Indeed, that is what Alexander Campbell proposed to do in the 1820s and 30s when he, according to his lights, tried to restore the modern Protestant church to its original New Testament form. He called the members of his churches “disciples” and that is the origin of the denomination we know today as the “Disciples of Christ.”
Now a disciple was first a learner. That is the primary meaning of the term. Jewish rabbis had disciples and they were students of the master. And it is clear that Jesus was a teacher of his disciples. That point will be emphasized in the Sermon on the Mount where the point is made emphatically at the beginning that Jesus sat down to teach his disciples. All through the Gospel we will see Jesus and his disciples in the relationship of teacher to students. One of the great books on the Gospels ever written was A.B. Bruce’s 19th century masterpiece, The Training of the Twelve. In that wonderful book Bruce demonstrated how the Lord taught his disciples for the great work he would commission them to do as his apostles. A great deal of Matthew’s Gospel will be taken up with the training of the twelve, the Lord’s teaching them and preparing them.
And there were twelve of them. That is very important. It is very important that there were twelve disciples in the inner circle of disciples, twelve men being prepared for this special role as founders of the new epoch of the church; twelve men, not eleven, not thirteen; so much twelve that when Judas betrayed the Lord he was quickly replaced. Peter said “it was necessary” to replace him, so that there might be twelve. Jacob had twelve sons. Israel had twelve tribes. The matter is particularly interesting because actually, once Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh were added to the number, there were thirteen tribes. But the number twelve was preserved with Levi’s tribe or family not counted in the number because it did not receive a portion of the Promised Land for itself. So, when Jesus chose twelve disciples and when they are often referred to as “The Twelve,” it is plain as can be that those disciples were the nucleus of the new community, they were the representative Christian church, the new Israel, the people of God in its new-epoch form. The twelve disciples are a microcosm of the church. They are the church in miniature.
It is very important for Christians to see this in its historical significance. When the Lord completed his public ministry he had written no books, he had established no institutions, there was no monument created to his life and work, except 12 men (and a few other disciples). There was the church, small as it was. Jesus spent those three immortal years devoting most of his time to the preparation of these men for the work they would do in his name when he had left the world. In the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension he completed their training. The consequences of the Lord’s great work of redemption, his cross and his resurrection, would become known and their impact would be felt in the world because of what the Lord’s disciples said and did, because of the writings they left behind, because of the institution they established in various parts of the world. No wonder so much of the Gospels should be taken up with these twelve men and the Lord’s teaching of them. No wonder that these men should be representative of the following generations of followers of Jesus Christ. For by his disciples Christ’s work is done in the world. Through his disciples he becomes known to the world and by the lives of his disciples his message of eternal life is recommended to the world. This is Christ’s will and plan. It rests on the existence of true disciples to carry it out. It rested on such shoulders at the beginning, it rests on them still today. Always it is the same. We have some indications of this in its little introduction to this momentous reality in the short paragraph we have read. Ways in which discipleship then and now are the same are shown us here.
- It is the same in that Christ himself chooses his disciples.
It was not so in Judaism. In the Judaism of that day a disciple made his own choice of what rabbi he would study with and follow about. But in the case of the Lord’s disciples he chose them, summoned them to follow him, and he has been doing the same ever since. He came to the lakeshore and picked these four men. After his ascension to the Right Hand, he called an Ethiopian eunuch riding through the desert in his chariot to follow him. He summoned the Apostle Paul, summoned him with sovereign power and Paul could not and did not resist. The Lord made him willing in the day of his power!
He summoned Justin Martyr through the witness of an old Christian whom he happened to meet on the seashore. He summoned Augustine in the garden of a Milanese villa. He summoned Martin Luther while a monk in Germany. He summoned John Wesley in the balcony of a Moravian Church in London. He summoned a teenaged Charles Spurgeon in an almost empty English church on a snowy Sunday morning. During the Second World War He summoned scores of prisoners of war, bodies wasting from malnutrition and disease, in the Japanese prison-camps of Thailand. He summoned the Japanese pilot, Mitsuo Fuchida, the man who led the attack on Pearl Harbor, in war-torn Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War. He summoned Eta Linnemann from her prestigious chair of New Testament Theology in the German University, the first woman to hold that title. He summoned Chuck Colson in a car, sitting alone outside the home of a friend. He has summoned countless disciples in church services and in evangelistic meetings and in personal conversations with other Christians and when they were alone reading his Word. Many of you hearing me this morning can remember precisely where you were or how it happened that the Lord summoned you! Not by a lakeshore, in your case, but the same summons. And he has summoned a vast host of his disciples while they were still very young, even in their mothers’ wombs. They were following the Lord already when they came to understand what that meant!
And the result has been the same as it was in the case of the 12. There were fishermen, tradesmen, soldiers, and tax collectors among the Lord’s disciples, but there were also academics and politicians. And ever since there have been uneducated peasants and world-renowned scholars and statesmen to whom Jesus said “Follow me” with that commanding voice that cannot be disobeyed.
And in one other respect these 12 were a microcosm of the church that would be built upon the foundation they laid. There was one among them who would be a traitor, though he himself did not know it when he was sharing with them the momentous days of Christ’s public ministry. There was one of them who would turn his back on all he had heard and seen and become an enemy rather than a servant of the Lord Jesus. There were to be many others like Judas as the years marched on. From Demas in Paul’s day to Charles Templeton in Billy Graham’s. In this too the 12 were representative of the church, and the eleven especially.
In whatever way, in the years that have followed, all of these hundreds of millions of people have, just like Peter and Andrew, James and John, heard the Lord Jesus say, “Follow me,” and knew, they simply knew that they must obey.
- It is the same now as then also in that following Christ, answering his summons, becoming his disciple, involves sacrifice in the nature of the case. It disrupts one’s life, one’s relationships, one’s plans for the future.
Think about these men and what that encounter with Jesus on the shore of the lake meant for them. They had jobs. They had a family company. People depended upon them. They were, apparently, successful to some degree. They had families. We know for a certainty that Peter was married for we hear of both his mother-in-law and his wife elsewhere in the New Testament. Put yourselves in their shoes. How easy would it be for you to drop what you are doing, to give up your income, to tell your wife that you would not be home much in months to come, to tell your father, who counted on you to run the company after him, that you had other responsibilities now and could not meet that obligation.
Now, to be sure, we know that there was not a total break with family or even with employment. Later in the Gospel we will encounter Peter at his family home and in John we will find the men fishing again. We don’t know precisely how much time they may have given to their employment during the three years of the public ministry, but it can’t have been much. There was a great change that happened in these men’s lives when Jesus called them. There was a great disruption in their lives.
And, of course, only as time passed did they fully grasp the extent of those changes or the implications of them. I’m sure no one supposed as they left their nets that day that their lives would take the course they did because they had become disciples of Jesus Christ. Did James imagine that he was exchanging his peaceful life as a fisherman to die violently a Christian martyr as a comparatively young man, to be the first of this group of twelve disciples to be called upon to give up his life for his Master’s sake? Did Peter imagine that he was taking that first fateful step toward crucifixion in Rome some 35 years later? Did any of these men have any idea what extraordinary changes would come in the train of this summons that they answered that day by the Sea of Galilee?
Paul would later say that he had suffered the loss of all things for the sake of Christ. And we wonder what those things included? Did he lose his wife, who refused to follow Christ after him? Most Jewish men his age would have been married. It is certainly not unlikely? But Paul surely never imagined that his life would take the turn it did: stonings, shipwrecks, traveling the Roman world, founding churches, proclaiming a message he once had despised as much as he despised anything! He left a career in which he was enjoying a meteoric rise to become first the laughing stock of his former world and then the champion of his new community and, by the grace of God, perhaps the greatest mere man who ever lived. How little did he understand either what he would surrender or what he would gain when he answered Christ’s summons.
Don’t make these Gospel men into stones. They were people just like you and me. They had the same problems and struggled in the same ways that we do. And their becoming Christ’s disciples had as many difficult and unexpected consequences as does our becoming or being his disciples today.
I know men from my reading of church history and from my acquaintance with people of my own day who have given up millions of dollars because they became Christ’s disciples. I know others whose career path took an abrupt turn and they gave up the path to fame and fortune to follow the Lord they knew not where.
Think of Martyn Lloyd Jones. A young, brilliant, and highly successful doctor, already climbing the ladder of British medicine, as a very young man already the assistant to the King’s doctor, Lord Horder. He was a man with a future as we say. And then Christ summoned him to follow him, and a few months later he was pastoring a small Welsh congregation in a damp mining town so out-of-the-way that his sophisticated London friends would have had difficulty finding it on a map! It was back to the center of London and a wonderfully powerful and influential ministry eventually, but no one could have known it at the time.
Or think of our own Gerry Gutierrez who has preached here several times and not so long ago. You remember his account of the book of Jonah delivered in Spanish on this platform. Gerry grew up in the mountains of Peru and had been radicalized in his politics by a charismatic professor at the University of Ayacucho. It was there, in that school, you remember, that the seeds of the Shining Path, Peru’s terrorist nightmare, were planted. And they were planted in Gerry’s mind at that time. And then the Lord summoned him to follow him. And who was to know what would follow: a price on his head placed there by his former comrades, eventually schooling in the United States, involvement in the high echelons of American political life – I’ve never ridden in Air Force One, but Gerry Gutierrez has! – and now back again in the Peruvian Andes, a large extended family, many of whom were the orphans of the Shining Path, and a ministry of church planting and discipleship among his own people. How little did he know what it would mean for him to leave his nets and follow Jesus Christ. Is it any more remarkable that John, a fisherman from Galilee, would become a great man in Ephesus or, as a prisoner, write a great book on the island of Patmos, than that Gerry Gutierrez should tell the story of Jonah in a church in Tacoma, Washington?
- And, in the third place, it is the same now as then in that following Christ, answering his summons, becoming his disciple means our doing his work in his name and on his behalf.
The Lord did not call these four men simply to keep him company. He said, as we read in v. 19, “I will make you fishers of men.” He had a job for them to do. In fact, it was for the sake of this work that they were summoned to follow him. In the next three years he would train them for this work. He would teach them and he would give them opportunity to try their wings. They watched him preach and then were sent out to preach themselves. They watched him heal the sick and were given power to do the same. They became an extension of the Lord Jesus himself, so much so, in fact, that the Gospels tell us that when they went about teaching and healing, though they also worked astonishing miracles, no cult of loyalty attached to them. People never asked who they were, but only who was the One in whose name they performed these mighty works.
Now, to be sure, everyone is not a minister or an evangelist as were these twelve men. But everyone is called to be the Lord’s disciple with a view to what he or she will contribute to the Lord’s cause and work. We are all witnesses, we are all servants of his kingdom in the world, we all have work to do.
The twelve became more during the ministry and, after Pentecost, quickly became first hundreds and then thousands and then millions more. People of every kind: the healthy and the sick, the young and the very old, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the unknown, those possessed of great gifts and those with modest attainments, but all left their nets with the same intention: that they too should follow the Lord, not only in their manner of living – which is not emphasized here though it will be very soon in the Gospel – but in their serving his interests in the world, in whatever way they may serve them, in whatever way they may contribute to fishing for men.
There in a nutshell is your life and mine, brethren. We have been summoned and have answered the summons. Our lives have been changed root and branch as a result. He does not hesitate to ask of us great changes and large sacrifices. The work is too important for half measures. And, it is work to which he has called us. The Christian life is not a way to loiter in but to stride out and to walk with a destination in view. [Bengel, Gnomon, at Acts 9:2] We are to see ourselves in these four men, leaving their nets to do the work Christ had for them.
But for all the sacrifice and all the work there are great compensations. What an astonishing three years lay before these men. What privileges would be theirs to witness the greatest things that ever happened, the very center of human history. That they should know the Lord Jesus and walk with him and spend their lives in his presence is enough; more than enough. And so for every disciple. But there is more even than that. Think of all the people these men would come to know and love over the following years – people all over the world – because they left their nets that day. How much larger and more wonderful their lives became because of the brotherhood of spiritual fishermen to which they now belonged.
Years ago, during the cold war, a Christian minister visited Romania. Romania of all places. What do we know about Romania? What did anyone know about it then? As this Christian man walked through a busy section of the city, bundled up against the bitter cold, he couldn’t help but notice the somber, grim faces of the people as they walked past him on the street. Visitors from the West always remarked on how glum people seemed to be behind the Iron Curtain. Suddenly, however, a man passed by walking in the same direction, wrapped up like everyone else against the cold in rather shabby clothes, but with a happy countenance and whistling as he walked. The Christian couldn’t help but notice the tune for it was that of a fine but not very well known Christian hymn, “The Great Physician Now is Here, the Sympathizing Jesus,” a hymn by the Methodist hymn writer William Hunter.
Surprised to hear that tune on a Romanian street he picked up his pace to match strides with the happy whistler. He was aware, of course, that Westerners were watched and didn’t want to put the man at any risk, so he simply started whistling the same tune as he walked beside him. The man stopped, his face beaming, and out came a barrage of words in his own language which the American, of course, did not understand. The Romanian realized he wasn’t being understood so he pointed up to heaven, laid his hand on the American’s chest, which gesture was then returned and they clasped one another in an emotional embrace. Not a word was spoken between them that either understood, but each knew that at some point they too had been in their boats in the Sea of Galilee, Jesus Christ himself had walked by and said to them, “Come, follow me.” And each man had done so, hardly knowing why or what it would mean but sure that he had no other choice, nor would he ever wish to have done otherwise. A Christian is a disciple, everywhere and always it is the same.
So, you Christians, be the disciples you are. Prove your discipleship, make good on it. Be sure that every day you are leaving your nets to follow Jesus whatever that may mean at whatever cost. I tell you, when these men were suffering their worst for Christ, they would look back to that day by the Sea of Galilee and think, “Oh what a happy day that was!