The calling of Jesus - Matthew 4:18-23

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 2nd April 2006.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was Professor of theology at the University of Berlin in Germany in the 1930’s. At this time German Christians were divided over Hitler. One group allied themselves with Hitler and worked for a "pure" German nation. They formed an official German church which supported Hitler and banned Jews from holding official positions in the Church. Bonhoeffer was part of the other group which could not go along with Hitler’s anti-Jewish, radically German vision. With others he set up an underground church which explicitly refused to ally itself to Hitler’s Third Reich vision. But in those days it was a dangerous position to hold. In 1937 Bonhoeffer was sacked from his position at the university and he fled to London. Two years later Bonhoeffer was faced with a choice. He was offered one of the most prestigious theology appointments in the world - lecturing at Union Seminary in New York. Or he could turn that offer down and return to Germany to head up an illegal, underground theological college for the churches who refused to go along with Hitler. The latter choice was fraught with danger, but he decided that his faith would be meaningless if he took the easy option. So he headed back to Germany. But when Bonhoeffer returned, he found Hitler so evil that he abandoned his commitment to non violence and got involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot failed and in 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested. In prison he led worship services for his fellow prisoners, until that fateful day on April 9, 1945 when he was executed by the Nazis, just a month before the end of the war. Now whatever the rights of wrongs of the assassination attempt, Bonhoeffer was a man who put his money where his mouth was. He believed that nothing should come in the way of his devotion to Jesus Christ, not even his personal safety. And through all this time what distressed Bonhoeffer was the way so many Christians could sell out to Hitler’s evil vision. How could people who claimed the name of Christ so betray Christ? How could they pray in a church which banned Jews from holding office? It convinced Bonhoeffer that religiosity in and of itself was worthless. It didn’t matter how fervently a person said they believed in Jesus, how many times each day they prayed, how earnestly and sincerely they sang hymns on Sundays. In the end, for Bonhoeffer, the measure of true discipleship, true devotion to Jesus, was not just about what we say in church on Sunday, but how we are in the whole of life. Because following Christ affects everything. And one of Bonhoeffer’s greatest statements sums up his life. “When Christ calls a man or woman, he calls them to come and die.” Christ demands everything. And Bonhoeffer lived out that credo, even to death itself.

            What do you think it means to follow Jesus Christ? Well perhaps the biggest temptation many of us face in the Christian life is to treat Jesus Christ like another hobby. So some of our friends might play badminton, others might go walking, we follow Jesus. It’s a lifestyle choice, it’s a hobby that we enjoy but it doesn’t take over our life. It’s what we might call the danger of practical atheism. You see I guess very few of us here this morning would say that we were atheists. Most would claim to be Christians. And yet if we are honest, how much of the time do we live our lives allowing Jesus Christ to have little practical impact on our lives. We act as if he did not exist. Many parts of our lives are run without reference to the Lord who is the rightful owner of everything. And in that way we’re being practical atheists. We say we believe in God and yet in practice God doesn’t get much of a look in. The trouble is that is not authentic Christian discipleship. It is not following Jesus Christ as Lord. Because following Jesus Christ is a whole life decision. Following him affects absolutely everything, from the way we conduct our relationships to the way we drive our cars to the way we spend our money. Nothing should be left out of his sphere of influence. And that is something we who profess to follow Jesus Christ need to be challenged on again and again. Because there are always little rooms in our hearts where we are very reluctant to give Jesus the key. We don’t want him to have complete control for fear of a takeover. But with Jesus it’s all or nothing. Because when we bow the knee to him, the King of kings and Lord of lords, then there really is no soft option.

            And in our passage this morning from Matthew chapter 4, we find Jesus challenging four men to follow him and then showing them what that involves. And we discover three lessons about being a follower of Jesus, about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. And whether we’ve been a Christian for many years, or have not yet started down that road, then these lessons are relevant for us all. So what does it mean to follow Jesus?

1) Obey Jesus’ Command

2) Accept Jesus’ Challenge

3) Believe Jesus’ Promise


1) Obey Jesus’ Command 

So the first discovery we make from this story is that we must obey Jesus’ command. And that was something these four men learnt that day by the Sea of Galilee. Let’s read from verse 18: “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.” Now it’s clear from reading the other gospel accounts that this is not the first time that these men have met Jesus. They’d bumped into him a number of times before. In fact in Luke 5, we find that Jesus takes Peter and his friends out on a fishing expedition and they catch the biggest catch of fish of their whole lives. And it’s likely that that happened just before our passage in Matthew 4. But even if that’s true, even if they had met Jesus and chatted with him, and even seen Jesus do extraordinary things, it’s still remarkable that they drop everything and follow this relative stranger just because he tells them to.

            For example, just imagine that after coffee you’re chatting with friends and then I come up to you and say: “Drop everything. Come, follow me.” What would you think? Surely you’d be thinking: “Oh dear, this confirms our worse suspicions. Nathan has finally gone mad. We’ve known it’s been coming, but now it’s happened!” But when Jesus says it, it’s not a joke, nor do these fishermen think he’s mad. No, they really do drop everything and follow him. Surely above everything else it shows Jesus’ incredible authority over people. And notice that Matthew says, “At once they left their nets and followed him.” There was no umming and arring. They didn’t ask to phone a friend or go away and think about it. They simply followed Jesus. And it must have been a very costly decision. Their fishing business would have been worth a fair few quid. All that hard work, all that experience. But no. Jesus comes first. At once they follow him.

            And notice it’s the same for the other two brothers in verse 21: “Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” These two have the same reaction to Jesus. At once they leave everything, including their father, and follow Jesus.

            Now what is all this teaching us? Well Matthew is not teaching us that when you become a Christian you must suspend all rational thought and blindly follow Jesus. He’s not saying that at all. Elsewhere, Jesus urges us to think carefully and consider the cost of following him. That’s why we lay on these Christianity Explored courses which help you to think through what it means to follow Jesus. And it’s vital if you are not a Christian that you do that. God has given us all a mind to think with and becoming a Christian involves the mind as much as anything else. But at the end of the day we have got to come to terms with the awesome authority of Jesus Christ. Notice that Jesus did not say: “Excuse me. Sorry to bother you. Would you mind awfully if you came along with me, please.” No, he’s not inviting us to join his gang, or to come to a tea party. He’s commanding us as Lord of the universe to follow him. And either we obey him or we don’t. Those are the only two options. As God in the flesh this Jesus stands before you and me and commands us to follow him. He’s asking for the keys to our life, for him to take rightful control, for he is our King, whether we admit that or not. And to have this loving, generous, powerful King as our Lord is the best way to live, because that is what we were made for.

            So what will it mean then to obey Jesus’ command in practice? Well notice that these four men have to submit to Jesus’ authority in two areas. First, they learn that nothing else comes before Jesus. Now I realise that that is a very broad title, but actually that’s the point. Because you cannot restrict Jesus Christ to being Lord over a bit of our lives. You see these fishermen dropped everything for Jesus. They unashamedly allowed him to have total control. For them it meant leaving their work behind. They simply left their nets. It’s a very powerful image of saying good bye to the old way of doing things, with us as the boss of our lives. Now this certainly doesn’t mean we should give up work when we become Christians, unless of course we’re doing a job that is fundamentally immoral. But the point is that Jesus is to come first before everything else, even work. Following Jesus is an all encompassing commitment. It will involve how you act as a parent, as an employee or employer, it will affect the way you behave as a citizen on the roads or how you fill in your tax form. It’ll affect your lifestyle choices, in that you won’t want to be self indulgent, but you’ll long to use your resources for God’s work. It’ll affect the way we choose our holidays and how we spend our time. Now we might say, “Well how? How does it all work in practice?” Well following Jesus as Lord will work itself out in different ways depending on the situation, but perhaps the best question to ask ourselves is this: “Is it obvious to an onlooker from the way I conduct myself in every area of life, that I follow another King, King Jesus? Is it clear in every area of life that Jesus and his standards and his desires take first priority?” You see so often we want to compartmentalise our lives and say to Jesus: “Yes you can have me on Sundays and Wednesday evenings, but let me be lord the rest of the time.” We might not think it, but is it not the way we act? It was James Hudson Taylor the missionary to China who once said, “Jesus must be Lord of all or not at all.” Nothing else before Jesus.   

            But there’s another thing these men learnt about Jesus’ authority. And that is no-one else comes before Jesus. Because do you notice three very powerful words in verse 22. “Jesus called them and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.” It’s very powerful isn’t it? They even left their father standing on the sea shore. Nothing you see can come in the way of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Not even the closest human ties we can know in this world. Jesus is to be Lord even over families and our very deepest relationships. And that for many is a big stumbling block. I remember a close friend of mine who had heard the gospel many times and was very close to trusting Christ. And I asked him once what was stopping him. And he said: “I’m afraid of what my Dad will think.” And to this day he still hasn’t trusted Christ. Jesus demands total allegiance. And for some that will be very costly. I can think of a number of friends who have had very painful times when they had said to their families that Jesus comes first. Some have been thrown out their homes, others have even faced death threats. And I guess for some here this is one of the hardest things about being a Christian. For some it has been very costly in terms of your relationship with your spouse, your parents, even a child. And if you have been willing to pay that price, then remember Jesus’ words that “no-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in the present age, and in the age to come eternal life.” Jesus recognises our cost and he will provide for us both now and in the future. But the fact is the challenge remains. And we must realise that even good gifts like families can become idols. And for some of us we need to hear this challenge that following Jesus comes before family. Because there is no higher relationship than that with your God. And it means taking hard decisions because of your allegiance to Christ. Yes it will mean putting church commitment before family commitment. Yes it might mean a tough time for a Christian student returning to a non Christian family. Your parents might resent the fact that you want to go to church. But ultimately speaking Jesus comes first. Don’t get me wrong. Jesus is not saying ignore your friends and family. Not in the slightest. He’s simply saying “I come first, even before your nearest and dearest.” Because when you bow the knee to Jesus Christ, you give him every key to every room in your life, even the keys to the rooms most precious to us. None must be held back. Because that is what it means to follow Jesus. We must obey Jesus’ command.

2) Accept Jesus’ Challenge

But secondly having obeyed Jesus’ command we now must accept Jesus’ challenge. You see Jesus does not just ask us to follow him with no further instructions. He gives us a clear challenge and shows us what following him involves. So listen to what Jesus told Peter and Andrew that day on the shores of Lake Galilee. Verse 19: “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’” Throughout their working lives these two brothers have been catching fish and now they are to catch men! So what did Jesus mean? Well Peter and Andrew now had a great task to do. They were to be involved with Jesus in the wonderful mission of God. That is to tell people about Jesus. They would be catching souls, S-O-U-L-S, not soles S-O-L-E-S. And wonderfully that is a task that God’s church continues to be involved in today. Because right at the end of Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus sending out the disciples and giving them authority to teach and bring people to know Jesus. And that is something that the church carries on in the power of God right to the very end of the age, when Jesus returns. The church of Jesus Christ is always to be engaged in fishing for people.

            And that is one of the key marks of authentic disciples of Jesus- a desire to tell others about Jesus and to be a fisher of people. To proclaim the message of Jesus so that men and women and boys and girls can come to know and follow him. It’s one of the ways we reflect our heavenly Father’s character as we too have a passion for lost people. Now it has to be said that this is one of the areas of the Christian life that many struggle the most with. Many worry that they don’t have the gift of the gab, they are not very confident in speaking to others; they feel pressured to have an amazing gospel conversation every day or every week. But the fact is that the NT commands us not to worry about any thing. And when it comes to being a fisher of souls, it tells us to live a distinctive life and make the most of every opportunity that comes. You see if you and I are living lives with Jesus as Lord, which are distinctively different from those around, then naturally conversations will arise. People will want to know what reason we do have for the hope we have. But more positively we should be praying for opportunities to arise, however seemingly insignificant. We don’t know how God will use even the smallest conversation. Often it may be as simple as you giving your Christian perspective on a matter, perhaps something in the news or something you’ve watched on TV or read in the paper. And that may lead to a conversation where you can specifically spell out what it means to be a Christian. We don’t all need to be Billy Graham’s. But we can all be on the look out for just the smallest opportunities to speak of our Saviour, and praying for boldness to take them. You don’t need the gift of the gab to say what you did last Sunday in church or on Wednesday evening at Homegroup, and who knows where the Lord will take that. So have confidence in God’s ability to give you words to say and the courage to say them. Now of course it’s not easy, but it’s not easy being any sort of fisherman. It takes patience and persistence. But if we love the Lord and if we love our friends and family, then surely part of our natural desire will be to see them won for Christ too.

            Just this week, I came across some words written by the journalist and ex politician Matthew Parris. Now he is no Christian, but his words are very challenging for those who would claim to follow Jesus. He says this: “Friends, if I believe the Christian message, or even a tenth of it, how could I care which version of the prayer book to use. [He uses this as an example of arguments between Christians which deflect them from their real task] I would drop my job, sell my house, throw away my possessions, leave my acquaintances and set out into the world with a burning desire to know more, and when I had found out more to act upon it and to tell others. How is it possible to be indifferent [to this message]…. if one believes it to be a possibility, and [if you believe] that a being of this order [that is God] makes demands of this order upon me or you… [How can you be indifferent if you believe] that in thirty, twenty or ten years or perhaps even tomorrow we shall be taken from this life and ushered into a new one whose nature will depend upon our obedience now to [God’s] will. Far from being puzzled that Mormons or Adventists knock on my door, I am unable to understand how anyone who believes what is written in the Bible should choose to spend his hours in any other way.”

            Do you see what he is saying? Here is a non Christian saying that he finds it bizarre that Christians who profess to know something of staggering importance should do nothing about it. That they should remain silent or inactive given the message that they claim to have! And if we truly believe that the message of Jesus Christ is life itself, that it is the most important thing in life, that it’s a message of eternal significance, then we will be committed to being fishers of people, men and women committed to gospel proclamation in every way. Accept Jesus’ challenge.  

3) Believe Jesus’ Promise

But then thirdly following Christ means we must believe Jesus’ promise. Because there is something else in this passage which reminds us that following Christ is not just about following him in this world and that there is much more to come. And that is his healing ministry which Matthew tells us about in verses 23-25: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.” Now notice here that Jesus is committed to preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God. Cleary this is his main priority as we read elsewhere in the gospels. In fact we discovered two weeks ago when we looked at verse 17 that Jesus’ first sermon was “repent and believe the good news.” This was Jesus’ burden. This is the message he passes on to his disciples and us to proclaim to the world. But it’s not all he does. He also has a significant and powerful healing ministry. Matthew says he heals every disease and sickness among the people. Every problem that is brought to him is confronted and dealt with, even demon possession and paralysis. And the question is why?

            Well of course, these healings do teach us about the authority of Jesus, no doubt. But there is more to it than that. Because the healing ministry of Jesus shows us that God’s new kingdom is breaking in. God is destroying the old order of sin and sickness and death. Through the healing ministry of Jesus, God is giving us a taste of what is to come in heaven. He’s showing us that the time has now come when sin and decay and death will no longer have rule over us. And one day there will come a time when all of this old world with it’s sadness and pain will pass away and be replaced by a new and perfect world order, with Jesus as King over his people ruling in a perfect place in perfect joy. And how is all this achieved? Through his death on the cross. For it was there, as Matthew will later tell us, that Jesus took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. He bore our judgement that we might no longer take it ourselves. And in dying and rising again, he secures our future in God’s perfect new kingdom. So as Jesus confronts decay and sickness and even death in Galilee, it’s a picture of what is to come and a promise that he will do all that is necessary to give us the full experience in his new kingdom. It’s as if Jesus is offering us this promise: “If you trust me, if you put your hand in mine, then this is a picture of what I can do for you spiritually and ultimately physically in my new kingdom. I will heal you completely and absolutely for ever. I promise.”

            You see the great thing about being a human being is that we were designed with a purpose in mind. To be in relationship with the God who made us. And there is only one way our lives make sense and can be lived in order. And that is to submit to Jesus as Lord and King. For only then can we be healed, restored and one day transformed to be as we should. So as we finish, let me tell you the parable of the coachman and the horses. Once upon a time there was a rich man who ordered from abroad at a high price a pair of entirely faultless and high-bred horses which he desired to have for his own pleasure and for the pleasure of driving them himself. After he’d had them a year or two, anyone who previously had known these horses would not have been able to recognize them. Their eyes had become dull and drowsy and their gait lacked style and decision. They could hardly be driven four miles without having to stop on the way. Sometimes they came to a standstill as he sat for all he was worth attempting to drive them on. Besides they had acquired all sorts of bad habits and vices, and in spite of the fact that they of course got food in overabundance, they were just skin and bone. So the rich man decided to take action. He called the horses’ original coachman, the man who had looked after them and handled them from birth. He’d been the first to ride and drive them and knew the horses inside out. The coachman looked after and drove them for a month. In the whole region there was not a pair of horses that held their heads so proudly, whose glance was so fiery, whose gait was so handsome, no other pair of horses that could carry on galloping for miles without stopping, though it appeared like a mere canter for a mile. How did this come about? For a very simple reason. The rich man did not have a clue about how to handle the horses. But the coachman knew the horses inside out. And when they submitted themselves to his loving hand, then they were able to enjoy their lives as they were meant to be lived.

            You see, what we human beings need is the coachman to take control of our lives. Jesus Christ is the one who knows us best. He made us and he has done what is necessary to save us. And when we submit to him in this world it’s a little picture of what it will be in the next when we will see him face to face in all his precious glory. And what Bonheoffer said was absolutely right, that when Jesus calls someone he calls him to come and die. Yes, following Christ will be costly as we put Jesus first and as we engage in his ministry of fishing for men. But in dying to self, we actually find life in all its fullness. And that is a life which begins now, and which gets better and better for all eternity.

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