A sermon on Matthew 4:12-23
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
January 26. 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The sermon text from Matthew today includes two stories that occur early in the life of our Lord. The first one describes the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. At the beginning of the passage, we read about him going back to Nazareth after being baptized by John. Then, we are told that he went to Capernaum to set up his base of operations. Matthew tells us that he began preaching in that area and that his message at this time was very simple. In fact, it was not really very different from that of John the Baptist’s earlier proclamation. Verse 17 tells us that the substance of his message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The second story in this passage is the account of Jesus calling his first disciples. The story, as told by Matthew, is very straightforward. He says that Jesus was walking by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. While he was doing that, he spotted Simon Peter and Andrew working at their jobs as commercial fishermen. Jesus extended a call for them to “Come, follow me.” And in response, Matthew (and Mark, for that matter) says that they immediately left their nets behind to follow Jesus.
Next, we are told that Jesus found two more fishermen on the shore, James and John. He extended the same call to them and, once more, they dropped everything to follow after the Lord. The gospel of Mark adds the detail that James and John left their father Zebedee with the hired men in the boats and the nets when Jesus called them.
[Side bar here: I cannot imagine that leaving their father so suddenly to fend for himself in the business made for a very pleasant table conversation at the next family gathering. My guess is that there were some very hard and angry words exchanged. Perhaps some words about obeying the fifth of the Ten Commandments—you know, the one that says, “Honor your father and mother?” I would have been surprised if that had not turned up. What do you think?]
And so that is the story of Jesus calling his first disciples…Jesus called and, apparently without any hesitation on their part, these four men abruptly left home, left their families and left their jobs to follow after Jesus.
For as long as I have been old enough to think about such things, this story of Jesus calling his first disciples has puzzled and fascinated me. There are a couple of reasons for this:
First off, there is no indication that these men knew much of anything about Jesus before they heard his call. The gospel of John tells us that Andrew was likely a disciple of John the Baptist and that
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he had met Jesus in that context.1 There, John tells us that Andrew and another person asked Jesus where he was staying. When he invited them to his home, they went and spent the day with him. Afterward, he found his brother Peter and told him about Jesus. But aside from that, there is no other indication in the scriptures that any of the other three knew anything about Jesus beforehand. That these guys would rise up and follow Jesus with so little knowledge about him is truly remarkable…
A second thing: notice how clean and tidy this story is. Amazingly, there is no drama in it at all—especially considering that this was such an important, life-changing decision. None of these first four disciples seem to have had any questions about what Jesus was asking them to do. There is no report of any hesitation on the part of any of them. None of them requested some time to think about it. They didn’t even talk it over amongst themselves—let alone anyone else. NO. The story is very simple: Jesus called…and they followed right away.
However it must be said the gospels record that it was not always that way. Not everyone who heard the call of Jesus responded in the affirmative. The scriptures tell us that, sometimes when Jesus called someone, he got a very different answer than the one he received from Andrew, Peter, James and John. Here are a few examples…
Matthew 19 tells the story of a rich young man that came up to Jesus with a question. He asked Jesus, “What do I have to do to gain eternal life?” Jesus told him, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” Jesus told him, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your mother and father, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man replied, “I have done all these.” Then Jesus told him to sell everything that he had, and give it to the poor. Then he said, “Come, follow me.” (By the way, these are exactly the same words that Jesus spoke in today’s passage.) Contrary to what happened when he spoke those words to the men in today’s text, Matthew reports that the young man walked away from Jesus sad. He did this because he was very wealthy…
In Luke 9:57-58, we are told that a man approached Jesus as he was walking along a road and said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” To this man, our Lord gave a cryptic answer—which, frankly, is not uncommon for Jesus. He replied to the man’s statement, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Hmmmm…perhaps that was Jesus’ way of telling him that he needed to consider what being a follower of Jesus truly entailed before making a promise like that…that he needed to consider what it means to be one of his followers before making such a brash statement…
And then, later on in Luke 9:59-60, we are told that Jesus extended a call to another man to follow him. Notice here that once again, like today’s passage, Jesus is extending a call to another would-
1 John 1:40-42. Some scholars have suggested that perhaps the other three had heard of Jesus before, and maybe they had even heard him preach. That would make sense, but there is nothing in the text to support that theory. Nothing in the text disproves it either.
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be follower using the words, “Follow me.” But instead of rising up without a word to follow Jesus, this man hesitates and says “Lord”—yes, the man called Jesus “Lord.” That’s a good sign—“Lord, first let me go bury my father.”
To this man, Jesus gave a rather harsh reply. Or at least it seems that way to me. He said, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you—go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” New Testament scholars are not sure exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke those startling words. Some interpreters feel that Jesus is trying to let the man down easy since our Lord perceived that did not have the dedication required. Maybe…Others think that he is being callous to a genuine concern for family that the man had. From the little bit of conversation recorded, it is hard to tell exactly what was going on between the two men. Yet, what IS clear is that, unlike the call he issued in Matthew 4, Jesus wanted this man to count the cost of being a disciple before he made any decision about following him. Sadly, we have no record as to what happened next in this man’s life…I, for one, would have liked to have known what he did…
In the last two verses of Luke 9, another man comes up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Sounds like a reasonable request, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t all of us want to do the very same thing—to say goodbye to our loved ones? Our Lord, though, once again gives an unexpected answer. He tells the man, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Ouch. Jesus cautions him that, if he is going to truly follow him, then his relationship to his family will have to come in second place—that the kingdom of God has to be the priority in his life in order to be a disciple of his. The story ends there. We do not know if the man went home to say goodbye to his family…or if he continued to follow Jesus on the road. Again I wonder what he finally decided…What do you think he did?
In Matthew 4, Jesus calls four fishermen by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He says, “Come, follow me.” In response to that call from Jesus, all four of them rise up, leave behind what they were doing and, without a word, they followed him. In the other stories we’ve briefly considered, four other people express a desire to follow Jesus. Our Lord calls two of them with the same words he used in Matthew 4, “Come, follow me.” And yet, none of these other four—as best we can tell—responded positively to the call of Jesus. None of them wound up following him…
In the gospels, the call of Jesus is not always effectual. Not everyone who heard his call from his lips responded. There were some who embraced it, for sure. Yet there are plenty of others who did not. There were those who blatantly turned him down. Some seemed to ignore him altogether. What’s the difference? Why is it that some people welcome the call of Jesus in their lives…while others choose not to follow?
As one reads the gospels, it is apparent that Jesus was not shy about calling people to be a disciple of his. That was his goal. It was part of what he was sent to earth to do. The gospel of the coming kingdom of God was freely offered to anyone who would accept it and believe it. But he was also not one to pull any punches. He was honest about telling people what it took to be his disciple.
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On one occasion (Mark 8:34), we are told that he called the crowd to him—not just the twelve disciples, but the entire multitude that was following him. When he had their attention, he called out to them, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” He extended that invitation to the whole multitude who was listening.
“Take up your cross.” As you know, the cross was a way of executing criminals used by the Romans. It was as ghastly, horrible, and painful a death as could be devised. It was reserved for those who were terrible criminals—not petty thieves, but murderers and those who would attempt to lead rebellions against the Roman government. The worst of the worst…
Here’s something of what I think what Jesus meant by telling his disciples’ to take up their crosses. He was not exhorting them to be criminals. He was not telling them that they could live their lives by hook or crook. He was not extolling dishonesty. The thing is this: criminals, those who commit crimes and especially those who habitually break the law, live by a different set of rules than what society has established. They hold no respect for the laws which governs how everyone else lives. They do not care who is in charge and the rules that they make concerning property. They live by a different set of rules—their own set of values—their own set of ideas of how they will conduct themselves. They know full well what the laws are—and yet they live their lives as if the laws do not matter. Consequently, they run afoul of the laws of society, breaking the law. When they do, then they are captured and punished for their crimes—punished for not obeying the rules that society has established. They are outcasts from their own people because they refuse to live by society’s rules. Consequently they must be punished—even to the point of death.
In the same way that criminals flout the law, Jesus calls his disciples to flout the norms of society. He calls them to reject the values of the world. He calls them to live their lives in accordance with the values of God’s kingdom instead of the values in the world around them. The child of God is to live by a different set of values than the world in which he or she finds themselves. And therein lies the tension…Like the criminal who is at odds with society, Christian lives life at odds with society as well…albeit in a very different way and for different reasons…
The truth of the matter is that everything that plagues our world comes from one source. That source is the human heart. Name any social or societal ill, and you will discover that its source will ultimately be found in the human heart. War, murder, adultery, greed, hatred, drug addiction, theft, suicide, racism, sexism—these are just a few of the things which plague our world. And they all have their origins in the depths of the human heart. The reign of God, as demonstrated in the life of Jesus and his saving work on the cross, deals with all of these issues. And the reign of God deals with them by transforming the human heart. Once the Holy Spirit of God enters the heart by faith, then God is able to transform that heart to make it more loving, more caring, more generous, more truthful, more of everything that characterizes the life and teaching of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This transformation of the heart is not accomplished all at once. Becoming more Christ-like is a process. It is a process that lasts an entire lifetime, and it will not be completed this side of glory. That is what
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following Jesus really is all about. That is the testimony of the scriptures. And that is the testimony of thousands upon thousands of followers of Jesus through the centuries…
But in order to do that, you have to respect the call. Respecting the call of Jesus to each and every one of us…and to respond to that call. No half-hearted measures, no straddling the fence. You have to respect the call if you are going to follow Jesus…and when you do, it will be evident to others as well as yourself…
Too many times, those who name the name of Jesus do not respect the call…do not take it seriously…do not live like God is transforming them from the inside out…and the world sees…and the world takes notice…Far too often, as followers of Jesus, we have been stumbling blocks instead of stepping stones to enabling others to hear the call of Jesus in their lives as well. Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel wrote, “The greatest single cause of [unbelief] in the world today is Christians: [those] who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”2
Respect the call…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.