Date: 3/26/2023 | Message: When Christ Beckons the Losers | Scripture: Matthew 4:12-22 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Allow me to read to you from our text this morning in Matthew 4:12-25. TWoL: 12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
This morning, we embark upon the next phase of Matthew’s gospel account. The temptation narrative that we took two weeks to cover was the end of the evangelist’s introduction of Jesus. We’re expected to know at least the basics of who this person is—that he is divinity incarnate, the prophesied Messiah, the true Israel, the greater than Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, the Saviour from our sins, the Righteousness of the Father, the One who cannot be tempted, King of kings, true God from true God. He is the Lord Jesus Christ, the dawn of the end of the age, revealed to us in order to separate to himself a new, eternal, final people of God.
If this has not been made abundantly clear to you over the last three months, then the next nine are going to be very difficult for you because in order to get the rest of this book, you have to get Jesus, and I don’t mean that just in terms of intellectual assent. No, I mean that personally. I mean that intimately. I mean that salvifically. I mean it transformatively. I mean that cross-has-been-born-for-you-to-vindicate-the-wrath-of-God-over-your-sin-and-to-redeem-you-by-grace-from-an-eternity-in-hell-to-be-instead-seated-by-the-Father’s-side-as-his-own-beloved-righteous-child-forever-and-ever kind of getting Jesus.
Unless, he is your Saviour, the next nine months are going to be excruciating for you because he’s going to call us to do certain things, and unless you know him as he wants you to know him—unless he has transformed your life from one who was dead in your trespasses and made you alive together with him—everything you’ll hear for the next nine months will simply sound like a burden that you cannot carry, nor, I think, will you want to.
What the rest of Matthew requires, given what he’s revealed to us about Jesus in these first four chapters of his book, is a life lived in utter desperation to venerate his name and to pursue his glory. And that might sound like a good thing, but we have to understand that before the glory can be received, the cross must be borne, and that is where Christ beckons us to journey along with him. So, unless Christ is your Christ, I cannot imagine any one of us wanting to be a part of what Matthew has left to say. Yet, for those of us who know and declare Christ to be ours, I cannot imagine any one of us wanting to be anything but a part of what Matthew has left to say.
And what he has to say is that for those who have received Jesus as their Messiah, as we await glory—as we travel with him towards the cross—we are, in that time, to be making disciples. Make disciples of Jesus. These two words have radical, life-altering consequences for what our Sundays to Saturdays should look like, and Matthew tells us that we’re to do it intentionally, and we’re to do it confessionally. That’s our outline this morning—that’s where we’re headed—we’re headed towards Jerusalem from this day forward, and as we go, we’re to be making disciples of Jesus.
Let’s see how our Lord leads us in this task as we look at our first point: make disciples of Jesus . . .
a) Intentionally Courageous (vv. 12-16). We’re not sure how much time has elapsed between the events in our passage this morning and the passage we covered two weeks ago in Christ’s temptations, but Matthew writes this book in such a way that as we begin Jesus’ ministry, we start from the most northern part of his travels, and for the majority of the rest of his record, our author intentionally leads us through our Messiah’s life as he moves southward towards Jerusalem. And just as he is intentional to lead us on this path, he wants us to become as acquainted as we possibly can with the person that treads it for us.
So, he tells us what spurs Christ to go up into the north: it’s the arrest of his forerunner, his older cousin, his prophet, his friend—John the Baptist. We know this prophet well having talked about him a few weeks ago. His was the task of preparing the way of the Lord, and at the height of his ministry, what happens to him? He’s taken away and put in a cell, and in Matthew 14, we learn that he does not leave that cell alive, but is, ultimately, beheaded in it.
It is in John that Jesus sees his future. It is in his arrest that Jesus knows his arrest is coming. It is in the prophet’s death that Jesus is sorrowful not only because John is important to the Messianic purpose but because of what it means awaits the Messiah himself. And Jesus is seeing and hearing about this even before his ministry begins. Imagine that. Imagine knowing tragedy lies before you prior to even getting started. Imagine knowing the end before experiencing the beginning. This is what Jesus sees and feels in John—a man who lived seeking to give life to others, and yet who was rejected by them, taken away, and unjustly murdered.
As a result, Jesus goes to Galilee because in Galilee, John is not quite so well known. These people likely have not heard or may have scarcely heard the prophet’s message, and Jesus knows that in order for him to have the opportunity to grow his ministry, as someone who was closely associated to John, he must be somewhere other than where the Jews and other Roman leaders might expect him to be. John’s misfortune drives Jesus’ action because the life of John foreshadows that Christ’s time is short and the immanency of his own demise is near, so he must make the most of it by going up north.
Yet, why Galilee specifically? In fact, Jesus’ travels seem almost cowardly because John’s just been arrested, and although he was likely hated by Jewish leaders, he wasn’t arrested by the Jews. He was arrested by a Gentile prince named Herod (a different Herod from the one in Matt 2) who did it out of a personal vendetta against him. This would have stirred anger within the Jewish people—not necessarily because of their dedication to John but because of their hatred for the Roman state, and it would have made sense for people like Jesus who were known supporters of John’s ministry to protest this kind of action. But Jesus doesn’t do this.
Instead, he goes 100 miles north into a region not very well known by this time within the Jewish world—in fact, Capernaum, the Galilean city that Jesus goes to specifically, is not brought up within the Jewish Scriptures at all, and it would have been thought of as wholly insignificant. Furthermore, most of it would have been occupied not by Jews but by gentiles, which is surprising because such a city would likely have been somewhat hostile to people of Christ’s ethnicity. It’s this kind of people who’ve just arrested his friend. So, why does Jesus come here? Because this is how the gospel works.
See, Jesus, knowing how closely his fate is tied to John’s, flees the situation there in Nazareth not out of fear, but as Matthew tells us by quoting from Isaiah 9—the very passage that talks about the coming Saviour who is God himself and King over all—he goes to Galilee with the very intention of helping those who are not only insignificant but who are hostile, in every way, to his people and purpose. He goes to Galilee for the purpose of expanding God’s saving intentions to the gentiles.
What we must not miss here is the animosity between Jews and gentiles because that’s the meat. These are Jesus’ enemies. These are the enemies of the Jews. For centuries, if not millennia, gentiles have been taking from God’s people, showing them no mercy, pillaging their land, raping their women, slaughtering their children, and these are the people who Jesus goes out to save and preach to in Galilee. These are the people who Jesus, and later, the apostle Paul, will teach and heal. These people who not only dwelled in the darkness but deserved to stay there, these people are those whom God has chosen through his Son to give the dawn of heaven’s light.
This is the radical nature of the gospel on display—that Christ does not only come to dwell amongst those who look like him, smell like him, live like him, eat like him, communicate and associate like him, he comes to dwell with those who hate him—with the outsiders of outsiders. And in his dwelling amongst them, he seeks not to condemn them—not to leave them under the shadow of death, but to show them a great light and to bring them into it. And, do not forget, he does all of this under the looming specter of the cross.
This, dear friends, is why such messages like these will not appeal to you if you do not know who Jesus is because this is the precise foundation upon which Christ, having come into our midst when we were his enemies, having been crucified in our stead, and having borne our sin and the wrath of God upon his own shoulders to save us from hell, now calls us to be witnesses of his light to the nations. And not just to the nations—or people groups—or communities that accept us or look like us. No, he’s telling us to go into those places—to those people who hate us, who hate our Saviour and the message that we proclaim. Such a thing is impossible for us—for you—to do unless he has brought you, personally, out of the shadow of death—out of your dwelling place of darkness—and into that great light of his love, life, and salvation.
Yet, for those of us who believe, he’s not telling us to go in without wisdom or discernment. There is risk, but it must be a calculated and counted risk, which leads me to highlight that we aren’t only to be intentionally courageous in making disciples, we’re also meant to be . . .
b) Intentionally Strategic (vv. 18-22). Notice not only the people whom Jesus goes to live with and save but also the people whom he calls to help him—those of whom shall be the foundation of his kingdom. They’re fisherman.
Now, I want to correct any misconceptions about these men that we might have. They’re not uneducated. It’s likely that they’re all quite educated. This is evidenced in their writing of Scripture. Just read what they write. They’re not dumb. Yes, the Holy Spirit is inspiring them, but those words are also entirely their words, their grammar, their articulation. They’re also not poor. It’s likely that they’ve done quite well. We know this because Peter tells us in Matthew 19 that they leave everything—implying quite a lot—to follow Jesus. James and John probably are in business with their father, and the boat that they were on was probably owned by them and manned not only by them three but by a fleet of helpers.
So, what is so significant about calling fishermen? Well, it is because it fits exactly with what Jesus intends these men to do as the first ministers of the gospel. They are fishermen, and so Jesus intends to promote them to be fishers of men. This isn’t just so that Jesus might make a wordplay, but to signify the way the kingdom of heaven is to be brought in. That people who’ve lived their whole lives in service to an industry with no eternal purpose might now be used for eternal purposes—that the insignificant might be used in significant ways.
But more than simply being a metaphor for how the kingdom of heaven breaks into the world, I believe Jesus calls these men—fishermen—in particular, because they are—to everyone who is not fishing with them—invisible. They are the losers and dregs of society. They deal with slimy, smelly things all day so that others might enjoy the fruit of their labour.
So, you see, they aren’t just a metaphor or symbol of how God shows us the significance in the insignificant. It goes even further in that because despite these disciples being made significant, despite their being singled out by Jesus to see, hear, and do incredible things, they will be cast out, ignored, and made lower in status than what they already are. These men are to give a characterization of what people in the world will see and say when they’re called to repentance—when they’re called to judgment—when they’re called to forsake their sin.
Each of these men, save one of them, will suffer and die gruesome and horrible deaths. Their task, on this earth, will be a thankless one. But even more than that, as disciples of Jesus, their message and their call to follow him will only be appreciated and accepted in as much as the world accepts their master, which it won’t.
And again, this is why this message is not for the faint of heart—those whose heart still cling firmly to the treasures, joys, pleasures, and vanities that this life has to offer—because following Jesus is a decision that can’t be made indecisively. No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. “Looking back means longing back. [Looking back] means that we are not really sure Jesus is worth following, especially to Jerusalem—[especially to that cross]. Divided hearts like that are not useful in displaying the worth of Christ (John Piper).”
Perhaps even more fitting to say is that divided hearts like that will not be able to weather the difficulties of the road. Unless Jesus has revealed himself to you as one who is worthy of your complete following. This call isn’t just a difficult one to take up, it’s an impossible one.
But for those of us who do know this Jesus. We know that when we hear the words, “Follow me.” We hear two things. We hear the (all caps) FOLLOW (lower case) me—that is, we hear the path that Jesus calls us to tread with him as he heads to Jerusalem. It is a weary, body-breaking, soul-crushing, faith-testing journey. But along with hearing this, we also hear (lower case) follow (all caps) ME—that is, we hear the voice of our Saviour amidst the brokenness of our sin. We receive the irresistible sweetness of his offer in the fog of our suffering. We see the treasure and prize of the person in the lamentable nature of his path.
And this is the strategy that he gives us as those who have taken up the call to follow him, namely, that we intentionally call the invisible—that we call the lowly and humble—that we call those who are esteemed as nothing to become disciples of this Jesus and beg them to live a life perhaps even worse than nothing. Why? Because while he tells us to go, and while he tells us to take up our own cross and die as we make disciples of all nations, he gives us the promise that makes it all worth it, “I am with you always till the very end of the age.”
We are to be intentional in our disciple making—courageously and strategically so. Why? Because Jesus is worth it. He is worth following even through Jerusalem and to the cross. He is worth following even to the nations who threaten all sorts of violence and evil against you. It is true, he does lose his life upon Calvary. But for those of us who know him, that is not bad news. As one commentator says, “In the cross, he loved us and gave himself up for us. He didn’t say “Follow me to Jerusalem” because he needed help with his redeeming work, but because if you are with him, you will be saved, and not only will you be saved, you will be given a mission that is more precious, as verses 18-22 tell us, than all the fish, all the boats, even than all the members of your own family, namely, you’ll be given the joy of proclaiming the kingdom of heaven come in Jesus.” And if you don’t have Jesus, that won’t make any sense to you.
Nevertheless, I hope you trust me when I say, there is no more abundant of a life than that. We so quickly like to think that when Christ talks about having an abundant life that he’s talking about heaven and eternity, but that’s only half true, because he means, in every way, for us to have an abundant life now. If I might borrow the words of the Rev. S.M. Lockridge (from a sermon that John Hettel shared with me) who says, “some of us here have said to ourselves that I’ll accept Jesus as Saviour and acknowledge him as Lord at some point in life, but before I do, I’ve got a lot of living to do. But, dear sinner, you don’t really live until you come to him [who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.].” You don’t really live until you’ve come to the one who gives his own life for us.
For those of you who do not believe—who do not know Jesus as Lord and Saviour, my hope for you is that you not wait a second longer to become nothing. Come to him today, as Isaiah 55 says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” If you do not know Jesus, my prayer for you is that he might show you your nothingness so that he might simultaneously display his greatness and radiance in your life.
Conversely, if you do know Jesus, then go and make disciples. Delay no longer from walking in step with your Saviour and denying yourself from the wealth of joy and satisfaction that he intends to give you in himself. But make sure you don’t go out seeking to tread his path without his person. He has not left you to do his work alone. No, he’s already done it. He loved you first as his enemy before you ever went out to love your enemy, and he has loved your enemies more than you ever can yourself. Upon that cross, he has declared “it is finished,” so make sure to rest in him and his sacrifice first as he bares you up until the end. Make disciples not only for Jesus but do it with him wherever you are and do it to the glory of his name in all the earth.
I want to finish by asking the question: what is it that qualifies us to go out to our enemies in courage and to strategically call the invisible and worthless to follow Jesus? What qualification do we give ourselves and others for joining Jesus’ ragtag band of misfits? Is it our righteousness? Is it our gifting? Did these gentiles in Galilee possess something that Jesus’ Jewish neighbours didn’t? Did these fishermen have something that warranted their being called over everyone else?
No, the truth is is that while we see the radical, controversial nature of the gospel where Jesus takes those who the world does not expect anything from and makes them the people of God and the fishers of men, they are in themselves unqualified for the task. They are only called disciples of Jesus and made able to serve in strength and grace because he has supplied it in himself—because apart from him, we are totally inept and incapable. What, then, is our qualification? Our qualification is that we are all sinners—vile, wretched, nasty, and poor. Our qualification is that as sinners, while we might sing, “nothing in my hands I bring,” we might equally make the resounding confession, “simply to the cross I cling!”
This is what qualifies—not our merit—but our confession. It isn’t our proclamation. It’s the message that we proclaim. What Jesus does in verse 17 is of particular importance for us because with his words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” he shows us he does not come to reinvent the wheel. He comes to solidify it. His message, although given more weight due to who he is—despite the fact that he is who he’s talking about when he says the kingdom of heaven has drawn near—his message does not deviate from the message of John who came before, nor the prophets before him, nor the leaders of Israel before them.
And this is what we must understand about evangelism and making disciples—it’s not about making yourself more approachable or more likeable or more contextual. Yes, these things are nice, and, in all honesty, they can’t hurt your opportunity to minister and apply the gospel to the lives of the lost. We ought to strive to be as winsome and affable as possible. But at the end of the day, we have to remember it’s never about us. Our posture in the offensive nature of the gospel—that we might tell sinners they’re going to hell unless they repent of their sin and believe in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour through his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection—is something we cannot be tentative about or sorry for. It is not a message that we can neglect to proclaim or make easier to hear.
See, Jesus knows that the gospel is about him, but even in his proclamation of it, it’s not about glorifying himself or drawing vain ideas of himself so that people might have a nicer thought as to who he is. No, he proclaims a message and holds the exact same position as the man who was just arrested, and who will be, in short order, executed. He stands like those who were rejected by their own people, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
And we have to ask ourselves if we’re willing to uphold that same stance and risk suffering that same fate. This imperative of ours this morning—this command that Matthew gives to us throughout the rest of his book to make disciples of Jesus—isn’t just a call to bring people face-to-face with the giver of life, it’s a call for us to come face-to-face with the inevitability of own death, just as Christ is doing here in our text.
Is this gospel worth believing to you? Do you stand as one who places themselves over it and who qualifies it, who makes excuses for it, who apologizes for it, or does it qualify you, and how you will spend your life in submission to its message? Will you choose to stand with saints upon saints who have gone before you confessing and proclaiming it even at great detriment to themselves, to their well-being, to the well-being of their family members, to the adversity of their friends, to the hostility of their governments, to the looming specter of that cross that awaits all of us who follow Jesus to Jerusalem?
What qualifies you to the task? Is it you or is it the Jesus who has saved you? Is it the fancifulness of your words, or is it the message that not only has transformed the way you speak but the very foundation of how you live? Because if it’s the latter, believe me, it doesn’t matter how you package the message. You can be as dry or as winsome as you’d like, but if the message is your life, it will change not only how people see and think of you, but it’ll change how they see and think of Jesus—for the better or for the worse.
The difference between a church that wants to make disciples and a church that makes disciples is the confession—that those who speak it truly believe it as those who have gone before believed it—that they’re willing to stake their lives and all of eternity upon it. Those who confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts—with their whole lives—that the Father through the Holy Spirit raised him from the dead, they will be saved. Theirs is eternal life in heaven. Theirs is the eternal fellowship of God. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ, and nothing will ever be able to separate us from his love.
Be resolved to make this your confession as it seeps down into your bones and into your heart so that, as you go from this place, you might truly make disciples who will follow Jesus down to Jerusalem, onto that cross, and from there, into everlasting life with him.