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What Does it Mean to Follow Christ?

Tom Pennington


Good evening and welcome to Sunday evening online. It is a joy to welcome you again. I look forward to these times. I thoroughly enjoy looking at the gospels and looking at our Lord and I know that you have as well. We want to do that again tonight. Before we get started, let’s join our hearts together in prayer. You join me as we pray. Father, it is such a joy to open Your Word—to know that these are in fact the product of Your breath as we were reminded this morning. These are Your very words to us. Thank You that You have spoken to us not only in the Word written but, in the Word incarnate and the record of His life is recorded for us here on the pages of Scripture and even in the gospel that we will look at tonight.

Lord, open our eyes to see Him. I pray that seeing Him, You would remind us of the fact that we are His followers and of all that that means. Lord, it is so easy for us who have become His followers to lose perspective on what exactly we have committed to do and I pray that You would remind us afresh of that tonight. Help us to see Him in His glory and His beauty and help us to see ourselves in the men that we will meet. We will pray that You will use all this for our good. Open our eyes to understand Your Word. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Well, I encourage you to take your Bible and turn with me to Mark’s Gospel. Mark chapter 1. We have been considering some of the stories from the life of Christ. Some of the profound lessons that are learned there, and this is one, as I mentioned this morning, that is crucial to us because we talk about following Christ but, I think, too often we aren’t clear on exactly what it is that means. Tonight, we are going to learn that; we are going to see it very clearly. So, I encourage you again to take your copy of God’s Word and to follow along with me as we look at what does it mean to follow Christ from Mark chapter 1, verses 16 to 20. Let’s read it together. Mark 1 beginning in verse 16:

As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on a little further, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him.

The theme of this little paragraph is Jesus’ call to serve Him and to advance His mission. Mark gives us two very similar examples of what that call might typically look like, and he also gives us the responses of four men. Four men who became the core of the apostles whom Jesus appointed to be with Him and to represent Him. You know, there is so much we can learn from this event in the life of Christ and the examples that we are going to study really pattern for us what our response to Christ should be as well.

There are two separate events as you could see as we were reading. Both of them follow a similar structure. You have, first of all, the circumstances of the call; the call itself. Then you have the response. So, as we examine these two different events that occurred on the same day, in the same place with just a short time between them, we are going to follow this pattern. So, let’s begin then by considering example number 1: The call to serve Christ. It is the example of Peter and Andrew. We see it unfold in verses 16 to 18 and as I mentioned, he begins with the circumstances, verse 16 says: “As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee.” I don’t need to take much time here; you are very familiar as a student of the Scripture with the Sea of Galilee. It is simply a large freshwater lake on the north side of Israel about 13 miles by 7 miles, fed by the Jordan River on its north end. What makes it unique, it is 695 feet below sea level. The same lake is also called the Sea of Tiberias and the Sea of the Harp, because of its shape, the Sea of Kinneret and the Lake of Gennesaret. Much of Jesus’ ministry occurred along the north shore of this lake. In fact, it’s the backdrop for the text we just read all the way to Mark 8 and verse 26. This is, again, you are familiar with this, but on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee or the Lake that is Galilee, is where much of Jesus’ ministry unfolds. His ministry headquarters was there on the northwest corner from the Town of Capernaum which was a key strategic town. You get a little feel for the pastoral side of that landscape from a couple of pictures I just wanted you to see so you kind of understand what it was like to be in that environment.

The primary industry in this area in the first century was fishing, as you might expect. Fisherman primarily fished for three types of fish: sardines, this is what the little boy had when he had the two small fish. Sardines and bread were staple products of the locals. Barbels was a fish that was there as well, similar to carp, and musht. This fish is normally called “St. Peter’s Fish.” It’s a blue tilapia. You can see a photo of it there. Each fish was dried; they were pickled; they were made into sauce and used in a variety of ways. The reason I say this is because I want you to understand something about these men we are going to meet. When we think of fishermen, different ideas may come into our minds. But understand that fish was the staple food, not just among the Jewish people, but in fact, it was also in the entire Greco-Roman world. We are told that fish were exported in the first century from the Sea of Galilee as far as Alexandria in Egypt on the south, to Syrian-Antioch in the north. And so, these fishermen were not day laborers. They were likely successful businessmen. Like all businessmen, certainly they had their ups and downs and we read some of those in the gospels, but they were, in fact, businessmen. There were some 16 different ports on the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ day. And there were many boats, in fact Josephus tells us in the middle of the first century, he commandeered 230 boats to transport his men across. So, that’s the circumstances that we are looking at there on the Sea of Galilee and in that context, it says in verse 16: “He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen.” Remember Mark’s Gospel is essentially the recollections of Peter, and so here we have what amounts to really Peter’s memory of what happened that morning. It just adds a fresh insight as you think about him describing these events to his young protégé in the faith, Mark.

We are introduced here to Simon and Andrew, his brother. This family was originally from Bethsaida. They moved to Capernaum near the synagogue there, built a very nice home near the large synagogue. In fact, Peter’s home is still visible to this day—the ruins of it under a church that’s there by the large synagogue in Capernaum. Simon is what he was called, Jesus later gave him the name Peter in Mark chapter 3. Both of these boys were obviously Jewish, but at the same time both of those names, Simon and Andrew are Greek names. So, their families were open apparently, at least to limited Greek influences and so we learn a little bit about them this way. Peter, as you know, had married, in fact, we meet his mother-in-law later in Mark chapter 1. She lived in Peter’s home there near the synagogue in Capernaum. They were fishermen by trade we learn in Mark 1 and together these two brothers had built a successful fishing business. Luke 5 tells us Peter owned his own boat and we also learn they had partners that we will meet shortly.

When Jesus walked up, these men were doing what they did—they were fishing. But it was interesting what they were doing specifically because the verb that is used here is only used here in the New Testament and the noun form is only used once in the parallel account in Matthew 4. It refers to a particular kind of fishing and a particular kind of fishing net. Here’s a picture of it. This is a “cast net.” That is, the net that was being used at this point by Simon and Andrew. It is usually thrown from a boat, a pier or sometimes while you are standing in the water. While it is thrown, while it is still in the air, it spreads out into a huge circle, some 10 to 20 feet in diameter, along the outer edge or weights that cause the circular net to sink like a circle to the bottom. And there’s a rope that is tied to it in the center typically, and once it lands on the bottom, the one who threw the net pulls it in with that rope and the weights at the bottom gather together collecting whatever is caught then in the net, not allowing it to escape. I actually owned a cast net when I was growing up. I used it often in Mobile when I was growing up years ago. That is what Andrew and Peter were doing. They apparently had already been out in the boat that previous evening and probably that night and they had now cleaned the boat and they are still trying to make a living by casting the net.

That brings us to the call of these men. Verse 17 says, “And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’” Now fully understand what is happening here, what Jesus is doing with these two men. You really have to understand the previous contact He has had with them. I am not going to belabor this, but Jesus had met these men shortly after His baptism more than a year before this encounter we are studying on the beach in Capernaum. It’s revealed in John 1, and I am not going to go back to John 1, but you remember the story. There in John 1, verses 35 and following, we meet two disciples of John the Baptist: one of them is named Andrew, Simon’s brother; the other one is unnamed. Tradition says that it was probably John, the brother of James, who we will meet shortly. Then in verses 41 and 42, we meet Peter, and then later, Philip and Nathaniel. Nathaniel may have been one of the twelve, if so, he was probably known by another name, perhaps Bartholomew. It is possible that he wasn’t one of the twelve and that’s the only time that he is really mentioned in the gospel record. But that’s when they met about a year earlier. Now after they met, after Jesus met Simon and Andrew, they travelled with Jesus into Galilee for a family wedding in John 2:2. Then apparently several of these men travelled some with Jesus during His first year of ministry. We know for a fact, that they were with Him at the end of the first eight months in Judea because John records it in John 3:22 and the first part of John 4. They were there with Him when He encountered the Samaritan woman and they travelled with Him from Judea to Galilee to start His ministry. But there is no mention of these disciples again until after Jesus is rejected in Nazareth and moves His ministry headquarters to Capernaum, in Luke chapter 4. So, here’s what I want you to get: at some point, these men had returned to their jobs and homes before this encounter here. They had known Jesus. They had even travelled with Jesus, but then at some point they had returned to their business before these events unfold. That is important to understand it.

Now a few weeks then after they had returned to their jobs and homes, Jesus finds them and issues this first call. Jesus called these four men to accompany Him for part of His ministry around Galilee. That is what is recorded in the passage we are looking at. Jesus then embarked on a preaching tour of Galilee with these four in tow and afterwards, they returned to Capernaum and the four returned again to their homes. That was followed by a second call of these four men. That call is recorded in Luke chapter 5, verses 1 through 11. We know it’s not the same event as the one we are studying here in Mark 1 because there’s a difference in the order of the events. There also are differences in the details in Luke 5. There Peter and Andrew are fishing from a boat and Jesus entered the boat. There was a large catch of fish, and they permanently left their business. So, these are two separate calls. Shortly after this second call that’s recorded in Luke 5, these men were included in the list of the twelve apostles that Jesus appointed. But the main point I want you to get, don’t miss the forest for the trees, the main point I want you to get is that Jesus knew these men before the encounter on the beach in Mark 1. After they had interacted with Jesus for more than a year off and on, Jesus found them at their business. Notice then what He said to them in this call, verse 17: “Jesus said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’” Literally the Greek text says, “Here behind Me.” It’s a command that is common in the gospels. It is essentially a call to bow to the authority, the person, the teaching of Jesus Christ. He’s calling them to do what He lays out for them to do as they already are His disciples—His pupils. He is now going to give them a specific assignment to follow through on.

But I want to step back because this goes to the heart of what I want to share with you tonight, and that is understanding that this concept of following Jesus is not a static concept in the New Testament and the gospels. In different context, it is used in slightly different ways. It is used in some cases of the initial call to conversion. That is, the call to repent and believe in Jesus. The call to actually become Jesus’ disciple for the first time. For example, in John 1:43, “The next day He purposed to go into Galilee, and He found Philip. And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow Me.’” In Mark 8:34, “And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up the cross and follow Me.’” This was a call to become His disciple. In Mark chapter 10, verse 21, “Jesus felt a love for [the rich young ruler] and [He] said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’” So, sometimes this invitation, this call to follow Jesus is of the initial call of salvation—to become His disciple. It is also used as a call to service. That is really what we have going on in Mark chapter 1. I will further explain that in just a moment.

It is used thirdly of a call to full-time to ministry. In Luke chapter 5, verse 11 is that second call when He comes to these men, they brought their boats to land, and they left everything and followed Him. They left all of their secular careers, and they went into full-time ministry as His apostles. It is used as well of a call to continued faithfulness. Those who are already His disciples, those who are already serving Him, even in the case of the apostles, those who are already in full-time ministry, He can say, “Follow Me,” and He means, “Keep on following Me. Keep on being faithful to Me.” That is what He says in John 21 to both Peter and to John. Remember John 21:19: “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to [Peter], ‘Follow Me!’” And verse 22, “Jesus said to him, ‘If I want him to remain [that is, John] until I come, what is that to you, [Peter]? You follow Me!’” And so, it can mean in different contexts all of those things. We are going to come back to that and look at the practical ramifications of that, but I want you to see how it is used in the gospels.

Before the events of Mark 1, these four men had already accepted Jesus as their Messiah, their King, as their Lord, as the Son of God. But if Mark’s readers had read the other gospel records, then they didn’t know that. As far as they are concerned, this is Jesus’ first encounter with these men. And so, to them, He says, “Follow Me and I will make you become fishers of men.” So, Mark actually uses this call to follow Christ with two of these uses in mind here: one is, it is kind of a flashback, a reminder of their previous call to repent and believe in Jesus as the Messiah and to become His disciple. That happened in John 1 and a call to become His student and His servant, to become His apprentice which is what happens here in Mark chapter 1. Notice what Jesus links to this call to follow Him in service. He says, “I will make you become fishermen of men.” This is a call to service. Specifically, Jesus is calling them to accompany Him to there in Capernaum along with His ministry as they do in verse 21. They are with Him in His ministry there in Capernaum. It’s a call to accompany Him in His first preaching tour of Galilee, which, again, they do later in the same chapter verses 35 to 39.

It is also a call to evangelize. That is really the picture behind this expression “fishermen of men.” This was to be the disciples’ main task. You remember how even at the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus in Matthew 28, gives this group along with the others of His disciples, the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples.” That is what we are talking about here. In Acts chapter 1, verse 8, He said to the apostles “Go and be My witnesses.”

So, in Mark chapter 1, then, Jesus was calling these four men who had already believed in Him previously a year before, to serve Him, not yet in permanent full-time ministry, that is going to come in a second call in Luke chapter 5. But in this case, He was calling them to leave their homes and their business to go on what we might call a “short-term mission trip” with Christ to serve Him. Hendriksen, the commentator writes, “The Lord by saying ‘Come follow Me’ exercises His sovereignty over Simon and Andrew. He shows that He has a right to claim them for service in His kingdom. They must be ready to follow immediately when He calls them.”

So how did they respond? What was the response of these men? Verse 18, “Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” Here you see the compelling force of the character and authority of Jesus. And you see that they truly have already become His disciples. These successful no-nonsense fishermen are quick to respond to the command of Jesus Christ. That is the first example.

That brings us then to the call to serve Christ: the second example. Two other of the disciples, James and John, in verses 19 and 20. again, we begin with the circumstances, verse 19 says, “Going on a little farther”—really, just down the beach—“He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets.” Nearby was another group of fishermen. They were very nearby, and we will see why in just a moment. Their names were James and John. These two men were also commercial fishermen but instead of throwing the cast net, they were actually in the boat repairing, cleaning, folding their nets, preparing for their next fishing expedition. James is always mentioned first of these two brothers, with two exceptions in the New Testament. That means he is probably the oldest. His name “James” was first used in English by Wycliffe in his translation, an old English form of the name “Jacob.” It is actually the Hebrew name “Jacob.” He was the first apostle to die as a martyr in Acts chapter 12. John, of course, is the disciple whom Jesus loved—part of that inner circle. He wrote the Gospel of John, and the three inspired letters that bear his name. He was the last apostle to die, interestingly enough, at the end of the first century on the Island of Patmos. These two men were the sons of Zebedee and part of a very successful influential family. In fact, this Galilee fishing family was known and respected in Jerusalem even to the High Priest, John 18:15 says. The family of Zebedee had actually formed a partnership with Andrew and Simon, Luke 5:10 says, “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were partners with Simon.” So, that’s why they were so close together. You have two of the brothers of the set of brothers, Andrew and Simon, throwing out the cast net, continuing to try to catch fish, while the other pair of the partners are in the boat cleaning up from the previous night’s work and getting ready for the next expedition. In this passage, you can see how successful the Zebedee had become. Notice in verse 19, they had a boat. Typically, such boats were about 25 feet long and held about 10 to 12 people. It could be used with oars or the sails. It is interesting, in 1986, a wooden boat dating to the first century was found. This is actually what was found in the mud there in the city of Galilee. It is made of cypress and cedarwood. This would have been very much like the boat that we are talking about in this story. They replicated from that discovery a model and you can see that model today when you go to Israel. These are pictures of it. You can see what you so often read about in the gospel record. It had room for about 13 people which is what you have with the 12 disciples and Jesus so often.

They also, verse 19, had nets. This word is a generic word for nets. But typically, the kind of net used from a boat would be the trammel net. It was dropped from the boat, then the boat would circle with the net, and then they would pull the net in with a catch of fish inside of it. In addition to a boat and nets, they also had, verse 20 said, hired servants. So, this was a successful family. John had likely become a follower of John the Baptist, and a follower of Jesus shortly after his baptism. You can read about it in John 1, as I said. But James and John probably knew Jesus much before that because they were probably related to Him. Their mother was probably a woman named Salome, you meet her in the gospel record, likely, the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother which would have made Jesus their cousin. You can go through if you want and compare the references that I have listed there on the slide for you and put all of that together. So, these are the connections and Jesus comes to them as well and gives them the call, in verse 2: “Immediately He called them.” Of course, Mark’s clear meaning here is that Jesus called them in much the same way He called Peter and Andrew. Notice their response, verse 20: “They left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him.” They left for several months to serve Jesus in a short-term mission trip. Their left their careers; they left their successful business; they left their partnership; they left their father. That was their response.

Now, I want us to consider just for a few minutes the application of all this. The call to serve Christ in the lives of these four men is intended to be applicable to all of those who read Mark’s Gospel: to us. So, what are we to learn from these two calls? Let me begin with what this passage teaches us about Christ. It teaches us several things about Him. First of all, it teaches us that He delights in using ordinary people for extraordinary tasks. I love the way one commentator, France, put it: “The kingdom of God [that Jesus was preaching] comes not with fanfare but through the gradual gathering of a group of socially insignificant people in an unnoticed corner of provincial Galilee.” You see, God doesn’t need the great and the powerful and the mighty to do His work. In fact, He prefers not to do so, 1 Corinthians 1 says, “He has intentionally chosen the nothings and the nobodies of this world, so that He alone gets the glory.” As Paul puts in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” Secondly, we learn that Jesus demands absolute submission to His will. There is no indication here in the record that He explained Himself and all that He had in mind to these men. He just shows up to them and says, “Come. Leave everything and follow Me.” And they do. That’s exactly what He expects from us as well. Thirdly, we learn here that Jesus equips His disciples for the tasks that He assigns. Did you notice what He said: “I will make you fishermen of men”? That implies equipping; that implies preparation and Jesus always does that.

Number 4. It tells us that Jesus requires a willingness on our part to leave everything to follow Him. That is what He eventually required of all four of these men. He doesn’t always require it. But He requires a willingness to do so. Is that in your heart? That is what He demands of us.

Number 5: He demands that our loyalty be first and foremost to Him. Luke 14 says, “If you do not hate your father and your mother, your wife, your children, your brothers and sisters, yes and even your own life you cannot be My disciple.” These men walked away from their birth families to serve Christ. Of course, they loved them; they cared for them; they had a responsibility even as the New Testament reminds us. But in terms of their priority, it was Christ.

In Matthew chapter 10, verse 37, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” It doesn’t mean, again, that we aren’t to love them—we are. But we must love Christ more. That’s what He demands of us.

Number 6: He decides the role that each of His followers will fill. He called these four, but He didn’t call a number of the other disciples of John the Baptist who became His followers. He gets to decide the role that each of us will fill. As He said to Peter, “If that is what I decide to do with another disciple, what is that to you? You follow Me.” That is what He says to us as well.

There is one other large point of application and that is, what does this passage teach us about our own duties? Let me just highlight these for you. First of all, it teaches us that Jesus and His kingdom must be our highest priority. You know, this is so hard for us to learn, but do you realize that you don’t get to decide what you want to do with your life? I remember when that dawned on me when I was a junior in college and God put me in the hospital for a couple of weeks in isolation and I got a chance to reflect on that reality. I don’t get to decide what I want to do with my life. My life has been purchased; it’s not my own and neither is yours. Jesus and kingdom have to be your highest priority. Jesus may ask you to abandon your family and your career to serve Him in some difficult place. In other cases, He may allow us continuing family ties and secular careers but even in those we have to keep Him and His kingdom first. We must be willing to let all of it go if that would be His choice. What is even harder as I mentioned in my prayer this morning, we have to even be willing to let our kids go for the kingdom and for the advance of Jesus’ cause.

Number two: we must actively be serving Jesus Christ even if we are not serving Him full-time. That’s what these men were doing. They are not yet, in Mark 1, they are not yet becoming full-time ministry partners of Jesus. Instead, these are short-term mission trips. In our case, we could say, we must serve Christ in the church we belong to and in other contexts that He allows us to.

Number three: we must be characterized by obedience to Jesus Christ. It really comes down to this: those who know Christ who really know Him, who have answered His call, they follow Him. That is, they submit to Him, they obey Him; they become His disciples, and we must be characterized by that as well. Those who know Him hear His voice and they come to Him; they follow Him, John tells us.

Number four: we must be actively seeking to bring others to Jesus Christ. Have you ever thought about this? The primary task that Jesus had when He came into the world obviously to accomplish our redemption, but He encapsulated that and even in a more broader way when He said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” That was His mission. Here in Mark 1, He assigns these four men the task of becoming fishers of men, of pursuing the same mission that He had, seeking to bring others to Jesus Christ. That is your mission; that’s my mission.

Number five: These two accounts, these two examples, remind us that Jesus still calls people today to faith and repentance, to follow Him, to be His disciples. They are faced with a choice—the choice to respond. In fact, let me just say, if you are listening tonight and you know you are not a follower of Jesus Christ through these written words that we studied together, Jesus is extending this same call to you. This same Good News. He’s offering Himself. It’s as if He were saying through His Word to you, “Follow Me just like I said to those on the pages of the New Testament.” So, are you willing? Are you willing if you are not His follower to give up everything else to get Jesus Christ? That is what it will cost you. It will cost you everything. It cost Paul that. Remember in Philippians 3, he said, “I have suffered the loss of all things but in doing so, I have gained Jesus Christ.” I love the parables in Matthew chapter 13 where it talks about the man who finds a treasure buried in a field. That’s the news about the kingdom. That’s the gospel, the good news about Christ. He finds this treasure buried in a field. He just stumbles upon it. When he recognizes its value, he goes, and he sells everything else he owns. He liquidates everything to turn into cash so that he can buy that field and have that treasure. It’s a picture of the person who has come to understand that there is nothing greater, there is no greater privilege, no greater joy, than following Jesus Christ. The person who has come to say, “If it is necessary, I will give up everything else to get Him.” My prayer for you is that you will come to that place even tonight if you never have before. If you are already a follower of Jesus Christ, then listen to the other ways that Jesus has used that call. It’s a call to service, and in some cases, it’s a call to full-time ministry. For all of us, it’s a call to continued faithfulness. Jesus says, “Just keep on following me.”

Let’s pray together. Father, thank you for this wonderful example, these four examples, these sets of men whom Jesus interacted with and whose stories teach us so much. Lord, I pray that You would help each of us to consider where we are in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Father, I pray for those who have never truly become His followers, who have never bowed the knee in repentance and faith, who have cried out for the forgiveness that is found in His life and in His death and His resurrection. Father, that even tonight, they would humble themselves and seek forgiveness that is found in Him and become His true and genuine followers. Father, for those who are already saved, who are already His genuine followers, I pray that You would help us to be open to the other ways that this amazing call was issued by Christ. Give us open hands and open hearts to follow our Lord in whatever way He may choose, through His Word and what He commands us, or through His Providence and what He directs. I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


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