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The Call to Discipleship

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The Call to Discipleship

Mark 1:16-20      October 24, 1999




          Jesus abruptly appears by the Sea of Galilee and without warning calls unsus­pecting fishermen to be disciples.

Jesus is not going to be a lone prophet wan­dering in the desert but a leader, whose task as Messiah is to create a community of followers.

Since Peter and Andrew cast nets from the shore­line, they are possibly too poor to own a boat while the Zebedees are more upscale, with a boat that can take them anywhere on the lake and hired hands to help with the labor.

Whatever their circumstances, these men show their repentance, their desire “to turn,” by dropping everything to heed Jesus’ call.

Their repentance is more than just a matter of an internal transforma­tion; they turn into something that they are not now, from fishermen to fish­ers of men.

          Jesus does not call them to be shepherds gathering in the lost sheep of the house of Israel, or to be laborers bringing in the sheaves (Matt 9: 36-38), but to be fishers (Jer. 16:14-16; Ezek. 29:4; 47:10; Amos 4:2; Hab. 1:14-17), and we should understand that Jesus does use fishing here as a purposeful reference to mission.

When the fisherman hooks a fish, it has fatal consequences for the fish; life cannot go on as before.

This image fits the transforming power of God’s rule that brings judgment and death to the old, yet promises a new creation (see Rom. 6:1-11).

The disciples are called to be agents who will bring a compelling message to others that will change their lives beyond recognition.

Jesus’ call has the same effect on the disciples themselves.

          What is striking is that Jesus calls them to “follow me.”


Prophets did not call people to follow themselves but to follow God (compare I Kings 19:19- 21).

The teachers of Jesus’ day never called people to follow them, only to learn the Torah from them.

Jesus’ call of the disciples is therefore dramatically author­itative and matches the biblical pattern of God’s calling of people: a com­mand with a promise, which is followed by obedience (see Gen. 12:1-4).

The call so overpowers these disciples that their lives will never be the same again.

I.       The Power of Jesus’ Call


          Jesus preaches to the crowds, but the call to follow comes to individu­als.

Mark does not tell us why Jesus singled out Simon and Andrew and James and John as disci­ples or why they decided to respond instantly.

The accounts of the calling of the first disciples in the Gospels of John and Luke make more sense to us because we typically want some rational explanation for their behavior.

In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist tips off the first disciples (John 1:35-37).

In Luke, Jesus gives them a remarkable preview miracle (Luke 5:1-11).

Noth­ing in Mark’s narrative, however, has prepared us to expect these fishermen to drop their nets and leave everything to follow Jesus. How do they even know who he is?

          We may be tempted to supply some psychological basis for their rapid response.

Perhaps they were having bad times in the fishing busi­ness and were ready to make a career change.

They had been longing for some time for the Messiah to come to relieve foreign oppression and to bring the new Jerusalem or whatever restoration they might have imagined.

They had an itch for some kind of action and jumped at the chance to take the plunge and follow him.

They had made a decision during one of his sermons to rededicate their lives.

But Mark provides no such explana­tions, and we are not allowed such psychological speculation when studying Mark’s Gospel.

These men have witnessed nothing of Jesus’ powers and have no idea what his battle plans might be.

They do not take a few days to mull over their decision, to ask their families’ permission, or to seek counsel from a panel of religious experts.

To us it may seem an incred­ibly hasty decision to take off after someone who happens to pass by and abruptly beckons people to follow him.

We know that something more must have happened - and we learn such details from Luke and John.

They must have heard and believed his preaching that the kingdom of God had come.

But Mark’s Gospel presents us with a sudden call and a response that is just as sudden.

          The only explanation for the sudden response of disciples is that Mark wants to underscore the force of Jesus’ call. It alone propels them to follow him.

He chooses whom he wills, and his call comes like “a sharp military command” that produces obedience.

His call, however, is much more than a dramatic summons.  “He commands as God commands…He makes of the fisherman something new, that which he wills (Lohmeyer).”

Psalm 33:9 exalts the mighty creative word of God, “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm,” and provides the backdrop for understanding the response of these disciples.

Like God, Jesus speaks, and it happens.

          Jesus speaks, “Come, follow me!” and it creates obedience that compels people to follow and join his band.

They are willing for their identity and sup­port to come from being his disciples, not simply from being a member of this or that family, this or that profession, or this or that village.

Jesus speaks, “Be quiet! ... Come out of him!” and unclean spirits are routed (1:25). Jesus speaks, “Quiet! Be still!” and the wind stops, and there is a great calm (4:39). Jesus speaks, “Talitha koum!’ (which means ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’)” and the dead are raised (5:41). Jesus speaks, “Ephphatha!’ (which means, ‘Be opened!’)” and ears are opened (7:34). Jesus speaks, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” and a fig tree is withered to its roots (11: 14, 20). Jesus cries a great cry, and the temple veil splits from top to bottom (15:38-39).

          The power of the one who sees persons long before they see him and calls as God calls is the only explanation why these disciples respond immediately as they do, and it may escape our notice.

There is a Christological dimension here, and this first incident immediately raises the ques­tion: Who is this who can create such immediate obedience?

The miracles that Mark records immediately following prompt a similar question:

Who is this who can do these things?

When interpreted from a biblical perspective, they reveal that Jesus, the bringer of the kingdom, has unique power as God’s Son and can overmaster demons, offer forgiveness of sins, and effect healing of dis­ease.

The powerful call of Jesus can still transform lives today.

II.      The Particulars of Jesus' Call

          A.      God's Initiative Toward Us


          The Kingdom of God is something that only God creates; it is not something built by valiant human effort.

But that fact does not mean that we need only to sit passively by and to wait for God. God has already acted.

The kingdom of God that invades history in the ministry of Jesus requires submission in discipleship to him, and demands all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (12:33) - our whole being.

The calling of the first disciples shows that we must not only repent and believe the gospel (1: 15) but we must also be ready to leave and follow.

          Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus does not wait for people to come to him at some chosen site.

He takes the initiative by seeking out followers with the command, “You! Come, follow me!”

He does not put up a sign-up sheet (like church softball) asking for volunteers (“Messiah: Interested in a few good men and women”) or post office hours when he will be available to discuss the kingdom of God with those who might be curious.

The disciples also do not join him as a pupil might select a rabbi to learn the law and absorb his religious wisdom.

Jesus selects his disciples, not vice versa (1:16-20; 2:14; 3:13-14, “those he wanted”).

We can conclude from this that becoming a disciple of Jesus is more of a gift than an achievement.

Jesus models what he calls them to do as fishers of men.

They have been caught in the nets of God’s grace, and it will transform their lives.

          B.      God's Preparation of Us

          A second noteworthy element in the calling of disciples is that those who are drafted apparently have no special preparation.

Jesus does not choose the most socially prominent, the best trained, or even the most religiously devout.

He does not find them in some hallowed religious setting, such as the syn­agogue, but he is just passing by (1:16; see also 2:13; 37; 4:1) and finds them in the midst of everyday life, going about their daily routines.

His command, however, shatters that comfortable everyday world.

          The call and the instant response of these fishermen reveal something of what discipleship to Jesus actually involves and should shatter our comfortable world of middle-class discipleship.

Disciples are not those who simply fill pews at worship, fill out pledge cards, attend an occasional Bible study, and offer to help out in the work of the church now and then.

They are not merely eaves­droppers and onlookers.

When a person is hooked by Jesus, their whole life and purpose in life are transformed.


          C.      Results of God's Initiative and Preparation

                   1.       Unconditional Acceptance    

          To be a disciple means accepting Jesus’ demands unconditionally. Jesus requires absolute obedience and sacrifice.

Discipleship in Mark is not part-time volunteer work on our own terms and convenience. One must be prepared to leave everything to follow him.

Simon and Andrew turn from their nets; James and John turn from their father and their boat (not just their nets).

Theirs was a sacrifice that Peter apparently felt he needed to remind the Lord about now and then: “We have left everything to follow you!” (10:28).

They had to leave the securities, even their livelihoods, no matter how meager or substantial they were, for something new and unpredictable.

The call to discipleship comes as an unreasonable, scandalous demand. It seems too risky, and for those who respond, too reckless.

These first disci­ples are not given time even to transfer whatever equity they have or to put it in trust.

Few would make the radical commitment these first disciples made, and most would hope that Jesus might offer a less rigorous category of aux­iliary discipleship, one which would promise the same rewards while allowing them to continue the pursuit of money and success.

A young couple felt a call to India in the early 1900s. They did not qualify for support by the Methodist Mission Society but decided to go anyway as an independent faith missionary. They were recruited by a man who claimed that if they collected enough money, they could run a wonderful boarding school while learning the language. They gathered enough money from friends to pay their passage to India and to sup­port them for a year; but when they arrived, they found that the boarding school did not exist and that the man had taken off with all the money. They were stuck in India with no money, no place to live, and no work. They begged a ride on a train to Calcutta, where some other missionaries took them in. For some reason, they did not despair and started an inde­pendent work in Bihar that became so successful the Methodist Mission Board requested that they work under their auspices. And they did - for thirty-six years! They made enormous sacrifices - three of their six children died from disease - but they reaped enormous spiritual rewards. Others might offer many explanations as to why they made such sacrifices, but they attributed it to the power of Jesus’ call to go and serve.


          The problem with trying to balance friendship with the world and ser­vice to God is that we develop a religiously a split personality, looking both to God and to the world for standards and assurance.

In the imagery of the Bible, we then wind up with two hearts (two wills) and we try in vain to walk along two separate ways.

When we try to accommodate both God and Money, we cannot be totally committed to God. Money crowds God out.

The advantage of leaving all sources of human security is that the disciples are now totally dependent on Jesus.

People take a big chance in putting their lives entirely in God’s hands.

It is the kind of risk that the rich man refused to take, and it disqualified him from discipleship and the eternal life he so cov­eted (10:17-22).

Most people spend their lives consumed with anxiety for their earthly destiny; but disciples look beyond this world to their eternal des­tiny, which, they are convinced, is best left in the hands of God.

          What keeps us from this full commitment is a fatal illusion that our real needs are physical, and it results in our self-centered concern for material security.

But Jesus is not only able to deliver people from the bondage of unclean spirits and disease, he can deliver us from bondage to material con­cerns (such as the desire to preserve our standard of living at all costs).

He gives us a vision that there is more to life than catching a string of fish. The center of life is to revolve around God.

The authority of his call dispels our hesitancy and awakens total confidence in God. Disciples are the ones who throw caution to the winds.

Like the field hand who finds a treasure and a pearl merchant who discovers a valuable pearl, the disciples are confronted with a chance of a lifetime.

They are fortunate to have the chance, but it requires decisiveness to capitalize on it.

We cannot possess the treasure or the pearl without making a commitment. The price is high: We must sell everything to acquire it.

We do not get something for nothing; we get something for everything.

What formerly had supreme value, however, now pales beside the supreme worth of the kingdom.

                   2.       Incomparable Purpose

          Jesus is going somewhere and requires his disciples to come along with him (1:18; 2:14; 10:21).

He does not call them to attend endless sem­inars on discipleship training with lively discussions on the theological fine points of the law.

Discipleship in Mark is not about mastering theoretical ideas; it is about mission, a common mission with Jesus (6:7, 30).

The disci­ples in Mark learn on the way with Jesus what discipleship involves.

It is on the way that they encounter the power of his miracles and that they learn about suffering (8:27, 9:33-34; 10:32).

They are going to be fishers of people, who will be sent out on mission (6:7-13).

Just as they cannot drop a sign into the lake announcing “Fish wanted! Please enter net!” and expect much suc­cess, so it is with people.

Disciples may not retreat to the safety of the harbor but must go on a voyage into the deep and turbulent waters and cast their nets widely.

                             a.       Purposeful Involvement

          These observations do not mean that study, prayer, and training are not important.

The disciples are rebuked more than once for failing to under­stand, as are Jesus’ opponents for failing to know Scripture (12:24).

The problem for Christians today is twofold. Some are tempted to lock themselves in the study and never apply their theological and biblical knowledge to life.

A study at Princeton Seminary gathered students together and read the para­ble of the Good Samaritan to them. They were then instructed to go to a building across the quadrangle one at a time to give a brief talk on the para­ble. They were urged to be punctual and not to keep the researchers wait­ing. Along the way they planted a shabbily dressed man slumped along the side of the path. Only 40 percent of the students responded to the man.

                             b.      Purposeful Preparation

          On the other hand, some Christians rush into action without any theo­logical or biblical reflection.

In 1:35-37, the disciples appear more interested in action than prayer.

Here Jesus is shown praying before going into action.

We can easily identify with Jesus here. The demands of ministry, church family, and even our own hectic family schedules frequently interrupt study and prayer, and we may be tempted to spring into action before preparing our hearts and minds before God.

The worst thing that can happen is for us to be temporarily successful because we can delude ourselves into thinking that prayer and study are dispensable extras.

                   3.       Unalterable Service

          One final point about what discipleship means: It will become clear later in Mark's Gospel that disciples are not called to a program of self-develop­ment but to service.

Jesus will require them to deny themselves, to endure suf­fering, to take up a cross.

1 Peter 2:21  To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you

an example, that you should follow in his steps.

1 Corinthians 2:9  However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" --


Ephesians 2:10  For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Are you called?

Are you prepared?

God is!

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