Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Following Jesus

One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow Me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed Him. A little farther up the shore Jesus saw Zebedee’s sons, James and John, in a boat repairing their nets. He called them at once, and they also followed Him, leaving their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired men. Mark 1:16-20 (NLT)

Mark 1:16-20 gives the first account of Jesus’ call of His first four disciples, who were commercial fisherman (see parallel references at Matthew 4:18-22; Luke 5:2-11; John 1:35-42). These four fishermen were common and ordinary working men and they worked in the very popular fishing industry of the first century. In the first century world, most people ate fish and the fishing industry was very expensive and burdened with heavy taxation from the Roman government. The fishing industry was strenuous and physically demanding work. The men who worked in the fishing industry were not very religious and did not recognize the Sabbath laws or the laws of clean and unclean. Also, fisherman bargained with other fishermen and they often were around all kinds of wicked and dishonest people.

One day as Jesus was walking along the shores at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus called four ordinary fishermen while working. First, Jesus saw Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew fishing with nets and Jesus said to the two men, “Come, follow Me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” (Mark 1:17 NLT). Another translation said, “Come, follow Me! And I will make you fishermen for the souls of men!” (Mark 1:17, TLB). At once, Simon and Andrew immediately left their nets and followed Jesus (Mark 1:18). A little farther up the shoreline, Jesus saw Zebedee’s sons, James and John, in a boat mending their nets (Mark 1:19). Once again, Jesus He called the two brothers while working, and immediately James and John left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed Jesus (Mark 1:20).

Mark uses the term “following Jesus” or “following Me” nineteen (19) times in his Gospel. One of the fundamental purposes of Mark’s Gospel is to help readers understand and accept the call to follow Jesus. “Following Jesus” describes what it means to live in an intimate relationship with Jesus. The Gospels reveal that the call to discipleship is definite and demands a response of total commitment or allegiance to Jesus with a genuine heart devoted to Him above all else (e.g. see also Matthew 4:18-22; Luke 5:27-28; Luke 14:25-27; Luke 18:28-30). Following Jesus requires right heart motives and not selfish reasons (Mark 8:34). Jesus asks for lifelong allegiance (Luke 9:57-62) as the essential means of doing the will of God (Matthew 12:49-50; John 7:16-18). Most important, following Jesus means genuine repentance (turning from sins and turning to God) and belief (faith and trust) in Jesus (see Mark 1:14-15). In essence, being a disciple is a matter of following Jesus with a willing, obedient, and repentant heart (e.g., see Matthew 4:17; John 13:34-35; John 15:9-17). To follow Jesus for our own selfish purposes would be asking Jesus to follow us.

Even more, those who follow Jesus are promised entrance into God’s eternal Kingdom (see John 3:15-21; John 11:25-26). Also, followers of Jesus receive God’s forgiveness for their sins (1 John 4:9-10; see also Mark 2:7, 10; Romans 3:23-26; Romans 5:9-11; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21), and membership into God’s family (John 1:12-13). Followers of Jesus are saved from judgment and condemnation (Ephesians 2:8-9) and obtain eternal life (Titus 3:3-8). Amazingly, becoming a genuine follower of Jesus takes us way from a life of egotism, self-centeredness, and narcissism to a life of honest love of God and love of others (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-37; John 13:34-35). As followers of Jesus, we actually become better people and God works all things for our good (Romans 8:28)

These four ordinary men – Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John – called by Jesus did not make excuses or hesitate when called by Jesus. Immediately, these ordinary men left at once and followed Him. Jesus told called these four ordinary men to leave their fishing business and become “fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19) and to help others find God. Jesus was calling these four ordinary men away from their productive business to be productive spiritually by seeking people for God. The God of the universe was fully in Jesus (Colossians 2:9).

When first following Jesus, these four men did not fully understand Jesus’ mission and role as Messiah, Son of God, and King of Israel until after Jesus’ death. These men’ faith often wavered or faltered during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Despite their wavering faith and lack of understanding during Jesus’ earthly ministry, these men became powerful witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection and the saving acts of God. Most important, their lives were transformed by God's Holy Spirit. After Jesus' ascension to heaven, these men were filled with God’s Holy Spirit and empowered to continue Jesus’ ministry to the world.

When looking at these four ordinary men who left all to follow Jesus, Christians today would call these four men heroes for following Jesus. In the first century, these men would have been looked upon as shameful and disgraceful. In the first century, a man’s first loyalty was his family in obedience to the Fifth Commandment (see Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16). In the first century Jewish world, the Fifth commandment was taken very serious. In that culture, families had no other means or social network to survive without family support. In Rome society, children and older adults were sometimes abandoned if no families were available for care and support. In Jewish society, caring for one’s family were held in high esteemed. So these first disciples who abandoned their families and followed Jesus would have been considered shameful and disgraceful.

Also at this point in Jesus public ministry, who was Jesus? Nowhere at this point had Jesus obtained the level of rabbinic authority although later in the Scriptures Jesus was considered a Rabbi (e.g., see Matthew 26:25, 49; Mark 9:5; Mark 10:51; Mark 11:21; John 1:38, 49; John 3:2, 26). In the first century, one became a rabbi after two significant events. First, one had to apply for admission to the rabbi and the rabbi had to accept the student as his disciple. Second, the rabbi then taught his disciples the oral interpretations of the Law which his disciples memorized. The disciples did not follow the rabbi but the disciples followed the content of the rabbis’ teaching. The first century Jewish world was an oral society and teaching was often passed down through oral communication and then memorized. The Talmud was the written version of the oral interpretation of the Law. Thus, the rabbis passed the oral interpretation of the Law from one disciple to another disciple. Rabbis even taught their students certain ways to prayer as noted in the Gospels with the disciples asking Jesus for a special prayer.

In many respects Jesus differed from the traditional rabbis. In the Gospels, the disciples do not first come to Jesus but Jesus takes the initiative of first calling the disciples. Jesus’ calling of disciples was the very opposite of the way first century rabbis called disciples. Jesus called the disciples to “Follow Me” (Luke 5:27). In the first century, disciples of the rabbis could select their rabbis. Also, Jesus called His disciples during their ordinary fishing duties. As indicated above, a fisherman’s job was very strenuous work and Jesus sought these disciples while working their very strenuous fishing jobs. Also, Jesus’ call to become His disciple is opening ended with the statement “follow Me”. Jesus did not tell these four men to come and follow a particular interpretation of the Law or a body of teaching but to come follow Him as a Person. Jesus’ calling of His disciples were very uncommon in the first century Jewish world. Thus, Jesus’ call of His first disciples was considered radical and not typical of first century rabbis calling their disciples.  Yet Jesus’ calling of these disciples would also be considered a disgraceful event because these first four men left their families and their responsibilities to follow Jesus.

Most important, Jesus’ call of His first disciples reveal the Kingdom of God involves ordinary people taking radical steps towards God. God’s Kingdom is present in everyday and ordinary life. God’s Kingdom arrived in the Person of Jesus (see Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:18-21, 42-43). For these fishermen, the Kingdom of God came in the ordinary daily activities of life even in the pit of working. The incarnation (advent) of Jesus reveals God is omnipresent every day. The Kingdom of God also has a future and not-yet-realized dimension that awaits Jesus’ second return (Mark 14:25, 61-62). The ultimate judgment of evil, the final establishment of justice, and the extermination of disease, poverty, and even death will find their fulfillment when Jesus returns in glory (see Mark 13:24-27), judges the world (Mark 8:38; Mark 13:26; Mark 14:62) and resurrects the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12-57; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11). Thus, the Kingdom of God arrived at the first advent (incarnation) of Jesus and will be finalized at Jesus’ second return.

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to Him those He wanted, and they came to Him. He appointed Twelve -- designating them apostles -- that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the Twelve He appointed: Simon (to whom He gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them He gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder); Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Him. Mark 3:13-19 (NIV)

Mark 3:13-19 gives Mark’s account of the choosing of the Twelve (see parallel references at Matthew 10:2-4; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:13). The four lists of the Twelve in the New Testament are sometimes called “disciples” and “apostles”. The exact names of the Twelve disciples in the New Testament are not consistent but varied in Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:13. In the early church, the names and identities of the Twelve apostles were not important. Instead, the early church emphasized there were Twelve apostles appointed by Jesus to represent the Twelve tribes of Israel. Thus, Jesus did not choose Twelve disciples for practical reason but as a connection with Israel (Matthew 19:28), showing the connection between the old religious system and the new one based on Jesus' new covenant. Many people followed Jesus, including women (e.g., see Mark 15:40; Luke 8:1-4; Luke 23:49; Luke 24:10; John 19:25). However, the Twelve received the most intensive training from Jesus. We see the impact of these men and women throughout the rest of the New Testament. Peter, James and John dominated the story.

Most important, Mark 3:14 also gives another definition of discipleship. The disciples were called to be with or follow Jesus so they would preach and have authority to “cast out demon”. So there are three things to be a disciple (1) intimate fellowship or association with Jesus Himself; (2) to preach the Kingdom of God – Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and (3) to cast out demons (e.g., see Matthew 10:1,5-15; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6). Such good tasks were not limited to the Twelve apostles (Luke 10:1-24).

At Mark 3:14, Jesus called the Twelve men “apostles.” The difficult question is what was the place of the Twelve apostles in the life of the early church and that answer is not clear from the reading of the New Testament. There were differing meanings of the role of the apostles in the New Testament. The word “apostle” basically means a person who is sent on a mission as a messenger or authorized representative (Mark 6:30). In the New Testament, the term “apostle” primarily meant that group of people within the early church who were eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus and traveled with the Lord Jesus from the time He was baptized by John the Baptist through His resurrection until the day He was ascended to heaven (Acts 1:21-22). Jesus originally gave the title “apostle” to His closest circle of friends, the Twelve (Luke 6:12-16).

Apparently Jesus’ disciples first included “a great multitude of disciples” (see Luke 6:17; Acts 1:15). Jesus formed certain smaller and more specifically defined groups within that “great multitude.” These smaller groups would include a group of “seventy” or “seventy-two” (Luke 10:1, 17), the “Twelve” (Matthew 11:1; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1), and perhaps an even smaller, inner group within the Twelve, consisting especially of Peter, James, and John — whose names (with Andrew) always figure first in the lists of the Twelve (see Matthew 10:2; Mark 3:16-17; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13).  Peter, Andrew, James, and John’ calling stories are especially highlighted in the Gospels (see Matthew 4:18-22; John 1:35-42), and these inner circle of men (Peter, James and John) accompanied Jesus on certain significant occasions of healing and great revelation (see Matthew 17:1; Mark 13:3; Luke 8:51). The New Testament frequently uses the term “disciple” to refer generally to all those who come to Jesus in faith, having heard and believed the Good News (Gospel), and obey His teaching with allegiance and faithfulness (e.g. see Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 6:1-2, 7).. Essentially, the words “apostle,” “believer,” and “disciple” are synonymous.

After the first Easter, the term apostle was expanded by the early church to include not only to the Twelve, but to a wider circle of authoritative people that had eyewitness and proclaimed the resurrected Jesus (e.g. see Acts 14:4,14; Romans 16:7; 1 Corinthians 4:9; Corinthians 15:5-9; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:7-9). For instance Paul was considered an apostle by the early church (see Romans 1:1) and apostle also applied to larger groups of people including Barnabas (see Acts 14:14), James the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1:19) and possible Andronicus and Junias (Romans 16:7). The Gospels clearly show that the word “disciple” or “apostle” can refer to others besides the Twelve (Mark 4:10). These disciples included a larger company of people from whom He selected the Twelve (Mark 3:7-19; Luke 6:13-17). This larger group of disciples or followers included both men and women (see Luke 8:1-3; Luke 23:49) from all backgrounds of life and they represented a wide range of life experiences. Even the Twelve included a variety of people: fishermen, a tax collector, and a Zealot. Jesus was no doubt especially popular among the poor, outcast and religiously unclean. However, Jesus was also popular with people of great wealth and of theological training (e.g., see Luke 19:1-10; John 3:1-3; John 12:42; John 19:38-39). Nevertheless, these initial Twelve men chosen by Jesus were considered authorized representatives of Jesus. Importantly, the disciples or apostles of Jesus are to do the same things that Jesus did - casting our demons, preaching, and healing. The disciples are to continue Jesus’ good work on earth (Matthew 10:1; Mark 3:14-15).

Then Jesus went out to the lakeshore again and taught the crowds that were coming to Him. As He walked along, He saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow Me and be My disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Levi got up and followed Him. Later, Levi invited Jesus and His disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers). But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw Him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked His disciples, “Why does He eat with such scum?” When Jesus heard this, He told them, “Healthy people do not need a doctor — sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” Mark 2:13-17 (NLT)

Mark 2:13-17 gives the call account of Levi the tax collector by the sea (see parallel references at Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 5:27-32). Jesus spent a lot of time during His public ministry by the Galilean sea. The sea was where unchurched people were present. As with the four Peter, Andrew, James and John, Jesus told Levi (also known as Matthew) to “follow Me” and Levi immediately rose up and followed Jesus (Mark 2:14). Jesus’ calling of Levi was a radical action. In the first century, tax collectors were considered notorious sinners. Fishermen were on the outer edge of religious society and tax collectors were considered scum (Mark 2:16). These tax collectors were Jews and unjustly stole money through tax collection for the Roman government from other Jews. When Jesus called Levi, He added to His closest circle a notorious cheat and theft. Levi would go on to write the Gospel of Matthew.

Mark goes on to say that Jesus shared a meal with Levi’s tax collector associates and other sinners (Mark 2:15). In this first century culture, a meal was a sacred occasion. For Jesus to eat with these people was to open His life to their sin and wickedness. Essentially, Jesus’ eating with sinners and tax collectors crushed religious first century standards. The religious authorities were amazed at Jesus’ association with tax collectors and other sinners (Mark 2:16). However, Jesus spent time with whoever needed or wanted to hear and accept His message — poor, rich, bad, and good. Jesus heard the religious authorities’ discussion about this sharing a meal with tax collectors and sinners and said “Healthy people do not need a doctor — sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17 NLT). Jesus’ statement is a clear and simpler answer of why Jesus came into the world and His statement unleashed a religious fire storm.

Then, calling the crowd to join His disciples, He said, “If any of you wants to be My follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow Me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for My sake and for the sake of the Good News (Gospel), you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of Me and My message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when He returns in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:34-38 (NLT)

Life Application Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2005).
NLT Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2008).
Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).
Butler, Trent. Holman Bible Dictionary (Broadman & Holman Pub., 1991).

Loyd, Melton, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament. Due West Campus: Erskine Theological Seminary, 2015.

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