The Gospel Paradox
James C. Denison
There were many ways to call people in the biblical era. Kings could send messengers to summon you to their palace. Generals could dispatch sentries to enlist you in their wars. “Trumpets,” rams’-horns called the “shofar,” were a common way of warning people of impending attack, or calling soldiers to battle.
No call in all the Bible is less intrusive, more private and personal, than those we will witness today. But none changed the course and face of human history as did these quiet conversations.
In this post-Easter season of our church year, we will explore our vision, purpose, and direction as a congregation and as followers of the risen Lord. We will assess where we are and where God is calling us to go as his people. To do that, we need to revisit these fishermen laboring alongside the Sea of Galilee. We need to hear Jesus’ words to them, for they are his words to us.
Let me lead you into this remarkable story, then we’ll see why it is so crucial to our stories today.
Our text begins with the essence of Jesus’ proclamation: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (v. 19). “Good news” translates “gospel.” The “gospel” is the good news that God loves us and has sent his Son to save us. This good news calls us to “repent,” to turn from ourselves and our sins and selfish ambitions, and to “believe” and commit ourselves to living by the “good news.”
This was the message of Jesus’ life and work, throughout his life and work. The “gospel” that God loves us and calls us to follow him is still the essential message of the church today. We have no other.
Now Jesus begins to enlist men in the work of spreading this gospel across their culture and human history: “As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen” (v. 16). Reading the text, we assume that this is their first meeting. But Mark’s original readers knew this was far from true.
In January of AD 26, Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptizer in the river Jordan. After his temptations in the wilderness, he returned to Bethany, the place of his baptism. There he first met these fishermen (John 1:28, 35-51) and called them, along with Philip and Nathaniel, to join his ministry.
They saw him turn the water into wine, and traveled with him to Jerusalem for their first Passover together on March 21, AD 27. They met Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman.
And so Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John knew Jesus. They have believed in him and followed him for a year. But not full-time, not with their lives and their futures, their all. Not until today.
Many of us are like them. We know who Jesus is and what he can do. We have experienced his saving power in our lives personally. We have asked him to forgive our sins and make us the children of God. But we are not following him, at least not full-time, unconditionally, absolutely. We’re still fishing for fish.
We have our religion and our work, Sunday and Monday, Jesus and the rest of life. We have fish to catch, families to support, work to do. Our culture has taught us that religion is a private, personal thing, a hobby reserved for Sunday morning discretionary time during the week.
It isn’t that way for the Orthodox followers of Judaism in the Holy Land. We saw them by the hundreds, wearing their black clothes and long beards, praying fervently at the Wailing Wall, living every day by kosher dietary laws and strict legal regulations.
It isn’t that way for the Muslims we met in Israel, men and women and children who stop five times every day to pray facing Mecca. The maitre-d at one of our hotel restaurants had a permanent dark mark on his forehead from years spent praying fervently with his face to his prayer rug.
It isn’t like that for the Buddhist who live by the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Noble Path. It isn’t like that for the Hindus who live every day by their caste system and rituals. It wasn’t like that for the first Christians, more than a million of whom died rather than separate their faith from their lives.
But it’s like that for many of us. When was the last time you surrendered your time, money, life, plans, and ambitions completely and unconditionally to God? You know about him–how close are you to him? When last did you spend time listening to his voice, seeking his word, submitting to his trumpet-call to your soul?
His call was and is very simple: “‘Come, follow me,'” Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men'” (v. 17). “Come” is a command: “come here.” “Follow” means “be full-time followers, pupils, disciples.”
The construction is plural, showing that this is Jesus’ will for each and all of them.
“Me” shows that they will follow Jesus personally. Their loyalty will not be to a religion, an institution, a program, but a person. The Son of God himself.
Then, “when he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him” (vs. 19-20).
For what purpose? “And I will make you fishers of men.” “Make” means to equip for a job, to give you all you need. “I will make you” shows that only Jesus can do this. And that he will–this is his promise.
“Fishers”–people who will catch something. What? “Fishers of men”–all men. Not just Jews, but Gentiles. Not just men, but women. Everyone. The entire world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). He wants us to love the world, and win the world to Jesus.
But it was easy for them, we think. They were simple, humble fishermen–what did they have to lose? Everything we have to lose today.
James and John had hired servants. Peter and Andrew had their own permanent residence in the area. They had enough economic means to be able to leave their families and support themselves for the two years they would live full-time with Jesus in his itinerant ministry.
We visited the site which traditionally marks Peter’s house in Capernaum. Etchings in ancient Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Latin show that pilgrims visited and venerated the spot as early as the first century. It is the largest house discovered in Capernaum, and is located nearest the beach with the best view.
These men gave up everything we have to follow Jesus. Their jobs, incomes, ability to support their families personally and be engaged in their lives on a daily basis. While their servants would continue their business, these men sacrificed their closest relationships for the sake of their relationship with Jesus.
Now comes the paradox: the best thing they could do for their families and friends was to put Jesus before them. By following Jesus fully, they would one day bring his gospel to the families they loved and friends they left. By serving him, they learned the good news which would one day serve them. Their best gift to their horizontal relationships was to put their vertical relationship first: “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
The best thing I can do for Janet is to love Jesus first. The best thing I can do for Ryan and Craig is to love Jesus first. Then I have his love for them. Then I can model his purpose for them and help them follow him. The best thing I can do for our church family is to love Jesus first. When I am right with God, I can be right with you. When I put fishing for men ahead of every other priority and relationship, I serve those priorities and relationships. So do you.
Helping people follow Jesus is the highest purpose of life, and God’s will for your life. And God’s will is “good, acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1). When we are in God’s will, he meets all our needs according to his riches in glory through Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19); his peace which passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7), and we can do all things through Christ who sustains and strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). There is no better or safer place in all the world to be than in the will of God.
God made us, and he alone knows what most fulfills us. He can do far more with our lives than we can. When we commit ourselves to this purpose, he rewards and uses us for all eternity. But only then.
Let me close with a call to commitment which is nearly 2,000 years old.
Toward the end of our pilgrimages in the Holy Land, we visited the remarkable and emotional site of Masada. This desert fortress adjacent to the Dead Sea was built by Herod the Great. An astounding architectural achievement, the fortress became the home of Jewish rebels from AD 67-73 in their revolt against Rome.
After Titus and the Romans destroyed the Temple and ransacked Jerusalem in AD 70, they turned their attention to the Zealots at Masada. It took them three years to build a ramp which they used to batter down the defensive walls of the fortress.
Now it was the last night. The next morning the Romans would stream through that broken wall and enslave the rebels inside. Eleazer ben Yoir, the leader of the rebels, gathered the group for one last meeting.
He said: “Since we, long ago, my friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, or to any other than God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice….
“We were the very first that revolted from the Romans, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in the state of freedom which has not bee the case of others who were conquered unexpectedly.
“It is very plain that we shall be taken with a day’s time, but it is still an eligible thing to die after a glorious manner, together with our dearest friends. This is what our enemies themselves cannot by any means hinder, although they would be very desirous to take us alive. Nor can we propose ourselves any more to fight them and beat them….
“Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted slavery; and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually, and preserve ourselves in freedom as an excellent funeral monument for us.
“But let us first destroy our money and fortress by fire, for I am well assured that this will be a great grief to the Romans, that they shall not be able to seize upon our bodies; and shall fail of our wealth also; and let us spare nothing but our provisions; for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not subdued for want of necessities, but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death to slavery.”
Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, records the results: “They presently lay all they had upon a heap, and set fire to it. Then they chose ten men by lot out of them to slay all the rest, every one of whom laid himself down by his wife and children on the ground, and threw his arms about them; and they offered their necks to the stroke of these who had by lot executed this melancholy office; and when these ten had, without fear, slain them all, they made the same rule for casting lots for themselves, that he whose lot it was should first kill the other nine, and after all should kill himself.
” [Then] the nine offered their necks to the executioner, and he who was the last of all took a view of all the other bodies, lest perchance some or other among so many that were slain should want his assistance to be quite dispatched; and when he perceived that they all were slain, he set fire to the palace, and with the great force of his hand ran his sword entirely through himself, and fell down near his own relations. So these people died with this intention, that they would not have so much as one soul among them all to be subject to the Romans” (Josephus, Wars 7.8.6; 7.9.1).
Two women and five children, hiding in a storeroom, heard and saw all of this and recorded it for us. 960 Jewish rebels chose death over slavery, and were set free. Now you and I have the same choice to make. We can be enslaved to that which keeps us from following Jesus fully, or we can die to ourselves and live with him in abundant joy, purpose, and peace.
The decision is ours.