And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. 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. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. Matthew 4:18 – 22
In recent times, the word “follow” has been redefined by social media as we follow certain accounts to keep up with what they are up to. A ‘follower’ can also be a stalker or a gossip. But what does it mean when Jesus tells Simon Peter and Andrew to follow Him?
This passage is the first reference to discipleship in the book of Matthew in the form of the word ‘follow’. The word ‘disciple’ is translated from the Greek ‘mathetes’, meaning a student or learner, and derived from the Latin root ‘discipulus’, meaning a pupil and follower. Therefore, a disciple is one who follows another with the purpose of learning as his pupil. Many of us agree that being a believer makes us a follower of Jesus, but when asked if a believer is a disciple of Jesus, we are not quite as clear. Let us delve into a series of interpretive questions about today’s passage to pick apart this concept.
Question 1: Was this Jesus’ first encounter with the four Galilean fishermen?
Although not recorded in Matthew, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus had met at least some of the fishermen previously. “John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God.” The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. “heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.” (John 1:35b – 37) Andrew then brought his brother Simon to Jesus, and the other of John’s disciples might have been the gospel author John who might have also brought his brother James to Jesus as well.
Question 2: Was this a call to discipleship?
No, Andrew and Simon Peter had already switched their discipleship from John to Jesus, and were included in the disciples invited to the wedding in Cana recorded in John 2. Jesus is inviting them to a deeper level of commitment that calls them to put aside their fishing, and partner with Him full time as He moves at a faster pace to preach the kingdom. Jesus continues to invite people to go to the next level with Him today; and yet one does not need to be called in order to become a disciple. Although Jesus calls some, others volunteered themselves as followers because they believed who He was and desired to follow Him. When we believe in Someone, we will naturally want to follow Him to the next level without waiting for the call.
Question 3: Is every believer expected to be a fisher of man?
Jesus uses the term fishers of men as a wordplay to tell the fishers how their fishing vocation will now be aligned to the Master’s use for His glory to fish for something more valuable. Matthew’s experience of keeping records as a tax collector and Luke’s background of meticulous questioning as a physician prepared them to write the gospels. Even in today’s context, a former advertising executive like Pastor Henson can use his skills to communicate kingdom teachings clearly and succinctly. We do not have to be a fisher of man if we are not a fisherman; rather we offer ourselves to the Lord, saying “this is who I am”, and let Him align our gifts to His purpose.
Question 4: What qualifies someone to be a disciple of Christ?
These Galileans picked up the family trade to become fishermen because they were not good enough in their knowledge of the Law to become disciples of the rabbi, and yet are good enough to be disciples of Christ. The truth is this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8 Just as nothing qualifies us for salvation, it is by grace and faith that when we believe, Jesus receives us and qualifies us as His disciples. Let us stop disqualifying ourselves from discipleship by thinking we are not good enough.
Question 5: What enabled the disciples to respond immediately as they did to Jesus?
As established earlier, this is not these disciples’ first encounter with Jesus. They had heard Jesus declared as the Lamb of God, and personally accompanied Him to where He was staying and personally experienced His first miracle at the wedding. Likewise, if we have truly and personally experienced Jesus and tasted and seen that the Lord is good, we will respond immediately too to that invitation. Even if we have yet to have that personal experience, there is no need to feel condemned or pressured because, at the right time, Jesus will give us that experience, build upon it and when he invites us into a deeper walk, we know how we will answer.
Question 6: What holds us back from a deeper walk with Jesus?
Just like the disciples, following Jesus needs us to leave behind our “nets”, our “boats”, and our “fathers”. Nets represent the entanglements that ensnare and entrap us, which are the cares of this world, but we are called to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us” Hebrews 12:1. Boats represent our assets and securities which we tend to find our safety, but God calls us to step out of the boat and trust Him. Fathers represent the comfort zones of our families and friends, which we sometimes remain in even though we are not growing. Jesus is not calling us to neglect our families but to put our relationship with Him above all else. In fact, He gives this promise: “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10:29 – 30)
Question 7: So, what does it mean to follow Jesus?
In Greek, there are two words translated as “follow”. “Then He said to them, “Follow [deute opiso] Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed [akoloutheo] Him. ‘Deute opiso’ means to follow after, coming behind and going where Jesus goes and doing what He does. Jesus is the forerunner who we follow into the presence of God; He is the firstfruits of the resurrection who we follow into resurrected life.
The second word ‘akoloutheo’ has an understanding of coming alongside Jesus in the privilege of being called into koinonia, a fellowship with Him. We have the privilege of being friends with our Master and King, enjoying our relationship but also knowing our position of trust and obedience. It is a fellowship where we partake together in abundant life, but as we are glorified with Him we also suffer with Him. It is a fellowship of mission and purpose where we receive our assignments and come together to learn as students of Christ, coming after Him, coming beside Him, coming together
According to Bill Hull, we seem to have fallen into the danger of encouraging a two-level mode of believing, where only serious Christians pursue discipleship and others just receive grace and forgiveness. However, “we can’t truly follow Christ without desiring to become like Him… If we’re reborn, we’ll follow Him – unless we are taught we do not need to.” – (Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship) A new Christian does not need to take a second step to become a disciple but should experience a seamless growth that goes from spiritual childhood, adolescence, adulthood and finally maturity. When the distinction between a disciple and a Christian is gone, this damaging belief of a two-tiered church will disappear as well. Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ. To be a believer is to be a disciple, and to be a disciple is to follow Jesus.
Jesus qualifies us to be disciples. Will we respond to His invitation to a deeper walk, leaving behind the things that hold us back?