BY: Dick Donavan
SERMON IN A SENTENCE: Jesus has a quiet authority that persuades us to follow him — and which makes
something wonderful of our lives when we do.
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 4:12-23
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home
in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the
prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15″Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–
16the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother,
casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for
people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers,
James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called
them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and
curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
CHAPTERS 3-8: THE CONTEXT
Jesus’ baptism (3:13-17) and temptation (4:1-11) immediately precede this lesson, so this is the beginning of Jesus’
ministry. The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) immediately follows, and constitutes the largest collection of
Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels.
It is no accident that Matthew places the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, because Matthew
emphasizes Jesus’ teaching ministry. Chapter 4 prepares us to hear the Sermon on the Mount by emphasizing that
Christ has brought us into the light (4:16), by calling us to repentance (4:17), by telling us about the call of the first
disciples (4:18-22), and by giving Jesus’ teaching ministry precedence over his preaching and healing ministries (vs.
VERSE 12: THE BEGINNINGS OF JESUS’ MINISTRY
“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”
Matthew links the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with John’s arrest. The word, “heard,” distances Jesus from John.
Jesus is not John’s disciple, but is the one who is to come — and who has now arrived.
John is a pivotal figure, the last of the old and the introducer of the new. “So, when John is arrested and removed
from the scene, it is a theological cue that the time has come, that the tectonic plates have shifted and the earthquake
of the promised messianic age has begun to shake the foundations of the world” (Long, 41).
Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee upon John’s arrest makes us wonder if he is running lest he suffer a similar fate. Hardly!
Galilee is ruled by the same Herod Antipas who arrested John, so Jesus cannot escape danger there (Soards, et. al.).
Matthew makes it clear that Jesus goes to Galilee as a fulfillment of prophecy.
Galilee is small but has a large population, so it provides opportunity for many people to hear Jesus’ message.
Galilee is surrounded by Gentiles, and many of its residents are Gentiles. Major trade routes pass through Galilee,
and it has often been invaded. Galileans, therefore, have more dealings with Gentiles and are more open to new
ideas than the residents of Judea (Barclay, 66-67). Matthew has a deep interest in Gentiles, and will conclude this
Gospel with Jesus command to teach all ethnos, a word that is translated both “nations” and “Gentiles” (28:19).
VERSES 13-16: ANOTHER FULFILLMENT OF PROPHECY
“He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that
what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road
by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and
for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ ”
Matthew is very concerned to show that Jesus fulfills prophecy, and does so at every possible point. Here he quotes
Isaiah 9:1-2. Zebulun and Naphtali fell to Tiglath-pileser III in 732 B.C., a full decade before the other provinces
fell. “Isaiah had proclaimed that the first territories to feel God’s wrath would also be the first to receive the news of
the coming of salvation at the birth of the messianic king (Isa. 9:1-7)” (Leuking, 23). Now, Matthew tells us, that
prophecy is fulfilled. This also explains why Jesus began his ministry in a religiously compromised province rather
than the more proper Judea.
Matthew tells us that the people to whom Jesus brings his ministry have been sitting in darkness, but Jesus’ coming
has brought them a great light. “Some current theology attributes to the non-Christian religions the possibility of
salvation whether there is explicit faith in Jesus Christ or not…. Generous as this opinion is, it is not the apostolic
conviction. Persons apart from Christ the Light are in a world of night…” (Bruner, 119).
VERSE 17: REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN HAS COME NEAR
“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ ”
Jesus uses exactly the same words as John the Baptist (3:2). This is the core of Jesus’ proclamation. “While Jesus
was to be himself the subject of the preaching of the early church, his own subject was the reign of God” (Abbey
and Edwards, 21).
Repentance means a change of mind — turning and facing in a new direction — preparation for kingdom life.
Scholars disagree with regard to the emotion behind it. Boring says that it does not involve sorrow or remorse
(Boring, 167), but Johnson notes that “in the LXX it often stands for a Hebrew word meaning ‘to grieve for one’s
sins’ ” (Johnson, 7). Perhaps the two ideas are not so far apart. We do not easily change the direction of our lives
unless we are dissatisfied with life as it is and hopeful about life as it might be. Sorrow for sin provides the
dissatisfaction that sparks change.
Matthew consistently uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God.” The terms are
synonymous. Many Jews prefer “kingdom of heaven,” because of scruples about using God’s name. The kingdom of
heaven is the place where God rules. It is not defined by geography but by hearts given over to God’s rule. Here
Jesus promises that the kingdom is at hand. As this Gospel unfurls, Jesus will tell us more and more about the
Consider for a moment what life will be like where God’s kingdom is fully come. In the kingdom, there is no need
for armies — or prisons — or locks on the door. No police force is required to enforce proper behavior. People look
for ways to give rather than to grab. There is no false or deceptive advertising — no manipulation. Wouldn’t you like
to live in such a peaceable place! Pray for God’s kingdom to come!
Jesus tells us that this kingdom has come near. We catch glimpses of it in the lives of saintly people for whom the
kingdom has truly come. We see their quiet strength and feel their gentle touch. In telling us that the kingdom has
come near, Jesus is telling us that we can dwell in this kingdom. We have only to repent — to turn away from the
idols that crowd our lives — to let God reign.
VERSES 18-22: THE CALL OF PETER, ANDREW, JAMES AND JOHN
“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother,
casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for
people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James
son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.
Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will teach with authority (7:29). He demonstrates that authority here as he calls
disciples who immediately obey — and as he exercises power over disease and sickness.
In last week’s Gospel lesson, we have John’s account of the call of Peter and Andrew (John 1:35-42), but Andrew is
mentioned first and he goes to get his brother, Simon. Matthew’s account pictures the brothers together at the time of
the call, and mentions Peter’s name first, an early clue to the importance that Peter will assume.
Matthew’s account of this call is very brief. Jesus calls two pairs of brothers, whom he has apparently never seen
before, inviting them to become his disciples. The men respond immediately by leaving their nets, their boats, and
their father to follow Jesus. “We are met here with Jesus’ first miracle, the miracle of his powerful word that creates
following, that makes disciples?. In and through the words and deeds of preachers, missionaries, teachers, family,
friends, and nameless doers of Christian service, the voice of the Son of Man continues to speak and to generate
faith” (Boring, 169-170).
This account is unusual in that Rabbis do not seek out students but are sought out by those who hope to study with
them. Jesus, however, takes the initiative! He comes looking for us.
The invitation is to become a disciple or learner. “Jesus calls these men not to an experience of personal salvation
but to a school…. (H)e does not say, ‘follow me, and I will save your souls.’ …(H)is promise is not their salvation but
others’ ” (Bruner, 127).
“Rabbinical discipleship demanded intimate daily contact with the teacher; one formed one’s character and learned
the law by example as well as precept” (Johnson, 276). Jesus offers these men the opportunity to observe him at
close hand on a daily basis. By doing so, they will learn more than his thinking. They will become familiar with his
moods. They will unconsciously copy his manner of speaking — his gestures — his dealings with people. They will
see how he solves problems and counters opposition. Slowly but surely, they will become like Jesus in thought,
word and deed. That speaks powerfully about discipleship. It is not enough to learn facts about Jesus. We must
spend time with him. Discipleship is less an affair of the head than of the heart.
What kind of person did Jesus call? “They were? simple working people with no great background, and certainly,
anyone would have said, with no great future. It was these ordinary men whom Jesus chose. What Jesus needs is
ordinary folk who will give Him themselves” (Barclay, 72-73). How wonderful! Christ does not need our ability, but
The phrase “fishers of men” (halieis anthropon) (vs. 19) admits to problems:
— Unlike the shepherd, who knows the sheep by name and cares for them, the fisherperson’s relationship to the fish
is hardly pastoral. Once the fisherperson succeeds, the fish is doomed.
— Transforming fishermen into fishers of men is a lovely twist on words, but fails the test of inclusive language. The
NRSV solution, “fish for people,” is accurate but loses the lovely word play.
— Regardless of problems, there are many of us of a certain age who remember casting our imaginary lines with our
imaginary poles as we sang, “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers
of men if you follow me. If you follow me, if you follow me. I will make you fishers of men if you follow me.” The
memory of it brings a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. Careful how you tread on such memories!
VERSE 23: JESUS’ TEACHING MINISTRY
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and
curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
Note the order of the verbs. Teaching is first. This is in keeping with Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus’ teaching
ministry. “For Matthew, Jesus’ teaching is of much greater significance than his miracles. Indeed, teaching takes
precedence even over preaching the gospel of the kingdom. The First Gospel is less a manual on evangelism than a
treatise on church life?. There are too many Christians whose lives do not match their profession?. For the health of
the church, Jesus’ teaching about life in the kingdom must be given the fullest emphasis” (Hare, 31).
Keep in mind that the Sermon on the Mount is waiting in the wings, just waiting for Matthew to finish chapter 4 so
that Jesus might come on stage to dazzle us with his teaching. If you have any doubts about the importance to
Matthew of Jesus’ teaching ministry, just wait until next week.
Jesus teaches in their synagogues. There is one temple, located in Jerusalem, but every village of any size has a
synagogue. It is the place where people gather to worship and to learn. Teaching is at the heart of synagogue life.
The service consists of prayers, readings from the scriptures, and an address. The ruler of the synagogue can invite
any qualified man to give the address. The synagogue, then, is the natural place for Jesus to begin his teaching
ministry. Jesus’ decision to begin his ministry in the synagogues “honors established ministries and meeting places”
(Bruner, 129). Translated into a modern setting, one can learn about Jesus in a football stadium or a wooded glade,
but one is far more likely to learn about Jesus in a church.
The last two verses (24-25) of this chapter, not included in this lesson, emphasize Jesus’ healing ministry and the
effect it has on people. Great crowds come from near and far to follow Jesus.
Some people have something special. Something that commands respect! They light up a room. People notice them.
People gravitate toward them. People want to be in their company.
Sometimes these special people are very good looking, but sometimes not. Sometimes they are vivacious — full of
life — electric — but sometimes not. Sometimes they are intellectually brilliant, but sometimes not. We find it
difficult to put our finger on the elusive something that makes these people special. Perhaps the best that we can say
is that we know it when we see it.
Stephen Ambrose wrote the book, Band of Brothers, the story of Easy Company fighting their way through Europe
during World War II. HBO made a mini-series of it, so you may have seen it. The book is not a novel. It is the true
story of real men in a terrible time and place. It is a story of ordinary men, some of whom become larger than life in
the cauldron of war.
Easy Company was not large. Something over a hundred men! It was a small band of brothers that produced an
uncommon number of heroes. The central figure in the book was one of those heroes — Dick Winters — a 2nd
Lieutenant at the beginning of the war and a Major at its end. Winters was one of those special people to whom
others naturally look for leadership. He was competent. He was brave. But there was something more — something
hard to define. A kind of strength! Of honesty! Of wisdom!
One of the Easy Company men, Robert Smith, made a career of the Army and served with the Special Forces. Smith
worked around brave, tough men all his life. Many years after the war, he wrote to Winters. He told Winters:
“You were blessed…with the uniform respect and admiration of 120 soldiers, essentially civilians in uniform, who
would have followed you to certain death. I’ve been a soldier most of my adult life. In that time I’ve met only a
handful of great soldiers.” Here he tells Winters that he was one of those. Then he says, “The rest of us were O.K.
…good soldiers by-and-large, and a few were better than average, but I know as much about ‘Grace Under Pressure’
as most men, and a lot more about it than some. You had it.” (Band of Brothers, page 300).
Ambrose, the author of Band of Brothers, visited Winters in his home. He says of Winters, “He is…the gentlest of
men.” Ambrose tells of seeing a goose with a broken wing. He suggested to Winters that he shoot the goose and put
it in the freezer. Winters gave him an astonished glance. “I couldn’t do that!” he said.
Ambrose says, “He is incapable of a violent action, he never raises his voice, he is contemptuous of exaggeration….
He has achieved exactly what he wanted in life, that peace and quiet he promised himself as he lay down to catch
some sleep on the night of (D-Day), and the continuing love and respect of the men he commanded in Easy
Company….” (Band of Brothers, page 307).
(NOTE TO THE PREACHER: Long quotes can kill a sermon if not used well. When using lots of quoted material
as above, practice until it is second nature.)
My intent in telling Winters’ story is not to make a hero of him. He is already a hero, and great story-tellers have
already told his story. My intent is simply to illustrate the fact that some people have a gift — a special something
that commands respect — that draws people — that inspires trust. Winters has it. You know some people like that —
not many — in a lifetime we meet only a few.
We see that same kind of thing at work in our Gospel lesson today. As Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, he sees
two brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew — fishermen busily casting a net into the sea. He says to them, “Follow me,
and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they leave their nets and follow him. Immediately, the Gospel
writer says! IMMEDIATELY they leave their nets and follow him!
Then Jesus sees two more brothers, James and John. They too are fishermen. They are not alone in their boat. Their
father, Zebedee, is with them. They are mending their nets. Jesus calls them to follow him. That is, he calls James
and John. He does not call the father. Immediately, the Gospel writer tells us again — IMMEDIATELY, they leave
their boat and they leave their father, and they follow Jesus.
Notice what Jesus says in his call to these four men. Note the appeal that he makes:
— He does not say, “Follow me, and I will save your souls.”
— He does not say, “Follow me, and I will make you rich.”
— He does not say, “Follow me, and I will make you popular.”
— He says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
In other words, Jesus does not tell these men what they can get. He tells them what they give. Madison Avenue
could learn from Jesus. So much advertising appeals to our greed — our lust — our selfishness. Jesus appeals to
something deeper — something higher — something better. Jesus appeals to that part of us that wants to do something
worthwhile — that seeks meaning in life — that is willing to sacrifice in the service of something important. So Jesus
says to these disciple-candidates, “Follow me, and I will help you to help others,” — and they follow. Immediately,
the Gospel writer tells us! IMMEDIATELY they follow him.
Oh, how I would love to have been there! How I would love to have seen Jesus in the flesh! How I would love to
have the opportunity to sit as his feet! How I would love to experience whatever it was that drew people to Jesus —
that commanded their respect — that inspired their trust.
But, on the other hand, I have seen Jesus through the eyes of faith. I have had the opportunity to sit at his feet and to
learn from him. I have experienced something in Jesus that draws me to him — that commands my respect — that
inspires my trust.
And I am not alone. Hardly alone! All over the world, in places that Jesus never set foot, people are following him —
worshiping him — learning from him — loving him. It is amazing, really! I was reading a story the other day about a
man who was arrested by the Chinese government for smuggling Bibles from Hong Kong into China. Do you have
any idea how diligent the Chinese government is in its repression of the church in China?
— They allow only certain government-approved churches to function. They allow very few churches to be built.
— They severely restrict the training of Chinese pastors.
— They refuse to allow missionaries into China.
— They keep to a minimum the number of Bibles that are printed or imported.
— They arrest Christians who worship in house-churches that are not approved by the government. They beat them
and imprison them.
But all over China, invisible to most people — invisible by design, because that is the only way they can survive —
all over China little house-churches keep the name of Jesus alive in a Jesus-hating place. All over China, people hear
Jesus’ call to follow, and they follow. Jesus has not been with us in the flesh for two thousand years, but the Jesus
whom the scriptures reveal is so powerful that he commands respect and inspires trust even in places like China
where they torture and kill people for following Jesus.
I speak of China only because it is one example. The same is true in nations around the world — nations that are
friendly to Jesus and nations that are not. People hear Jesus call, and they follow. They follow Jesus because they
sense deep in their hearts that Jesus has something special — is something special. There is something about Jesus
and his call to love God and neighbor that commands our respect — inspires our trust. And so we follow Jesus.
Thank God for Jesus!
Five hundred years ago, about the time that Columbus was discovering the New World, John of the Cross was
sitting in a jail cell, He was a Spanish monk, and had been thrown in jail for his religious convictions. While sitting
in that cell, he wrote poetry. The poetry which he wrote from that cell is so beautiful that people still read it today.
One of his poems has to do with following Jesus — following without question through thick and thin. Listen to what
(NOTE TO THE PREACHER: This is not an easy poem to read well. Practice, practice, practice — aloud please. I
have placed the symbol // where there are minor breaks and /// where there are longer breaks. The pauses at those
breaks give people a quiet space to absorb the words that you have just read. Do not hesitate to pause generously.
Read the poem until it moves you. If you will allow it to move you, it will enable you to move others.)
I am not moved, my God, to love you
By the heaven you have promised me. ///
Neither does hell, so feared, move me
To keep me from offending you. ///
You move me, Lord. // I am moved // seeing you
Scoffed at and nailed on a cross. ///
I am moved // seeing your body so wounded. ///
Your injuries and your death // move me. ///
It is your love that moves me, // and in such a way
That even though there were no heaven, //
I would love you, ///
And even though there were no hell, //
I would fear you. ///
You do not have to give me anything
so that I love you, //
For even if I didn’t hope for what I hope, ///
As I love you now, // so would I love you.
(From Madeleine L’Engle’s book, Two Part Invention. Translated by L’Engle’s friend, Dana)
All your life, you have been looking for someone you could really trust. Jesus is the one. He loves you. He calls you
to love others in his name. If you will do that, he will make something wonderful of your life. Love him; serve him;
and learn what wonders he can do!
See the story of Dick Winters and Easy Company in the sermon above.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name,
as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not.
He speaks to us the same word “Follow thou me!”
and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time.
And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple,
he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts,
the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship,
and as an ineffable mystery,
they shall learn in their own experience Who he is.
— Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus
I have a great need for Christ;
I have a great Christ for my need.
— Charles Spurgeon
Jesus Christ, the holiest among the mighty,
the mightiest among the holy,
lifted with his pierced hand empires off their hinges,
and the stream of centuries out of its channel,
and still governs the ages.
— Jean Paul Richter
The common response to the divine command
is not, “Here I am, send me,”
but “Here is my check, Lord, send some one else,”
and many forget to offer the check as a substitute.
— Josiah Strong, National Needs and Remedies
To this day the fact remains
that when a man is brought face to face with Jesus Christ,
he must either hate him or love him;
he must either submit to him, or desire to destroy him.
No man who realizes what Jesus Christ demands can possibly be neutral.
He must either be his lover or his foe.
— William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: Matthew
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