How you begin something will affect the way you continue with it and finish it. I’ve read of an Egyptian pyramid that was begun at an inclination of 54 degrees, but was discovered after the project had started that this was too steep; that if they kept building at this angle the pyramid would collapse under its own weight. So they adjusted and the top section is built at a shallower angle of 43 degrees, giving it the final appearance and name of the Bent Pyramid.
This is true in ministry as well. Like the builders of the Bent Pyramid, some of us have had to adjust the way we have continued in our ministry, on account of our frailty and ignorance and failing. Sometimes, we are convicted of doctrinal error and have to correct it. Sometimes we have to confess and repent of our sin.
But Jesus made no mistakes, he embraced no doctrinal errors, he committed no sins of omission or commission. Therefore, the way he began his ministry set the tone for the rest of it to the end. He needed no adjustments along the way. So in some sense, as Matthew here introduces us to the ministry of Jesus, he is introducing us to the mission and message and methods that would characterize his ministry from beginning to the end.
As a shepherd of God’s people, passages like this are of great interest, for this is telling me of the “chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4), whose ways I ought to follow. Ministries can be successful apart from Christ, but they will not be owned by God at the End unless they are patterned – as far as they can be –after the ministry and message of our Lord. But these words ought also to be of great interest to every believer, whether or not they are involved in public ministry, for we are all on some level ministers of the Gospel (cf. Eph. 4:12), and therefore need to test our own lives by the life of our Lord.
In our text, we have the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. It is not the absolute beginning of his public ministry; according to John’s gospel, there must have been a significant time lapse between verse 11 and 12 of our text, for our Lord ministered in Judea a while before moving to Galilee. These events are narrated by John in his gospel in the first 4 chapters. Perhaps, the journey back to Galilee through Samaria that we read of in John 4 is the journey that Matthew refers to verse 12, when he says that Jesus “withdrew into Galilee.”
Nevertheless, in some sense Jesus’ ministry really did begin here. Previous to this John the Baptist had attracted a large following. Before this point many followed him, but now Jesus began to be more publicly noticed after the Baptist was put in prison, and we are told that “from that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (ver. 17).
The place where our Lord chose to more formally launch his ministry is interesting. He chose Galilee; in fact, he chose Capernaum in Galilee as his base of operations. It is called “his own city” in 9:1, and according to 8:14, Peter lived here as well. But Galilee was north of Judea and Jerusalem, and though in the first century many Jews lived there, yet it had a numerous Gentile population as well; in verse 15, in a quotation from Isaiah, it is called “Galilee of the Gentiles.” In this place, far away from the Temple and the geographical heart of the Jewish religion, Jesus chose to begin his ministry. Those who lived there are said to dwell in spiritual darkness and “in the region and shadow death” (ver. 16). In fact, Jesus would end his ministry here as well (28:16, ff), for it was in Galilee that he gave the Great Commission before ascending to heaven.
In other words, Jesus began his ministry among the spiritually underprivileged. And he would call as his followers, not scribes and doctors of the law, but relatively uneducated fishermen. And I think Jesus did this on purpose to underline the fact that God can do things with people that we would never pick who were from places that we would never go. In this we see the sovereign grace of God reaching out and changing and saving those least thought of in the eyes of men. Let this be an encouragement to us: as God has placed us, let us faithfully labor according to his methods and with his means, and then expect the blessing of the Lord to accompany it.
The Mission of Jesus
The mission of Jesus Christ on the earth was to be a fisher of men. We see this in his words to Peter and Andrew in verse 19: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The apostles could only become fishers of men by following Christ, by learning from him – which of course implies that he is the Fisher of Men par excellence. Interestingly, the only reference to fishing for men in the OT is in Jeremiah 16:16 in which men are being fished for judgment. Our Lord, however, did not come for judgment but for salvation. He came to rescue the perishing, to fish men out of the treacherous waters of sin and to put them on the dry land of God’s good grace.
This was the mission of Jesus, and it ought to be our mission as well. What is the mission of the ministry of this church? It is not to perpetuate a certain religious tradition. It is to win souls. It is to fish men and women out of the element of sin and disobedience to God, to bring them from darkness into God’s marvelous light. What is the mission of my life? Though God doesn’t call every believer to leave their jobs as he did the apostles, yet it is not wrong to see our mission in terms of fishers of men. You may not have the audience of a C. H. Spurgeon, but God has put people in our lives that we ought to try to reach. As Spurgeon himself put it, “The winds of providence will waft you where you can fish for men.” We often hear words like this and want to go to Africa when all God wants you to do is to reach your children and your co-workers and your friends. (Though I would be delighted if some in our church felt God's call to go to Africa to serve Christ there!) Be a light where God has placed you, be a fisher of men.
Now, we can’t be redeemers and we can save people from their sin. We can’t offer a ransom for them or change their hearts. How often we wish we could! But this is God’s work. However, God uses men and women to cast the net of the Gospel into this world and to bring sinners like ourselves into contact with the truth. In that sense, we are fishers of men. And as people are brought into contact with the truth empowered by the work of the Spirit in their hearts, they are changed. Paul himself as one of “God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9). God worked in and through the message that he spoke to change lives.
This is something that we can do. Christ called Andrew and Peter and then James and John to this work. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Christ does not call us to do something without providing the grace and power and strength to do it. We may not feel like it. But let’s not let our feelings drown out the voice of the promise of God: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). I know I have often excused myself from obedience in this respect because I didn’t believe that I would do a very good job at it. I didn’t think I had the resources. But I do, and so does every Christian. We have the promise of the presence of Christ, and that ought to be good enough for all of us!
But how do we get here? Spurgeon once preached a message on this passage, entitled, “How to be Fishers of Men.” In that sermon, he gives some really good practical advice on what this looks like for the believer. The basic premise of his message was that if you want to be a fisher of men, then you must follow Jesus, for he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Let me share with you a couple of his points (and I encourage you to find this sermon online and read it).
First, we are to “be separate unto Christ.” The apostles had to leave their jobs behind to follow Christ. They were to spend their days and nights in his presence, hearing his teaching, following his example. Now, again, God does not call us to leave our employment, but in a way we see in the actions of the first disciples of a picture of Christ’s call for us to follow him in a life of separateness from the world. He calls us to obedience and holiness.
Peter himself would later put it this way: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Pet. 1:14-16). Paul exhorted the Corinthian Christians similarly (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). We are called to be separate.
Unfortunately, we live in an age in which believers think that be different is just to be weird and that there is nothing to be gained by this. Some seem to mistakenly think that grace not only covers our sins but also allows us to trifle with sin. We would rather be hip than holy. John Piper, who has seen this dangerous tendency take root in Western Christianity, is right when he says that “the worlds does not need more cool, hip, culturally savvy, irrelevant copies of itself.” Spurgeon put it this way: “I believe that one reason why the church of God at this present moment has so little influence over the world is because the world has so much influence over the church.”
Second, we must not only be separate from the world, we must abide with Christ. Though we cannot, like the apostles, literally follow Jesus around, yet we still have the promise of his abiding presence. Jesus told his disciples to abide in him even as he was about to be taken from them in his physical presence (Jn 15:4). We need to daily seek the presence of our Lord each day. We need to hear his word in the Bible; we need to speak to him in prayer. Cultivate the presence of God and you will be best fitted to be a fisher of men. After all, it is only as we are with Christ that he can do anything with us!
Before passing onto the next point, be encouraged that though there is plenty here for us to do, the second part of verse 19 is all about what our Lord will do. If we follow him, he will make us fishers of men. We are not alone.
Also, this work of the Lord is to change us for the better. Though Peter and Andrew had already embraced Jesus as the Messiah, they still had a lot of growing to do. So Christ calls them, puts them in his service, and makes them into the apostles that they needed to be to lead an infant church through persecution. Peter at the end was so unlike the Peter at the beginning! Even so, we should take hope in the fact that the Lord is not through with us yet. There is still so much room to grow and the Lord is at work to see that this happens. Christianity is not only about what the Lord has made of us, it is also about what he will do with us and in us and through us.
The Message of Jesus
Our Lord’s message was very simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In fact, it was the same as John the Baptist’s message (3:2). We can summarize it this way: “Christ is King, therefore repent.” Years later, Paul was still echoing this message: “Now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
You don’t have to be a theologian to understand this message. You have to understand what sin is and that you are a sinner. That is implied in the call to repent. You have to understand that Christ is Lord and that sin is against him, and that I can only properly own him as my Lord as I turn away from my sin and obey him. That is implied in the message of the kingdom. You have to understand that Christ is Savior, for the message of the kingdom of heaven is that the King has come to rescue his people from his Enemy. You need to understand that he saves us from our sins, from their guilt and corruption and everlasting consequences. And God through Christ brings his people into his kingdom forever. And that is the best news anyone can hear.
This is the same message that we need to be proclaiming today. Not out of pride or self-righteousness. We are all sinners ourselves. We get up every morning needing to obey the command to repent. So no, we don’t go out to give people the impression that we are calling them to repent because we are better than they are. We are calling them to repent because it is through repentance that we find the mercy of God of which we are all in need.
We need to be all preaching this message with our lives and, as the Lord gives opportunity, with our lips. But let us be more diligent to look for opportunities to share this precious news.
The Methods of Jesus
People need to hear the truth as well as see it. Note the focus on preaching in this passage. Verse 17 sums up the ministry of Jesus in terms of preaching. Then, we see it again in verse 23: “And he went throughout all Galilee teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.” So when we talk about the methods of Jesus in ministry, let us never look past the importance of the word. Deeds are good, but if they are not put in the context of the gospel, then they may have done no lasting good. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Deeds without words are like general revelation; they may give a person some idea that God is at work, but that person still has not heard the gospel. Deeds interpreted by words are better.
But Jesus didn’t go to the opposite extreme, either. His was a ministry of word and deed. He preached the gospel, and he healed people of very physical problems. He didn’t make the argument that people’s souls were the only thing that needed to be saved. He was the Great Physician – for soul and body. In verse 23, Matthew follows up his description of Jesus’ preaching ministry with the fact that he was “healing every disease and every affliction among the people,” which he then describes in more detail in verse 24.
Clearly, we cannot exercise the kind of healing ministry that Jesus did. After all, the purpose of these mighty works was to authenticate Jesus’ claims. It was to show that he was the Son of God, the Christ. I’m not saying God doesn’t work miracles like this anymore. Far from it. But it should not surprise us that there was a special glory attached to the ministry of our Lord in terms of his ability to heal and reverse the effects of sin and sickness.
However, as Jesus ministered to people’s physical needs, even so should we, as we are able. After all, if we really believe in the resurrection of our bodies from the dead, we should have a higher view of the physical body than do those who have no such belief. In other words, our ministry in these ways can not only authenticate our witness, but it also underlines in very concrete ways our belief in Christ’s promise to raise the dead.
My hope is that we will all know in the days ahead the joys of serving and following Christ, that we will learn in the school of Christ what it means to be a fisher of men, and then put that to practice in a world where God is still calling his elect out of every nation and kindred and language and people-group.