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Matthew 4:18-22 “The King’s Recruitment”

So, as He was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter and Andrew his brother, throwing a casting net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Come after Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ So, they immediately, leaving the nets, followed after Him. And going on from there He saw another two brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father mending their nets. And He called them. So, they immediately, leaving the boat and their father, followed after Him.


The King has been anointed (3:13-17), approved (4:1-11), relocated from the south to the north in order to position Himself for conquest (4:12-16), and has begun to preach the message of the coming kingdom and the prerequisite of repentance (4:17). The time for Jesus to begin His public ministry has arrived. But before the conquest begins, Jesus recruits His disciples.

The concept of discipleship is not foreign to the Jewish culture of the first century. Popular rabbis frequently had disciples that would follow them in order to learn their wisdom and adopt their practices. What makes this account different than the contemporary practice is that it was normal for the disciple to choose his master rather than the master seeking out his disciples. In addition, it was not unheard of for a disciple to change masters once he felt that he had learned all that he could from one learned rabbi and so advanced his learning by following another. In contrast to the practice of contemporary Judaism, Jesus hand-picked His followers and demanded exclusive discipleship from them.[1]


The reader should not think that this is the first exposure Peter, Andrew, James, and John had with Jesus, nor that they did not understand exactly who Jesus was. A casual reading of John’s gospel reveals that at least three of the four followed Jesus during His southern campaign in Judea and have already confessed Him to be Messiah (Jn. 1:41, the One whom Moses and the prophets wrote (Jn. 1:45), who is the Son of God and rightful King of Israel (Jn. 1:49).[2] When Jesus returned to Galilee, it is likely that those who followed Him in the south returned to their homes and vocations. These men mentioned here were also Galileans and so returned with Jesus to the north. The call here is a call for specific and long-term discipleship of the King as He readies His kingdom (v. 17). As His first draft pick, Jesus chooses veterans from His southern campaign.


These calls then are not so much salvific as they are designed for a specific task. There are certainly implications that extend to the call unto salvation for all believers, but Matthew’s intention here is to emphasize the exclusive and decisive nature of these post-confession calls to discipleship. Matthew’s wording and arrangement presents these two scenes in nearly identical fashion with the same basic elements: (1) Jesus sees two brothers amid their work-a-day routine, (2) He calls them to discipleship, (3) they respond immediately and decidedly.[3] As such, Matthew’s account conveys three distinctions of discipleship.


Jesus Controls the Context of Discipleship


As mentioned above, the normal practice of Jewish rabbis and their disciples places the burden of initiation on the active pursuit on the part of the would-be disciple. Rabbis and teachers did not go around recruiting disciples. Rather, men would seek out and follow rabbis of their own choosing. That is not the pattern we see here. It is Jesus who seeks out and selects His disciples. Jesus remains in control of the situation from beginning to end.


Jesus Controls the Timing (vv. 18a, 21a)

So, as He was walking by the Sea of Galilee… And going on from there


In both instances we see Jesus taking the initiative. Matthew does not use any temporal timestamp in v. 18 but only a simple connective δὲ. It is not known how long Jesus had relocated to Galilee and then to Capernaum. But sometime after arriving, He went looking for His chosen ones. The scene begins with Jesus walking by the Sea of Galilee, also referred to as the Sea of Tiberias (Jn. 6:1; 21:1) and Lake Gennesaret (Lk. 5:1). This lake/inland sea are the headwaters of the Jordan river and is nestled in a massive depression surrounded on three sides by high mountains. The lake’s surface sits some 600 feet below sea level with peaks to the north stretching over 2,000 feet above sea level. This depression makes a warm pocket that is frequently invaded by cold streams of air rushing down the mountains and creating violent storms on the lake. The lake was and is home to numerous species of fish and as such became the site of many fishing enterprises.[4] If one were looking for fishermen, one would only have to stroll along the banks.


It would be a mistake to think that Jesus is only out for a morning stroll. Everything Jesus says and does is carefully calculated and purposeful. It would be better to assume that He chose the path that would lead Him to these specific sets of brothers. Of all the fishermen working their trade that day, he approaches Peter and Andrew and then goes on from that location to approach James and John. He knows they are not far out on the lake but are close to shore. Jesus selects and controls the precise timing of these encounters.


Jesus Controls the Personnel (vv. 18b, 21b)

He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter and Andrew his brother, throwing a casting net into the sea, for they were fishermen… He saw another two brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father mending their nets.


Matthew places both encounters squarely from Jesus’ perspective. It is He who first saw both sets of brothers. The first two brothers are identified as Simon and Andrew. This is the first of 23 references to Simon in Matthew’s gospel who is nearly always referred to by this new name “Peter”. Matthew does not say that Simon was known as Peter at this time, but this is the name by which his readers certainly know the man by. The two brothers are occupied with their trade, casting their net into the sea.


Matthew uses a specific term for “net” (ἀμφίβληστρον), indicating a small circular casting net that is thrown overhand to lay flat on the surface of the water. The edges of the net would be weighted with lead or rocks so as to sink immediately to the bottom and thus trap any fish underneath. A line attached to the net on one end and the other held by the fisherman would draw the net closed like a drawstring bag and enable the fisherman to haul in his catch. While this method of fishing was quite common in the ancient world (and is still practiced in many places), it is most effective in shallow waters. No boat is mentioned with these two, and it is certainly conceivable that they are either throwing their casting net from the shoreline or have waded out a short distance. Perhaps their boat and deep-sea tackle is in need of repair from the previous days encounter (Lk. 5:1-11)? Matthew then provides an obvious explanation (γάρ) for their actions. These are no pleasure-seeking anglers, or unemployed peasants looking for an easy meal but professional fishermen (ἅλας). Jesus has “happened” upon them in the middle of their work.


He also saw the other two brothers, James and John. These are in the company of their father and while are in their boat, they are not out to sea but are mending their nets. Here Matthew uses the more generic term for nets (τὰ δίκτυα) which can be used of any and all woven material used for snaring, trapping, or catching fish or foul. It is possible that because these brothers were business partners with Peter and Andrew (Lk. 5:10), the partnership was dividing the labor. One set of brothers attempting to bring in some sort of catch for the day while the other set is mending the torn nets so that a more productive haul can be procured that evening or the following day. In any case, the point is much the same: Jesus approached this second set of brothers when they were occupied by their vocation. Of the scores of fishermen on the lake that day, Jesus approaches these four. He knew where they would be, approaches them in turn, and calls only these four (note that Zebedee was not called, nor the hired servants who were with him (Mk. 1:20). Jesus is squarely in the driver’s seat in both encounters.


Jesus Issues the Call of Discipleship (vv. 19, 21c)


The precise call of Jesus to Peter and Andrew is recorded in v. 19. To James and John Matthew only states that Jesus called them (καὶ ἐκάλεσεν αὐτοὺς). Regarding the latter, it should be noted that Matthew does not say that Jesus called to them (αὐτοῖς) indicating only that He called out to get their attention. Rather the brothers are the object of the call. Jesus called them (αὐτοὺς). It is safe to assume that Jesus issued a second call much like, if not identical to the call He issued to Peter and Andrew. This call stresses a singular priority while including a marvelous promise.


The Priority:” Follow after Me!”


It is difficult to accurately translate Jesus’ words here. He does not use the imperative of ἀκολουθέω (to follow, move in the same direction, accompany, go along with). Rather, He uses an interjection (δεῦτε – come!/here!) to get their attention followed by a preposition (ὀπίσω – behind, after) to point behind Him. This terse command is akin to whistling for a dog and then pointing behind one’s foot to indicate where the animal is supposed to go. This call is more than a demand to consent to Jesus’ claims and teaching but a call to physically get instep behind Him. Jesus Himself is the new priority and all else will become subservient to Him. This is no polite request but an unconditional demand.[5] Jesus did not wait around for these men to choose Him. Rather, He demanded that they come and literally follow Him to observe Him and learn from Him as their new master and example.[6] Yet to these four Jesus includes a promise.


The Promise: And I will make you fishers of men


Even in English we can appreciate the play on words between the fact that the four are fishermen (ἁλιεῖς) and that Jesus will make them fishers of men (ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων). Instead of catching fish in a net to sell for food, they will be bringing men into kingdom (v. 17). The fish in their nets meet their death but the men to be caught will escape death.[7] This promise is more than cryptic metaphor but the hint of a promise yet unfulfilled. Jesus echoes the words of Jeremiah the prophet who anticipated the Babylonian Exile (Jer. 16:16) given in the context of a promised second Exodus and return to the Promised Land (Jer. 16:14-15).


The Exile is Concluded (Jer. 16:16): “’Behold, I am going to send for many fishermen,’ declares Yhwh, ‘and they will fish for them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them from every mountain and every hill and from the clefts of the rocks.” – These words are directed at Jeremiah’s own generation and promise judgment. Yhwh promises to go through the land thoroughly to pull out and hunt down the people of Israel to send them out of the land and into captivity. Between the invasions of Assyria in 722 BC and the Babylonians in 586 BC, that promise was kept. Israel was fished for, hunted down, and taken out of the land. This physical exile made necessary a physical exodus from captivity back to the land. Yet the promise of the second Exodus is not merely physical but is also spiritual. The nation must repent and return to Yhwh (Joel 2:12-17) before the second Exodus can produce Yhwh’s kingdom (v. 17). Even in Jeremiah’s prophecy of looming destruction, this hope of a second Exodus remains steadfast.


The Regathering has Commenced (Jer. 16:14-15): “’Therefore behold, days are coming,’ declares Yhwh, ‘when it will no longer be said, ‘as Yhwh lives, who brought up the sons of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but, ‘as Yhwh lives, who brought up the sons of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands where He had banished them.’ For I will restore them to their own land which I gave to their fathers.’” – Before Jeremiah pronounces judgment on his contemporary generation (v. 16 ff.) he announces hope of a future second Exodus. Yhwh even frames His future work of gathering Israel and bringing her back to the land in the context of the first Exodus. The prophets foresaw a day when Israel would be brought out of spiritual darkness into light (Is. 9:1-2) and would be regathered from the corners of the globe and returned to their land to live in Yhwh’s kingdom (Ob. vv. 19-21). The King has now come and is poised to begin the conquest of this kingdom. These men have now been selected and called to follow and aid the King in the task of bringing their fellow Israelites out of darkness and into light. As veterans of Jesus’ southern campaign, they know who He is and what He’s about. Thus, they drop everything and follow Him.


Jesus Reveals the Cost of Discipleship


The response of both sets of brothers is strikingly similar in that they respond with urgency and totality. They answer Jesus’ call positively, immediately, and thoroughly as they set Jesus’ mission as priority over everything else in their lives. In these two sets of brothers, Matthew emphasizes the priority of Jesus over their livelihoods and even over their family relations.


Jesus Prioritized over Livelihood (v. 20)

So, they immediately, leaving the nets, followed after Him


Both Peter and Andrew have known that Jesus was the Messiah since their time with Him in Judea (Jn. 1:41). They have already made a profession of faith. While this call is not necessarily salvific, this is certainly a picture of what repentance (a complete change in attitude, action, and affection) looks like.[8] The temporal participle (ἀφέντες – leaving, abandoning) reveals what Peter and Andrew did in order to follow after Jesus. The last mention of their nets was in v. 18 where the brothers were in the middle of throwing out their casting net (ἀμφίβληστρον). Not only did they apparently not bother drawing in the net, but the left all their other nets (τὰ δίκτυα). They not only stopped what they were doing but walked away from the tackle of their trade. They left everything to follow Jesus alone. Peter and Andrew prioritized Jesus and His mission over their livelihood.


Jesus Prioritized over Family (v. 22)

So, they immediately, leaving the boat and their father, followed after Him.


Our assumption that James and John received the same call is based not only on Matthew’s wording but also on the similarity of their response. They too left/abandoned (ἀφέντες) the vessel necessary for their trade to follow Jesus alone. Jesus’ call is totally disruptive to the lives of these fishermen. They abandoned everything in order to follow the One who called them.[9] These brothers not only prioritized Jesus over their vocation but also over their family. Their father Zebedee remained in the boat. Here is a precursor of a theme that Jesus will touch on time and again, that the ties of family must not supersede loyalty to the Savior (8:21-22; 10:21, 34-37; 12:46-50; 19:29).[10] Fealty to the King must be complete and total without hesitation or reservation. To follow Jesus is to follow Jesus alone.


Conclusion


In thinking through this text there are at least two things that must be taken into consideration. First, the disciples prioritized Jesus over their vocation. They did not abandon their means of support completely. They maintained possession of their boats and fishing tackle to use as means of support whenever Jesus’ mission took Him back to Capernaum. This by no means lessens the weight of priority, for their livelihood would have demanded six full days of fishing a week. These disciples would certainly have faced an economic downturn with a greatly reduced harvest of fish.[11] Following Jesus does not demand a monastic lifestyle, but it certainly demands priority and calls for trust in the One who calls.


Second, it is a mistake to conclude that James and John leaving their father Zebedee is some sort of deconstruction of the family unit created and ordained in Genesis 1 and 2. The point is not that following Jesus demands forsaking familial relations but that no relationship is to be held in higher regard than service to Jesus.[12] Following Jesus is the top and only priority. One cannot justify a failure to obey the Master’s call by clinging to earthly connections. To follow Jesus alone does not allow for divided attention. There is no person, no position, no purpose that can stand in the way of following Jesus. Matthew’s point to his readers is simple: Follow Jesus alone!


Soli Deo Gloria!

[1] David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 135. [2] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 169. [3] Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 146-7. [4] John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 76-7. [5] Turner, p. 136. [6] Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 45. [7] Osborne, p. 149. [8] David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 48. [9] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 179-80. [10] Turner, p. 40. [11] Osborne, p. 150. [12] Ibid.

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