Third Sunday after the Epiphany · Mark 1:14-20 · January 25, 2009
By Francis C. Rossow
1. Like our text, the Epistle for this Sunday (1 Cor 7:29-31) has something to say about time. Paul’s comment that “the time is short” echoes the urgency of our Lord’s announcement, “The time has come” (v. 15)—the only difference being that Paul is speaking of the quantity of time (brief), whereas our Lord is speaking of the quality of time (special). Our Lord is not discussing a mere chronological unit, “any old time”; the word he uses is καιρος, not χρονος. The Good News version captures the distinction by translating it as “the right time.”
2. How the fishermen of our text responded to Jesus’ invitation (w. 18 & 20) provides another point of contact between our text and the Epistle. Certainly these men would qualify as people “who use the things of the world [e.g., fishing nets], as if not engrossed in them” (1 Cor 7:31). Paraphrasing the language of the Epistle, one might describe Simon, Andrew, James, and John as “those who fish, as if they fished not.”
3. Also like our text, the Old Testament reading for this Sunday (Jon 3:1-5, 10) describes momentous results from simple causes with crisp understatement. Jonah’s message was a simple one: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jon 3:4). The outcome? “The Ninevites believed God” (Jon 3:5)! Paralleling this remarkable (but understated) result is the response to Jesus’ simple invitation in our text: “At once they left their nets and followed Him” (v. 18). Only the powerful Gospel, in either case, could account for such momentous result from so seemingly simple a cause.
4. The Old Testament reading informs us that “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” (Jon 3:1; emphasis mine). Similarly, the call of the Lord to the fishermen recorded in our text is coming to them “a second time,” so to speak. The encounter in our text was not the first meeting between Jesus and these fishermen; John 1:40-42 describes an earlier contact between our Lord and Andrew and Simon. The fishermen had come to know and believe in Jesus prior to the incident in our text. Lenski suggests that Jesus’ first invitation to the fishermen was intended for their personal welfare but that the second invitation (the one in our text) was intended for the public welfare; in short, the disciples were to share with others the relationship with Jesus that they themselves already enjoyed. The call in our text is a summons to mission work, not to faith.
5. Between the temptation of Jesus alluded to in the verse immediately before our text and the incident of our text, there is a gap of over a year. With his customary economy, Mark simply leaps into the Galilean ministry of Jesus. However, while there is no chronological tie between our text and the preceding context, there is certainly a logical connection. No matter how adverse the circumstances—whether it is a temptation in the wilderness from Satan, an encounter with “wild animals” (v. 13), or the imprisonment of a close friend and co-worker (John the Baptist, v. 14)—Jesus’ conduct in our text makes clear that the work of God’s kingdom must go on; its urgency supersedes all other demands.
6. Note that the preceding and the following contexts, when taken together, provide a frame for our text. In both contexts there is a reference to a demon: the Prince of devils, Satan himself, in verse 13; and one of his evil cohorts in verse 23. Given this frame (a common—and effective—literary device), the message of our text comes into sharper focus—even as a portrait is highlighted by the frame surrounding it.
7. “Repent” in verse 15 has no object, but “believe” has a specific object, “the good news.” We may infer from this syntactical arrangement truths made explicit elsewhere in the Scriptures: 1) Repentance does battle with sin (singular), not merely sins (plural). Sin is a condition we carry around with us, not a mere catalog of evil deeds. We repent, therefore, not merely of the things we do but, above all, of what we are; thus we repent not merely of this or that sin, but we repent— period, with no specific object. 2) On the other hand, believing has a specific object: the Gospel, the person and work of Jesus. We are not saved through “believing” or “faith” in general, but only through a very specific faith. This is why the text mentions a specific object for faith.
8. “Believe the good news” (v. 15) should be literally translated “Believe in the good news.” The addition of the word for “in” in the original broadens the meaning. “In” means “in the sphere of”; we “believe in the sphere of the good news.” That is, we believe in the Gospel (object) because we are under the influence of the Gospel (source). The Gospel is not only the goal of our faith but also the cause of our faith. That is good news indeed! The well-known snowball effect of alcohol might serve as an illustration. The more one is under the influence of alcohol, the more he craves alcohol—and the worse the consequences in his life. Let this negative aspect of alcohol remind us of the positive aspect of the Gospel: it too has a snowball effect. The more one is under the influence of the Gospel, the more he craves the Gospel—and the more blessed the consequences of that Gospel in his life. “Whoever has will be given more” (Lk 8:18).
9. Our Lord adapts his gracious invitation to Simon and Andrew to the situation in which he finds them. “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (v. 17; emphasis mine) is addressed to the two men as they are engaged in fishing. Be it reverently said, our Lord exploits the situation; he uses a metaphor, “fishers of men,” instead of the more general terms “missionaries” or “evangelists.” (See John chapters 4 and 6 for similar examples.) In his preaching Jesus was “all things to all men so that by all possible means [he] might save some” (1 Cor 9:23—a precedent for us in our evangelism efforts).
10. Note carefully the wording of Jesus’ promise, “I will make you fishers of men” (v. 17; emphasis mine)—not “You will become fishers of men.” The accent is on Jesus’ activity, not ours. Whatever good we do, he does in us. We are “fishers of men” only through his strength. Further, the verb “make” seems to imply training. We are not “zapped” into missionaries, but we are schooled to be missionaries.
11. “Nets” in verse 18 is an instance of synecdoche, the part standing for the whole. In other words, what Simon and Andrew left behind was more than a specific piece of fishing equipment—they left behind their job, their vocation, to become “fishers of men.” Moreover, the Greek verb avcpévxsç is an aorist participle, connoting final, completed action; they left their “nets” permanently, for keeps. Nothing casual or ordinary about their action—it was radical!
12. Note the parallel between the “at once” of verse 18 (describing the fishermen’s action) and the “without delay” of verse 20 (describing Jesus’ action). Urgency characterizes both Jesus’ invitation and the human response to it. Like Master, like disciple.
Introduction: There is no doubt about it: the cause of missions is an urgent one. God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” but will have “all men to be saved.” “The night is coming when no one can work.” “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.” What is needed for this urgent cause of missions is a corresponding sense of urgency in behalf of the cause—an urgency like that displayed by Jesus and the disciples in our text.
Urgency in Behalf of the Urgent Cause of Missions
I. As displayed by our Lord:
A. Despite adverse circumstances (w. 13 & 14; sermon note 5), our Lord continued to proclaim the good news of God.
B. His description of the kingdom of God abounded in urgent language (v. 15; sermon notes 1, 3, 12).
C. When he encountered the sons of Zebedee, he called them “without delay” (v. 20; sermon note 12).
D. A sense of urgency impelled our Lord toward the climactic acts of his saving ministry (Mt 16:21; Lk 13:31-33, 22:42; Heb 10:7).
II. As displayed by the disciples:
A. Called to share in the Lord’s mission activity, Simon and Andrew left “at once” (v. 18; sermon notes 2, 3).
B. Called to share in the Lord’s mission activity, Simon, Andrew, James, and John made a complete break from their former activity (w. 18 & 20; sermons notes 11, 12).
III. As displayed by us(?):
A. Because of our sinful lethargy and our confused priorities, it is predictable that we will not respond with urgency to the urgent cause of missions (the malady).
B. The urgency our Lord requires of us, he himself supplies (the solution).
1. The same Gospel that is the object of our sense of urgency is also the source of our sense of urgency (v. 15; sermon notes 3, 8).
2. Hence it is the Lord himself who makes us “fishers of men” (v. 17; sermon note 10).
Conclusion: Given the goodness of our Lord who, through the Gospel, enables the sense of urgency for missions that he requires, we can replace the question mark in the parentheses behind the third point in the outline (above) with a period, even an exclamation mark. Empowered by Jesus, we can respond to his urgent call to mission work immediately, wholeheartedly, and completely.