The apostles got to hang out with Jesus and then go back to being fishermen, until one day when Jesus said to then, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” That day everything changed.
We have been looking at their growing relationship with Jesus, including that call. We have looked at what it means to follow. Last week we looked at “I will make you” in a very general sense. Followers of Jesus are being transformed by Jesus – growing in knowledge, changing in character, learning skills.
The problem is that, when Jesus said it to the fishermen, it was not very general. In fact, it was very specific. He didn’t just say, ‘I will transform. I will make you into different people. I will help you be more like Me.” He quite specifically said, “I will make you fishers of people.”
What are fishers of people? The almost universal understanding is that it is a reference to evangelism. Rather than catch fish, they would catch people. Just as they gathered fish into the net, they would gather people into the Kingdom.
But it is a slightly odd image. Getting caught is generally not good for a fish and it usually means death, and yet we say that the gospel is good news and means life! It is also not an image used elsewhere in the Bible so that we can verify that it means evangelism. The disciples don’t talk about evangelistic campaigns as being fishing expeditions. When they said, after the crucifixion, “I am going fishing” (John 21:3) they didn’t mean they were going out evangelising. Quite the opposite. They were giving up on Jesus and His mission. They were going back to their trade. By going fishing they weren’t evangelising; they were avoiding evangelism.
So, maybe it doesn’t mean evangelism after all. On the other hand, what else could it mean?
I think the best way to determine that is to compare what Jesus said He would make with what He did make. He said “I will make you fishers of people.” At the end of the process He sent them out to make disciples. Apparently, fishers of people make disciples. Disciple-making isn’t just evangelism. It is evangelism plus training. Nevertheless, evangelism was a big part of it.
Now this is where it gets a bit awkward. This is one of the topics that Christians don’t want preachers harping on about. Evangelism is out of fashion. Increasingly we seem to talk about “the e-word” as if evangelism was about as popular as cancer, and we don’t mention it in polite company. Many of us think, ‘Look, I know I am meant to do it but I don’t, OK! I already feel guilty. Don’t force me to feel even more guilty.” Or, “Evangelism, no that’s not me. Maybe it is for others but it is not for me.”
Two weeks ago, the elders did an assessment of the five leadership gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-12: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. You will note that one of those five leadership roles is evangelist. In my assessment, evangelism came last! It was my weakest score. In fact, my evangelism score was lower than any other elder’s score for anything! I am not a gifted evangelist. OK?
Having said that, I am utterly convinced that the mission of the church is making disciples. And, because of that, I am utterly committed to evangelism. Maybe I should say I am committed to the concept of evangelism. I am not quite so committed to doing it! Actually, I am committed to doing it but I need some help. How do you feel about evangelism?
In any case, as I said, disciple-making is more than just evangelism. I am more of a teacher. Teachers, pastors, apostles and prophets also help make disciples. Evangelism is still a crucial part of it but that is why I have said, other weeks, that the “fishers of people” bit indicates that followers of Jesus engage in the mission of Jesus. I haven’t specified evangelism, just “the mission of Jesus”.
Is our mission to make disciples? There are other things. We could say the mission of the church is to worship or transform society or to work for justice or to love people or care for the disadvantaged or care for creation. All of those are biblical and important. But fundamentally, what is the church called to do?
Here are a few reasons I believe the church’s mission is, at its core, to make disciples.
- Jesus explicitly said that that was our mission. “Go and make disciples”.
- It is what Jesus did
Jesus did not plant a lot of trees. He didn’t overthrow the Romans. He did care for the disadvantaged and He healed but, fundamentally, Jesus called people to follow Him – to turn from their sins and follow Him. Remember that His message was summarised in this one sentence: “Repent, the Kingdom of God is near.” And He invested a huge amount of time training 12 men. The second most important thing Jesus did was make disciples. The result at the end of His ministry was a small group of disciples.
In fact, let’s continue to follow the journey of the disciples. You might remember that after the lake-side call, they went to Capernaum; Jesus preached in the synagogue, delivered a demon-possessed man, healed Peter’s mother-in-law and healed and delivered the crowds who came to Him. What happened next?
READ Mark 1:35-39 (Leave reading up)
The apostles assumed that He would come back and heal more people. They had had such an exciting day the day before. Let’s carry on with all this ministry. Everyone is looking for you. But Jesus said, “No.”
He had prayed about it. He knew what His Father wanted: He was to go to the, nearby villages to preach that message: “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.”
Then Jesus made an interesting comment: ‘That is why I have come.” He had come to preach the gospel. Jesus’ mission was the preach the gospel. That lines up with other expressions of His purpose such as “I have come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and “I have not come to call the righteous but to call sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
Or think of God’s purpose in sending Jesus, as expressed in John 3:16: that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life. It is all about people being saved through the faith in Jesus.
- It was what the early church did.
Acts is the story of the spread of the gospel – of people being called to repent and follow Jesus. It is about the growth of the church.
All of those other things are present but they are not prominent. Yes they are part of what Christians do. Christians do care about injustice and the poor and God’s creation but Acts is about disciple-making.
All of those things are result of making disciples. They are the effect. Make disciples and this will be the effect. Transformed people transform society. As people come to know Jesus and follow Him, society will change. Disciples of Jesus do care about the poor and about the environment precisely because they are disciples of Jesus and Jesus cares about those things. Christians should be involved in all of those things but even then the overall command is “make disciples”. “As you go, make disciples”. As you serve and work and mix with people; as you give food to the hungry; as you campaign against abortion or climate change, make disciples.
Often the church has focused on the effect without focusing on the cause. We’ll miss out step one and we’ll go straight to step 2. That won’t work. We try to transform society by persuading people to live better lives. We launch campaigns and we lobby government but human beings cannot manufacture the Kingdom of God. We need to be new, born-again people – new creations. That is the only way to truly change society. That is what the mission of God is focused on – that message of repentance and new birth and becoming like Jesus.
Or, churches focus on keeping the lawns mown and the buildings maintained and having cake stalls and potluck meals – when Jesus has actually sent us to make disciples. Churches have developed fantastic systems for doing everything except the one thing we have been called to do. We avoid making disciples.
Jesus was clear that He was going to turn those fishermen into fishers of people; missionaries. (Do you know what I mean by “missionaries”? Is that an OK synonym for “fishers of people?) We are meant to be missionaries. How do you respond to that? As I said before, this is an unpopular topic.
In many places, I have asked this question: Jesus said, “Come, follow me and I will make missionaries”. What would happen if we said to people who come to our church, “We are delighted to have you here, part of our church family. We will love you and care for you, and we will turn you into a missionary”?
Let me be clear: I am not saying that we say that the first time we meet them. Remember, this wasn’t the first time the disciples had met Jesus. They had spent maybe a year with Him. They had got to know Him and to figure out what they thought. But, when the time was right, Jesus invited them to follow Him, saying that He would turn them into missionaries. So, what if we said to people who have been in our church some time and have had the chance to know what we are all about, “We would like to invite you to take the next step and train to be a missionary for Jesus. We will help you.”
When I ask that question, the response I get most often is: People would run a mile!
Isn’t that interesting? Peter and Andrew and James and John dropped everything to respond to that invitation. But today, if we issue a similar invitation, we believe that would turn people away big time. Why were those men not only willing, but eager, to be with Jesus and to be trained as missionaries but we can’t mention it today for fear of losing people?
On the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came, how did the apostles know what to do? They knew what they had been sent to do – make disciples. And they had watched Jesus do it, so they just started doing the same things. The gospel was preached; people were converted and then the disciples set about training them.
A little while later, we read in Acts 8
Acts 8:1, 4 On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria… Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
They were persecuted – but they preached the word wherever they went. They were the ordinary people. The apostles stayed in Jerusalem. But they preached the word wherever they went. Every Christian knew that this is what they had been commissioned to do. The church is meant to be a multiplying missionary movement making disciples of Jesus Christ. In many places it has been turned into something else.
I do not say this to make you feel guilty. As I said before, I am the worst evangelist of any of the elders. I am not naturally disposed to this but I am committed to making disciples.
If any of you feel like me, here is something that might be encouraging. Jesus said that He would turn those men into fishers of people. He did not assume that they could do it naturally. In fact, He assumed that they were not able to do it. If they were ever to be disciple-makers, they would need to be trained and transformed. He undertook to do that work. If Jesus was to say, “I will make you an effective missionary. Hang out with me. Let me do some work in your life. It will take time, but I will make you an effective disciple-maker” would you respond to that invitation? It is not about how adequate we feel now. It is about what we might become. Jesus takes responsibility for the training but would you want to be an effective part of the mission that Jesus has called us to and that most Christians ignore?
In fact, as a church, we don’t want to just talk about these things. We want to do them. We want to make a similar offer. Would you like to be in a relationship with someone who will intentionally help you grow in your faith and become part of the mission of Jesus?