Twelve Chosen Men
Introduction: From time to time our church appoints a search committee to look for a new staff member, as do most businesses and organizations. I have been a member of a few of these committees, so I know a little about their work. The committees usually begin their work by hammering out a job description. After all, how do you know whom to look for if you don’t know what that person is supposed to do?
The next step is generally collecting resumes through networking, advertising, placement services, etc. Résumés range from boring to bizarre. The problem is that the person needs to put his or her best foot forward, yet if they’re being considered for a church position, a high premium is put on humility. Balancing those two issues can be quite a trick for the person writing the résumé. As résumés are examined, the key areas that catch the committee’s attention are generally college degrees, ministerial credentials, years of experience, evidence of unusual success, and references, of course. It’s “whom you know, not what you know,” you know.
A relatively recent issue that faces a lot of search committees is gender and racial balance. Do we need to find a woman for this position, or a certain racial minority, or a person with some handicap so he or she can relate better to certain elements in the organization’s constituency?
The interview is next. Again the candidate is caught between a rock and a hard place – on the one hand desiring to impress, but on the other hand wanting to avoid seeming like he’s desiring to impress. The long and the short of the process is that I’m amazed the results turn out as well as they do for the most part. I have to attribute that to the prayer that bathes the whole search process, at least as it is done in the church.
As I read and studied our Scripture text for today, I couldn’t help but think that Jesus would have frustrated a lot of search committees. When he set about to recruit a team to turn the world upside down, he didn’t look for college degrees or ministerial credentials or track records. He didn’t care about racial or gender preferences. He was oblivious to reputation or accomplishment. In fact, it almost seems like he went out of his way to choose some of the worst possible candidates—some of the real dregs of society. But his selections did indeed turn the world upside down, and they teach us some important truths about the kind of people God uses.
The calling of Simon Peter reveals that Jesus seeks the humble, not the proud.
Let’s give careful attention to the word of God, as found in Luke 5:1-11:
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
Jesus’ fame is growing in Galilee, and people are flocking to hear him. As this passage opens we find him standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, more often called the Sea of Galilee. It measures roughly 13 miles by 7 miles and is the largest body of water in the Holy Land other than the Dead Sea. The Jordan River flows out of this Lake and south into the Dead Sea. There is a thriving fishing trade on the lake. Fishermen with boats 20 to 30 feet long ply the waters at night, then wash their nets and check out their equipment before retiring for rest. Two of these boats belong to Peter and his business partner.
As you recall Jesus has recently returned to Galilee after many months of ministry in Judea and Samaria. It is approximately a year since his baptism and temptation. This is not the first time he has met Simon Peter. The original call for Simon to follow him is recorded in the first chapter of the gospel of John. There we learn about two disciples of John the Baptist. One day the Baptizer saw Jesus and pointed to him, “Look,” he said, “the Lamb of God!” and the two disciples began to follow Jesus. One of the two was Andrew, and the first thing he did was to go and find his brother Simon, exclaiming, “We have found the Messiah.” He brought Simon to Jesus, who promptly changed his name from Simon to Cephas, or Peter.
For the past year Peter has followed Jesus, sort of. He went with him to the wedding feast of Cana and to Jerusalem for Passover, and there is some evidence that he was in Samaria when Jesus encountered the woman at Sychar. But when Jesus returned to Galilee, Peter apparently got homesick for his boat. Perhaps he felt his financial resources needed to be replenished. At any rate, Peter is washing his nets when Jesus arrives at his end of the lake here in Luke 5.
Jesus borrows Peter’s boat as a floating pulpit. Due to opposition, the doors of the synagogues are beginning to close to Jesus, but that doesn’t stop Him from preaching; in fact, it encourages Him. “I love a commodious room,” said John Wesley, “a soft cushion and a handsome pulpit, but field preaching saves souls.” So does lake preaching. An added advantage is that voices carry much better over water than over land, so two or three times as many people could be reached this way. Luke’s focus, however, is not on the teaching of Jesus but on what happens afterward.
He advises Peter, the professional fisherman, how to fish. Verse 4: “When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’” Think about the irony of this. Here is a carpenter-turned-itinerant-preacher, telling a professional fisherman how to do his life’s work. How would you respond?
Peter is somewhat taken aback. His words, “We’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything,” contains an implied rebuke. Any fisherman knows that night is the best time for fishing, and when experts, fishing at the right time, had caught nothing, it is pretty silly to try in the daytime at the request of someone who perhaps never fished a day in his life. But, on the other hand, Peter has seen and heard enough of Jesus to know that His opinion on any subject is not wisely ignored. What will it hurt? If Jesus says so, he’ll let down the nets. Peter might not agree but he could obey.[i]
The result is amazing in terms of fish and even more amazing in terms of its impact on Peter. The catch is so staggering the nets begin to break. He signals his partner to bring the other boat, but both boats are soon filled to the point they begin to sink. Peter falls at Jesus’ knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” Why such a reaction? This is not the first time he has seen Jesus perform a miracle, but this is different. This is a miracle in Peter’s own area of expertise. He knows fishing; and therefore, he knows that what has happened is not to be explained along the usual lines of fishing techniques. He is standing in the presence of one who is not only Lord over sickness and Lord over evil spirits; he is also Lord over nature itself.
Peter’s reaction is not unlike that of the great Prophet Isaiah, who when he caught a glimpse of God seated on a throne, with angels calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory,” cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty”(Isaiah 6:3-5). Job had a similar response after God revealed his omnipotence and omniscience over nature: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).
What Peter does not realize is that admitting one’s inability and sin is the best prerequisite for service; it enables one to depend upon God. Peter’s confession becomes his resume for service. Humility is the elevator to spiritual greatness.[ii] Notice also that Peter’s manner of addressing the Lord changes from “Master” to “Lord,” the common word for deity. One commentator has observed, “It is the ‘Master’ whose orders must be obeyed, the ‘Lord’ whose holiness causes moral agony to the sinner.”[iii] Then Luke proceeds to the important thing – the purpose of the miracle.
Jesus commissions Peter to catch men instead of fish. He says to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” A turning point has been reached. From now on things will be different with Peter. He will no longer be catching fish to flay and devour or sell. He will catch men so they can live. Boats and nets will no longer be his tools; his tools will be the Word of God and prayer. “So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.” Peter left the largest catch he had ever made, for that catch was not as important as what it showed him about Jesus. He would no longer be a part-time disciple.
By the way, did he catch men, as Jesus predicted? Well, on the Day of Pentecost Peter preached in the city of Jerusalem and 3,000 people were added to the Kingdom of God. A short time later he and John healed a lame man at the temple gate, and another sermon produced 5,000 converts. Jesus chose a humble fisherman, whom none of us would have given a second thought.
The second vignette we want to examine this morning is found later in this same chapter. Let’s begin our reading at verse 27, where we will see that
The calling of Levi reveals that Jesus seeks sinners, not the righteous.
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:27-32)
As we read this text we are reminded that one did not become an Apostle by volunteering. Jesus initiated the contact and actually recruited these men, among them Levi.
Jesus recruits a notorious sinner named Levi (Matthew). He found Levi in a toll booth on the turnpike between Caesarea and Jerusalem. Rome farmed out taxes; i.e., they assessed a district at a certain figure and then sold the right to collect the taxes to the highest bidder. So long as the collector handed over the assessed amount at the end of the year, he was entitled to retain whatever else he could extract from the people.
The reason toll booths were set up is that duties on trade were a common type of tax. A tax collector would force a man to stop on the road, unpack his ox cart, and charge him duty on everything he was hauling, plus a tax on each wheel of his cart, plus a tax on the ox. If he could not pay the tax, the collector would offer to lend him the money at an exorbitant rate of interest. The result is that tax collectors were hated both as collaborators and as extortioners. As a class they were regarded as dishonest, and the Talmud speaks of them as robbers. They were not allowed to attend synagogue. One Roman writer says that he once saw a monument to an honest tax gatherer.[iv] So rare was such a specimen that he deserved a monument.
Jesus recruits Levi, or Matthew as he is known elsewhere in the gospels, by merely saying, “’Follow me.’ And Levi got up, left everything and followed him.” You say to yourself, there must have been more to it than that, and indeed, there probably was. Either Levi had had some previous contact with Jesus, or he had heard about Jesus’ ministry in the surrounding countryside. But whatever the contact was, Levi’s readiness to follow is remarkable, for it meant considerable sacrifice.
Tax collectors, you see, were normally very wealthy. And for Levi this was no trial period. If following Jesus did not work out for Peter, he could return to his fishing trade with little difficulty (in fact, he did for a short time after the death of Jesus, as recorded in John 21). But when Levi walked away from his job, he was finished. Rome would surely never take back a man who had simply abandoned his tax office. His decision to follow Jesus had to be a permanent, total commitment.
Obviously something is missing from Levi’s life. He is tired of being hated. He is tired of going to bed at night with a guilty conscience regarding all the people he has ripped off. But now he has found an authority greater than Rome and a love greater than money. But clearly he takes this step, not in a spirit of grim resignation but with banners flying.[v] He throws a great banquet for all his partners in crime.
Levi is refreshing. He is unlike a lot of Christians who break all their relationships with non-Christians as soon as they are converted. But notice what his purpose is – it’s not to have a last fling, a proverbial bachelor party before settling down to a life of boredom. This banquet is for the express purpose of introducing these fellow sinners to Jesus. As Ryle puts it, “a converted man will not wish to go to heaven alone.”[vi] And what does Jesus do with this motley crew?
He welcomes contact with Levi’s sinful friends. He is pleased to attend this banquet, unconcerned about the negative reaction He knows will be forthcoming from the religious bigwigs. You see, the Pharisees couldn’t distinguish sin from the sinner. They avoided sinners in order to avoid the suggestion that they endorsed the sin. Quarantine was their response. But Jesus knew that excessive separation destroys outreach. He was able to build bridges to the lost without ever once compromising moral purity. The Pharisees complain to Jesus’ disciples, but it is Jesus who answers.
He offers a theological rationale for his focus on sinners. That rationale is found in an analogy from everyday life: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” A doctor who advertises, “Well patients only, I don’t want to be exposed to anything contagious!”, will not have a large practice. But sometimes that’s what religious people do. I saw a church sign once that read,
Berean Baptist Church
They might as well have put up a sign, “Sinners, stay home! You must dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s the way we do to be welcome here.”
Jesus applies the analogy this way: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Jesus’ business is with sinners. He did not, however, come to leave them in their sins. He calls them to repentance. There is undoubtedly a subtle use of irony in the word “righteous.” It really means self-righteous here. Repentance is not easy; in fact, it is impossible for those who are self-righteous.
If Levi’s résumé had come to us, we would have wrapped the garbage in it, but Jesus chose him, because Levi knew he was a sinner and wanted to stop.
The third and final vignette we want to examine today is from the next chapter, verses 12-16, where we see that
The calling of the Twelve reveals that Jesus seeks potential, not proven ability.
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas, son of James and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16)
The opposition to Jesus is mounting. One day His enemies will kill Him. He needs to give consideration to what will happen after He is gone. Who will carry on His work after him? Of the large group of disciples that is following Him, which ones would God have Him choose to be His spokesmen and to take His message to the ends of the earth? Just as there were twelve tribes of old Israel, He decides to choose Twelve Apostles to lead the new Israel.
Jesus begins his selection process with prayer. And when Jesus prayed, He didn’t pray as most of us do, “Lord, bless us as we elect new Elders and Deacons tonight.” He spent the whole night praying. When is the last time you spent an uninterrupted 30 minutes in prayer? It’s amazing that we will make life-changing decisions with barely a passing mention of it in prayer. Not Jesus. Yet strangely, even after a whole night of prayer (or perhaps because of a whole night of prayer).…
He chooses 12 very ordinary men. There was not a famous or influential man among them. They had no special education. They had no experience in ministry or leadership. There is not a one of them that we would have chosen (except perhaps Judas!). But what’s new? God passed on all the sons of Jesse until he came to the runt of the litter, and that runt became the sweet singer of Israel, King David, whose rule God promised would never end. God passed on the powerful army that Gideon put together to attack the Midianites, and he kept passing until Gideon had pared it down to 300 men. Then God used them to win a great victory.
In 1 Corinthians 1:20-21 Paul asks,
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
Then he turns to us and asks us to examine our own situation:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. (Thank God it doesn’t say not “any,” but not “many.” There are a few CEO’s here this morning. There are a few professional athletes. There are a few Ph.D.’s. But not many. And even most of those came to faith in Christ before they reached the pinnacle of their professions.) But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
He chooses a strange mixture of men. Some were extroverts, like James and John, while others were introverts, like Bartholomew. Some were risk-takers, like Peter, while others were hesitant to the point of being paranoid, like Thomas. Even more amazing, Matthew, the tax collector, was a traitor and a renegade to his own country, while Simon the Zealot was a fanatical nationalist, for the Zealots were sworn to assassinate every traitor and every Roman they could lay hands on. Friends, this is like putting a skinhead and a member of B’nai B’rith on the same committee, a Hutu and a Tutsi on the same team, a Calvinist and Wesleyan on the same pastoral staff (someday Jerry will see the light!). But it can work!
Seriously, one of the great strengths on our church staff is that our pastors come from seven different cemeteries (I mean seminaries), and a couple haven’t even been corrupted by seminary. We have graduates of Asbury, Trinity, Central Baptist, Western Conservative Baptist, Covenant, Dallas, and New Orleans Baptist. How is it possible to have peace and unity when you put together people from such diverse backgrounds? Because everyone of us believes that the truth of God’s Word supersedes whatever we were taught in seminary. We have a higher priority than total agreement on every doctrinal detail – it’s our commitment to the good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.
Let me say also that one of the great strengths of our church is the diverse backgrounds of our members. We have devout Catholics, life-long Lutherans, and renegades from both fundamentalism and liberalism. We have people who can’t remember never believing in Jesus and people who were pagans just a year ago. But our common denominator is that we know we are sinners saved by grace, now children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Doctrine is not unimportant. I personally love theology, I teach it, and I even like to debate its finer points. But that is not where my salvation lies, nor is it where I draw the lines of fellowship.
The body of Christ which we enjoy today mirrors the team Jesus put together after a night of prayer, even to the point that …
He chooses one who turns out to be a traitor. We’re not talking about a disciple who experienced personal failure or even serious sin in a moment of weakness – all of these disciples had their moments of failure. Peter even denied that he knew Jesus. For that awful sin he was forgiven and later became the most prominent leader of the early church. No, we’re talking about one who was a phony, one who put up a front and played the game, but his heart was not with Jesus.
You know, the rest of the church may not be able to tell if you are a phony disciple, any more than the other disciples could tell that Judas was. At the last supper when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him, how many of the Twelve looked at Judas and said, “I think it’s Judas; I’ve been suspicious of him from the very beginning.” No, the Scriptures tell us they suspected themselves before they suspected Judas. They asked, “Is it I, Lord? Is it I?”
Friend, if you are not sure where you stand with Jesus today, don’t just continue to act religious. Bow your heart before him and say with the father of the demonized boy of Mark 9:24, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Your eternal destiny is at stake here. In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus spoke these profound and convicting words:
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
Do I mean that it’s possible to drive out demons and perform miracles and still not be a true believer? Judas did.
Conclusion: Eleven chosen men turned the world upside down. Jesus is still in the business of recruiting people who want to make a difference—in children’s ministry, youth work, missionary service, as a teaching leader, a home fellowship host, you name it.
They don’t have to be talented, but they do have to be teachable.
They don’t have to be successful, but they do have to be faithful.
They don’t have to be competent, but they do have to be committed.
The key is not ability but availability.
[i]. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Luke, 113.
[ii]. Darrell L. Bock, Luke, The NIV Application Commentary, 155.
[iii]. Plummer, quoted by Morris, 113.
[iv]. William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, 61.
[v]. Morris, 119.
[vi]J. C. Ryle, cited by Morris, 119.