My wife and I have had the privilege of attending a number of excellent churches since placing our faith in Christ back in 1982. To us, an excellent church is one that faithfully seeks to live out and to share the message of biblical faith with love, gentleness, kindness, and yet without reservation or apology.
In the early 1990s we lived in the northeastern part of the United States in an area known as New England. We were active members of an excellent Bible Church. We loved the fellowship and outreach of this church, yet the highlight for us may have been the teaching. Our Pastor was a gifted communicator. He was faithful to the Scriptures, and he helped us and many others to grow in our faith. I vividly recall, however, one sermon that troubled me.
The text that morning focused on Matthew 4:18-20. In the ESV, this passage records an early encounter Jesus had with Peter and Andrew. It reads:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As I recall, the sermon that morning focused on the responsibility of Christians to share their faith with others. This was referred to as “fishing” based on the words of Jesus as quoted above. It was an excellent sermon, yet something about it unsettled my soul. In the weeks that followed I prayed about this. Something seemed a bit off, yet I couldn’t discern exactly what it was. Finally, while praying I sensed the Holy Spirit saying to me, “One can fish without following, yet one cannot follow without fishing.”
As I considered this, I sensed the Spirit saying that many people who focus on sharing their faith may at the same time neglect their personal relationship with God. They prioritize fishing, and yet give less attention to seeking to live in God’s presence. This reminded me that the first and greatest commandment as described by Jesus in Matthew 22:34-40 is to love God with all that we are. The second is to love others. I sensed the Spirit saying to me that a believer must never reverse this order.
The critical importance of keeping our love for God first can be seen in Matthew 7:21-23. This passage says:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.
Notice that these individuals worked hard for the Lord. They may have been faithful witnesses as well. Jesus did not condemn them for any lack of effort they undertook in his name, but rather for not having an intimate relationship with him. They were likely fishing and serving with great enthusiasm and energy, yet were not following Jesus.
The tragedy of this can be seen from time to time in the news. Every so often it’s disclosed that a very effective ministry leader has for years been involved in sexual immorality or some other gross sin. We can only conclude that whereas they were fishing with great energy and effectiveness, they were likely not following Jesus.
On a regular basis the Lord reminds me of what I sensed the Spirit saying to me so long ago about the need to prioritize my relationship with God above all else. An example from a few years ago was something that a friend said to me. He stated that “the highest value” of the ministry he leads is the gospel. This sounds great, yet in my heart I sensed that something was off. It was only later that I was reminded of the need to keep the first commandment above the second. The Spirit reminded me that our highest value needs to be our love for God, and out of that will flow our love for others. Our love for others includes our desire to share with them the message of biblical faith.
A Faithful Witness
I was reminded again very recently of the need to keep our love for God as our priority. I listened to a sermon in which the speaker encouraged his listeners to be faithful witnesses for Jesus. One of the several texts he used in this message was Revelation 2:12-13:
I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
Another was Acts 1:8:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
It is of interest to me that in these passages the terms “faithful witness” or “witness” are descriptive rather than prescriptive. This reminds me of the fruit of the Spirit as described in Galatians 5:22-23. Many teach that the fruit of the Spirit is something that we should pursue. I would suggest instead that the fruit of the Spirit is the result of abiding in Jesus. After all, in John 15:1-5 Jesus reminds us that apart from him we can do nothing of eternal value.
As we continually abide in Jesus, are led by his word, and listen for the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we follow our Lord more closely and the fruit of that relationship changes us. As we live out this fruit we cannot help but to be witnesses to those among whom we live. This is, I suggest, the model of what it means to follow first and to have the privilege of fishing as a result. This stands in contrast to prioritizing fishing, or witnessing, as a responsibility that we must fulfill or pursue.
So, are we called to be witnesses, or are we called to be followers of Jesus who cannot help but to witness through what Jesus is doing within us and as we live out our lives among other people? The difference is subtle, yet may be profound.
Lord, please lead us clearly and correct us gently as we seek to rightly love you and to love others. Amen.