How to Catch a Fisherman
Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am not a fisherman. I have fished in the past and I have caught fish, but I am not avid about it. I simply do not get the appeal of standing or sitting for hours waiting for a fish that may or may not bite, and once hooked may, or may not, be caught. But intellectually, I understand that there are many who find it very relaxing and fulfilling.
The story of the great catch is more than just the account of a great catch, for in the final analysis, it is not the fish that are caught but the fishermen, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and their partners James and John. From this point on, Luke informs us, these men left their jobs as fishermen and followed Jesus wherever he went. This event is therefore one of the turning points in the life of the disciples and in the gospel accounts of the life and ministry of our Lord. It should not be overlooked that Peter, James and John, the three named fishermen here, are the inner three of the circle of disciples, those three who were privileged to witness events which the other disciples did not see (e.g. The Transfiguration, Luke 9:28-36).
The Background of this Miracle
A comparison of this passage with the other gospels shows us that this is not the only, or first, calling of the disciples. In fact, there are several callings of the disciples, there are several stages of commitment reflected in the Gospels. One of the keys to understand the events in Luke chapter five is to recognize that there is a progressive drawing of the disciples.
The progressive calling of the disciples falls roughly into this sequence of events:
(1) At the suggestion of John and the invitation of Jesus, Simon and Andrew followed Jesus for that day (John 1:36, 39). The next day, Philip and Nathanael were invited (John 1:43). With these Jesus attended the wedding at Cana (John 2:2), and witnessed to the people of Samaria (John 4).
(2) Jesus calls the four fisherman disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) to follow him (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20), which they do part-time, while continuing their fishing business on the side.
(3) Jesus fills the boat with fish. From this time on the disciples leave their boats and fishing and follow Jesus everywhere (Luke 5:1-11).
The Setting for the Miracle
Jesus was standing by the Sea of Galilee, which Luke calls the “lake of Gennesaret” (v. 1). Around him a crowd had gathered, listening to him proclaim the word of God. Beyond the crowd of those who were pressing in on the Lord Jesus, there was the sea of Galilee, and two ships were pulled up on the shore. One ship belonged to Peter (v. 3), and the other belonged to James and John (vv. 7, 10). These four fishermen were not among the crowd. Instead, they were off washing their nets (v. 2). They had spent a long and fruitless night fishing (5).
The amazing thing about this scene is that the wrong people seem to be close to our Lord, and likewise the wrong people seem to be at a distance. You would think that the disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John, who had spent much time with Jesus, would be those in the inner circle, closest to the Master. Instead, the crowds pressed upon Jesus, and the disciples were at a distance, tending to business, washing their nets. They no doubt looked on with some interest as they worked, but they were surprisingly detached from the Master and from the crowd.
Jesus’ appearance at the lake is, in my opinion, not coincidental. I believe that he purposed to be there, knowing that this is where the disciples would be. It is no accident that the boat into which our Lord stepped, and from which he taught, was Peter’s (v. 3). Jesus seems to merely be doing that which would make his speaking more effective and efficient, as well as providing a way of escape from the crowds when he was finished. I believe, however, that Jesus was seeking the disciples. It was time for them to become permanently attached to him, accompanying him wherever he went. The time for a deeper level of commitment and involvement had come. The appearance at the lake that day was for the purpose of bringing about a life-changing decision on the part of Peter and his companions. Jesus would momentarily use the boat as his pulpit, but he was intent on making the fishermen fishers of men.
The Catch of a Lifetime
The disciples had apparently finished washing their nets and had probably hung them out on the ship to dry. Jesus had likewise finished his teaching, and asked Peter to put out to deeper water, and to let down the nets for a catch. Notice these words of our Lord:
“Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4).
Jesus did not suggest; he commanded. And he did not order the disciples to let down their nets to try to catch fish, he ordered them to put out their nets for a catch of fish. In other words, Jesus was issuing both a command and a promise. The command was to put out the nets. The promise was that there would be a catch.
Peter’s words betray a reticence, perhaps even a bit of irritation:
“Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5).
In the first place, Peter’s words indicate that he and his partners were physically tired. They had worked hard, all night. Besides that, they had just finished washing their nets. They would have to do it all over again. Second, Peter indicates that their efforts had been futile. Night was the best time to fish. If they had not caught anything at night, why in the world should they catch anything in the daytime, the worst possible time to fish. Third, there is a hint of irritation here. Did Jesus, a carpenter, think that he knew more about fish than these fishermen?
Peter relented and let down the nets, but he has safeguarded himself for the failure he thinks is certain. You almost wonder if Peter didn’t want to fail in this venture, so that he could give Jesus an “I told you so” look. How many times would Peter have the opportunity to prove Jesus wrong. Surely when it came to catching fish, he was the expert. Jesus was the Master, and so his word would be obeyed, albeit under protest.
The result was incredible. There were those stories that all fishermen swapped, about good catches, but this beat all that Peter had ever heard, by far! The nets were full. They began to break. They signaled their partners for help, and even with two ships, the harvest was so large that both boats began to sink. The catch of a lifetime had been made. And now it was time to catch the fishermen.
The Disciples’ Response
Every miracle had its purpose, and this one was no exception. There was a “catch” to the story, and it is now to be disclosed. Simon Peter was the leader and the spokesman for the others. He immediately responded (as always) by falling at the feet of Jesus, saying,
“Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).
Falling prostrate at the feet of Jesus was an act of humility and worship. Peter had been ministered to in an area of his own expertise. He now saw the Lord Jesus in an entirely different light. Jesus was Lord, and he was but a sinful man. In verse 5, Jesus was referred to by Peter as “Master,” but now he is Peter’s Lord. The change of terms is our signal to a quantum leap in Peter’s grasp of Jesus’ greatness and power.
Peter not only confessed the greatness (and perhaps the holiness) of our Lord, but also his own sinfulness. Just what was it that caused Peter to recognize his sinfulness at this particular occasion? What was Peter now confessing as sin? I believe that the narrative provides us with the necessary clues to understand Peter’s confession. Peter saw his resistance and reticence to obey the Lord’s command to let down the nets as sin. Peter thought he was the expert, but now sees that Jesus is Lord of the sea as well. Peter doubted that they would make a great catch, and feared that his efforts would be wasted. Now he saw his Lord’s sovereignty and his sin.
Peter’s confession is noteworthy. At the very point that Peter draws nearer to his Lord than ever, he seems to urge his Lord to depart from him. Peter could have departed from the Lord Jesus, but his love for him and his growing awe prohibited him from doing so. It was like the moth and the flame. He could not draw apart, but only nearer. If sin were to drive a wedge between him and his Lord, it would have to be the Lord who departed, not Peter.
So far as I can tell, this is the first time in Luke’s gospel that any man has seen so much in one of our Lord’s miracles. Previously, people have marveled at his power and teaching, but no one has concluded, as Peter did, that Jesus was so righteous, and that he was so wretched. The revelation to Peter that he was a sinner is a basic necessity, and Peter has the distinction of being the first in Luke’s account to become aware of this fact. Whether or not the other three disciples-to-be recognized their own sin as a result of this miracle we do not know, but Luke is clear that all were amazed and seized with wonder at seeing what the Lord had done (Luke 5:9-10).
Our Lord’s response is perplexing, because it is not immediately apparent as to how his words relate to Peter’s confession:
“Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people” (Luke 5:10).
Peter had just confessed to being a sinner, and testified to the greatness of his Lord. Jesus responded by a command not to fear, and a promise that he would become a fisher of men. How do our Lord’s words square with what Peter has just said?
I believe that Peter’s fear can be found in three areas, and that our Lord’s words to Peter provide him with hope in each area:
Peter was fearful of leaving his life’s occupation of fishing to follow Jesus. Note the contrast between the first two verses of our text and the last verse. The story begins by describing the great crowd which had surrounded Jesus, while the fishermen are off in the distance, tending to the washing of the nets—tending to business. When the story is concluded by Luke in verse 11 the disciples leave everything and follow Jesus:
So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him (Luke 5:11).
On several occasions, over a period of time, Jesus has invited Peter and his fishermen partners to follow him. I do not think that our Lord’s invitation was only for a short period. I believe that these men understood the implications of Jesus’ invitation, but were afraid to leave their life’s work to follow him wherever he went. This was necessary, however, for Jesus ministered far more widely than just in Galilee, around the Sea of Galilee, where they always fished.
Peter and his companions were fearful concerning the very practical matter of providing for themselves and their families. The longer these men were with Jesus, the more they wanted to be with him all the time. But you see, they had responsibilities and financial obligations to consider, too. I can just see Peter, telling his wife that he would love to be able to go with Jesus when He traveled to more distant places, but there was the business … “But Peter,” she may have protested, “How can we pay the bills?” The children need clothes, the roof on the house needs repairing, and you know that we have to care for my mother …”
Of course, these were very practical matters. But this miracle with the fish demonstrated in a very remarkable way that Jesus was not only to be trusted as Israel’s Teacher and Prophet and Miracle-worker, but also as their great Provider. With this remarkable catch, Jesus showed that he could provide. He was sovereign in the matter of work, as well as in all other matters. With this miracle, Peter’s fears about following Jesus melted. He and his partners walked away without a thought, without even bothering with that huge catch of fish. The fears which had haunted and hindered them so long vanished with the catch of fish.
Peter was fearful because he recognized his sin and the Lord’s righteousness. The words of Peter, “Go away from me, Lord,” reveal his awareness that a holy God cannot have intimate communion with sinful men. While Peter had no desire to leave his Lord, he did not know how he could enter an even more intimate relationship with the immensity of his sin. Our Lord did not fully answer Peter’s objection on this count, he only assured him by telling him to stop fearing.
Ultimately the Lord’s provision for Peter’s sin is even more abundant than His provision of fish. That provision will be made at the cross of Calvary, where he will die in the sinner’s place. Communion and intimacy with God is abundantly provided by the Lord’s sacrificial death. It is too early for Peter to know about this, and so he is simply assured, without any specific details being given.
The Meaning of this Incident for Peter and His Partners
For Peter (and Andrew too, it seems), James and John, the three who will make up the inner circle of Jesus followers, this incident is a major turning point. They have followed Jesus before, but only partially, only for a time. Now, these disciples have made the decision to leave their careers and follow Jesus wherever he went. This was no small decision. It was a crisis of careers and a mid-life crisis combined. From this moment on, Jesus would begin to pour more of his life into these disciples. The more intimate aspects of His life and ministry would now be made known to them.
The monumental change which occurs here is signaled by the striking contrast between the distance of the disciples and their dedication to their job in verses 1 and 2 and their divorcing themselves from their jobs in verse 11 to become Jesus’ disciples. It is also signaled by the change in Peter’s name, from Simon (as previously) to Simon Peter or Peter (as it will now be, with few exceptions).
There is also a change in the way in which Jesus is perceived and in which the disciples perceive themselves, as indicated by Peter’s response. The Lord Jesus had only been “Master” before, one of a higher rank, but not seen to be whom he really was. From now on, Jesus is “Lord” to Peter and his partners. And Peter, who saw himself as an expert, at least in fishing, now sees himself as a sinner before a holy God.
The Meaning of this Incident for Us
Before we begin to explore the meaning of this passage for us, let me be very clear in what I think the text does not mean. It does not mean that you must give up your job to follow Jesus. There are far too many Christians who seem to feel like second class Christians because they are not in “full-time Christian service.” There are many who have entered “full-time Christian service” on the faulty premise that this would make them more significant, spiritual Christians. The Bible does not teach this, and our text does not teach this, though some may wrongly conclude that it does.
Didn’t the disciples have to leave their (secular) jobs to follow Jesus? They most certainly did. But why? At this point in time, Jesus was (only) physically present on the earth. If Jesus were to have his disciples with him and he was called to preach the good news of the kingdom of God far and wide (Luke 4:43-44), then there is no way that these fishermen could continue their fishing career in the Sea of Galilee. But what we must see is that after our Lord’s death, burial, resurrection and ascension, he is now spiritually present with all saints through his Holy Spirit. While we may need to leave our homes or our employment to obey his leading and to proclaim the gospel, we do not need to leave anything for him to be in and with us.
We often bring Christ to a fallen world by living and witnessing for Christ in and through our work. Spirituality (nearness to Christ) is not determined by whether we have “secular” jobs or not. One need only remember that the apostle Paul often supported himself through “secular” employment (Acts 20:33-35).
What, then, does our text have to teach us? Primarily, our text deals with the matter of following Jesus. There are many lessons for us to learn about following Christ from our text. Let me suggest just a few.
First, our text strongly implies that following Jesus begins with the realization of our inadequacies and needs. Those who came to our Lord and followed him in the gospels were those in desperate need. Jesus himself said that He came to seek and to save the lost, that He came not to the well, but to the sick. It is those who are inadequate in themselves who follow Christ. There is no need to follow Christ if you are doing fine in and of your own efforts.
It is no coincidence that prior to the successful catch of that morning, at the command of Jesus, there was a long, frustrating night of “fishing failure” the night before. The one area in which Peter felt confident and capable was as an expert in fishing. But now, a night of fishing failure had been followed by a morning of unparalleled success. Peter failed on his own, but was abundantly successful in obedience to Christ’s command. Those who follow Jesus are those who have found themselves to fail on their own. Peter’s most significant confession in this text is that he was a sinner and that Christ was righteous. Failure is the first step in following Christ. Those who follow him have found themselves to fail on their own. Those who feel sufficient will not turn to him.
Second, our text teaches us that following Jesus requires faith in him as our all-sufficient Savior. If Peter found himself to be a failure at fishing and a sinner in life, He found Christ to be sovereign, righteous, and all-sufficient. All of Peter’s fears vanished when he realized the sufficiency of the One who had called him to be a fisher of men. Jesus Christ is the only all-sufficient One. To follow him is to be assured of God’s provision of forgiveness of sins and of righteousness; to follow him is to be assured of our physical needs. To follow him is to be assured of eternal life. To follow him is to be assured of guidance and direction. To follow him is to be assured of all that is required to do his will. Lack of faith can be traced, in almost every case, to an inadequate grasp of the goodness and the greatness of God. When we realize who it is who calls us to follow him, the faith to do so comes easily. Apart from knowing God, we find our faith lacking and deficient.
Third, our Lord knows our weaknesses and our unbelief, and gives us ample evidence, ample basis for our faith. The Lord Jesus knew of the inner turmoil which Peter and his partners were dealing with, better than they did. Instead of berating them or of forcing them to follow him unconvinced and semi-committed, Jesus performed a miracle which vaporized their fears and was a catalyst for their faith. For these men, an overflowing, tearing net and two sinking ships was all the evidence they required to see the sufficiency of the Savior.
God has given us even greater testimony to his sufficiency. In the first place, He has given us the evidence of his resurrection. Not two full ships of fish, but an empty tomb testifies to the holiness and the power of our Lord. In addition, he fills us with his Spirit, and he shows us his power in the transformed lives of those who have trusted in Christ as their Savior. Finally, we have the testimony of the Scriptures themselves, including this very account in the gospel of Luke. We have ample evidence on which to base our faith. Our problem is that we do not meditate these matters often enough. Our greatest problem as a church and as individual saints, I fear, is that we lack faith, and this is due to an inadequate grasp of the greatness of our God. Let us let our minds and hearts dwell long and deep upon Him.
Fourth, our text strongly implies that to follow Jesus, we must forsake certain things. For Peter, James and John to follow Jesus, they had to leave their ships and their nets. In the final analysis, they had to leave those things in which they had faith, in which they found their safety, their security, and their significance. Following Christ, finding him to be our all-sufficient Savior, requires that we forsake anything besides him in which we trust, in which we feel secure, in which we feel significant, in which we feel safe. For the rich young ruler, his trust was in his riches. Jesus instructed him to forsake his riches, to sell his possessions and to give the money to the poor, not because rich people cannot be saved, but because God will not let men trust in his Son and anything else. Selling all his goods would have been the most beneficial thing that this young man could have done, for it would have forced him to place all his trust in Jesus alone. We cannot follow two leaders, and we are led by that in which we trust. Thus, we must have our faith in only one person, Jesus Christ, and in nothing else, if we are to follow him.
Often, our greatest problem will come in that area in which we are most skilled, most knowledgeable. For Peter, this was his skill as a fisherman. Jesus had to show Peter that he knew more than this veteran of the Sea of Galilee, so that Peter could find Jesus the Master and Teacher, even about fishing. Whatever it is that you find yourself good at, whatever it is that you trust in, is that which you must forsake to follow Christ.
Fifth, our text suggests that if we are to be followers of Christ, we must do what he does. Jesus came “to seek and to save” the lost. The disciples were to become “fishers of men” not only because Jesus would command them to do so, but because this is his mission. These men would become “fishers of men,” not so much because they were fishermen, but because Jesus had come to draw (catch) men into his kingdom. To follow Christ means to do as he does. Those who would be followers of Christ cannot ignore the fact that Jesus was a seeker of men, and thus we, too, must be fishers of men. Evangelism is an inseparable part of the calling of a disciple of Jesus.
Sixth, our text suggests that if we would follow Jesus, we must not only do what he does, but we must do it his way. Peter thought of himself as an expert at fishing. Using their finest skills the night before, Peter and his partners caught nothing. Fishing Jesus’ way, which involved a violation of all the principles of fishing Peter knew, brought great success. Following Jesus means leaving behind many of the “proven methods” of our past. In the early chapters of the book of First Corinthians, the apostle Paul made a point to show how his methods were seemingly silly, and diametrically opposed to the methods of successful speakers of his day. But in doing things this way, in doing things God’s way, the Spirit of God produces the fruit and God receives the glory. Let us be careful about what it is we try to bring with us when we seek to follow Jesus. Not only did Peter and his partners leave behind their boats and their nets, they left their proven fishing methods behind as well.
Seventh, our text suggests that we should not make hasty commitments to follow Christ, nor should we call on others to do so. Finally, let me conclude by reminding you that Jesus did not press these men to make a hasty decision. Considerable time passed, and I would suspect that much agony was experienced in the interim. Why is it that we press men to make hasty decisions, when Jesus did not? Important decisions should not be made quickly. Decisions which are good ones, which are lasting ones, are those made slowly, prayerfully, deliberately.
May each of us thoughtfully consider what it means for us to be followers of Jesus Christ. Let us contemplate his sufficiency, and our sin. Let us forsake our methods, our sources of security, salvation, and significance. Let us follow him.