Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him (Matt 4:19-20).
Do you remember that chorus- “I will make you fishers of men if you follow me?” As a child, those repeated lyrics perplexed me, as I mistook fishers (with an r) for fishes! As I sang, I imagined everyone in the congregation as half-fish, half-human, and wondered why Jesus would want to turn his disciples into mermaids! I’m pleased to see that Luke’s account clears up this confusion about fishers of men: “From now on you’ll be catching men” makes much more sense!
Today we’re reading the amazing story about how Jesus invited Peter, James and John to be his disciples by Lake Galilee. These fisherman didn’t appoint themselves leaders or apply to be disciples with an impressive CV. The Lord himself called them and set them apart by his irresistible grace. Those first disciples paid a high price for following Jesus. Peter was hung upside down on a cross, James was beheaded and John was exiled. Peter’s brother, Andrew, who was also on the lake that day, was crucified in Greece. These fishermen gave up their lives to know, follow and proclaim Jesus as Lord. Instead of safety, security and material blessings, they pursued God himself and found their joy in Him. After Jesus ascended and poured out His Spirit on them, these ordinary men became irrepressible witnesses who could not stop speaking of what they’d seen and heard (Acts 4:1-4). Their spirt-empowered message was never obscure or diluted and their devotion to the risen Jesus was unquenchable. Just think for a moment of these four fishermen by Lake Galilee in 30AD, and then fast forward to the 6000 followers of Christ in 60AD! And to the 100 000 believers in 180AD. And to the 31 million in 350AD. All because these fishermen followed Jesus and became fishers of men.
Fishers of men
“On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:1-11).
Lord of the Fish
Alone, Peter caught no fish all night. Yet, against all logic as an experienced fisherman, Peter tentatively obeys Jesus by letting down his nets at midday and is stunned by what happens next. Peter learns that Jesus is Lord of the fish.
Jesus was no stranger to Simon. They’d been introduced through his brother Andrew, and Jesus had already given him his new name (John 1:40-42). Peter had hosted Jesus in his home, watched Jesus heal his mother-in-law and cast out an evil spirit (Luke 4:38-41). Peter had heard Jesus in the synagogues announcing the good news that God’s kingdom had arrived on earth. This day he’d listened to Jesus teach on the floating pulpit– his very own boat (Luke 5:3). But somehow this miraculous catch of fish was more personal. It was an epiphany that went far beyond intellectual knowledge or amazement. A picture of Jesus as Ruler of the fish, graciously jamming up Peter’s nets to bursting point, was what knocked the burly fisherman right off his feet. His eyes were opened to the Lord of heaven and earth standing before him… and his own unworthiness. Fear followed amazement at this display of abundant generosity. Just as Moses did not dare approach the burning bush for fear of being consumed, Peter was overcome by godly fear (Ex 3:5).
There is no such thing as a worthy disciple of Jesus. Peter knew it the moment he hauled in those bulging and breaking nets. His reaction may seem strange in our culture that worships self esteem, but Peter was accurate when He recognized who he was before Jesus and recoiled in horror, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Peter’s reverent fear is appropriate in the presence of a holy and awesome God. The Psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!” Isaiah’s response to the presence of God was “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips (Ps 96:9; Isa 6:5) and Solomon reminds us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7). Jesus can only use people who know that they are utterly bankrupt before God—like Peter.
If we call ourselves Christians, godly fear should mark our lives, because the Holy Spirit has shown us who God is and who we are. Let’s allow the Bible to hold up a mirror to our soul:
At our core we’re God’s enemies and can only run from the Father (Col 1:21). Because we love darkness and hate the light, we harden our hearts and say no to God’s ways that lead to life (John 3:20; Eph 4:18-19). We are impure in our thoughts, words and deeds (Rom 6:19). Our minds are so warped and blinded to the truth that even our emotions and desires are out of order, our hearts lie to us and our bodies are ruled by ungodly passions (Rom 1:26-28; 2 Cor 4:4; 1 Peter 2:11). We are spiritually dead with no escape from God’s rightful anger. If we look in the mirror honestly, this is who we are without Christ, and Peter knew it. Nevertheless, he trusted Jesus enough to let down his nets and fall contritely at His feet. Like all of us, Peter didn’t deserve to step into the Lord’s presence or be called his friend, but Jesus invited the fisherman to follow him anyway: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”
Followers become fishers
Let’s not miss that following Jesus preceded being fishers of men. So, gripped by the grace they’d seen in their bulging, broken nets, and assured by Jesus’s invitation, the two sets of brothers left behind all they’d ever known to follow the one person who could give them all they truly needed. They surrendered their careers and ambitions, possessions and security, comforts and plans to give themselves wholeheartedly to the Lord himself. They’d seen enough to know that Jesus was worth more than anything they could lose.
Jesus kept his promise to make them ‘fishers of men.’ The miracle catch of fish was a vivid picture of what Jesus would do through Peter and this unimpressive band of fishermen from northern Israel. Three years later, Peter’s Spirit-empowered message of the gospel would take the world by storm. Three thousand people were cut to the heart on the day of Pentecost and baptized in the name of Jesus, gathered into Peter’s net in a single day (Acts 2:40-41). Then 2000 more believers squeezed their way in (Acts 4:4), and on and on until the nets were splitting open with those who repented, believed and surrendered all to follow Jesus and make more disciples. Two thousand years later, we still read the life-giving message written by Peter and John in the Bible and Jesus is still adding to his kingdom those who are being saved.
But that day the four fishermen could not have foreseen the cost of following Jesus. Or the horrific path their Master would walk three years later to bridge the chasm between sinners and God the Father.
A divine appointment—then and now.
It’s impossible to read this story and conclude that being a Christian is about following a set of moral values or inspiring stories. The essence of being a Christian is not going to church, making a decision, or believing from an armchair, as helpful as these things are. It is about following Jesus Christ as Lord of the lake, the fish and all of life, every day of the week, wherever we are. Being a Christian is a divine appointment, as Jesus tells his followers in every age,
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last”(John 15:16-17).
You and I stand on the other side of the cross from Peter. We know that we can only call ourselves Christians because we have been made forever holy and perfect through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ once for all (Heb 10:10; 14). The empty tomb in 33AD is our assurance that Jesus has accomplished everything needed for us to draw near to God, so we don’t need to say, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” What a joy to know that we are safely in Jesus’s net—captured, forgiven and freely given all that those bursting nets represent! Grace and abundant life, peace and human flourishing flow like a river into every Jesus follower, since we are in Christ and He is in us forever. The believer’s joy has begun in this life and will be perfected in glory as we follow in the slipstream of Jesus. It is only this joy that can propel us from the inside to follow Jesus and become disciples that make disciples.
Lord Jesus, I give all of me to you in 2020. Give me eyes to see the lavish grace of your sacrifice to save a sinful wretch like me. Show me who you are and show me who I am in you. Lord, help me to follow and imitate you by reading your Word, praying and helping others take one step closer to you this year. Help me to see you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly. Soften my heart to respond to your grace, so that I will love and learn from you, rather than serve you out of duty. Let me not be like a stubborn animal that needs to be prodded and pressured to obey you. Jesus, you are not just the Lord of the lake and the fish, but the Lord of heaven and earth and my life too. Help me to trust you to do impossible things and to follow you beyond my comfort zone. Show me where to let down my nets and remind me that only you can gather the fish and fill them to overflowing. In Jesus’ name, Amen.