Almost everyone is interested in success. If you have any doubt, look at the business section and self-help section of the local bookstore. Look at the best-selling books. Examine your mail for all the ads for success seminars.
Of all people in the world, Christians should want to succeed. What makes us different are our definition of success and our strategies to get there.
Let’s take a lesson from a tired and weary group of fishermen who felt like failures until Jesus taught them a lesson. It was a lesson that sustained them the rest of their lives.
This is obviously a significant event for the disciples, but it was also a significant event for the early church. Their experience of following Jesus is mirrored in these four fisherman. For many Christians, Jesus’ call to become “fishers of men,” mixed with fear and worship, is all very familiar.
Furthermore, this incident shows that Jesus not only fraternized with the working class, but used them significantly in the propagation of the kingdom. While their “doctrinal faith” leaves much to be desired, their “practical faith” is exemplary. In other words, what they believe about Jesus turns out to be wrong; but their trust in Jesus is right on!
It is possible that at least seven of the disciples were fishermen (John 21:1-3). Consider the fact that fishermen generally have the qualities that make for success in serving the Lord. It takes courage and daring, patience and determination to work on the seas; and it also takes a great deal of faith. Fishermen must be willing to work together (they used nets, not hooks) and help one another. They must develop the skills necessary to get the job done quickly and efficiently.
If I had fished all night and caught nothing, I would probably be selling my nets, not washing them to get ready to go out again! But true fishermen don’t quit. Peter kept on working while Jesus used his ship as a platform from which to address the huge crowd on the shore.
“Every pulpit is a fishing boat,” said Dr. J. Vernon McGee, “a place to give out the Word of God and attempt to catch fish.”
But there was another side to this request: Peter was a “captive audience” as he sat in the ship listening to the Word of God. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).
In a short time, Peter would have to exercise faith, and Jesus was preparing him. First He said, “Thrust out a little”; and then, when Peter was ready, He commanded, “Launch out into the deep.” If Peter had not obeyed the first seemingly insignificant command, he would never have participated in a miracle.
From this event comes the Christian acrostic of the fish. The Greek word for fish is ichthys. Each of the five Greek letters stand for the beginning of the following words: Jesus, Christ, God, Son, Savior. It was the secret password for the catacomb worship services. Christian theology is summarized in this symbol.
Mt 4:18 with Lk 5:1 — [One dayLK] 18As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. … as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret,NIV-6-4 with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, 2he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3He 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.
The first step to calling men is seeing a vision of people—people who need the Word of God. The people were actually “pressing” (epikeisthai) in upon Jesus. They gathered and crowded around Him. Note why: to hear the Word of God. They pressed to hear the Word of God. They had a craving, a hunger and thirst after righteousness.
The famous sheet of water in Galilee is called by three names-the Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberias and the Lake of Gennesaret. It is thirteen miles long by eight miles wide. It lies in a dip in the earth’s surface and is 680 feet below sea level. That fact gives it an almost tropical climate. Nowadays it is not very populous but in the days of Jesus it had nine townships clustered round its shores, none of fewer than 15,000 people.
We are here confronted with a turning point in the career of Jesus. Last time we heard him preach he was in the synagogue; now he is at the lakeside. True, he will be back in the synagogue again; but the time is coming when the door of the synagogue will be shut to him and his church will be the lakeside and the open road, and his pulpit a boat. He would go anywhere where men would listen to him. When the synagogue was shut Jesus took to the open road. There is in this story what we might call a list of the conditions of a miracle.
(i) There is the eye that sees. There is no need to think that Jesus created a shoal of fishes for the occasion. In the Sea of Galilee there were phenomenal shoals which covered the sea as if it was solid for as much as an acre. Most likely Jesus’ keen eye saw just such a shoal and his keen sight made it look like a miracle. We need the eye that really sees. Many people saw steam raise the lid of a kettle; only James Watt went on to think of a steam engine. Many people saw an apple fall; only Isaac Newton went on to think out the law of gravity. The earth is full of miracles for the eye that sees.
(ii) There is the spirit that will make an effort. If Jesus said it, tired as he was Peter was prepared to try again. For most people the disaster of life is that they give up just one effort too soon.
(iii) There is the spirit which will attempt what seems hopeless. The night was past and that was the time for fishing. All the circumstances were unfavourable, but Peter said, “Let circumstances be what they may, if you say so, we will try again.” Too often we wait because the time is not opportune. If we wait for a perfect set of circumstances, we will never begin at all. If we want a miracle, we must take Jesus at his word when he bids us attempt the impossible.
Jesus calls these four men—two pairs of brothers, all aligned with their fishing business—Peter, Andrew, James and John. They worked on what is generally called the Sea of Galilee (also called Gennesaret, Chinneroth, or the Sea of Tiberias). But it is actually a lake, not a sea. It is shaped like a pear, twelve miles from north to south and seven miles across at its widest. Oddly, it sits in a basin six hundred and eighty-two feet below sea level, surrounded by a perimeter of one-thousand-foot hills, and it is teeming with fish.
Fishing was one of the three great industries of Palestine along with agriculture and shepherding. It was a lucrative business on this lake. A typically rabbinic exaggeration states that there were three hundred different kinds of fish in the Sea of Galilee. Edersheim describes several such rabbinic teachings about fish, including how to prepare them (I:473). Certainly, fishing was big business in Palestine. Even one of the gates of Jerusalem was called the “Fish Gate” (Neh 3:3).
As Jesus walks along the shore, the fishermen are cleaning their nets after working unproductively all night (Lk 5:5). This was the bane of their work—meticulously cleaning out the pebbles, grasses and sand which had tangled themselves in their nets and repairing the torn strands after heavy use all night.
Simon and Andrew are the first Jesus encounters. They are casting their nets into the lake. This is the only time this kind of net [amphible4stron], is mentioned in the Bible. This was a relatively small net which was cast into the water and sunk whatever was below it. It would then be drawn up and whatever was in its “bell” would be taken in. The second kind of net mentioned in the Bible was the sage4ne4—a drag net that was pulled behind the boat (only used in Mt 13:47). The most common net was the diktya, also mentioned twice in our passage. It was the normal casting net. These larger nets are being cleaned while one of these guys is fooling around in the shallows with the amphible4stron, trying to redeem their night of catching nothing.
The crowds press in on Jesus. He is already so popular that he cannot move about freely. Mobbed like a movie star, Jesus employs Peter’s empty fishing boat as a pulpit and uses the shore as an amphitheater.
The second step to calling men is seizing resources. Jesus had to find some way to handle the throng of people both then and later. The crowds were so large and their needs so many that He just could not handle their disorder. He could not meet the needs of everyone. Standing there and being confronted with the present problem, He scanned the horizon for some way to handle the matter.
As He looked around, He saw an opportunity and laid His plans. He saw a boat and a fisherman in the boat, and He needed both. The boat could be used as a pulpit, and the man could become a disciple. He asked the man to let Him use the boat as a pulpit and to steer the boat out from land a short distance. The point is this: Jesus seized and used the resources available. He had the vision of people needing the Word of God, but He needed a pulpit and others to help, so He scanned the horizon and found both.
The third step to calling men is the removal of reluctant obedience. As soon as Jesus finished His preaching, He decided to win Peter’s loyalty and discipleship. But first, He had to humble Peter. He had to show Peter that He, the Messiah, could look after and take care of him. He told Peter to put out to sea and fish. Peter objected because he had fished all night and had caught nothing.
However, he stopped right in the middle of his objection and obeyed Jesus. Note what had happened.
- Peter was reluctant to obey Jesus. He objected to what Jesus asked. He was thoroughly exhausted, for he had “toiled all night.” He was disappointed, for he had caught nothing, and he had worked enough hours already. Despite needing to be home in bed, he had stayed and helped the Lord in His preaching by loaning his boat to Him.
- Peter caught himself in the middle of his objection and obeyed. What caused the switch, the change from reluctance to willing obedience? Probably two things.
- Peter was pretty well convinced that Jesus was who He claimed to be, the Messiah.
- Peter was drawn somewhat to follow Jesus. Therefore, when he began to object to Jesus’ will, there was a prick of conscience, and he obeyed his conscience. He followed his heart…
- not his mind, thinking there were no fish.
- not his experience, having already tried and failed to catch fish.
- not his body, being too tired and exhausted, just incapable of going on.
Reluctance should always give in to obedience. We need the spirit that will try for God, no matter what the obstacles or how hopeless a situation may seem.
When a man is drawn to Christ, he desperately needs to obey his heart and to obey it immediately.
Lk 5:4-7 — 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let downNIV-6-5 the nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7So 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.
Jesus asks Peter to push off a short distance from the shore in order to teach. But when he is finished he directs Peter to “cast off” into the deep and let down his net. This is a passionate scene. Peter is tired and frustrated. They have worked all night dropping and hoisting their nets and caught nothing. We must remember, this was not a fishing vacation with a little rod and reel. These are heavy boats, large nets, and their major means of support. Furthermore, Peter has just finished cleaning the nets. Now Jesus is asking him to dirty them up again. This landlubber does not even know that it is the wrong time to fish. In addition, the best fishing is usually near the shore, not in the deep of the lake.
Peter must have been surprised when Jesus took command of the ship and its crew. After all, Jesus was a carpenter by trade (Mark 6:3), and what do carpenters know about fishing? It was a well-known fact that, in the Sea of Galilee, you caught fish at night in the shallow water, not in the daytime in the deep water. What Jesus asked Peter to do was contrary to all of his training and experience, but Peter obeyed. The key was his faith in the Word of God: “Nevertheless, at Thy word” (Luke 5:5).
The word translated “Master” (Luke 5:5) is used only by Luke and it has a variety of meanings, all of which speak of authority: chief commander, magistrate, governor of a city, and president of a college. This unusual word “master” [epistata] is used only by Luke and always in reference to Jesus. This is a momentous phrase. Peter is a professional fisherman. He knows the sea and he knows the odds of going out there and catching a fish. Nevertheless, he has seen Jesus in action before.
More than a year ago, as he followed John the Baptist, he saw Jesus baptized. He watched Jesus cleanse the temple, he was there in Samaria after Jesus talked to the woman at the well. He witnessed the healings in Judea and the miraculous transformation of water into wine in Cana. After nearly nine months of following Jesus, Peter went back to his family fishing business at the lake, while Jesus preached in his own hometown. Now they are reunited. Jesus makes this simple, although absurd, request. But because of Peter’s respect and trust in Jesus, he obeys.
Peter was willing to submit to the authority of Jesus, even though he did not understand all that the Lord was doing. And remember, a great crowd was watching from the shore.
How people respond to success is one indication of their true character. Instead of claiming the valuable catch for themselves, Peter and Andrew called their partners to share it. We are not reservoirs, but channels of blessing, to share with others what God has graciously given to us.
As Peter pulls up the nets, his muscles flex, his eyes bug out, and an involuntary smile breaks out all over his face. It is such a large number of fish, in fact, that their nets begin to tear and their boat begins to sink. The smile turns to a grimace. He knows that he needs some help. Luke uses a word that means “to beckon with a nod.” That makes sense. His hands are full of net, he could hardly wave to his partners, and he certainly can’t let go. Besides that, he is too far out to shout effectively and too busy to have a friendly chat with his partners.
The second boat of their family business comes out to help, manned by James and John. They pass on the other side of the net and begin to pull up so that the net is between the two boats. As they pull up, fish begin to spill over into the boat. So many, in fact, that both boats sink deeper and deeper into the water in threat of going under. This was about all the blessing they could handle! They were shut out the night before with nearly nine months of bills to catch up on since following Jesus. But today, in one beautiful moment, the Lord takes care of their electricity bill and even provides enough extra for a new dress for Peter’s wife.
The fourth step to calling men is demonstrating godly power. Peter’s obedience produced results; his obedience caught fish, and the catch was no ordinary catch. It was much more, so much more that there could be no question about Jesus. Jesus was behind the miracle; Jesus was demonstrating the power of God. (Remember this was the very purpose of Jesus, to win Peter’s loyalty and willingness to become a disciple on a full-time basis.) What happened is a little humorous when we remember what Jesus was doing with Peter, and Peter’s reluctance and objection, weariness and exhaustion.
There was a sense in which the Lord was really laying it on Peter, really letting him have it. Peter thought he was tired, but he didn’t know what exhaustion was yet. The Lord must have stood to the side smiling to Himself. How our Lord loved this man Peter, even now! He was after Peter’s loyalty, and He was going to get it even if He had to make Peter drop in his tracks (which was exactly what was to happen, Luke 5:8). At any rate, there was some humor in what began to happen to this man who was so reluctant, moaning and groaning about his tiredness.
Just imagine Peter already bone weary, grumbling in his mind at this carpenter telling him, the skilled fisherman, how to fish. Imagine Peter’s exhaustion and weariness, reluctance and objection, moaning and groaning; and then all of a sudden a catch is made, a catch so great that he was going to have to work wearily along for hour upon hour.
- Peter’s net broke.
- Peter had to call for another whole crew and boat to help.
- Both boats were filled as full as they could be.
- Then to top it off, both boats began to sink.
Jesus had His man! What else was Peter to do other than what followed? In all the humor of the situation, our Lord’s heart was bound to be full of rejoicing because this big hunk of a fisherman, man though he was, was like a little child before the Lord. He was broken in humility before the Lord, and the experience was but the first of many experiences of brokenness yet to come.
Lk 5:8-10a — 8When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
The fifth step to calling men is stirring a deep confession. Peter knew exactly what had happened. He had been reluctant and objected to the Lord’s request, and he had not been too happy that the great catch had caused so much trouble. But he was a skilled fisherman, and he knew that the great catch was no ordinary catch; it was a miracle of the Lord, a miracle which the Lord was using to teach him that he was to obey without reluctance and objection.
Note exactly what happened. When Peter saw the boat beginning to sink, he raced over to Jesus, fell upon his knees, and in a sense (continuing the humor) said, “Lord, I’ve had enough. Let me alone. I’ll do anything.”
His confession was threefold.
- He confessed his sin of disobedience and unbelief: of being reluctant to obey the Lord, of questioning the Lord’s will and knowledge and power.
- He confessed Jesus to be the Lord. Note that Peter had previously called Jesus “Master” (epistate, Luke 5:5), which is a word used to address anyone in authority. But Peter had learned better. He now called Jesus “Lord” (kurie). He is the Lord who is holy and convicting, who must be obeyed and followed.
- He confessed a fear, a reverence, an awe for the Lord (cp. Luke 5:9-10).
You would think that Peter would kind of like having Jesus around. After all, he is good for business. After they got their boats steadied and their hearts stopped pounding, Peter falls to his knees on a slimy pile of fish. He had just seen Jesus, really seen him, for who he is. He says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” A couple things ought to be observed. (1) Peter is thinking correctly. He, unlike the crowds, is not selfishly seeking a miracle. He is thinking about what it really meant to be in the presence of perfect purity. Jesus’ purity demands obedience and ushers in judgment. (2) Peter is responding out of fear of the presence of God himself. It was a fearful miracle to him.
The people on the banks are no doubt laughing and cheering and selling souvenir T-shirts, but they were not in the boats that almost sank. They were not so personally touched by this miracle as Peter and Co. Besides, this is one professional fisherman who understands the power of the lake and majesty of this miracle. As Jesus saw through the waters to the fish, so he saw through Peter into the depths of his heart.
Lk 5:10b-11 with Mt 4:19-20, Mk 1:17-18 — Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; [follow meMT,MK] from now on you will catch men.” 11So [at onceMT,MK] they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
Mt 4:21-22 with Mk 1:20 — 21Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. [Without delayMK] Jesus called them, 22and immediately they left the boat and their father [in the boat with the hired menMK] and followed him.
The sixth step to calling men is challenging men to discipleship, that is, to catch other men. Note two significant facts.
- The words “fear not” (me phobon) indicate that Peter was actually scared and frightened. Jesus was calming him, telling him to trust and stop fearing. He, the Lord, was in charge and looking after everything.
- The call to Peter was to “catch men.” The word “catch” (zogreo) means to catch alive or to catch for life. The idea is that Peter was no longer to catch (fish) for death, but he was to catch (men) for life.
Once the disciples are back on the shore the crowds would gather and start to count the fish as they were sorted. Peter’s employees (Mk 1:20), would no doubt start cleaning their nets (again). It is at this time that Jesus uses their present occupation to call them in a way that they can visualize—Fishers of Men. Like other analogies, not all points of comparison are applicable. Jesus is not asking them to trap or capture men, but simply to collect them into the kingdom of God. Peter and Andrew respond to Jesus’ call.
Luke departs here from the other synoptic writers. Matthew and Mark both say, “I will make you fishers of men.” The word Luke uses does not mean to fish but to take live captives. It is used only one other time (2 Tim 2:26). There it describes how we rescue from Satan those whom he has caught alive. This call is one of battle. We tread behind enemy lines to free the captives whom Satan has seized.
The three men walk a short distance farther and encounter their partners, James and John. They are sitting with their father, Zebedee, in their stout fishing boat, also cleaning their nets and repairing the torn spots from this massive catch. Jesus also calls them and they likewise respond, leaving their father in the boat with the hired servants (Mk 1:20).6-8 Of these latter two, we observe that James was the first Apostolic martyr whose death is recorded in Acts 12. And John was the last surviving Apostle as he writes Revelation about a.d. 95, and according to tradition, the only Apostle who died a natural death.
I don’t suppose that Zebedee was any too happy to be left to clean up by himself. Of course, their business was big enough to have hired servants to do most of the dirty work. It may seem unkind for these two sons to leave their father with the family business, but such is the nature of discipleship (cf. Mt 10:37).
This call may seem too sudden to merit such a response. But we must remember that these four have already traveled with Jesus for about a year now (cf. Jn 1:35-51), and have just witnessed a miraculous catch of fish. Jesus enters into their domain and proves his power. He now calls them into his domain to be empowered to fish for men. What else is there to do when such a one as Jesus calls you to his vocation?
Jesus’ call of these men is unique: (1) There is already antagonism against Jesus in Jerusalem. They know there will be danger in following this man. (2) He calls them to abandon their occupations, which are lucrative, popular, and steady. This is a tremendous step of faith for them. (3) Jesus calls them, not to a new doctrine but to a new direction. The contemporary rabbis considered it a sacred duty to gather students about them. Jesus, however, doesn’t ask them to come and learn, but to come and do, or rather to come and be. The flicker of the kingdom begins to flair.
Accept the limitations of human efforts and plans. Peter, Andrew, James and John did all they knew to do and still had come up empty. While God gave us brains to think with, sometimes we don’t have enough cleverness on our own to do the job.
Trust the word of Jesus even if it doesn’t make sense.
How do you think these fisherman felt, taking advice from a carpenter turned preacher? Didn’t they know fishing? It was their business. Still, there was something in Jesus that caused them to trust him. He did not, of course, ask them to do something immoral, just something that did not seem to make sense.
Be willing to take risks.
When Jesus asked them to go out, it was into the deep water. Every great enterprise takes some risk.
Persevere even through disappointment and fatigue.
The fishermen were tired, but willing to do their part. They were discouraged, but willing to try again.
Remember the importance of teamwork.
As success came, they had to share the burden. Since Jesus was the ultimate focus, it didn’t matter who got the credit.
Remember, God can give us more than we ask or imagine.
The catch of fish was even greater than they would have expected. Our God delights in surprising us.
Be humble in your success
Peter did not take credit for the success. In fact, he humbled himself before God and came face to face with His own unworthiness.
Remember after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter, in the throes of regret, decided to go back to fishing. Peter no doubt felt he had failed. Jesus came to him again and did a similar miracle. He evidently never forgot the lesson. He went from that place to become a great fisher of men. He became a spiritual success, and so can you. You know the secrets.
Think of how a bird must feel the first time it is pushed from the nest by its mother. The feeling must begin with fear, but as the bird stretches its wings and soars, it becomes exhilaration. Risk is a part of all achievement. A risk-free life is terribly dull.
Runners describe a feeling called the “runners high.” It only comes after the runner has pushed past his fatigue and kept on going when every cell of his body is yelling for him to stop. The feeling of exhaustion yields to the feeling of euphoria. It happens only if we are willing to keep on going when we feel like quitting.