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Fishers of Men

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. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Matthew 4:18-22

For such a simple analogy Jesus’ words about making His disciples fishers of men seems to be misunderstood by so many people. I don’t know how many times I have heard illustrations based on this passage that go something like this:

“We need to be fishers of men. To be effective fishermen we need to have a good fishing rod, we need to use the right kind of bait and we need to reel those unbelievers in!” Admittedly that is simplified, but is indicative of the sort of comment we often hear in connection with this story which is told in both Matthew and Luke.

This passage presents a great example of the value of the inductive method of Bible study (or grammatical-historical hermeneutics). If we impose our modern-day presuppositions about fishing onto this passage we walk away with an interpretation that is foreign to the meaning Jesus intended. Now I am not going to deconstruct this passage today - I am just going to provide some of the ideas Jesus was hoping to convey.

The men Jesus called to be His disciples in this passage were fishermen. Their method of catching fish did not involve rod and reel, though that method certainly did exist in that time and is even mentioned in the Bible (Matthew 17:27). When we think of fishing we often picture a young man sitting on the bank of a creek with a piece of grass in his mouth, snoozing as his line bobs in a river, but this is not the picture of fishing we see in the Bible. Rather, these first-century fishermen used a net to catch their fish. This method involved toss a net overboard and slowly dragging it along, hoping to trap fish in the net. The net would then be hauled back onto the boat, emptied and dropped overboard once again. They would often have to spend time repairing and cleaning their nets. They did not use bait, but rather relied on time and repetitive effort to bring them their catch. This was a time-consuming and often frustrating process. In Luke’s parallel passage we can see some of this frustration. Jesus tells the men to let their net down and Simon answers “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” The men had spent all night fishing and had nothing to show for their work.

When we understand that Jesus was referring to this difficult, laborious process, we see that there are several meanings we can draw:

  • Jesus was referring to hard work! Evangelism is difficult work and demands that we apply ourselves to it.
  • Jesus was referring to a lack of results. Evangelism is often characterized by lack of results, yet we cannot let the results dictate our enthusiasm and motivation.
  • Jesus was referring to obedience. Reading further in the passage in Luke we see that Peter obediently let down his nets at Jesus’ bidding and immediately hauled in a huge catch - a catch so great that he had to call for help to bring it all in. When we are obedient God will use our work for His purposes.
  • Jesus was referring to dependence. Simon’s bountiful catch had nothing to do with his skill or his technique. He had spent the entire night using all of his own ability and had nothing to show for it. But when he realized that his own ability could do nothing God was able to use him.
  • Jesus was referring to God’s plan. God’s plan is that many come to repentance, not just a few.

There is great depth of meaning in this passage. When we interpret it through first century eyes rather than through our perspective we can see the meaning that Jesus intended.