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First Century Eyes

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Most Christians have heard of the inductive approach to studying the Bible (though some may know it by the more dramatic name “grammatical historical hermeneutics”). This technique, drawn from the Scriptures, allows the Bible to speak to us within its proper context instead of having us read our preconceptions into the Word of God. I cam to realize the importance of this approach a couple of years ago after reading a misrepresentation of the words of Jesus found in Matthew 4.

“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).

I can’t imagine there is a Christian who has not read those words before and has heard at least one sermon based around them. For such a simple analogy Jesus’ words about making His disciples fishers of men seems to be misunderstood by so many. 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.

I found that this passage presents a valuable example of the value of the inductive method of Bible study. 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 thoroughly 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, a straw hat pulled low over his eyes, 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 of fishing involved tossing a net overboard and slowly dragging it along, either rowing the boat with muscle power or hoping the wind was blowing with sufficient force, hoping all the while to trap fish within it. The net would periodically be hauled back onto the boat, emptied and dropped overboard once again. The fisherman would often have to spend time repairing and cleaning his nets. He did not use bait, but rather relied on time and repetitive effort to bring in his catch. This was a time-consuming and often frustrating process. In the parallel passage from the gospel of Luke 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. They had repeatedly thrown the net overboard and hauled it back in, but with nothing to reward their efforts.

We understand from these passages that by “fishers of men,” Jesus indicated that the men He was calling would serve an important function in the kingdom. These men would take His Gospel message and spread it throughout the known world. These men were to be the first evangelists, who would fish for men.

When we understand that Jesus was referring to the difficult, laborious process of first century fishing, we see that there are several applications we can draw from this passage:

  • Jesus was referring to hard work! Evangelism is difficult work and demands that we apply ourselves to it. It is not as simple as tossing the Gospel to the people and waiting for them to grab onto it so that we can reel them in. It is God’s plan that the net catch the fish rather than the fish catching the net.
  • 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. We will only really know the results of our efforts when we stand before the Lord. Until then we are to apply ourselves wholeheartedly.
  • 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 to the boat. There were so many fish that the nets began to break apart. 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 chose 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. By approaching the passage inductively we can ensure that we are not casting our presupposed notions and twenty-first century understandings onto the passage. When we interpret it through first century eyes rather than through our perspective we can clearly see the meaning that Jesus intended.

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