Fishing like an expert
There’s definitely a spectrum when it comes to passion for fishing. At one end of that spectrum is a bloke I know who obsessively goes fishing every morning, rain, hail or shine. (Even though he doesn’t like eating fish.) On the other end is the guy I ran into one weekend at a beautiful spot by the water in a nearby park:
“Catching anything?” I asked.
“Nah,” he replied.
“Not really the point, is it?” I observed.
“Exactly right,” he said. For him, fishing was just a thing he did while de-stressing from his week.
Me, I’m not even on that fishing spectrum. I don’t have the patience, nor does my pride permit me to spend a fruitless hour or two being outwitted by aquatic creatures that Wikipedia says “typically have quite small brains”.
I believe the secret to learning to love fishing is to go with a skilled and experienced fisherman—someone who knows the best spots, can see the telltale signs of where the fish are, and knows what bait to use and how to turn a tentative nibble into a triumphant catch. Someone who knows what they’re doing.
Someone like Simon Peter, a professional fisherman.
But just because he’s a pro doesn’t mean he always succeeds. In Luke 5 we’re told that he and the other fishermen had “toiled all night and took nothing” (v. 5).
Unsolicited, Jesus the carpenter gives Peter the fisherman the advice that he should try again. And Peter—you’d have to think through gritted teeth—agrees. So he again drops his heavy nets into the water, and catches so many fish the nets start breaking, he has to call for help and then both the boats start to sink because of the huge haul they are carrying.1
Peter is humbled, amazed, terrified and no doubt a bit mystified. About as mystified as I was when I read this story and wondered why Jesus had done this and why Luke had recorded it for us.
I don’t think it’s recorded as a show of Jesus’ power. Jesus has already said that showing off his power is not really what he’s about (Luke 4:40-44); indeed, he rejected that temptation (Luke 4:1-13). And it’s not really even an act of particular compassion—to cause someone’s sole means of livelihood to start sinking.
So what’s going on here?
Jesus is about to tell Peter that “from now on you will be catching men” instead of fish (Luke 5:10). In other words, Peter is going to leave his nets behind and follow Jesus in the task of announcing the arrival of the new King (Jesus himself). Jesus has been teaching the word of God (vv. 1, 3), “opening the Scriptures” in order to show them “the things concerning himself” (to use the descriptions in Luke 24:27,32). And that’s what Peter is going to do too: show people what the word of God says about Jesus so as to reveal him as the new King and ‘capture alive’ (Greek, zōgreō, v. 10) those people for Jesus’ new kingdom.
It would not surprise me if Jesus had Jeremiah 16 (especially verse 16) in mind when he coined the phrase “fishers of men” (cf Mark 1:17, Matt 4:19). In that chapter of Jeremiah, God says he will send out fishers and hunters to track everyone down and apply punishment for sin and restoration of his chosen people. That Old Testament background fits well with the context of these early chapters of Luke and the need John the Baptist spoke of for repentance as Jesus arrives to bring the glorious new era of his kingdom.
Now put yourself in Peter’s shoes. That shouldn’t be too hard to do, because as followers of Jesus we also do as Jesus did and go out to catch people—we are in Peter’s shoes! But many of us think to ourselves, “Oh, that’s not going to work. Nobody’s going to become a Christian through me. I'm not an evangelist.” And perhaps Peter had the same thought.
Is it possible that through the miracle of the huge haul of fish, done after a night of fruitless fishing, Jesus was communicating to Peter something like this?
“Don’t worry; when you’re fishing with me, you’ll catch all the fish in your nets that I want you to catch, no matter how unlikely that seems. And in the same way, when you’re fishing with me, you’ll catch all the people I want you to catch, no matter how unlikely that seems.”
In calling Peter to follow him and proclaim him, Jesus is reassuring Peter, through this visual fishing parable, that this is going to be big. Peter shouldn’t hesitate to leave his fishing profession behind, because when the sovereign Lord Jesus calls you to follow him and be a fisher of people, you know he will use you to take captive as many fish as he wants. When Peter preached his first evangelistic sermon in Acts 2, we’re told by Luke that about 3,000 people became Christians. To me, that sounds like an overwhelmingly huge haul for your first sermon!
Jesus wants, and will continue to get, a big haul—“a great multitude that no-one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9). As followers of the master fisherman, we fish for people—perhaps even leaving our boats and nets behind—and trust that Jesus can and will bring the people he wants caught into his good kingdom.
1. By the way, this wasn’t the only time Jesus told Simon Peter to put out his empty nets from his boat one more time, resulting in another huge haul of fish. It happens again in John 21, and I’ve suggested elsewhere that this is again Jesus calling on Simon Peter (and us) to commit to the work of the kingdom.↩