A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 06/12/94

Luke 5:1-11

Fishers of Men 5:1 Now it came about that while the multitude were pressing around him and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. 2 And he saw two boats lying at the edge of the lake, but the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. 3 And he got into one of the boats, which was Simon's, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And he sat down and began teaching the multitudes from the boat. 4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." 5 And Simon answered and said, "Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but at your bidding I will let down the nets." 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break. 7 And they signaled to their partners in the other boat, for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus' feet, saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, oh Lord!" 9 For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken. 10 And so also James and John, sons of Zebede, were partners with him. And Jesus said to Simon, "Do not fear; from now on you will be catching men." 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. INTRODUCTION

As we have studied Luke's Gospel we have been confronted in a profound way with the question, "What manner of man is this?" What manner of man is this who submits to a baptism of repentance without confessing any sin; on whom the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a Dove; who will not compromise despite pressure from Satan and Synagogue; who casts out demons and heals diseases with a word or a touch; whose teaching is with authority, not as the scribes? Today Luke continues his examination of that question, but begins to address another one as well: Whatever manner of man this may be, what does it mean to be a follower of such a One as this? For us, that is a very pertinent question indeed. To answer it, we need to understand:


What is the story of the connection between Jesus and Peter? It is obvious that this is not their first encounter. In fact, they had met even before the healing of Peter's mother in law that we looked at last week. Their first meeting is recorded in John 1:35-42. It apparently took place right after Jesus returned from the Temptation in the Wilderness, before leaving on his first preaching tour. He reconnected with his cousin John the Baptist, who at that meeting pronounced him "The Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world." One of John's disciples, Andrew, heard him say this, followed Jesus, and became his disciple. The first thing he did after that was to introduce Jesus to his brother, Simon. Probably not too long after that, Jesus met the Bar Jonah boys again, along with their friends and business partners the Zebedes, James and John, in Mat. 4:12-23. (Mat. 4:17 and 23 probably refer to the same preaching tour that we read about last week in Luke 4:43.) Once again they are called to be Jesus' disciples, and they accept. Then Jesus is off preaching again; on a stop in Capernaum, their home town and Jesus' base of operations at this stage, he heals Peter's mother in law and is pursued by the multitudes as we saw last week. Probably on a subsequent return trip, after verse 43 of chapter four, the incident happens that is told about today.

So what did their acceptance mean? It meant that they acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah and were supporting him in his "bid" for that office as they understood it. Simon and Andrew may have offered him their house as a home base. But they had not yet entered into what today we would call "full-time Christian service." It is obvious that when the Luke 5 passage begins, they are still living at home and working their secular jobs as fishermen; they have just been out all night and are cleaning their nets. After what happens today, that will no longer be the case. Something will impel them to leave everything and follow Jesus in a way that they have not done so far. What was it, and why did it have that effect? That is the subject of our study today.

O.K., Jesus is back in town, and the people are thronging about him on the shore much as they did the last time he was here when he had healed so many of them, and Simon's boat makes a good platform from which to teach them. What was he teaching them? What were Simon Peter and his friends listening to as they worked on their nets over to the side? The general content of Jesus' preaching at this point was that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, that to enter it you need a greater righteousness than that practiced by the Pharisees, and that therefore you should repent, accepting the rule of God that is coming through Christ himself. To Peter and his friends it probably sounded vaguely messianic, and they no doubt listened approvingly. What it really meant was about to hit them in a way they did not expect. When Jesus was done, going out into the deep water was a good way to bring the session to a close and get away from the crowd--the same persistent people we saw back in Luke 4:42. No doubt Peter was happy to oblige and figured that casting the nets again was a good excuse. Well, he was in for quite a surprise.


As far as any serious fishing was concerned, Peter knew that no such thing was going to happen. It was now mid morning, the worst time to fish. The best time was sunrise and right before, and Peter knew that there had been no fish out there at that time. There was no way you would catch any now. There weren't any fish in the area. All Peter's long years of professional experience told him it was hopeless. Yet he obeyed--maybe just to humor Jesus or provide an excuse for his ending the meeting. And then--what's this? The net is about to break and swamp the boat! Even with the help of the other boat they were barely able to get this stupendous haul of fish safely back to shore. I would love to have been able to see the expression on Jesus' face as he watched these men of little faith struggling with their sudden good fortune. I wonder if he shook his head over them; I wonder if he sighed; I wonder if he had to stifle a laugh. It may have been a combination of all three, mingled with the one thing that was never absent from that face: a profundity of love.

Commentators have bestowed much ink on trying to figure out what the nature was of this miracle. We know there should not have been any fish there to catch. Did Jesus create a school of fish ex nihilo, out of nothing? Did he summon them from wherever they were across the lake? Or did he just happen to know through his omniscient insight that they had showed up? In one sense it doesn't matter, but in another I think the context requires a particular answer. To have merely known connects with nothing that has been happening; to have created them would be superfluous. Luke has been giving us a series of examples that illustrate Jesus' authority, his Lordship. Demons obey him; Peter obeys him; the fish obey him. I think he summoned them. The message of the miracle is that the One who is sovereign over Creation is here before us. And Peter is about to show us that he got the point.


Peter had seen other miracles--the miracles of healing--already, and had no doubt been (he thought) duly impressed by them. But this one hit home in a new way. Fishing was his profession. He knew that there was no way those fish ought to be in that net, no way they could be in that net. But there they were. What manner of man is this who summons a school of fish without even saying a word, and they obey him? Only one Person in the universe has that kind of authority, and Peter's response shows that he knew who it was. How much of it he had worked out in his head yet is doubtful, but his reaction is the reaction of a pious Jew who has just seen God. "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, oh Lord!" It echoes Isaiah 6:1-8. "Woe is me, for I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I have seen the Lord of Hosts." Both passages are an encounter with the living God in which the man is being called into his service. In both the man is struck with an overwhelming sense of his unworthiness. In both God does not disagree with the accuracy of the man's cry of unworthiness, but accepts him anyway out of grace and sends him forth as his messenger. Oh, yes. The very same thing is happening on both occasions because it is the very same Person with whom the sinful man is dealing. And while Peter might not yet have understood it, he sensed it right down to the very marrow of his bones.

The appropriateness of this miracle to Peter's situation is truly remarkable. Not only was it elegantly designed to get his attention, much as the healings might especially impress a physician, or a raising from the dead an undertaker, or the feeding of the five thousand a farmer, but it was also simultaneously designed to answer the questions Peter must have been silently asking himself. He was probably sitting there wanting to go with Jesus and wondering how he could. What would happen to his business? How would he support his extended family? And who am I to think I am worthy to be one of the Messiah's closest associates anyway? In one brilliant stroke Jesus blows all of those questions out of the water. Yes, I know you aren't worthy. I want you anyway. And I can provide for you better than you can provide for yourself. It is no wonder that it is at this point that Peter, Andrew, James, and John leave everything to follow Jesus.

Now, for all I know Christ has called you to serve him right where you are, in whatever business or profession you are pursuing. After all, Jesus had 500 true disciples back then, but only twelve of them were expected to quit their jobs and follow him around full time. The ratio is probably not much different today. But if he were calling you to leave everything and go to Bible school or seminary to prepare for the ministry or the mission field, how can you read this account and not go? How can you believe this account and even hesitate? For it is the same God who called Isaiah, and whose Son called Peter, who calls to us to follow him today.


Peter and his friends were called to be fishers of men. This was not just a cute metaphor Jesus made up for being an evangelist. It was a phrase that had strong messianic overtones from Jeremiah 16:16. "'Behold, I am going to send for many fishermen,' declares the Lord, 'and they will fish for them [i.e., for the exiled and scattered people of God].'" Jesus was calling Peter and his friends to be the fulfillment of that prophecy. It was a foreshadowing of the Great Commission, when all Christ's followers are given the identity and the mission of being disciple-makers. And so when we come to Christ we too become fishers of men. We are all called to fish, and therefore to learn to fish better. To neglect Bible reading and prayer and public worship is to fail to mend our nets and keep them in good repair. To sin is to tear holes in them. Many fail to catch significant numbers of fish for those reasons, but others who have avoided those failings also become ineffective fishermen simply by their failure to obey the command of this passage: Let down the net!

Oh, we have many reasons why we do not. But to all those reasons the Lord's answer is simply to repeat the command, "Let down the net." "But we aren't very skilled fishermen." Well, if Peter had not been taking care of his nets he would have been in no position to answer the call. But was it Peter's skill that caught these fish? No. Let down the net! "But I've labored all night and caught nothing." Let down the net! "But the fish are too slippery, they won't listen." Let down the net! "But I am not worthy. Who am I to tell people what to believe?" Let down the net! There is no promise of success. The Lord did not say, "Let down the net and you will have a big catch." But there is hope in the command when we remember who gave it. It is our responsibility to let down the net; it is his part to fill it with fish, to call the fish in. But we must let down the net. When was the last time you shared the Gospel--not just talked vaguely about your "spirituality" but shared the Good News of salvation in Christ? Let down the net!


When Peter and company finally got the fish to the shore, their next move was in one sense amazing, and in another sense seems inevitable. They left everything and followed Jesus. Imagine the scene. You've got two boats loaded to the "gills" with the catch left sitting in the sun. Now, I know what the businessmen in the congregation are thinking. Here's a whole lot of merchandise with a very short shelf life, and they just leave it? That "stinks." Well, it sounds "fishy" to me too. But before I "spawn" any more fish puns, let me move on to the point. They left that "school" of fish to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Imagine the commitment these guys are making at this moment. They have just made the biggest catch of their career. They've got work to do! If you don't think those boats full of fish weren't worth some serious money, you haven't eaten at Red Lobster lately! And they walked away from it, just like that, and never gave it a second thought. (I doubt the fish actually spoiled. Lots of neighbors and hopefully many of the poor probably got a free dinner out of the deal). They just walked away from it! Why? To follow Jesus. Do you really think they made a mistake?

How does this relate to us? We are not all called to full-time "vocational" Christian service, but we are all called to full-time Christian living and total Christian commitment. If the Lord should, say, call you to the mission field, would you go? What's holding you back? Nothing more than a boatload of smelly old fish.


What if the Lord should call us to the mission field or some other full-time ministry? What should hold us back? Nothing should hold us back except the realization that he has called us to stay and send others. What manner of man is he? Such a man that the privilege of being his disciple is worth leaving anything--worth leaving everything--for. May we be prepared to do so when he calls us.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 10/11/2004 4:38 PM