Luke 5:1-11; Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20
“Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.”
All three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) contain an account of this call to discipleship, spoken by Jesus to Peter and his younger brother, Andrew. If the Bible were limited to just the Synoptics, we might think this was the very first time Jesus had met them, along with their fishing partners, John and James. However, John’s own gospel informs us that they were actually well acquainted with Jesus by this time, and had even witnessed some of his miracles.
These disciples were real men, not just characters in a story, and they had real families and real lives which intertwined with one another in a variety of ways. They were friends and business partners living within a community of other devout Jewish families, attending the same synagogue every Sabbath and celebrating the same yearly feasts.
When John the Baptist traveled through this region preaching his message of repentance, these men would have stood together among the crowds who flocked to see him. In fact, both John and Andrew had actually been disciples of John the Baptist before meeting Jesus, so the news of his recent imprisonment must have brought great sorrow and discouragement upon them, as well as their families. We can almost sense the despondency in the air when looking at this account in Luke’s gospel, for here is Jesus, speaking to his usual crowd of eager listeners, but Peter, John, James, and Andrew are not among the crowd. They are off on the sidelines, wearily washing their fishing nets after a long night of fruitless labor.
This air of despondency grows even more palpable within the text as we see Jesus coax the weary Peter back into his boat, asking him to row it out from shore so that he might continue his sermon from the water. And then afterwards when Jesus asks Peter to put the fishing nets out again, the tone of apathy and discouragement in Peter’s response is unmistakable: “Master, we have worked hard all night and caught nothing! But at your word I will lower the nets.” Yet as soon as he did this, everything changed:
When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets started to tear. So they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they were about to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For Peter and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s business partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” So when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:6-11 NET)
“Do not be afraid.” – Fear is really just a visceral manifestation of unbelief. We may not understand the exact cause of the fear which brought Peter to his knees in a fit of remorse at Jesus’ feet, but it’s easy to imagine what it might have been. We know that Peter was responsible for running his own business and that he had other mouths to feed. We know that the world he inhabited was currently in the midst of great upheaval, and that the righteous John the Baptist had just been inexplicably imprisoned by King Herod. But Jesus knew far more than this – he knew all that was in Peter’s heart, and his words, “Do not be afraid,” would banish all traces of fear, giving Peter the courage to leave everything behind and follow him.
“From now on you will be catching people.” – The sight of those heaps of fish gasping and flopping about on deck must have presented a striking contrast to the faces of the men and women who had gathered along the shoreline. But this imagery serves to illustrate the paradigm shift taking place in the lives of Peter and the others at that very moment, for suddenly they could see the world and their own futures from a new perspective, a heavenly perspective. They were no longer fishermen laboring for their own gain, but were about to become apprentices in the vocation of their heavenly master – they were going to be fishers of men!