Mark 1:16-20 “As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little further, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.”
One of the marks of every true king is that he has subjects who follow and serve him. If a man in Cardiff, our capital city, should proclaim himself tomorrow to be the true King of Wales then none of us would expect crowds to flock to his standard. A few cranks would show some interest, but the whole enterprise would be doomed to failure. People are not gullible about such things. On the other hand a true leader gathers around himself followers who are a wide range of men and women of different personalities and gifts who live for him; they tell others about him. So it was when the Lord Jesus Christ appeared on the scene, was baptized by John and began his ministry in Galilee. He was great David’s greater son. He began by proclaiming that men and women should change their ways and believe the good news that the King had come from God. Then one day he went to the shores of the sea of Galilee and called some men to become his personal followers. We are all familiar with his words, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
1. THESE MEN KNEW THE ONE WHO WAS CALLING THEM.
When you come across this scene you have to remember that it was not a perfect stranger who came up to a couple of workmen and commanded them to drop everything and follow him. Simon Peter and Andrew had been influenced by John the Baptist. They were in his inner core of disciples, and in fact John had pointed Jesus out to Andrew and another anonymous man and had said, “Look, the Lamb of God.” Andrew and his friend were so struck by John’s words that they began to walk a little way behind Jesus following him. This is what happened next: “Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, ‘What do you want?’ They said, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where do you live?’ ‘Come,’ he replied, ‘and you will see.’ So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent the day with him” (Jn. 1:39&39). The first thing that Andrew did after he had said goodbye to Jesus was to go to his brother Simon and say to him, “We have found the Messiah,” and he brought Simon to Christ. It was on that occasion that Jesus said to Simon, “‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter)” (Jn. 1:43). These events had taken place a year before Jesus came walking towards these brothers as they worked at their boats by the Sea of Galilee.
These brothers had been prepared for this encounter by the ministry of John the Baptist. For their sake he had preached repentance and baptized those who had changed. In other words, they were the human highway on which the Lord was going to walk. They had had a whole year to hear and observe Jesus, to question him and mull over his answers. They had heard his preaching to the crowds. So when Jesus came to them at the side of the Galilean lake and invited them to follow him it was not a leap into the dark as far as they were concerned. They had thought about him for twelve months, in fact there was scarcely anything else they had talked about – this extraordinary Jesus from Nazareth. So his invitation to them to follow him was preceded by observation, information, knowledge and a heavenly revelation that he had given to them. Their response was to the Light of the World.
It is obvious that the church must do the same. It is the distinguishing mark of the modernist that he talks about following Jesus, but he never defines for us who Jesus is and what he has done for men to follow him, or what the cost of following Christ might be. It is all studiously vague. Every hearer is assumed to be already following Jesus. That is BBC religion. Their services never present a discriminating Jesus. There needs to be robust declaration of who is the Lord Christ, and what he has accomplished, and who are the beneficiaries. If you give that probably you will never be asked to speak on the BBC again, but that stand has to be taken if its religious department is to be challenged to become authentically Christian.
We would all accept that no Christian can go to a street child in Darjeeling in north east India and say to him, “Trust in Jesus”, because he has no idea who is Jesus. One can scarcely say that to a boy smoking on the corner of a street in Aberystwyth because he has little idea if the identity of this ‘Jesus Christ’, except as a swear word. We first have to tell people about the person and work of the Lord Christ. These are times of ignorance and apathy without many winds from heaven blowing across the land. 250 years ago John Wesley was able to write in his Journal, “This morning I went and offered free salvation to four felons in Newgate gaol.” He lived at a time when multitudes of people would gather to hear him and Whitefield preach. There was some knowledge of the Bible even in the minds of felons, and some work of the Spirit abroad in the land convicting men of sin and revealing Christ to them. We don’t live in such favoured times. People have not heard of the saving work of Christ. “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” (Roms. 10:14). So before you appeal to people’s wills to make a decision to accept free salvation in Christ they must be given knowledge of who Jesus is, and why he is worthy of their trust. That was Jesus’ own approach. Friendship and example and teaching preceded the command to follow him. Let me ask whether there is anyone in this distinguished congregation whose reason for not trusting in Jesus Christ and repenting of their sins is that they know no more about him than a street child and can’t be expected to make an informed response? In other words is it your ignorance that is keeping you from Christ? You would reply, “No. Not one here today. We all know much about Jesus.” Then your condemnation is greater because you are defying divine truth and love.
2. JESUS CALLED THEM SOVEREIGNLY AND PERSONALLY.
Who, then, is going to attend this great King? All kings have their attendants and Christ can be no exception. You will say that angels will attend him, and you will point back to verse thirteen where we clearly see that that happened. Did those angels bring the Lord food and drink in the desert? Did they fan him with gentle breezes? Did they build a shelter there? Did they drive the lions and hyenas away? Did they guard him while he slept? Did they nurse him back to strength after forty days without food? Angels attended to his needs; that is their vocation and reason for existence. But this mighty King from heaven rejects the service of angels in evangelism, ministry and pastoral care. It is sinners that Jesus elevates to serve him. Then he was spoiled for choice. There were in fact thousands of men made in the image of God whom he could call upon, hundreds of fishermen alone were working all around the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Some of them must have heard John the Baptist’s fiery sermons, while others had also heard the Lord Jesus himself. They discussed those preachers; some lamented that King Herod had had John arrested, while others said that John had it coming to him preaching the way he did. Was Jesus the real Messiah? Some were inclined to think that he was, but others disagreed. So the lake shore buzzed with talk of Jesus and of John and the Messiah as nets were repaired and fish were loaded into baskets. Religion was in the public forum as never before. What did Jesus do? Did he organise ‘the march of the million men’ on Jerusalem and then on to Rome itself? No. It was at this prepared time that Mark tells us, “as Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew” (v.16), and later, “when he had gone a little further, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John” (v.19). He called these four alone.
Significantly he did not call idlers and layabouts, rogues and charlatans who lived by thievery and on their wits. None of his apostles were such men. He called men going about their lawful business. He honoured that. Diligence in a vocation is pleasing to Christ and no hindrance to a holy life. They were men of industry; both sets of brothers were busy either fishing or mending their nets when the Lord came across them. They were satisfied to be fishing for the rest of their days. They were contented hardworking men. He was not calling them to a new life of meditation, living in the cloisters lives of devotion. He was calling them to harder work for longer hours than ever before. They were men who would never forget their backgrounds, wryly self-deprecating in their estimation of their own resources, education and potential. Christ would take all that up and craft their characters by his word and spirit.
Let’s always remember that we minister out of character and not out of personality. The churches can easily forget that. Congregations can be deluded into thinking that perception is more important than reality, and that the church might attract people to Christ through personality and personalities rather than through steady Christian character. It is a fearful mistake to make with devastating consequences for a church, and it is made so easily because we are all overwhelmed by any personality that is larger than life, or more confident than ourselves. A.W.Tozer said, “I feel sorry for the church that decides to call a pastor because ‘his personality simply sparkles!’ I have a watched quite a few of those sparklers through the years. In reality, as every kid knows at Fourth of July time, sparklers can be an excitement in the neighbourhood – but only for about one minute. Then you are left holding a hot stick that quickly cools off in your hand.”
So the Lord Jesus Christ went to the shores of the Sea of Tiberias in his nature as the omniscient God the Son and so he could see every single fisherman working that day around the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Though he knew every one of them, he saw in love and grace these four only, and “without delay he called them” (v.20). That call, in all its particularity, came to them. That Saviour, passing by all the others, stood still when he saw those brothers Andrew and Simon, James and John, and he summoned them alone to follow him. He didn’t plead with all the others, imploring, cajoling and then, losing his patience with them, dismissing them for not coming to him. Jesus called just four men. Why he called them and not others we do not know. We only know that it happens. The divine Sovereignty is daily manifested: you went to a service with your friends, or your husband or wife. In that meeting the Saviour called you to himself and from that time on your life has been changed. When the service was over you thought your friends or your spouse must have heard that call also and would be thrilled with Jesus, but they weren’t. Their conversation was of all the old themes which they always talked about. But the love of Jesus Christ, in all its particularity, had fallen on you, and you had become a new creation trusting in him. Thus we learn from our own experience from the beginning of our lives in Christ that salvation is of the Lord. It is of his grace from beginning to end. I am saying that at its conception, and also at its continuance, and at its consummation it is all of grace. Christians sing in wonder about this call of God:
“Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room?
While thousands made a wretched choice
And rather starve than come.” (Isaac Watts 1674-1748).
John Reisinger asks why had he been made to hear the Lord’s voice, as he recounts a certain incident during his first pastorate fifty years ago: “I was standing on the steps of the Post Office opening my mail. Suddenly I heard a man calling my name and interjecting a curse or two in between shouts. It was an old Navy buddy I had not seen for over twelve years. He slapped me on the back, and with unprintable language, told me how glad he was to see me. He proceeded to pull me towards a local tavern for a drink. I will never forget the look on his face when I told him what Jesus Christ had done in my life and that I was now a pastor. The blank look turned into a big grin which was followed by a loud laugh, ‘Boy, that’s the best one I ever heard. You almost had me fooled. Now you blankety-blank, tell me the truth. No more wild stories. What have you been doing with yourself?’ I finally had to take my friend down the street and show him my name on the outside bulletin board of the church before he would believe me.
“As he walked away shaking his head, the Lord again reminded me, ‘Who maketh thee to differ?’ I knew my friend and I were both alike by nature. Scenes of past sins we had committed together raced through my mind, sins in which we had equally rejoiced to revel. But something had happened to change all that. He still loved that kind of life and those same sins, but I now hated both the sins and their very remembrance. The memory of my wilful ignorance and unbelief in being a willing slave to such things filled me with shame.
“As the man walked away shaking his head, I again felt tears on my cheeks. I was different from him, and yet I was no different at all. By nature and practice I had been just as sinful and just as guilty. But not any longer. I had been changed. What had made the difference? If you would have said to me at that moment, ‘Well, John, it is all because you were willing to accept Christ and he was not’, I would have said, ‘Nothing could be further from the truth.’ I knew then, and pray that God will never let me forget it, that nothing less than the sovereign grace of God in electing love was the sole cause of my difference. Let others boast about what they have accomplished by the power of their mighty will. I shall gladly lay all the glory of my salvation at the feet of free and sovereign grace. It was God who ‘made me to differ’. It was surely not my free will” (Geoffrey Thomas, “Ernest C. Reisinger,” Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 2002, pp. 66 & 67).
“What was there in us that could merit esteem
Or give the Creator delight?
‘Twas ‘Even so, Father,’ we must ever sing,
‘Because it seemed good in thy sight.'”
So the Lord Jesus smiled, and gently shook his head at the angels who were eagerly offering to serve their Lord. Rather he walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called these four young men (who must have been the age of university students).
When the Lord Jesus comes to this meeting place each Sunday morning of course he sees every single one of us. All the thoughts of every heart are naked and open to his eyes. But there are some in this congregation whom he sees in grace. He looks upon them in love in order to call them, summoning them out of darkness into his light. It happens! It is not the best behaved or most intelligent or beautiful or rich that he sees. It may be the most wicked and hypocritical persons in the church, but Jesus sees them! When he calls they cannot say no. They arise and follow him from that day on. What an honour to become a servant of the King of Kings. If this is so – and it is so, yes, it is so, then are you not longing that he will call you? Are you not coming here each week in the same frame as I went to a little chapel in a Welsh mining valley back in 1954 wondering, as I walked past the saw mill and the chip shop and the derelict cinema along the narrow road to Tabernacle Baptist Church, if this Sunday the Lord would see me and call me to follow him. “Look at me today Lord Jesus! See me in my sin and need today, merciful Saviour! Call me to follow you today most blessed Son of God!” Is this your prayer? If it is not then you cannot protest about his sovereignty in saving whom he will save. You are obviously not anxious to be saved. Obey your sovereign, and cry to him to save you, and don’t give up until you know he has. “While on others thou art calling do not pass me by.”
3. JESUS CALLED THEM TO BECOME FISHERS OF MEN.
“Come, follow me … and I will make you fishers of men” (v.17). Let us put the call in the whole context of the coming of the promised Messiah King, God’s great Prophet, and the Lamb of God who would take away the world’s sin. The Lord Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God was near. He was telling this backslidden Old Testament church that God was finally setting up his promised reign over people on earth. He was really going to do that in their day. God would exercise that rule so effectively that the people of Galilee were actually going to see people coming under God’s lordship, and serving him as their King.
What the Galileans were blind to see Mark reveals to us. We have been told nothing about the response to Jesus’ preaching, but now Mark opens this window and shows us the effectual nature of the Lord’s call. We are told that Jesus approached these four men and said to them, “Come, follow me …” and we are told, “At once they left their nets and followed him,” (v.18). The King was establishing his reign over the lives of sinners, and from that time onwards millions of men for twenty centuries would leave all just like these brothers and follow him. Before this time these four boys had been following their fathers, Zebedee and John. Those old men had said such things as, “Today we’ll go fishing . . . in the east of the lake . . . at the third hour of the day.” The sons had always obeyed their dads. But now the great change had taken place. They had a new Lord. They had been brought into the Kingdom by an effectual call of the King and immediately they began to obey him, and so the kingdom of God was near.
One of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century was Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was fascinated with the gospels and the life of Christ, but he refused to bow before God. He said, “I cannot kneel to pray because it’s as if my knees are stiff. I am afraid of disintegration (of my disintegration) if I become soft.” He believed that he had to devote his mind to his philosophical work and he had to keep God out of that. Certainly let us not have a ‘God in the gaps’ philosophy, so that whenever we come across a problem we cannot readily solve we say, “Ah, God is the answer to that.” God must never become ‘the last resort.’ But Wittgenstein resisted prayer itself even to the Jesus whose life he turned to again and again, thinking to himself, “I shall become ‘soft’ if I cry to God for help.” How sad. How different from Jesus’ own estimation of strength, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Isn’t ‘softness’ such a glorious grace? See Christ weeping before the city of Jerusalem, lying on the ground in Gethsemane, praying for his enemies from the cross – the wonderful divine softness. Wouldn’t I, wouldn’t we all, be greater people if we were increasingly ‘soft’? True toughness comes when we cast ourselves on the strong God.
This month has witnessed a special celebration of the English playwright Harold Pinter. Television and magazines have been full of interviews with him and assessments of his work. He is one of the most famous authors in Britain today, but he lacks any sympathy at all for New Testament Christianity. We discovered a reason for this in one observation of his biographer, Michael Billington, when he speaks of Pinter’s “lifelong distrust of authority . . . a deep, intuitive hatred even of structures, of social organisations that tell you that you must do this or that you mustn’t do that.” (The Times, 28 October, 2002). It is the old attitude of rebellious man, “Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice?” The answer to that cry is that the Lord is your Creator, and the one living and true God, who has the right to tell his creatures how they should live. There by the Sea of Galilee came God the Son, the King of Love, the one in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He can do what no other authority, no structure, nor any social organisation can do, and tell us how we should live. We must obey God rather than men.
“Come, follow me” said the Lord Jesus, and they chose to obey him. Of course, summoned by the Saviour they obeyed. Of course, strengthened by the Holy Spirit they obeyed. But they made the decision, and they determined to follow Jesus. It was a watershed moment for them. We are often reminded of one raindrop that lands inches away from another at a peak in the Rockies. One flows to the west and ultimately arrives in the Pacific while the other flows to the east and arrives in the Atlantic. Their destinies are far apart from one another because of that watershed. Think what would have happened if Peter had said No. He would have spent the next sixty years of his life, six days a week, in the fish business, and how would he have ended his life? A viscous old man? But he didn’t: he obeyed Christ and became fisher of men. Have you obeyed the Lord Jesus? He is calling you this very moment to follow him.
We are told, “At once they left their nets and followed him” (v.18). How important is that ‘at once’? It is all important. If you are selective about when, and in what activities you are going to obey Jesus Christ, then he is not your Lord and you are not his disciple. To do what he says when it is counter to our entire upbringing and expectations is the test of our discipleship. When we start to decide when we are going to obey him, when we narrow the limits of his authority over us, then he’s no longer our Master, and there’ll be no catch of men.
It was an extraordinary decision. Here are four boys whose lives had been mapped out for them since they were born. They had watched their Daddies sailing away to fish and when they had grown older they had taken their first voyage with their fathers as their anxious mothers waved them goodbye. All they wanted to do was become fishermen on blue Galilee. They knew no other vocation. They weren’t prepared for anything else. How could they survive doing something else? Yet when Jesus comes and calls them immediately they leave all of that and follow him. They give up their small ambitions. So the kingdom of God is here.
The first part of their call was to follow him. “They were called, in other words, to fellowship and to responsibility. They were called to follow. They were called to fellowship with Christ. They were called to commune with Christ, because before you can become a fisher of men, before you can become a man fisher, before you become a person who draws people to Christ, you must be with Christ. You must learn Christ. You must fellowship with Christ. And so He calls them to communion with Himself. One must be prepared by fellowship with Christ to be a man fisher. One must learn Christ. One must be diligent, and constantly attendant upon Christ. One must become an emulator of Christ in His faithfulness and tenderness and diligence. It has been well said that discipleship is more than getting to know what the teacher knows. Discipleship is getting to be what the teacher is, and before Christ equips and sends out His disciples to be man fishers, He equips them first with the image of Himself. By their fellowship with Him, by their union with Him, by their attendance to His word, by their reliance on His grace, He causes them to be like Him. Sanctification is the first training ground for evangelism. We are not ready to do the work of evangelism until we have begun to make progress in sanctification, because holiness of life is the first witness of the truth and power of the grace of the gospel.” (from Ligon Duncan’s sermon on this text, preached at First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi).
But the second part of the call and the famous focus of Jesus’ invitation was they become fishers of men. You will bear in mind that these four pairs of brothers did not go fishing for a hobby or a sport. They caught fish in order to survive. Their lives depended on it. Jesus’ call to them is couched in language they understood, to become hunters, to catch men for the Kingdom. In the book of Jeremiah God speaks and says, “‘But now I will send for many fishermen,’ declares the Lord, ‘and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks'” (Jer. 16:16). The net was one of the weapons of war in the ancient world. You have seen prints of gladiators fighting, in which one of them is armed with a net. Micah laments the decline of the godly in the land: “All men lie in wait to shed blood,” he says, “each hunts his brother with a net” (Mic. 7:2). While the prophet Habakkuk speaks of the Babylonian army entering the land: “he catches them in his net” he says (Hab. 1:15). These pagan soldiers worshipped their weapons; Habakkuk adds, “he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet” (Hab. 1:16). The living God has now come and he makes his people warriors whose weapon is a net, but when they catc h men it is not to kill them but to give them abundant life.
What a challenge for these brothers! No longer will these boys be hunting fish but men! Right at the beginning of the gospel of Mark, before any discourses of Christ are recorded, and before the Lord says anything about doctrine, or worship, or the devotional life Jesus tells his first disciples that their lives are going to centre upon this activity of catching men for Christ. He doesn’t say, “Follow me and I will become your teacher of the upward path.” His first words are about evangelism. It should cause us real heart-searching, as to how much in our own lives as Christians are we obsessed with this enterprise. If it has such priority with Christ does it have priority with ourselves? Are we more laid-back than Jesus? It is a dangerous posture. You remember that the very last words Jesus spoke to these four men were on the same theme. On the Mount of Ascension he said to them, “You shall be my witnesses.” Here is an obligation that rests not upon the apostles alone, or on a chosen talented few, but upon every single member of the family of God our Father. Every one of us whose life God’s grace has touched has been called upon to function in this world as a fisher of men.
One of the great Scottish theologians was a man named Thomas Boston. He left twelve volumes of his writings which have, in fact, just been reprinted again this year. Truth endures. Right in the midst of them is a slim work entitled, “The Art of Man Fishing.” It is one of the most popular of his works. Boston is asking this question as to why the Lord Jesus chose this activity of fishing as a picture of our vocation as Christians. Of course the Lord Jesus also tells us that we are also like farmers who go out and scatter the seed, and that we are like shepherds who protect and feed the flock, and like soldiers who endure hardness and fight a god fight. But why does the Lord begin with this picture of our calling being like that of a fisherman? This is Thomas Boston’s answer to that question:
1] The design and work of fishermen is to catch fish. This is the work to which Christians have been called, to bring souls to God.
2] Fishermen’s work is hard work, exposed to the cold and wet, so is the work of evangelism.
3] Bad weather won’t keep the fisherman from fishing, nor will it prevent the Christian from bearing witness to Jesus Christ to win men for God.
4] Fishermen observe in what places they should cast their nets, and where they may expect fish. So preachers observe the two places their nets should be cast, in the public assemblies of God’s people and in private conversations.
5] Fishermen may toil long and catch nothing but they don’t give up fishing. So too preachers may preach for years and catch few souls but that does not mean they give up. “Hold on, O my soul, and give not way to these discouragements. You know not but Christ may come and teach you to let down your net on the right side of the ship, and may yet be a fisher of men.”
6] Fishermen catch fish with a net, and so preachers have a net with which to catch souls. That net is the everlasting gospel.
Why is it compared to a net? Thomas Boston gives ten delightfully naive and guileless reasons. Evangelism is compared by Jesus to fishing with a net:
i) Because it is spread out ready to catch all who’ll come to it.
ii) Because as fish are taken unexpectedly by the net so are sinners taken by the gospel. Zacchaeus was little thinking on salvation when he went up the tree.
iii) As fish sometimes come near and touch the net, and yet draw back, so many souls are affected by hearing the gospel yet remain in sin. So Herod heard John the Baptist gladly, yet he wasn’t caught.
iv) Some fish get caught in the net temporarily, they struggle and then they get out again.
v) All who are taken in the net struggle to get free. So we all put up some resistance before we were thoroughly caught.
vi) Yet those who are fast in the net can never escape: “All that the Father hath given me shall come to me.” In fact God does not force the soul to receive Christ, but he conquers the will and so it becomes obedient.
vii) In a net are many meshes in which the fish are caught – there are many invitations and sweet promises to sinners to draw them to Christ.
viii) Nets are weighted down with lead to hold them right under the water. So there are legal terrors and law-threatenings to drive the fish into the net.
ix) The meshes must not be over-wide or the fish will swim through. So our doctrine must not be too general, without personal application or we will be no fishers of men.
x) Nor must the meshes be too neat or fine for then they will keep out the fish. Be careful you do not preach curious discourses which you hearers cannot understand.
There is a wonderful homiletic ‘primitivism’ about that whole approach (I suppose it is in danger of pushing a metaphor to an extreme) which simple earnestness we have lost, almost deliberately. You can see the country congregation in the tiny village of Ettrick 250 years ago gripped as Boston took them through that description of an activity they knew so well, step by step, and by the word entering into their whole vocation to be better fishers of men. Thus the calling of every single Christian is to love their unsaved neighbours as their saved selves. Give a reason for your hope to everyone who asks you. You shall be witnesses unto Jesus. Preach the gospel to every creature in ever nation. This is a divinely imposed obligation.
4. JESUS WILL MAKE US FISHERS OF MEN.
I suppose that all of us who are conscious of that obligation are also aware of our own failure, our lack of experience, and equipment, and gifts. We are troubled by our own ineffectiveness as men-fishers, but a great promise lies at the heart of Jesus’ call, “I will make you fishers of men.” It is one of the great divine ‘I wills’ of the Bible. I remember one occasion talking to a woman who had a very real influence over my becoming a pastor. She was telling me of the passage of Scripture that she had read that morning in her personal devotions. It was this very verse and what had spoken to her were the words of the Lord Jesus, “I will make you . . .” How we remember such private conversations about the preciousness of the Bible when sermons are long forgotten.
How does Jesus make us fishers of men? We can answer that by asking another question. How were Simon and Andrew, James and John made fishers of fish? The answer, of course, is through watching their fathers over a long time, being with them and helping them on the boats. Their fathers showed them all that was involved in the work of a fisherman. Now here the Son of God has appeared, the long promised one, entitled the Everlasting Father, who one day will stand before God and present Simon and Andrew, James and John to him saying, “Behold I and the children which God hath given me.” (Hebs. 2:13). He will teach his children how to catch men. They will watch him as he speaks to the rich young ruler. They will listen to his conversation with the woman at the well. They will see him dealing with Nicodemus when Jesus tells him he must be born again. They will hear him preaching to five thousand men, or speaking to one man Simon the Pharisee. They will listen to his preaching in the Temple and also speaking to Zacchaeus. All the time they learn from his example and approach how to catch men. By the end of his ministry, in three years time, there are five hundred whom he has caught, more than three people a week Jesus has brought to God. They learn from his example, and they also learn from his teaching, what sort of people they have to be to catch men for him, that is, God’s fisherfolk must be men who are poor in spirit, men who mourn over their sins and are meek, men who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are persecuted for righteousness sake. They, and they alone, become the greatest fishermen.
So we learn from watching how Christ catches men, and we learn from becoming the kind of fishermen he desires. But more than that, he does what we can never do, he actually comes right inside us and changes us to become God’s fishermen. You can imagine old Zebedee sighing to Mrs Zebedee about the poor progress perhaps James would have been making in learning to fish. “His heart doesn’t seem to be in the work,” he might say. “He doesn’t seem interested at all, and not very skilful. He is so impatient and lazy and clumsy, and in a storm he is terrified. I can’t see him becoming a fisherman.” Mrs Zebedee would try to soothe him and remind him of how long he took to learn the business from his father, “But not like James,” Zebedee would say. He would long that his own skill and his wisdom could get inside James and so he would become a true natural fisherman.
What Zebedee could not do the Lord Jesus is able to do. “I will make you fishers of men by actually indwelling you, setting up my life in your life, changing and maturing you, giving you my wisdom and patience and insights.” You will remember how well Peter learned this lesson, how on the day of Pentecost Peter threw out the net of the gospel and drew in three thousand. Peter could say, “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I Peter the fisherman, Christ the Fisher of Men lives in me, and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” You remember the great catches of men reported by Luke in the book of Acts, five thousand added, and then Philip in Samaria and another bulging net. Jesus had told them that they would become more successful fishermen than he had been. He had caught five hundred after three years’ fishing, but Peter in his first sermon caught thousands.
How the church since that time has caught multitudes for Christ. He made Martin Luther a fisherman in Wittenberg, and John Calvin a fisherman in Geneva. He sent James Paton to the New Hebrides, and when he arrived there not one fish had yet been caught, but by the year of his death there was scarcely a single fish outside of the gospel net. 250 years ago God sent three fishermen to the island of Anglesey in north Wales, Christmas Evans the Baptist, John Elias the Calvinistic Methodist, and William Griffith the Congregationalist. Those men fished on that island during a 90 year period and the island was transformed; 84 churches were planted, and eventually over fifty men were fishing full time with them.
Christ is able to make you fishers of men. Remember the great signs he gave these men to assure them that it were so? The first was when he called Peter. The narrative is in the fifth chapter of Luke’s gospel. Peter had been fishing all night and caught nothing. Then the Lord Jesus comes by and asks Peter if he could use his boat as a pulpit from which to address the people. Peter pushes out a little way, moors the boat and Jesus sits down at the helm and speaks to the crowds as they line up on the shore gripped by what he says. When Jesus comes to the end of the sermon he turns to Peter and instead of asking him to row them ashore he tells him to launch out into the deep and let down his nets. Peter is a little resistant to the idea: “we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets” (Lk. 5:5). Peter is in the kingdom of God and he is obeying the voice of his King. When Peter throws out the nets the fish flood into them so much so that they are too heavy for Peter and Andrew to pull them into the boat. They need their partners on the shore, James and John, to come and pull the full nets in and both boats are so filled with the fish that the weight of them threatens to send them both to the bottom of the sea. No one had ever seen a haul of fish on the Seal of Galilee like that. Peter is overwhelmed by the power and authority of the Lord Jesus over the creatures of the depths of the sea. In his hand are the deep places of the earth. He falls at Jesus’ knees and urges him to leave him because he is a sinner. It is then, when Peter is convicted of his sin and the great glory of this man who is in the boat with them, that Jesus gives assurance concerning their calling to be fishers of men: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men” (Lk. 5:10). The call is confirmed against this background, this experiential knowledge of the power and holiness of this Lord and of the apostles’ sin. The man much used by God as a fisher of men is the man who most knows his own guilt and the greatness of the love of Jesus Christ to pardon.
This very miracle is repeated again by the resurrected Christ when Peter and the apostles go fishing, and the risen Christ shouts across the water to them, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” (Jn. 21:6) They draw in a great harvest of fish. He would be with them in his body just a few more days. They would no longer have him with them in Galilee, but from the right hand of God Jesus’ power would be undiminished. He who made Peter and the others fishers of men will continue to do the same for the whole church.
This Christ made my friend David Patterson a fisher of men. Consider the part he played in the conversion of the late Douglas MacMillan, one of the great evangelistic ministers of the British Isles at the end of the twentieth century. There was a time when Douglas was not a Christian, in fact tending to communism and atheism. But God brought David Patterson, a Free Church minister, into his life. He had been invited to take a mission in the village church where Douglas lived and during that week David confronted him, sitting down with him in a house, and talking with him about Christ. He explained to Douglas the gospel, a gospel that Douglas knew having heard it from his father and mother’s lips for many years, but on this occasion there was something deeply challenging about it, in fact it was a divine call from heaven as David Patterson spoke to him. Douglas was warmed when he was told of free salvation through Jesus Christ, and he said, “Are you telling me it’s as simple as that, that I embrace Christ, and he receives me because of the work that he has done on the cross?” David said to him, “Yes, Douglas, that’s true.” He thought for a while and then said to David, “But wait a minute. I’m going to have to change the way I live, aren’t I? I won’t be able to go on living the way I’ve been living. Isn’t that right?” David was straight with him, “Yes, that’s true Douglas.” There was a long pause finally broken by David holding out his hands, saying, “Douglas, in this hand I’ll give you everything you’ll have to give up if you become a Christian, and in this hand I’ll give you Christ. Which is it going to be?” Douglas sat there for ten minutes considering this momentous decision (David Patterson later on said that it seemed like hours). Finally Douglas said, “I’ll take Christ. I’ll take Christ.” David was a courageous and patient fisher of men.
Let’s all pray that God will make us fishers of men – every single Christian here, the youngest boy or girl, all of us men and women. “Make me a fisher of men, Lord.” This is God’s calling for every one of us. Let’s ask God to help us. Read a good book on the theology of evangelism, like J.I.Packer’s “Theology and the Sovereignty of God” (IVP), and a practical book on personal evangelism, like Will Metzger’s “Tell the Truth” (IVP). I find my own heart stirred by reading biographies of great Christian man-fishers like Whitefield, Spurgeon, and especially Wesley’s Veterans. But most of all it is love for the Lord Jesus Christ which stirs us up to speak a word for him. “More love for Thee! More love for Thee!” Let’s pray that prayer incessantly. Then there is a meeting to discuss further grass-roots evangelism in the next week or so. Come along and join with us in this fascinating enterprise of men-fishing.
Let me say one thing more. We are too easily discouraged in our man fishing. It reminds me of going swimming in Cardigan Bay with my girls. They would always be in the water long before me and they would shout at me and cajole me to join them. “Come on Dad. Come on! The water is warm. It really is . . once you get used to it.” Jesus is telling Peter, Andrew, James and John that he will make the waters of evangelism warm, and the more they get used to it the greater will be their delight. In other words, there will scarcely be one occasion when they sought to fish for men when they would not be mightily blessed by the experience.
Let us serve the Lord in expectancy always. What are your expectations for the future? Consider Korea today and the great bursting nets, and parts of North and South America, and Zambia. It seems to me that one attitude shared by all God’s servants who have been used by him to draw in full nets has been a sense of expectancy. Think of our fathers’ certainties: Nehemiah Rogers said, “Christ’s performances outstrip his promises.” David Brainerd said, “Nothing is too hard for God to perform; nothing too great for me to expect from him.” William Carey famously said, “Attempt great things for God. Expect great things from God.” All such men were steadfast, unmovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord. They knew full nets, and boats sinking under the blessing. We do not measure the grace of God by the statistics of our church growth in the past decade but by the power of his Kingdom.
3 November 2002 GEOFF THOMAS