Luke 5:1-11 “One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding round him and listening to the word of God, he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.’ So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.”
Our Lord Jesus did not preach only inside buildings; he was the greatest open air preacher that the world has ever witnessed or ever will hear. One day he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret (better known as the Sea of Galilee); he was preaching to the people who were increasingly crowding around him. Gennesaret is not far from Capernaum and is a particularly fertile area bordering on the lake. The Lord was preaching the word of God, Luke says, and it is the first time you find that phrase, “the word of God,” in his gospel. In other words, a crowd was not being drawn by a ranter. The people were gathering not to be entertained by a new orator but because they were convinced that Jesus’ message came from God in heaven. In other words, Jesus’ ministry was prophetic, and that is why crowds were drawn to him.
There was probably tension in the multitude with some at the back not hearing and those in the front being pushed into the lake by the press of those out of hearing. Our Lord noticed a couple of boats nearby belonging to the fishermen who were washing their nets, so he got into the boat that was owned by Simon and asked him to put out from the shore a little. Along the lakeshore even now you come across a sequence of little bays, as one commentator has described them, “a zigzagging shoreline with each inlet forming a natural amphitheatre. To this day if you get in a boat and push out a little from the shore, you can talk in quite a natural voice, and anyone on the slopes of the inlet can hear you – more clearly, in fact, than if you were right there on the shore with them. Jesus was simply exploiting the geography of the area and the ready availability of a boat” (Tom Wright, Luke For Everyone, SPCK, 2001, p.53).
So Jesus told Peter, “Put out a little from the shore,” and he sat down in the boat and taught the crowd until his preaching was over. That was always an uncertain time as the people just hung around and wanted more, but Jesus spoke to Peter and gave him a strange command, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch” (v.4). The boat slipped away into deeper water and the meeting seemed effectively to have concluded, but actually it was just beginning because our Lord was about to do one of his great miracles, an event which guided Peter’s life in a radical new direction. For the rest of Peter’s days he was going to be fishing for people. “From now on you will catch men,” Jesus said to Simon Peter (v. 10). I want us all to see how the miracle which our Lord did was purposefully, but winsomely, related to Peter’s new vocation. [I had help in this sermon from one of my former teachers ,the late Edmund P. Clowney, from a sermon preached at the Pensacola Institute of Theology, Florida.]
1. THE TIMING OF THIS MIRACLE.
Will you notice first of all that this miracle didn’t take place earlier in the day. Jesus had come to the seaside to preach the word of God and while he was teaching his disciples were not a part of the crowd. Had they heard this message of Jesus a number of occasions earlier? We know that he preached some messages on the mountain and again in the plain. He performed similar miracles in the city and in the country. The disciples had been up during the night fishing because they were still working men; they had not yet become full-time disciples of his following him around Galilee and on to Jerusalem. They were within earshot of his preaching but they were also busy washing their nets. Their night’s toil wasn’t over until their nets were washed and hung out to dry ready for another night’s work. They had been fishing for hours by the light of the moon, but they’d caught absolutely nothing. It had been hours of hard unremitting toil at the oars and pulling on wet ropes, and all they’d got to show for it when dawn broke were some empty nets. That was less than nothing because when they went out their nets were clean but when they returned they were full of weed, and torn on the rocks at the bottom of the lake, and all for nothing.
It is a picture of the futility of the lives of many people. Simon Peter was not a man who went fishing for a hobby. It was his livelihood; he had a wife to support; there was flour to buy and hungry mouths to feed, and this had been a wasted night. He’d been working for hours with nothing to show for it, but I want you to notice this, that Jesus didn’t come to him then and say at that time, “I will make you fishers of men; so go into all the world and preach the gospel.” That would be the inclination of some older Christians today who’ve been disappointed by the years it takes to catch just one man for Christ. Ten years of listening to preachers, estimates one evangelizing organization in London. The inclination of such men when they talk to young people who are showing some interest in becoming full time workers for Christ is to sigh, “Oh . . . it’s hard work you know, and very frustrating. Don’t expect to catch many people. Don’t expect to see much growth.” They want to establish a feeling of pessimism in thinking about gospel work. So that a time like Peter had known of torn nets and no catch would be an appropriate moment for such people to speak of Jesus’ words, “I will make you fishers of men,” because that would have steeled them for what to expect, plodding away in the ministry, with never-ending work and tensions and fallings out, blaming one another for doing it that way in that particular spot, with mutual recriminations.
If you have read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea then you know that that bleak little novel tells the story of an old man who sails out far into the Gulf of Mexico to catch the biggest marlin ever. He managed to hook it, and finally to draw it into the side of the boat. It is too big to pull on board and so he ties it to the side of the boat and turns the boat back on the long voyage to his home port. But the sharks scent the blood in the water and a shoal of them came thudding into the dead marlin tearing and ripping off piece after piece of the fish, so that when he gets home exhausted by his labours a day and a half later all he has to show for his work is the skeleton of the biggest marlin ever caught. Hemingway uses the man’s courage as a picture of the futility of human life. You work with increasing anticipation of retirement but six months after retiring you have a heart attack and die. You live for your children but when they grow up they emigrate to Australia or they’re not faithful in keeping contact with you. You build up a business but European laws make it increasingly difficult to keep it going. You have found life full of disappointment and uncertainty, and so when you come across this passage of Scripture you’d expect Jesus to call Peter to fish for men at the time his empty boat came out of the darkness and weary frustrated men stepped ashore having caught nothing after all those hours of work. I am saying to you, have you noticed that it was not at that time Jesus commissioned Peter.
2. THE ORDERING OF THIS MIRACLE.
“When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch’” (v.4). With what authority did our Lord speak! No words of explanation were given. No suggestion was made to Peter . . . “would you like to try again to catch some fish now that you’ve washed and repaired the nets?” Rather, it is a command, “Put out . . . and let down the nets.” Peter cannot help protesting, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything” (v.5). Peter was exhausted; he had had no sleep for hours. He hesitated. Peter gave Jesus an opportunity to change his mind. Peter was a fisherman; he knew the best time to catch fish was at night, otherwise he would be with his wife in bed. Jesus was a wonderful rabbi and preacher, there was no question of that, but Peter was the local man, the son of a fisherman, raised on the Sea of Galilee. He had virtually lived on a boat since he was a wee boy. Jesus was from land-locked Nazareth, the son of a carpenter, able to make a wheel. Peter was the one who knew all the techniques of catching fish. Let Jesus stick to his wonderful inspirational messages while Peter excelled in the technology of fishing. “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything” (v.5).
But Peter didn’t stop there; he continued, “But because you say so, I will let down the nets” (v.5). The King James Version translates it, “But at thy word . . .” How important do you think that is? “But because you say so . . .”? I tell you that that is all important. If you should take away obedience to Christ’s word, begin to decide where his word applies, shrink the confines of his authority, what realms he might have something to contribute and those where he is a limited first century Palestinian Jew and a child of his time, then you can be sure of this, that you are no disciple. It is not he who is the Master in this relationship, but you. You are the one who picks and chooses where Jesus is right and wrong. If you discard Jesus’ views on such matters as creation, Adam and Eve, hell, on his being the only way to God, on the resurrection of the dead and so on, then you are the one with ultimate authority not Jesus. He is no longer Lord, and there will be no catch. Such views quench the Holy Spirit and so there is no regenerating work going on. Listen to Peter; “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink” (vv. 5-7).
3. THE LORD OF THIS MIRACLE.
This miracle of the large number of fish, like all such signs, points to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Saviour shows himself to us in this sign. Our understanding of who Jesus is is expanded by this sign.
i] We see Christ’s omnipotence here. Whatever he veiled when he became a man the Son of God did not veil his almighty power. He showed he could command all the fish of the lake of Galilee to come swimming to this spot, right into the net of Peter. In Psalm 95 the psalmist worships the power of God saying, “In his hand are the depths of the earth . . . The sea is his, for he made it” (Ps. 95:4&5). In Psalm 148 the psalmist cries, “Praise the Lord from the earth you great sea creatures and all ocean depths” (Ps. 148:7). Who controls the dense lava core at the heart of the earth? Who controls the seas and the mighty storms that blow across them? Who is master of ocean, and earth and sky? Who is Lord of the fish that swim in the seas? He who is their Creator. They all shall sweetly obey his will. When Jesus shows his authority over creation he manifests himself as creation’s Lord.
We are told in the first book of Kings and in the fourth chapter that King Solomon was a very wise man, that he knew all about plants and animals, and that he was also an expert in fish. “He also taught about . . . fish. Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom . . .” (I Kings 4:33&34). See, a greater than Solomon is here. Jesus not only knows the ways of the deep, he controls the ways of the deep. He is the Lord of the oceans. He plants his footsteps in the seas; he determines how the creatures who inhabit its depths live and move. He simply has to will it and the fish hurry into Peter’s net. So here is a revelation of Christ’s omnipotence.
ii] We see Christ’s Messianic kingship here. In the book of Numbers chapter eleven is the record of Moses leading the children of Israel in the desert and he is having a hard time of it. He is in prayer and he is telling the Lord about the burden of leadership. “He asked the Lord, ‘Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, “Give us meat to eat!” I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me’” (Nums. 11:11-14). Moses was crying to God, “How can you expect me to provide for all these people? Listen to what they’re saying.” What were they shouting for? We are told in verses four, five and six of Numbers 11, “The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!’” How wonderful the fish of Egypt seemed. If you wanted fresh fish then you had the Nile’s abundance. If you fancied some sea fish there were the boats bringing them into the harbour from the Mediterranean. It was all they wanted and more, but in the desert they just had manna. Monday, manna. Tuesday, manna, Wednesday, manna, and so on every day of the week. “Moses, why don’t you provide us with fish?” Moses was distraught. He cannot see how he can give fish to all these people. So Moses continues to bring his complaints to the Lord; “Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot, and you say, ‘I will give them meat to eat for a whole month!’ Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?” (vv. 21&22). Moses thinks that the Lord hasn’t done his sums correctly. He has not made provision for all these people, and Moses himself doesn’t have the power to provide for them.
Now this is the time in Numbers 11, when Moses is about to appoint the 70, the elders who were in a sense Moses’ disciples, working with him and by him in his ministry. That is the setting in which Moses brings up this matter of fish. “Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?” The Lord’s answer is this, “Is the Lord’s arm too short? You will now see whether or not what I say will come true for you” (v.23). God says, “I’ll show you my power. Don’t look at the wilderness; look at me. Don’t listen to the unbelieving complaints of men. Hear my mighty promises.” This miracle of Jehovah Jesus in the New Testament beautifully answers that passage in the Old Testament. When the Lord Christ is about to call his disciples, as he chooses and commissions them to fish for men, Jesus calls the fish of the sea together and brings them into Peter’s net. Here the Lord of this miracle is revealed as the Omnipotent Lord of creation and as the Messianic Lord of his people, the promised one and the sovereign Saviour, the Lord who will provide.
4. THE HOLINESS OF THIS MIRACLE.
Do you see the scene? The crowd, who were still musing of all they had heard and were watching Jesus further out on the lake, saw Peter in the unusual action of casting a net into the sea in the middle of the day. Then they saw the net pulling down heavily on the rope and slipping through his fingers. Peter and his companion, perhaps his brother Andrew, attempted to pull up the net but they couldn’t and it began to tear. So they gestured urgently to the other boat which belonged to James and John his partners to be launched and come out and help them. Something extraordinary is taking place beyond their entire experience. Four men were needed to pull in the nets and to tip the glistening mountain of jumping fish into the one boat, but it quickly filled and then the other was needed which was also filled. The two boats then began to sink with the weight of this miraculous catch of fish.
What was Simon Peter’s response to this, Peter, the fisherman who had been fishing all night and caught nothing, and now this? How did he react? Was it, “The fishing business has never looked so good. The boats are full. I have never had a catch like this. This business is paying off; more catches like this and I will be able to afford another boat and more men to help me. I am way ahead of the competition. They have all gone to rest. I will be first at the market and make a mint out of this catch. I have struck it rich.” Does Peter see himself as a successful businessman? Has Peter finally found the right partner for catching fish in the Sea of Galilee?
That is not Peter’s reaction at all, but that is the reason why many people want Jesus in the boat isn’t it? They want Jesus to give them a little more happiness, some business success. Better health, a longer life, even more money, and with the Lord in the boat with them they think they’re going to make out better. Haven’t we heard Christian businessmen telling how the Lord has blessed them. So men think, “A little bit of Christianity can’t hurt; it might even help our business.”
Who are you dealing with? What is Simon Peter’s reaction? He falls at Jesus’ knees. The boat is full of fish and amidst these flip-flopping, wrigglinging, jumping fish Peter has fallen and he shouts aloud these strange words, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (v.8). Why? Why this response? This is not a miracle with moral implications. No one has been healed. People have not been delivered from demon-possession. The hungry have not been fed. There is just this huge catch of fish and this reaction of Simon Peter.
There is no perplexity, is there? Fishing was Peter’s business. Catching fish was what Peter knew best, and to get a catch like this, at this man’s word, could only mean one thing for Peter. He knew the one who had healed his mother-in-law in a moment, and cast out demons in the synagogue, and made the fish of the lake swim into his net in such abundance. Jehovah Jesus had done this. God was there with him in the boat. Peter could see it and so his reaction was, “Go away from me, Lord!” It is the response of so many who have a close encounter with Divinity. It is being overwhelmed with the fear of the Lord. Once Adam fell his first thought was to hide himself from God. When Abraham met with the Lord near the great trees of Mamre he bowed low to the ground (Gen. 18:2). Or think of Job saying, “Now my eyes have seen you, therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Remember Israel under Sinai crying, “Let not God speak with us lest we die” (Ex. 20:19). You think of the prophet Isaiah who had saw the Lord high and lifted up and his train filling the temple, and Isaiah’s response, “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty’ ” (Is. 6:6). That was the characteristic response. We are told of the prophet Ezekiel who also saw the Lord high on this throne glowing full of fire, a brilliant light surrounding him. It was a manifestation of the glory of the Lord. We are told of Ezekiel’s response, “When I saw it, I fell facedown” (Ez. 1:28). Or think of Saul of Tarsus meeting this same Jesus on the road to Damascus, but no longer veiling his glory by our low condition, rather a light from heaven flashed around him and Saul “fell to the ground” (Acts 9:4). Or again consider this John (who was in the other boat and overwhelmed with the draft of fishes) fifty years later was in prison on the isle of Patmos for the sake of the gospel, and this same Jesus met this same John, but now all Christ’s great glory was manifest. John did then what Peter did in the boat, “I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).
How was Peter being prepared to spend his life as a fisher of men? It was by a fresh view of this dynamic Lord who comes into close and intimate contact with sinners. As this new understanding of God impacts his life Peter could only fall on his face in abject fear and humble worship, and that is a position evangelical Christians find most difficult to adopt. We believe we are the only growing congregations in the nation today. Drunk with the wine of our own success, glorying in the multitude of our own gadgets, and our music programmes, and overwhelmed by the staff we can employ we are not characteristically people you would describes as falling down before God conscious of our own sin and weakness. Our God will come when we invite him, at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning to the meetings that we have carefully planned, for which our bands and music leaders have rehearsed for two evenings each week. I am saying that we have lost our vision of God’s sovereign, holy transcendence and majesty. When preachers haven’t only felt that they were called to be ministers but have known something in their hearts and souls of the greatness and glory of the invisible, incorruptible God, when they have been so moved by this awareness that they have prostrated themselves before the Lord and cried for mercy and grace, it is then that new hope has been born and those ministers have become mighty fishers of men. What generation of preachers needs such a grasp of who God is as much as ours?
5. THE CONSEQUENCES OF THIS MIRACLE.
“Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men’” (v.10). The call of Jesus comes to a man who knows his own sinfulness. It comes to one who fears God. The call comes to one who is saying, “Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man.” To him Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid!” The call of Jesus has grace as its foundation. Peter has begun to know his own heart and all natural strength and self-confidence has gone from him. Blessed Peter! Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted. That is the beginning of a life of credible godliness, a grace that is utterly indispensable for every preacher. In much modern evangelism the guilt of sin is not exposed. The surgeons of the word are not cutting deep enough. Today it is made easy for anyone in any condition to hop into a boat with Jesus. Do they know the one whom they are with? Have they been convinced of the frightening gulf between themselves and him? Do they know that he knows everything about them? He has seen the file, and he is their Judge. Do you know that he can put you in hell? You can cry, “Go away from me Lord,” but you live and move and have your being in him.
But this Jesus is the one who says to this trembling sinner, “Fear not! Fear not!” Shouldn’t Peter fear? Shouldn’t sinners fear? Shouldn’t I fear in the presence of the God who is of purer eyes than to behold evil? No I should not! For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved. Christ has come as the Lamb of God; he has come to fulfil God’s promise of grace.
“He did not come to judge the world, He did not come to blame.
He did not only come to seek, it was to save He came.
And when we call Him Saviour we call Him by his name.”
“Don’t be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” Here is a new vocation for Peter, a totally new lifestyle in which Peter will still hunt, but now hunt for men, not as a hobby but in a life of full-time service of the gospel of the kingdom of God. So as soon as they get these loaded boats to land Peter left everything and followed Christ. He left everything when the fishing business had never been better. He left it not because of any promise of popularity, fame, success and the conquest of Israel but because the Lord had spoken to him. As the children’s hymn says,
A Man once came from Galilee. Lord Jesus be our Teacher now,
No man so great as He. And may we learn from You
We left our work and went with Him, To love and serve the living God
His followers to be. And other people too.
Some people have asked what happened to the fish. It has been suggested that they were sold to support Peter’s family when Peter said good-bye to the boats and to his father to follow Jesus and fish for men. Maybe. Certainly we all know that in the divine economy nothing is wasted. After the 5,000 men were fed the very fragments left over were gathered up, but the point is this, that the Lord who commands all is able to provide all. The Lord who provided the fish for the fishermen is the Lord who will provide the needs of all his servants, whether it is the needs of learning, speaking, serving, and persevering to the end.
To what is Jesus calling Peter? Of course it is to evangelism; it is to catching men in the power of the Kingdom. In the book of Habakkuk the Babylonians are described as fierce warriors. Their soldiers used nets and spears to trap and kill their enemies (Hab. 1:16&17). They worshipped their nets, the nets of conquest and the nets of aggrandizement and victory, but Peter has been given power to hunt for men not in the energy of the flesh but by the Spirit. “We are not trying to please men, but God who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed – God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else” (I Thess. 2:4-6).
“From now on you will catch men” (v. 11). “From now on . . .” – this is an important phrase on the lips of the Saviour. He says, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power on high. From now on all authority in heaven and on earth will be given to Christ.” His servants will catch men by the power that he exercises and bestows. That is why this call is so thrilling a call as it follows this miracle. You remember that it’s so important a sign because it is repeated by the risen Jesus when Peter had gone on a night’s fishing. Then the resurrected Christ met them and told the disciples to cast their nets on the right side of the boat and they gathered a great catch again. Then it was Jesus told them to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.
These great signs point to the fruitfulness of the kingdom, a great catch of fish, bursting nets, and boats that are full, and that is what the power of the kingdom will accomplish. Who will be moved by this sign? Every true disciple who hears the word of the Lord and obeys him, who goes when Jesus says ‘Go!’ and does whatever the Saviour says. These are the men given the power to catch men for the kingdom.
What are your expectations for the growth of God’s kingdom? It seems to me that one thing all God’s most blessed servants have shared in common has been a hope in the success of the gospel as they worked for him. Think of the Puritans; Nehemiah Rogers said, “Christ’s performances outstrip his promises.” David Brainerd said, “Nothing is too hard for God to perform; nothing is too great for me to expect from him.” Think of the beginning of the modern missionary movement and William Carey’s great words, “Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God.” These men were not simply steadfast and unmovable; they were always abounding in the work of the Lord.
What are our expectations? When he calls us to be fishers of men then his call is accompanied with this sign of blessing. Remember how Jesus made good this sign to the twelve, how they became fishers of men. Peter threw out the net on the day of Pentecost and men were drawn to God by the thousand. Remember how the Lord sent Philip fishing for men in Samaria and again it was a full net. God sent Paul fishing in Corinth, and he sent Martin Luther to Germany and Daniel Rowland to Llangeitho, and John Paton to the New Hebrides. When John Paton arrived there was scarcely a single fish caught, but by the time he left there were scarcely any outside the gospel net. Think of Zambia today and Korea today and the great growth of the church in those places.
Or think of the day when someone threw out a net and you were caught. What encouragement to us to go when he says go, and fish when he says fish. Such who do so can expect full nets, and ships sinking under the blessing. But we don’t measure the grace of the Lord by statistics. We measure it by the power of the kingdom to bring many to glory.
30th March 2008 GEOFF THOMAS