Fishing Men

(Luke 5.1-11)

Jason Procopio

I don’t know where all of you have come from today, or what you’re expecting to get out of a service like this. But if you’re anything like the majority of people in France, and you’ve been to church or mass once or twice in your life, then you’re probably expecting something different than what the Bible actually offers. 

Because people think of the Bible as a book of ideas—they know it talks about Jesus, and that Jesus taught a lot on moral issues and ethics, and so chances are good that if you’ve coming to church today, you’re expecting me to talk about moral issues and ethics—to talk about ideas. And maybe, if you’re optimistic, you’re hoping to leave today with some good advice on how to be nice to people and live more comfortably in your world.

Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not what’s going to happen. That’s not what ever happens here. 

And it doesn’t happen because the Bible is not a book of ideas.

If you’ve been in church for a while, you have an idea what this gospel is. You’ve heard the story, and you’ve heard its implications. And it’s probable that, at least to a limited extent, so has Theophilus, the man for whom Luke is writing this gospel. But Luke doesn’t come out and say it straight away; he doesn’t expose all the theology of the gospel in one go. He takes his time to display the gospel by showing what Jesus did. Which is important because, as I said before, the gospel has its basis in reality, in things that happened. The gospel is not just ideas; the gospel is not even merely truth. The gospel is something that was planned, something that happened, and something that will happen.  

And Luke’s way of showing us this, after having shown Jesus performing miracles and telling us why Jesus performed miracles in general, is by recounting some specific miracles Jesus performed. Last week we saw why Jesus performed miracles in general; but often his miracles showed particular aspects of his mission.

I said last week that that message was the first of a two-part message—as it turns out (these things happen sometimes as you prepare sermons), it was the first of three. There was simply too much wonderful stuff in the three miracles contained in v. 1-26 to limit to one message only. So today we’ll just concentrate on v. 1-11, on the miraculous catch of fish.

Last week the miracles we saw Jesus performing were all of the “humanitarian” sort—casting out demons, healing people, etc. But occasionally Jesus performed miracles that never seemed strictly necessary. The first miracle Jesus ever performed (John 2.1-12) is at a wedding, when the guests run out of wine and he has them fill a huge vat with water, and turns the water into wine—and apparently it was some pretty delicious wine (cf. v. 10). This wasn’t necessary; he could have not turned the water into wine, and the worst thing that would have happened would have been that the wedding party would have been embarrassed for not having provided enough wine. But he does it anyway.

It’s the same thing here. Peter and his partners have been fishing all night and have caught nothing—but that’s really not that big a deal. Fishermen would often fish all night without catching anything. Their livelihood didn’t depend on this one night (we see in v. 11 that they even “left everything”—they apparently didn’t even take the fish with them, but either gave them to someone else or simply let them go). And yet, Jesus tells Peter to let down his nets once again, and when he does, the nets are bursting with fish—so many fish that he can’t pull them all in by themselves.

So what was the point of this miracle, if it wasn’t really necessary? As always, Jesus never did anything without a reason.

In this case, the miracle he performs and everything that follows give us a picture of how the gospel works, and what it produces: what happened for Peter and James and John on this boat is what happens for everyone who comes to know Jesus Christ.

And the first thing that happens is that God shows us who Jesus is.

1) God Shows Us Who Jesus Is

1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

Jesus often told parables—stories which were allegorical in nature, which served to illustrate a larger message. And in other times, what he did acted as a kind of living parable: Jesus would do something which would illustrate another larger truth. That’s what’s happening here. 

We’ll develop this more as we go on, but already here we have the beginning of the parable: Jesus is on a fishing boat—what do you normally do on a boat? You fish. But Jesus is turning this boat into a pulpit—rather than fishing from the boat, he’s preaching the good news of the kingdom. He’s casting his metaphorical nets. 

4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 

Now again, the point here is not that Simon and his partners were in dire need of a good haul that morning. Jesus is trying to show them something. 

We saw last week that Jesus had perfect authority over the supernatural world (demons) and the natural world (fevers, other illnesses). 

And, apparently, fish.

This may seem less impressive, but think about it—fish aren’t like dogs: they don’t come when you call them. And even if you managed to train one super-precocious fish to do what you ask it to do, there’s no way anyone would ever be able to pull off the same feat with hundreds of them.

Jesus was a carpenter, not a fisherman. There is no way he would have known that this was the time and place to throw out his nets—he certainly wouldn’t have known better than a group of guys who did this for a living. And yet, when he calls, they come. The nets fill—and they don’t just fill, but they fill to bursting. 

Now you can analyze this anyway you like, imagining perhaps that Jesus was just incredibly lucky. Simon Peter saw rightly what was going on—and that’s the point:

8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.

By seeing what Jesus had done, Peter saw who Jesus was, which he expresses by describing himself. Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.

His reaction is strange, isn’t it? He sees this man do something extraordinary…and his first thought isn’t, “Look at all the fish we have now!” He doesn’t thank him; he doesn’t ask him to do it again. His first thought is rather, “I am a sinner, and shouldn’t be standing next to this man.” 

When you’re in the presence of something powerful, you feel it. A few years ago I went to Burkina Faso and sat on the back of a crocodile—not in a petting zoo, but in the bush (they were only mildly tamed; the same crocodile swallowed a chicken whole, in midair, five minutes later). I could feel its skin under my hands, could feel its lungs expanding and contracting. This was a powerful animal, and there’s a feeling you get standing close to something that powerful: I shouldn’t be doing this. This isn’t smart.

Now imagine if that “powerful thing” you’re standing next to happens to also be the embodiment of everything that is good—you know for a fact that this being could not only break you with a word, but that he is also simply and purely compassionate and good. There is a kind of fear mixed with admiration that shakes you if you are ever lucky enough to encounter it. 

This is what Peter was feeling. He recognized the power and authority of this man standing in front of him…but he also recognized that this man was the very embodiment of everything that is good, everything a human being should be. And he can’t take it—he falls to his knees and asks him to leave.

When God sends his Spirit to convert us—to regenerate our hearts and make us born again—this is all he has to do. He shows us Jesus. He opens our eyes to see his power, and he opens our hearts to feel his goodness. And our first instinct, if we see Jesus rightly, should not be, “Great, thank you Jesus, give me a hug!” Our first instinct should be to think, “This shouldn’t be happening. This is too good to be right. I am a sinner, and I don’t deserve this.”

Before God does anything with us, he humbles us—he gives us eyes to see, not just who Jesus is, but who we are in comparison with him.

And then he calms our fears.

2) God Calms Our Fears

Second half of v. 10, and let’s not go too quickly:

And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid…”

Is it not incredible that Jesus doesn’t say, “Yeah, you’re right to be afraid”? And this is not the only time he does this in the gospels either; he says the same thing to this same man when he comes to him in the middle of a storm, walking on the waves (Matthew 14.27). 

Jesus consistently does things that would make any normal person run away screaming; and he consistently says to those who witness him, “Do not be afraid.”

How could Peter not be afraid? He’s right to be afraid; his self-estimation is correct. When he says, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, that’s a spot-on statement. He should not be sharing a boat with this man! 

And yet, Jesus says to him, “Do not be afraid.”

I always had a healthy fear of my dad when I was little—he was bigger than my mom, and he was hairier (I don’t know why that seemed important to me, but it contributed to the impression of power he gave) so when he told us to get in line, we’d listen. But my memories of him when I was younger are not memories of spanking or yelling or severity. I have multiple memories in which I stood before him absolutely guilty—caught in the act of some disobedience or another—and I knew that punishment was coming. I was quaking in my boots. But instead of taking off his belt or even doling out punishment, the very first thing he always did was take those great big hairy hands, put them on my shoulders, and pull me in to an embrace. 

It’s a strange thing to be made to feel safe from someone by whom you deserve to be punished.

When God saves us, he shows us the goodness and the greatness of Jesus; he shows us the state of our own wicked hearts; and then, wholly unexpectedly, he leans down close, and says, “Calm down—I’m good. Fear me, but don’t be afraid.”

Mark Frost wrote that “a core fundamental of human existence is wonder—and its analogue is fear. You can’t have one without the other, flip sides of the coin.” He’s right. When we stand before God and see his power, we fear him for who he is and for who we are in comparison with him. But when he shows us his goodness, that fear is balanced by wonder—wonder that a being so powerful and so good could possibly exist.

3) God Gives Us a Mission.

And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

This is a weird phrase, isn’t it? I’d heard it many times as a child, and I remember the first time it struck me as odd. I was a teenager, and someone read this verse aloud, and I thought, “Wait a minute—that doesn’t sound good. That sounds like brainwashing. That sounds like kidnapping.” 

Obviously that’s not what he’s talking about, but we don’t fully see what he means until much later. In Acts chapter 2, Jesus has left his followers with the mission to go and make disciples of all nations…but he hasn’t been overly clear on what that will look like or how to do it. Then, the Holy Spirit comes with amazing signs of power: tongues of fire hover over the heads of the people in the room, and they begin to speak in other languages. And, as it so happens, the people standing around outside—a wild mix of people from many different nationalities, all of whom have come to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, can understand what they’re saying. Although everybody in the room is from Galilee, they are speaking in the languages of the people standing outside. So they’re confused at how they can understand what they’re saying—some of them impressed, and others saying they’re drunk.

So Peter (the same Simon Peter as in our text) gets up and tries to explain to everyone what’s going on. And as he is doing so, he tells them about Jesus. It’s not a particularly long sermon—it must have taken about five minutes—and he doesn’t say anything particularly surprising: he simply tells them the story of who Jesus is and what he did. But the reaction to what he says is astonishing. Acts 2.37-41:

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 

That day, three thousand people believed and became Christians. They were baptized and began to follow Christ.

All Peter did was proclaim the good news of the gospel—who Jesus is and what he did—and told them that God calls them to repent. And they did. So there’s the analogy—Peter is speaking to thousands to people; he casts the net wide. The gospel preached is God’s net: it is his call to come. It is giving them a very real promise (v. 38):

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

“Fishing men” is not brainstorming, and it is not kidnapping; it is not manipulation or deception. It would be those things if God didn’t make good on his promise, but he does.

V. 39: For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.

God makes good on his promise—everyone whom he calls to himself by the power of his Spirit comes. He doesn’t feel the need to manipulate. He simply shows us who Jesus is—and when we really see who he is, we can’t imagine doing anything but come.

And here’s the incredible thing. Just like he did on the day of Pentecost, when he caused three thousand people to see the beauty of Jesus through an ordinary man like Peter, still today, God builds his church and draws people to himself through ordinary people telling other ordinary people about Jesus.

Jesus caused the fish to come into the nets—more fish than Peter and James and John could haul into their boats—to show that he was able to make them fishers of men. He did it to show that he was able to take ordinary people doing seemingly ordinary things and bring about something extraordinary—to build his church, a family of people from all nations, all languages, all backgrounds, and reconcile them to God.

This is a wonderful thing. But have you ever noticed that Christians often get tripped up with what comes next? Even if we’re scared to do it, we get the idea of sharing the gospel and seeing the gospel do its work in people’s hearts to draw them to God. But after that…we all too often seem a bit confused about what to do there. The mission of the church, the mission God gives his people, is not just to make converts—he calls us to make us disciples.

4) God Makes Us Disciples…Who Make Disciples.

V. 11: And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

Think about this—they had just seen this incredible catch of fish, this miraculous event performed by Jesus. Hundreds of fish are in the nets, fish that they could sell for a great deal more money than they would usually get from one night’s work.

And they left everything. They bring their boats back to land, they get out of the boats, and they leave everything behind and follow him.

This is what it means to be a disciple—being a disciple means to follow a master. And not just follow him geographically, but follow him in everything—learning to go where he goes, walk as he walks, live as he lives.

They left everything behind—their jobs, their livelihoods, their families…and certainly their reputations. They left it all behind, and followed him.

Why? Because when God saves us, it is for no other reason than that we should follow Christ in all of our lives. We saw it a couple weeks ago—Ephesians 1.4:

[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.

The reason he chose us, the reason he saved us, the reason he redeemed and adopted us, was that we might be holy. Église Connexion has more than its fair share of missionaries who regularly attend church here. These are folks who have heard God’s call on their lives to literally leave everything behind and go share the gospel. 

Let’s be honest—most of us will not be asked by God to change our jobs or our living situations for him. But that is not to say he asks us for less. Even if you live exactly where you would have otherwise lived, even if you do the exact job you would have done otherwise, God’s goal in saving you is to see every area of your life transformed by the gospel.

And just to be clear—this is not burdensome. Do you get any hint of hesitation in the disciples’ behavior here? Any soupçon of intimidation on Jesus’s part (“Follow me or else”)? Of course not. They see who he is, and what he calls them to, and they jump at the chance. 

If we can just be real with each other for a moment: the reason why we see so many of God’s commandments as burdensome is because we don’t really believe he’s as good as he says he is. And we don’t believe he’s as good as he says he is because we don’t follow him enough to see him as he is. 

Brothers and sisters, the Bible is unbelievably clear: God is our Creator, and as such he knows how he created us; not only that, he’s our loving, good Creator, and he knows how he created us…so he knows exactly what will make us happiest, and how to get us there.

So he calls us to follow him, not to gain pride-points for himself, but rather to see, and to keep on seeing, how good he is in calling us to live this particular life, how good he is to command us to do some things and to not do others. After Jesus Christ, the most loving thing he has done for us is tell us how to live.

But that life lived for him is never turned inward; it is never self-serving. When Peter and James and John left to follow Jesus, why did they do it? What was their most immediate motivation? V. 10, Jesus said,

Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.

He calls us to be disciples of Christ…in order to make more disciples of Christ. In order to “catch” more men and women, and to teach them to follow Jesus as we have. To walk with them as they grow in their faith, as they grow in their knowledge of who Jesus is and what he has done and the gift he has given us in telling us how to live. This is something we cannot do on our own.

Jesus says,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28.19-20).

This is why evangelism that doesn’t seek to invite people into a community of believers is an exercise in futility. This is why we need the church. This is why the idea of “online church” is not enough; this is why listening to podcasts of sermon during the week is not enough. We don’t learn to live for Christ by listening; we learn to live for Christ by observing and imitating. And we can’t do that alone.


So brothers and sisters, behold Christ. See him as he is. If you are struggling with an area of sin in your life, the problem is probably not that you don’t have enough willpower or strength of character; the problem is probably that you’re not beholding Christ enough. Seeing Christ drives us all to our knees in humility, recognizing that we are sinners and that by all rights this should not be happening.

Behold Christ, and hear him calm your fears—you are right to say that you’re a sinner, but he died in order to remove the condemnation of that sin; so in him we have nothing to be afraid of anymore.

Go out and catch men. Become experts in the gospel that saved you. Learn not just the bare bones of the gospel, but how the gospel works—how God saved you and why—so that you might answer the questions presented to you by others. Jump on every opportunity.

But don’t imagine for a second that God saved you only to get another notch on his conversion belt. Follow him. Learn to love what he loves, and hate what he hates, and feel what he feels, and acts as he acts. Come under someone who is more mature in their faith and impose yourself on them—be blunt and say, “I see how you live, and I want to learn to live like that. Can we spend some time together?” And seek out younger Christians; involve them in your lives, so that they might learn to do the same.

He calls us to be disciples who make disciples who make disciples who make disciples. Let’s leave everything and follow him.