I have been fascinated with Luke 5:1-11 for about 24 months now. I know this because it first really jumped out to me while we were waiting for our 3rd daughter to be born. I enjoyed the passage so much I looked to see if there was a word in Mongolian that was pronounceable in English from the story that I could name her. Her name is Abigail… so clearly there was not.
I first started looking at it while I read a book about James Fraser who worked in Southwest China among the Lisu people. They were resistant to the Gospel for a long time, and then… finally… the nets began to break. Not when James was out with them, but rather when another newer missionary with less language and experience was out there with them. Suddenly the Spirit of God moved, and their nets began to break. It was a good problem to have. Clearly the hand of God was moving among the Lisu people. This started my journey of studying Luke 5 more in depth.
On the initial reading, it seems this passage is all about fishing for men, or evangelism. However, the longer I have read and meditated on it the more truths stand out to me in this story. Even in writing this article new questions have arisen in my mind. I think there are many truths about the Christian life, ministry, Jesus’ methods, and more.
This is the way I picture the story unfolding in my mind.
It is a still morning on the Lake of Galilee. The sun is up and it is just starting to warm the men washing their nets by the shoreline. Little beads of sweat are starting to appear on their foreheads.
There is a man walking down the shoreline. Nothing about him would catch the eye… until another man walks up and asks him a question. As he begins to talk with the man slowly people stop to listen. First five… then ten… fifteen… thirty… fifty… one hundred plus are listening to him speak. The waves lapping at the shore make it a little hard to hear and so the people keep crowding a little closer.
As they inch forward, Jesus inches backward until suddenly He feels water on His heel. Pretty soon His whole feet are immersed in the cool water. He looks around and spies two boats. He looks at the burly fisherman washing his net. “Need a break?” Jesus asks as he motions to the boat. Simon gives a wry smile and pulls himself up from his nets. He puts out just away from the shore the way Jesus asked him to.
Jesus sits down in the boat and as the waves gently rock the boat he begins to teach the people from the boat.
At first Simon-Peter just absentmindedly holds the boat in place. A little tug on the oar here. A push on the other oar. Doing what he has been doing since he was a little boy. His thoughts are not about the speaker in his boat, but rather on their poor catch from the night before. He replays the night in his mind. Where were those fish? Maybe he should have gone over past the rocks and fished on the far side near the shallow water. Maybe he should have…
Slowly. Ever so slowly… Jesus’ words begin to penetrate into Peter’s world and he finds himself drawn up into Jesus’ words and stories. Pretty soon he has completely forgotten about the fish, and he is enraptured at Jesus’ words. His teaching is so clear and compelling.
By the time Jesus finishes teaching the sun is high in the sky and the big burly fisherman is sweating profusely. Even Jesus’s face glows from the light moisture accumulated on His brow. Its past time for Peter to go home, and while helping the teacher may have not been Peter’s plan for the day he finds himself pleased with the what transpired. After all, it was some of the best teaching he has ever heard in his life. Who would not be willing to sacrifice a few hours’ sleep in order to learn more about God?
Peter is just preparing to get out of the boat, when Jesus turns to him and says, “Put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch.” (What the reader must understand is that in the original language Jesus did not say “let your nets down.” What he really said was “repeatedly let your nets down,” because the verb is plural.)
Inwardly Peter groans. He shakes his head imagining all the work it will take to do that. They will have to row back out to sea. Take their clean nets and throw them back in the murky water. After doing this for a while Jesus will finally realize they cannot catch fish in the heat of the day and let them go back in. Then they will have to re-clean their already clean nets. By the time they are done… it will be time to go back out to fish again the next night. He grits his teeth.
After taking a deep breath to calm down his growing frustration, he looks up at Jesus and says, “Master, we have worked hard (I mean really hard) all night long and haven’t caught anything.”
He pauses and looks at Jesus, hoping the good teacher will realize Peter is the professional fisherman. Jesus may be able to teach well, but what does he know about fishing. He hopes that Jesus will say, “Ah, you know, you’re right. It has been a long day. Maybe another time.”
But Jesus does not say that. Instead Jesus just meets Peter’s gaze. Unwavering Jesus stares at Peter and waits. Peter waits. Jesus waits.
After what seems like an eternity, Peter slowly continues, “… but because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
“Good.” Jesus says in his steady voice with His characteristic smile.
Peter calls his crew and tells them they are going out again. The observer can tell by the expressions on their face they are not pleased. Really? Again? Can’t we just go rest? However, when the boss calls the worker has to answer, and so they pack the nets back into the boat and begin rowing.
“Jesus, where do you want us to row to?” Peter asks.
“Anywhere it is deep is fine.” Jesus replies.
Again, a deep sigh and an inward groan. “Why am I doing this?” Peter asks himself? “Why didn’t I just tell him ‘No, I can’t today.’?”
They begin rowing, their lean muscles straining against the oars. What normally would have been a relatively easy row in the cool of the evening when they were fresh, is now a sweaty chore in the heat of the day.
Finally, they arrive at a place they could safely call “deep water”. They look down at their nice… clean… neatly stacked nets. Another collective sigh. They grab their nets and begin casting them out.
Jesus stands there in the boat. He neither seems bothered by their groans and grumpiness nor seems inclined to call it off. He just watches them… and watches… and watches.
They cast their nets out and haul them up. They do it again a second time. Then a third… “You never catch fish in the middle of the day.”
A fourth time… boredom… a fifth… a waste of time… a sixth… “Will this never end?”
Now they cast the heavy nets a seventh time… The sweat is pouring off of their bodies and their hair is matted to their faces as the sun beats down upon them. They toss it out an eighth time…
Suddenly, their nets jerk. All heads snap up in complete surprise as the nets give a massive jerk. The pull is so strong the boat lurches and everyone, Jesus included, has to catch their balance.
There is a mad rush of adrenaline as all the fishermen begin working the lines for what is obviously a large school of fish. Peter is shouting orders and the men are jumping to and fro trying to keep the nets in the best position to maximize the catch.
Suddenly they hear a sound…. Rrrrr POP! Rrrrr POP! Their nets are breaking. There are so many fish their nets cannot hold. They realize what is happening and Peter yells, “Stop pulling it into the boat. Just hold them.”
Then he spins toward the shore and lets out a sharp whistle. “James. John. Hey, sons of Zebedee. Hey!”
He is yelling, whistling, and flapping his arms trying to get his partner’s attention.
Over on the shore, James and John are just finishing up the chores and getting ready to go in for the day. Suddenly they hear a whistle. Their heads pop up and they see Peter whistling and flailing his arms. It looks like he is shouting, but they are too far away to hear what he is saying. Even without words it does not take long for two experienced fishermen to realize what is happening. Peter’s excitement coupled by the tilt of the boat clearly show them there is a big catch.
They holler to their crew, “Quick, back in the boat!”
They row as fast as they can out to where Peter’s boat is slowly being pulled along by the catch of fish. They throw their nets out and together with Peter’s nets they are strong enough to hold and they begin hauling the fish into the boat.
Men are grunting as they pull and tug the nets and begin filling the boats with fish. Everyone is giddy with excitement as they work. It is a flurry of activity.
Everywhere there is movement and excitement except one small cone of calm. Jesus. He stands there calmly watching the men get their catch. He wears a smile upon His face, but it is not the smile of surprise and excitement. It is just the smile of satisfaction.
The fish begin pouring into the boat. Flipping, flopping, and wriggling back and forth as they fight for water and life. They flop into the men’s feet and ankles. Then the fish are up to their calves. Soon they are up almost to their knees.
In short order, the fish begin to stack up and before the sailors know it the fish are up to the top of the boat. The boats themselves are riding lower and lower in the water. There are more fish in the nets, but Peter, James, and John realize if they add any more fish their boats will sink.
As they let the last fish swim away they are overjoyed with their catch. Everyone is still excited, but the men are starting to slow down and catch their breath. This has to be the largest catch of fish ever on the Sea of Galilee. Whoever heard of enough fish to sink two boats?
All of the sudden, in Peter’s heart dawns the realization of what has just happened. He looks at the catch of fish and then at Jesus standing calmly there. In a fraction of a second, he remembers his disdain when Jesus said to go to deep waters. He remembers the way he felt when Jesus told him to go back out again. Peter looks around at the catch of fish and then back at Jesus.
It is as though a small corner of Jesus’s robe was lifted and out of that small crack shot a ray of divinity. Peter is cut to the heart as he realizes this is more than just a teacher standing in his boat. While he does not fully recognize it yet, deep in his heart there is a realization that God is in Peter’s boat.
His body shakes as he suppresses a sob and he falls down at Jesus’ knees. His body wracks and his voice cracks as he cries out, “Go away from me LORD!”
Then in almost a whisper he continues, “I am a sinful man.”
His shoulders shake as he sobs silently before Jesus. His mind alternates between shear sorrow at who he is and near terror at realizing he is clinging to One who is far greater and more powerful than he can realize.
Jesus neither rebukes Peter nor corrects him. He just lets him be for a minute. Then He lifts Peter’s head up and looks him in the eye and says something that will forever change Peter’s life. “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.”
They slowly row their big, now heavy, boats back to shore. They pull everything up on shore and tie their boats down.
Jesus starts walking away.
The men do not worry about their nets. They do not worry about their boats full of fish. They just leave everything behind them and begin to follow Jesus.
This is the way I imagine the story happening.
Originally, I thought this story was mainly about evangelism and I equated the fishing of men to leading someone to believe. However, the longer I study this story the more I realize how many wonderful things it holds. Over time I want to share these.