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“And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon Him to hear the Word of God, He stood by the lake of Gennesaret, and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. And He entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And He sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. Now when He had left speaking, He said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto Him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at Thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: and so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him”—Luke 5:1-11.
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Fishers of men! We hear a great deal about that nowadays. This is the first occasion on which our Lord Jesus Christ called men to that high calling. I want you to notice it particularly. We read, “And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon Him to hear the Word of God, He stood by the lake of Gennesaret.” The lake of Gennesaret is the same as the Sea of Galilee, or the Sea of Tiberias. It is a fresh-water lake, not very large, but very beautiful. One who has seen it can readily visualize what this first verse brings before us. In many places the hills seem to roll gently down to the lake itself, and there is just a very narrow beach so that one standing there would find himself crowded back to the water as people thronged toward him. On the other hand, the people could stand or sit up along the hillside and listen very readily as one spoke to them, either from the shore itself, or as our Lord did, from a boat. Everything about the Sea of Galilee fits in perfectly with the picture that we have in the New Testament. There is one thing that is indisputable: The New Testament was clearly never written by men who simply imagined the stories that they tell. They knew what they were talking about. Every detail of the picture is exact. Luke, himself, perhaps was not among those who had heard the Lord Jesus preach, but he said he had accurate knowledge of all things from the first, and he must have visited the Sea of Galilee. He must have looked over all the country round about, or he could not have given such accurate descriptions of the various places that he mentions in his Gospel. He is recognized, even by unbelievers, as one of the most careful geographers as well as one of the most accurate historians extant.
It is a great moment in one’s life when he hears the call to a life of service, in devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ and for the blessing of a lost world. To respond to that call in loving obedience is to enter upon an altogether new and blessed experience, where one lives and moves on a higher plane than ever before. This is something more than conversion or even than consecration. For all who are saved have been born from above and all such are consecrated by God Himself to glorify Him and to do His will in this scene. But to some there comes a higher calling—a summons to leave all in the way of occupation with temporal things and to go forth at His bidding to represent Him as His ambassadors. His anointed ministers, to whom is committed in a special way the great task of “taking men alive” and then leading them on in the knowledge of Christ. That many imagine they are “called to the ministry” who are unfitted in every way for such high and holy service is very true, and often more evident to others than to those who are thus self-deluded. But when the Lord truly calls one to go after Him in full-time service, He fits that one for the work which He intends him to do. Possibly, there were never four men who gave less promise of marked ability as preachers of the Word than the fisherman quartet here; yet each of these was chosen by Jesus to fill a special place, and two of them were destined to become known as among the greatest missionary-preachers and teachers of all time. We know very little of Andrew, and James was martyred very early (Acts 12:1, 2), but Peter and John were granted many years of devoted service and their written ministry has edified untold millions.
The Lord Jesus was standing upon the shore. The people were thronging down to hear Him, crowding Him back toward the blue waters of the Sea of Galilee or the Lake of Gennesaret, as here called. Then Jesus turned about and He saw two fishermen’s boats in the lake, close to the shore, but the fishermen were gone out of them and were washing their nets. Jesus knew the owners of these boats, and He felt perfectly free to ask for the use of one of them. He entered into one belonging to Simon Peter and asked him to thrust out a little from the land. This was not the first time the Lord had contacted Simon Peter, neither was it the second nor third. We read of the first definite instance in John, chapter one, where two of the disciples of John the Baptist heard their master say, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and they left John and followed Jesus. They spent all the rest of the day with Him, listening to the wonderful words that fell from His holy lips, and then immediately became exercised about bringing others to Him. We read that one of the two who heard John speak was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother—“And he first find-eth his own brother Simon, and brought him to Jesus.” There is something about the actual arrangement of the Greek text there that has led scholars to believe that it really means this: He was the first of the two to find his brother, implying that John himself found his brother James on that occasion and brought him to Jesus also, but John modestly hides himself and speaks only of that which his friend Andrew did. Andrew found his brother Simon and brought him to Jesus. The Lord Jesus welcomed him and gave him that new name “Peter.” From this time on Peter was numbered among those who are recognized as disciples of the Lord Jesus, but the disciples of Christ were not necessarily separated from their secular employment. Many delighted to listen to His messages and were taught by Him, and it was later that He separated a little group of twelve, and another group of seventy to go out preaching. So Peter at first continued in his daily work as a fisherman. He was engaged in this occupation when the Lord Jesus asked for the use of his boat. He entered into Simon’s boat and when He had done so, Jesus sat down in the boat and taught the people.
It is easy to visualize that scene. There were the crowds of people on the hillside. Here is the Lord Jesus sitting in the boat and as He addresses the throng, His voice carries in the clear air to the last one on the hill. He instructs them concerning the kingdom of God, and I can fancy Simon Peter sitting there with all the sense of ownership, thinking, “This is my boat, and Jesus is here talking to these people. I am so glad to see them listening to Him.” The Lord said some pretty serious things. Peter would be looking around and thinking like so many folks today, “I am glad to see so-and-so here; I hope he is taking this in, and I hope so-and-so is getting what she needs.” But apparently Peter was not taking in anything. He was just allowing it all to go to the rest of the folks. The Lord Jesus recognized his true state, and his need for something to probe his conscience. So He said unto Simon, “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.” Simon was bewildered and surprised. Jesus was not a fisherman. He was a carpenter, and He had not lived in a town on the lakeside. He lived in Nazareth, some miles away from the lake, and He could not be expected, if He were only a man, to know the right time or the right conditions for fishing. So Peter explains in the next verse that they had been out all night long fishing, and had gotten nothing. So he was amazed when Jesus said to him in broad daylight, probably with the sun shining brightly down, “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets.” You can imagine an experience like this for Peter, and he, saying to himself, “If the fish were not there in the night, certainly they will not be in the sunshine. There is no use expecting to take any fish at this time of day. I know the conditions here too well for that.” Of course, our modernistic ministers and preachers have tried to explain the situation like this: they tell us that Jesus happened to look about and saw a school of fish, and instead of saying to Peter, “Look, there is a school of fish,” He thought it was a good opportunity to make Peter think He was working a miracle and so He said, “Let down your nets for a draught.” This is an endeavor to make our blessed Lord appear a mere charlatan. But the Lord Jesus wanted to reach the conscience of Peter, so He did something that would make him realize he was in the presence of God Himself.
“Let down your nets for a draught.” Simon Peter says, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing.” It had been a most disappointing night. But then, instead of saying it is useless to let down the nets today, he says, “Nevertheless at Thy word I will let down the net.” Jesus did not say, “Let down the net.” Jesus said, “Let down the nets,” to prepare for a great draught. Peter said, “Well, Lord, we will let down one net anyway.” Of course, he felt it was a poor time to fish and he did not expect to get anything, but since Jesus said so, he let down a net. When they had done this they caught a great multitude of fishes, and their net brake. Maybe, if they had let down the nets, that which was used would not have broken so easily. One was not sufficient to hold the great draught of fishes rushing into it, and when they realized that they would not be able to handle this great catch themselves they beckoned unto their partners who were in another ship. I suppose that would be James and John, for they seemed to be working together. They beckoned unto their partners that they should come and help them, and they came and they filled both the ships so they began to I saw a number of ship-loads—boat-loads— come in to Tiberias from the Sea of Galilee, but I never saw such a catch as this threatening to sink the boat. I remember, as they were bringing in a great lot of fish, I was quite surprised, and I said to one of the fishermen, “What do you call these fish?” and he said, “Poisson St. Pierre”—St. Peter’s fish. 1 said, “Are these some of the fish that Peter caught?” He said, “No; but these are some of the children of the fish he didn’t catch!” His name, though, is linked with them to this day.
They got such a multitude of fish that the boats were almost sinking as they drew them to land. Simon Peter was so stirred by what had taken place that he recognized the fact that no one but the Creator of the fish could ever have commanded the treasures of the deep to come into his net that way. He realized in a moment that he was in the presence, not only of the greatest prophet that had ever risen in Israel; not only of the greatest teacher that had ever come to mankind; not only of the most remarkable miracle-worker that the Jews had ever seen—he was in the presence of God! He fell down at the feet of Jesus, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” When one is brought consciously into the presence of God, it always has the effect of making him realize his own unworthiness and sinfulness. When Job came into the presence of God he said, “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth Thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Yet he was the best man living in his day, a man whose outward life was perfect and upright, and a man who feared God; but in the presence of the Lord, with the infinite holiness of God revealed to him, he felt he was but a poor sinner. Isaiah had the same experience. He was one of the most noble and eloquent of all the prophets, a man used of God to preach to others. Yet when he was in the temple one day and God was manifested to him, he cried out, “I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips.” He heard the seraphim surrounding the throne of God, singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” He recognized in a moment that there was a holiness of which he knew nothing and to which he, in himself, could never attain; but when he confessed his sinfulness and said, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips,” one of the seraphs took a coal from off the altar and touched his lips, saying, “Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.”
And now, Simon Peter here, active, energetic, and who had been with the Lord on a number of occasions; who had listened to His teaching and seen His miracles, now, apparently for the first time, recognized Him as God manifest in the flesh; and the result was a complete breakdown on his own part, and he cried, “I am a sinful man, O Lord!” I wonder if we have all broken down like that before God? The thing that is most natural to the heart of man and most hateful to God, is pride. “Most men,” we are told, “will declare to every one his own goodness, but a faithful man who can find?” Speak to the average man about his hope of heaven and he will tell you, “Yes, I do expect some day to arrive there.” He does trust that eventually he will find his home in that city of the saints; and you ask, “On what ground do you expect to be there?” Almost invariably he talks to you about his efforts to do good; his attempt to obey the Golden Rule and to love God with all his heart, and to love his neighbor as himself, and that he has never been guilty of any serious offenses. He bases his hope on his own merits. But God’s Word says, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight.” Whenever you find men or women talking about their own righteousness, bolstering themselves up by the records of their own good works you may be sure they have never actually been in the presence of God. Simon Peter exclaims, “I am a sinful man; depart from me,” as much as to say, “I recognize I am not fit to associate with a Holy One such as Thou art.” Yet he clings to Him and says, as it were, “You will have to send me away, if You do not want me with You.” And our Lord never sends any sinner away. If you come, recognizing your guilt and confessing your sin, you may be sure He will receive you.
The Lord Jesus, instead of driving Peter away, said unto him, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.” In other words, “The very fact, Simon, that you have recognized that in yourself you are a poor sinful man makes you fit to go forth and become a blessing to others. You are going to have a higher calling, Peter. You are not going to spend the rest of your life on the Sea of Galilee fishing, but you are going out at My command to win souls, to bring others to a saving knowledge of the God of all grace; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.” Or, as He puts it in another Gospel, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Now do not misunderstand. I do not suppose that the Lord Jesus says exactly those words to everybody. He does not call everybody to give up their temporal employment, and go forth in the ministry of the gospel, or to go out as missionaries to distant lands. But He does call everybody to be devoted to Himself and if devoted to Him, whatever your calling in life, whatever your station, however you may be occupied, you will be enabled to glorify Him, and though it may not be for you to do the work of an evangelist, though it may not be for you to go out as an apostle as Peter did, you will be able to influence others by your life, a life lived for God, which is the best testimony any one can give to the saving grace of God. Fear not. It is true you are a sinner in yourself, but if your trust is in Christ and you are resting in Him who died to save you, in Him who shed His blood to put away your guilt, you can go forth in confidence to serve. “From henceforth thou shalt catch men.”
God could have sent angels into this world to carry the gospel of His grace to lost men, and I am sure there is not an angel in heaven who would not gladly leave the glory and come down into this world and go up and down among the nations to tell the wondrous story of Christ, who died and rose again. But Christ did not commit to them this precious ministry. He has entrusted it to saved sinners—to you and to me, who, through His grace, know Him as our Redeemer. God give us to be faithful in making known the message to those round about us. We may have to do it in a very quiet way. It may be just a little word here and there. It may be just a short gospel message; it may be a brief testimony that will tell of the saving grace of Christ. All of these may be used as the hooks wherewith we catch men and bring them to know the Lord Jesus Christ for themselves.
This was a crisis in the life of the Apostle Peter, or I should say, the fisherman Peter. It marked the break between his life as a fisherman and that which was to prepare him for the apostleship, for we read, “When they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed Him.” Never again was Peter to be engaged in the fishing-business for a living. There was one time, you remember, after the resurrection, when he was still in a somewhat bewildered state, following his denial, that he went down to the Sea of Galilee, and was fishing; and again the Saviour appeared and again a great multitude of fish came into his net, but from that time on we never read of Peter taking up a net again. He devoted his life entirely to carrying the gospel message to a lost world. “They forsook all, and followed Him.” I take it that “they” here included, at least, the four men—Peter, Andrew, James, and John. This was really their induction into the apostolate. They gave up their temporal employment and from this time on they were associated with Jesus as He went from place to place, preaching the gospel of the kingdom. So, after three-and-a-half years of association with Him they were prepared, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, to go forth declaring the gospel of His grace in power; so that multitudes, both of Jews and Gentiles, were saved. In this way they proved the truth of the Lord’s words, “From henceforth thou shalt catch men.” I cannot conceive of any higher calling on earth than that of being used of God to bring precious souls to Himself. Who would shrink from such service when commissioned by so wondrous a Master! To be a fisher of men is one of the greatest privileges one can enjoy.