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Fishing in the New Testament: A Misunderstood Analogy for Evangelism

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4:18 As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon (called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea (for they were fishermen). 4:19 He said to them, “Follow me, and I will turn you into fishers of people.” 4:20 They left their nets immediately and followed him. 4:21 Going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in a boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. Then Jesus called them. 4:22 They immediately left the boat and their father and followed him.

—Matthew 4:18-22 in the NET Bible

It’s strange how we read the Bible: we filter everything through our own worldview, our own culture, our own life-setting. Then, when we discover that our perspective is not that of the Bible’s, we resist the truth. This even happens over simple interpretive issues—such as Jesus’ analogy of fishing. Even though passages like Matthew 4:18-22 are plain enough, we still often have blinders on our eyes. Many a preacher has elaborated on the analogy along the lines of a fishing pole, reel, line, and hook.

The kind of fishing envisioned in this text, however, was not line-fishing, but net-fishing. Notice “casting a net into the sea (for they were fishermen)” (v. 18), “they left their nets” (v. 20), “mending their nets” (v. 21). Now, to be sure, the ancient world knew of line-fishing as well (cf. Matt 17:24-27). But that is not what was envisioned in the imagery of “fishing for men.”

The standard Greek lexicon by Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker speaks of the net as circular, having heavy weights around its perimeter (BAGD 47 s.v. ἀμφίβληστρον, ἀμφιβάλλω). Fishermen would either stand on the shore and repeatedly cast their nets into the water, or drop their nets from a boat. In Matthew 4, the nets used were those tossed from the shoreline. The occupation of fisherman was rather labor-intensive.

The imagery of using a lure and a line (and waiting for the fish to strike!) is thus foreign to this text. Jesus is not speaking about finesse (as in fly fishing), or using the right kind of bait. The imagery has nothing to do with “hooking” the unbeliever with the gospel. Further, the picture is not individualistic: the point is not one person being reeled in at a time. All of this has to do with line-fishing, but this is not the picture seen in this text.

Rather, the imagery of a fisherman involved much strain, long hours, and often little results. Now, we ought to be careful not to make the analogy walk on all fours. And, to be sure, it is not always easy to tell exactly the point that needs to be stressed. But, in the least, if there is no correspondence between fishing for fish and fishing for people, then we ought not to see such. This is the problem with the line-fishing view: so much of it is based on non-correspondence.

Jesus’ point may have been one or more of the following:

  • the strenuousness of evangelism (unlike line-fishing, which is often caricatured as a means to get a good nap, net-fishing is very labor-intensive)
  • the work ethic that it required more than a focus on the skill involved
  • persistence and dedication to the task (often in spite of minimal results)
  • the infinite value of the new “catch” (viz., people)
  • perhaps an eschatological theme of snatching people from judgment (cf. William Lane, Mark [NICNT] 67). If this last motif is in view, then catching people is the opposite of catching fish: the fish would be caught, killed, cooked, and eaten; people would be caught so as to remove them from the eternal flames of hell and to give them new life. The correspondence, in this instance, involves an implied antonym.

Now all of this is not to say that the Bible denies some of the imagery that line-fishing conjures up. After all, we are told that our words needs to be seasoned with salt, so as to attract unbelievers to the truth and power and grace of the gospel (cf. Col 4:6; similarly, Matt 5:13-16). Thus, the concept of using bait—something to attract people to the gospel—is a biblical concept. The question is whether it is taught in Matt 4:18-22 and with the imagery fishing for men. At bottom, we must first be accurate in our interpretation of a given text before we can construct a biblical theology.

Biblical imagery is rather rich—but it often is different from what our preconceived notions are. This brief essay simply points up the need to read the Bible carefully and think through the correspondences in the figurative language embedded in the text. This, of course, requires an understanding of the historical context. A good Bible dictionary will often be very useful in this endeavor. When we study the scriptures this way, it will often be like reading the Bible for the first time.

Related Topics: Discipleship, Evangelism, Soteriology (Salvation)