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Lesson 18: Catching Fish or Men? (Luke 5:1-11)

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Years ago the British agnostic Thomas Huxley had to leave early one morning to go from one speaking assignment to another, so he got into a horse-drawn taxi to go from his hotel to the train station. He assumed that the hotel doorman had told the driver of the carriage that they were to go to the train station. So when he got in, he simply said to the driver, “Drive fast.”

Off they went. After a short while, Huxley, who was somewhat familiar with the area, realized that they were actually going in the opposite direction from the train station. He yelled to the driver, “Do you know where you’re going?” Without looking back, the driver replied, “No, sir, but I’m driving very fast.”

Obviously, it doesn’t do much good to go fast if you’re not going in the right direction! Yet, many people, even Christians, are like that. Their lives are busy, they are going full bore, but they haven’t stopped to evaluate where they ought to be going. Before we know it, life has whizzed by, but we haven’t spent it focused on the right purpose. As Christians, we all would agree that if we want to spend our lives properly, we must be in line with God’s purpose.

In Luke 5:1-11, we see the Lord Jesus helping some fishermen get their lives aimed in the right direction. Scholars are divided over whether this incident is identical with Jesus’ call of these fishermen as recorded in Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20. We probably must leave the question somewhat undecided. But we know that John 1:35-42 records the first meeting between Jesus and Peter. The incident in our text takes place about one year later. James and John, and perhaps some others, such as Peter’s brother, Andrew (although unnamed), were present, but the focus in our text is on Jesus and Peter. These men had all met Jesus and had begun to follow Him, but they were not yet completely committed to His mission. This incident redirected their lives.

In the opening verses (1-3), Jesus is teaching God’s Word, but Peter is working at his fishing business. By verse 11, Peter has left his business to follow Jesus in catching men, not fish. Jesus’ words in verse 10 are the key for understanding and applying this story: “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” The word “catch” literally means “to capture alive.” Although in their vocation, the fish they caught would die, in their new focus, dead men would be caught and come alive for Jesus. The story shows us how Jesus transforms everyday people (even sinful people, like Peter) into His servants, involved in His great cause of catching people for God. It teaches us that …

The greatest purpose we can have in life is to follow Jesus in catching men for Him.

Picture the scene: The multitudes were pressing around Jesus, listening to the word of God. And where were Peter, James and John? They were involved with their business, cleaning their nets after a frustrating night of fishing with no catch. And so Jesus’ job was to get their eyes off of fish and onto Himself and lost people. Archbishop Trench puts it, Jesus was “designing Himself ... to take the fishermen in his net” (Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord [Baker], p. 83). The first lesson is:

1. To catch men for Christ, we must shift our focus from success in business to success in catching people for the Savior.

There is nothing wrong with success in business, per se. God wants us to be diligent and to do well in our work. It is not more spiritual to be mediocre in our jobs and it is not inherently more worldly to become successful. Also, when I say that we must shift our focus from success in business to success in catching people for Christ, I am not implying that everyone must leave so-called “secular” employment and work full-time in the gospel. Some are called to do that, as Peter was, but certainly not all. It is not more spiritual to be in full-time ministry than it is to be a faithful servant of the Lord in some other kind of work. It is just a matter of gifts and calling.

But, having said all that, I do insist that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you must adopt His purpose for your life, and His primary purpose for His children never involves becoming a success in our jobs. His word to all of us is, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth,” but rather, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:19, 33). Whatever you do to make a living, your main goal should be to glorify God and your main focus should be to be a witness for Jesus Christ through your behavior, your attitudes, and your words. This requires a shift in focus where you begin to view people as Jesus did and to view yourself as His representative in your sphere of influence. The people you come in contact with are your mission field.

These fishermen just had what was probably the most successful catch of their careers. The two boatloads of fish probably would have brought in a handsome profit at the local market. Like a miner who finally finds some gold, this successful catch probably whet their appetites to go back out and try for more. They easily could have thought, “Wow, if this keeps up, we could get rich!” But because Jesus clearly stated a new focus for them, we read instead, “when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him” (5:11). Things changed from this moment because of what Jesus did and said. Catching fish did not compare to following Jesus and catching men. Christ and His purpose had now captivated them.

So my question is, “Are you living for Christ’s purpose for your life?” As I said, this does not mean that you must be gifted in evangelism or that you must go into full-time ministry. Only some are called to do that. But it does mean that because you have met Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, your life is not your own. You no longer are living for selfish purposes. You live to glorify Jesus Christ and to use the gifts He has given you to help in the great cause of catching people for Him.

It means that at the end of your life, you will not measure success by whether you have accumulated a lot of money or by how high you have climbed on the corporate ladder. You will measure your life by whether you have faithfully used what God has entrusted to you to further His kingdom. Whether directly through your verbal witness or indirectly through your example, your giving, your good works, your service, or whatever, there will be people in heaven because you did not live for yourself, but for Jesus Christ and His kingdom. We have to make this fundamental shift in focus if we want to be used in catching people for Jesus Christ.

2. To catch men for Christ, we must obey the sovereign authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Alexander Maclaren observes, “There is nothing more remarkable in the whole narrative than the matter-of-course fashion in which our Lord takes the disposal of these men, and orders them about” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], on Luke 5:4, p. 103). First, Jesus gets into Peter’s boat and asks him to put out a little way from the land so that He can teach the crowd without them pressing against Him. Then, when He is through teaching, Jesus directly commands Peter to put out into the deep and let down the nets for a catch. Here is a carpenter telling a professional fisherman how to do his job! Peter knew that the best time to fish was at night and that he had just fished all night to no avail. But, after registering his brief protest, Peter quickly adds, “but at Your bidding I will let down the nets” (5:5). His obedience resulted in miraculous success.

Because of Jesus’ words about catching men, we are warranted in viewing this miracle as a lesson on evangelism. It contains at least five lessons we need to learn:

A. The message of evangelism is founded on God’s Word.

In verses 1-3, Jesus is preaching the word of God to the crowd, and as 4:43 makes clear, His message focused on the kingdom of God, the realm where God is sovereign and people are subject to Him. The fact that His message is called “the word of God” means that it comes from God as its source. The word Jesus preached originated with God and therefore had God’s authority. As Jesus said, “I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me” (John 8:28).

When we talk to people about the gospel, we simply have to tell them what God has revealed about Himself, about the Savior, and about our need for Him. Witnesses don’t make up their own stories. Witnesses are under oath to tell the truth about what they have seen and heard. The Bible is God’s Word to us through His faithful witnesses. Our job, like that of the apostles, is to tell what God has done through His Son Jesus.

So if you want to be more effective in evangelism, get into the Word so that you are clear about the gospel. You must understand and be able to show people what Scripture says about concepts like sin, judgment, Christ’s substitutionary death, God’s grace, and saving faith in Jesus Christ. Not every Christian is a preacher, but every Christian is a witness. To be an obedient witness, you must learn the basics of the good news.

B. The initiative for evangelism comes from the Lord.

It is clear that Jesus took the initiative in turning these fishermen into fishers of men. Peter, James, and John weren’t sitting out in their boats one day when one of them got the brainstorm, “Hey, we ought to become evangelists!” That was probably the furthest thing from their minds. But the Lord had different plans and His plans prevailed.

You may be thinking, “This message does not relate in any way to me. I am not an evangelist and I never will be.” As I said, it may be true that you aren’t gifted in evangelism and that you aren’t called to do evangelism full time. But, it is God’s will that you adopt His purpose as your purpose, and it is clear from this text that the Lord’s purpose involves taking ordinary people like these fishermen and turning them into His agents for catching other people for God. In Luke 19:10 Jesus stated His purpose, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” If we claim to be His followers, but we don’t have a heart for reaching the lost, we are not in line with His purpose.

When we do get involved in reaching the lost, we have the assurance that the Lord goes before us. We don’t have to blaze our own trail. The Lord has sovereignly chosen a people before the foundation of the earth, and we are cooperating with His eternal purpose in taking the gospel to those whom He has chosen. As Paul put it, “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10). Since the initiative lies with the Lord, we can obey with confidence, knowing that He will use our witness for His eternal purpose.

C. The guidance we need in evangelism comes from the Lord.

The Lord directs Peter the fisherman as to where he ought to cast his nets! We don’t know whether this was a miracle of the Lord’s omniscience, in that He knew where the fish were at, or whether He commanded the fish to this spot and they obeyed. But clearly, Jesus was giving the orders and when Peter obeyed, he got these miraculous results. If we aren’t sure what to do to reach out to lost people, we need to pray, “Lord, show us where the fish are that You want us to catch, and we’ll cast the nets there.”

We have some friends in California who travel around the world taking the gospel into Muslim countries. But the Lord recently impressed on the wife that while she was going all over the world with the gospel, she was neglecting her own neighbors. So she made an effort to spend some time with a neighbor. As they were talking, not about anything spiritual, out of the blue the neighbor said, “My daughter and I need to go to church. Do you know of a good church we could visit?” Not only did she invite her to church, she told her the good news about Christ and the neighbor has now trusted Him as her Savior. Maybe you’re thinking, “That never happens to me!” You need to remember that …

D. The results in evangelism come from the Lord.

On this occasion, Peter got almost more fish than he could handle—the nets began to break and the boats began to sink! On the Day of Pentecost, the same thing happened spiritually, as Peter preached and 3,000 trusted in Christ. On another occasion, the Lord directed Peter to the house of Cornelius, and before Peter even finished his sermon, the whole group had responded! But whatever results we see or do not see, we need to keep in mind Paul’s words, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). While we should try to become more effective in presenting the gospel, we need to remember that true conversion comes from God alone. It’s possible to get decisions through slick methods of salesmanship, but we can only see conversions when God imparts new life through His Spirit.

So, the message of evangelism is founded on God’s Word. The initiative, the guidance, and the results in evangelism all come from the Lord. So, we don’t have to do anything, right? Wrong!

E. The obedience we need in evangelism lies with us.

If Peter had not obeyed by putting out into the deep and letting down the nets in obedience to the Lord, this miracle would not have happened. The Lord could have made all the fish swim to shore and jump into Peter’s boat, but He didn’t do that. Peter had to obey and then the Lord did this miracle.

At first, Peter voiced his objections as to why it wouldn’t work. Thankfully, he quickly added, “But at Your bidding …” But, like Peter, it’s easy to come up with a hundred reasons why we can’t do what the Lord has told us to do. Sometimes His commands may strike us as kind of screwy, as this command must have struck Peter. But, like Peter, we need to set aside our reasons why it won’t work and obey the Lord in seeking to bring people into His gospel net. Just let down the net of the gospel in obedience, and let the Lord bring the fish into it.

Thus, to catch men for Christ, we must shift our focus from success in business to success in the gospel. And, we must learn to obey the Lord’s sovereign authority when He tells us to bear witness of His good news.

3. To catch men for Christ, we must grow in our understanding of who He is and of who we are.

Peter had already had much contact with Jesus. He had seen Him do miracles, including the mass healings at his own door in Capernaum. But this miracle, affecting his personal trade, hit home in a way the others had not. Suddenly Peter saw Jesus in a new light and at the same moment, was overwhelmed with his own sinfulness. Invariably, the most effective witnesses are those who have an exalted view of the Lord Jesus Christ and who are painfully aware of their own unworthiness to be His witnesses.

A. We must grow in our understanding of Jesus as the powerful, holy, and gracious Lord.

(1). Jesus is the powerful Lord. Although this miracle did not alter any physical laws of nature, it does reveal the power of the Lord Jesus over nature. The key that shows Christ’s power is Peter’s phrase, “at Your word” (5:5). What word is that? Scripture declares that God created the heavens and earth by His word (Gen. 1:3 ff.; Heb. 11:3). It also declares that Jesus “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). At His word and kingdoms rise and fall. And, it is the word of His gospel that is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Salvation is not a human self-help program. It requires God imparting a new heart and new life to those who were dead in their sins. The work of evangelism does not depend on our feeble powers of persuasion, but on God’s mighty working in the hearts of sinners.

(2). Jesus is the holy Lord. When Peter saw Jesus’ mighty power, he was instantly overwhelmed with Jesus’ holiness in contrast with his own sinfulness. A more logical prayer would have been, “Don’t depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” But Peter wasn’t being logical here. He was expressing what Isaiah felt when he got a glimpse of the holiness of the Lord and cried out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). People today, first God’s people, but then those who do not know Him, need a fresh vision of the absolute holiness of the Lord. Such a vision shows us our desperate need and our own inadequacy to meet that need. Thus, casting off any perceived goodness of our own, we will cast ourselves completely on God’s abundant mercy.

(3). Jesus is the gracious Lord. Note the Lord’s gracious reply to Peter: “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” Jesus’ words, “from now on” are great words of hope for us all! Maybe you’ve failed miserably. Perhaps you are overwhelmed by your own sinfulness. Fall before Jesus as Peter did and confess it to Him and you will hear His gracious words, “from now on.” He is the gracious Lord of new beginnings for those who repent. To catch men for Christ, we must grow in our understanding of who He is, the powerful, holy, and gracious Lord.

B. We must grow in our understanding of ourselves as sinners who do not deserve His grace, but who are transformed by it.

Peter’s recognition of his own sinfulness did not disqualify him from catching men for Christ; rather, it qualified him. If you think that you have it together well enough that you’re qualified to serve the Lord, you are not qualified to serve Him! The Lord calls into His service those who are constantly, painfully aware of their own sinfulness and weakness, because they are the only ones who are also constantly aware of their need to rely totally on Him. Even the apostle Paul, when speaking of the gospel ministry, lamented, “Who is adequate for these things?” Then he answered his question, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5).

It is the transforming grace of God in Christ that qualifies us and motivates us to reach out to others with the gospel. It was Paul’s recognition of himself as the chief of sinners that drove him to preach the gospel (1 Tim. 1:15; 1 Cor. 15:9, 10). If you know the depravity of your own heart, but you also know the abundant grace of the Lord Jesus, then you will go out as a beggar who has found bread to tell other beggars where they can find the same.

One final brief observation:

4. To catch men for Christ, we must work together with other transformed sinners.

Peter had to call his comrades to come and help him pull in the great catch of fish (5:7). He couldn’t do it alone. And in the work of catching men alive for Christ, we don’t work alone. It’s always a joy when I hear of someone who trusted Christ through my preaching. But, invariably, I also hear that someone else in the body has been praying for that person and witnessing to him or her. We work together to bring in the catch, but behind it all, we are not responsible for the catch. The Lord is! We work together, but the Lord gets the credit and glory.


Is the thing that captivates your life your business or the Lord’s business? Are you focused on catching fish or on catching men? I read about an elderly man who ran a variety store. It had once been a thriving business, but as he got older, the man became obsessed with keeping the store neat and clean. He spent hours arranging and rearranging the merchandise on the shelves. Some days he wouldn’t even open the store, for fear that it would be thrown into disarray. That man had lost sight of the purpose of his store!

While it sounds ridiculous, it’s easy to do. Gradually, your focus shifts from the Lord’s purpose of catching people in the gospel net to your business, whatever it may be. I pray that the Lord will use this message to show us all that the greatest purpose we can have in life is to follow Jesus in catching men alive for Him. I pray that each of us will go out into our respective mission fields armed with that purpose, and that the Lord will be pleased to give us a miraculous catch of men and women and young people for His kingdom!

Discussion Questions

  1. Should every Christian have the purpose of reaching the lost or is this only the job of some? Defend your answer biblically.
  2. What are some pros and cons (if any) of Christians being trained to share their faith?
  3. How can we maintain a profound sense of God’s holiness and yet relate to sinful people without seeming “holier-than-thou”?
  4. What is the scariest aspect of being involved in evangelism for you?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Discipleship

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