Fishing with the Master
Passage: Luke 5:1–5:11
Fishing with the Master
Our passage this morning describes two incredible catches. The first catch is the one that typically gets the most attention. It’s the unexpected catch of fish – a catch so great that it almost sinks the boats of the fishermen! This catch is clearly miraculous, and it occurs at the command of Jesus, who is not actually a fisherman. That’s the first catch.
But there is a second catch here in Luke 5, and it’s the second catch that is most astounding. It is Jesus’ catch of his first disciples – Peter, James, and John. Did you notice that after the best fishing trip in their entire lives, Peter, James, and John simply leave their boats in order to follow Jesus? Did you notice that in v11? Even after a miraculous catch of fish, it is Jesus who has captured the lives of the fishermen.
And this gives us some important insight for understanding Jesus’ miracle. The miracles of Jesus are not simply displays of power. Jesus’ miracles are also messages, or lessons that teach us something about Jesus and what it means to follow him. One scholar has even called Jesus’ miracles enacted parables. Now, that’s not to say the miracles are untrue – these miraculous events occurred just as Scripture describes. But at the same time, it does remind us that Jesus does not do miracles simply for the sake of doing miracles. Jesus uses miracles to teach truth about who he is.
And that is the case here in Luke 5. The first catch sets up the second. Just as Jesus’ word is able to catch fish where unexpected, so also Jesus’ word is able to make, or we might say catch, disciples, even among the unexpected. Do you see the connection? The miracle is part of the message. The first catch sets up the second.
And that confirms to us, brothers and sisters, that discipleship is the main focus of this passage. Luke 5 is about following Jesus. You can see this even in how the passage unfolds. Notice how Jesus drives the action. Everything happens at his initiative, from the teaching to the fishing to the giving of a new mission in v10. Jesus drives the action. And notice, then, how Peter follows that initiative. Now, Peter is not perfect, but he does stand out as an example here. When Jesus speaks, Peter responds. He follows what Jesus says. The entire passage, from the miracle to the flow of action – the entire passage is driving us toward following Jesus.
It’s fitting that we spend our time paying attention to what this text teaches us about discipleship. Specifically, I’d like for us to see three marks of a disciple that are apparent in this passage. Each one is connected with Jesus, and each one helps us understand a bit better what it means to follow him.
Disciples Bank Everything on the Word of Jesus
The first mark comes from the opening miracle, vv1-7 – Disciples bank everything on the word of Jesus. As the scene begins, we see Jesus’ continued focus on teaching the word. Jesus is beside the Sea of Galilee, and there is a crowd of people pressing in to hear the word of God. And this crowd is eager. They are literally pressing Jesus into the sea. He’s on the shore, and there is no place else to go. The crowd is eager, even hungry, but it’s also a problem. They are pressing Jesus into the sea.
But then in v3, Jesus takes the initiative. He gets into the boat of a local fisherman, Simon, and he tells Simon to push out from the shore. The boat, then, becomes a platform from which Jesus can teach.
But it’s what happens after the teaching that gets our attention. Jesus turns his focus to Simon Peter, and it’s at this point that we realize Jesus has more in mind than teaching the crowd. Jesus has something to teach Simon as well. Look at v4, and notice again Jesus’ initiative. V4 – “And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’” Now, remember, Peter and his partners have already cleaned up their gear. They’re ready to go home. What’s more, Peter and his partners have already been fishing all night, and they didn’t catch anything. Notice the first line in v5 – “And Simon answered, ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!’” Nighttime was the best time to fish, but Peter and his friends caught nothing last night. And now, the sun is hot on the water – surely, they won’t catch anything now. What do carpenters know about fishing anyway? From the circumstances, Jesus’ command appears to make little sense.
But then comes the turning point in the passage, brothers and sisters. Peter expresses some hesitation at first, but notice what else he says, v5 – “And Simon answered, ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word,” Peter says, “I will let down the nets.” I take this as a turning point in Peter’s life, and it is an example to every disciple after him. Instead of acting on the basis of what he can see, Peter acts on the authority of Jesus’ word. Instead of focusing on the circumstances, Peter focuses on Jesus’ word as powerful and worthy of his response. And so, on the basis of Jesus’ word – and nothing else – Peter responds. Peter follows.
And the result, as you know, is astounding. Vv6-7, Jesus’ word proves unimaginably fruitful – “And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.” The carpenter who teaches God’s word knows more about fishing than the fishermen!
Brothers and sisters, I cannot stress this point enough for us. Peter banked everything on Jesus’ word. Understand, the circumstances didn’t change until after Peter took Jesus at his word. There was no guarantee that anything would happen. There was no promise of fruit beforehand. All Peter had was Jesus’ command, Jesus’ word – and that word was enough. Jesus’ word was enough for Peter to take action, to trust the Master, and to let down the nets.
This is arguably the most foundational step of discipleship, pictured here in Peter’s response. Discipleship begins with placing all our trust, all our confidence in Jesus and his word. It is Jesus’ word that calls us, it is his word that has the authority, and most importantly, it is his word that sustains us in our following. To be a disciple of Jesus, then, is to bank everything on his word.
I’m struck by how much Peter’s situation in the boat matches up with living the Christian life. Think about it. Think about how often Jesus’ word calls us to act, even when the circumstances would say action makes no sense. “Forgive your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” That makes no sense from our perspective, but Jesus’ word sustains us. “Cast all your anxieties on God, because he cares for you.” That feels somewhat powerless, especially when you lose your job or when you get the scary diagnosis, but Jesus’ word sustains us. “If anyone would follow Jesus, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Christ.” That’s a costly way to live, why would anyone do that? Because Jesus’ word sustains us.
Do you see the foundational point, brothers and sister? A disciple banks everything on Jesus’ word because it is only Jesus’ word that can sustain us in the following. Listen, this is why I so regularly encourage you to be taking in God’s Word. It’s not about simply forming pious habits, or learning Bible knowledge. It’s about finding the strength, the sustaining foundation for your everyday Christian life. And I hope this moment with Peter in the boat reminds you that Jesus’ word is enough. His word is enough to both call for our faith and then to sustain our faith in the following. “At your word,” Peter says, “I’ll let down the nets.” That’s discipleship, brothers and sisters. We bank everything on the word of Jesus.
Disciples Live Only by the Grace of Jesus
The second mark of a disciple flows right out of this miraculous catch. It again involves Peter, and it comes in vv8-10 – Disciples live only by the grace of Jesus. If you’re familiar with Jesus’ life and ministry, then you’ll know Simon Peter is often quick to respond. Sometimes that response is wrong-headed, but in this instance, Peter’s quick response is exactly right. You’ll notice in v8 that Peter recognizes this moment is about more than fish. It’s about Jesus’ identity, v8 – “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’” Peter gets two things exactly right in his confession.
First of all, Peter sees a bit more clearly who Jesus is. There’s a change in Peter from v5 to v8. Perhaps you heard it as we read. In v5, what does Peter call Jesus? He calls him Master, which is a polite term of respect, like the term Sir in our day. But notice what Peter calls Jesus in v8. He calls him Lord. That’s more than a term of respect. It’s a term reverence, of adoration. Now, that’s not to say that Peter completely understands Jesus’ identity as fully God and fully man. That understanding will come only at the cross and resurrection. But, the change from Master to Lord does reveal Peter’s understanding that God is present and working in and through Jesus. And that’s why Peter calls Jesus Lord – because Peter recognizes that at this moment, he is standing near the presence and power of the Almighty. Peter sees a bit more clearly who Jesus is.
But you’ll also notice that Peter also sees himself a bit more clearly. God’s presence and power in Jesus are enough to convict Peter of his sin. Notice his confession in v8 – “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Peter recognizes that he is not worthy to stand in the presence of such an awesome and mighty Person. It’s a bit like the prophet in Isaiah 6, isn’t it? Do you remember that moment from the OT? The prophet Isaiah sees the presence and glory of God, and in response, the prophet cries out, “I am a man of unclean lips…for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” Peter is having a similar realization here in Luke 5. He’s sees the power and presence of God in Jesus, and the glory of that revelation exposes Peter’s unworthiness. It shows Peter his sin. That’s why Peter pleads with Jesus to leave. Peter’s not worthy to stand in the presence of such a glorious Person.
Brothers and sisters, I take this to be a consistent occurrence across Scripture. Whenever we are given a deeper glimpse into the character of God, it always causes us to see ourselves more for who we are – unclean sinners who are unworthy to enter his presence. Or, to say it another way, seeing more of God should make us a more humble people. In fact, if your knowledge of God is not producing more humility in your life, then you probably need to consider whether or not you’re actually growing in the knowledge of God! A true understanding of God always humbles those who see him, and that is a good thing.
But Jesus is not finished with Peter, not in the least. Look at v10, and notice Jesus’ first response. There’s a lot in v10, but for now, just notice the first words – “And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid.’” I love that. What a picture of Jesus’ heart for his people. Understand, Peter’s confession is right. He is unworthy! And that means Peter’s gut reaction of “I can’t stand in this Man’s presence” – that gut reaction is also right. Peter has no claim to be connected with Jesus at this point. Peter is unworthy compared to such an exalted Person. He deserves nothing, and certainly not the blessing of being called as Jesus’ disciple. Peter’s gut reaction to run away is right.
And yet, what is the first thing the Lord Jesus tells to this unworthy man? “Do not be afraid.” That’s the heart of Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters. When we are broken by the truth of God’s awesome power, and when we begin to see how unworthy we are compared to God, the Lord Jesus doesn’t cast us out. He calms our fears. He welcomes us with words of comfort – “Do not be afraid.” It is grace and nothing but grace that allows Peter to remain in the presence of Jesus Christ.
I was talking this week with a brother, and we were lamenting together how much sin remains in our hearts. Do you ever have those moments – when you’re just overwhelmed by the depth of corruption that still resides in your heart? I have those moments, and I was talking with a brother this week in just one such moment. But as we talked together and sensed afresh the weight of our unworthiness, something else struck us. It was the truth that though our sin is far deeper than we perceive, Jesus Christ is far greater than what we can imagine. Oh, how deeply the Lord Jesus loves his people! Oh, how tenderly he cares for his sheep! Perhaps my favorite OT prophecy about Christ, from Isaiah 42 – a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench. That’s what I pray you see here in the boat with Peter. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. He doesn’t chastise Peter or rebuke him or frighten him. No, the Lord comforts him. He assures Peter there is grace for those who humble themselves before the Living God. And brothers and sisters, that’s how unworthy disciples like us live – only by the grace of Jesus Christ.
Disciples Embrace the Mission of Jesus
In light of that grace, let’s look at the third mark of a disciple here in Luke 5. And this mark truly is rooted in the Savior’s grace. Without grace, this third mark would be impossible. But by grace, this mark brings freedom. From v10, then – disciples embrace the mission of Jesus. After his gracious word that dispels Peter’s fear, Jesus then commissions Peter with a new purpose in life. Just as Peter once caught fish, so now he will join Jesus in the work of catching men. Notice again v10 – “And Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’”
Now, many of us probably sang songs in Sunday school about being fishers of men, but what are we to make of this new mission? What should we takeaway from this call to be fishers of men? First of all, we should note that Jesus himself gives us the model to follow. Think about it. How has Jesus caught Peter, so to speak? Through his word – through teaching from the Scriptures and calling Peter with his authoritative word. Now make the connection with Peter. How will Peter go about the work of catching men? In the same way as the Master – through Jesus’ word, through teaching and proclaiming from the Scriptures. At every step, Jesus goes ahead and leads his people where they should go. That’s the essence of discipleship. A disciple is not a trailblazer but a follower. We follow in the Lord’s footsteps, doing what we’ve seen him do. Jesus fished with God’s word, which means we fish with God’s word. Whether it is our children or our neighbors or our co-workers, when it comes to making disciples, the word of God is foundational. Whatever the situation, our calling is to open the Scriptures, and then with wisdom and prayerful dependence, call people to follow Jesus on the road of discipleship with us.
And that leads into what is perhaps the most important takeaway for us from v10. In Jesus’ eyes, making disciples is central to our own discipleship. If you are a follower of Christ, then the Lord has called and gifted you to make disciples. This is the calling, the work of every believer, and every believer has been gifted by God to do this work. Of course, this doesn’t look the same in every believer’s life. We have different gifts and different circumstances that allow us to minister in a variety of ways and places. But even in those differences, this is still the calling of each believer. To be a disciple is to be called and gifted to make disciples.
And brothers and sisters, that means we should be burdened for those who are lost. Listen, discipleship involves more than evangelism, but discipleship does begin with evangelism – with seeing lost people saved by God’s grace through the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in the context of Luke 5, that’s the primary thrust of Jesus’s call. Fishing for men is about the salvation of sinners. It’s about conversion, and it’s a work that God carries out through the ministry of his people.
And that means we should be burdened for those who are lost and without Christ. Perhaps that’s a good place for us to start, brothers and sisters. One way we can be obedient to this passage is by praying for God to burden our hearts for those who do not know Christ. I’ll confess that I’m often simply too busy to see all of the opportunities that God has given me to make Christ known. I’m nearly always on the run to something else, so I don’t have time to do much fishing, I tell myself. And I think that’s true for most Christians these days, which is why I say that we should begin with prayer, asking God to burden our hearts for those who do not know Christ.
Along with prayer, there are some other practical ways that we can be about this work of fishing for men and women. One way is to practice hospitality, especially with friends and neighbors. As you well know, our society is increasingly isolated. It’s rare for people to know their neighbors, much less engage with them in actual relationships. But instead of bemoaning that cultural change, we as Christians can take it as an open door, a strategic way to be about our mission. Inviting neighbors or co-workers into our homes to share a meal can be a powerful way of reaching out with the gospel. Over time, relationships are built and God’s grace can work to bring new life to those who do not know the Lord. Hospitality – that’s one practical way of fishing for men and women.
Along with that, another practical way to be about our mission is to invite people to church. Now, I want to be clear what I mean at this point. I don’t mean invite people to church so that the preacher can do the work of sharing the gospel with them. For sure, people will hear the gospel if they attend our church, but that’s not the primary point I’m trying to make here.
I’m thinking more about the life of the church together, a life that is marked by brotherly love. The philosopher Charles Taylor has written that one of the effects of secularization is that people increasingly live with a disillusioned view of the world. Secularism tells us that this world is a closed system that operates solely on the laws of nature, the laws of cause and effect. But in such a closed system, do you know what gets pushed out? Grace. If this world is just carrying on the way molecules and atoms do, then what place is there for grace? There isn’t, and over time, that creates a deep sense of disillusionment for those who live with a secularized view of the world. To put it plainly, the secularized world is a cold and lonely place.
But again, instead of simply bemoaning this occurrence in the culture, Christians should take it as an opportunity. By inviting people in to witness the church gathered, we can give our disillusioned neighbors a glimpse of the world as it really is, as God intended it to be. The church gathered is a gospel picture, a community where grace, not nature, rules. It is both the grace of God in the gospel but also the grace of Christ extended between brother and sister. And in the light of that grace, the dreariness of the secularized world is exposed, and the beauty of the life of faith becomes more compelling. Understand, brothers and sisters, this is an integral part of our calling as disciples of Christ. We are called to embody, to put on display the hope of the gospel. We saw that even this past week, didn’t we – as you rallied to care for and support a brother and sister in need. In a secularized worldview, that’s not normal. But by the grace of God, that is true of the Lord Jesus’ church.
And that is the reason why I say invite people to church. It’s not because I have to be the one to give a formal gospel presentation. It’s because being here, among you all, can be a powerful means of grace that opens people’s eyes to a better way to live than the disillusionment of a secular world. It allows for the love of Christ, manifested in his people, to form a compelling picture of what the gospel does for lost and broken people.
By grace, Jesus gives Peter a new mission, and by grace, we’ve received that mission as well – to join Jesus in proclaiming the good news of salvation in Christ.
You’ll notice that as the passage concludes, Peter and his partners leave everything and follow Jesus. You can see that there in v11. It’s a small picture of what we’ll see over and over throughout Luke’s Gospel – following Jesus is costly, but that cost is worth it, compared to the glory there is knowing Jesus Christ..
But I would like to close this morning by answering a final question. As we’ve seen, Jesus calls his followers to be fishers of men, of seeing lost people saved by the same grace that called us to Christ. But my question is this – that mission is almost overwhelmingly massive, so how can we ever expect to see it accomplished? What hope do people like us have of accomplishing such a vast and monumental work? That’s my question, and maybe it’s a question that you’ve asked before as well.
And my answer, brothers and sisters, points us back to the miracle in this passage. Remember, the miracle is the message, and that’s where we find our answer. Think about it. Was it very likely in v5 that Peter would catch any fish? No, not very likely at all. They fished all night, caught nothing. And what’s more, it wasn’t even the right time to be fishing. In other words, there was no reason to expect that they would be successful. There was very little hope of catching anything.
And yet, what happened? Through the power of his word, Jesus brought in the catch. Through the power of his word, Jesus filled those nets full to the point of breaking. What seemed like an impossible, improbable task was fulfilled not by Peter’s strategy or strength or know-how, but by the powerful, gracious word of Jesus Christ.
That’s our answer, brothers and sisters. We can give ourselves to the mission of Christ because we go out with the powerful word of Christ. What does the apostle Paul say in Romans 1? We are not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. This is our mission, and our Lord Jesus has given us what we need to fish faithfully. He has given us his Word.
May we devote ourselves to knowing the Scriptures, believing the Scriptures, and then proclaiming the Scriptures, all to the glory and praise of Jesus Christ. And may God grant us fruit, brothers and sisters, until the day Jesus returns. Amen.