And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed on him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret,…
We left Jesus itinerating through Galilee and preaching in the synagogues. But his centre seems to have been the Lake of Gennesaret, and especially Capernaum. The synagogues have become too small for his audiences, and so he has to take to the seashore, and there meet popularity as best he can. The pressure of the people is great, and it is to hear the Word of God they have come. A great Prophet, they feel, has risen up among them, and so they are eager to know what are the latest tidings from the Most High. There are two ships floating near; they are empty, for the fishermen have returned after a fruitless night, and are washing their nets on shore. Into one of the ships he enters, which happens to be Simon's, and he sits down to teach the mighty multitude which rises tier upon tier above him on the land. We have thus presented to us -
I. THE GREAT FISHER OF MEN. (Vers. 1-3.) For out of this boat he is really casting his net to catch men. His word spoken is to draw souls into sympathy and service. The art of preaching as thus exercised by Jesus Christ was the fishing for men. The miracle of subsequent success was to throw light really upon this primary attitude of Jesus. Now, let us consider here:
1. The substance of Christ's preaching. It was doubtless about the kingdom of God, about membership in it, and about its prospects in the world. But we must remember besides that he could not, in the very nature of the case, preach the cross. Hence his preaching was the purest morality backed up by a perfect life. So that once, at all events, the preaching of morality got a chance of being most favourably tested. The success thereof we shall mention presently. But Jesus could preach himself as the Saviour of sinners. And this, indeed, is the sum and substance of all preaching. The people, however, did not understand the full meaning of his message at the time.
2. The success of Christ's preaching. There was interest and excitement. But the result of that day's preaching seems to have been very like the night's fishing on the part of the disciples. Ah! this is what illustrates the wonderful consideration of the Saviour. Some one must prepare the way, some one must do the pioneer work. The Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, and Jesus prepared the way for the disciples. It is at Pentecost, after the Crucifixion, when the full gospel can be proclaimed, that the real success begins. The miracle of the fishes subsequent to the preaching of the Master was the type of the order which the good Lord has ordained. The "greater works" done by believing disciples are the spiritual miracles which began in such numbers at Pentecost, and which have been happening ever since (John 14:12).
II. THE MIRACLE OF SUCCESS. (Vers. 4-7.) Our Lord, having been accommodated in Simon's boat, proceeds to show his gratitude for the obligation. He tells the fishermen to "launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught." Simon honestly owns that they have toiled all the night, and taken nothing; still, though appearances are against it, he will at Christ's word let down the net. No sooner has he done so than success comes so overpowering in character that the net breaks. The result is that they have to beckon for the second boat, and both boats are filled, so that they begin to sink. Here, then, is success "exceeding abundantly above all they can ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20). This is to show them that success waits upon the word of Jesus. It is, of course, mere temporal success - success which in a few moments they are enabled to despise; yet it is success obeying Christ's word. We need not inquire into the nature of the miracle. It was most likely a miracle of knowledge. There are great shoals of fish manifesting themselves in inland lakes just in the way demanded by the narrative. But Jesus, in giving the direction at the proper moment and securing the draught at the time that the fish were within reach, showed his command of all the circumstances. So that, as Robertson thought, this miracle, more perhaps than all others, shows the personality of God in Christ Jesus. The laws of nature hold on their way, but the Author of them can calculate to a nicety their working, and accommodate himself or his people through their operation. He is King among his own arrangements, at home among his own laws. The "hierarchy of laws," as they have been called, acknowledge him as High Priest. But we should further notice how he arranges for the disciples' success rather than for his own. As already intimated, his spiritual success was not great, considering the splendid powers he exercised. As Bersier somewhere remarks, no one ever had so little proportional success as he. No wonder that such a passage as Isaiah 49:4, "I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought and in vain," may have been often on his lips. But he handed on the elements of success to his successors. They reaped the harvest of which his apparent failure and early death were the seed. The whole arrangement reflects glory on the consideration of the Master.
III. THE EFFECT OF THE SUCCESS UPON THE FISHERMEN. (Vers. 8-10.) They were all filled with astonishment. This is the prime effect of a miracle. It astonishes people. It brings them suddenly face to face with superhuman power. They stare. But after the astonishment comes, and it may be very swiftly, sober thought. It was so here. Peter is broken down at the sight. Goodness has led him to repentance. His sin is now uppermost, and he cries, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord." Did Peter wish to be separated from the Master? Nay; but he felt he deserved to be. And here we may notice how prayer is answered. Peter cries to be separated from his Saviour; but in heart he hopes to remain beside Jesus still. Hence Jesus answers the heart, and heeds not the literal meaning of his prayer The Lord does not depart from him, but abides with him; nay, more, arranges for Peter being always with him. Goodness is meant to break sinners' hearts (Romans 2:4). Success of all kinds should have this effect. It is sad when "Jeshurun waxes fat and kicks" (Deuteronomy 32:15). It is blessed when, like Peter, in presence of unexpected good fortune, we humble ourselves before him who has sent it, acknowledging that we do not in any wise deserve it.
IV. THE CALL OF THE FISHERMEN TO THE MINISTRY. (Ver. 10.) Peter was not the only penitent on board the sinking ships, we may be sure. He was first and chief; but the sons of Zebedee and Andrew were, we may be quite sure, penitent too. Fear predominates; their notion is that they might justly be cast from Christ's presence for ever. This is just the spirit in which special work for God begins. And now let us see how Jesus deals with them. He says to Peter first, but the result shows that the others were included in his call, "Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men." They are to be promoted from being fishermen to be "fishers of men." It is a call, not to the apostolic office which comes later, but to the ministry.
1. It is a call away from a worldly occupation. For the ministry is an order of men set apart from temporal concerns for spiritual work. Worldly occupations are incompatible with it. A minister cannot do his work well if compelled to dabble in business.
2. It is a call to catch men. Now, the fisherman uses every art and artifice to get the fish into his net. He toils during the night, that the fish may not see the net nor evade his wiles. In the same way the minister is to use every art, and even guile itself, as Paul confesses, to get souls into Christ's net. We may object to the methods some people employ to promote the gospel. They may be worldly arts - advertising, music, paraphernalia of all kinds. But, before condemning enthusiastic men, we should ask ourselves the question - Have we left "no stone unturned" to bring men, even by moral compulsion, under the power of Christ and his truth (cf. Luke 14:23)? But:
3. The instruction is to catch men alive ζωγρῶν. It is here the fishing fails us as a figure. Fish are caught and, as a rule, in the catching are killed. They lose their lives in the process. But when souls are taken in the gospel net, they are taken alive - are taken to enjoy life abundantly. In truth, the greatest kindness we can confer on souls is to get them into the net. We never live in earnest till we have been brought to him who is the Life of men. Such, in brief terms, is the meaning of the ministry.
V. THE ACCEPTANCE OF THE MINISTERIAL CALL. (Ver. 11.) We would say, at first sight, that the success was singularly out of place. Why grant a shoal of fish, if the fishermen are to leave them without a moment's hesitation or delay? The purpose was to assure them that temporal success was Christ's gift; and secondly, that spiritual success must be preferred to the temporal, even when the latter is at its height. It was a greater surrender when they had been so successful at their fishing. But the noble men did not hesitate. They brought their ships to land, and then forsook all their "stock in trade" that they might follow Jesus. The fellowship with Jesus during his ministry was more precious than the world's wealth could ever be. He was the great "Fisher of men," and it was from fellowship with him they were to learn their profession. The training of the twelve was a most real and blessed thing. It was more than any theological learning could ever afford. It was learning of Christ himself, who is the embodied Truth. And yet to this same test every soul is sooner or later brought. At death, if not before, we are all asked if we can forsake all to follow Christ into undiscovered lands. May we all stand that test! - R.M.E.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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,
WEB: Now it happened, while the multitude pressed on him and heard the word of God, that he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret.