The Frustrated Fisherman: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Limited Vision
March 4, 2001
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Occasionally I am asked how I ended up in the ministry. My close friends know that I come from a family with a background in medicine. My father was a surgeon and my three brothers are all medical doctors. There are no pastors or missionaries in my family tree so far as I know. So how did I end up as a pastor?
The story goes back about 31 years. Although I had been raised in an evangelical church, I had never trusted Christ as my Savior. I had been baptized, joined the church, and was active in our youth group but I was not born again. After my junior year in high school, through a series of events that now seem to me to be divinely ordained, I came to true saving faith in Christ. Or to say it another way, Christ found me and he changed my life from the inside out. I spent my senior year in high school trying to decide what to do next. As a teenager, my dream had been to either be a journalist or a television newsman—like Walter Cronkite. But I also sensed that the Lord might have other plans for my life.
One Thing I’ve Never Doubted
The turning point came in June 1970, one month after my high school graduation. I vividly recall staying up late at night, pacing my bedroom, pondering my future. What did God want me to do? What could I do? What should I do? One night I had an encounter with the Lord. After pacing the floor, I eventually went to bed. Later I woke up with a strong sense that God was speaking to me and calling me into the ministry. I recall saying something like this: “Lord, if you want me, I’ll be a preacher for you.” It was a profound moment of personal surrender. I didn’t hear an angelic choir or see strange lights, but I was aware that God had spoken to me as a 17-year-old high school graduate. Nearly a third of a century has passed since that night, and I have sometimes wandered and often wondered, but I have never doubted God’s call on my life.
Over the years I have come to two conclusions on the basis of the Word of God and my own experience: 1) Christ still calls men and women to follow him today, and 2) Christ still calls men and women to serve him full-time.
Our text is the story of how Christ called Peter to be his disciple. In the beginning of the story he is fishing for fish; by the end of the story he is fishing for men. I find it fascinating to consider the men Jesus chose as his first disciples. It’s clear that he didn’t go to an executive search firm or visit the placement office at the local college. He started by calling men with dirt under their fingernails, blue-collar types, men without much education, men who knew about hard work and the value of perseverance. Fishermen. Jesus chose fishermen as his first followers. Not very likely. Not how we would do it.
I wonder why he started with fishermen? I think I know the answer. Fishermen understand this story very well. To be a fisherman you need patience above everything else. Sometimes wives will ask their husbands, “How can you stand there by the bank or in the boat or in the water for hours on end, waiting for a fish to bite?” The answer is, “It’s easy.” That’s what fishing is all about. And if you can’t handle getting “skunked” occasionally, then you probably would be better off not fishing at all.
The progress of this story is very simple. First Peter caught fish, then Jesus caught Peter, then Peter caught men. It all begins with a frustrated fisherman cleaning his nets after a long, hard night.
I. A Sense of Need 1-3, 5a
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret (another name for the Sea of Galilee), with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. … “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything” (Luke 5:1-3, 5a).
Fishing is hard work. It’s one thing to fish on the weekends. It’s something else to fish every day for a living. Peter, Andrew, James and John fished on the Sea of Galilee year round. They either sold their fish locally or the fish were salt-cured and sold as far away as Spain. You wouldn’t get rich that way, but a hardworking man could take care of his family.
Now it is morning and Peter and the others are tired, exhausted, dejected, and probably in a foul mood. Fisherman like to say that “your worst day fishing is better than your best day in the office,” but I’m not sure Peter would have agreed at that moment. Now they are busy mending the nets—time-consuming work made more difficult by the frustration of knowing they caught nothing the night before.
When Jesus asks Peter if he can use his boat, Peter immediately agrees. He knows Jesus and admires him greatly. I believe he already has become a follower of sorts, but until now has never made a wholehearted commitment. So when Jesus wants to use his boat for a pulpit, Peter is honored to grant the request.
How fitting it is. Jesus comes to the scene of Peter’s failure and uses it to preach the Word. He takes the ordinary and makes it sacred. He uses a simple fishing boat as the setting for a mighty miracle.
Nothing in this story happens by chance. All is meant to teach us an important truth: God still prepares us for his call by allowing us to endure personal failure. Until we sense our need of him, we will not be ready to follow him. After all, if you think you are self-sufficient, why would you need Christ? We must be stripped of our self-confidence before we can be greatly used of God. Peter must be broken before he is ready to respond to the call of Christ.
II. A Challenge to Obedience 4-5
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:4-5).
The words of Jesus contain both a command and a promise. It’s not as if Jesus is saying, “Let’s go out into the deep water, put down the nets, and we’ll see what happens.” Jesus is promising that if Peter will obey, he will catch fish. I’m sure that after a long night of fruitless fishing, this must have been hard to believe.
We can learn some useful lessons from this: 1) God never gives foolish commands—though they may look foolish at the time; 2) God intends to bless those who obey him without hesitation; 3) God’s greatest miracles usually require our cooperation.
There were certainly reasons for Peter to be skeptical. After all, the experience of the previous night seemed conclusive. As a professional fisherman, Peter knew the lake. And he knew that sometimes even the best fishermen get “skunked.” He could have said, “Sorry, Lord, but it’s not worth the trouble.” Or “I’m the expert here.” Now comes the time to “fish or cut bait.” What will Peter do?
He decided to go fishing in the middle of the day. Why? All fishermen know the answer. He went because he was a fisherman and every fisherman lives by the credo: “You never know what may happen next time.” True fishermen are always ready to give it another go. Why not? When you get skunked, you can’t wait to get back out on the water again. And there is always a reason you failed the last time. Too much light, too little light, the water was too clear or too muddy, the fish were too deep or too shallow, there was too much wind or not enough wind. It doesn’t matter, does it? Fishermen love to fish. And that’s why Peter was ready to go even after a futile night of frustration.
I love the way Peter puts it, “Because you say so.” In the King James Version, the phrase is “Nevertheless, at Thy Word.” This is the watchword of the saints. Across the centuries believers have found them to be their divine marching orders. Conditions may be dark and the world may fight against us, circumstances may overwhelm us, and our fears nearly submerge us. But God speaks and his children say, “Nevertheless, at Thy Word.” And off we go in obedience to Almighty God. Middle-aged Abraham set off across the desert with no more than this: “Nevertheless, at Thy Word.” Noah built an ark in the face of an unbelieving world with no more than this: “Nevertheless, at Thy Word.” Moses defied Pharaoh, looking to heaven and saying, “Nevertheless, at Thy Word.” Joshua marched around Jericho day after day with this in his heart: “Nevertheless, at Thy Word.” And young David confounded all the doubting men of Israel by marching into the valley armed with this confidence: “Nevertheless, at Thy Word.”
Then Peter added, “I will let down the nets.” We still have a part to do. The fish aren’t going to jump in the boat by themselves. We still have to do what we have to do. We’ve got to go to work, we’ve got to stay on the diet, we’ve got to go to the meetings, we’ve got to go to the counselor, we’ve got to share the gospel, we’ve got to do our homework, we’ve got to write the term paper. There is still work for us to do. I believe there are many answers to prayers that await only one thing: “Let down your nets.” Put your net down into the deep water, do your part, and then God will do his. Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie says it this way: “Without God we can’t; without us he won’t.”
The OPCA Miracle
Last Friday night I attended the annual fundraising event for Oak Park Christian Academy, the K-8 Christian school that meets here at Calvary. The school is very close to my heart for many reasons, not the least of which is that my wife is the administrator. When Marlene gave her speech at the beginning, she recalled a story that I had forgotten. Before the school opened six years ago, we took a survey to see how many potential students we might have. The results astounded us. If the numbers were to be believed, we might have as many as 150 students in our first year, and the number could conceivably hit 200. Thus buoyed with proof of God’s intended blessing, we opened enrollment in February. Immediately two or three applications came in. We waited for the flood of other applications to come. March came. Then April. Then May. Then June. Then July. Where was the flood? What happened to all those potential students? Oh, how the mighty were fallen. Our grand dreams of a few months earlier had vanished, dashed on the rocks of hard reality. On August 1 we had a grand total of five students with opening day less than three weeks away. Common sense suggests that you need more than five students to start a school. The board met, took a deep breath, decided to hire two teachers and open the school anyway. Three weeks later we had 19 students. The next year 41, the next year 59. And this year we have 123 students and it looks like we may have 140 next year.
Looking back, I am convinced that the turning point came when the board said, “God called us to launch this Christian school. And even if we only have five students, we’re going to let down our nets for a catch.” That took faith and courage. The school stands today as a testimony to God’s faithfulness to a few people with a dream who “let down the nets” and were not swayed by the circumstances.
III. A Demonstration of Divine Power 6-7
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink (Luke 5:6-7).
This is what fishermen dream about. They spend a lifetime fishing in hopes that maybe one day something like this will happen to them. What a sight! So many fish came into the nets that they begin to break. The men end up filling both boats with so many fish that they began to sink. Think about that. Two overloaded boats with fish flopping everywhere slowly coming to shore. This is the biggest catch ever—and it happened in the middle of the day.
Please note that the fish were there all along. It’s not as if Jesus created the fish on the spur of the moment. Those fish were in the water the night before; Peter just couldn’t find them. But when Jesus is in the boat, everything changes. Everything is happening according to God’s plan. He allowed Peter to fail so he would learn what he could do with Jesus’ help.
There is a nice moral to this part of the story: Empty Nets without him; full nets with him. Let’s go fishing with Jesus every day!
IV. Confession of Inadequacy 8-10a
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners (Luke 5:8-10a).
This is the kind of confession we don’t often hear today. One might expect Peter to start bragging to his friends, “Hey, look at all these fish! We’re the greatest fishermen in the world.” But instead Peter is overwhelmed (the word translated “astonished” actually means to be terrified) by the enormous catch of fish. I think Jesus has completely blown his categories. To Peter, a good catch might be 30 fish or 50 or perhaps 100 fish. But he never dreamed of catching 5000 fish at one time. Instead of elating him, the sight of such a huge catch evaporated his confidence and left him dazed and frightened.
Like most of us, Peter thought in “man-sized” categories, not “God-sized” miracles. He had room in his mind for anything he himself could handle. But when Jesus got involved, the results blew his circuits and (in the providence of God) drove him to his knees in desperate prayer.
The scene is reminiscent of Isaiah’s reaction upon seeing the Lord high and lifted up: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). Once Peter realized who Jesus really was—the true Son of God from heaven—he saw himself in a new light. To see God is to see ourselves as we really are. And sometimes the vision is too much for us to handle. Peter could not stand the contrast between the purity and power of Christ and his own sinfulness.
Here is a man who has been deeply changed on the inside. His pride has been burned away by a transforming vision of Christ.
V. A Call to Personal Commitment 10b-11
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him (Luke 5:10b-11).
I find it significant that Jesus seems in a sense to ignore Peter’s desperate confession of unworthiness. Jesus knows the truth about Peter and he knew it all along. What matters is that Peter now knows the truth about himself. With his pride stripped away, he is now ready to serve the Lord.
There is an important lesson for us to ponder in all this: When we encounter Jesus, we will never be the same again. No one can meet Jesus and walk away unchanged. We may end up closer to God or we may harden our hearts, but no one ever meets Jesus and stays the way they were before. In Peter’s case, his confession became part of his testimony. He knew he was a sinner and wasn’t ashamed to admit it. God can use a man who knows his weakness and doesn’t try to hide it.
By trade Peter was a fisherman—and evidently a good one. Now Jesus is going to give Peter a new occupation. Before this day he had fished for fish. Henceforth, he will fish for men. Even better, he will catch men! The Greek has the idea of catching men alive. Peter will cast the gospel net and catch men for the Savior. And not just in small groups. On the day of Pentecost 3000 men will respond to his powerful gospel sermon (Acts 2).
The same thing happens to all of us sooner or later. When we respond to Christ’s call, he changes us and then he changes our personal agenda. If we decide to take Christ seriously, we may end up doing something we never thought possible. “What if Jesus asks me to do something I can’t do?” He will! He always does. If he only asked you to do stuff you could already do, you wouldn’t need him. But when he asks us to do something we can’t do, he gives us the power to do what we thought we could never do. And we end up doing it and he gets the credit.
What Happened to Rich and Carol Bonham?
Next Sunday we begin World Focus Week at Calvary. For seven days we will consider God’s call to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. A number of missionaries will join us. For many years Rich and Carol Bonham helped plan this conference. But they won’t be with us this year because in January they moved to Germany to serve as missionaries with Greater Europe Mission. Rich left a good career with the Wrigley Company to use his computer skills for the cause of Christ in Europe. I can remember when Rich and Carol traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia to help in the construction of the Temple of the Gospel ten years ago. And they have made other short-term trips since then. Now they have joined our missionary family.
Right now I’m thinking about Greg and Carolyn Kirschner. A few years ago they both gave up promising medical practices to go as medical missionaries to Nigeria. With my own eyes I have seen the ministry God gave them at the hospital in Jos, Nigeria. Over a year ago they returned for an extended furlough; this summer they and their four children are returning to Nigeria. In my mind they are an All-American family. No, it’s not easy to go to Nigeria and it’s not easy to go back a second time. There are many good reasons to stay in America, but God has called and they must obey. There is no other explanation.
I do not mean to suggest that everyone must give up their career and move overseas. Perhaps more of us should seriously consider that option. But for most of us, the call of Christ means going back to work tomorrow morning with a new determination to serve Jesus Christ on the job. Or it means going back to the classroom determined to be a disciple for Christ no matter what anyone else may say or do. Or it means staying right where you are—even in the midst of personal difficulty—as part of your faithfulness to Christ.
Walking the “Jesus Road”
For Peter and the others following Christ meant leaving behind the old life (including the incredible catch of fish), giving up the boats and the nets and their livelihood, and following Christ into an unknown future. Letting go must always come first. Anything that hinders our walk with Christ must go. Even some good things must go in order that better things may come from the Lord. We can’t have it both ways.
The word for “followed” means “to walk the same road.” That’s what a disciple does—he walks the same road as Jesus. He gets on the “Jesus road” and follows it wherever it may lead. No guarantees, no deals, no special promises. He simply walks that road every day, following in his Master’s steps.
Don’t be afraid to follow Jesus. You’ll never regret starting down the “Jesus road.” You’ll only regret that you waited so long to do it.
Are you ready to follow Jesus wherever he leads? That’s all he wants.
They gave up everything and followed him! And my heart cries out, “Me too, Lord. Me too!”