The First Big Catch

“The Calling of Peter and Andrew,”
Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1308.

After an early excursion to Jerusalem at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, which is only described in the Gospel of John, Jesus focuses his efforts in Galilee where he uses Capernaum as his home base. Here’s some context.

The province of Galilee, located in the northern part of 1st Century Palestine, is approximately 50 miles long and 25 miles wide. The eastern border of Galilee is marked by the Sea of Galilee, which is 14 miles long and 6 miles wide and is almost 700 feet below sea level. If you have ever been there, you know it is a beautiful lake and you can see the entire lake anywhere you stand on its shores.

Historians note that Galilee was one of the most densely populated provinces in the Middle East during Jesus’ time with a population of approximately 15,000. It was a strategic place for Jesus to begin his ministry.

Mark tells us in his Gospel (1:15) that Jesus’ first words were, ‘The time has come” – that’s when he announced the beginning of his Kingdom message. He has been baptized, he has faced the temptation in the wilderness, and now he is beginning his healing and preaching ministry. Jesus begins his preaching in Galilee before choosing his disciples, but it isn’t long before he starts recruiting his companions. John tells us of an early meeting between Jesus and some young men who would later become disciples, but that is just a “get-acquainted visit.”* In an area as small of Galilee, these young men (Andrew, Simon, Philip and Nathaniel) surely heard reports about Jesus and how the people are flocking to him, so he is known to them.

Both Matthew (4:18-22) and Mark (1:16-20) tell us about Jesus’ calling of his first four disciples. It is hard for us to understand this history-making event, because the concept of discipleship in our day bears little relationship to discipleship in 1st Century Galilee or Judea. The Gospel writers don’t tell us much. They record that Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee, sees Simon and Andrew fishing and says to them, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” They agree and follow him. Then Jesus walks further along the coastline, sees John and James mending their nets and calls them and they also agree and follow him. This is quite a “catch” – four apparently successful fishermen-recruits without any offer of a long-term contract, health care benefits or a retirement plan! What’s going on here?

In the 1st Century, young Jewish males could apply to a rabbi and request that the rabbi choose them as one of his disciples. It’s very serious business during this period of Jewish history because these disciples would only be accepted if they gave up everything and totally surrendered to the authority of their rabbi. In fact, for young disciples during this time, their goal was to emulate their rabbi and even copy his mannerisms and prejudices.

But Jesus chooses another way of gathering his disciples – he chooses them, they don’t choose him. He issues a call to four fisherman and later adds eight more, but they don’t apply to him – no entrance exams, no submission of CVs. It is a calling and these men know what it involves. They see something they want in Jesus – he is the leader they are desperately looking for.

The Gospel of Luke (5:1-11) adds more details to this event and I love his portrayal of what takes place. Luke tells us that crowds are pressing around Jesus “to hear God’s word” and Jesus sees Simon’s two boats, climbs into one of these boats and asks Simon to push the boat out into the water so he can sit down and teach the people without being pressured. Now Simon and Andrew see Jesus in action, they see Jesus announcing the good news of the Kingdom of God and the need for the people to repent. What a great move to use a boat for his pulpit, before asking these fishermen to join him!

Then, when the sermon is over, Jesus says to Simon and Andrew, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon quickly responds that they had been fishing all night and had caught nothing, but then he adds, “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they let their nets down, their boats almost capsized because of the huge catch of fish – in fact, other fishermen have to come out and help them bring in their catch.

This miraculous event so impacted Simon, Andrew, James and John that all four of them “pulled their boats up on the shore, left everything and followed him.” How do you impress fishermen? Help them make a big catch! While they are amazed and frightened by what they just witnessed, Jesus tells them, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men” (Luke 5:10-11). By the way, this is one of the many times Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t be afraid” – they are just beginning an amazing three-year companionship with the Prince of Peace.

This is the first of two miraculous catches of fish recorded in the Gospels, the second one is in the last chapter of John. In this one, Jesus casts the net and catches four men who will become his closest friends and key leaders in the early church. His request to them is a call, one that they can accept or reject. The same is true of us.

So What?

  • It is so hard for us to imagine what it meant to become a disciple of a rabbi in the 1st Century – it involved total submission to your teacher; in fact many rabbis were considered more important to their students than their biological fathers. The question we have to answer is whether or not we are willing to also submit to Jesus as our Lord.
  • Jesus’ statement, “Don’t be afraid” – a statement his followers heard many times — should be a warning to us that following Jesus may also put us in situations where we will be frightened. Has this happened to you? _________________________________________________________________________________________________

NOTE: For my reflections on this earlier encounter with Jesus and some of these fishermen, see my post of January 21, 2013, “ Getting Acquainted with Jesus.”

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