By Gordon Franz
As the calm waters reflected the slowly rising sun over the Sea of Galilee, a lonely figure walked from Capernaum along a path near the rocky shore of the lake. On this spring day, He noticed the flowers, with their hue of diverse and plentiful colors, in full blossom along the shore and delighted in the birds flying overhead, singing their melodious songs. Yet His heart was still heavy. A few weeks before His family and friends rejected Him in His hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30).Since then He had spent the last several Shabbats teaching in the synagogue of Capernaum, the largest Jewish city along the northern shore of the lake (Mark 1:14, 15; Luke 4:31). Later that day, as the sun would set over the mountains of Lower Galilee, another Shabbat would begin. Yet before this day was over, the vocation of four Galilean fishermen would be changed forever.
“Follow Me, I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20)
The Seven Springs (today called Heptapegon, or Tabgha) are approximately 2 ½ kilometers to the west of Capernaum. Warm water flowed from these springs, loaded with organic matter that attracted fish during the winter and spring months. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, called the largest spring at this location the “well of Capernaum” ( Wars 3:519; LCL 2:723). It was here that the lonely Man spotted several Capernaum fishermen. Simon, later called Peter, and Andrew were wading in the shallow waters using their cast nets. This circular net, usually 6 to 8 meters in circumference with small stones attached to the edge, was carefully folded so that when the fisherman cast it forth it would open like a parachute and fall over the shoal of fish. The fisherman would dive down, gather the small stones on the edge of the net in order to entrap the fish inside the net, and drag the net to shore to sort out their catch.
The lonely Man called out from the shore, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” This was not the first time these fishermen had encountered the Lord Jesus. More than a year and a half prior, Andrew, a follower of John the baptizer, heard his mentor proclaim with excitement: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In the process of leaving the Baptizer, Andrew found his brother Simon and told him: “We have found the Messiah” and brought him to Jesus and both followed Him (John 1:29-42).
Three days later, Jesus and His new found followers were attending a wedding, probably a relative of Nathanael’s (John 1:45; 21:2), in Cana of Galilee. It was here that the Lord Jesus performed His first miraculous sign by turning water into wine, thus revealing His glory. His disciples (students) put their trust in Him for their eternal salvation (John 2:1-11; cf. 20:30, 31). On several occasions they journeyed to Jerusalem with Jesus and other pilgrims for the various festivals. On the Passover of the next year the Lord Jesus shared with Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, his need to be born from above by the Spirit of God, as well as God’s tremendous love for the world in sending His Son to provide salvation to all who put their trust in Him (John 3:1-21). On another occasion the following winter, while returning to Galilee, the Lord Jesus stopped with his disciples at a well near Sychar in Samaria. Here He offered a sinful Samaritan woman living water, eternal life. He then challenged His disciples to “… look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” (John 4:1-42). A month later, following up on this challenge, Jesus said, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Simon and Andrew left their nets to follow this lonely Man (Matt. 4:19, 20; Mark 1:17, 18).
Further along the shore, the Lord Jesus spotted two brothers, James and John, mending their trammel nets in their father’s large boat which was moored in the harbor near the Seven Springs. He called them as well and they left their father, Zebedee, and his servants and followed Him (Matt. 4:21, 22; Mark 1:19, 20).
That evening, Jesus and His new found “fishers of men”, returned to Capernaum for Shabbat. Jesus began training His new followers in the art of “fishing for men” by casting a demon out of a man in the synagogue and healing Simon’s mother-in-law. These demonstrations of power provided two powerful lessons; “fishing for men” included meeting both the spiritual, as well as the physical needs of people (Mark 1:21-35). Early on the morning after Shabbat, Jesus slipped out of town to a quiet place to pray. Later, Simon searched for, found, and informed Him that everybody was looking for Him. He continued His lessons of fishing for men by taking His disciples along as He preached in the synagogues throughout Galilee (Mark 1:35-39).
“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:1-11)
Discipling people is not an easy task. It takes time and effort because those being discipled do not grasp the lessons being taught or the seriousness of their decision to follow the Lord Jesus. Jesus must have been frustrated with Peter at times, yet He was ever so patient with him.
After several months of following Jesus around and listening to Him preach in the synagogues of Galilee, Peter decided to go back fishing. This decision had an adverse effect on the other disciples because several of them went back as well. Jesus needed to get them to understand who He was and that He could be trusted to provide their daily needs.
Peter and his fishing partners had fished all night and caught nothing. They had moored their fishing boat in the harbor of the Seven Springs and were washing their nets in the small waterfall near the shore. Jesus borrowed Peter’s boat and used it as a floating pulpit to preach to the multitudes which were gathered to hear the words of the famous Teacher. When He had finished teaching, He again turned His attention to His wayward disciples. Instructing Peter, He said: “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter protested for a minute because he and his partners had fished all night and caught nothing. Something else was in the back of Peter’s mind, the trammel net which he was instructed to let down was used only at night and close to shore! Jesus was asking him to do the absurd.
The trammel net was 200-250 meters long (656-820 feet) and consisted of three layers of net, a fine meshed net sandwiched between two large meshed outer nets. The fish swim through one of the large meshed outer nets and into the fine meshed middle net and through the other outer net. When the fish tried to escape, it gets hopelessly entangled in the nets. These nets are used only at night because the fish can see the nets in daylight. Peter must have questioned Jesus’ thinking in giving these instructions and was probably secretly daring Jesus to do something, yet he obeyed His words. Much to Peter’s amazement, there was a miraculous catch of fish and the nets began to break. He called for assistance from his partners on the shore. When they came to help, they filled the boats and began to sink. Peter fell down before Jesus and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
Peter realized that he failed to learn the lesson that Jesus taught the day before while preaching on the mountain (Matt. 5-7). The sermon, addressed primarily to those who already trusted the Lord Jesus for their salvation and decided to follow Him, touched on the issue of the disciples daily provision for food, drink and clothing. The Lord Jesus promised He would take care of these daily needs if they sought first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. If they did, all these things would be provided (Matt. 6:25-34). Peter failed miserably at this point. Rather than seeking the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and trusting the Lord for his daily needs, he went back fishing to provide for himself and his family. The goodness of God led him to repentance (Rom. 2:4) when he realized he was being discipled by the Lord of all Creation whom he could trust for his daily needs. Jesus reassured Peter that he was forgiven for not learning the lesson taught the day before with the words, “Do not be afraid” (5:10). When Peter came to a realization that Jesus was the Lord of Creation and that He was personally interested in him and could love and forgive him, in spite of his lack of attention the day before, he left everything and followed the Lord Jesus. This act was no small decision for Peter because he had a house, a boat and a very profitable fishing business (5:11). Yet this is what Jesus wanted of His disciples.
“Does your Teacher not pay the Temple Tax?” (Matt. 17:24-27)
One subtle danger that faces a disciple is spiritual pride. For more than a year now, Jesus had taught and trained these twelve men to be fishers of men. Three had seen Him transfigured before them just a few days before. As they left Mount Hermon and wandered back to the Sea of Galilee a heated theological discussion developed. The issue at stake was: Who would be the greatest in the Kingdom? Their concept of the Messiah was of one of a military warrior overthrowing the oppressive Roman authorities and establishing His Kingdom on earth. Yet on two prior occasions, Jesus predicted He would suffer and die in Jerusalem, and be raised from the dead three days later (Matt. 16:21; Matt. 17:22).
In response to the discussion on greatness, Jesus demonstrated humility, true Biblical greatness, before He addressed the issue. Jesus, God manifest in human flesh (I Tim. 3:16) and greater than the Temple (Matt. 12:6), did not have to pay the Temple tax. After all, it was His Temple!
In order not to offend others, He instructed Peter to go to the harbor of Capernaum and let down his fishing line. The first fish that he caught, a barbell fish, would have a Tyrian shekel in its mouth. This would be sufficient to pay the Temple tax for both of them. Jesus exemplified the words which the Apostle Paul would pen years later: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3, 4).
For a more complete discussion of this passage, see Franz 1997: 81-87.
Word Pictures from Fishing Life
Good teachers use word pictures or illustrations with which the student is well familiar to convey truth. Jesus, the Master Teacher, used fishing illustrations on several occasions to teach His disciples spiritual lessons. When Jesus wanted to describe the Kingdom of Heaven, He used the analogy of the dragnet. This net was usually 400 meters long (1,312 feet) and had a fine mesh. The top of the net floated on the surface by means of corks while the bottom hung down with lead weights. The net was laid out in a large semicircle by a crew of fishermen in a boat while another crew held the other end on the shore. After this was done, the net was pulled to shore and the fish were sorted, the good fish from the bad fish. The observant Jewish fishermen would throw the non-kosher catfish away. This scavenger fish had fines, but no scales (Lev. 11:9-12). By analogy, when the end of the age came, the angels would separate the wicked from the righteous (Matt. 13:47-50).
On another occasion, Jesus was approached by a rich young ruler inquiring what he had to do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-31). Jesus, using the Mosaic Law lawfully, sought to point out to this man that he was a sinner by listing some of the Ten Commandments. Yet He deliberately left out one, “Thou shall not covet.” In order for this man to see he had not kept the Law perfectly, Jesus instructs him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. This self-righteous religious person went away sad. Jesus pointed out to his disciples that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man trusting his riches to enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:22-24). The fishermen-disciples would immediately remember the needles which they used to mend their sails and they realized the impossibility for a rich man trusting his riches to be saved, yet it was possible with God because the Spirit of God would convict wealthy individuals of their unbelief and need for a Savior (John 16:5-11).
“Children, Did You Catch Any Fish?” (John 21:1-14)
A historian once said, “History repeats itself, yet we never learn the lessons of history!” This axiom holds true even in the spiritual realm.
After the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, He told His disciples He was going before them to Galilee and would see them there (Matt. 28:7; Mark 16:7). They went back to Capernaum and waited … and waited … and waited. Finally Peter, not noted for his patience, declared, “I’m going back fishing! Who is coming with me?” Six other disciples, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two unnamed disciples, decided to go with him. They went back to their favorite fishing spot near the Seven Springs and experienced a fruitless night of fishing. As the sun slowly rose over the Lake, a lone figure on the shore asked if they had caught any fish. The reply was negative. He instructed them to throw their net on the right side of the boat. Heeding this advice, the net produced a large catch of musht fish. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, said that the figure on the shore must be Jesus. Peter jumped into the Lake and swam for shore.
Jesus had breakfast prepared for them, yet even this was used to reinforce a lesson. On the coals of fire were sardines (“small fish”) and bread, a meal which was served by the Lord Jesus twice before. The first time was the spring before when He fed the 5,000 men plus women and children, mostly Jewish (Matt. 14:13-21 // Mark 6:30-44 // Luke 9:10-17 // John 6:1-14), and the second time was the previous summer when He fed 4,000 Gentiles in the Decapolis region (Matt. 15:32-39 // Mark 8:1-10). These two feedings demonstrated to the disciples that He alone was sufficient for their provisions and He had the power to provide for their daily needs (John 6:22-59). It also showed that the Kingdom included both Jews and Gentiles (Mark 8:13-21; Matt. 16:5-12).
To reinforce the miracle which just occurred, Jesus purposely asked Peter for some of the sardines that were just caught. After dragging the net to land, Peter sheepishly admits that there were 153 large musht fish, not sardines! Peter’s mind must have gone back to the events after his Master preached on the mountain and realized he failed to “seek first the Kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33; Luke 5:1-11). Then, as now, the Lord Jesus used the goodness of God to bring Peter to repentance.
Breakfast was by a “fire of coals” (John 21:9). Interestingly, that word is used only one other place in the gospels. In John 18:18, Peter denies the Lord Jesus three times by the “fire of coals!” An attentive reader would make the connection between these two events.
After breakfast, Jesus probably pointed to the fish, nets, boats, and disciples and said, “Peter, do you love me more than these?” Three times the Lord asked Peter if he loved Him, three times Peter answers in the affirmative and three times the Lord Jesus charged Peter to feed His lambs and sheep. The Lord Jesus in love and grace showed Peter that He had forgiven him for the three-fold denial by the fire of coals. Peter, as well as the other fishermen, never went back fishing for musht, sardines or barbell fish, but rather went fishing for the souls of men and women. The Lord Jesus used them to teach their own world and beyond with the gospel.
Peter never forgot his former occupation of fishing even while he was preaching the gospel. When he penned his first epistle, he used three word-pictures from his former trade. The first, he wrote to “gird up the loins” of your mind (1 Peter 1:13 NKJV). The second, was “all deceit” (1 Peter 2:1) used of a fish hook with bait that deceived the fish. And finally, after writing about the believers suffering for the glory of God, he penned a benediction, “But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you” (1 Peter 5:10). The word “perfect” is the same word used for mending nets in Mark 1:19. Even though believers were suffering persecution, God was mending them, just like the fisherman mends his nets.
I trust believers in the Lord Jesus will be encouraged as we fish with the Lord Jesus for the souls of human beings.
1997 “Does Your Teacher Not Pay the [Temple] Tax?” (Mt 17:24-27). Bible and Spade 10/4: 81-87.
1989 The Sea of Galilee and Its Fishermen in the New Testament. Kibbutz Ein Gev: Kinnereth Sailing.
1993 Cast Your Net Upon the Waters. Fish and Fishermen in Jesus’ Time. Biblical Archaeology Review 19/6: 46-56, 70.