When Jesus came upon the two brothers, Simon and Andrew, repairing their nets by the Sea of Galilee, he spoke to them those familiar words found in Matthew 4:19. “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” My experience has shown me that the words are familiar to the church, but the actual work perhaps not so much. How might we better understand the words so the work can be more accessible to us?
We can start by realizing that this call of Christ to these two men did not just come “out of the blue.” Some have read this text, seen Simon and Andrew immediately leaving their nets behind to follow Christ, and concluded that these men, without any previous interaction with Jesus, left all to work with him. However, that’s not the case. These brothers already had a growing knowledge of Christ.
Jesus was living a very public ministry at this point. He already had been baptized by John the Baptist. At that time, we find that Andrew had heard John the Baptist preaching about Jesus, seen him point Jesus out as the Lamb of God, and then gone to tell his brother Simon that he had found the Messiah (John 1:35-42). They then spent time with Jesus, who at that time gave Simon his better known name of Peter. After Jesus went out into the wilderness for forty days, these men returned to their fishing. Like followers of rabbis in their day, they would work and then take time off to learn and serve alongside their mentor. Likely these brother eventually traveled some with Jesus and observed him ministering before this point, for this appearance and call to these men came after John’s arrest by Herod (Matt. 4:12).
We also know that even after this calling in Matthew 4, the disciples likely went back to fishing for a time. For as Luke recounts, Jesus came to them at a later time and used their boats as a “floating pulpit” to speak to crowds gathered to hear him. On this occasion the Lord gave them a miraculous haul of fish that led Peter to fall down in fear and amazement, recognizing Jesus as God’s Son. They were then told “from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:1-12). Soon afterward, following a night of prayer, they were formally chosen and set apart by the Lord to accompany him in ministry (Luke 6:12-16). That ministry is described by the Lord himself as being a fisher of men or catching men.
With this understanding of the words now in place, we are in a better position to consider its works with these five principles.
Learn fishing from and with the Master. Though these men were professionals at drawing fish from the sea, they were humbled several times by Jesus in their own vocation (the catch above in Luke 5; feeding the 5000 with two fish and five loaves; calming the storm in their fishing boat; pulling tax money from a fish’s mouth…). This humbling by Christ in what they already knew was to remind them they had much to learn from him in what they did not know, which was catching men. The years they spent being with him and watching his interactions with people taught them how to win people to Christ.
Similarly, we need to learn from those in the faith who can teach us in the ways of the Lord regarding bringing people into the kingdom of God. We should desire to be around those who reflect the ways of the Lord with people to us. Much of this learning does not take place in a classroom, but in homes, marketplaces, and street corners as we watch alongside others who are serving people with a Christ likeness and engaging people in gospel discussions. Our students at the seminary do not only sit in a classroom for their evangelism class. Instead, our president, Jerry O’Neill, takes them out on house visitations, has them invite friends to an Andrew Dinner where an evangelism presentation is made, brings in others who have been fruitful to share their lives with them, and helps them cultivate friendships with unbelievers.
Repair the net that is the church. In this same passage in Matthew 4, two other fishing brothers, James and John, are also called by Christ. When Jesus called them, they were “mending their nets” (Matt. 4:21). My mentor, Pastor Ken Smith, likes to point out that the word used here to describe these men repairing their nets is the same word given in Ephesians 4:11-12 to describe the duty of pastors to “equip” the saints for service. This picture is fitting, for the church’s work in evangelism and discipleship is likened to casting a net and hauling in the fish (Ezek,. 47:9-10; Matt. 13:47-50). Ministers and elders must repair and equip their congregations in gospel fishing – mending the holes in the net by encouraging the weak, training the ignorant, moving people from selfishness to service, and showing them how to be winsome for God’s kingdom. This principle immediately leads to the next one.
Fish with others. Like my dad who could spend hours alone in a boat with a pole, too much evangelism training can focus on an individualistic approach. This emphasis not only intimidates God’s people but is simply not fully biblical in nature. Though surely a person can share the gospel personally with another, we primarily are to be casting the net with others. In this story, Jesus called pairs of brothers to join him in kingdom fishing. They worked together and they worked with others.
When we are planning evangelistic endeavors for churches, we should think of involving everyone. A few ideas?
- When I would go door-to-door during my church planting days, I took others with me. My most effective door openers were my own young children at the time. Not only did people seeing them smile and open up in conversation with me, but my children learned to have a heart for the lost.
- Plan events where people can invite their unbelieving friends. Not everyone is articulate with the gospel, but anyone can bring a friend to a picnic or supper where they can meet other believers to see and hear the gospel.
- Hosting a Bible study in a home, over lunch at work, or on a campus can be a great way to have others help with inviting people, providing refreshments, sharing their testimonies, or learning to lead a part of the study.
The key here is simply to be intentional in involving others so they can learn the joy of fishing.
Go where the fish are. I have a little outdoor fishpond in my yard with five goldfish in it. If you saw me standing out there each morning with a pole in my hand catching my own fish, you might question my sanity. (Side note: I do often stand outside at night under the porch lights trying to catch moths for my daughter’s lizard and frog. So my neighbors probably already question my sanity.)
Yet so it is with those who stay within their church’s four walls and think they will bring people into the kingdom. As in Jesus’ day so in our own – we need to be going to where the people are. He went to villages, towns, and cities preaching the gospel. He went to pools where the ill were, synagogues where the self-righteous were, feasts where the joyful were, and funerals where the grieving were. The pastors and elders of the church must be setting the pace here, demonstrating by their lifestyles their concern for the lost by being with them if they expect their people to have a like concern.
Keep moving the nets. It is not enough to be content with simply “being faithful” in kingdom fishing. A church that does the same outreach program for years without ever seeing a convert might want to consider evaluating their tactics. Please hear this. Jesus wants us to be fruitful! He expects there to be fish swept up with our nets! He even tells us to shake the dust off our feet when being rejected and go to better fishing holes!
Yes, certainly, missionaries, pastors, and laborers for the kingdom can be called to tough fields where they must persevere in much sowing and watering before a time of reaping occurs. Yet that does not mean we cannot evaluate our approaches, refine our methods, pray more fervently, and go to new places with the gospel. Fishing implies the action of moving the nets. We must stay active in reaching the lost.
As A.B. Bruce says in The Training of the Twelve, “these words (of Matthew 4:19)…show that the great Founder of the faith desired not only to have disciples, but to have about Him men whom He might train to make disciples of others: to cast the net of divine truth on the sea of the world, and to land on the shores of the divine kingdom a great multitude of believing souls.”