Jesus teaches by the Sea of Galilee and calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be His disciples. Based on what we know from other references, this isn’t His first exposure to the fishermen but it’s the first time His divinity becomes real to them. Once they realize the truth, they do what only makes sense – they leave everything and commit their lives to Him. The first disciples become types of all future believers: when faced with the reality of the person and work of Jesus, the only choice is to believe, leave everything, and follow.
Jesus continues His teaching ministry in Galilee and His fame and followers continue to grow. One day while teaching beside the lake of Gennesaret (another name for the Sea of Galilee), the crowd is so heavy that He asks a nearby fisherman to take Him out in his boat so Jesus has room to sit and teach. The fisherman Jesus asks is Peter (who Luke identifies as Simon, his name before Jesus renamed him). There is nothing coincidental or random about this exchange. Jesus has plans for Simon and his companions.
If we understand the chronology of the different gospel stories correctly, this isn’t the first time Jesus and Peter have met. Per John 1:35-42, Jesus actually met Peter and his brother Andrew shortly after Jesus’ baptism while Andrew was still a disciple of John the Baptist. Andrew heard John’s testimony about Jesus and followed after Him. After spending a day with Jesus, he found his brother Simon and brought him to Jesus. When Jesus saw Simon, He renamed him ‘Peter’ (Cephas).
Implicit in John’s text is that Andrew and Peter (and another unnamed disciple – probably John), followed Jesus from then on. But in light of this story in Luke (along with Mk 1:16-20 and Matt 4:18-22) it could be that the brothers spent time with Jesus but didn’t commit to following Him as disciples. It’s also possible that Jesus didn’t call them at that time.
In Luke’s account, this interaction takes place after Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (4:38-39). If that’s accurate, then Peter is familiar enough with Jesus to have had Him in his home. However, in both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law takes place after this calling. Assuming that’s correct – and it makes more sense logically – then Peter’s only prior exposure to Jesus was the one described in John’s account. [Luke likely orders the story the way he does intentionally, to make a point about Jesus’ ministry. He doesn’t place the stories in this order because he’s confused or received bad information. This lack of concern for chronology goes along with our point in the introduction as to why the gospels are not traditional biographies.]
Assuming Peter is familiar with Jesus from Andrew’s earlier introduction, it might explain why he’s willing to let Jesus use his boat for teaching. It may also explain why he’s grudgingly willing to agree to Jesus’ next request. After Jesus finishes teaching, He tells Peter to take the boat out into deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Why Jesus does this has to be a mystery to Peter. Why does the rabbi care about fishing and why would He want Peter to go right now, in broad daylight when the fishing is bad? [Nets are made of linen and are too visible during the day, so fishing is done almost exclusively at night.]
Peter explains to Jesus that he and his partners (Andrew, his brother – who’s mentioned in the Matthew and Mark accounts – along with James and John and their father, Zebedee) fished all night last night and didn’t catch a thing. Since it’s now daylight and the fish obviously aren’t biting, it’s probably a waste of time to go out. That said, however, Peter is willing to do it since Jesus asked (“…but at Your bidding I will let down the nets.”).
Peter takes the boat out into deep water, presumably with Jesus still on board. He also likely has Andrew with him (why Luke leaves Andrew out of the story is a mystery but note the plural ‘they’ in verses 6 and 7). Peter lets down the nets and immediately catches an enormous number of fish – to the point that the nets begin to break. The men in Peter’s boat call out to James and John and ask them to bring their boat so they can offload fish into it. Even with the second boat, there’s still not enough space for all the fish and the overloaded boats actually begin to sink.
When Peter finally realizes the significance of what he’s witnessing – Jesus is able to command the fish in the lake to do His bidding, which means He has authority over creation that ONLY GOD HAS – he falls down at Jesus’ knees (presumably Jesus sits on a bench or seat in the boat, so His knees are in front of Him) and exclaims, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
Peter has the same response that Isaiah had when he glimpsed heaven. In Isaiah’s case, he didn’t tell God to go away from him, he simply mourned his own state in comparison with what he saw: “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Is 6:5). Isaiah’s reaction is similar to Job’s when Job was faced with the truth and majesty of God: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). In each case, they understand their unclean, sinful state in an entirely new way when faced with the perfect holiness and majesty of God. Peter is overwhelmed by his sinfulness and realizes he has no business being in the same boat as the Son of God. As the Israelites realized at Sinai (Ex 20:18-19), it’s terrifying to be in God’s presence.
Peter isn’t the only one who’s awestruck and terrified. The others who are trying to wrestle all the fish into the two boats are amazed also. Andrew, James, and John are all fully aware that this man is more than they realized. What John the Baptist said is apparently true – “Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:36). Andrew told Peter after he first met Jesus that they had found the Messiah (Jn 1:41), but now he realizes the truth of who Jesus is even more fully.
Jesus calms their fears. He says to Simon, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” He refers to the four men’s profession and uses it to describe their new roles as disciples. Instead of catching fish, they will ‘catch’ men. They’ll go with Jesus as He preaches the kingdom of God and they’ll someday spread the good news of salvation available because of His death and resurrection. They don’t have to fear, they need to follow and become the agents of God’s kingdom and gospel.
Once the men bring their boats to land – brimming with fish – they leave everything and follow Jesus. This time they are specifically called and they don’t come back. They are no longer fishermen; they are disciples of the Messiah.
Some things to notice about the four men leaving their lives behind to become disciples. It’s easy to assume they aren’t leaving much, since they’re just fishermen. But fishermen have higher incomes than the average Galilean. And Mark tells us that James and John leave behind their father along with some hired men, so apparently the fishing partnership that Peter, Andrew, James, and John have is prosperous enough to employ others. Peter will later ask Jesus what the disciples will receive for having left everything to follow Him (Lk 18:28-30); he may ask because in his case it was significant (although probably nothing compared to Matthew, the tax collector). [Along with his fishing business, it’s interesting to wonder what happens to Peter’s wife. Does she stay home while he wanders around Israel for the next three years? Does she go with him? We do know that a group of women travels with and supports Jesus’ ministry (Lk 8:1-3), so perhaps this means the environment is such that Peter’s wife can travel comfortably with the group also.]
Notice also, nothing is said about arranging for the fish. They have a larger catch than they’ve probably ever seen (likely worth a lot of money), and yet they apparently just walk away. What they’ve just witnessed and who they now follow are much bigger than any haul of fish. Fishing might be their lifelong profession, but it pales into insignificance next to following the Messiah.
This story is essentially a picture of conversion – it’s a forerunner of the gospel in action. The four disciples become Jesus’ first converts and really become types of all converts from here on. Peter’s response when he fully realizes who’s in the boat with him isn’t, “You are awesome and powerful!”, but “I’m a sinner and not worthy to be with you!” This is the sinner’s appropriate response. Sinners confronted with the truth of Jesus – and enabled to understand it through the power of the Spirit – should become overwhelmed with their sin. They are on the wrong side of a holy and perfect God.
The good news (the BEST news of all time), however, is that Jesus then comes along – just as He does in this story – and says, “Do not fear, I’ve taken care of your sin problem for you.” Just when the sinner is made aware of his hopeless situation, Jesus comes and calms his fears with the message that his hopeless state is no longer hopeless. Jesus took his place and died for his sin so that he’s no longer counted a sinner and no longer on the road to destruction. Jesus did what the sinner couldn’t do and now the sinner has salvation through what Jesus did. The sinner is justified by Jesus’ death, and he’s protected from eternal death through Jesus’ resurrection. It’s the greatest news of all time and it’s why Jesus can come and say, “Do not fear.”
And just like with the four disciples, Jesus asks the convert to follow Him. To do that, the convert leaves everything pertaining to his old life behind. He may not need to physically move or change occupations (as the disciples do), but he joyfully turns completely from a life that was controlled by him to a life lived by Jesus through him (…it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me – Gal 2:20). He doesn’t worry about or mourn what he leaves behind (even boatloads of fish worth a lot of money), he simply leaves and places his life in the hands of the One who saved him.
When we see the story like this, it becomes a picture of what Jesus tells the disciples is their new profession. Jesus has His first catch of men. He shows them Himself; they become overwhelmed with what they truly are in light of His glory; and He calms their fears and calls them to follow Him. He’s the cause AND the solution to their fears, and they gladly leave their lives to follow Him as a result. They’ve been caught and they now go with Jesus to learn how to catch others.