Catching Humans Alive

Sermon preached on Luke 5:1-11 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 08/29/2021 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Last week’s passage emphasized that Jesus needed to keep on teaching and preaching and bringing his message throughout Israel.  Here we see him continue to be about that ministry of the word as a crow gathers around him on one occasion when he was near the lake of Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee.  The crown had come to Jesus to hear God’s word.  But they were now pressing in on Jesus.  I could imagine he could have been crushed by such an eager crowd coming to him.  But Jesus wanted to teach this large group that was hungry for God’s word.  So, Jesus gets Simon Peter to take him out in his boat just a little way off the coast.  From there, Jesus is able to safely and effectively communicate to the crowd.  From there, Jesus can fulfill his purpose to teach these many people as God had given him to do.  So then, as we study today’s passage we too will be learning from Jesus.  And we’ll see themes of discipleship and evangelism come forth from this teaching.

In our first point for today, let us consider first this miracle of a great catch of fish.  I’ve already set the context for our story.  And so, after Jesus finished teaching the people from the boat, he directed Peter to take the boat out to deeper waters and cast the nets down for a catch of fish.  Note the background here in verse 2.  There had been two boats on the short, Jesus was now on one of them.  But when we saw the two boats it was clear that they were done with fishing for the day.  When Jesus arrived the fisherman were busy cleaning the nets, which is what you do at the end when you are done fishing.  We learn in verse 4 that in fact Peter, and James, and John, and probably some other hired hands, had been out all night fishing.  They had worked hard, and as professional fisherman they surely knew their craft, but they had sadly caught nothing.  I’m sure now, after a long night of being skunked in their fishing, then Jesus talking surely long to the crowds, they were tired and ready to be done and go home.  But Jesus then directs Peter to go back out for another run on the fish.

Peter at first seems to complain a bit.  “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!”  We can appreciate that.  He’s the professional fisherman.  He’s the one who worked all night and caught nothing.  He’s the one who knows the conditions for when it is best to catch fish.  Surely by now it is well into the day and surely the worst time to try to catch fish.  We can appreciate his immediate retort.  But then you have to appreciate his next words, expressing some sort of sort of respect and deference to Jesus as the master and teacher.  He says, “But at your word I will let down the nets.”  I imagine Peter basically meaning something like, “For anyone else Jesus, I wouldn’t bother to do this, but for you, I will do it.”

So then they bring the boat out deeper and they let down the nets, and praise be to God there is a humongous catch!  Verse 6 says it was so big that the nets started to break!  That’s when they signal back to the short to get their other boat to come help them with the big catch.  But even then, when the other boat comes and helps, it says that the boats are both so full that they are starting to sink.  To clarify, given the details here, this probably doesn’t mean that they are all going to sink and drown because the boats are overfilled.  But rather that the boats are so filled to maximum capacity that the boats have sunk down dramatically in the water and are just barely staying afloat above water and so they probably will want to get these boats back to shore right away!

In case it is not obvious, this was a miracle.  Some people are always looking for natural explanations to the Bible’s miracles.  Some people think that doing that actually adds credibility to the Bible.  But surely, we should understand this as a miracle.  If this was just about a natural explanation, then Peter had already given the expert opinion that they weren’t going to catch under natural, normal circumstances.  And yet they not only caught something when they shouldn’t have caught something, they caught the biggest load they could have caught – and yet not more than that either!  To God be the glory for such a wonder wrought by Jesus!

That leads us then to our second point for today.  Let us next consider how people responded to this miracle, especially Simon Peter.  In general, we see in verse 9, that the people who were there and witnessed this were astonished.  This is for the simple reason of what we already said.  It was a miraculous catch of fish, and if you had eyes to recognize it, you would have understood this to be something done by the power of God at work through Jesus.  We then note that the people especially described in view here in terms of a response are Peter, James, and John, verse 10.  They were all fishing partners together.  These would become three of Jesus’ twelve disciples.  We will see later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus specifically set apart and designate the twelve.  And in fact, Peter, James, and John in Scripture are even portrayed as the inner circle among Jesus’ disciples.  Clearly, this text wants us to recognize how Jesus is using this miracle to draw these three into the fully committed discipleship he plans for them.

So then, of these three, it is the words and reaction of Peter that is highlighted.  The Gospels love to highlight Peter’s words and actions as he always seems to be so quick to speak up in times like this.  So then, Peter in grand Peter fashion recognizes the miracle that Jesus performed and falls down before Jesus and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”  There are many important and wonderful things to point out here about Peter’s response.  First off, notice a godly fear by Peter.  This is related to who Peter is and who Jesus is.  Peter here acknowledges and confesses that he is a sinner.  Jesus, by virtue of this miracle, shows at a minimum that he is someone there who represents the almighty God.  Peter then is doing what is commonly seen when a human is confronted by God or angel sent by God.  He fears because of his sin.  The bible is full of examples of this that when someone experiences a manifestation of God or his angel, they tend to become greatly afraid.  This is a fear that recognizes the person’s sin in contrast the demands of a holy God.  It’s a fear that recognizes one’s sin deserves God’s judgment. 

Realize that this means Peter has come to a greater realization of who Jesus is.  Before the miracle, Peter already had a great respect for Jesus, as we see him calling him Master before the miracle.  The fact that he was willing to take the boat out for Jesus for another attempt at fishing despite his own judgment, also showed his great respect for Jesus.  And in fact, as we saw last chapter, Peter had witnessed Jesus rebuke a fever out of his mother-in-law.  And surely, he had seen some of the other miraculous healings and exorcisms take place already in Capernaum.  But there is something here, in his own personal involvement with this, that he recognized something wonderful about Jesus in this miracle.  So far, since Jesus began his teaching ministry in Luke’s gospel last chapter, we’ve seen a lot of general statements of people being amazed, and we see people asking questions when they recognized the authority of his word.  We’ve also seen some people clearly speaking against any special identity of Jesus, like when the people of Nazareth said, “Isn’t this just Joseph’s son”?  And we’ve especially seen that the demons know the true identity of Jesus.  And so too here, Peter’s words really say something about Jesus’ identity.  If Peter thought Jesus was nothing more than another Bible teacher, he wouldn’t have had this response.  For Peter to have such a fear that thinks he needs to be separated from Jesus, really says that Peter is now thinking Jesus is someone from God with great power and authority.  This represents a change in Peter’s perspective, a growth in Peter’s perspective.  It’s something we will keep watching to grow until we find his climactic confession that Jesus is the Christ in chapter 9.

So then, I can summarize Peter’s response to Jesus and this miracle not only in terms of fear, but in terms of humility.  For Peter to say that he is a sinner, and that Jesus should leave him, not only expresses a fear of possible judgment.  It also is a statement where Peter is humbling himself before Jesus whom he has come to recognize as an authoritative and powerful man of God.  Here, I think of words Peter would write many years later in 1 Pet. 5:6.  Peter said, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”  In these early years of Peter, he often doesn’t look too humble.  Sometimes he’ll look too bold, too quick to speak, etc.  But here, his quick-to-react personality rightly responds in this commendable expression of humility.  And as his later words rightly note, that is the right response for a sinner to do before God.  It is for us sinners to humble ourselves before God.  But it is also God’s good pleasure to lift up such humbled sinners in Christ and exalt them in God’s good timing.

That leads us nicely to our third point for today to consider Jesus’ response to Peter here and his words of fear and humility.  Jesus immediately encourages Peter that he doesn’t need to be afraid.  Indeed, Peter’s immediate reaction of fear was both appropriate and commendable.  But Jesus’ then graciously and mercifully dispels that fear with words of reception and love.  He tells Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t deny that Peter is a sinner.  Isn’t that too often what someone does when someone tells them some self-deprecating statement.  They tell someone, “I’m a horrible person”, and the other person might respond like, “Oh no you are not.”  Peter here tells Jesus that he is a horrible sinner, and Jesus doesn’t contradict him or correct him.  Peter is indeed a sinner.  All humans save Jesus are sinners.  If anything, Jesus could have justly agreed with Peter and declared God’s judgment on Peter.  That is what the prophets have so often done when confronting sinners – they declare God’s judgment on them.  But that’s not what Jesus does here.  He instead declares God’s mercy and grace to receive a sinner like Peter.  This implies that Jesus came to save and redeem and reclaim sinners.  That truth will, in fact, be said by Jesus later in this chapter, see verse 32.

But Jesus doesn’t just extend grace and mercy to receive a sinner like Peter.  He then tells Peter that he has a new profession for Peter.  He will be catching men. It is wonderful in itself that Peter as a sinner would be received into fellowship and friendship with Jesus the Christ.  But it’s even a greater expression of grace to then on top of that to give Peter a position of leadership and service and usefulness in Christ’s kingdom.

So then Jesus will turn Peter into a catcher of men.  Before, Peter was a fisher of fish.  Now, Jesus is going to train him into becoming a fisher of humans.  I love that verse 11 has an important nuance of the Greek that is not usually captured in translations.  The word for catching in verse 11 is a compound word literally for “catching alive”.  The word “catch” already appeared twice in this passage in verses 4 and 9 to refer to catching fish.  That word is then part of this compound word in verse 11, but the other part is the word for life in Greek, zoe.  So, unlike how when you fish, you catch fish to kill them.  Jesus tells Peter that is going to be catching humans, not to kill them, but so that they will live!

Of course, Peter will be learning from Jesus how to do this, because that is what Jesus has already been doing.  Isn’t that what we see Jesus doing at the start of this passage?  It’s so much like the visual imagery of this miraculous catch of fish.  They caught so much fish in the net that it threatened to burst the nets and lose the catch.  They had to get a second boat and more help to secure such a large catch of fish.  Well, this passage began with Jesus attracting a large catch of people to him.  There were so many people that they threatened to overwhelm him, maybe even smother or crush him.  He had to call for help via the boat to take him out into the water a little so he could safely reel them all in with his teaching.  Jesus himself here had been drawing in a huge catch of people to give them the way of life.  That is what Jesus now wants Peter to be trained to do.

So then, we see that Peter and surely James and John then respond to Jesus’s call for them to be fishers of men.  They leave everything, and follow Jesus, verse 11.  Regarding them leaving everything, we note that’s a rather wholistic saying.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be understood simplistically, like that very moment they just dropped all the fish on the shore and abandoned the boats to float away, etc.  That surely is not what is meant.  They probably did do something fruitful with the big catch and probably left the fishing boats and nets and other equipment in good hands.  But the point is that they themselves were leaving this job and life behind now.  It’s saying that they quit their day jobs with all their career and life plans and let it all go.  They did this in light of their new job offer, so to speak, by Jesus here.  Here I think of Jesus’ Parable of the Pearl of Great Price that is recorded in Matthew 13.  That’s the one about the merchant who had sought beautiful pearls and finally found one of great price and so he went and sold all that he had to buy it.  That parable expresses how we are supposed to so highly value the kingdom of God above all other things in this life.

So then as they leave behind their old life and calling, they begin to follow Jesus as his disciples.  We see this following of Jesus is literally what they do.  Jesus was going from town to town preaching the good news about the coming of the kingdom of God.  Jesus is going from town to town catching men alive, so to speak.  He is going throughout Israel making disciples in every place.  And he has some specially selected disciples like Peter, James, and John to go with him and be with him and to be specially mentored and trained by him in a way that the crowds as a whole were not.  I love how their following of Jesus and his mentoring of them is part of the grace Jesus shows them.  Peter’s words to Jesus had said that because of his sin that he needed to be separated from Jesus, that Jesus should depart from Peter.  But Jesus said “no”, that they needed to be with Jesus, that they needed to follow him and be with him always.

As we talk about Peter, James, and John leaving everything behind and going and following Jesus everywhere as his disciples, this would be a good time to give a clarifying note.  Prizing the kingdom above all else, and being a disciple who follows Jesus, doesn’t mean your life is going to look exactly like Peter, James, and John.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that Christ is calling for every person to abandon their current jobs, go to seminary, and then become a pastor or missionary.  Even in this passage, we see him teaching this crowd of people, but he didn’t call them all into the same special role that he would call his special twelve disciples like Peter, James, and John here.  To be sure, Jesus was calling everyone, the crowds included, into discipleship.  Jesus was calling everyone to prize the kingdom of God above all.  Jesus was calling everyone to service in that kingdom.  But such a call doesn’t necessarily involve leaving everything behind like in the sense of quitting your jobs.  But such a call does mean you should be willing to do so, if that is what God calls you to do.  Indeed, God does call some to the ordained ministry of the Word.  But for many, God instead is calling you to keep about your present calling but to do it as his disciple and in service to his kingdom.  We can set the pursuit of his kingdom as our chief priority even while we live out daily, so-called, ordinary callings of life.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, today’s passage can serve as a wonderful summary of Christian ministry.  We can think in broad terms that Christian ministry is about discipleship and evangelism.  Peter, James, and John are called to be both disciples and evangelists.  They will learn from Jesus on how to be catching men alive.  They and the other apostles will be used by Jesus to establish his new covenant church which will be characterized by the same.  The church’s ministry is especially to be about discipleship and evangelism.  Let us all see ourselves as disciples, looking to be zealous students of Jesus.  And let us see that the church is called to evangelism, and that is something for us all to be involved with, in one way or another.

Are you someone here who has not yet been caught alive to become a disciple of Jesus?  I pray that by the grace of God you would be caught today.  Humble yourself a sinner before God and hear the word of Christ that does not send you away, but calls you to come to him and find a new life and a place in his kingdom.

And for us in the kingdom, have we prized it the way we see commended here?  Have we valued it more than anything else in this world?  May the power of Christ spark that in us today, letting go of whatever we have tried to value above our Lord.  For indeed, he is coming again, and there will be no one who has left everything who will not receive a hundredfold from Christ and ultimately will inherit eternal life.  Amen.

Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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