“I will make you fishers of men.”
A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper
Washington – Nov. 23, 1997
Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men (Mt. 4:19).
Each of the four gospels tells how the Lord taught the disciples that they should become fishers of men. The versions in Matthew (4:18-22) and Mark (1:16-20) are identical, and tell the story of how the Lord chose the first four of His disciples. Matthew and Mark tell us how Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, sees two brothers name Simon Peter and Andrew. They are wading in the water, casting their net into the lake. He speaks to them, and says, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men” (text), and they immediately leave their nets on the shore and follow Him.
The story continues, and tells us that Jesus continued walking along the shore of the sea of Galilee, and saw two more fishermen, also brothers. They are James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and these two are in a boat with their father, not fishing but mending their nets. Jesus calls to them as well, and they immediately leave their boat and their father and come and follow Him.
As mentioned before, the versions in Matthew and Mark are the same, but it is quite interesting to note the differences in the way the same story is told in Luke (5:1-11). To begin with, the setting is quite different. In Matthew and Mark the Lord was apparently walking alone – at least there is no mention of a crowd, while in Luke it is specifically said that He was pressed by great crowds while He was teaching on the shores of the sea of Galilee. In Matthew and Mark Peter and Andrew were fishing from the shallows by casting nets. In Luke, Jesus finds their boats on the shore, empty, because they have all gone to wash their nets. Because the crowd is pressing so closely around Him, He gets into Peter’s boat and asks to be taken out from the shore a little, and He then was able to teach the multitudes from the boat.
When He had finished teaching, He asked to be taken fishing. Simon protested that they had fished all night and caught nothing. Nevertheless, they obeyed, and they caught so many fish that the nets were strained, they needed help from the other boats, and even so the boats began to sink under the load. Simon Peter fell at His knees, and said “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8) We are then told that all the fishermen were astonished at the amount of fish that had been caught, and are introduced to Peter’s partners in the other boat: James and John, the sons of Zebedee. After identifying these three future disciples (for Andrew is not mentioned in this series), Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men” (Luke 5:10). And with these simple words the fishermen were convinced to give up their careers and follow the Lord, for we are told that when they landed they “forsook all and followed Him” (Luke 5:11).
The final version is actually quite different, for while the other three take place at the very beginning of the Lord’s public ministry, when the Lord was choosing the first of His disciples, the version in John (21:1-14) is a post-resurrection appearance. While we are not specifically told why such similar events are recorded at the beginning of one gospel and the end of another, we can infer a message that this will be a theme that occurs more than once in our own lives, and that we may draw different lessons from it under different circumstances.
The gospel of John tells us that soon after the crucifixion and resurrection, not knowing what else to do now that Jesus is apparently no longer leading them, Simon Peter decided to go fishing, and the others volunteer to go with him. They fish at night and catch nothing. Jesus appears on the beach, and asks them if they have any food. When they say “No,” He tells them to fish on the other side of the boat, and they cannot lift the net for the weight of the fish.
Now that we have formed a mental picture of what was happening when the Lord spoke to the disciples about becoming fishers of men, let us look at just a few of the key elements of the passages and see what they stand for in the internal sense. Once we have seen these things, the Divine message will begin to emerge from the background.
Fish signify knowledges because they swim in the sea, and the sea signifies the natural degree of the mind, that degree which was created to know about and control the things of the natural world. The image of fish swimming about in the sea is an illustration of the way facts about the natural world mill about in your mind during the course of your daily life (see AE 513:2). But the natural degree of life and of the mind serve very important uses. They are the foundations that the higher degrees of life rest upon. Fish therefore also represent things that help make a spiritual man wise, and so a fisherman is someone who gathers many truths for the sake of teaching others and leading them to live better lives (see AE 513:11).
When the Lord selected them and told them that “they should become fishers of men,” it signified that instead of searching for truths to teach, they should instead turn their attention to gathering people into the church, there to teach them truth and lead them to the good of life (see AE 513:15).
Peter and Andrew were selected first and mentioned first because Peter represents faith, and Andrew represents the obedience of faith, or the obedience that comes from knowing that the truth must be lived (even though you do not yet delight in it). James and John were chosen next because they represent Charity and Good Works. These four disciples that are also brothers, summarize the whole cycle of life. First comes Peter, the truths of faith learned from the Word, parents and teachers. With Peter is his brother, Andrew, the knowledge that one must obey the truth, even though it is not always what we want to do. If we do obey, we then come into the state of James and John, that is, we begin to do good works for others, and we are given the love of doing them from the Lord. But, we don’t always obey. We don’t always take the direct course. Sometimes we fish at night, and we catch nothing, for as the light of day represents the truth flowing from the Lord as a source and giving life to all things, the night represents the failure that results from guiding one’s life by self-intelligence. Compared to the Lord’s way, it is nothing but darkness, and no fish are caught (see AE 513:16).
After fishing all night with no success, the Lord tells them to “cast the net on the right side of the boat” which signified that all things should be from the good of love and charity (AE 513:16), and they had great success.
Let us put ourselves into the story in the place of the simple fishermen. We go about our daily business, casting our nets, learning new things about our trade, meeting new people, and generally doing nothing out of the ordinary.
Then at some point, just as the Lord appeared on the beach to the fisherman, some teaching from the Word suddenly finds its proper place in some situation, makes a connection. We sometimes call this the “Aha!” experience. We suddenly see its application and its power. We are gifted with a vision of the Lord when we see His truths in clarity and in perspective. Such a vision has a powerful effect on our lives, and we change a little. Instead of being simple fishermen, we become fishers of men. We begin to live a truth from the Word and so become evangelists because we are carrying His Divine message to others by means of our life, our actions, and the way we associate with and treat others.
Eventually we find that the good feelings wear off. We fall back to our old way of life. Our nets are empty because we have forgotten where the power came from and began to think it was our own. We were fishing at night, leading our lives from our proprium, not from the truth of the Word which we had once seen. We had seen the Lord, but not as clearly as we thought. We saw Jesus, the Teacher, but His Divinity has not yet come through to our minds. We hadn’t yet recognized His authority and direction in our lives, we hadn’t yet seen Him as anything more than Jesus, the Carpenter’s son who teaches strange and wonderful new doctrines.
Then comes the dark states represented by the crucifixion of Jesus. For the disciples it was the most frightening and awesome experience in their lives. They had to make a mental adjustment of mammoth proportions to even begin to have the faintest notion of what had just happened to them. The crucifixion represents those low points in our own lives which come at times of crisis. They are the deepest kinds of spiritual temptation and are accompanied with genuine pain, for there are major spiritual changes taking place, and things that we love are being removed. But the crucifixion was passed, and followed by the resurrection on Easter morning. The same kind of change happens for us when, in a crisis, we hold firm to what we know to be true from the Word and make a conscious choice to follow it no matter what happens, and no matter where that truth will lead us.
It is a terrifying experience. The disciples first fled, and then returned to their former profession, not knowing what else to do. Again, they fish all night, and are unsuccessful until Jesus appeared to them and gave them the direction they needed: They returned to being fishers of men, but directed and guided by their new vision, their sight of the Lord Jesus Christ, the One God of Heaven and earth. With that recognition, and turning to Him for guidance and away from self-intelligence, they were successful, their net filled to overflowing.
The same thing is promised for each of us when we are faced with such combats of temptation, such turning points in our own lives. While we follow our own advice, while we fish at night, we will be unsuccessful. While we do what is evil and false, while we fish from the left side of the boat, we will fail in our lives. But when we look to the Lord for guidance, when we recognize His Divinity and Dominion over our lives and willingly submit to it, then we will fill our boat to overflowing. Our lives will become examples that will make us fishers of men because others will admire the way we live and inquire about it.
Our own relationship to the Lord is reflected in the way the disciples responded to Him during the course of His public ministry. In our childhood and youth we are interested in learning; both for the sheer joy of knowing new things, and for preparing for the day when we would make our living in the world on our abilities and our knowledge. If a more experienced person can come along and show us how to do something that we want to do more efficiently, we are eager and willing to follow that lead. But like the disciples, who expected the Lord to be an earthly king, our initial following of the Lord is often driven by superficial needs and desires. We want to stay out of trouble. We want to be known as one of the “nice” people. And the wonderful thing is, the Lord rewards us for external obedience for external reasons, because it is an appropriate way for our own discipleship to begin. Under His guidance, we pull in lots of fish.
But with knowledge and experience beginning to turn into wisdom, there also comes self-awareness, the grudging recognition that all is not as great as it seems, that there is serious work to be done, battles to be fought, wounds to be healed. We seem to ourselves to be once again leaderless, fishing in the dark – until we see the Lord again. Then, from the perspective of all that has gone before, we see Him in a new light, and once again are fed by the abundance of His wisdom.
So let us recognize the times of temptation and apparent loss in our lives for what they really are, regarded from the spiritual point of view: they are opportunities for us to freely decide to follow the Lord, to turn our obedience and faith into charity and good works, for us to become the Lord’s instruments in building His church. Amen.
Lessons: EZE 47:1-12, AE 513:15
2nd Lesson: AE 513:15
From this the meaning of “fishermen,” “fishes” and “nets,” so often mentioned in the New Testament, can be seen, as in the following passages:-
Jesus saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers. And He said unto them, Come ye after Me, and I will make you fishers of men (Mat. iv. 18, 19: Mark i. 18, 17).
Jesus entered into Simon’s boat and was teaching the multitude. After that He told Simon to let out his nets for a draught, and they in closed a goat multitude of fishes, so that the boats were filled, and in danger of sinking. And amazement seized them all, because of the draught of fishes; and He said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men (Luke v. 3-10).
In this also there is a spiritual sense, like that in the rest of the Word; the Lord’s choosing these fishermen and saying that “they should become fishers of men,” signified that they should gather to the church; “the nets which they let out, and in which they inclosed a great multitude of fishes, so that the ships were in danger of sinking,” signified the reformation of the church through them, for “fishes” here signify the knowledges of truth and good by means of which reformation is effected, likewise the multitude of men who are to be reformed. Amen.