Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

29. The First Miraculous Haul of Fishes (Matt. 4: 18-22; Mark 1: 16-20; Luke 5: 1-11)*

The Lord’s Galilee ministry now got going. It is interesting to note the diversity of names by which the lake and its environs are referred to in the gospels.

Chinnereth, the Old Testament name, is usually taken to allude to the lake being shaped like a harp (chinnor). The name Sea of Tiberias derives from the city which Herod the Great named after Tiberius Caesar. Gennesaret may mean the Land, or Valley, of Nazareth, although that despised place was 15 miles from the lakeside. In earlier days that locality had been contemptuously named Cabul (muck!) by Hiram of Tyre (1 Kgs 9: 13). Perhaps Galilee (dung) became a substitute name when Gentiles settled there, Genneseret would thus be a more polite way of expressing scorn.

It was such an area on which Jesus decided to concentrate.

His first preaching in Capernaum was listened to by massive crowds (Lk.) The news of his doings in Jerusalem had been put round by those Galileans who had witnessed them at Passover (Jn. 4: 45). And the recent sensational instantaneous restoration to health of the nobleman’s son, and from more than twenty miles away, had either made a great impression or had stimulated a vast amount of curiosity. So as he preached there by the lakeside, expounding to them the Old Testament (Lk), Jesus found himself beset by crowds to the point of inconvenience. Lacking a suitable pulpit or rostrum, he appealed to Peter and Andrew to let him use their fishing boat (Lk. 5: 3; cp. also Mk.4: 1, a later occasion).

Poor Fishing

The two brothers and their colleagues, James and John, were just back from the most discouraging fishing expedition they had ever known. All through the previous night they had plied their nets using all their knowledge and experience of the lake and its fish, yet not a single fish rewarded their ability and diligence (5: 5). Helped to hindsight by the later miraculous haul of fishes, it is now possible to see in this complete failure yet another miracle, as necessary as the other to teach these new disciples the power and character of their new calling.

At the time when Jesus asked for this help from Peter (since he was the “skipper”) they had been despondently trying to make good their sustained failure by using the smaller cast-net in the shallows (Mk. 1: 16), and now still without success they were dismally washing their nets free from weed and slime before putting them out to dry.

It was the work of moments to run the boat up to the beach, and then, when Jesus had leapt agilely on board, to pull out a short distance so as to give him the advantage of a few yards’ separation from the eager crowd on the shore (5: 3).

Memorable Miracle

His discourse concluded, and whilst the crowd was still standing about in groups, Jesus bade Peter pull right away from the shore into deep water. There they were to lower their big dragnet, operating as they had done all night.

Peter, still miserable over the night’s frustrations, would surely have been justified in refusing. ‘You are only a carpenter. What can you tell me about my trade?’ In just this way the modern disciple often deems himself more competent than his Lord, to judge a situation. “Can he know my life or twentieth century conditions better than I?” However, Peter did as he was bidden, though not without a quiet reminder that he doubted whether it would be any use. How often a disciple is called upon to abandon his own judgement in order to obey the call of Christ: “At thy word (depending on thy word) I will let down the net.” (Later, Peter had to be told again: Jn. 21: 6; Acts. 10: 11-16.)

No sooner was the operation set going than it at once became obvious that in the net was a catch past believing. This was no ordinary shoal of fish, or Peter’s experienced eye would have earlier detected their presence.

There have, of course, been massive hauls of fish, comparable with this, before and since. But this happened just when and where Jesus willed it to happen. This is an important aspect of the miracle.

The ropes strained to a dangerous tension and the boat tilted crazily. At Peter’s curt imperative all was frantic action. These astonished eager fishermen bent and hauled and heaved as never before in their lives. They could tell that in places the net was parting under its prodigious load of fishes. With every hand at the net they still could not bring it on board. So, still grasping and heaving, with a jerk of the head they signalled to the “hired servants” (Mk. 1: 20) in the other boat to come quickly to their aid.

Soon the two boats were gunwale to gunwale. Now with more hands to the work, they were at length able to bring the net on board with its teeming multitude of fishes, sleek and wet.

Peter’s Reaction

Now there was another problem. The boats had taken on such an immense load of fish that they were both dangerously down by the stern and shipping water. Whilst the others were climbing frantically over the piles of slippery fish to get to work at the oars, Peter suddenly saw the entire amazing episode in perspective. Here he was, an avowed disciple of this astonishing prophet of Nazareth, yet when the power of God provided him with a haul of fish past his wildest dreams, all he could do was to scramble around desperately to ensure, with incurable fisherman’s instinct, that every single fish should be pulled in. So eager had he been, that he had even been prepared to risk the boat itself. Where was the sense in this greed? Was there not here a man who obviously had “dominion over the works of God’s hands”, even over “the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas” (Ps. 8: 6,8).

Thoroughly ashamed of himself, Peter fell down before Jesus as he sat there (not helping!) with the water swirling round his feet: “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Did the story of Israel’s greed in the wilderness (Num. 11: 32-34) come to his mind? Rather significantly, the Greek word for “sink” comes (by design?) in only one other place (1 Tim. 6: 9), which describes how materialism can “drown men in destruction”.

“Fear not!”

There came immediate repentance: ‘Fear not-no need to fear my displeasure-from henceforth thou shalt be a regular catcher of men’, taking them for life, not death. The words were heeded not only by Peter but also by the rest, for, like him, they were all over-awed and made fearful by the marvel they had just witnessed (5: 8-10).

The miracle had happened near enough to shore for the drama of it to be witnessed by the crowd which had listened to Jesus. So when at length the two boats were beached, the catch would be speedily disposed of; it is hard to believe that the great haul of fishes was sold. Peter had learned his lesson, and he doubtless insisted on every one of them being given away. Whilst the disciples were occupied with this activity and the bailing out of the boats, Jesus slipped away for a while until the excitement had died down.

The Decisive Call

Soon he was back again. The crowd was gone, and the fishermen were busy with their gear. Their craft must be shipshape for the next fishing. Jesus interrupted them with an authoritive imperative: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt). He had given Peter this promise only a little while before (Lk.), but that disciple was surely astonished that the time for it had come so soon.

How well Crawshaw’s splendid couplet-describes Peter’s present experience: “When Christ calls, and thy nets would have thee stay, To cast them well’s to cast them quite away.”

God pulled David away from his sheep to shepherd His people (Ps. 78: 70-72). Wise men of the east, given to much study of the stars, were given a special star to guide them to the Star that was risen in Jacob. The crowd that followed Jesus for food were offered a higher spiritual food. The Samaritan woman, with an empty waterpot, drank water of life. At a wedding in Cana, the poorer wine finished, they were given some of the best that ever was. Paul the tent maker taught men to care nought for the tabernacle of this mortality (2 Cor.5:4), if only they might know the blessedness of a house from heaven.

And Peter the fisherman also.

James and John, who were already busy mending the damaged nets were also called, and they too responded with alacrity. Zebedee was in the ship with his sons, and evidently offer this day’s experience gave his sanction or even his encouragement to their abandoment of the family business. With the regular employees available (Mk.) it would be possible to keep things going.

If, as seems not unlikely, the fishing trade on Galilee was licensed by the authorities as an obvious form of taxation, this abandoning of their livelihood by Peter and Andrew was a serious matter; for there would be big doubts about their being able to take up the license again later on, should they wish to do so. “We have forsaken all, and followed thee” (Mt. 19: 27). Peter really meant what he said. And the eagerness to resume fishing after the resurrection of Jesus (Jn.21) is thus more readily accounted for.

An Acted Parable

The allegorical significance of this astonishing miracle needs little underlining (cp. Mt. 13: 47-50). But it is seen to have point of a very special kind if indeed Peter and Andrew and James and John were all in the same boat together during this incident. It is not usual to read the story in this way, but on careful perusal there is found to be nothing against it. Indeed it is most natural that whilst Jesus was talking to the crowd, these four, who had already professed discipleship, would join him in the boat. Then, too, James and John were busy afterwards mending the torn net, even though it was Peter’s boat, and not the other, which had shot the net for the catch. Luke says explicitly that “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were partners with Simon”.

Read thus, the entire incident is seen to have special relevance to a terribly difficult situation which faced the apostles in the early church some years later. There was, initially, a marked reluctance on the part of the Twelve to “launch out into the deep” of the Gentile sea (Galilee of the Gentiles), but ultimately there came such a “haul” of converts that they were quite inadequate for the situation. So it became necessary to call others to their side that the harvest of this Gentile sea might be gathered in: “They gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship (wrote Paul), that we should go unto the Gentiles” (Gal. 2: 9). The result of this mighty “catch” of men, Jesus apparently doing nothing to bring them in, was that nets were breaking and the ships in danger of sinking. The accession of the Gentiles became the most potent cause of schism in the first century, and the church came near to foundering.

Another Acted Parable

How different the symbolism of the second miraculous catch of fishes.

This time there was only one boat. It was at the dawn of a new day, and Jesus unrecognized. The fish - all of them great fishes, and a precise number-were caught “on the right side”. Amazingly, the net showed no sign of breaking. Equally amazing, Peter was able to drag them up the beach single-handed. Contrasting with his remorseful expression: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord”, Peter now showed an irrepressible eagerness to be with Jesus. The Lord also provided a meal which he had prepared. They came ashore to eat it. Their boat had been used for the last time. (See in Jn. 21).

These things are not without special significance. Nor is the fact that on signet ring or gravestone the fish became the widespread symbol of the early Christian. Thus he thankfully declared himself one of those whom the power of Christ had added to the apostles’ miraculous catch in their gospel net.

There are yet more lessons to be learned from this remarkable miracle and its associations.

Long centuries before, this acted parable was anticipated by Jacob, of all people. Blessing Joseph’s sons, he prayed that they might “grow into a multitude”-Hebrew: “swarm as fishes” (Gen. 48: 16; see AV mg). And he went on to prophesy that the younger, who should be the greater, should become “a fulness of Gentiles” (v. 19, quoted in Rom. 11: 25).

Fulfilment in Christ is foretold in Psalm 8: 6,8: “Thou modest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands”, including “whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.”

The washing of nets suggests the need to rid the gospel net from old useless accretions. There is implied also an undaunted spirit not only in the making of these preparations but also in an immediate willingness to try again.

Here also there is emphasis on the need for whole-hearted collaboration. There is no room for chauvinism or a parochial spirit in the preaching of the gospel. And to do the work really well may require that a man leave those who are his natural kith and kin and those who serve for hire.

Fishing by daylight is usually a mighty unrewarding business; yet there must be a willingness to try “in season, out of season” (2 Tim. 4: 2).

Did Paul learn the fishing parable from Luke’s gospel? When properly sorted out, 2 Tim. 2: 24-26 is a powerful passage:

“The servant of the Lord must not strive... in meekness instructing those (the Judaists) that oppose themselves... that they (these gainsayers) may return to a sober outlook (RVm) out of the snare of the devil (the organizer of Judaist hostility), who are caught alive as fish (s.w. Lk. 5: 10) by him (the servant of the Lord) unto his (the Lord’s) will”.

Notes: Luke 5: 1-11

This paragraph, like several others in Luke, is clearly not in its proper place chronologically. Mt., Mk. parallels establish this. See any Harmony.
The people. RV: the multitudes. The plural here probably emphasizes that there were several crowds, all different in character; e.g. Jews from Judaea as well as Galilee, Gentiles etc.
Launch out. Jesus issued the instruction to Peter, as skipper, but the shooting of the net involved all on board. Accordingly, “launch out” is singular, but “let down” is plural.
Peter’s respectful attitude implies an earlier close association with the power and authority of Jesus, in Jn. 2,4. Later he switches from “Master” (chief, boss) to “Kurios” (Lord).
Their net was breaking (Gk.), ie. about to break. This explains Mk. 1: 19: “mending their nets”. So the net did break!
Beckoned. The Gk. word signifies a jerk of the head.
Simon Peter. The apostle’s old and new natures both evident in this episode.

Depart from me, for I am a sinful man. Similar reactions when in the presence of divine glory and power: Ex. 4: 10-17; 20:18-20; ls. 6: 1-7; Jer. 1: 4-10; Ezek. 2,3; Jud. 6: 22,23; Acts 9: 3-9; Dan. 10: 7-12; Rev. 1: 13-20.

Fear not. Cp. Jn. 6: 20; Mt. 28: 5; Lk. 24: 36.
Catch. The derivation of this Gk. word suggests, as an alternative to “catch men for life”, “gather men together alive”(deriving possibly from ageiro). Contrast the context in Dt. 20: 16 s.w.

Mark 1: 16-20

A little farther. This harmonizes very neatly with Lk. 5: 7. The boats were close together.

James the son of Zebedee, and John. James appears to be the elder of the two brothers; and, judging from the epistles these two have left, was certainly the more dynamic character. John and Zebedee both mean “the gift of God”, expressed differently.

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