Imagine if Peter knew exactly what he was signing up for when he heard Jesus’ invitation. He might have had to think long and hard about the decision he was about to make. But Jesus didn’t tell Peter what to expect.
He showed up at Peter’s office (which just happened to be a lake), demonstrated his power, and invited the fisherman to accompany Him. And from that moment on, everything in Peter’s life was about to change.
Let’s examine what the New Testament says about this critical miracle.
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him (Luke 5:1–10).
What Matthew and Mark leave out
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the synoptic Gospels. The word synoptic means “able to be seen together.” Unlike John’s Gospel, these three Gospels share many of the same stories, and scholars believe they’re informed by some of the same sources.
So it’s fascinating when one of the synoptic Gospels features elements not present in the others. In this case, Matthew and Mark omit this story about the catch of fish.
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (Matthew 8:14–17).
All three authors include Jesus’ suggestion that He was changing their vocation from being fishermen to fishers of people. And it’s interesting to realize that only Luke includes this story about a miraculous catch of fish.
We do know that Luke wasn’t present for these events. His Gospel is woven together from firsthand interviews. In the opening of his Gospel, he tells Theophilus (the recipient of this story):
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1–4).
At some point, Luke interviewed a couple of individuals who said something like, “Oh! We were there the day Jesus called Peter. Here’s what happened …”
Jesus teaches from the boats
The Sea of Galilee would have been known as the Lake of Gennesaret in this region. Because of tradition, we’ve come to think of this lake as a “sea,” but it is a freshwater lake. Interestingly, it is 209 meters below sea level, making it the second-lowest lake in the world, right above the Dea Sea (which is also a lake).
Jesus is already drawing a crowd, and He decides to use one of the boats on the shore as a platform to speak from. In the boat, He could push off, and address the people present, but they would no longer be able to crowd Him. So He gets in Simon’s (Peter’s) boat and has him pull away from the shore while He speaks to the people.
The miraculous catch of fish
After teaching, Jesus turns to Simon and tells the fisherman to put down his nets for a catch. Simon has already been very accommodating. He was trying to clean his nets of all the debris they had picked up after working all night when Jesus showed up and commandeered his boat. Now He wants Simon to drop his nets again? It’s already been a long, fruitless night.
Simon complains a little, but ultimately does what Jesus asks. When they drop the nets, they’re immediately filled with so many fish that the nets begin to break. The fact that the nets start breaking helps demonstrate just how big of a haul this was. It’s probably important to note that broken nets would have needed to be mended before the fishers could work again. Luckily, that won’t be an issue.
Luke then hammers home just how big of a catch this was by telling us that Simon had to signal to his partners James and John to bring the other boat to help them gather these fish … and, in the end, both boats struggled under the weight of all these fish, nearly sinking.
“Depart from me, Lord!”
We’re told that James, John, and Simon were astonished. In fact, Simon is so overcome that he almost collapses under the weight of this incredible moment. In the presence of this holy and mighty man, Simon Peter is confronted by his faults.
In this story, we get a glimpse of the Simon Peter we’ll come to know in the Gospels. This lovable, brash man who feels deeply and speaks quickly. Was Simon a bigger sinner than James and John? Probably not. But there is something endearing about the way Simon responds to Jesus. At this incredible moment, he’s overwhelmed and humbled—and unlike anyone else, he vocalizes it.
Jesus calms him by telling him not to be afraid even though everything is about to change. These guys are going to transition from fishermen into fishers of men. Imagine being told not to be scared, and in the same breath being told that everything was about to change.
The fishermen follow Jesus
Luke tells us that the boats pulled up to the shore, and the disciples left everything and followed Him. The way it’s written makes it seem like at that moment James, John, and Simon just abandoned all their stuff and walked off into the horizon with Jesus. But it’s more likely that Luke is telling us that this is the moment that made the men decide to follow Jesus.
It appears that the three men had formed a sort of fishing cooperative. Luke tells us that these men were Simon’s partners. This was a pretty common setup. It helped ensure that if one person had a bad night fishing, they were still pooling their income with others. They succeeded or failed together.
As we’ll see in a moment, these partners go back to fishing. So it’s not like they just abandoned their boats here for three years. They had families to care for and others they fished with. For instance, Matthew and Mark tell us that James and John fished with their father. So the fishing co-op still functioned, just not with these disciples.
It’s helpful to consider that most of the miracles in Scripture aren’t just miracles for the sake of committing miracles. People were delivered and healed from legitimate oppression and illness. Most of the time, Jesus didn’t even want people to know about the miracles, instructing recipients to keep the miracles to themselves. He also passed up opportunities to perform wonders to validate Himself to others.
So it’s very likely that this miraculous catch served a legitimate purpose beyond amazing onlookers. This once-in-a-lifetime catch probably helped support these men’s families through their transition to full-time disciples of Jesus.
Jesus and Peter come full circle
This moment becomes incredibly integral in Peter and Jesus’ friendship, and we know this because Jesus uses it as a bookend to their friendship.
On the night that Jesus was arrested, Peter failed the Lord. Three times he was asked about being one of Jesus’ followers, and all three times, he denied having anything to do with Jesus. Knowing Peter, he probably carried that guilt more acutely than the other disciples might have. On top of that failure, Jesus was gone, and they didn’t know what to do.
And the fishermen returned to the lifestyle they knew.
This time John’s Gospel tell us the story:
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread (John 21:1–9).
Jesus used a huge catch of fish to call Peter into ministry, and He reinstates Peter with a similar miracle. This act is a beautiful example of the Lord’s compassion. By revisiting this miracle, Jesus communicates something valuable: “Peter, I called you, and despite everything, I’m still calling you. You have an important role in this movement.”
Jesus stepped in Peter’s world, demonstrated His power, and issued an invitation. Then when Peter feels pulled back into his old familiar lifestyle, Jesus shows up and reminds the fisherman of who He is and who Peter has become. Everything has changed, and there’s no going back.
Called to be fishers of humanity
In the Great Commission, Jesus made us all fishers of people. We’re called to share the beauty of the gospel with friends, family, and colleagues. But the calling doesn’t stop there. It extends to the rest of the world. Followers of Jesus are commissioned to go into the world, creating disciples of Jesus.
Does the Great Commission mean that you have to pack up and head out to another continent? Do we all have to physically go?