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January 24, 2010

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” Matthew 4:19 (NIV)

Christ promises evangelistic fruitfulness to the church. As we follow Christ, the result of our ministry is that other people will come to him. This is a marvelous promise. We want to see many people come to faith in Jesus Christ, here and around the world.

Learn From the Analogy: Fishing

Here are seven observations that are suggested by Jesus’ analogy of fishing:

  1. Some people are really good at fishing, but anyone can do it

Have you ever caught a fish? I know almost nothing about fishing, but even I have caught a fish. God gives special gifts of evangelism to some people. But every Christian can play a part in drawing other people to Christ.

  1. Fishing requires great patience

You throw out a line or a net, and then you wait. You throw it out again, and you wait. In the film, On Golden Pond, Henry Fonda and his new grandson are trying to catch a big fish called Walter. Fonda says, “I’ve been trying to catch him for years!”

Many of us have loved ones that we’ve been praying for. We’ve looked forward to and longed to see them won to Christ for many years. Fishing requires great patience.

  1. Fishermen learn how to deal with discouragement

Luke tells us that when Jesus met the disciples they had toiled all night and caught nothing. Every fisherman has a story like that.

After Jesus fed the 5000, He said to them “You have seen me and still you do not believe” (John 6:36). Even Jesus shared the truth with people who were unresponsive. Fishermen learn how to deal with discouragement. You’ve caught nothing today? We’ll get up early and go out again tomorrow.

  1. Christ invites us to go fishing, not hunting

Some Christians sound more like hunters than fishermen. The analogy is significant. There is an art to fishing. Fish are drawn. Peter gives wise counsel to Christians who want to win others to Christ. We are always to speak with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 1:15).

  1. The church is a fishing boat, not a pleasure boat

My wife grew up on the south coast on England. She loves the sea. There are two kinds of boats in the harbor where she comes from:

Some boats are there to take people on pleasure trips round the bay.

Other boats are there to go fishing.

The pleasure boats are about convenience and comfort. They go out at the times when people want to go. They hug the shoreline so that the people can enjoy the view. They are very safe. The fishing boats are entirely different. They launch out into the deep. Their crew takes risks. They make sacrifices, and there is very little comfort.

It’s easier and much more comfortable to have a ministry that is about us. Christ does not say “Follow me and I will take you on a delightful cruise.” He says “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” This church is not a pleasure boat. It’s a fishing boat.

  1. Fishing is hard and sometimes dangerous work

Have you seen the television program “Deadliest Catch?” It’s about guys on the Bering Sea catching crab. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Read the book of Acts and you will find that pioneer evangelism is up there too. The best fishing is often in the most difficult waters.

  1. There’s great joy in catching fish

Anyone who has ever caught a fish knows this. Have you ever noticed how much fishermen love to have their picture taken with their trophy catch? Did you ever see a fisherman looking miserable in one of these pictures? There’s great joy in catching fish. There is far greater joy in seeing a person come to faith in Jesus Christ.

This is a profoundly helpful picture—ministry is like fishing. There is also a significant difference. When fish are caught one of two things happens: Either you catch-and-release or you kill-and-eat. But when you fish for men, you are fishing in order to save-and-feed.

Clarify the Mission: “Fishers of Men”

“Follow Me… and I will make you fishers of men.” Matthew 4:19

These words of Jesus are defining for our mission, so I want to ask the question: What is our mission and how can we fulfill it?

The mission is to catch fish, not to improve the lake

For centuries Evangelical Christians have had a clear understanding of the message and the mission of the Gospel. The message is the incarnation (God became man in Jesus Christ), and the atonement (Christ died on the cross for our sins, and broke the power of death by his resurrection).

This Christ offers forgiveness of sins and peace with God. He offers new life by the power of the Holy Spirit, and beyond death, an entrance, not into the hell that we deserve, but into everlasting joy in the presence of God.

That’s the message. The mission is to proclaim this gospel to people in every culture, inviting them to receive what Christ offers by coming to him in faith and repentance, trusting him as Savior and following him as Lord. There is an offence in this Gospel: The uniqueness of Jesus—that there is something we need, and only he can do it for us, the guilt of our sin, and hell—nobody likes that.

About a hundred years ago, a new movement arose in the church. It was known as liberalism. Liberalism did not accept the inspiration and authority of the Bible, so it selected certain truths from the Bible, and discarded others.

In the first half of the 20th century, every major city in Europe and many in the United States had a thriving liberal church. The new message had great appeal to many people, but it had no power. Within a short time these once thriving churches became empty and dead.

Liberalism had a different message and a different mission. The message of liberalism was not the incarnation and the atonement.

It was the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men: “God loves you,” and “We need to love each other.”

That’s true—but it’s not the Gospel. You don’t need an incarnation or an atonement for that. You don’t need repentance and faith in Christ for that. There’s no conversion, and there’s no hell to be saved from in that message.

The new message led to a new mission. Liberalism changed the mission of the church from individual salvation to cultural transformation. That is a massive redefinition. Instead of saying “Our ministry is to lead people to repentance and faith in Christ through the Gospel,” they said “Our mission is to change society.”

There’s nothing new under the sun, and today we are seeing a resurgence of some of these old liberal ideas. You hear people talking about “bringing in God’s kingdom,” and “changing the city.” This week I came across this from Jim Packer that made this issue very clear:

“Liberalism has habitually identified the Spirit’s renewing work with some form of cultural transformation… in human society, as opposed to the regenerative transformation of individuals brought to know Jesus Christ; and this identification has constantly obstructed the necessary assertion that God’s basic method of changing society is to change the individuals who compose it.” [1]

–J. I. Packer

Jesus says, “I will make you fishers of men.”  God’s method of changing society is to change the individuals who compose it, and

our mission is to catch men, not to improve the lake.

Keeping the net in good repair is essential to our mission

The disciples in Jesus’ day didn’t use fishing rods, they did their fishing by throwing out a net. Keeping the net in good repair was a major part of their work. In v21, when Jesus saw James and John, they were mending (preparing) their nets.

This week I read a great little book published in 1773 called “The Art of Manfishing” by Thomas Boston:

“January 6th, 1699—reading in secret, my heart was touched with Matthew 4:19, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” My soul cried out for accomplishing that in me, and I was very desirous to know how I might follow Christ, so as to become a fisher of men.” [2]

Boston focused attention on the gospel net, in which the fish are caught. He says three things that I found especially helpful:

  1. The net is woven from the promises of the Gospel

Our job is to spread out the net—to open up what Christ promises, to tell people what Christ offers, to make it clear what Christ can do. This means you need to tell others what Christ has done for you and what He can do for them.

  1. If you want to catch fish, your mesh must not be too wide

If we only make general statement like “God loves you,” the fish will swim right through that. If we speak generally about faith, but never call people to repentance, we won’t catch people in the net.

  1. The net must have weights on it, in the right proportion

If you don’t have weights on your net, it will float on the top of the water and you won’t catch any fish. Alongside the mesh—that are the promises of the Gospel—there must be the weights of the law.

People will come to Christ when they hear what He offers and see their need of it. Forgiveness won’t mean anything to you until you see you are a sinner. Salvation won’t mean anything to you until you know you are lost. The gift of the Holy Spirit won’t mean anything to you until you know you are powerless to live the life God is calling you to lead.

Keeping the net in good repair is essential to our mission. The weight of the law drives us to Christ. The promise of the Gospel draws us to Christ.

We fulfill our mission by throwing out the Gospel net

You can have a great net, with the right mesh and the right weights, but unless you throw it out, you will not catch fish. We fulfill our mission by throwing out the Gospel net. This is important to discerning what work we should do, and in evaluating what we’re doing.

How is the Gospel net being thrown out? It begins with the preaching.  If we are going to catch men and women for Christ this must be a place where the good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed clearly.  Always! It’s not just in the pulpit. This is a criterion for evaluating all our ministries: What we do and who we support.

We fulfill our mission by throwing out the Gospel net. How is the Gospel net being thrown out in your ministry? Where is there a clear communication of the Gospel?

Believe the Promise: “I Will…”

“I will make you fishers of men.” Matthew 4:19

Remember who is saying this. Read the Gospels and look at how Jesus connects with people from every background, speaking truth in a way that is clear and compelling. Christ is the Master fisherman. He says “I will make you fishers of men.”

Notice that there is a specific work of Christ here. It’s not “Follow me and you will be fishers of men.” It’s “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

How does Christ make us fishers of men?

He does this in two ways.

  1. Christ gives skill to the fishermen

Christ gave these men gifts that they did not have before the followed Him. They were the most unlikely candidates for success in this work:

They were not educated men. Andrew was shy—he hardly says anything in the Gospels. James and John were nicknamed Boanerges—“sons of thunder” which must mean that these guys had a fiery temper. Peter was impulsive. But Christ changed these men as they walked with Him. Spurgeon says:

“When Christ calls us by His grace, we ought not only to remember what we are, but we ought also to think of what He can make us…

We should repent of what we have been, but rejoice in what we may be. It is not ‘Follow me because of what you are already.’ It is not ‘Follow me because you may make something of yourselves.’ But ‘Follow me because of what I will make you.’” [3]

  1. Christ draws fish into the net

“They caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.” Luke 5:6

The disciples had been out all night and caught nothing. When Jesus tells them to thrown out the nets, Peter says “Because you say so, I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5). When he did, they caught more fish than they knew what to do with. Christ brought the fish into the net.

Jesus is the Son of God. He could make the fish jump into the boat if he wanted to. But he doesn’t do that. Christ draws fish into the gospel net that we throw out. I can’t think of a greater motivation to give our lives to throwing out the Gospel net than the conviction that Jesus Christ draws in the fish.

Respond to the Invitation:  “Follow Me…”

“Follow me… ‘I will make you fishers of men.’” Matthew 4:19

They left their nets and followed Him (v20). What did the disciples gain from three years of following Jesus? What will we learn from following Jesus that will make us effective in bringing people to Christ.

A new interest in people

These men lived in a world of fish and nets and boats. They were most comfortable on their own. Christ brought them into a world of people.  They didn’t like it at first. They didn’t like the crowds, and wanted to send them away. They stood in the way of children coming to Jesus.

They tried to stop people from other cultures from coming to Jesus.

Some of us are comfortable with documents in an office, spreadsheets on a computer, or reference books in the academy. Christ says “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Following Christ, these men gained a new interest in people. Peter, the man who was comfortable with boats and nets and fish, becomes a shepherd to the flock of God.

Where did he learn this? From following Jesus.

Jesus said the first commandment is to love God with all your hearts and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Ask God to increase your love for people.

A new clarity about Jesus

These men saw something compelling in Jesus right from the beginning. But as they followed him, they learned more about him.

When he calmed the storm they said “Who is this that even the winds and the waves obey Him?”

After three years, Jesus asked them “Who do you say that I am?” Peter said “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But they still did not see that he must die for sins and rise again on the third day.

They continued to follow Jesus, and on the day of Pentecost, Peter spoke with conviction about Jesus Christ. There was no question about his message. He threw out the net of the Gospel and the Spirit of God brought 3,000 souls to Christ that day. If you want to be a fisher of men, ask God to give you clarity about Jesus.

A new confidence in God’s power

Following Jesus, the disciples saw lives changed. They saw those who were possessed by evil spirits, set free; those who were sick with various diseases, healed. They see what God can do, and their faith in him grows.

By nature they don’t like people, they don’t know Christ, and they don’t trust God. Following Jesus changes all that. They get a new interest in people. They come to know Christ. They learn to trust God.

If we are to be effective in Gospel ministry, this is what we need, and this is what Christ will give us as we follow him.

A student once came to Spurgeon. He was worried that people were not being converted through his ministry. Spurgeon said “What? Do you expect someone to be converted every time you preach?”

The student said “Oh no, of course not.”

Spurgeon said “There’s your problem!”

Is there a lively expectation in your heart that as we cast out the Gospel net, many people will come to Christ? “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Do you think this promise is for us?

[1] J. I. Packer, “Celebrating the Saving Work of God,” p. 206

[2] Thomas Boston, The Art of Manfishing, p. 7 (Christian Heritage, 1998)

[3] C. H Spurgeon, from the sermon: “How to Become Fishers of Men” http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/1906.htm



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