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Luke 5:8–11 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For astonishment had seized him and all those who were with him at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
“I know not what I am, but only know
I have had glimpses tongue may never speak;
No more I balance human joy and woe,
But think of my transgressions and am weak. – Buchanan.
The Master’s purpose for His disciples is disclosed in the words recorded by Matthew and Mark, and which were probably addressed to them on the shore, when they had again beached their boats: “Come ye after Me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.” We can combine this form of the summons with that specially addressed to the impulsive, vehement, warm-hearted son of Jonas, and which is recorded in Luke 5. It should be noticed that here, as generally in the Gospels, our Lord addresses him by the more intimate name of Simon, as though Peter was reserved till, through the months of discipline which awaited him, he was fitted to take the foremost place among his fellow-apostles.
The summons came whilst they were engaged in their usual occupation. David was summoned from the sheepfold to shepherd the chosen race. Paul was called from making the goat’s-hair tents to teach the Church the ephemeral character of the things that are seen, in view of the House not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. The eternal springs were revealed to the woman as she rested her pitcher on the embrasure of Jacob’s well. It was quite befitting, therefore, that our Lord should explain to his fisher friend the momentous and glorious ministry that awaited him, through the calling in which he had been engaged from boyhood, and which had so many points of resemblance with the work of winning souls. The one difference being brought out in the Greek word translated catch, and which should be expanded to read, as in 2 Tim. 2:26, “Thou shalt catch, in order to keep alive.”
In every subsequent era, sincere and earnest souls have lingered wistfully over these words, longing to extract from them the precious secret of successful soul winning. More than two hundred years ago Thomas Boston, a young Scots Minister, made this record in his diary: “Reading in secret, my heart was touched with these words, Thou shalt catch men. My soul cried out for their accomplishing in me, and I was very desirous to know how I might follow Christ, so as to be a fisher of men; and for my own instruction I addressed myself to the consideration of that point.”
It would be tedious to enumerate the various suggestions that have been made on the line of Boston’s treatise, which was entitled, ‘A Soliloquy on the Art of Man fishing.” Many a godly minister with a perfectly-appointed Church, and surrounded by a devoted people—the boat, the company, and the fishing-tackle being all of the best—has watched, almost enviously, the success of some simple evangelist, who, apart from all adventitious aid, has lifted netfuls of fish from the great depths of human life into his creel. One expert fisherman says: “Keep yourself out of sight.” Another urges that the bait and method must be carefully adapted to the habits of the fish. Yet, a third insists on patience. What success is gained by scourging the water! All are good, but the study of this narrative may bring us still further into the heart of the matter and the mind of our Lord.
- Successful Soul-winning is generally based on a Deep Consciousness of Personal Sinnership.—Many instances present themselves from the biographies of the saints. But two will suffice. The untiring and extraordinary labors of the great Apostle of the Gentiles laid the foundations of the Gentile Church, but as he reviews the past and considers his natural condition, he does not hesitate to speak of himself as the chief of sinners and the least of saints. We faint not, he says, because the grace of God displayed its exceeding riches in our redemption. “We all once lived in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” John Bunyan’s review of his condition, as it stood revealed in the light of God, is typical of many others, who shine as stars in the firmament of successful soul winning. He says: “I was more loathsome in mine own eyes than was a toad; and I thought I was so in God’s eyes also. I could have changed my heart with anyone. I thought none but the devil himself could equal me for inward wickedness and pollution of mind. I was both a burden and a terror to myself. How gladly would I have been anything but myself.”
Those who have had deep experiences of the exceeding sinfulness of sin are the better qualified to be tender and pitiful to such as are sold under sin, are heaping up for themselves agonies of remorse against the day of their awakening, are causing infinite sorrow to the Savior, and are missing the great purposes for which they were created. “Alas, poor souls!” they cry, “such were some of us.” The ringleaders in the devil’s army make great soldiers for Christ. Their knowledge of Satan’s stratagems and wiles is invaluable. Reclaimed poachers are notoriously the best gamekeepers. The sinner knows the bitterness of the wages of sin, as an unfallen angel or an innocent child cannot. Men like Augustine or Bunyan have learnt by experience the subterfuges and evasions of conscience, the horror of remorse, the yearning for help. They are familiar with the holes where the fish lie, and the best methods of reaching them. They have infinite patience, as the Lord had patience with them. They bear gently with the erring, and with those who resent their approach, because they themselves have been compassed with infirmity. We are sometimes tempted to say with Augustine, O beata culpa (Oh, blessed fault!), because the knowledge of our own sinful hearts gives us the clue to all other hearts oppressed by temptation. We need not be surprised, therefore, at this preparatory revelation of himself given to Peter.
He and the rest had known the Lord for at least eighteen months but were unaware of His true majesty and glory. For them He was the carpenter of Nazareth, the holy man, the marvelous teacher, and wonderworker. That He was, like the Baptist, a chosen servant of God and the herald of a new era was their common conclusion. Beyond this their minds had not travelled. They regarded Jesus as of the same flesh and blood with themselves, felt glad to be honored with His friendship, and were pleased in return to share with Him their slender stores or humble homes. It never occurred to them that they were in daily touch with the Lamb that was slain before the worlds were made, or that for their redemption He had emptied Himself, made Himself of no reputation, and assumed the form of a servant.
Then most suddenly and unexpectedly this shaft of His essential being struck into their ordinary common-place and left a trail of supernatural glory. For a moment Peter was dazzled, almost blinded. He could hardly see for the splendor of that light; but as he felt the tug and pull of the bursting net, threatening to break beneath its sudden burden, he realized in a moment that his Teacher and Friend must have put forth a power which no mortal could wield. God was in the place, and he had not known it. How dreadful was that place! It was none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven; and at once the nakedness and sinfulness of his own heart were laid bare, and he cried: “I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Note the significant exchange! When the boat left the shore, it was Master, now, as this revelation has broken on him, it is Lord. Immediately on this Jesus said: “From henceforth thou shalt catch men.”
There is a striking analogy between Peter’s experience and Job’s. The suffering patriarch had persistently and successfully maintained his integrity. “Till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me. My righteousness will I hold fast. I will not let it go. My heart shall not reproach me as long as I live.” Then into his life God let fall visions of the Creation. He recited instance after instance of His almighty power, wisdom and skill. As Peter’s eyes were unveiled that he might behold Christ’s wonders in the deep, so were Job’s; and he exclaimed, as the divine glory shone upon his soul, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye see You, wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Oh agony of wavering thought
When sinners first so near are brought.
“It is my Maker!—dare I stay?
My Savior!—dare I turn away?”
Whenever, therefore, this experience befalls, it may be deemed as preparatory to new success in soul winning. Expect to hear the Lord answer your confession of lowly sinnership with a new summons to take your boat and net for a draught. And this experience does and will befall, not once or twice, but many times, as we approach nearer to the Alpine snows of our Lord’s unsullied Holiness. The whole progress of the divine life within the soul is characterized by confessions. We are always being led to detect the presence of sin and evil in depths and motions, which once seemed comparatively harmless and innocent. The true soul is always counting its righteousness as filthy rags, and confessing that it has not yet attained nor is by any means perfect. The only confession that befits us is that we are following after to apprehend that for which we were apprehended of Christ Jesus. The higher the flight of the soaring eagle the deeper its reflection in the mountain-lake. Do not be afraid to know yourself beneath the Spirit’s teaching, it is all preparatory to a new departure in “man-catching.”
- Failure and Sin do not necessarily exclude from the Divine Partnership in Soul-winning.—“Depart from me,” cried the conscience-stricken disciple. It was as though he said: “I will bring Thee, Lord, to the spot where I took Thee on board this morning; and when I have landed Thee, Thou must go Thy way and I mine. I shall ever love Thee and think of Thee as I float under these skies by day and night, but I am not fit to keep Thee company.” And under his breath he may have whispered to himself: “But I know not how I shall live without Thee. To whom can I turn? Thou only hast the words of eternal life.”
We can almost see him, when the well of the boat was heaped high with the slippery silver cargo, clambering across from prow and stern on his bare feet, falling at Jesus’ knees as He sat near the tiller, clasping them, and faltering forth these words with the heaving sobs of a strong man torn with conflicting emotions.
It was as though our King Alfred, when wandering in Sherwood Forest, disguised, lost to his followers, and uncertain as to the path, had been found and befriended by a kindly woodsman, who had regarded him as an equal, shared with him his bed and board without detecting his royal dignity, and finally had conveyed him to his brave retainers. How startled he would be to see their deferential respect! Suddenly, he would awake to the vast chasm intervening between himself and his ward, and approaching with many apologies for his familiarity, would deferentially propose to say good-bye and farewell forever. “Our paths, sire, must of course diverge from this point! You to your throne, I to my cottage!”
“Nay,” said our Lord in effect, “that need not be. When sin is repented of, abhorred, and confessed, it need not debar from My presence or service. I can do with sinful men, who are conscious of their sinnership. No sin is too inveterate but that I can cope with it, too foul but that I can cleanse. Stay with Me, I will cleanse, heal, and save thee, and make thee the instrument of saving thousands of sinners like thyself.”
It is impossible to exaggerate the comfort that these words afford to those who would fain serve Christ, though conscious of their profound unworthiness. “I am not worthy to bear the message of salvation to others, because I am such a sinful man! How canst Thou employ me, who hast hosts of unfallen angels at Thy command? How darest Thou identify Thyself and Thy holy cause with me? No, it cannot be! I love Thee, but an ever-widening river must divide us as we walk on either bank. I shall break my heart that I have failed Thee so, but I cannot lift up my face, or regain my forfeited place. Let me stand in the outer circle and see Thee now and again. I cannot ask for more, for Thou knowest, and I know, and every lost spirit knows, that I am a sinful man.”
But Jesus has only one reply: “Fear not, from henceforth thou shalt catch men.” “Fear not! I am the Daysman that stands as thy surety. I have blotted out thy transgressions as a cloud and will no more remember thy sins. I have loved thee with an everlasting love, though I foresaw all this and more also. Depart from Me! It is unthinkable. Thou art dearer to Me than all the stars in their galaxies. I have obtained from the Father that thou shouldst be with Me where I am. After thou hast had thy Pentecost, and fulfilled thy ministry and finished thy course, thou shalt be accounted worthy to stand in My Presence-chamber, that thou mayest behold My glory, and thou shalt share it.”
“Lord, it is too much; let me kiss Thy feet!”
III. Soul-winning, to be successful, must be the Absorbing Purpose of Our Lives.—It cannot be one interest among many. The Apostle said truly, “One thing I do.” “They left all and followed Him.” We can imagine that after this moving exchange of words Peter returned to his place to think over the marvel of the life that now opened before him. And whilst he mused, the fire burned. What else was worth living for? Surely he must obey this mandate. “Come ye after me!” “Hither, follow!”
May we indulge our imagination here? The boat responds to sail or oar, and makes for the shore. A friendly fisherman informs his wife that the well-known boat will soon be “in.” His food has been waiting for him since early dawn. She had prepared a breakfast for which he did not come. She hastens to the shore and stands there with her welcome, all the gladder because she descries its burden. Her husband leaps into the shallow water and lifts Jesus from boat to beach. He then approaches her wistfully, and with an unwonted tenderness that startles her, “Can you spare me for a little?” he inquires. “The Master has asked me to go with Him. He says that I am not to fear, and that He will provide for us. He has promised to teach me how to fish for men. I will come back as soon as I have learned my lesson and He has done with me. In the meanwhile I must be free to serve Him. Can you spare me?”
And she replies: “Husband, go with Him. Mother and I will make shift somehow till you get back. Stay with Him as long as He needs you. Mother and I were saying only this morning that you have been a different man since you knew Him.”
She came to believe also, and travelled everywhere with her husband, helping him, as Paul bears witness (1 Cor. 9:5). We cannot suppose that Peter at once entered into the Master’s passion for the souls of men. That was acquired afterwards. In the first instance he was content to follow Him, to listen to His words, to become His companion and helper. But it could not have been long before he and his companions began to be imbued with the same passion, until it became the master-motive of their existence.
So it will be with ourselves. As we walk with Christ, by the constant aid of the Holy Spirit, we shall be conformed to His image. His thoughts and yearnings will be transmitted to us by a Divine sympathy. We shall long to see Him honored, loved, and exalted. We shall desire that He shall see of the travail of His soul and be satisfied. We shall become identified with His interests, and with no backward look on ourselves. The Holy Spirit will blow these sparks into a flame, and our life will be spent as that of Peter, who by his love for Christ was qualified to feed His sheep and lambs.
Let us ask that we may become partners with Christ in His great passion for men. Let us bring ourselves to this great magnet till we are magnetized. Oh to be a living flame for Jesus Christ, so that the uttermost love of woman may be:—
Faint to the flame with which our breast is burning,
Less than the love wherewith we ache for souls!
 Astonished: (θαμβέω thambeō; derivative of thambos) This one is experiencing astonishment, to be astounded, or amazed because of some sudden and unusual event, which can be in a positive or negative sense. – Mark 1:27; 10:32; Lu 4:36; 5:9; Acts 3:10.