Fishers of Men

When we read the Bible, we are usually content to read only on the surface. We need to learn to read with the whole of the Biblical narrative and symbolism whenever we visit the text.

We may become too familiar with stories to truly understand them anymore. Familiarity breeds contempt, right? We run the risk of becoming too familiar with stories even from the Bible, no matter what we believe about it. When this happens, we tend to skim certain passages, certain we already know enough about it to continue past it into another, more unfamiliar passage. Unfortunately for us, we miss the layers upon layers of God’s Word when we do this. The Bible is deeper and more beautiful than we know; it is to our detriment that we refuse to go deeper and see more of Christ’s work by being content with basic readings of the Bible.

For example, we are all familiar with the phrase “fishers of men”. When Jesus began his teaching ministry to Israel, he gathered twelve men around him. That he gathered twelve men is significant: he is showing how he plans to re-form and re-shape Israel around him by calling as many apostles as there were tribes of Israel. When he calls these men, he tells them that they will become “fishers of men”. We’re all familiar with both this story (that the twelve immediately left what they were doing and followed) and the metaphor. You could probably go to a Christian gift shop and purchase statues, plaques, or wall art with this little inscription. If you are a mission-minded Christian, you’ve probably heard this verse at every conference and in every book you’ve read, right?

And the thing is, these are good lessons to take. Yes, Jesus called these men together to be on mission to Israel to restore her faith in Yahweh. It isn’t a terrible verse to have in mind when you’re doing missions yourself or calling people to go on mission. It is significant that they left behind everything immediately – you can preach that! You can also point out how important it was that Jesus called fishermen to be fishers of men. God also called a tent-maker to build a new temple. But Mark and Matthew weren’t the first Biblical writers, nor was Jesus creating a new symbolic thread. Rather, the evangelists and Jesus were drawing upon extant traditions, without the understanding of which we won’t understand the text fully.

In this post, I will simply draw upon two (of many) traditions related to fishermen in the Old Testament in an effort to both expand our understanding of this metaphor and to show why we must read the Bible with the rest of the Bible in mind. These two elements I chose to highlight show that this tradition brings forth a double image of both restoration and destruction. Think about it this way: when a fisherman reels in a fish on a hook, he is both gathering it to himself and removing it from its home. Jesus has plans for the Twelve to act in a similar fashion in Israel.

First, Jesus called them fishermen to signal that the exile was going to end as these men carried out the work of Yahweh promised through Jeremiah. The exile was one of the most catastrophic events in Israel’s history. Exile was woven into Israel’s history: Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden; Torah contains warnings about exile in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28; Moses even tells Israel that her exile is definitely going to happen. After the kingdom of Israel split, the Northern Kingdom went into exile 136 before the Southern Kingdom went into exile. The Exile challenged Israel’s core beliefs about her election, her relationship with God and the land, and her future.

Thankfully, Yahweh in his mercy was not content to leave his people in their dispersion. Through the prophet Jeremiah, he promises that not only will he bring Israel back to the land, he’ll do so in an event even more incredible than the Exodus. For reference, the Exodus was *the event* in Israelite history – if you’d open your Bible to a random page in the Old Testament, you’d probably be able to find a reference to the Exodus. To bring Israel back to her home, Yahweh himself would commission hunters and fishermen to go into the deep crevasses of the Diaspora to bring them home.

So, when Jesus calls the Twelve to come together and follow him as fishers of men, Jesus is drawing upon a grand expectation Yahweh has given Israel. This great act, this Exodus-replacing, massive rescue mission comes to fruition, it will be done through the agency of Jesus. He is claiming Yahweh’s mission of exile-restoring as his own; this is understandable, as Jesus only does what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19-20).

Second, Jesus is saying that there is also judgment coming upon Israel for her unfaithfulness. Frequently, the exilic prophets used the analogy of a hook to refer to the judgment coming on Israel. For Jesus to talk about judgment and salvation at the same time isn’t unusual; in fact, salvation is usually a double-edged sword: when someone is saved, it requires death. For Israel to escape Egypt, the pursuing army had to be killed in the Reed Sea. When Israel entered the land, the sinful inhabitants were either to convert or be destroyed. For humanity to be saved, the perfect Son of God had to be sacrificed as a final propitiation for our sins.

When Israel was to return from exile, a single people living in covenant community with God, impurity and unfaithfulness needed to be rooted out. The apostles, while bringing the faithful in, would be implicitly giving judgment to those who remained outside the kingdom. Ezekiel uses the image of being dragged by hooks to talk about Israel’s two biggest displacements (Egypt and Babylon, cf. chapter 19). God threatened to drag Pharaoh out of the Nile with a hook, alongside the Nile’s fish, to fling him into the wilderness (Ezekiel 29:4). Amos rails against the luxurious and sinful “cows of Bashan” in Samaria by warning them that Yahweh has promised (“by his holiness” no less!) to bring them out of their homes with fishhooks (Amos 4:2). To send the fishers of men out would be to send them with hooks. These “hooks” would be planted in any who rejected Jesus’ message and would ultimately be dragged into Gehenna.

We see that by reading the Bible as a whole story and message, the metaphors and passages that we’re overly familiar with become fresh, new, and deeper than we previously imagined. Here, a metaphor we understood as a nice way of describing missions becomes deeper. We see that it is far more than that: it is a message of hope to God’s faithful people in exile and a warning to those who stand outside of the kingdom. Our surface readings are in danger of missing the bigger picture of God’s work in the world, which threatens to give us a smaller picture of Christ. Thankfully, by the Spirit, we can understand the Scriptures more deeply and coherently to see the depth and the width of God’s love in the Gospel and in the ministry of Jesus.


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