As the summer arrives each year, I revisit many fond memories of fishing outings with my older brother and grandfather. Living near Lake Erie, my grandfather would thrill us with stories of his great fishing adventures with Northern Pike and Muskie. They were great fighters and would continue that fight long after they had been pulled from the water and thrown into the boat.
My own fishing career, if you could call it a fishing career, was far less dramatic than my grandfather's adventures. My career began at Lake Pymatuning. Whenever we came to visit in the summers, my grandfather would take my older brother and me to fish is this kinder, gentler lake. Unfortunately, I was never successful enough as an angler to know the thrill of catching many fish. What I was successful at was hooking someone in the boat! Both my brother and I bear the scars of fishing hooks in our arms and legs.
Even though my angling career was not very successful, I liked to think that I was following in a great tradition—not only one begun with my grandfather, but one that began with a young carpenter's call to four fishermen to follow him. I read with amazement how these four fishermen "immediately left their nets and followed him" (Mark 1:18). What was it about this call to follow and the invitation to become "fishers of men" that would compel such a dramatic response?
The notion of "fishing for people" was actually not a foreign idea for those familiar with the Hebrew prophets. The prophets used this term to describe God (Ezekiel 29:4ff, 38:4). God was the great "angler" catching people for judgment—judgment that preceded the coming of God's kingdom. This came to be the understanding of these texts, particularly after Israel returned from their exile in Babylon. Having experienced the horror of the exile, the Jews had a new appreciation for obedience to the law. Furthermore, they thought their restoration was dependent on cleansing their world from all sin and evil. So prior to the coming kingdom, God would go on the ultimate fishing mission to gather evil and destroy wickedness.
With this background, it is easy to understand why the first disciples jumped when Jesus used this phrase to call them. The judgment was coming and they were being called as fishermen for God. Jesus had come to purify the nation from evil, and they would be co-anglers with him, catching evil and wiping Israel clean of sin prior to the kingdom of God being established in their midst.
Their fishing mission began with Jesus's announcement, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." The followers of Jesus heard this call as a warning to get life in order or be caught up in the fierce wrath of God. But Jesus upended their expectations. Something new happened. First, Jesus made this announcement to the Gentiles. These were the very ones God should have destroyed! Yet, rather than destroying, Jesus began to heal. Soon after calling the disciples, Mark's gospel reports that Jesus healed a demoniac; in Matthew's gospel, he healed "every disease and every infirmity among the people" and in Luke's gospel, he healed a leper.(1) The old understanding of this mission kept all these people as unclean outsiders; these were the ones who needed to be gathered up in the nets of judgment and destroyed.
But Jesus rightly understood what the in-breaking of God's kingdom entailed. Calling individuals to the mission of fishing was a sign of Jesus's proclamation: "The time is now fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand." Jesus went fishing as the sign of the in-breaking kingdom in his very person, and in his teaching ministry. And so it remains today. Rather than ridding the world of sinners and of evil, Jesus gathers these outsiders into the net of his fellowship where they are healed and transformed. Dallas Willard says it this way: "Jesus then came into Galilee announcing the good news from God. All the preliminaries have been taken care of and the rule of God is now accessible. Review your plans for living and base your life on this remarkable new opportunity."(2)
It is into this same fishing mission that Jesus calls those who would follow him. His intention is not simply telling people what they need to turn away from, but showing them who they can turn toward. To be sure, turning to God requires an entire reorientation of our lives: we do need to repent, to turn around, and go in a kingdom-direction. In the presence of Jesus, there is now the option of living within the light of God's kingdom purposes and finding our lives caught up into the kind of life we were always intended to live.
Often attempts at fishing for God's kingdom might be just as bumbling and clumsy as my childhood attempts at casting. Sometimes they are only as good as our own understanding of what it means to be kingdom dwellers. As those who would seek to follow Jesus, we too are called to review our plans for living and base our life on this remarkable new opportunity. Jesus's mission compels us beyond ourselves and towards others, reaching out to those on the margins, healing those who are sick, blessing those who are cursed, and combating evil with love and justice. We are invited to join Jesus in his ministry of reconciliation, gathering people up into the net of the kingdom and kingdom living.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Matthew 4:18-23, Mark 1:21-28, Luke 5:1-15.
(2) Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco, Harper Books: 1998), 15.