Rev. Miersma is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of New Zealand.
Living in New Zealand one soon learns that the people of that land live close to the sea, both literally and figuratively. Most of the population lives along the coast, making access to the sea a matter of minutes. For those who live in the middle of the country, which are few, a drive of an hour or less will bring them to the coast. As one drives along the coast one sees a favorite activity of both New Zealanders and foreigners, that is, fishing. Some are fishing from shore, others from boats – little boats and big boats. Some are angling with rod and reel, others are letting out their nets. But all have one thing in common, catching fish.
Very often, then, one is reminded of the Lord Jesus Christ and the lesson that He taught us in the miraculous draught of fishes, a miracle performed once in His early ministry and then again after His resurrection. For our purposes at present we will limit ourselves to the first one as recorded in Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 5. You should read these passages, especially Luke 5, in order to get the scene firmly before you.
The event is quite familiar to us. Two pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, were on the shores of Galilee cleaning their nets after a fruitless night of fishing. Jesus was there also, teaching the people. Because of the press of the people Jesus took one of the fishermen’s boats and pushed out a little from the shore, using the boat as a floating pulpit as He spoke to the people on shore. When finished speaking, the Lord instructed Peter to take his boat into the deep and let down his nets for a draught. Even though he had toiled all night and caught nothing, yet Peter obeyed the Lord, with the result that so many fish were caught that the nets began to break and both his own boat and that of his partners began to sink.
Obviously Christ had demonstrated by this miracle that He was the Son of God, a truth reflected in the reaction of these four fishermen. They were all amazed, and Peter fell down at the knees of Jesus saying, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” In turn Jesus says to Peter, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.”
A beautiful parallel between the first part of the narrative and the second part cannot help but be noticed. First we see Jesus teaching the people and preaching the gospel of the kingdom in person from that little boat. Indeed, the Great Fisher of men! In the second part we see that Jesus indicates to these disciples something about their future calling. In the future Christ will continue to be the Great Fisher of men, but with this difference, namely, that He will accomplish this work through the instrumentality of the disciples. They will cast the net of the gospel into the sea, and He will cause a great multitude of men to be enclosed in it.
Briefly, we see a parable in this miracle. The sea is none other than the world of men and of nations in which the apostles and the preachers of the gospel do their fishing in the spiritual sense of the word. In this same spiritual sense, the casting out of the net is the preaching of the gospel. The fishermen are the preachers of the gospel: first, these disciples who would be sent out as apostles, and later, all preachers of the gospel. And to complete the picture, the fish in the net are the saved in Christ, who are brought into the net through the almighty power of His grace and by His irresistible call.
What do we learn from this? The Lord is revealing the kingdom of heaven to us and is, therefore, teaching us something about that kingdom. A miracle is a sign, a wonder, pointing to the grace of God in the salvation of His people. So what is it that we can and do learn from this miracle?
First of all, it becomes immediately apparent that all human endeavor is absolutely hopeless as to the preaching of the gospel and the gathering of God’s people. The disciples fished all night but caught nothing. However, when Christ sent forth His almighty word of power, such a multitude of fishes were caught that their nets broke and their boats began to sink. So it is today concerning the preaching of the gospel and the gathering of the church. Human endeavor, all by itself, is hopeless! Man may preach until he is blue in the face, yes, even God-fearing and faithful men may toil all the night long, but no fish, no men will be brought into the church of Jesus Christ. But in our day the call goes out for more preachers, more missionaries, as if mere men, the more the better, can convert the world by simply casting forth the net, preaching the gospel. Oh yes, there are results. Social improvement, economic improvement, all of which is no more than heathendom highly cultured.
This, however, should not cause us to be lax in casting out the net. Oh no, cast out the net we must do, and very zealously. But what we must understand is that all our toil, no matter how faithful, in itself avails absolutely nothing.
What then? We first must notice in this miracle that we have to do here with a calling. At the call of Christ the disciples go out and they are given to enjoy a great catch. So it is with the preaching of the gospel. The Lord calls His servants. That the Lord does not call everybody is seen from the fact that He does not call the crowd that is situated on the seashore, but the four fishermen. Today the Lord is in heaven and He does not call His servants directly, but indirectly through the church. But call He does. Only those receiving such a call have the authority to preach. That is a truth that is largely lost in our modern society. It seems as if anybody and everybody can go forth as a herald of the Lord, speaking in the authority of His name. But this miracle, and later Paul, make it abundantly clear that no one can preach except he be sent. To the church Christ gives pastors and teachers; and through that church He calls and qualifies.
Note also the obedience of faith to this call. Though they had toiled all night long and had caught nothing, through Peter they responded, “Nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.” So too it is with us today. It all looks so hopeless. As churches we are small. Here in New Zealand that is especially the case. The whole denomination of the Protestant Reformed Church of New Zealand consists of one congregation of seven families. So we along with the rest of the church of Christ sometimes believe that all is so hopeless. The world is so exceedingly wicked and becoming yet more so. What possibly can be accomplished by our small church in her letting down the net of the gospel into the sea of men? Surely there must be a better method than the preaching of the gospel, which appears to be an exercise in foolishness. It all seems to be for nothing. Certainly something more could be added to or even substituted for the preaching in order to make it more pleasing to the pride of the natural man. But in the face of all this the church of Jesus Christ and her faithful ministers of the gospel respond in faith, the response of simple obedience and perfect trust: “Nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.” The preacher keeps preaching, and energized by that preaching the members of the church form their evangelism societies through which they keep on printing and handing out pamphlets, sponsoring lectures, and the like. All of this is done in faithful obedience to the call of Christ.
And the Lord draws. As He drew the fishes into the net, so He now draws His people unto Himself. Even though He makes His servants fishers of men, He remains the Great Fisher of men. Men today do not catch men all by themselves, but it is always Christ who catches men through them. It is Christ who regenerates His people and who calls them with an irresistible calling. He calls irresistibly, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And all who labor and are heavy laden come and find rest. He gives faith and grace; He justifies, sanctifies, and preserves even unto the end. It is His work, even though He works that work through us. Therefore, it is His word, and His word alone, that brings men into the net of the gospel and saves them. All the glory, then, belongs to Him, and to Him alone.
What encouragement for the church, no matter how small she is here on the earth! What incentive to keep letting down the net, knowing that the power of the almighty God, not our puny efforts, brings men into His church and unto Himself! That power is greater than all the power in the whole world! And what a promise! For out of the world, from which no human toil could ever call the church of the living God, the Lord will call His own elect church, a great multitude which no man can number! Not one given to Christ shall be missing. Even as it was the Father’s will from eternity, so Christ shall raise them up at the last day. And they shall all appear before Him without spot or wrinkle, in the assembly of the elect, in life eternal. And all the honor and praise and glory shall be God’s forever and ever.