It is during Jesus’ first public Galilean ministry that He calls four of His disciples to become fishers of men. They are Simon and Andrew his brother, and James with his brother John who were sons of Zebedee. This is not their first calling to the discipleship. We must remember that the Lord’s first Galilean ministry did not begin until He had completed His first series of labors in Judea. This stay in Judea is recorded in the second and third chapters of John. It is during this period that the cleansing of the temple and the Lord’s remarkable conversation with Nicodemus occur. Before this first Judean ministry, however, the Lord had been publicly baptized by the Baptist, in the river Jordan. This latter event marks the beginning of His public appearance. It is at the time of this baptism by John that the first calling of disciples takes place, as recorded in the first chapter of John. However, these disciples had evidently returned to their secular labors. This is evident from the fact that, when called to be fishers of men, they were at work with their father, Zebedee, casting a net into the sea. This calling, at the beginning of the Lord’s first Galilean ministry, is the more direct calling—when called the second time, they left their labors, ever to be with the Lord.
How little this saying of the Savior: “I will make you fishers of men,” is understood today! How these words are being quoted and corrupted! It is well, at this time, to remember that this expression appears in the New Testament only as applied to the immediate circle of the Lord’s apostles. This does not mean that the same thought is not expressed elsewhere. It is. The incident of the Savior’s appearance, after His resurrection, to the seven disciples at the sea of Tiberius expresses the same idea. But also here the apostles are these fishers of men. Yet, today these words are applied without distinction to whoever would proclaim a gospel. Preachers, who have very little or no understanding of Holy Writ, who are thoroughly Arminian and have no conception of the truth that, unless the Father draw, no man can come to Jesus, are viewed as “fishers of men.” Today anyone can be a “fisher” of men. Regardless of the question whether he has been duly called by the church and properly prepared for the difficult task of proclaiming the truth of God, anyone can leave his secular task to devote his time and efforts to the declaring of a so-called gospel. And we must surely bear in mind that a preacher of the gospel of God must be sent by the King of His church, that he must be called by that church, and that he, according to Scripture, must be prepared for this work. This is lost sight of today. But it is certainly Scriptural. In the Old Testament we read of the schools of the prophets. They were established for that very purpose. And in II Tim. 2:2, Paul writes to Timothy: “And the things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” There can be no doubt but that the significance and difficulty of the calling of a preacher of the Word demands special training by the church, and by those peculiarly prepared for that work. Besides, the proclamation of the gospel is the task, not of an individual, but of the church. The body of Christ must assume this responsibility.
Indeed, these so-called preachers of a gospel are “fishers” of men. They catch men, but these “fishes” have never been caught by Christ. Playing upon the emotions of the people, thundering into their ears the horribleness of hell, preaching a general love of God and a Christ Who died for all men without distinction, people are brought to the “light,” to a so-called Christ, but without any understanding of the terribleness of sin, and of the righteousness of God. There are so many “children” of God who are “man-made.” Does this phenomenon not present itself particularly in our day and age? Where is it proclaimed today that we must make our calling and election sure? Where is that preaching heard which has for its specific objective the growth of the body of Christ Jesus into all the truth? Is it not the common concern of almost all preaching today to bring as many “fishes” into the net as possible, to win as many souls for Christ as we possibly can, without being concerned about the “fishes” already caught? Again we say, these preachers are “fishers” of men, but they catch men, win souls. Sin, the righteousness of God, the love of God as purely divine, as a divine Self-love, are silenced. There is more concern today for the life of an individual human than for the immutable righteousness and holiness of God. “Fishes” are caught who have never learned to recognize Christ as the sole Savior of men, as the Christ Who alone draws us irresistibly out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. And how could it be otherwise? How is it possible to know the Christ when He is not proclaimed? How can they praise God as their only Savior when total depravity, particular atonement, and God’s sovereign love and election are either silenced or openly ridiculed? A Christ is held before them for whom they must labor day and night; the Christ Who must work for and in us is strange to them. Many will indeed imagine themselves saved who will hear from the Christ they never knew the awful sentence: “I never knew you!” It is certainly of the utmost importance that this be emphasized, ever anew, particularly in our day and age when Arminianism is running rampant.
Jesus is the “Fisher” of men. How important it is that we fully understand this truth and proclaim it in all our preaching! He shall draw all men unto Himself. He shall do so. This, therefore, is absolutely certain. For, unto Him is given all power in heaven and upon earth, and the promise of the Spirit, Who irresistibly leads His people out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of sin and the world into the fellowship of God’s everlasting covenant. Jesus is the Fisher of men. He does not merely throw out a “life-line” which we then must take hold of; He actually “catches” them, never fails, brings them without exception into the fold. Jesus must do this, for He alone can. These “fishes,” the elect people of God, must be called out of darkness into light, out of death into life. By nature we are children of death, bound with chains of darkness which we cannot break, neither desire to have broken. We love the mire of sin and corruption; we are darkness and haters of God. Therefore no amount of persuasion and tears can move one solitary human being to forsake his evil way and turn unto the living God. Hence it is of the utmost importance that we know Jesus to be the only Fisher of men. He is it centrally upon the cross. There He redeemed us from out of the power of sin and the devil, satisfied the righteousness of God, merited for His people eternal life. And only He, Who has received all power in heaven and upon earth, to Whom the Spirit has been given without measure, only He has the keys of the house of David. He alone can call life into our darkness and draw us irresistibly out of the corruption of sin and death. Jesus alone catches men. And this must be proclaimed. Boldly, without compromise, it must be preached that man cannot save himself, that only an almighty Savior is his only hope, that he is hopelessly lost in sin and guilt, that he cannot and may not serve Jehovah except the perfect satisfaction of God’s righteousness be brought for all his guilt, that only the Lamb Who was slain for His elect people and is now exalted in the Father’s right hand can possibly be His salvation, now and eternally. Man must know that he cannot save himself, yea, that he cannot even desire to be saved. This must be preached because, firstly, the truth must be proclaimed, and, secondly, man, who is saved, must praise his God. How shall we praise Him alone, if of Him we do not hear?
This Jesus makes “fishers” of men. As stated before, this expression, which in a well-known hymn is superficially applied to whoever would proclaim a gospel, is used in Scripture only in connection with the apostles. When we read that the Lord will make His disciples “fishers” of men, this surely does not mean that henceforth He and they will perform this work. God and man, or Christ and man never do things. We do not lend Jesus a hand, work for King Jesus. Let it be understood: I will draw all men unto Myself. However, it is through the Scriptures, sanctified unto our consciousness by the Holy Spirit, that the people of God are consciously called unto the fellowship of God’s covenant. It is through the Scriptures that of sin, of the work of Christ upon the cross and within our hearts that we attain unto the blessed consciousness of what God alone has done for us and in us. The Lord must reveal Himself to us if we shall know Him. The scriptures speak to us of the awful power of sin within us, of the immutable, terrible righteousness of God which knows of no shadow of turning, of the only propitiation for our sins and the sins of the whole world, of the promise of the Holy Spirit Who makes His dwelling in the hearts of His people and abides there forever. Bearing this in mind, we can understand why and how Christ makes His disciples “fishers” of men. We must, of course, not view the apostles and all subsequent preachers of the sure and unfailing promise of God in the same light. Their distinctiveness (of the apostles) lies in the fact that to them was given the Word of God. Willed by God from before the foundation of the world to be writers of His revelation to His people, endowed with their own peculiar talents and gifts unto that end, prepared spiritually by the Spirit of God so that they would not be mere “typewriters,” stenographers, but living witnesses of the Word they were to receive and speak and write, they finally were infallibly led by the Spirit of God and of Christ Jesus to write unerringly, letter upon letter, what God would have them write. Inasmuch then as the Spirit calls us into conscious fellowship with God through the truth, so that that operation of the Spirit takes place only where the truth is proclaimed, the apostles, being the divine media through whom this Word is recorded, are fishers of men. And it is Christ Jesus Who makes them such. For it is He Who leads them infallibly into all the truth; Jesus has received all power and wisdom, in the spirit, upon His ascension into glory; and it is this King of His Church Who, through His Word and Spirit, is ever gathering, out of every nation and tongue and land and people, a people, chosen unto eternal life, to be His own peculiar people, unto the praise of His redeeming grace. In this manner does the work of salvation occur. Surely it is of the greatest importance that, being saved, we realize that we are saved by Him, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Then we know that our eternal salvation is not in doubt, that our eternal happiness rests in His hands and that therefore no man can separate us from that salvation which has been prepared for and is being bestowed upon His people.
In the light of what we now have written we may apply the expression, “fishers of men,” to every preacher of the gospel, who has been called by Christ through His Church to proclaim the truth. Understand correctly, the gathering of these “fishes” takes place in conjunction with the preaching of the gospel. And insofar as that preaching of the gospel has been entrusted to these ministers of the Word, they can be regarded as “fishers” of men. The preaching of the Word of God is certainly not the task of all. To be sure, the preaching of the truth is the task of the church. We believe that the command to proclaim the gospel to all nations comes to the church of God. Unto the church Jehovah, through Christ Jesus, has given apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors, and teachers. It is the church who, in obedience to the command of Christ, appropriates those who shall labor in her midst in the Word. And it is also the church who keeps a watchful eye in order that the preaching be according to the Word of God. Unto this end particularly the office of elder must serve. But, then, it is only through this office of the administration of the Word that the church of Christ Jesus proclaims the truth. Not all have the authority to appear before the people of God upon the Lord’s Day to break the Bread of Life. Not anyone may take it upon himself to go into the highways and byways to preach the gospel. This is emphatically the task of the church which it fulfills through its offices. It has pleased the Lord to bless His people, perfect the saints, edify the body of Christ through the preaching of the Word, which may take place only by him appointed unto that task. There is nothing of greater significance for the people of God than divine worship upon the Lord’s Day. Of course, this does not mean that, as preachers, I, for example, bless the people of God. It is not the minister who speaks the Word to the church. God only does. But God’s blessing is inseparably connected with the administration of the truth. Neither does this mean that, when the Word is administered, the preacher must consider himself separate from the church. The Word is directed to him as well as to the others. We all must attend to hear the Word of God.
Finally, we must not forget that the calling of these “fishes” into the light, also continually throughout their entire life, takes place only in conjunction with the preaching of the truth. The minister of the gospel must at all times be subject to the Word of God. That Word he must proclaim. That Word is sharper than a sharp, two-edged sword. That Word he must bold before the people of God in all its fullness. Nothing he may withhold. “Thus saith the Lord,” must be the contents of all his speaking. He must so appear before the church of God that all of himself, all human persuasion, all human desire and interest may be completely subdued, wholly pressed unto the background, in order that, when the truth is proclaimed, God’s people may stand face to face solely with the Word of God. This will bear rich fruit. Of course, the vessels of dishonor will be fitted unto destruction. In the measure that God’s Word is held before them, their darkness and hatred of God will be revealed. And God accomplishes, also with respect to them, His good pleasure. But, positively, the sheep will be gathered into the fold. God will sanctify His blessed revelation unto their hearts. Their consciousness of sin and grace, of Christ as their only savior, and of God’s eternal love will grow and deepen. Their life will become richer. And God will ever receive the praise and the glory due unto Him alone. Let us, as Protestant Reformed Churches, hold fast to what we have, so that no one may take our crown.