Jun 17, 2012

The Catch of Fish

Luke 5:1–11

After Jesus miraculously filled the nets with fish on the Sea of Galilee, Peter was so awestruck that he begged Christ to leave. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke, describing the moment when Peter realized who was standing in the boat with him.


We are going to continue our study of the gospel of Luke with a brand-new chapter. We are now at the beginning of chapter 5 as we look at Luke 5:1–11. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back, standing in this pulpit. After being gone these past few weeks, it’s great to be home.

So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.

When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So, when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.

This is a remarkable narrative in the New Testament for our instruction; first, that we may share in the astonishment of those who first observed it, and second, that we may also, in our own lives, respond the way the disciples did and follow Jesus. Please receive this text as the very Word of God. Let’s pray.

Again, our Father and our God, as we come to sacred Scripture this morning, we come as people who need to hear Your Word, every word that proceeds from Your mouth. We ask that on this day and in this hour, You would give us ears to hear, that by Your Spirit we may penetrate to the depths and riches contained in this Word. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Multitudes Press Jesus

When last we looked at the gospel of Luke together, it was after Jesus had healed so many people that He withdrew from the multitudes into a remote place. But they pursued him relentlessly, asking Him to stay in their midst and continue His healing ministry among them. He responded, “Don’t you know that I must be engaged in preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, for it was for this purpose that I have been sent into the world?”

As we come to chapter 5, we see that the people continued to press around Him. On this occasion, however, they did so not to insist on healings and miracles, but rather that they might hear the Word of God. It is a good thing that the multitudes, instead of just looking for personal gain, came rushing to Jesus when He explained to them that His mission was to proclaim the Word of God. The multitudes still came, and they pressed about Him because they wanted to hear the Word of God. Oh, how it would be the case that God would cause a revival in our land, that people would press into the kingdom of God and have a flaming desire in their hearts to hear the Word of God.

In any case, Jesus was standing by the lake when He began to teach, and He saw that there were two boats moored by the lake. The fishermen were gone from them because they were mending their nets.

I can see that scene in my mind’s eye. We used to live on the North Shore of Boston, and frequently we would drive to Gloucester at noonday to eat at the wharf. We would watch as the boats, the fishing fleet, would come in. We would see the old, grizzled tars, the sailors on the sidewalks with their nets, just as they did two thousand years ago. Meticulously, these men with gnarled fingers would work on the nets to make sure that any weak portion of the net was strengthened and anything that had ripped would be repaired, so that they could continue their vocation of bringing fish to the land.

In this text, just as there in Gloucester, these fishermen were sitting by the way, washing their nets. Jesus got into one of the boats, which happened to be Simon Peter’s, and He asked him to put out a little ways from the land so He could get some space from this multitude pressing against Him.

Peter’s Polite Reluctance

When Peter cast off a few feet from the shore, out of reach of the multitudes, Jesus sat down and, from the boat, He began to teach the crowds that had gathered. When He stopped, He said to Simon, “Launch out now into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Why did Jesus do that? We aren’t told for sure why He did it, but we certainly get a strong hint as to why He did it. Prophets in the Old Testament would frequently accent their verbal proclamation with some kind of visible object lesson. After teaching the multitudes with His Word, Jesus was about to teach Simon Peter something by giving him an object lesson he would never forget.

He said: “Peter, I want you now to launch out into the deep. We’re going to go fishing.” You can sense the tension in Peter, the frustration. Jesus told him to push out into the deep. He’s been out there all night fishing and didn’t catch a thing.

You know what Peter was thinking. This was impetuous Peter. He was thinking: “Jesus, You know all about theology. We love to hear You teach about the things of God and the kingdom of God, but give us some credit. We’re professional fishermen. We know about how to fish and how not to fish, where to fish and where not to fish. We’ve been out there all night, and our nets were empty.”

When he actually spoke, however, Peter was relatively polite. He said, “Master”—that’s a good way to start—“we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless, at Your word, I will let down the net.” In other words, he was saying, “I don’t want to do this, Master, but since you are the Master, and since You’ve given me the command to do it, I’ll do it, albeit reluctantly.”

What Could Possibly Be More Insignificant than That?

It reminds me of an experience I’ve related on another occasion, in another context, when I was in seminary in Dr. Gerstner’s class. There were about nineteen of us sitting in a semicircle, and he asked, “If God is sovereign and the doctrine of election is true, why should we be engaged in evangelism?”

He started asking each student one by one. I was sitting on the right end of the semicircle, and I was grateful that he started on the left end. He went to the first student, who said, “Beats me, I’ve always wondered that myself.” The second student said, “If God is sovereign and election is true, I really can’t see the point of being all that exercised about evangelism.” The third one said, “I have no earthly idea.” One by one, eighteen students fell in sequence, until it came to me.

The gaze of the professor was on me, and he asked: “Mr. Sproul what do you say? If God is sovereign and election is true, why should we engage in evangelism?” I said, “I know this isn’t the reason you’re looking for, but one small reason that we should still be concerned about evangelism is, after all, Jesus commands us to be concerned about it, doesn’t He?”

Gerstner started to laugh in a mocking type of laugh, saying: “Yes, Mr. Sproul, and what could possibly be more insignificant than that, that the Lord Jesus Christ your Savior commands you to do something?”

I got the message. The next time I was asked that question, I didn’t downplay it. If the Lord God omnipotent commands you to do something, you do it. You don’t do it reluctantly, and you don’t do it smugly as if you’re ready to say, when you fail, “I told you so.”

Lord, Depart from Me

Peter’s response in this text is just like ours: “Okay, Lord. You’re the Master. If You command it.” Then he might say to the other guys: “Let’s humor Him. Throw down the nets.” You know what happened next. Every fish in the Sea of Galilee jumped into the net.

Before we move any further, we must understand how that happened. Who made those fish? Who is the Lord of those fish? Those were Jesus’ fish. Jesus made those fish. He made the lake. When Jesus told His men to put the net in the water, the fish came to do the bidding of the Master. There was hesitancy on the part of Peter, but no hesitancy on the part of the fish. The fish were jumping to their deaths at the bidding of their Master.

Luke continues: “And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.” This was the greatest catch of fish these fishermen had ever experienced in all their years of fishing in this lake.

Note Peter’s response. You would think that Peter, who had James and John, the sons of Zebedee, as business partners, would’ve been the spokesman for his partners and said to Jesus: “Jesus, fifty percent of the business is yours. Just come down here once a week and do this. You know what? Instead of fifty, we’ll pay You ninety percent of the profits if You’ll do this once a week.” That’s what you would expect Peter’s response to be, but that wasn’t what he said.

Peter’s response is profound and, dear friends, it is profoundly important for us to understand. When Peter saw this, Luke tells us that he fell on his knees in front of Jesus and begged Him, not to go into business, but to leave: “Lord, depart from me. Please go.” We don’t have to guess why he said that. He stated his reason clearly: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”

Do you want to know why this church isn’t filled right now? Because there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who want to stay as far away from Jesus as they possibly can. The reason they want to avoid the worship and presence of Jesus is the same reason Peter gave to Jesus: “Please leave. Get out of here. Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”

The reason sinners don’t want to come to church is because they’re sinners, and nothing makes a sinner more uncomfortable than the presence of a holy God. In my book on the holiness of God, I have a whole chapter on the holiness of Christ. We’ve already seen the response of the demons to Jesus: “Jesus, please leave. Why are You tormenting us here before the time?” The demons couldn’t stand to be in the presence of the holy, and neither could sinners.

A Sign of Hope and Guilt

About forty years ago, I was speaking at a college in Western Pennsylvania, in a town situated along one of the rivers in the Steel Valley. It was a bleak day at the end of winter. Snow had not yet completely melted from the sidewalks, and the snow was not white, but black from the soot and dirt. It was a dreary, overcast day.

I was on a bus, and I looked at the people who were getting on the bus. The people were depressed, oppressed, just trying to eke out some kind of subsistence. You could see their stooped shoulders, the lines etched in their faces, and the looks of the despair they had. As I was sitting on the bus looking at these people, I was thinking, “Do these people have any hope whatsoever?”

Then, I started to look out of the grimy windows on the bus. The first thing I noticed was that we were passing by a storefront church, and it had a rudimentary cross in the front window. Suddenly, my spirits were buoyed, and I thought: “There it is. There’s the sign of hope for these people, the cross.” As we went a little further, I saw another one. I was amazed to realize that I couldn’t go a city block in this town without seeing a cross, the universal symbol of the Christian faith, the symbol of humanity’s hope.

Without the cross, men and women are without hope in this world. The cross, however, is not just a sign of hope, but also a sign of guilt. When we see that cross, we know what it represents. It represents a work of somebody trying to save people who are in their sin. Just as a vampire shrinks in horror from the sign of the cross, so a fallen human creature shrinks in horror at the sign of Christ, because Christ is holy, and we are not. People who are unholy are always uncomfortable in the presence of the holy.

Uncomfortable with the Holy

A few decades ago, a golfer won the coveted Golfer of the Year award on the PGA Tour. He received that award at a tournament in North Carolina, where he was the defending champion. In the preliminary rounds before the tournament began, this man played a foursome with Jack Nicklaus, the president of the United States, and Billy Graham.

At the end of the round, when the man came off the eighteenth green, a Christian friend of mine who was there went up to him and said, “What was it like playing with Nicklaus, the president, and Billy Graham?” The golfer was furious and red with rage, and he said: “I don’t need to play golf with Billy Graham and have him try to shove religion down my throat. I just wanted to play golf. I didn’t want to have to put up with that.”

Then he stormed off, went to the practice tee, got a bucket of balls, and just started pounding balls out into the distance to dissipate his fury. My friend sat and watched while this former player of the year was beating balls down on the range. When he was finished and exhausted, my friend went up to him and he said, “Did Billy really come on that strong to you out there?”

The golfer’s shoulders slumped, and he said: “No. Actually, he didn’t say a word. I just had a bad round.” Billy Graham didn’t say a word, and yet this man accused him of trying to shove religion down his throat.

How many times have people accused you of being holier than thou? You don’t have to say a word. If people know you’re a Christian, you will make them feel uncomfortable, not because you are holy, but because you’re associated with One who is. People are not comfortable in the presence of Jesus unless He’s healing them or feeding them, so Peter wants Jesus to leave.

Only Jesus Fixes Guilt

It was not merely a wicked desire on Peter’s part to want Jesus to leave. It was stupid. It was foolish because of the reason he gave: “Lord, depart from me because I am a sinful man.” If Peter had any sense at all, if he had a single brain in his head, he would have said: “Lord, don’t go. Come here because I am a sinful man.” What Peter needed more than anything in the world was a Savior.

Hundreds of times, people have said to me, “You know, religion may be good for you, and going to church is fine if you get something out of it, but I don’t feel the need for Jesus.” You don’t feel the need for Jesus? Is your heart that hard? Don’t you realize that there is nothing on this earth that you need more desperately than Jesus? What else can satisfy your need except Jesus? I ask people: “What do you do with your sin? What do you do with your guilt?” I don’t know how many times I have I’ve said that to people, but I’ve yet to have somebody say to me: “I don’t have any guilt. I don’t have any sin.”

All impenitent sinners on this planet, even sociopaths, know that they have guilt, and they know that they have sin. If you are a human being and you know that you have sin, how can you be so foolish as to think you don’t need Jesus? No one else can fix your problem. Again, if Peter had any sense, he wouldn’t have asked Jesus to leave. He would have begged him to come closer: “Please, come here. I’m a sinful man. I need You.”

Forsake All and Follow Him

Jesus said to Simon Peter: “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” He was saying: “You’re going to catch people, My people, whom the Father has given Me. I don’t need you to catch them. I can catch them without you. My Father can print His Word up in the clouds if He wants to, but He has chosen the foolishness of preaching as the means to save the world, and I’m choosing the foolishness of you disciples to bring My people into the fold.”

“So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.” Fame, glory, riches, power—all these things were forsaken because they realized that nothing could compare with this One who just performed that miracle before their eyes. Nothing could compare with this One who was the Pearl of Great Price. They had nothing to trade for the greatness of the benefits from Jesus, so they stopped running from Him. That is what happens at conversion. That is what happens when your life is turned around by God the Holy Spirit. You stop being a fugitive.

The tragedy for me is that the fugitives are not just outside. There are people in this room who are still fugitives, who are still fleeing from Jesus, hiding from Jesus, wearing a mantle or a cloak of respectability by coming to church and so on, but in their hearts, they’re still saying: “Depart from me. I’m not ready to forsake all and to follow You.” However, once you’ve heard the Holy One say to you, “Your sins are forgiven; come, follow Me,” then the Spirit of God changes that rock in your chest that you call a heart and causes it to beat anew under the Spirit’s breath. Then, all you want to do is get as close as you possibly can to Jesus and follow Him the rest of your life. That is what it means to be a Christian. Let’s pray.

Father, take our lives, consecrate them. Help us to stop running, to stop hiding, to stop fleeing, and rather to rush to You, to fall at Your feet and say, “Lord Jesus heal us, cleanse us, forgive us.” Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.