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What I Learn about My Purpose from a Fisherman in the Bible

Photo of Stephen BrownlowStephen Brownlow | Bio

Stephen Brownlow

Stephen is married to his wonderful wife, Brittany, and is the father of two children. He is a ministry graduate of Dallas Christian College and received his masters from Point University. When he isn’t writing, you can find him making things in his garage or just enjoying the role of being a husband and father.

Simon was a fisherman in the Bible whose catch of fish hundreds of years ago tells me a lot about how I should be living today…

When I was a young man, I could often be found riding my bike down a busy roadway toward a park a few miles away. The only difference between myself and other city boys my age was that I had a fishing pole firmly grasped in one hand and a tackle box in the other. It was a balancing act as I tried to steer while holding onto my gear. You see, I loved to fish, and a few miles on a bike wasn’t going to stop me.

The parks I visited had ponds that the city had dug out. They weren’t natural bodies of water, and the city stocked them with fish every so often. I would usually catch perch and catfish. Judging by the holes in their mouths, the fish had been caught many times before. It was almost as if they knew the price of the worm was a hook in the mouth.

“It was almost as if they knew the price of the worm was a hook in the mouth.”

At one pond, I would toss my line in just off the dock, count to five, and yank the line. There was a fish on the hook nearly every time. I could literally catch thirty fish in as many minutes. The only thing that slowed me down was how long it took to rebait the hook. Sometimes, I would put a piece of grass on the hook, and this usually worked just as well.

Because of my success, I thought I was a great fisherman. Once, I even tried to give advice to a dad who was struggling to help his son catch a fish. He didn’t take my advice kindly. After his rebuttal, I continued to catch fish next to them. Eventually, they gave up and left.

Despite my success, it wasn’t long until I began to realize that I wasn’t such a great fisherman. The truth was the fish were starving in the unnatural city pond. I was just the guy yanking them out the water and throwing them back in. The fun eventually gave way to sadness. The fish weren’t free; they were basically just trying to survive in a cage.

They were basically just trying to survive in a cage. 

Many years later, I got the chance to travel to Israel and while there, I visited the Sea of Galilee. After a nice lunch in Tiberias one day, I walked out to the water’s edge near the docks. There, I was astounded by what I saw. To my disbelief, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fish in a giant school just below the surface. I’d never seen such an abundance of fish!

Immediately, I thought of Luke 5 when Jesus told Simon to let down his nets for a catch. Simon replied that they had fished all night and caught nothing, but that he would do as Jesus asked. The resulting catch was so large that their nets began to break! Simon was so astonished that he fell at the knees of Jesus and confessed his sinfulness. That’s when Jesus told Simon that he would become a fisher of men.

What has been striking me the most about this story is the methodology of fishing. When it comes to the how of fishing, do we have in mind the right picture? Even for those of us who love fishing, most of us picture a person on the side of the pond with a rod and a reel. Yet that’s not the kind of fishing Simon did—and I think there’s something about the way they fished back then that implies how we ought to be “fishing for men” today.

Are you casting a net or dropping a hook?

Let me explain what I mean by asking a question: When it comes to outreach in your community, are you casting a net or dropping a hook? Metaphorically, Simon was certainly thinking of a net when Jesus told him he would fish for men. Today, most of us don’t have to fish for survival—so we’re probably thinking of fishing rod. Why is it important to clarify our understanding of the “fishing for men” mentality?

It’s easy and comfortable for me to grab my favorite pole, favorite bait, and travel to my favorite fishing hole where I can catch my favorite fish. I can bring a cooler and comfortable chair with me and even take a nap if I want. However, when I do it this way, it’s more about me than it is about the urgency of catching fish!

When we choose our areas of ministry, are we choosing our favorite fishing hole and picking out people that we prefer? Is our reach limited to one location? Is it confined within the boundaries of the body of Christ?

Are we choosing our favorite fishing hole and picking out people that we prefer? 

Contrast this with fishing with a net. First, you have to get the boat out into the water. The net itself requires effort and daily maintenance. But when you cast it, a net covers a much larger area than a single hook in a predictable spot. It reaches out instead of hoping to bait something easy. It’s more effective and reaps bigger rewards. And to bring in a catch with a net is a team effort.

When Simon got his catch, it was so large that help was needed from others in order to get it into the boats. Most things are more fun—and far more effective—when they’re done in community. Joy is meant to be shared. Partnering with others in outreach is the same way – it’s needed and it’s fun. The “Big C” church, with everybody reaching out relationally according to their giftedness and opportunities, is such a better way of doing outreach than trying to go it alone.

And then, when Simon and his friends got to the shore, the Gospels tell us that the fishermen abandoned everything and followed Jesus (e.g., Luke 5:11). That huge catch made for the ultimate “fish story.” I can almost hear Simon—Peter—telling the story later in his life to an astonished group of people. That brings me to my final point.

A fish story is only a fish story when it’s told to people who weren’t there. What does that mean for the gospel? Are we really preaching the gospel if we’re only telling it to people who already know it? Evangelism and teaching are not the same.

Are we really preaching the gospel if we’re only telling it to people who already know it?

Just as Simon left his boat behind to go fish for men, some of us may need to leave some things behind in order to cast a wider net. Maybe it’s a change of method or location. Maybe it’s a mindset that needs to be left behind. Or maybe it’s just plain old selfishness.

Here’s the catch.

When we cast a net, we don’t get to choose which fish ends up in it. It’s completely out of our control and completely in God’s control. For many of us, this is exactly where we need to abide even though there may be some things in the net we didn’t plan on encountering. We can still trust that God knows which fish are best for us, so let’s trust him, cast widely, and reap bountifully.