Fish Story

Luke 5:1-11 describes the audacious way Jesus calls Peter to be a disciple. The scene opens with a mention of the empty nets Peter is cleaning – a bit of foreshadowing of the important role those nets will play later in the story. We can imagine Peter’s face, complete with bags under the eyes of this professional fisherman who has spent all night on the lake without a lick of luck. We can picture those eyes widening as they watch Jesus hop into Peter’s boat without bothering to ask for permission. The eyes might roll just a little when Jesus asks Peter to keep the boat steady just offshore for use as a floating pulpit.

Once the sermon from the sea is complete, Jesus makes a ridiculous request:

“Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”  – Luke 5:4

Here’s Mr. Dry Land Carpenter giving orders to a guy who fishes for a living about when and where to catch fish. And everybody knows that the time to catch fish in the Sea of Galilee is at night, when the fish are feeding and when they can’t see your nets. And everybody knows that most of the fish are found along the shore near the spots where fresh water flows into the sea.

I love Peter’s response. He basically says, “Jesus, this isn’t going to work. But because you are the one telling me to do it, I’ll humor you and give it a try. Even though deep water fishing in broad daylight is silly. Even though we’ve established that the fish aren’t biting. And even though fishing isn’t really your area of expertise.”

I wonder how long it takes for Peter to figure out that Jesus is expert in more areas than he realizes? When he does what Jesus says and lowers his nets, he catches enough fish to break nets and swamp two boats!

Peter’s immediate reaction to the miraculous catch of fish is not excitement and gratitude – it is fear and shame:

“When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.’”  – Luke 5:8

Peter is painfully aware of his unworthiness to be with someone like Jesus. He is shaken by Jesus’ holiness and power. Someone who is so connected to God that he can get fish to do what he wants is clearly out of his league. Peter figures that someone as holy as Jesus would not be willing to tolerate someone as unholy as himself.

Peter assumes (along with the rest of the first century Jewish world) that if something clean comes in contact with something unclean, the unclean thing will defile the clean thing. He doesn’t want to risk his sinfulness rubbing off on someone as pure as Jesus. But Jesus believes in reverse contamination – he knows that his cleanness will purify the uncleanness it touches. His holiness is contagious.

This passage includes the first use of the word “sinner” in Luke’s Gospel, and the scene establishes the key theme that Jesus’ attitude toward sinners is not what we would expect. Jesus is a friend of sinners.

Peter’s reaction to holiness in this call story echoes that of Isaiah the prophet in his call story recorded in Isaiah 6. When Isaiah encounters the unfiltered holiness of God, he assumes he’s a goner because of his own uncleanness. But instead of obliterating Isaiah, God purifies him and gives him a job to do. Jesus does the same with Peter. Jesus knows that Peter is sinful. But his response is not to say, “ew, gross,” and shove Peter overboard. His response is to embrace Peter and put him to work.

Jesus’ first words after the miracle are a reassurance that Peter has no need to be afraid. Though Peter tries to push Jesus away out of fear that he doesn’t deserve to be with someone so holy, Jesus refuses to depart. Jesus knows that with him is exactly where Peter needs to be. So he tells him not to be afraid, and then he offers him a promotion:

“From now on, you will fish for people.”  – Luke 5:10

Jesus says that Peter’s fishing skills will still be needed, but for a different kind of catch.

Our instinct may be to assume that Jesus’ holiness is something to fear. Because he is so pure, and we are so flawed, we might try to stiff-arm him like Peter did as a matter of self-preservation. But the holiness of Jesus isn’t repelled by our sinfulness. His righteousness is stronger than our wrongness, and it is wrapped in astonishing mercy. He wants to be with us. He wants us to follow him. He wants us to join him in reaching out to others.

Want to explore further?

1. Examine some other key moments in Peter’s journey with Jesus by reading Matthew 14:22-33, Matthew 16:13-20, Matthew 26:69-75, and John 21:15-19.

2. Read Luke 5:12-16, the passage immediately following the story of Peter’s call. Notice how Jesus reinforces the theme of reverse contamination by touching a leper.

3. Ponder the reality that Jesus has expertise with regard to your job, just as he did with Peter’s profession of fishing. What would it look like to follow his instruction at your workplace?

Why Was Jesus Talking to Her?

There was a Jewish scholar named Ben Sirach who lived a couple of centuries before Jesus. He wasn’t exactly a women’s libber. He wrote that it was a disaster to have a daughter, that it was shameful for a man to be financially supported by a woman, and that a man should never sit with a woman because spite continually comes out of her. He stated his overall gender view succinctly: “Women give rise to shame and reproach” (Sir 42:14).

Ben Sirach wasn’t likely to be invited to serve as a guest host on The View. But his opinions about women were almost universally shared by rabbis in the first century.

I say “almost” because Jesus had an entirely different perspective. He had the audacity to obliterate the chauvinism that dominated his day.

In a world that assumed that only men were worth teaching, Jesus had women disciples. Matthew 12:49-50 says Jesus pointed to his disciples and called them his brothers AND SISTERS. Luke 8:1-3 says Jesus’ traveling band of disciples included women (which would have been considered scandalous), and that those women were the ones bankrolling Jesus’ ministry (which would have made ol’ Ben Sirach shake his head with disgust). Luke 10:38-42 tells the story of Jesus’ friend Mary sitting at his feet in the posture of a disciple; when her sister Martha told Jesus to send her to the kitchen where she belonged, he said she was right where she was supposed to be. A Y-chromosome was not a pre-requisite for disciples of Jesus.

In a world that viewed women as the source of everything wrong in the world, Jesus regularly pointed to female heroes as examples to follow. He used a poor woman as a pattern for generosity (Mark 12:41-44) and a woman with a sketchy past as a model for gratitude (Luke 7:36-50) . He told stories celebrating a persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) and wise bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13). No other rabbi would have the nerve to tell his disciples, “be like this woman.” But Jesus did it all the time. He even told a story comparing God to a woman searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).

In a world that viewed a woman’s testimony as invalid for any legal proceeding, Jesus charged women to be the first messengers of his resurrection. He picked women to be the first to share the best news of all time to their male-dominated world.

Perhaps the scene in which Jesus’ audacious attitude about women comes into sharpest focus is his conversation with the woman at the well recorded in John 4. He breaks every conceivable social taboo in an encounter that produces the first woman preacher in Christian history. The woman is shocked that Jesus, a Jewish man, would talk to her, a Samaritan woman (v.9). When Jesus’ male disciples walk up on the conversation in progress, they are shocked to find him talking to a woman (v.27). Jesus is breaking all the rules.

Not only does he speak to the woman, but he puts himself in a position of weakness and elevates her by telling her that he needs her assistance – he asks her for a drink. And any other self-respecting rabbi would have considered her Samaritan drinking bucket to be unclean; Jesus is like a white guy in the Jim Crow south asking a Black stranger for a sip from a fountain labeled “colored.”

The conversation with the woman is full of audacious claims. Jesus calls himself “the gift of God.” He says he is qualified to quench spiritual thirst and to provide eternal life. He claims to have supernatural knowledge of the woman’s past. He declares the temple in Jerusalem to be obsolete. He says he’s the Messiah. He applies the divine name, “I AM,” to himself.

But we shouldn’t just be shocked about what Jesus said. We should be shocked to realize to whom he said it. The woman’s gender, her ethnicity, and her past moral failures would have been three strikes against her in the eyes of any other teacher. But Jesus treats her as someone competent to have a deep theological conversation. By John’s reckoning, Jesus chooses her to be the first person he tells that he is the Messiah, and the first person with whom he shares one of his remarkable “I AM” sayings that fill John’s Gospel.

Jesus commissions the woman to go and bear witness to her husband, a man, and bring him to Jesus. She expands the mandate and becomes a missionary to her whole town. Her testimony persuades many Samaritans to believe in Jesus. She convinces others to hear Jesus for themselves, and that does the trick for them. John summarizes the results of the woman’s missionary endeavor like this:

“They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” – John 4:42

He’s the Savior of THE WORLD. Not just Jews, but Samaritans, too. Not just men, but women, too.

Want to explore further?

1. Read each of the passages referenced above, and notice the positive portrayal of women in each of them.

2. From your perspective, what is the most surprising thing Jesus does in John 4? What is the most surprising thing he says?

3. Read Galatians 3:28 and ponder how it captures the attitudes Jesus demonstrated with the woman at the well.

Job One


Jesus came into a world that focused on the vertical dimension of the life of faith. Most first century Jews would have acknowledged that faith has both a vertical dimension (between me and God) and a horizontal dimension (between me and other people), but they would have assumed that the most crucial part was the vertical part. They figured that what God most wanted was for them to avoid worshipping idols, to offer the correct sacrifices, to get the Sabbath right, to say the right prayers, to tithe properly, and so on.

One of the audacious things Jesus did was to elevate the horizontal. He insisted that the way we treat other people matters deeply to God. He taught that our relationships with people have an impact on our relationship with God, and that those horizontal relationships are actually the best indicators of the health of the vertical relationship.

One clear example of this tendency to elevate the importance of human relationships is in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he describes a specific case in which we should prioritize the horizontal over the vertical:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift on the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” – Jesus, Matthew 5:23-24

No other rabbi would have the audacity to tell people to keep God waiting while they go and straighten things out with a cranky neighbor. The instruction becomes even more surprising when we realize the major production involved in giving a gift at the altar: For Jesus’ original hearers, it meant traveling a great distance to the temple in Jerusalem, undergoing extensive purification rituals, and purchasing an animal to offer. Jesus said that if they went through all of that and then remembered someone back home they had wronged, they should leave Billy the newly purchased goat running loose in the temple and travel all the way home to try to make things right.

How we treat people is a big deal to Jesus.

My favorite example of Jesus elevating the horizontal is recorded in John’s Gospel. It comes at a pivotal moment: Judas has just walked out of the room to go turn Jesus in. Jesus knows that this will be his last chance to say anything to his disciples before he dies. So he tells them he won’t be with them much longer, and then he utters these profound words:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – Jesus, John 13:34-35

I would excuse you for arguing with Jesus that his command to love isn’t all that new. What is unquestionably new is the metric he tells them to use to quantify that love: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Wow. That’s a lot of love. Jesus is saying, “You remember how I welcomed you when nobody else would have you? I want you to love like that. You remember how I gave you a second chance, and a third and a fourth chance when you kept blowing it? I want you to love like that. You remember how I served you, even washing your feet? I want you to love like that. You remember how I spoke the truth to you even when it wasn’t pleasant? You remember how I fed you when you were hungry? You remember how patient I was with all of your questions and doubts? I want you to love like that.”

Jesus says he wants his kind of love to be the identifying characteristic of his followers – he wants it to be how people recognize us. That’s how our discipleship shows: Not by the beliefs we profess, or by the rules we follow, but by the love we demonstrate. Jesus says that job one for his followers is to love like he loved.

Jesus shares this profound instruction with his disciples, and they apparently don’t hear a word of it. Peter speaks as soon as Jesus pauses (no shock there), but he is still stuck on the thing Jesus was saying before giving his big new command. Peter just asks Jesus where he is going. It is one of many times we see the disciples being the “duh”-sciples, not getting it at all when Jesus says something profound. But I’m glad they don’t get it the first time, because Jesus takes the opportunity to reiterate his instruction just a couple of chapters later, this time taking its practical application to even more audacious depths:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – Jesus, John 15:12-13

Again, Jesus gives the command to love. Again, he tells them his love is the pattern. But then he tells them exactly what “as I have loved you” means: it means laying down your life for the ones you love. Jesus lets them know that love is more than warm feelings or good intentions. It is sacrifice. And he is just hours away from showing them how it is done.

Then, I suppose just in case Peter has zoned out again, he says it one more time in verse 17: “This is my command: Love each other.”

It is the culmination of a teaching ministry that audaciously elevated love for people to a higher place of prominence than anyone who came before him.

“Here’s what I command: love like I have loved you. Period. Full stop. That’s not only the first item on the list. It is the list. Love!”


Want to explore further?

  1. Check out a few other passages in which Jesus elevates the horizontal: Matthew 7:12, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 6:27-36
  2. Read all of John 13. Pay attention to the stark contrast between Jesus’ unfailing love and the failures of his disciples.
  3. Jesus says your primary assignment is to love like he loved us. What is a practical way you can fulfill that assignment today?