What Does It Mean To Be A "Fisher Of Men"?

One of the most memorable descriptions that Jesus gives his disciples is “fishers of men.”

But what does that metaphor mean?

I want to do a careful exploration of this imagery in the Scriptures and invite us to consider how a richer understanding of this image affects how we live as Christians.

To start, where does Jesus call his disciples “fishers of men”?

In Matthew 4:18-22 we read,

As [Jesus] was walking along the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter), and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. “Follow me,” he told them, “and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father, preparing their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

It’s an interesting story - four literal fishermen are invited to be metaphorical fishermen - to fish for people and not… fish.

But what did Jesus mean by a “fisher of men”?

To explore this question, I turned to Jeremiah 16 (included in today’s liturgical reading), which has an interesting potential connection to Matthew 4.

Here’s Jeremiah 16:14-21:

“However, look, the days are coming”—the LORD’s declaration—“when it will no longer be said, ‘As the LORD lives who brought the Israelites from the land of Egypt,’ but rather, ‘As the LORD lives who brought the Israelites from the land of the north and from all the other lands where he had banished them.’ For I will return them to their land that I gave to their ancestors.

“I am about to send for many fishermen”—this is the LORD’s declaration—“and they will fish for them. Then I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and out of the clefts of the rocks, for my gaze takes in all their ways. They are not concealed from me, and their iniquity is not hidden from my sight.

I will first repay them double for their iniquity and sin because they have polluted my land. They have filled my inheritance with the carcasses of their abhorrent and detestable idols.”

LORD, my strength and my stronghold,
my refuge in a time of distress,
the nations will come to you
from the ends of the earth, and they will say,
“Our ancestors inherited only lies,
worthless idols of no benefit at all.”
Can one make gods for himself?
But they are not gods.
“Therefore, I am about to inform them,
and this time I will make them know
my power and my might;
then they will know that my name is the LORD.”

In its original context, Jeremiah is announcing, as God’s mouthpiece, a comprehensive judgment on the Israelites for their worship of false Gods. As Tremper Longman writes,

God will send fishermen to catch them and hunters to track them down. The use of these two metaphors makes clear that punishment will be comprehensive.

As Lundbom (Jeremiah 1–20, p. 773) puts it: “The combined operation, in any case, will be comprehensive, with the fishers going after a large-scale catch and the hunters chasing down fugitives holed up in mountain rocks and caves.”

Most likely these are references to the Babylonians (the land of the north) and any others whom God uses as an instrument of his judgment (UTB Commentary).

All this leaves me wondering: Is there a connection between Jeremiah 16 and Matthew 4?

R.T. France, in the NICNT commentary, suggests there is a connection, but it is being modified:

The metaphor follows naturally from the description of their previous occupation, but leaves open the nature of the “catching:” from what and into what are people to be “fished”?

Jer 16:16 uses the same metaphor of “catching” sinful people for judgment13 (cf. also Amos 4:2; Hab 1:14–17), and indeed from the fish’s point of view that is a more natural sense: it is no blessing for a fish to be caught!

But following Jesus’ proclamation of repentance in view of the coming of God’s kingship it seems more appropriate in this context to take the “catching” in a positive sense, of recruiting new subjects to God’s kingship (cf. the parallel metaphor of seeking out the “lost sheep of Israel,” 10:6).

When the metaphor of fishing is used again in [Matthew] 13:47–50 the same “catching” will lead for some to judgment and for others to salvation. It is a metaphor for the time of decision, and Simon and Andrew will have a role in bringing people to that decision (10:5–15; 28:19–20).

Looking through a handful of other modern commentaries, I don’t see others making this connection.

However, according to The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, the bishop Chromatius, in his Tractate on Matthew, writing in the 4th century, drew the same parallels:

So the Lord chose fishermen who in a better way of plying their fishing trade were converted from earthly to heavenly fishing, that they might catch the human race for salvation like fish from the deep waters of error, according to what the Lord himself said to them: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

It was the very same thing he had promised through Jeremiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters and they shall hunt them.”

So we see that the apostles are called not only fishermen but also hunters: fishermen, for in the nets of gospel preaching they catch all believers like fish in the world; hunters, for they catch for salvation by heavenly hunting those people who are roving in this world as though in the woods of error and who are living like wild animals.

I often hear that Jesus is our Savior. And it’s true!

However, in light of Jesus inviting his original disciples - and us, too - to be “fishers of men” - we must also understand that Jesus brings God’s judgment.

For instance, we often quote John 3:16, which reads, " For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."

But what about the rest of this passage? In verses 17-21 we see,

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.

This is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed.

But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.

In this passage, John clarifies the other side of Jesus’ ministry: those who do not believe in him are condemned.

As D.A. Carson notes,

Already in need of a Saviour before God’s Son comes on his saving mission, this person compounds his or her guilt by not believing in the name of that Son.

As with the arrogant critic who mocks a masterpiece, it is not the masterpiece that is condemned, but the critic.

So, what does it mean to be a fisherman of people?

As disciples of Jesus, we announce that Jesus is the Savior. But in doing so, we must also remember that God will - one day - judge us for our idolatry and rebellion.

It’s a sobering, even uncomfortable reality.

We are invited to participate in God’s mission. Just as ambassadors cannot modify the instructions of whomever they represent, we must be faithful to God’s message.

In summary, to be a “fisher of men” is to participate in God’s mission by sharing the whole message of Jesus, both his offer of salvation and the reality of judgment.

Just as a fisherman goes out every day to catch fish, we should approach each day with a spiritual curiosity to see how God is at work around us.

Practically, I think this includes:

  • Actively praying for God to create opportunities for conversations about Jesus

  • Asking questions and listening with empathy to understand our friends’ perspectives

  • Inviting friends to join us at church

  • Collaborating with other ‘fishers of men’ in God’s mission

  • Preparing to share our faith and the reasons why we believe in Jesus

  • Loving others well

What do you think Jesus meant by calling his disciples “fishers of men”?

Do you think of yourself as a fisher of men?

If so, how does this affect how you live?

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I see a contrast between the fishermen and the hunters here. Fishermen use nets or poles with bait to attract the fish (or men). There is some level of interaction before the actual catch is made.
When hunting a hunter will sneak up silently to catch thier prey in a sudden and violent attack. Other times pits or traps will be set in the paths most likely to successfully to catch their prey unaware. Capturing can be both violent and dangerous for the hunter but always is for the hunted.
Jeremiah 16:15-18 says first the fishermen will be sent for the lost Children of Israel to bring them back. I believe it is is our time now to gather the righteous to Christ.
Then the hunters will be sent. They will be hunting those who live in iniquity and sin. They have defiled the land with detestable idols. Their punishment will be great.

Thanks for starting this discussion and the many commentaries that prompt us to look at the description given to the disciples as “fishers of men” more carefully. Considering that a ‘fisher of man’ involves following Jesus (Matt 4:18-22), I have always interpreted this verse to mean sharing the message of Christ, who is the power of salvation to those who believe in him, but judgement to those who don’t ( 1 Cor 1:18). If the kingdom of heaven is compared to a net, then being a fisher of men is to share the message of this kingdom of heaven, or Christ ( Matt 13:47-50). Solely looking at the New Testament, to be a “fisher of men” for me is to share the message of Christ, that brings hope to some and judgement to others.

Is it the same message in Jer 16:14-21? Is there both hope and judgement offered to Israel? Does “fishers” here have the same meaning as in the New Testament?

In a broad sense, I think the message of God is the same to the Israelites. In terms of hope, I see that the Israelites are being promised that they will be brought back to the land of their fathers (Jer 16:15). But before bringing them back to the land, God is going to judge them for forsaking Him and following after other gods. I think both fishers and hunters in Jer 16:16 refers to judgement, as He repays them double (Jer 16:18). So the parallels I see in Old and New Testament is that in both Jer 16 and Matt 4 /13 we see both hope and judgement from God. Israel was being promised hope of returning to the land but also judgement in foreign lands it was going to be driven into. “Fishers” in Jer 16 does not seem to imply spreading the message of the kingdom of heaven. The prophecy of Israel seems to have some fulfillment in both the near and far future of Israel. Somehow, what God does with Israel will cause other nations and Israel to know who God really is (Jer 16:19) and it relates to Jesus. How this will play out is not as clear.

I have previously heard some pastors preach that Jeremiah 16:15 has already been fulfilled when Israel became a nation. I am not so sure. I guess it depends on how one views ‘Israel’, ‘land’, and how one understands the message of Christ in fulfilling this prophecy.

So in sum, the practical relevance of the text for me is same as you have described, @Carson.

For me, this identity of “fisher of men” has impacted my relationships, my approach to the Bible and how I share my faith. It has meant pursuing Jesus even when our loved ones think differently, it has caused me to study scripture more, and caused me to share how God has worked in my life. Its possible to share our faith in a way that does not exalt our Lord. When we do that, its important to repent, humble ourselves and share what we understand as true in love, always giving room for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of those we seek to reach with God’s love.

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