‘When Simon Peter saw [the miraculous catch of fish] 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 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’ (Luke 5:8-11).
Peter — always a passionate fellow — responded dramatically to Christ’s miracle. He was, as we might say, ‘blown away’. The others too were astonished by what happened. They all saw the miracle for what it was, a massive message from God.
It is a bit like reading the Bible and suddenly seeing it for what it really is, and receiving it for the first time ‘not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God’ (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
It was not that Peter just saw something amazing happen and said, ‘Wow! How did he do that?’ No, it was what it said about Jesus and Peter’s relationship to Jesus that brought Peter, quite literally, to his knees.
There are three components in Peter’s response. Firstly, he falls down before Jesus (v.8a). He realises that he is in the presence of someone vastly greater than himself. He is floored by the unmistakable manifestation of divine power in Jesus. He is speechless before the lordship of the Son of God.
Secondly, he pleads for Jesus to depart from him (v.8b). Peter was scared. He reacts instinctively, as did the demons that Jesus was about to cast out of the Gadarene demoniac. They knew they were in the presence of divine holiness and feared divine justice (Mark 5:7).
Peter is trembling in the presence of God the Son. It is not a sudden loathing of, or a loss of love for Jesus that moves him. Rather, he is overwhelmed by a sense of unworthiness.
Thirdly, he confessed himself to be a sinner. Here is the specific reason for Peter’s fear: ‘I am a sinful man, O Lord!’ (v.8c). He sees the gulf between his sinfulness and Jesus’ perfect righteousness. And he surrenders.
Many a soul, converted to Christ, has asked, ‘How can this holy and righteous Jesus have anything to do with a sinner like me?’ John Calvin tells us why, when he writes, ‘Thus Christ sinks his own people in the grave, that he may afterward raise them to life’.
It was a fearful conviction of sin that gripped Peter’s heart and reduced his body to jelly, but it was a necessary experience toward the equipping of a saint for service to his Saviour and Lord. Years later, the apostle would emphasise, reflecting on Christ’s dealings with him, that we all need to be humbled under the mighty hand of God, if we are to be exalted in due time (1 Peter 5:6).
Peter’s reaction, humble and self-effacing as it truly is, exposes his real need and his spiritual confusion. For one thing, he should rather have said to Jesus, ‘Please don’t leave me! Please save me!’ He should have cried with the psalmist in faith, ‘O Lord! For your name’s sake, pardon my iniquity, for it is very great.’ (Psalm 25:11).
The truth is that Peter was a weak believer. He could see Jesus’ power and holiness, but he could not quite imagine how Jesus’ love and mercy could be equal to these. Do we not sometimes find it easier to believe that God would judge us rather than save us?
Yet this is precisely why grace is so ‘amazing’. God’s saving grace is the proof that his love and mercy are equal to his power and holiness. In Christ giving himself as ‘a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28), ‘mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed’ (Psalm 85:10).
Peter only saw the law of God condemning him. If, instead, he had cried out for forgiveness, he would have found, as Charles Simeon has observed, that ‘this would have honoured the Saviour, whose mercy is equal to his power: and any other use of the miracle was, in fact, an ignorant and unbecoming perversion of it’.
The miracle was not given to prove God’s power to condemn sinners, but to attest God’s power to save. So if you are convicted of sin and of God’s holiness, take this as a reason to run to Jesus!
Yet Jesus’ reply is a masterly counterstroke that pours light into Peter’s darkness in just a few words. All he says is, ‘Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men’ (v.10b). Not a whiff of a rebuke; no psycho-analysis of his inner motives; only gracious assurance and promise of good things to come.
It also has to be said that, without this word from Jesus, Peter would have missed the point. He would have gone on misunderstanding and misapplying both Jesus’ preaching from the boat and his miracle in the boat.
He had taken from what Jesus had said and done the exact opposite of what Jesus actually meant and intended, which is that the disciples are called to minister with Jesus in the changing of people’s lives and destinies.
But Peter cries, ‘I am unworthy. I am not up to this at all! You have the wrong man here, Jesus!’ And Jesus is countering, ‘Peter, it isn’t about how good, or how gifted, or how worthy you are. Nor is it about how sinful, untalented and unworthy you may think yourself to be. It is about my purpose of love, my grace to save, and my power to enable you to minister for me. So don’t be afraid. You are going to be blessed and a blessing!’ In this way, Jesus so gently brings his disciples to three refreshing realisations:
First, they are to realise new confidence in Christ (v.10b). ‘Do not be afraid’ is an invitation to relate to Jesus as the Messiah and Saviour he really is.
Why did he call these men to be his followers in the first place? Was it to chastise and terrify them? Of course not! It was to save them and shepherd them, for ‘he is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him’ (Hebrews 7:25). Believe it. Live it. Enjoy it. Embrace Christ!
Second, they are to lay hold on a renewed calling from Christ (v.10c). ‘From now on you will catch men’; will catch; will catch men. Do you feel inadequate? Peter certainly did, as did all the prophets. But believe that Jesus will make his ‘strength perfect in [your] weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Third, they are pointed to a redirected commitment to Christ (v.11). Now they really ‘left all’ to follow Jesus. If Peter is to be a minister of the gospel and if you are to be a disciple of Jesus in your calling, then you will only do so when you know what it is to be confident in Christ and live your calling from Christ, with unreserved commitment to Christ.
Jesus took Peter and the others from being spectators of his preaching and power to actually becoming fishers of men. Jesus’ private ministry applied his public ministry and showed how God’s people, in all their callings, may follow him and catch people for Christ.
That discouraged young pastor with whom we began this study (ET, August 2016) made the same discovery on that dark January day. Jesus’ promise that his disciples would be ‘fishers of men’ flashed into his mind, and he was overwhelmed with excited anticipation: ‘O my soul, follow Christ in this. Be edifying in your private conversations. When you are with people, let something that tastes of heaven drop from your lips…
‘And learn that heavenly chemistry of extracting some spiritual thing out of earthly things. To this purpose … endeavour after a heavenly frame, which will … turn every metal into gold’.
This was written, not by a twenty-first century pastor, but by a young man named Thomas Boston, in January 1699 (A soliloquy on the art of man fishing). His ministry in more than three decades that followed was to see mighty works of God’s grace in his native Scotland.
Jesus’ assurance still applies to the church in our world: ‘From now on, you will catch men’. From Simon Peter to Thomas Boston, and to His servants today, Jesus is calling us to cast gospel nets and land a harvest of his grace.
Gordon Keddie served for 40 years in pastoral ministry with Reformed Presbyterian churches in Pittsburgh (PA); Wishaw, Scotland; State College (PA); and Southside, Indianapolis. He is a well known writer and conference speaker.