What being 'fishers of men' really means

It's not every day that the pastor invites you to his house for a coffee. At least, it wasn't for me. I was a slightly immature 19-year-old who thought he was actually quite mature thank you very much, despite deep down still believing it was my destiny to become the next Jimmy Page.

I'd been serving in the youth ministry at my church for a couple of months, and it was the youth pastor who had invited me to his house for coffee. 'I want to mentor you,' he said. I didn't really have much of a clue about what that meant, but I was up for it all the same.


Over the following couple of years, Simon asked me deep, personal questions, called out things in my character which needed dealing with, and took me with him into places where he was ministering. Through this time, I began to change. I started to behave a bit more like Simon (in a good way!), and some of my immaturity began to fall away. One of my housemates remarked to me once that he could tell I'd been with Simon that day because I used the word 'mate' a lot more!

What Simon had done was invited me into a discipling relationship. By giving me access to his life and opening up to me about things in his ministry which he didn't tell to just anybody, he was teaching me how to be a better follower of Jesus. Through this relationship, he also helped me to see the call that God had placed on my life for leadership, and ultimately sent me packing off to Bible college.

One of the mistakes we've made in the Church over the years is that we've thought of discipleship as a course that we run. You come to faith - perhaps through an Alpha Course - then you go on a discipleship course to give you some more knowledge about what it means to be a Christian, then you're in the club. That's a little oversimplified, I know, but I hope you see my point.

Discipleship is far more than a course we run. More and more churches across the Body of Christ are coming to that realisation, which is very exciting to see. We need only look at Jesus throughout the gospels to see that there is far more to discipleship than we've realised or experienced.

At the outset of his gospel, Mark records Jesus calling his first disciples.

'One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, "Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!" And they left their nets at once and followed him.

A little farther up the shore Jesus saw Zebedee's sons, James and John, in a boat repairing their nets. He called them at once, and they also followed him, leaving their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired men.' (Mark 1:16-20)

Becoming Fishers of Men

There are a couple of things we can draw out from this (well, there are more than a couple, but for this post we'll stick to just a couple). Firstly, Jesus' invitation to Simon and Andrew was to follow him.

We can get worked up trying to discern our calling in life. Don't get me wrong, it's important that we identify what it is that God has gifted us and called us to do, but we have a primary calling which comes before all that. Our primary calling as Christians is simply to follow Jesus. We are not called primarily to a task, but to a relationship. It's this relationship that sustains us and give us purpose; it gives us a reason to keep doing the task(s) to which we are called. It's this relationship that keeps us going when we face all kinds of difficulties in life: losing your job, getting a bad diagnosis, breakdown in human relationships... the list goes on.

Jesus' invitation comes in two parts. The second part is, 'and I will show you how to fish for people.' The ESV puts it slightly differently (and more faithfully to the Greek): 'I will make you become fishers of men.'

'Fishers of men' is a title that many Christians awkwardly attach to themselves. We can understand the meaning behind it. We cast the gospel out like a net for fish, and people become captivated by Jesus and decide to follow him: fishers of men. However, I would suggest to you that perhaps Jesus wasn't establishing a title for all future Christians. After all, he didn't call Matthew the tax collector to be a fisher of men. Go with me on this.

Simon and Andrew (and James and John, although they didn't hear this part) were fishermen. That was what they did; it was their identity. They weren't ever going to be anything other than fishermen. Certainly in the case of James and John, fishing wasn't just their identity - it was a family identity. Jesus sees something different in these young men. They know how to catch fish, but there's more to them than simply doing that for the rest of their lives. To everyone around, and to themselves, they were only good for one thing: fishing. Jesus saw the potential in them to become world changers.

Seen in this light, Jesus' invitation is much cleverer than you might initially think. None of these young men would have believed Jesus if he'd said something like, 'Follow me, and I'll use you to bring about God's ultimate rule and reign here on earth.' Jesus talks to them about what they know - fishing - and uses it to give them a vision for what God can do through them.

Dallas Willard once wrote: 'Discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you.' You might not be a fisherman, but you are a *something*. What if Jesus wants to use you in whatever it is you spend your time doing, to bring about the Kingdom rule of God where you are? That's discipleship, and as we go about our primary call of following Jesus, we gradually become more like him - just like I did with Simon - so that others around us can see Jesus in us. Discipleship is an adventure for us, just as it was for the Twelve.