A Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke
By Stergios N. Sakkos
vol. A, pp. 207-216
At the beginning of his public life, Jesus invited the disciples who would follow him and afterwards they would continue his work. The Evangelist Luke, who, as it was said (see comments on 1:3), does not respect the chronological order of events, writes first about certain incidents that took place later. So, at the end of the previous chapter (see 4:31-44) we read about a healing, in the synagogue of Capernaum, of a man who had demons in him, the healing of Peter's mother-in-law from a high fever and other miracles. And then (5:1-11) he writes about the call of the disciples, considering it as the most important event of the first days of Jesus in Capernaum. For this reason, he describes it in detail, while Saint Matthew and Saint Mark omit it in their short narratives (see Mt 4:18-22; Mk 1:16-20).
5:1 And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret.
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God.
Jesus did not come from the circle of Pharisees whom the people almost feared. He was simple and accessible to the ordinary people. He spoke clearly and simply. He could be perceived by the crowd, while the High-priests and the Pharisees spoke about Him contemptuously (see Jn 7:48-49). The religious leadership of the Jews and those who had high social positions, being poisoned by their selfishness and self-sufficiency, did not feel the need to hear God’s word. For this reason, Jesus preached on the shore of Capernaum - this was probably the market of the city - where a lot of fishermen and other simple people, the chosen remnant of God (cf. 1 Cor 1:26-28), were gathered. They were all crowded, as the verb «ἐπικεῖσθαι» «pressed upon him» states, in their attempt to approach Jesus and hear his teaching.
Lake Gennesaret took its name from the adjacent homonymous plain. The same lake is mentioned in the book of Num 34:11 with the name «Henereth (kinyra)», apparently because of its shape, which looked like the musical instrument kinyra, the well-known harp. Because of its great size, the Jews called Gennesaret the «sea». So, in the Gospels we find it as the «Sea of Galilee» (Mt 4:18; 15:29; Mk 1:16; Jn 6:1) because it was in the area of Galilee (Jn 6:1; 21:1), or the «Sea of Tiberias» because the city of Tiberias was built at its shore in honour of the Emperor Tiberius. In contrast to the other three evangelists, Luke describes it as a lake, because he is addressed to believers who were not from Palestine and did not know the local use of its name.
5:2 And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets.
He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets.
When the crowds surrounded Jesus, there were two fishing boats nearby. These were small boats that were used in professional fishing. They were about 8 meters long and 2 meters wide and could carry a weight of about one ton.
In this lake there was a huge quantity of diverse fish. The fish, as we can see from its frequent reference in the Gospels (Mt 14:15-21; 15:32-39; 17:24-27; 6:35-44; 8:1-10), was the basic diet of Hebrews. So, it was natural for the inhabitants of the towns and villages near the lake to occupy themselves with fishing. The fishermen of the two boats had come ashore and after the fishing that had preceded during the night (see verse 5), they washed and mended their nets. Therefore, it was morning or at least before noon. Fishing was primarily done with nets. There were a variety of nets. The gospel narratives refer to the «ἀμφίβληστρον» (see Mt 4:18; Mk 1:16), the «charm» (Mt 13:47) and the long nets like the contemporary ones, with corks on the top and weights on the bottom. This last type of net, as we can see by the way they fished (see verse 6), was used by the fishermen of our passage.
5:3 And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon's, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ships.
He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
Jesus asked for Peter's consent to use one of the two boats as a teaching platform. He made a polite request to him, knowing that he was the owner. This detail shows how much the Lord respected the freedom of any man and the right for property. The verbs «ἀνάγειν» and «κατάγειν» as nautical terms mean respectively «I’m going out into the sea» and «I’m bringing the ship to the shore». The verb «ἐπανάγειν» means «I'm going back to the sea». Jesus asked Peter to remove the ship only a few meters from the shore, so that the water would become a natural barrier between him and the crowd, who were gathered around him. In this way, everyone could see and hear him better.
Peter willingly made his ship available for the Teacher to preach. He did not hesitate because of the fatigue of the whole night or his sorrow for the unsuccessful fishing. He himself longed to hear God’s word from Jesus. About the phrase «he sat down, and taught the people» see comments on 4:20.
5:4 Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, «Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.»
The Lord did not want to leave without paying the owner of the ship, who offered him this unusual pulpit. At the end of the speech, he urged him to bring the ship again to the depths of the lake and with the other fishermen to let the nets down for fishing. He had, after all, his plan; through fishing he could «catch» disciples, according to the pun of Saint Cyril of Alexandria. He wanted to gain the absolute trust of his first disciples and attract them by showing his divine power.
5:5 And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.
Simon answered, «Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.»
The Lord was not a fisherman. As a man, he was unskilled at this job. His order would certainly seem absurd to Peter, who knew that this time of the day was completely inappropriate for fishing. And yet, excited by the presence and preaching of Jesus, the experienced fisherman obeys to this curious exhortation. He calls him «ἐπιστάτα», which means «teacher.» Luke uses this word instead of the Hebrew «rabbi», which is preferred by the other evangelists. It is not known if Peter had already watched Jesus doing other miracles. It is certain that he knew him since his brother Andreas had introduced him (see Jn 1:42-43). Peter's direct response to the Lord's command reminds us the willing obedience of the Virgin Mary to the angel's message (Lk 1:38) and it is a great lesson for the believers of all ages. His decisive answer, «because you say so, I will let down the nets», is often repeated by those who submit to the Lord's will, even when it seems unreasonable, and trust Him.
5:6 And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake.
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.
There were so many fish gathered, that the net «διερρήγνυτο». This verbal type, states that the net was about to break. Jesus, as an almighty God, dominates everything. His will and the power of his word attained this miraculous fishing, which cannot be rationally explained. There is also a miraculous fishing in Jn 21:3-14. But this is not the same incident. There, the resurrected Lord appeared «in another form» (Mk 16:12) and repeated the same miracle as a proof of his identity and as a sign of recognition by his disciples.
5:7 And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink.
So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
The word «κατένευσαν» is a maritime term, which in Modern Greek means «signal». When the boats were at a great distance from each other, the sailors could communicate by waving their hands or by a piece of cloth or some other visible signal. Peter's boat was out farther in the lake, while his partners’, the sons of Zebedee’s boat, was on the shore. For this reason, they could only communicate with signals.
Since both boats were filled, it seems that there were too many fish and the boats were relatively small. The type of the phrase, «ὥστε βυθίζεσθαι», does not mean that the boats started sinking, but because of the weight were about to sink. Their displacement «εκτόπισμα», in other words, crossed the line of safety. Some foreign scholars ignored the precise interpretation of these two words, so they faced the following speculations: How did the disciples finally catch the fish, since the nets were destroyed by the weight? How did they save the boats from being sank? The more precise meaning is that they «were about to sink» and this answers the above questions.
5:8 When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, «Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.»
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, «Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!»
The reference to the double name Simon Peter helps us to understand that the evangelist has in his mind the first contact of Peter with Jesus, when the Lord said to him; « you will be called Cephas, which means, Peter», which John records in Jn 1:43. There is, therefore, no disagreement between John and the other three evangelists over the election of the disciples, as some have claimed. John describes the first acquaintance; the others presuppose it and mention the call of the first disciples and later the final chosen ones for the missionary group, that is, the election of the twelve and their mission (see Mt 10:1-4; Mk 3:13-19; Lk 6:13-16).
The miraculous fishing revealed the divine power of Jesus. In the face of this revelation, Peter is shocked. He contrasts his own weakness and sinfulness to his majesty and sanctity and spontaneously calls him «Lord». Peter realizes how small and unworthy he is to host Jesus on his boat. Kneeling with devoutness, he exclaims; «Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!» His spontaneity does not allow him to think how unreasonable his request is, since Jesus should fall into the sea in order to get out of his boat. It is also a detail that proves this is a true narrative and not a fiction.
5:9 For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fish which they had taken.
For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken,
The miraculous fishing left the fishermen dazzled, not of course for the unexpected wealth that it would probably bring, but as a supernatural event, which showed the presence of an omnipotent person.
5:10 And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, «Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.»
and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, «Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.»
The professional fishermen of the lake usually formed guilds, small fishing companies. Their members were called «shareholders» (see vs. 7) or «κοινωνοί». They participated in the company offering their boats, nets and labor, and «shared» the profits. The two pairs of brothers: Petros-Andreas, James-John had created such a company.
The Evangelist Luke mentions the names of the three of the four partners, Peter, James and John. It omits Peter's brother, Andrew, who is mentioned by the other two evangelists (see Mt 4:18; Mk 1:16). His purpose, obviously, was to inform his recipients how the three top disciples, whom Jesus took with him at key moments of his earthly life, were invited. These were in the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:37; Lk 8:51), in Transfiguration (Mt 17:1; Mk 9:2; Lk 9:28), in Gethsemane (Mt 26:37; Mk 14:33). The Lord urges Peter «Don’t be afraid» and reassures him, as in the past the angel Gabriel said to Zacharias (see Lk 1:13) and to the Virgin Mary (see Lk 1:30). The presence of God in Sinai (cf. Ex 19:16-18; 20:18) and more generally in the history of Israel, was accompanied by phenomena that caused the terror of the Israelis. In the years of the New Testament, God came to banish fear and make people shareholders in the happiness of his kingdom.
The verb «ζωγρῶ» refers to the captivity of living beings. Peter is called to change not his profession but the object of his fishing. Instead of catching fish in his nets and lead them to death, he will capture people from the sea of the world, where they are spiritually dead, and lead them to eternal life. The superiority of his imminent mission is obvious.
5:11 And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.
So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
The blessed fishermen were impressed by the rich catch, but they did not want to profit from it economically. The desire for profit did not stand as an obstacle to Jesus’ call; «left everything» and they followed him. They were called to a mission that demanded self-denial and absolute devotion. That day Jesus broke up a fishing company and gained the first shareholders of his own divine «Company».
In the election of the students there is an element which is strongly at contrast to the tactics used by the leaders of various movements. These seek out their fans among the unemployed and unoccupied. The Lord called his colleagues while they were working (cf. Ex 3:1-4; 1 Kings 19:19-21). In this way, he showed how he honors work. Moreover, he did not consider it disrespectful to be described as a «τέκτων» (see Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3) i.e. a craftsman (carpenter, construction worker, blacksmith).
The evangelists Matthew and Mark note with emphasis that the four fishermen «straightway» left everything, in order to follow Jesus (see Mt 4:20.22; Mk 1:18.20). St. John the Chrysostom praises their obedience and urges: «This is the obedience Christ is asking from us», that is, to do the will of the Lord without the slightest delay.
Very often we develop a great activity for earthly things, while we constantly postpone everything that has to do with our spiritual life and the case of God. This delay is a well-made trap of evil. It is written, in this connection, by the former bishop of Florina Augustine: «All, dear ones, let us fear the demon of delay. In every good decision about the glory of God or for the benefit of our neighbor, he comes and whispers to us; “Tomorrow”. Oh, the cunning creature! He promises the uncertain future and seizes the present... Let us not forget the wisdom of a saying that the road to hell is paved with numerous “wills” and kind promises which will never be realized.»
In all ages the Lord appeals to everyone the invitation to follow him; to abandon the life of sin and to walk faithfully on his own footprints (see 1 Pet 2:21; cf. Col 3:8-10). At the same time, every Christian is called to be a missionary in his environment. The motto of the first Christians was: «Εις προς ένα προς ΙΧΘΥΝ», «Each one approach another one to bring him to Jesus Christ God’s Son». We know that the Christian merchants who traveled to the countries of the Mediterranean, contributed a lot to the spread of the Gospel. The Church of Rome, for example, was founded by disciples of the Apostle Paul who had moved there, before the apostle arrived. «The person who has no missionary desires, is a false Christian,» writes the bishop Augustine categorically.
However, in addition to the general call, the Lord also directs special calls to some persons in order to take up the special mission to continue the work of the Apostles. In every era, it is necessary to exist the tireless fishermen, the teachers of the gospel, those who will sacrifice their careers. They will cut off all human emotional ties and throw themselves with a spirit of sacrifice into the missionary work inside or outside their homeland. The Lord, emphasizing this need, urges the faithful; «Pray you therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest» (Mt 9:38).
The miraculous fishing can be paralleled with the work of the Church. The rich catch was a type of the rich fishing of men, a foretelling of the large crowd of those who were to be caught by the nets of the Apostles. By the power and authority of the Lord, with the patience and insistence that characterizes the fishermen, the apostles really spread the nets of the gospel and arrested a lot of men, whom led to Christ and salvation.