“And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then he said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men'” (Matthew 4:18-19 NKJV).
I have always been at least peripherally aware that there were commercial fishermen somewhere. However in the part of the world in which I live a fisherman is generally a person with rod and line seeking to catch one fish at a time. Though he intends to eat his catch, he usually views fishing as a form of entertainment or hobby. That is called sport fishing. Many sport fishermen do not even keep the fish they land but release them to provide entertainment for someone else.
In less developed parts of the world, sport has little or nothing to do with fishing. It is all about the catch, and eating or selling it. Though, for example, many in Bangladesh fish with hook and line, the preferred and most common method is to use nets. These vary from small nets thrown by hand, to large nets set in rivers, lakes, or the sea.
I suspect that when most American Christians read of the call of the Apostles we think in terms of sport fishing. We subconsciously relegate Jesus’ commission to the status of adding a new hobby. It is as if one of us today was invited to give up the weekend round of golf in order to go soul-winning. That is a serious misunderstanding of his true intention.
Peter and John were commercial fishermen, gaining their living by their daily toil. When Jesus challenged them to become fishers of men, he was pitting that activity against their former vocation. It was to be a change of jobs and life-styles, not just a new form of entertainment added to their familiar routines.
The primary difference between the commercial fisherman and the sport hobbyist is not method – it is that, to the former, fishing is livelihood, and therefore of great urgency. No matter how much the hobbyist may love to fish, he can live without it.
Peter and John were dependent upon the sea. They ate if they fished successfully. Jesus was offering them another vocation, but one just as indispensable to their survival as their former work.
Physical life depends upon food and income. For fishermen, that means catching fish regularly. Jesus revealed that in the new era of Christianity true (eternal) life is also inseparably connected to our vocation. If we want to live, we must fish for men.
Evangelism is not a sideline or hobby for Christians. It is what we are about. Jesus came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). His parting words to his followers were “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).
For too long evangelism has been considered one of many possible good works. In that view some have the gift of helping others, some of writing cards or making calls, some of teaching Bible classes or serving in the public worship, and some (usually a very few) the ability to teach the gospel to the lost.
There are definitely biblical passages teaching a diversity of gifts (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12). However, there is no justification for selecting one or a few commands to obey while neglecting the rest. Soul-winning is not a gift. Saving the lost is the purpose and duty of every Christian. Our abilities to do that will vary, as will the methods at which we are most skillful, but the basic vocation of fishers of men is for all of us. This is not about sport – it is about life itself.