The Two Draughts of Fishes
S. Harman, Bromborough
Texts: Luke 5. 4; John 21. 6. These two scenes seem alike, yet the discourse is full of variations. First, a word about the fishermen's vocation. It is a toilsome one —he must go forth in all weathers, and endure many hazards. The fisherman's calling must be carried on perseveringly —he must constantly cast forth the net. To be a fisherman he must expect disappointments (and how often we get them); he must often cast in the net and bring up nothing but weeds. And finally the bait must be right.
The narratives before us have a degree of uniformity but they have a greater degree of dissimilarity, so from these we may see what lessons they both combine to teach us.
Points of Uniformity. 1. In both miracles we are taught that the means must be used—everything is done by human agency. It is a miracle certainly, but yet neither the fisherman, nor his boat, nor his tackle, is ignored; all are used and employed. In the saving of souls God works by means —God is pleased by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. God Himself has selected the plan of instrumentality as being that by which He is magnified on earth, and the Scriptures say "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us", 2 Cor. 4. 7. He takes men who are nothing in themselves that the Lord may be magnified through them, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
2. Again, in both our texts — the means, of themselves, are utterly unavailing. In both they had toiled all night and caught nothing—they were industrious alright, because it says they "toiled". Had they lacked perseverance?—No!, for they had toiled all night. Was there a deficiency of fish in the sea? —Certainly not, for as soon as the Master came, there they were by the shoal. No! There is no power in the means by themselves apart from the presence of Christ. He uses instrumentality, not to glorify the instrument, but for the sake of glorifying Himself. He takes weakness into His hands and makes it strong. Let us ever keep this in mind, that without Christ we can do nothing —we are nothing. In a lot of the Lord's work the human element is very prominent: let us make sure that in all our service for the Lord He is in it — He is in command giving the orders.
3. We see that Christ's presence confers success— It was as Christ sat in Peter's boat that the fish were caught. It was His will, mysterious though it may seem; it was His presence on dry land in John 21 that drew the fish into the net. We must learn that it is Christ's presence in the midst of His Church that is the Church's power. It is the presence of Christ's representative, the Holy Spirit, that is to give the Church force, and having received this power (or force) we become a "savour of life unto life" to those who hear. Christ's presence with us must be our power, otherwise we shall catch no fish in our own strength. In both instances the success through Christ's presence developed human weakness. In the first instance we see the weakness of man, for the nets break, and the ship begins to sink; Simon Peter falls down with "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, 0 Lord". He did not know much about that till the boat was filled; but the very abundance of God's mercy made him feel his own nothingness. In the second case, they were scarcely able to draw in the net be cause of the multitude of fishes. If we could only realize what nothings we are; yet the Scripture says "God hath chosen the weak things". Oh that we might be kept humble in the service of the Lord, that pride and self-glorification may not enter into our service. It does not necessarily mean that when the Church prospers it becomes proud —it was the very fulness of the boat that made it sink, and the very abundance of the miracle causes us to cry out, "It is the Lord", John 21. 7. For we feel that it could not have been of man, for it is out of man's reach to have accomplished such wonders.
So far, then, there is a likeness running through the whole: (a) the means must be used, (b) the means alone are unavailing, (c) Christ's presence gives the success, and (d) success develops human weakness and leads us to exclaim, "It is the Lord".
Having then seen the likeness, we now look at the points of dissimilarity. The first picture in Luke 5 suggests the church as men see it, namely, Christendom. The second picture in John 21 suggests the Church as God sees it, namely the body of Christ. Luke tells us what the crowd saw, but John tells us what Christ showed to His disciples alone. In Luke, it is the common truth, which the multitude may receive, but in John we have a special mystery revealed only to spiritual minds. Let us then observe the points of divergence.
Points of Divergence. 1. There is a difference in the orders given. "Launch out into the deep" (Luke); "Cast the net on the right side" (John). The first shows us that the ministry of the gospel is to fish anywhere and everywhere, whether to respectable congregations, down and outs, or in the far-off mission field; our orders are "Launch out into the deep". So many Christians today are content to paddle around in shallow water. The second is the secret work of the Holy Spirit in the world —commanding, guiding, directing the net; this is the invisible work of the Spirit. We speak to all; He speaks to some. We cannot single them out, but God can. We sow the seed, but God knows that which has fallen on good ground. The Lord speaks of all those who are in the world, but of the few that He has chosen out of the world; "them which thou hast given me", John 17. 9.
2. In Luke's story we see that there is a distinct plurality—the fishermen have nets, boats, etc. (plurality of agency employed). But in John, there are many men but only one boat—they unitedly drag the net, and it is but one net; there is no division, it is all one. Here again there is brought before us, on the one hand that which is apparent to men, and on the other hand that which only God sees. To us the means used by God in bringing sinners to Himself are various, sometimes we are in one boat trying to catch fish; but then there are our partners in another boat. God would appear to have the agency diverse; there must be several nets, several fishermen, several boats, speaking of the various evangelistic outreaches. In John they are all in one boat—all fishing together—all dragging one net together; this suggests the Church the Lord sees. It is the unity of the Spirit, the unity in Christ Jesus, unity in love one to another, that God would have us regard. To God there is only one Church with one Shepherd. To our eyes there may be two or twenty boats, two or fifty nets—yet to Him who sees all things better than we do there is only one boat and one net; and all who are taken in that one net shall be safely brought to shore.
3. There is another difference — how many fish were caught? In Luke, a great multitude. In John, a great multitude are taken too, but they are all counted and numbered —153 in all. Here again we have the difference between "What the crowd saw", and "What the Lord knows".
In a gospel campaign the nets are cast, but we do not really know how many fish are caught—how many souls are really saved; some are genuine, some are not. But "the Lord knoweth them that are his", and they are all numbered with the redeemed, even to the last one. The Scripture implies that there shall be in heaven a number that no man can number, for God's elect are not few. — Even if we cannot count them, thank God He can.
4. Yet again, notice another difference. The fish in the first story seem to have been of all sorts—big ones, little ones, quite a variety. Then there were the proverbial ones that got away, for the net break. In the second story the net was also full, but the fish there are described as great fishes — all worth keeping. The first gives us the outward and visible effect of the ministry. There is gathered into the many "churches" of Christendom a great number and there will always be in that number some that are not good—some not really called of God. We need not be surprised if the tares grow with the wheat; it is the order of things now, and it must go on until the harvest. Not so in the true Church, the body of the elect in Christ. Here, there is none to throw away. The Lord who brought them into the net brought the right sort in, and they cannot get out again. They remain a member of the true Church, the body of Christ until they are brought to the eternal shore.
5. In Luke the net breaks, but not so in John. In the church as men see it, the net breaks and instead of one pure company they see many different denominations. In the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, as John's incident suggests, the net is unbroken —it is intact, for although men see a church which is broken and torn, the body of all true believers is a unit—all are one with all those who love the Lord Jesus in sin cerity and truth.
6. In Luke 5 they launched out into the deep, but in John 21 they "were not far from land". So today, we go into the stormy deep with the gospel net, but we must never forget that as the Lord looks on He sees us not far from the shore, and very often "toiling in rowing", but His watchful eye is ever upon us. In Luke 5 the disciples had to for sake all and follow Christ, but in John 21 they sat down to feast with Him. So in the churches, we are bidden to be His disciples and follow Him in obedience, and, like Peter, learn the lesson he had to learn, "nevertheless, at thy word I will". But the eye of faith perceives that we shall soon drag the net to land, and then the Master will say, "Come and dine", and we shall sit down to feast in His presence "when all our labours and trials are o'er, and we are safe on that beautiful shore".
Final Thought. In Luke 5, Christ was in the ship; happy thought that Christ is with His Church, even though she launch out into the deep. In John 21, Christ was on the shore. What a happy thought this is for the believer; the Lord is in heaven on the eternal shore—He has gone up on high for us. But whether we see Him with the Church, or on the eternal shore, all our night's toiling shall have a rich reward when we see Him face to face.