Most of us are familiar with the “fishers of men” story from the gospels (Mark 1:16-20; Matt 4:18-22; Luke 5:1-11). We might also be familiar with the sermon that follows from it. Some of the disciples were fishermen by trade, but when Jesus calls them to follow him, he says he will make them “fishers of men.” The preacher concludes that likewise, Christians must “catch people” and bring them to church. The sermon is a call to evangelism: individual Christians should seek out non-Christians. (We hope no one uses bait and hooks, but you get the point.) I may never have questioned that sermon had I not read Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels.
As Hays works his way through the four gospels (and Acts, here and there), he demonstrates a way of reading Scripture called “figural reading.” Whether or not you’re familiar with figural reading, Hays shows how this method can help you see the riches of Scripture, especially in passages you’ve read before. Hays caught my attention with his figural reading of the phrase “fishers of men.”
Rather than an evangelistic call to bring people to church, Hays argues that this call is to carry news of God’s judgment on sin. He diverges from the typical evangelistic sermon because he sees the image of “fishers of men” in the prophets. Jeremiah uses this imagery for judgment against Israel: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them… For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence… I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations (Jeremiah 16:16-18). Amos uses fishing as an image of judgment as well: “The Lord God has sworn by his holiness. The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:2).
This is a far cry from the sermon about inviting non-Christians to church. “Fishers of men” carry news of God’s judgment on sin and the audience is not receptive. Israel was not thrilled to hear their prophets tell them of conquering nations coming to destroy their home and deport them to foreign nations. Why would we want to carry similar news of God’s judgment on our sins?
Figural reading helps us answer that question. According to Hays, figural reading establishes a connection between two events, passages, or people in the Bible such that (a) the first signifies the second (b) the second fulfills the first, and (c) the first remains intact. In the example above, the first event is God sending the nations of Babylon and Assyria as “fishers of men” who would judge Israel’s sins. The second event is Jesus sending the disciples as “fishers of men” who bring news of God’s judgment on God’s people. Let’s work through the three parts of figural reading.First, when God calls Assyria and Babylon “fishermen,” this signifies the way we should understand Jesus’s call to be fishermen. Jesus’s call means we will bear the news of God’s judgment of sins. God does not shrug his shoulders when he sees the sins of the world. As a just God, He will judge our sins, and disciples carry this news – whether they like it or not.
Second, God’s judgment of Israel during the exile is fulfilled in Jesus’ judgment of the sins of the world. The same God who judged Israel is the one who finally, once and for all, judged the sins of the world through Jesus Christ. The difference is that God’s judgment does not befall God’s people, but a representative named Jesus Christ. God’s judgment will not result in our suffering, but the suffering of His servant Jesus.
Finally, the fulfillment of the first event does not mean the first event should be dismissed. We should not read backwards from Christ’s fulfillment and say, “Surely God wouldn’t do something so abhorrent as judge His people.” In fact, when Christians see God’s judgment fall on the Israelite named Jesus, they see God’s just judgments on Israel leading up to it. God’s justice goes all the way through Israel’s history and culminates in the cross.
Two disclaimers are in order. First, the call to be fishers of men by carrying news of God’s judgment should not dismiss the ministries of healing (Mark 6:13), service (10:42-45), or evangelism (13:10). And yet, the calling to be fishers of men shows us that discipleship includes something that we might have missed had we not read the passage figurally.
Second, God’s judgment is good news. God’s judgment means that God will set things right. God’s judgment means that God will lift up the lowly and brokenhearted. God’s judgment means that God will bring down the powerful from their thrones. His judgment may seem harsh to us, but He does not bring bad news.
In the upcoming posts, I’ll address other ways this kind of reading can help us, but for now we see one great opportunity. This Sunday you can teach your church that Jesus calls his disciples to declare God’s judgment upon us for our sins. Who wouldn’t want to hear that sermon?