And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken…And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him (Luke 5:4–11)
In this well-known story, we see how Jesus recasts Peter’s job into what can be considered a vocation (or “calling” from the Latin, vocare). Peter’s job was a fisherman, and I can only assume that he was good at it. At the very least we can see from the text that he was a hard worker (“the whole night we labored”). It is most likely that from an early age, Peter was trained and equipped as a fisherman. He knew the ins and outs of the profession. He depended on it for his food and income. He probably could be considered an expert in his field, given the experience and knowledge acquired over the course of his life.
So, it makes sense when this “Teacher” comes and tells Peter how to do his job that Peter responds with what appears to be a bit of skepticism, even annoyance. “Teacher, we labored the whole night and took nothing” could be understood as a polite way of saying, “Look, teacher, I have worked all night, doing everything I know to do to catch fish, because I am a fisherman!” To give Peter credit, however, he acquiesces because he respects Jesus (though, not as Lord yet, but merely as a teacher).
I can only imagine how difficult it would have been for Peter in the moment. It would have been very much like a college professor of philosophy coming to an auto shop, and after the car mechanic had “labored and done everything in his power” telling him to simply turn the ignition switch to see if it would work. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if the mechanic was incredulous, and even a bit offended. The mechanic’s ego likely would be threatened by someone unfamiliar with the field showing him up in his respective profession.
This is what happens to Peter. The lifetime fisherman is told by the teacher to take the boat out again. He listens, albeit reluctantly, and they catch so many fish that their nets tear and their boats almost sink. In that moment, Jesus proves to be the better fisherman.
If Peter’s identity had been wrapped up in his profession, this would have been a devastating blow. All the dedication and work that had been devoted to shaping and forming Peter as a fisherman has been shattered by a man known simply as “Teacher,” who accomplished in an instant what Peter couldn’t do all night long. This Teacher is someone Peter doesn’t quite understand yet fears because Jesus has done something absolutely miraculous, other-worldly, and frankly beyond his comparably weak and pitiful attempts at fishing. Jesus is in a different league, so to speak, than any other fisherman.
But the beauty of the story is that Peter does not feel threatened. He feels unworthy. He says to Jesus, “Get away from me, I am a sinful man, Lord!” And though, in that moment, Peter’s identity could have been shattered, Jesus actually empowers his identity as a fisherman, transcends it even, transforming this common job of catching fish to the exceptional vocation of catching men. Jesus recasts Peter’s daily work into a greater vision for God’s Kingdom.
Today, we have the same danger of making our jobs our identity. It is easy to get caught up in the money and the status that they bring. It is sobering (and beneficial) to know that there is always someone better at what I do, and always Someone infinitely better. As believers in Christ, we have been given a vocation, a “calling” that transcends our daily jobs (as lawyers, construction workers, or actors) and causes us to bring glory to God in whatever we do (1 Cor. 10:31). Our lives, including all our jobs, hobbies, and activities, are ultimately about Christ and his Kingdom.
It is also important to note that Peter never ceases to be an actual fisherman. In John 21:3, Peter tells his friends, “I am going fishing.” It is a part of Peter that never leaves him, and I imagine he continually used that for his ministry, his daily sustenance, and even when he wanted to have a good time with his friends. While Jesus reveals to Peter and to us that we are not living on earth merely to catch fish or to find our identity in our professions, God gives each us particular affections and abilities to enjoy, to use, and to share. These elements of our design are not abandoned but transformed in Jesus, in order that we may fulfill the vocation we each have been given to the glory of God.
Such a calling is as great as it is daunting, but we should not fear, because we have the better Fisherman to help us.
Graham Michael is an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute and teaches at St. David’s School in Raleigh, North Carolina.