Thanks to James McGrath, I’ve been fretting a bit more over the “fishers of people” saying in Mark 1:17 and Matthew 4:19. In his commentary, Hagner decides in the end that it “refers in a general way to the work of the new disciples, who are now to be concerned with drawing men and women into the kingdom of God.”1
This reflects a fairly common way of thinking about the phrase. It’s misleading, in the first place, in that the kingdom of God was not a present reality, into which people were evangelised and baptised, but a future reality that you had to wait for.
But it is also misleading to discount, as Hagner and other commentators do, the eschatological dimension to the saying. Hagner is right to observe that the focus here is not “the crisis of judgment faced by the fish”—an odd way of putting it, mind you, since fish do not face a crisis; they will be dead when they are sorted through on the shore (Matt. 13:47-50). This is not Finding Nemo. But the language, in this setting, may still have suggested that the disciples had a decisive role in the crisis facing Israel.
The kingdom of God has come near
Jesus calls the first disciples directly after coming into Galilee and proclaiming a message from God: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:14-15). The demand for repentance makes it clear that the “good news” is also bad news: the kingdom of God comes first as judgment and only those who repent and believe in the proclaimed future will find forgiveness. Repentance is not merely a moral obligation; it is an eschatological obligation.
According to Matthew, John the Baptist has already warned that Jesus “will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12).
This anticipates the parable of the net. At the end of the age of second temple Judaism, Jesus will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with “unquenchable fire” (cf. Is. 66:24; Mal. 4:1), and the angels will separate the evil “fish” from the righteous and “throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:47-49).
The disciples are called to follow and become “fishers of men” in the midst of an eschatological crisis.
Fishermen in the Old Testament
Fishermen appear in a couple of Old Testament texts with something like an “eschatological” significance:
Behold, I send the many fishermen (haleeis), and they will fish for them, says the Lord; and after these things, I will send the many hunters, and they will hunt for them on every mountain and on every high place and from the holes of the rocks. (Jer. 16:16* LXX)
And it will be that every soul of the living creatures bursting forth in all places, upon which the river comes there, will live, and a great many fish will be there, because this water has come there, and it will heal, and they will live; everything upon which the river might come there will live. And fishermen (haleeis) will stand there from Engedi as far as Eneglaim; it will be a drying place for fishing nets; by itself it will be, and its fish, like the fish of the great sea, will be a multitude great in number. (Ezek. 47:9-10* LXX)
Of the two, Jeremiah 16:16 is the more relevant for a reading of Jesus’ calling of the disciples because the sending out of fishers and hunters precedes the catastrophe of judgment on Israel; the image of fishermen standing by the river that flows from the temple belongs to the restoration of Jerusalem.
But Jeremiah’s fishers and hunters are a hostile force, coming from outside; the reference is to the two deportations in 597 and 586 BC. This does not really accord with the role of the disciples.
Joel Marcus is inclined to agree that the Jeremiah passage is relevant, but I think he misconstrues it:
In Jer 16:16, an OT passage that is rather close to Mark 1:17 in wording (“I am sending for many fishers”), part of the fishers’ task seems to be the eschatological regathering of the people of Israel in a new exodus….2
True, the statement is immediately preceded by an affirmation that the Lord will bring the “house of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries, there where they had been driven” (Jer. 16:15 LXX). But this is a parenthesis. The overall theme here is judgment and exile: “I will hurl you from this land into a land that you and your fathers have not known” (Jer. 16:13 LXX). The fishers and hunters saying in verse 16 is a return to this, and a reason is given for it, removing any ambiguity: “because my eyes were on all their ways and their acts of injustice were not concealed from my sight” (Jer. 16:17 LXX). It is not the exiles who are on every high place or hiding in caves; it is idolatrous and lawless Israel which must be hunted out and sent into exile.
Fishermen at Qumran
This one’s interesting…
The speaker in 1QHa 13:7-11 thanks God that he has not been abandoned to wickedness, that his life has been rescued from the pit, and that he has become one of the “many fishermen who spread their net on the surface of the water, and hunt for the children of injustice. You have established me there for judgment.” In other words, he has become part of a righteous group that has been entrusted with the work of enacting judgment principally against those among the covenanters who now oppose him (13:12-39):
In its brilliant flames all the child[ren of injustice] shall burn, [and it shall] become a fire which burns up all the men of guilt completely. They who committed themselves to my testimony have let themselves be seduced by [false] inter[preters, so as to bring the stranger] into the service of righteousness. (1QHa 14:21–22)
So here you have a clear use of the metaphor, perhaps loosely echoing Jeremiah 16:16, in which the fishers are engaged not in salvation but in the exercise of judgment within the community. If Jesus is using it in much the same way, he would see himself as one leading a movement of reform in apostate Israel, which, of course, is exactly how he did see himself.
Taking people captive
Luke doesn’t have the saying about fishers of men. Jesus sees fishermen washing their nets by the lake; he gets into Simon’s boat, they push out, and catch “a great multitude of fish.” Simon is deeply troubled by this, but Jesus says to him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be taking people captive”—or “taking people alive (zōgrōn)” (Lk. 5:10*).
The verb zōgreō is used a number of times in the Septuagint for the taking of captives after conquest; for example:
David smote Moab and measured them off with ropes, putting them to sleep on the ground, and there were the two portions for putting to death, and the two portions he kept alive (ezōgrēsen), and Moab became slaves to David bearing gifts. (2 Sam. 8:2)
That sort of usage would make the disciples captors of the righteous, who will live, rather than of the wicked, who will perish; but more importantly it evokes a context of conflict and keeps the thought of judgment and division in view.
Labourers for the harvest
The other key passage for understanding the mission of Jesus’ disciples is Matthew 10:1-25. Jesus has seen that the crowds are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He says to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” So the work of these labourers will be to do what he has been doing: going through the cities and villages, proclaiming the message about the coming judgment and salvation of Israel, and healing all diseases and afflictions (Matt. 9:35-38).
He calls the twelve, gives them authority to cast out demons and heal the sick, and sends them out, advising them that they will not have gone through all the cities and villages of Israel “before the Son of Man comes” (10:1-6, 23).
The disciples are not portrayed as active agents of judgment. They proclaim a message, and where there is faith in the proclamation, they cast out demons and heal the sick. But otherwise they are passive figures in the story: they are ill-equipped; they will be received well by some but rejected by others; they will be arraigned in the synagogues and before governors and kings; the Spirit will give them words to speak; they will be hated and will have to flee persecution. “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matt. 10:25).
But these labourers sent to the harvest of first century Israel—these “fishers of men”—have been given authority not only to bless but also, symbolically at least, to condemn:
And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. (Matt. 10:13–15)
Finally, notice that the disciples are not bringing anyone into anything. They accept hospitality, but no one is invited to join them, come to church, or enter the kingdom. The exorcisms and healings are signs that something is afoot, but the requirement is to repent and believe, and then to wait for a day of judgment.
The “fishers of people” saying certainly has something to do with evangelism, though emphatically not evangelism in the sense that it is usually understood today. Evangelism in the New Testament entails making a political-level proclamation about imminent divine action: God is about to judge and re-establish his people, he will sooner or later judge the dominant pagan civilisation, his Son will be acclaimed as King of kings and Lord of lords by the peoples and governments of the Greek-Roman world.
In the case of Jesus’ immediate disciples the mission really only concerns Israel: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5–6); and even evangelism among the nations means telling them what YHWH is about to do in the midst of his people for the sale of his glory.
The evangelism of the disciples, therefore, divides Israel and must consign many to the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, to the fiery furnace, to a place of unquenchable fire, to the judgment of Gehenna—all figures for the catastrophe of the war against Rome and the exclusion of unrepentant Israel from the life of the age to come.
But in what sense, then, are the disciples “fishers of people,” taking the living captive? I think, now, that the weight most likely falls on the positive thought: they will take people alive when God comes as a warrior-judge to punish his apostate people and inaugurate a new age. But the eschatological context presses on the saying from several directions, and we cannot dismiss the thought that the mission of the disciples would have the effect of excluding many in Israel from the life of the age to come.