Fishers of Men. As the first act of the Galilean mission Mark reports the calling of Simon and Andrew to be fishers of men. Jesus found these brothers working as fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, elsewhere designated the Lake of Gennesaret or the Sea of Tiberias. The inland sea, which was twelve miles in length and six miles across at its widest point, provided a point of access between Galilee and Perea. There were many towns and fishing villages especially on the western and northern shores. The waters teemed with life, and when Jesus summoned the brothers they were casting their nets into the sea.
Jesus’ word to Simon and Andrew was remembered for its vividness and urgency: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The call to come after someone implies discipleship because it is the disciple who breaks all other ties to follow his master as a servant. Yet far more than this was involved in the call to become “fishers of men.” To interpret this phrase only as a play on words appropriate to the situation is to fail to appreciate its biblical background and its relevance to the context, which has focused attention on God’s eschatological act in sending Jesus. In the OT prophetic tradition it is God who is the fisher of men (note: some scholars see these references as marginal). The passages in which the image is developed are distinctly ominous in tone, stressing the divine judgment (Jer. 16:16; Ezek. 29:4 f.; 38:4; Amos 4:2; Hab. 1:14–17). The fishing metaphor was kept alive at Qumran, and it is striking that it is the judgment aspect of the metaphor which is stressed, as when the “Legitimate Teacher” expresses his awareness of being commissioned to execute God’s fishing among his contemporaries. The Teacher continues what God has done, in the company of others who are fishers. It is this understanding which provides the key both to the urgency in Jesus’ summons of Simon and Andrew and to the radical obedience they displayed in responding to his call. The summons to be fishers of men is a call to the eschatological task of gathering men in view of the forthcoming judgment of God. It extends the demand for repentance in Jesus’ preaching. Precisely because Jesus has come fishing becomes necessary. Between v.15 and v.17 there is a most intimate connection; fishing is the evidence of the fulfillment which Jesus proclaimed, the corollary of the in-breaking kingdom.
Yet there is also the immediate human dimension. Two things are of note:
- Jesus did not ask for repentance and belief – he asked them to leave their nets and follow.
- It should be noted that although the disciples respond to the call here, they do not fully take up the tasks entailed for some time. They must first be “made” fishers of human beings – shaped and molded and trained in the requisite skills.
In other words, repentance and belief are part of the formation of Christian life that begin by laying down other priorities and tasks and following Jesus to be “made” into one who has repented and who now believes.
The immediate function of those called to be fishers of men is to accompany Jesus as witnesses to the proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom and the necessity for men to turn to God through radical repentance. Their ultimate function will be to confront men with God’s decisive action, which to faith has the character of salvation, but to unbelief has the character of judgment. In specifically calling Simon and Andrew to be fishers, there is reflection upon the unpreparedness of the people for the critical moment which has come. In time the fishers will go where Jesus has not gone and they themselves will proclaim the message by which men are gathered. At this point, however, it is the eschatological urgency in Jesus’ mission which is expressed in the sudden call, and the immediate response of the fishermen who abandon their nets to follow Jesus.
On this same occasion Jesus saw the sons of Zebedee, James and John, in their boat preparing the nets for another night’s fishing. The terms in which they were called are not explicitly stated, but the intimate relationship of these two incidents indicates that they also are summoned to be fishers of men. The stress in Mark’s brief report falls upon the sovereign authority in Jesus’ call, and the radical obedience of James and John. So compelling is the claim of Jesus upon them that all prior claims lose their validity. Their father, the hired servants, the boat and the nets are left behind as they commit themselves in an exclusive sense to follow Jesus. The urgency in Jesus’ call and the radical obedience of the fishermen pose the question, “Who, then, is this who calls?” The use of the fisher image in proximity to Jesus’ proclamation summarized in v.15 provides the answer; it is the eschatological Lord who calls. He summons men by an act of grace to serve as agents of the kingdom drawn near, who shall gather a people for judgment.
These few verses seem to outline the programmatic character in Jesus’ total plan. It is a crucial text for the interpretation of the Gospel by virtue of its primary position. It anticipates the call of the Twelve in 3:13–19 and their subsequent mission in 6:7–13, 30, but looks beyond this point to the conclusion of the Gospel. Jesus affirms his relationship to those called in terms of a program for the future: he will make them become fishers of men. What they will become depends upon their following him. The initial command to follow Jesus receives a final and dramatic extension in the concluding resurrection story. Mark implies that the promise to be made fishers of men finds its fulfillment in the meeting in Galilee promised in Mark16:7.
Mark 1:16 Simon and his brother Andrew: In Mark 3:16 the evangelist refers to “Simon whom he surnamed Peter.” Thereafter Peter is the dominant name (eighteen times) for this disciple with only one reference to “Simon” thereafter (14:37; prior to 3:16 also in 1:16, 29, 30, 36). The following general picture of Peter emerges in Mark’s gospel: Simon and his brother Andrew were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus called them as his first disciples to follow him and become fishers of men (1:16–18). At the house of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum, Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law (1:29–31). Following additional healings in Capernaum, Simon, together with others, report to Jesus that people were seeking him (1:35–38). Of the Twelve appointed by Jesus the first of these in the list of their names is Simon “whom he surnamed Peter” (3:14–16). When Jesus revived the ruler’s daughter he permitted only Peter, James, and John to follow him. This is the first of three traditional scenes (cf. 9:2–13 and 13:3–8) involving an “inner group” of three disciples (but in 13:3–8 Andrew is also included in this group) among the Twelve (5:37). Peter’s confession on the way to Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the “Messiah” and Jesus’ subsequent rebuke of Peter referring to him as “Satan” (8:27–33). The transfiguration of Jesus before Peter, James, and John. Peter “did not know what to say” and offered to make 3 booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (9:2–13). Peter, somewhat perplexed, responds to Jesus, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you,” to which Jesus responds with a word of promise concerning this life and the age to come (10:28–30). As Peter and the others pass by the fig tree which Jesus had cursed on the previous day (11:12–14) he remarks, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered” (11:21). Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask Jesus privately when the temple buildings would be destroyed, a question which gives occasion to Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse (13:3–8). Despite Peter’s assertions to the contrary, Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times that very night (14:27–31). At Gethsemane, Jesus took Peter, James, and John and shared with them his great distress. Asking them to remain and watch, he went further to pray. Upon his return he found them sleeping and said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?” Twice again Jesus leaves only to return to a similar situation (14:32–42). Following Jesus’ arrest, Peter followed him at a distance into the courtyard of the high priest. Having denied Jesus three times prior to the cock crowing a second time, Peter remembered Jesus’ prediction and broke down and wept (14:54–72). A young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side of the tomb where Jesus had been laid, announces to the women who had come to anoint him, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (16:7) [AYBD 5:255].
Mark 1:16 casting: Mark employs the technical term for the throwing out of the circular casting net, which had a diameter varying from ten to fifteen feet. The outer edge was weighted to allow the net to sink rapidly, imprisoning fish under it; in the middle of the net was a rope by means of which it could be pulled up. With such a net, usually only a few fish were taken with each cast.
Mark 1:17 fishers of men. This expression is also without solid precedent in the OT, inasmuch as similar examples are negative and point to being caught in judgment (Jer 16:16; Ezek 29:4–5; Amos 4:2; Hab 1:14–17). The sense here is positive since, contextually, people are being caught for the Kingdom. Perhaps the need to catch involves a need to rescue, with its underlying assumption that those who are not caught will be judged or that once the fish is caught his old life will be changed forever. While the canonical tradition nowhere identifies Jesus as the Fisher of men, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, Logion 8, appears to do so: “And he said: The Man is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea, he drew it up from the sea full of small fish; among them he found a large (and) good fish; that wise fisherman, he threw all the small fish down into the sea; he chose the large fish without regret.”
Mark 1:18 followed him. Greek akoloutheō This key verb referring to discipleship is an important term in Mark (Mark 1:18; 2:14–15; 8:34; 10:21, 28; 15:41). With one exception (Rev 14:4), the use of this term to refer to discipleship is limited to the Gospels. “Following” involves a commitment that makes all other ties secondary, which is why Jesus’ followers often left other things behind (1:18, 20; 2:14; 10:21, 28; cf. Matt 8:22; Luke 9:61–62). Although Jesus’ disciples are often compared to rabbinical students, this term is never used of a rabbi’s student, so the expression with this nuance appears to be of Christian origin. Here is radical discipleship. Jesus is put first, so family and vocation become secondary.
Mark 1:19 James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John: Among the first of the twelve disciples called by Jesus were James and his younger brother John, “the sons of Zebedee” (by which expression they are sometimes referred to without the mention of their specific names, as in Matt 20:20; 26:37; 27:56; John 21:2). According to Matt 27:56, the third of the three women watching the crucifixion at a distance was “the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” Matthew’s source (Mark 15:40) refers to this third woman as Salome. If, as seems probable, Matthew is identifying Salome for his readers, rather than substituting another woman, then the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James and John was Salome. The further speculation that this Salome was a sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and that therefore James and John were cousins of Jesus, rests on a very precarious identification of the unnamed “sister of his mother” among those standing beside the cross, mentioned in John 19:25 (cf. the reference to “many other women” at the crucifixion in Mark 15:41) [AYBD 3:617].
- K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007).
- Alan Cole, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989). 111-13.
- John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina v.2 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer / Liturgical Press, 2001) 70-77
- Wilfred Harrington, Mark, The New Testament Message, v.4 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer Press, 1979) 11-16
- William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 63-70
- Philip Van Linden, C.M., “Mark” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, ed. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 907
- Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press,1994) 538-40
- Ben Worthington, The Gospel of Mark: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) 83-86
- David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005). 409-11.
- Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at crossmarks.com/brian/
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)
- The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins and Astrid B. Beck (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/bible