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by Richard Chenevix Trench
Chapter 3 from Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord
(First Published 1846.)
(see original for extensive footnotes)
LUKE 5:1-11
THERE have been in all times those who have deemed themselves bound to distinguish the incident here narrated from that recorded in St. Matthew (iv. 18) and St. Mark (i. 16-20). Thus Augustine finds the divergences in the narratives so considerable, that he can only suppose the event told by St. Luke to have first happened; our Lord then predicting to Peter that hereafter he should ‘catch men,’ but not at that time summoning him to enter on the work; he therefore with his fellows continuing for a season in their usual employments; till a little later, as by the two other Evangelists recorded, they heard the word of command, ‘Follow Me,’ which they then at once obeyed, and attached themselves for ever to their heavenly Lord. 

Some difficulties, yet not very serious ones, in bringing the two accounts to a perfect agreement, every one will readily admit. But surely the taking refuge at once and whenever these occur, in the assumption that events almost similar to one another, and with only slight and immaterial variations, happened to the same people two or three times over, is a very questionable way of escape from embarrassments of this kind; will hardly satisfy one who honestly asks himself whether he would admit it in dealing with any other records. In the extreme unlikelihood that events should thus repeat themselves a far more real difficulty is created, than any which it is thus hoped to evade. Let us only keep in mind the various aspects, various yet all true, in which the same incident will present itself from different points of view to different witnesses; the very few points in a complex circumstance which any narrative whatever can seize, least of all a written one, which in its very nature is limited; and we shall not wonder that two or three relators have brought out different moments, divers but not diverse, of one and the same event. Rather we shall be grateful to that providence of God, which thus sets us oftentimes not merely in the position of one bystander, but of many; which allows us to regard the acts of Christ, every side of which is significant, from many sides; to hear of his discourses not merely so much as one disciple took in and carried away, but also that which sunk especially deep into the heart and memory of another. 

A work professing to treat of our Lord’s miracles exclusively has only directly to do with the narrative of St. Luke, for in that only the miracle appears. What followed upon the miracle, the effectual calling of four Apostles, belongs to the two parallel narratives as well—St. Luke’s excellently completing theirs, and explaining to us why the Lord, when He bade these future heralds of his grace to follow Him, should have clothed the promise which went with the command in that especial shape, ‘I will make you fishers of men.’  These words would anyhow have had their propriety, addressed to fishers whom He found casting their nets, and, little as they knew it, prophesying of their future work; but they win a peculiar fitness, when He has just shown them what successful fishers of the mute creatures of the sea He could make them, if only obedient to his word. Linking, as was so often His custom, the higher to the lower, and setting forth that higher in the forms of the lower, He thereupon bids them to exchange the humility of their earthly for the dignity of a heavenly calling; which yet He contemplates as a fishing still, though not any more of fishes, but of men; whom at his bidding, and under his auspices, they should embrace not less abundantly in the meshes of their spiritual net. 

But when we compare John i. 40-42, does it not appear that three out of these four, Andrew and Peter certainly, and most probably John himself (ver. 35), had been already called?  No doubt they had then on the banks of Jordan, been brought into a transient fellowship with their future Lord; but, after that momentary contact, had returned to their ordinary occupations, and only at this later period attached themselves finally and fully to Him, henceforth following Him whithersoever He went. This miracle most likely it was, as indeed seems intimated at ver. 8, which stirred the very depths of their hearts, giving them such new insights into the glory of Christ’s person, as prepared them to yield themselves without reserve to his service. Everything here bears evidence that not now for the first time He and they have met. So far from their betraying no previous familiarity, or even acquaintance, with the Lord, as some have affirmed, Peter, calling ‘Master,’ and saying, ‘Nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net,’ implies that he had already received impressions of his power, and of the authority which went with his words. Moreover, the two callings, a first and on this a second, are quite in the manner of that divine Teacher, who would hasten nothing, who was content to leave spiritual processes to advance as do natural; who could bide his time, and did not expect the full corn in the ear on the same day that He had cast the seed into the furrow. On that former occasion He sowed the seed of his word in the hearts of Andrew and Peter; which having done, He left it to germinate; till now returning He found it ready to bear the ripe fruits of faith. Not that we need therefore presume such gradual processes in all. But as some statues are cast in a mould and at an instant, others only little by little hewn and shaped and polished, as their material, metal or stone, demands the one process or the other, so are there, to use a memorable expression of Donne’s, ‘fusile Apostles’ like St. Paul, whom one and the same lightning flash from heaven at once melts and moulds; and others who by a more patient process, here a little and there a little, are shaped and polished into that perfect image, which the Lord, the great master sculptor, will have them finally to assume. 

And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon Him to hear the word of God, He stood by the lake of Gennesaret;’ by that lake whose shores had been long ago designated by the prophet Isaiah as a chief scene of the beneficent activity of Messiah (Isai. ix. 1, 2); and, standing there, He ‘saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets.  And He entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And He sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. Now when He had left speaking, He said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.  This He says, designing Himself, the meanwhile, to take the fisherman in his net. For He, who by the foolish things of the world would confound the wise, and by the weak things of the world would confound the strong, who meant to draw emperors to himself by fishermen, and not fishermen by emperors, lest his Church should even seem to stand in the wisdom and power of men rather than of God—He saw in these simple fishermen of the Galilaean lake the fittest instruments for his work. ‘And Simon answering said unto Him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing;’ but, with the beginnings of no weak faith already working within him, he adds, ‘nevertheless, at thy word I will let down the net’ —for these are not the words of one despairing of the issue; who, himself expected nothing, would yet, to satisfy the Master, and to prove to Him the fruitlessness of further efforts, comply with his desire. They are spoken rather in the spirit of the Psalmist: ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain’ (Ps. cxxvii. 1); as one who would say, ‘We have accomplished nothing during all the night, and had quite lost hope of accomplishing anything; but now, when Thou biddest, we are sure our labour will not any longer be in vain.’ And his act of faith is abundantly rewarded; ‘And when they had this done, they enclosed a great multitude of fishes,’ so many indeed, that ‘their net brake, and they beckoned to their partners in the other ship, that they should come and help them.’ 

It was not merely that Christ by his omniscience knew that now there were fishes in that spot. We may not thus extenuate the miracle. We behold Him rather as the Lord of nature, able, by the secret, yet mighty, magic of His will, to guide and draw the unconscious creatures, and make them minister to the higher interests of His kingdom; as the ideal man, the second Adam, in whom are fulfilled the words of the Psalmist: ‘Thou madest Him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet, * * * the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the sea’ (Ps. viii. 6, 8).  Of all this dominion bestowed on man at the first no part perhaps has so entirely escaped him as that over the fishes in the sea; but He who ‘was with the wild beasts’ in the wilderness (Mark i. 13), who gave to his disciples power to ‘take up serpents’ (Mark xvi. 18), declared here that the fishes of the sea no less than the beasts of the earth were obedient to his will. Yet since the power by which He drew them then is the same that guides evermore their periodic migrations, which, marvellous as it is, we yet cannot call miraculous, there is plainly something that differences this miracle, with another of like kind (John xxi. 6), and that of the stater in the fish’s mouth (Matt. xvii. 27), from Christ’s other miracles;—in that these three are not comings in of a new and hitherto unwonted power into the region of nature; but coincidences, divinely brought about, between words of Christ and facts in that world of nature. An immense haul of fishes, a piece of money in the mouth of one, are in themselves no miracles; but the miracle lies in the falling in of these with a word of Christ’s which has pledged itself to this coincidence beforehand.  The natural is lifted up into the region of the miraculous by the manner in which it is timed, and the ends which it is made to serve. 

‘And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink.”  It was a moment of fear, not indeed because their ships were thus overloaded and sinking; but rather that now through this sign there was revealed to them something in the Lord, which before they had not apprehended, and which filled them with astonishment and awe. Peter is the spokesman for all. He, while drawing the multitude of fishes into his net, has himself fallen into the net of Christ; taking a prey, he has himself also been taken a prey’ and now the same man as ever after, yielding as freely to the impulse of the moment, with the beginnings of the same quick spiritual insight out of which he was the first to recognize in his Lord the eternal Son of God, and to confess to Him as such (Matt. xvi. 16), can no longer, in the deep feeling of his own unholiness, endure a Holy one so near. He ‘fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.  For he was astonished, and all that were with them, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken.’  At moments like these all that is merely conventional is swept away, and the deep heart utters itself, and the deepest things that are there come forth to the light.  And the deepest thing in man’s heart under the law is this sense of God’s holiness as something bringing death and destruction to the unholy creature.  ‘Let not God speak with us, lest we die;’ this was the voice of the people to Moses as ‘they removed and stood afar off’ (Exod. xx. 18, 19).  ‘We shall surely die, because we have seen God’ (Judg. X111. 22; cf. vi. 22, 23; Dan. x. 17; Isai. vi. 5; I Chron. xxi. 20).  Below this is the utterly profane state, in which there is no contradiction felt between the holy and the unholy, between God and the sinner.  Above it is the state of grace, in which all the contradiction is felt, God is still a consuming fire, yet not any more for the sinner, but only for the sin.  It is still felt, felt more strongly than ever, how profound a gulf separates between sinful man and a holy God; but felt at the same time that this gulf has been bridged over, that the two can meet, that in One who shares with both they have already met.  For his presence is the presence of God, but of God with his glory veiled; whose nearness therefore even sinful men may endure, and in that nearness may little by little be prepared for the glorious consummation, the open vision of the face of God; for this which would be death to the mere sinner, will be the highest blessedness to him who had been trained for it by beholding for a while the mitigated splendours of the Incarnate Word. 

It would indeed have fared ill with Peter had Christ taken him at his word, and departed from him, as He had departed from others who made the same request (Matt. viii. 34; ix. 1; cf. Job xxii. 17), but made it, as it needs not to say in quite a different spirit from his.  If Peter be this ‘sinful man,’ there is the more need that Christ should be near him; and this He implicitly announces to him that He will be.  And first He re-assures him with that comfortable ‘Fear not,’ that assurance that He is not come to destroy, but to save, which He bad need to speak of so often to the trembling and sin-convinced hearts of his servants (John vi. 20; Matt xxviii. 5, 10; Luke xxiv. 8; Rev. i. 17) And that Peter may have less cause to fear, He announces to him the mission and the task which He has for him in store: ‘From henceforth thou shalt catch men.’  In these words is the inauguration of Peter, and with him of his fellows, to the work of their apostleship.  Such an inauguration, not formal, nor always in its outward accidents the same,—on the contrary, in these displaying an infinite richness and variety, such as reigns alike in the kingdoms of nature and of grace,—is seldom absent when God calls any man to a great work in his kingdom.  But infinitely various in its outer circumstances, in its essence it is always one and the same.   God manifests Himself to his future prophet, or Apostle, or other messenger, as He had never done before; and in the light of this manifestation the man recognizes his own weakness and insufficiency and guilt as he had never done before.  He exclaims, ‘I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue,’ or ‘I cannot speak, for I am a child, or ‘I am a man of unclean lips,’ or, as here, ‘I am a sinful man, falls on his face, sets his mouth in the dust, takes the shoes from oft his feet; and then out of the depth of this humiliation rises up another man, an instrument fitted for the work of God, such as he would have never been if his earthly had not thus paled before God’s heavenly; if the garish sun of this world had not thus set in him, that the pure stars of the higher world might shine out upon him.  The true parallels to this passage, contemplated as such an inauguration as this, are Exod. iv. 10-17; Isai. vi.; Jer. i. 4-10; Ezek. i-iii;  Judg. vi. 11-23; Acts ix. 3-9; Dan. x.; Rev. i. 13-20. 

From henceforth thou shall catch men.’  The Lord clothes his promise in the language of that art which was familiar to Peter; the fisherman is to catch men, as David, taken from among the sheep-folds, was to feed them” (Ps. lxxviii. 71, 72).  There is here double magnifying of Peter’s future occupation as compared with his past.  It is men and not poor fishes which henceforth he shall take; and he shall take them for life, and not, as he had hitherto taken his meaner prey, only for death.  So much is involved in the word of the original,’ which thus turns of itself the edge of Julian’s malignant sneer, who observed that ‘the Galilaean' did indeed most aptly term his Apostles ‘fishers;’ for as the fisherman draws out his prey from the waters where they were free and happy, to an element in which they cannot breathe, but must presently expire, even so did these. But the word employed—and we must presume that it found its equivalent in the Aramaic—does with a singular felicity anticipate and exclude such a turn.  Peter shall take men, and take them for life, not for death; quite another catching of men from that denounced by the prophet Jeremiah (v. 26) and by Habakkuk (i. 14, 15).  Those that were wandering, restless and at random, through the deep unquiet waters of the world, full of whirlpools and fears, the smaller falling a prey to the greater, and all with the weary sense as of a vast prison, he shall embrace within the safe folds and recesses of the same Gospel net;’ which if they break not through, nor leap over, they shall at length be drawn up to shore, out of the dark gloomy waters into the bright clear light of day, that so they may be gathered into vessels for eternal life (Matt. xiii. 48). 

It is not for nothing that the promise here clothes itself in language drawn from the occupation of the fisher, rather, for instance, than in that borrowed from the nearly allied pursuits of the hunter.  The fisher more often takes his prey alive; he draws it to him, does not drive it from him; and not merely to himself, but draws all which he has taken to one another; even as the Church brings together the divided hearts, the fathers to the children, gathers into one fellowship the scattered tribes of men.  Again, the work of the fisher is one of art and skill, not of force and violence;” so that Tertullian finds in this miracle a commencing fulfilment of Jer. xvi. 16, ‘Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them.’ It is true that these words are there rather a threat than a promise.  It is, however, quite in the spirit of the New Covenant to fulfil a threatening of the Old, yet so to transform in the fulfilling that it wears a wholly different character from that which it wore when first uttered. There is now a captivity which is blessed, blessed because it is deliverance from a freedom which is full of woe,—a ‘being made free from sin and becoming servants to God,’ that so we may have ‘our fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life’ (Rom. vi. 22). But the promise here might be brought with more unquestionable propriety into relation with Ezek. xlvii. 9, 10, and the prophecy there of the fishers that should stand on Engedi, and of the great multitude of fish with which the healed waters should abound. 

But if Christ’s Evangelists are fishers, those whom they draw to Him are as fish. This image, so great a favourite in the early Church, probably did not find its first motive in this saying of our Lord; but rather in the fact that through the waters of baptism men are first quickened, and only live as they abide in that quickening element into which they were then brought.  The two images indeed cannot stand together, mutually excluding as they do one another; for in one the blessedness is to remain in the waters, as in the vivifying element, in the other to be drawn forth from them into the purer and clearer air.  In one Christ is the Fish, in the other the chief Fisherman.  As Himself this great Fisher of men he is addressed in that grand Orphic hymn attributed to the Alexandrian Clement, in words which may thus be translated: 

Fisher of mortal men. 
Them that the saved are, 
Ever the holy fish 
From the wild ocean 
Of the world’s sea of sin 
By thy sweet life Thou enticest away.’ 
‘And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed Him,’ or, as St. Mark has it, ‘left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and followed Him.’ Here let us quote Crashaw’s epigram: 
‘Thou hast the art on’t Peter, and canst tell 
 To cast thy nets on all occasions well. 
 When Christ calls, and thy nets would have thee stay, 
 To cast them well's to cast them quite away.’ 
But what was that ‘all’ which ‘they forsook,’ some might ask, that they should afterwards make so much of it, saying, ‘Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed Thee: what shall we have therefore?’ (Matt. xix. 27).  Whatever it was, it was their all, and therefore, though it may have been but a few poor boats and nets, it was much; for love to a miserable hovel may hold one with bands as strong and hard to be broken as bind another to a sumptuous palace; seeing it is the worldly affection which holds, and not the world; and the essence of forsaking lies not in the more or less which is renounced, but in he spirit in which the renunciation is carried out.  These Apostles might have left little when they left their possessions; but they left much, and had a right to feel that they had left much, when they left their desires

A word or two may fitly find place here upon the symbolic acts of our Lord, whereof, according to his own distinct assurance, we here have one.  The desire of the human mind to embody the truth which it strongly feels and greatly yearns to communicate to others, in acts rather than by words, or it may be by blended act and word, has a very deep root in our nature, which always strives after the concrete; and it manifests itself not merely in the institution of fixed symbolic acts, as the anointing of kings, the breaking of a cake at the old Roman marriages, the giving and receiving of a ring at our own (cf. Ruth iv. 7, 8); but more strikingly yet, in acts that are the free products at the moment of some creative mind, which has more to utter than it can find words to be the bearers of, or would utter it in a more expressive and emphatic manner than these permit.  This manner of teaching, however frequent in Scripture, (1 Kin. ii. 30, 31; xxii. 11; Isai. xx. 3, 4; Jer. li. 63, 64; John xxi. 19-22; Acts xiii. 51) pertains not to it alone, nor is it even peculiar to the East, although there most entirely at home; but everywhere, as men have felt strongly and deeply, and would fain make others share in their feeling, they have had recourse to such a language as this, which so powerfully brings home its lesson through the eyes to the mind.  The noonday lantern of Diogenes expressed his contempt for humanity far more effectually than all his scornful words ever would have done it.  As the Cynic philosopher, so too the Hebrew prophets, though in quite another temper, would oftentimes weave their own persons into such parabolic acts, would use themselves as a part of their own symbol; and this, because nothing short of this would satisfy the earnestness with which the truth of God, whereof they desired to make others partakers, possessed their own souls (Ezek. xii. 1-12; Acts xxi. 11).  And thus not this present only, but many other of our Lord’s works, were such an embodied teaching, the incorporation of a doctrine in an act; meaning much more than met the natural eye, and only entirely intelligible when this significance has been recognized in them (Matt. xxi. 18, 19; John xxi. 19).  The deeds of Him, who is the Word, are themselves also, and are intended to be, words for us.