I like fish. No, I do not like to eat fish nor do I have any amazing fish stories to tell. I have never caught any really big fish, either—only small fish, very small, in fact.
I like to see fish. And the Philippines, with its 7,107 islands, is a wonderful place to see them. When in the Philippines, I put on my mask, snorkel, and fins, and would swim out to a reef. At times I saw many fish: small fish and large fish, sleek fish and spiny fish, gorgeous fish and scary fish. But, other times, when I would swim out to a reef, there would be almost no fish at all. And the ones I did spot seemed terrified, darting away into the depths.
What was the problem?
Although the practice was illegal, some fishermen would use dynamite to catch fish. They would create an underwater explosion and the surface would soon be littered with fish. Of course, it is an easy way to fish—you just scoop them up and head for shore.
But dynamite fishing describes a feast-today-and-famine-tomorrow situation. The explosion destroys the fish habitat. All that is left are heaps of coral debris; and, with a reef destroyed, so are the fish. Therefore, no more food to feed the family. So they would all pack up and move.
There is another easy way to catch fish, but the end result is no better. Sometimes fishermen will use a toxin, such as cyanide, to poison the fish. Again, fish float to the surface. Again, the ecosystem is destroyed. Not a smart way to fish.
Now, because the Bible uses fishing as an analogy for soul winning, this article asks the question: How do you catch fish intelligently?
Approaches to fishing
The Bible mentions four ways to catch fish, and it seems that these fishing strategies may hold insights for our calling as “ ‘fishers of men’ ” (Matt. 4:19).1
1 Fishhook (Matt. 17:27). In this verse, Peter was to take a fishhook and head down to a lake. There he discovered that a fish can be more valuable than you might think. But the question is, How do you catch a fish with a hook? Of course, you need a line and some bait, but perhaps even more important in the long run, you need patience. You will not catch a fish by just tossing in the hook and immediately pulling it out again, tossing it in and yanking it out. You must wait patiently.
Sometimes we expect results to be instantaneous, for conversions to take place overnight. But the process of change can, in fact, take time. You must be patient.
2. Spear (Job 41:7). Several years ago, I visited a Dayak village in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. I rode in a longboat, slept in a longhouse, and discovered that the Dayaks are experts at spearing fish.
So what skill is required if you are going to fish with a spear? Very simply, you must be quick. Sometimes unexpected opportunities present themselves—an urgent need arises, a crisis erupts. You must be ready to seize the moment, to maximize the opportunity. You must be quick to respond.
3. Hand net (Mark 1:16). Sometimes called a “throw net,” a hand net is small, only a few meters at most in diameter, with stone or lead sinkers around the edge and a line attached. You hold the line with one hand, gather up the net in the other, and throw the net with a broad sweep.
Clearly, a hand net is useful but only in shallow water. Fish, though, are sometimes found quite near the shore, even entire schools of fish. Furthermore, it is really quite easy to use a hand net; even a small child can do it.
Yet to use a hand net you must be willing to get your feet wet! You will never catch fish with the net if you stand rooted to the shore. You must wade into the water. You must step into the current of their lives. You must become involved.
4. Purse net (Luke 5:4). Sometimes you need a large net to catch fish. Certain fish are found only in deep water, and you will never get them by just skimming the surface. You need a purse net. The purse net, or seine, is typically several meters wide and perhaps fifty to a hundred meters in length. Corks are tied to the top of the net, sinkers to the bottom, and ropes attached to the ends. After the net is let down, the bottom ropes are pulled in faster than the top ones, enclosing the fish in an envelope of mesh.
What asset do you need in order to use a purse net? A boat is helpful, but perhaps even more important is cooperation. You simply cannot use a seine alone. You must have teamwork. So put together a team, push away from the shore, and cast your net.
Secrets of successful fishing
You must realize the importance of approaching fishing intelligently. Now that you have been given the tools of the trade, how do you fish successfully? Based on the collected wisdom of experienced fishermen, there seem to be at least four secrets of successful fishing.
1 Go where the fish are. This may seem rather obvious, but you simply cannot catch fish while sprawled in your easy chair, dreaming about fish. You must break out of your comfort zone. You must head to where the fish are—if you expect to catch fish.
2. Think like a fish. No, this does not mean that you should have a fish brain! But it does mean that you must be a careful observer of fish—their habits, their habitat. You must understand their needs, interests, hopes, and dreams. Then you will better grasp how to approach fishing.
3. Do not give up too easily. Real fishing is not easy. Sometimes you get sunburned. Sometimes you are soaked to the skin. Sometimes you are caked with mud. Sometimes you are bug-bitten and bone-weary. But through it all, you must persevere. A successful fisherman does not give up easily.
So, if your first attempts do not bring immediate results, even if you have toiled all through the night and have taken nothing, do not despair (John 21:3–6). Do not quit just yet. Let your net down on the “right side” of the ship. Miracles still happen.
4. Make fishing your top priority. For a true fisherman, nothing in life is more important than fishing.
The owner of a country store posted a notice that the store would be closed the following Tuesday. When one of his regular customers inquired, the owner replied that he was going fishing that day because Tuesday was going to be a good day for fishing.
“But how do you know?” asked his customer. “That’s nearly a week away.”
“Well,” the man replied, “if it rains easy that day, it’s going to be good for fishing. And if it rains harder, it’s going to be even better.”
“But what if it’s sunny?”
“Even if it’s sunny, it’s still going to be good for fishing.”
This commitment is evident in Luke 5:11: “So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.” To successfully catch people, we must be committed, and our priorities must reflect that commitment. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, What do I need to forsake today to be more effective as a “catcher” of people?
Jesus: Able Fisherman
Jesus, who invited others to seek out candidates for God’s kingdom, was Himself an effective People-Catcher, exemplifying in His ministry both the methods and the secrets of successful fishing (Mark 1:17).
The nature of God’s kingdom was a key concept that Christ wanted people to grasp, but it seemed that many just did not understand. So time and again, He patiently illustrated the concept through analogies. He compared the kingdom of heaven to a man who sowed good seed in his field, a mustard seed, leaven, treasure hidden in a field, a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, and a dragnet (v. 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47). At times, however, not even His own disciples seemed to comprehend. So when He was alone with them, He would explain His lessons in greater detail (v. 36; Mark 4:10, 33, 34). Even with Thomas, who was slow to accept new ideas, He provided the circumstances needed to establish his faith (John 20:24–28).
While Jesus was patient, He was also quick to respond. When a woman with a devastating health condition reached out and touched the hem of His robe, Jesus immediately provided her with a further opportunity to express her faith, asking, “ ‘Who touched Me?’ ” (Luke 8:45). When Peter, dropping beneath the waves, cried out, “ ‘Lord, save me!’ ” Christ did not leave him to flouder. Rather Jesus immediately "stretched out His hand and caught him" (Matt. 14: 30, 31).
Jesus intentionally stepped into the current of people's lives. He attended the wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-11). At the invitation of the Samaritans, He stayed for two days in the town of Sychar (John 4:40). He reached out and touched a man with leprosy (Matt. 8:3). He took children in His arms, entered the grieving house of Jairus, and wept at the tomb of Lazarus (Matt. 19:13–15; Luke 8:41–56; John 11:32–36). One stormy night when Jesus’ disciples had toiled vainly to bring their boat to land, Jesus came to personally join them, walking across the water (Mark 6:47–51).
Although Christ possessed all power and could ask His Father at a moment’s notice for twelve legions of angels (Matt. 26:53; 28:18), He did not go it alone. Rather, He endeavored to build a team for ministry (Matt. 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; Mark 10:21; John 1:39, 43). For example, He called together a group of 12 men to work closely with Him (Matt. 10:1–4), and then sent them out to work together in small groups (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1, 17).
Although Jesus spent much time alone with His Father (Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12), He focused His ministry on relating with people. He ate with publicans and sinners (Matt. 9:10, 11). He spent time in fellowship at the homes of Peter, Matthew, Simon the Pharisee, Mary and Martha, and Zacchaeus (v. 10; Mark 14:3; Luke 4:38, 39; 10:38– 42; 19:5–7). He even traveled to the border of Tyre and Sidon and interacted with a Syrophoenician woman who was greatly troubled over her daughter’s condition (Matt. 15:21–29; Mark 7:24–31). In essence, Jesus went where fish were found.
Christ’s ministry evidenced His understanding of the interests, needs, and dreams of those around Him.
He focused His teachings on the life experiences of His listeners—planting a field, making bread, hoping to be hired, looking forward to a wedding, and losing a coin (Matt. 13:18, 33; 20:1; 25:1; Luke 15:8). He was perceptive of others’ needs. When the multitude was hungry, He provided food (John 6:5–13). When His disciples had fished all night without success, He prepared a hot breakfast (John 21:3–12). Even more important, He recognized the longing of the human heart for lasting relationships. That is why He said, “ ‘I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also’ ” (John 14:2, 3).
Jesus did not give up easily. When His disciples argued among themselves regarding who would be the greatest, He continued to emphasize the importance of service (Matt. 20:26, 27; 23:11; Mark 9:33, 35; 10:45; Luke 10:29–37; 22:24–27; John 13:4–17). He illustrated His own unrelenting mission in the parable of a shepherd who searched untiringly until he found his lost sheep (Matt. 18:11–13; Luke 15:4–6). Even at the close of His ministry, when He recognized that many in Jerusalem would reject Him, He wept over the city (Matt. 23:37; Luke 19:41).
Jesus’ life was mission-focused. Fishing was His top priority. “ ‘The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost’ ” (Luke 19:10). After His resurrection, He commissioned His disciples to make people-catching their highest priority: “ ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature’ ” (Mark 16:15, 16).
Fate of the fish
One matter remains, however, and it concerns the fate of the fish. What happens once a fish is caught? In becoming people-catchers, our purpose is of greatest significance.2
1. Discarded. Sometimes when we catch a fish, we look it over critically. Some fish are beautiful specimens. But others seem too small, ugly, or perhaps not the right kind or color. These are discarded, left on the shore.
As fishermen, we are intent on catching fish. But once caught, we set aside the “insignificant” ones. We abandon those who seem unpleasant. We are off to “more important” things and fail to nurture those we brought in. They are left behind, stranded on the shore. Not a good future for a fish.
2. Fried. A fish may be a “keeper.” It may seem to have good potential—for the frying pan. But becoming a fried fish is not a thrilling destiny, at least from the perspective of the fish.
Sometimes we fish to serve our own objectives and agendas. We focus on numbers—evangelism and baptism goals—and we congratulate ourselves when we have tallied up enough fish. The true purpose of fishing for men, however, is not to reward the fisherman but to benefit the fish.
3. Quarantined. Some fishermen are strict vegetarians. They don’t eat the fish. They just take the fish home and place them in an aquarium. But after a short while, swimming in tight circles, the fishbowl becomes confining and some fish even try to jump out of the bowl.
Sometimes it appears that our ultimate goal is to fill the “aquarium,” to populate the pews of the church. While church can be a good place for people—where they stay regularly fed and cared for—filling the church for our own benefit is still self-centered, rather than fish-focused.
4. Rescued. Some fish live in landlocked ponds, where food is scarce, and the water is muddy and filled with parasites. Furthermore, these ponds may be slowly drying up, locations where the fish will ultimately die.
However, a beautiful alpine lake exists, where the water is clear and deep, and food is plentiful—a place where fish will be healthy and happy, a place where they will experience an abundant life (Rev. 21:4; John 10:10).
Our mission consists of rescuing the fish, to take part in a transfer—from a murky pond to the mountain lake.
So how do you become a catcher of people? Be quick to respond, yet patient. Come close. Work together as a team. Leave your comfort zone. Seek to understand. Persevere. Prioritize. Focus on the true goal—the salvation of men and women in the kingdom of God.
Of course, people are not fish but, as Jesus showed us, the principles in catching them are all the same.
1 Unless indicated otherwise, all biblical passages are quoted from the New King James Version.
2 This matter regarding the fate of the fish, which caught my attention in a devotional, was presented by Pastor Juvenal Balisasa, chaplain at Valley View University in Ghana, to whom I am indebted for the idea of these four categories.