Updated: May 27, 2020
by Wave Nunnally
Near the beginning of His ministry, Jesus moved from inland Nazareth to the fishing village of Capernaum (Matthew 4:13; Luke 4:31). As Jesus walked along the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, He called Peter and Andrew to be His disciples, both fishermen (Matthew 4:18). Next, He called James and John, two more fishermen (Matthew 4:21). Later, Jesus selected Philip and Nathaniel (John 1:43-46), probably more fishermen, since they were from nearby Bethsaida, another fishing village just east of Capernaum. We now know that the home of Mary Magdalene (Migdal/Magdala/Migdal Nunaya) was yet another fishing village.
Why did He not select carpenters like Himself? Moreover, in first-century Israel there were many more farmers from which to choose disciples than there were fishermen — why not prioritize them? Jesus’ choice of a fishing village as His base of operations and purposeful selection of so many disciples who were either fishermen or inhabitants of fishing villages suggest that by doing so, He was sending a message, but what was it?
Like most rabbis of His time, His words and actions usually hearkened backward to a specific passage from His Bible. Recall that when He called His first disciples, He said, to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19 = Mark 1:17). Strange words indeed for a carpenter! Yet to avoid dismissing them too quickly as so much wordsmithing, we have to look at Jesus’ Scriptures to see if somewhere within, they might provide the source of His inspiration.
The Hebrew Bible mentions fishing for men only twice. Ezekiel 29:3-4 employs this language to predict judgment on Egypt (and specifically on its leader), but judgment on foreign nations and their leaders is not a major emphasis in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, Jesus’ earthly ministry is described primarily as a mission of mercy, not judgment (John 3:17; see also Matthew 20:28 = Mark 10:45).2 Thus, the inspiration for His choice of fishermen and His language “fishers of men” is likely to be sought elsewhere.
The only passage left is Jeremiah 16:14-18,
“Therefore behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when it will no longer be said, 'As the LORD lives, who brought up the sons of Israel out of the land of Egypt,' 15 but, 'As the LORD lives, who brought up the sons of Israel from the land of the north and from all the countries where He had banished them.' For I will restore them to their own land which I gave to their fathers. 16 "Behold, I am going to send for many fishermen," declares the LORD, "and they will fish for them; and afterwards I shall send for many hunters, and they will hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and from the clefts of the rocks. 17 For My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from My face, nor is their iniquity concealed from My eyes.” 18 "And I will first doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted My land; they have filled My inheritance with the carcasses of their detestable idols and with their abominations."
This passage contains all the requisite components: it is eschatological (a prophecy about the future), it predicts a coming age of restoration (Jesus’ choice of 12 was “reconstituting” the faithful remnant [Isaiah 10:21; 11:16; Jeremiah 23:3; 31:7-8; 50:20], with which He would establish Jeremiah’s “new covenant” [Jeremiah 31:31, see Luke 22:20]), it has fishermen, and they are fishing for people.
But what of the second half of the passage, which mentions hunters who “afterwards” (i.e., after the work of the fishermen has been done) will bring judgment because of the iniquity of the people? It appears that Jesus treated this text the same way He treated Isaiah 61:1-2. In Nazareth, He read from the scroll of Isaiah,
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are downtrodden, 19 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord." 20 And He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon Him. 21 And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:18-21).
Surprisingly, Jesus stopped His reading in mid-sentence, for Isaiah continued his thought, “To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD” (Isaiah 61:2a) with the words “…and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2b). The only explanation for this is that Jesus was the first Hebrew prophet to see clearly in the words of earlier prophets a two-stage ministry of the Messiah. Thus, He understood the first half of verse 2 to refer to His first coming and the second half of verse 2 to refer to His Second Coming. In His incarnate ministry, He appeared to deal with the problem of sin (Hebrews 9:26), whereas at His Return, He will deal with the problem of sinners who persist in their mutiny against the Great King (Hebrews 9:28).
This “historical stratification” of biblical passages is not at all unique to Jesus. The rabbis regularly applied one part of a verse to one time period and another part of the same verse to another time period.3 The Dead Sea Scrolls provide evidence of how widespread this kind of interpretation was and that it existed even before the time of Jesus.4
This study demonstrates how contextualized Jesus’ message was to His original audience. It reveals to us how well He knew the Scriptures and how accomplished He was at their interpretation. What an awe-inspiring Master we worship and serve! This study is also instructive about the dense texture and depth of instruction He left behind, and our need to immerse ourselves in the context of His world in order to receive the richness it has to offer. This richness regularly presents itself when we study together in His homeland, where on a regular basis, “faith becomes sight”!
1 This article is dedicated to the memory of the greatest fisherman, hunter, and friend, I ever knew, Dr. Gerard John Flokstra, Jan. 24, 1931, to April 17, 2018, zichrono l’vrachah (“May his memory be forever blessed”).
2 The Dead Sea community, which saw itself as the agent of God’s end-time judgment, evidently took its inspiration from this passage in Ezekiel (and perhaps Jeremiah 16:16) when it sang, “You made my lodging with many fishermen, those who spread the net upon the surface of the sea, those who go hunting the sons of iniquity. And there you established me for the judgment” (1QHodayot 13:8). Qumran thus saw the fishermen and hunters as synonymous metaphors for judgment.
3 Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a; 13a; Pesachim 68a; BeReshit Rabbah 42:4; 56:1-2; 97; 98:8; VaYikra Rabbah 15:1; 30:16, etc.
4 “‘[How] beautiful 16 upon the mountains are the feet [of] the messen[ger who] announces peace, of the mess[enger of good who announces salvati]on, [sa]ying to Zion: your God [reigns’ Isaiah 52:7]. 17 Its interpretation: The ‘mountains’ [are] the [Old Testament] prophet[s …] … 18 And the ‘messenger’ i[s] the Anointed of the Spir[it] about whom Dan[iel] said [about him: ‘Until an Anointed One, a prince, it is seven weeks’ [Daniel 9:25]. And the messenger of] 19 good who announ[ces salvation] is the one about whom it is written that […] … 23 …as it is written about him: ‘[Saying to Zi]on: your God rules’ [Isaiah 52:7]. ‘[Zi]on’ i[s] 24 [the congregation of all the sons of justice, those] who establish the covenant, those who avoid walking [on the pa]th of the people. And ‘your God’ is 25 […Melchizedek, who will fr]e[e them from the ha]nd of Belial” (11QMelchizedek 2:15-25; the translation offered here largely follows that of Florentino Garcia Martinez in his DSSSE 2:1207, 1209).