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During the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I read of a sign posted on the exit gate of an American military base. It simply said: “Have a Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet!” It sounds brutal, but facts are brutal things when one is facing radical Islamic terrorists. When Americans are on patrol in the Middle East, potential enemies are everywhere. Our troops need constant reminding: You are never safe. You are always on duty. Have a plan to kill everyone you meet, because everyone you meet might very well have a plan to kill you.

I would love to place a similar sign over the exits of our churches: “Have a plan to save everyone you meet.” We know that only God can save, of course, but God uses us as instruments to share His saving message with the nations. As Christians, we should have a salvation mind-set as part of our spiritual DNA. God sent His Son into this world to save sinners. And He called us out of the world with the same purpose in mind: “But you are . . . a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We proclaim this excellency vertically by reaching up to God in worship and horizontally by reaching out to the world with the gospel.

The Scottish divine Thomas Boston called this outreach, “the art of man-fishing.” Sadly, in our day, it has become something of a lost art. I want to plead for its recovery.

Boston lifted this phrase, of course, straight from the lips of Jesus, who took men skilled in catching fish—fish that didn’t want to be caught—and taught them instead to catch men who didn’t want to be found. The very word Jesus used seems to imply this dynamic: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10; emphasis added). The Greek verb translated “to catch” has more in common with taking prisoners of war than it does with fishing. That’s a powerful metaphor to consider. When we evangelize, what are we doing? We are attempting to capture servants of the devil, dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1ff) and to make them sons of God (Col. 1:13). Such a work is beyond us. But how does Christ go about doing it?

Jesus Uses Words

It is no accident that Jesus selected a fishing boat for a pulpit. There were practical reasons for this, of course (Luke 5:1). But I think Jesus is making a larger point, deliberately mixing His metaphors as if to say: “How do you catch fish? You stand in a fishing boat and cast a net made up of string. How do you catch souls? Look at Me, standing in a fishing boat casting a different type of net. It is one made out of words—God’s words” (Luke 5:1). This has been a major theme in Luke’s gospel up to this point. In the previous chapter, everywhere Jesus goes, He is teaching and preaching—all in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 61:1–2; Luke 4:18, 21). If we want to catch souls for God, therefore, we must expose them to the Word of God, especially the Word of God preached (1 Peter 1:24–25)

This has a very practical application for evangelism: use the Bible appropriately and often. Never forget that even the most skeptical audience knows a lot more about God than they like to admit (Ps. 19:1; Rom 1:16ff). We have all heard His self-authenticating voice in creation and conscience. And when we hear the Scripture, we hear the same voice—not the voice of some new or unknown God, but the voice of One we have always known from the first conscious moments of our existence.

Jesus Uses Our Efforts to Catch Men

Isn’t it interesting that just before Jesus promised His disciples they would soon be catching men (Luke 5:10), He had them haul in His miraculous catch of fish? It is just like that with evangelism—we are to be active in the miracle.

As Christians, we should have a salvation mind-set as part of our spiritual DNA.

Think about that for a moment. When Jesus speaks, nothing remains the same; everything changes (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1–3). His voice sustains the cosmos, cleanses the leper, and raises the dead. You do realize that He could have commanded the fish to jump from the water into the boat? He doesn’t need the help of people, but He does make use of it: “Let down your nets again.” That word cost them dearly: they had toiled all night, their muscles were sore, their nails were ragged, and they wanted to go home (in fact, they should have been home hours earlier). Now they faced the prospect of hauling well over a thousand pounds of wet nets back into the boat. Peter was understandably nonplussed: “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5; emphasis added).

The key detail to note is that Jesus uses our efforts when we listen to Him and obey His Word. Fishing is not a sport for the couch potato. You have to get up, gather the right equipment, select the right bait, and head down to the water. You have to do something, or you’ll catch nothing. It’s exactly like that with evangelism. We have to go and make disciples. Jesus has told us how this is to be done: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20). The principle is clear: when it comes to advancing His kingdom on earth, sometimes God works against us, often He works despite us, regularly He works through us, but only very rarely does He work without us.

If the Lord Christ told you personally to go and fish for men (and He has), where would you go, and what would you say? If you had the man-fishing mind-set at work, at the gym, in the line at the grocery store, at the fence with your neighbor on a Saturday afternoon, talking with other parents (or grandparents) at a child’s sporting event, what would change about the way you approached these opportunities?

Jesus Exposes Our Need 

We learn this lesson in Peter’s reaction to the miracle. Moments before, he had been grumbling at the thought of fishing; now He was groveling at the feet of Jesus, “Depart from me,” he said, “for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” In a devastating moment of clarity, Peter saw his Savior and he saw himself—a sinner (Luke 5:8, 30). This is what the Pharisees thought of tax collectors and harlots. Now, it was Peter’s assessment of himself. This is where all ministerial usefulness begins. The gospel we offer to others is the very same one we need ourselves. We must feel this need if we are to share our faith effectively. Do you still feel Paul’s amazement: “He loved me and gave Himself for me”? Or, God forbid, have you outgrown your felt need for Christ?

Jesus Commands Our Devotion

“And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). Luke is not merely describing the disciples’ agenda for the rest of the day; He is describing their agenda for the rest of their lives. They left everything to follow Jesus. When we see who Jesus is and who we are, nothing less will do. This is the prerequisite lifestyle of an effective man-fisher. Is it yours?

What does this look like in real life? Let me introduce you to John Harper. In the spring of 1912, John, a widower, booked a ticket for himself and his daughter on the greatest ship in the world, the RMS Titanic. On that fateful, foggy April night, once it became clear the ship was sinking, John put his daughter on a lifeboat, bade her farewell, and turned and began sharing the gospel with everyone around him. When the ship foundered, he jumped into the water and swam from survivor to survivor sharing Christ with them. One man steadfastly refused to listen, even though he had no life jacket of his own. In response, John took off his life jacket and gave it to the man, saying, “Sir, then you need this more than I do.” The man was so convicted by John’s faith that he received Christ moments later. While John had strength, he swam on relentlessly, sharing Christ with everyone he met. At the last, when he could swim no more, just before he sank beneath the surface for the last time, people heard him cry out, “He that believeth in the Son of God shall be saved.” 

How does one even begin to emulate such an example? Well, like almost everything else in the Christian life, it all begins with a purpose and a promise: “Follow me,” Jesus says (there’s the purpose), “and I will make you become fishers of men,” and that’s the promise.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 22, 2020.

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