You Have to Repent Before You Can Fish

In the second half of Matthew 4, after Jesus foils Satan’s attempts in the wilderness, he hears that John’s been arrested, so he withdraws to Galilee. He doesn’t reside in Nazareth—the small town of his youth—but rather goes to the big city—Capernaum—and lives on the seashore. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that those who lived beyond the Sea of Galilee—gentiles who have dwelled in darkness—would see a magnificent light and continues, “for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death on them a light has dawned.” This is reminiscent of the 23rd Psalm, penned by David.


Matthew writes, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” We translate the Greek word μετανοέω (metanoeo) as “repent.” So, what does it mean to repent? It’s really a composite of two words μετα (meta)—meaning with something taking place or after something has taken place—and νοέω (noeo)—meaning to perceive, consider, be mindful of. Both words together—μετανοέω (metanoeo)—means to change your mind, to go about things differently. That’s what it means to repent. And Jesus is going around telling everyone to change their minds—to reconsider their lives—because the Kingdom of Heaven is here! You’re living in the darkness, turn around and face the light.

It was St. Augustin—north African bishop and prolific theologian—who wrote this about his life before he repented and became a Christian: “What did it profit me that I could read and understand all the books of the so-called liberal arts when I was a worthless slave of wicked lust? I took delight in them not knowing the source of what it was in them that was both true and certain. For I had my back towards the light and my face towards all the things on which the light falls. Therefore, my face was never illuminated but was constantly in the dark” (Confessions 4.30). Then Augustin turned and faced the light. His disposition changed. The way he saw the world changed. He repented.

In the first of his famous 95 theses against indulgences, published in 1517, Martin Luther writes, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In Matthew, Jesus was talking about a major one-time eschatological event for his people to turn toward their God, but Luther’s main point is still valid. In 1518, when he offers an explanation of these theses, Luther writes, “[T]he teaching of Christ must apply to all men, that is, to men in every walk of life. We pray throughout our whole life and we must pray ‘forgive our debts’ [Matt.6:12]; therefore, we repent throughout our whole life and are displeased with ourselves, unless anyone may be so foolish as to think that he must pretend to pray for the forgiveness of debts. For the debts for which we are commanded to pray are real and not to be treated lightly” (AE 31:84–85).

Fishing for people

So, as Jesus is proclaiming this message of repentance, he’s living on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He probably watched as people used the seashore for various purposes. He might have seen the same people repeatedly. Maybe he even talked with them from time to time. And one day he approaches a group of fishermen as they’re casting their nets into the sea. He doesn’t ask them what they’re up to but does the opposite. He just says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Literally: “fishers of people.”

This is an allusion back to the Prophet Jeremiah who wrote, “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers. Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the Lord, and they shall catch them” (Jeremiah 16:14–16a).

Matthew writes, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Jesus approaches more fishermen and the same thing happens. This is how Simon, Andrew, John, and James start following Jesus in the first place. The Gospel of John shows us a different encounter with Simon and Andrew to reconcile with this account. Regardless, they’ve likely heard his message and already knew who he was as they followed him into a whole new life—fishing for people. They had a change of mind. They repented.

Later on—as recorded in Matthew 13—Jesus gives us a clearer picture of what he means by this fishing for people. He says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” To fish for people is to proclaim Jesus’ message about the Kingdom and the end of the age as we know it. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here! Turn to Christ.

You have to repent before you can fish

That’s not an easy message. It’s not always easy telling people about Jesus. It’s probably because we don’t even know how to begin—how to prepare. Like fishing, you have to be ready. A fisherman must mend his nets otherwise fish might escape. If he’s going out on a boat, he better be sure that it’s been kept up and in good shape—which goes for the rest of his equipment as well.

So, how does a Christian prepare to fish for people? First and foremost, we ourselves have to repent. You have to repent before you can fish. Before you call someone else’s attention to Christ you yourself must be turned toward him—facing him. You have to experience his love and his daily forgiveness. You must emulate it, show mercy, have a Christ-centered disposition. A mind transformed to see all things through Jesus—the same Jesus who lives inside of you and loves through you—is not something to be taken lightly.

To fish for people, we have to repent every single day. We have to take into account our own sins, our own brokenness, our own darkness every single day and trust in Jesus. Only then can we find others living in that same darkness, distraught, despairing in their own sins, shamed in their own guilt. Only with repentant hearts can we walk beside them, kneel down with them, and speak to them the words that the Kingdom of Heaven is here for you as it is for me. Turn toward the light. Trust in Jesus. You are forgiven.

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