Updated: Feb 4, 2021
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 5:4-11, 27-32
Our passage summarizes the calling of the first disciples in Luke. Different circumstances, different settings, different reactions, but the same outcome: these men left everything and followed Jesus. What do we need to leave behind? Who do we need to "fish" for?
“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus told Simon. “From now on you will be catching people.” Luke 5:10
Getting Started: Things to Think About
A Team of Rivals -or- Putting Together an Effective Leadership Team
A truly fascinating book is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Abraham Lincoln and his unlikely cabinet. If you like history, read this book. (Note: the 2012 film Lincoln is based on this book.) Lincoln appointed three of the men who ran against him for the Republican nomination to his cabinet -- the liberal William Seward and Salmon Chase, and the conservative Edward Bates. He believed that for his administration to succeed, it needed to be diverse. Chase worked to undermine Lincoln throughout his presidency, Bates opposed Lincoln's goals, but Seward came to respect and support him. It's a fascinating look at rivalry and how Lincoln's personality enabled him to shepherd combative personalities toward the goal of preserving the United States. Let's just say that I never want to be president.
Anyway, I use that as a launching point for this topic. We all work with a wide range of people. This could be in your workplace, here at church, or maybe in a sports team or a group of friends. What are the most effective groups you've ever been a part of? Can you pinpoint what made those groups work so well?
If any of you are involved in workplace leadership, you've probably read a whole bunch of books on the topic, so you share your perspective! What do you think makes for a good team?
Here's my personal take on effective teams: unity (and clarity) of purpose, diversity of personality, and leadership that can keep everyone at the table. When everyone thinks too much alike, certain kinds of problems will be impossible to solve. But when everyone is so different as to pursue opposing goals, certain accomplishments will be impossible to reach. It takes a leader with confidence in the goal and respect for the people working with that leader shepherding the team through conflict, failure, and doubt.
(PSA: support the leaders of your Sunday School classes!)
Anyway, this leads to:
Quiz Time! Who Were the Twelve Apostles?
Jesus personally selected twelve men to be His representatives and continue His mission after His death (and resurrection). We should probably know who they are, don't you think? Try a quiz: can you name the twelve apostles? Do you remember anything about them? To make this fun, divide your group in half and make it a contest: whoever remembers the most apostles wins. (Wins what? I don't know -- you decide.)
(This is Da Vinci's "Last Supper"; we have a copy of it on the wall outside our sanctuary.)
Of course, nothing's ever easy. Here is a comparison table:
Matthew 10:2-4 Mark 3:16-19 Luke 6:13-16 Acts 1:13
Simon (Peter) Simon (Peter) Simon (Peter) Peter
Andrew (Peter’s br.) James (s. Zebedee) Andrew (Peter’s br.) John
James (s. Zebedee) John (James’ br.) James James
John (James’ br.) Andrew John Andrew
Philip Philip Philip Philip
Bartholomew Bartholomew Bartholomew Thomas
Thomas Matthew Matthew Bartholomew
Matthew Thomas Thomas Matthew
James (s. Alphaeus) James (s. Alphaeus) James (s. Alphaeus) James (s. Alphaeus) Thaddeus Thaddeus Simon the Zealot Simon the Zealot
Simon the Zealot Simon the Zealot Judas (s. James) Judas (s. James)
Judas Iscariot Judas Iscariot Judas Iscariot [Matthias]
I love paying attention to slight differences. Why did they not list them in the same order? (By the way, historical consensus is that "James son of Alphaeus" and "Thaddeus" are the same person; Matthew and Mark used his second name because of the negative connotation with "Judas". And of course, Acts lists Matthias, who replaced Judas Iscariot. Also interesting: John never listed the apostles. It just wasn't as important to him as to the other Gospel writers.)
Rather than give you all of the details about the apostles, let me just point you to two representative websites. The first reports the oral tradition surrounding the apostles (like where and how they died) as fact. The second goes way out of its way to separate biblical data from oral tradition.
And finally, here's a link to my old Sunday School notes for the Matthew 10 passage:
If you didn't know, I'm trying to post the old Sunday School lessons to our website. After all, we've talked about a lot of these topics before. For example, in that lesson, I give a short bio of each apostle, define what "apostle" means, and give an overview of their mission. Why redo all of that work?
Anyway -- if you're interested in learning more about the apostles (and I hope you are!), those are some quick resources. Just remember when you're researching the apostles online that quite a bit of what we teach about the apostles comes from each church tradition and not the Bible. For example, you've probably heard that Peter was crucified upside-down. That's very likely true, but it's not found in the Bible. It's good to be able to distinguish between biblical fact and historical tradition.
Where We Are in Luke
I don't need to reprint the outline I've used the past couple of weeks --
So, just remember that in this first section of Luke (ministry in Galilee through chapter 9), Luke is laying the framework for Jesus' ministry. Chapters 1-4 focus on Jesus Himself. Chapters 5-6 focus on the new community that Jesus is building. Obviously, that's where we are this week. This lesson pulls out a few verses about some of the first people to follow Jesus (the people out of which He will build this new community).
When we read the other Gospels, we realize that this is not the first encounter between Jesus and these men. I'll point out those details as we encounter them.
Part 1: Peter, James, and John (Luke 5:4-11)
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 “Master,” Simon replied, “we’ve worked hard all night long and caught nothing. But if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.” 6 When they did this, they caught a great number of fish, and their nets began to tear. 7 So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them; they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. 8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’s knees and said, “Go away from me, because I’m a sinful man, Lord!” 9 For he and all those with him were amazed at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s partners. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus told Simon. “From now on you will be catching people.” 11 Then they brought the boats to land, left everything, and followed him.
First, get the context from verses 1-3. Jesus is teaching on the shore of Lake Gennesaret (which is just another name for the Sea of Galilee -- technically, it's a freshwater body, so "lake" works). "Gennesaret" is the name of a plain near Capernaum. It gets so crowded that He hops on a boat to set out from shore where He can teach more easily. Water is a reflective surface, so His voice would have been easily heard.
The boat belonged to Simon (Peter); a companion boat belonged to Simon's partners, the brothers James and John. They were washing their nets at the shore. This implies that it is relatively early in the day (Jesus must have started teaching early!). Most fishermen preferred to fish at night; then, when they returned to shore, they would sort the fish, clean the nets (of silt that would have accumulated on the rope), repair the breaks, and hang the nets to dry in the sun. Because Simon hadn't caught anything, he was probably brooding over his nets. But it also explains why he had time to take Jesus out into the lake.
There are a lot of things going on here. First, Jesus is giving a "thank you" to the fishermen who had taken Him out and also kept the boat steady the entire time He taught. (We don't know how long He taught.) Second, Jesus is demonstrating something very important about Himself -- He's a miracle man. This miracle amazed everyone who recognized it, but it caused Peter, James, and John to change their lives. Third, Luke uses this as a testimony -- "before Jesus / after Jesus". Before Jesus, Simon had an empty net. After Jesus, Simon's nets were overflowing and he had a purpose in life exceedingly great.
But to get there, note Simon's patronizing tone in verse 5. "Oh boy, here's the rabbi giving me advice on fishing." Importantly, Simon is very respectful (calling Him "Master" and actually obeying the request; realize that this was no small thing because they would have to go back through the process of cleaning the nets after this next presumably failed fishing attempt). We have to remember that Simon already knew Jesus. John's Gospel tells us a lot more about the early days of Jesus' ministry (see John 1). John the Baptist pointed two of his disciples to instead follow Jesus -- one of them being Andrew, Simon's brother. The very first thing Andrew did was bring Simon to Jesus (John 1:41)! However, we are not told that Simon dropped everything and followed Jesus then. It seems very likely that Simon continued to fish and also listen to Jesus' teachings. When Jesus knew that Simon was ready to follow (in our passage this week), Jesus lowered the boom.
I take great comfort in that. Jesus prepares us to follow Him. Some people are ready from the word jump; some people need to be brought along more gradually.
Simon's partners were James and John. They are not mentioned in John 1 (which is why I believe this event took place later). My guess is that they had stayed on shore to finish their cleaning and repairing and were listening to Jesus (while waiting for Simon). Their perspective fascinates me. The lake would have been calm ((1) Jesus wouldn't have taught during a storm, and (2) fewer fishing boats during the day), so James and John would have seen some commotion on Simon's boat and then heard yelling as they had trouble hauling in the fish. Then there would have been a yell for help and a scramble to load up and cast off.
If you've ever seen large-scale net fishing, it's something else. Messy, chaotic, physically demanding, a little dangerous, and unpredictable. So, you have to imagine what these guys are doing in the video, except the water is deep and the nets are completely full of flopping fish. Then they have to get them out of the water and into the boat! I describe a Galilean boat below; it was pretty big and could hold 1,000 pounds of fish, but it could still capsize if there's too much fish.
Simon was a professional fisherman. He knew an abnormal catch (at an abnormal time) when he saw it. He knew that this catch was all about Jesus. He just didn't understand how that could be possible. (Remember -- in just a few chapters in Luke 8:22, the disciples still don't understand how Jesus has the power to calm a storm.) But it frightened him. He was in the presence of something he didn't understand, and he knew he was unworthy to be there.
[Some scholars make a big deal out of Simon's use of "Lord" here, but that word is also a very common Greek title (like "sir"). I really don't think Simon is using "Lord" at all the way he does later (like in John 13).]
When they returned to shore, Jesus invited them and they immediately left everything to follow Him. Most likely, this means that crew members took over the boats and the business. Peter and James and John became full-time disciples.
Application: signs. Simon was blown away by this catch of fish, and he immediately knew that something miraculous was happening. Have you ever been a part of a ministry event in which you realized that God was doing something far beyond your understanding? If not, what is the kind of sign that would convince you of God's involvement?
[Aside about Peter, James and John. Jesus' structure of relationships has been studied extensively. He had crowds of people that He taught. He had a group of 72 that He sent out to teach (see Luke 10). He had 12 disciples who followed Him daily (see Luke 9). And He had an "inner circle" of 3 men who were a unique part of key events (like the raising of Jairus's daughter from death, the transfiguration, and the Garden of Gethsemane). Jesus does not explain to us how/why He picked Peter, James and John to be such an intimate part of His ministry. I don't think it matters. I think the point is that Jesus can pick anyone -- regardless of background -- and use them to change the world. As a point of fact, successful fishing boat owner/operators would have been strong, independent, hardworking, and quick-thinking, and that probably was a good foundation for the kind of lifelong work Jesus had for them.]
Aside: The Jesus Boat
In 1986, Jewish brothers discovered the remains of a boat in the mud of Galilee that ultimately dated to the first century. It's been dubbed "The Jesus Boat" and is on display in Israel. It's fascinating for archeologists, and it's also super-fun to get a view of the kind of boat that Peter may have used as a fisherman. What's fun about this particular boat is it consists of 10 different kinds of wood, suggesting that it was repaired over the course of decades of use. The Sea of Galilee was a dangerous place (as we will see) for boats.
This particular boat is about 27' long and 8' wide. It has a place for a single mast and four oarsmen. Its excavation site also contained multiple artifacts that helped date the wreck. It would generally have a crew of five (but there would easily be room for 15, if this were the kind of boat the disciples traveled in). So, if Peter's boat were like this one -- and the fact that he was able to bring in "a great number of fish" implies that he was not in a smaller boat -- it would mean that he was successful enough to hire a small crew of fishermen. Because they are not otherwise named, we can assume that only James and John became disciples.
Josephus says that there were more than 200 fishing boats that operated on the Sea of Galilee in the first century. They fished for carp, tilapia, and catfish. The catfish would be sold to Greeks, but the tilapia was an important food source for the estimated 200,000 people who lived in the region of Galilee. It also might be salted for transport to Jerusalem (which is where Galileans got their gruff reputation).
Bonus Aside: First Century Fishing
Here's a made-for-nonfishermen graphic that helped me understand how Peter and his crew may have worked. (Note: I keep saying "may"! The Bible does not give us some of these details. These come from other sources from the era.)
This graphic comes from the FaithLife NIV Study Bible, just FYI.
Part 2: Levi (Luke 5:27-28)
27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 So, leaving everything behind, he got up and began to follow him.
I had a hard enough time using Simon instead of Peter. I don't see any way I will consistently use Levi instead of Matthew, so I won't try. (Note: Matthew 9 makes it clear that this is one and the same person. The New Testament is filled with people with two names -- either a nickname, a business name, or a cultural name.)
As with Peter, we have no reason to believe this is the first time Jesus encountered Matthew. Based on the subsequent party, it seems that Jesus had a strong reputation among Matthew's disreputable friends.
Warning: passages out of order! This threw me off, and so it might for you too. We are studying Luke 5:17-26 next week. Lifeway just wanted to keep the calling passages together. Unfortunately, 5:17-26 really helps inform the calling of Matthew. In that story, Jesus heals a man who was considered unclean and an outcast. And then immediately, Jesus goes to another kind of outcast -- a tax collector. Don't spend much time explaining the context for Matthew's calling or else you'll steal next week's topic! Instead, just point out that Matthew was not the kind of person a Jewish rabbi would take on as a disciple.
And it begs the question: who are some people you know who would be unlikely candidates for church leadership. I want you to think of two different groups: people who did become strong church leaders, and people who are not Christians that everyone has basically written off. Ralph Starling regularly mentioned how unlikely it was that someone like him would ever become a Sunday School teacher. Someone in a previous church of mine was what we would call a crooked lawyer, but Jesus got ahold of him and he became indispensable to that church. Who are people you know like that? Maybe it's you!
The reason we start there is to remind ourselves that no one is beyond the reach of God's grace. We all know people who have been written off as beyond repentance and salvation. And that's simply not true. What makes us think that we are so much better than someone else that we could become a Christian but not them?
Jesus gave Matthew the same invitation He gave Peter: "Follow Me." And Matthew did. Matthew left everything, just like Peter (and James and John). Rome probably wouldn't have been happy about that, but they would have had a long line of replacements. Whereas Peter could go back to his boat (and did after the crucifixion!), Matthew could never return to his former job. That's not how Rome worked.
Now that's we've seen the phrase "left everything" twice, I think we can start to see some deeper meaning. We initially think of the physical. Peter left his boat and nets. Matthew left his booth. But they left far more than that, didn't they? What about you?
Aside on Tax Collectors
We've talked about this before, and there are lots of resources on this. Jews didn't like tax collectors. Like Zacchaeus, they were mistrusted for extracting more taxes than necessary. They worked directly for the Roman government. They did not give exception or grace to their fellow Jews. These two websites go into a little more detail (the first also covers the subgroup of "sinners"; the second goes into all of the terminology you didn't know that you didn't want to know):
As we will see in the next section, Matthew's friends (i.e. the people he wanted to invite to a banquet at his house) were not well-regarded.
Part 3: Sinners (Luke 5:29-32)
29 Then Levi hosted a grand banquet for him at his house. Now there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others who were reclining at the table with them. 30 But the Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus replied to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Matthew is so excited about this inexplicable change in his life that he celebrates it with a banquet. Do you remember the day you became a follower of Jesus? Have you ever been around someone who was this excited to become a Christian?
I'm sure some of you are thinking about people you know who seemed really excited initially, but they didn't stick around for long. Jesus talked about this in His Parable of the Four Soils (which we covered in Matthew):
What are the reasons new Christians' "fire" burns out? Note: it's not always because they made a false profession of faith! Sometimes, it's because the religious establishment comes to them and complains about them, just like in our passage!
Think about it. You're a new Christian with a disreputable background like Matthew. You're so excited that you throw a banquet and invite your friends so they can share in the good news. And the "reputable religious people" in your community also come, but rather than celebrate with you, they insult you and complain about you. How is that going to affect you?
The term "great banquet" refers to an elaborate meal. Luke talks a lot about table fellowship (7:36-50, 9:12-17, 10:38-42, 11:37-54, 14:1-24, 22:7-38, 24:29-32, 24:41-43). Why is that?
Note that Luke calls Matthew's guests "others at the table"; it's the Pharisees who call them "sinners". That's what Jesus was referring to when He said "do not judge". Guests at feasts in those days "reclined" around a U-shaped table. Because most people are right handed, they would recline on their left elbow (I just imagine my arm falling asleep rather quickly, but I guess Romans used a lot of cushions). Servants/slaves would deliver food without having to reach over the guests. All of this implies that Matthew had significant wealth. (Or -- perhaps this was a "final blowout" a la Babette's Feast, which is a truly fascinating Danish fable which might be a twist on our passage.)
But when the Pharisees complain to Jesus about this rabble, how does He respond? Should it have put them in their place? (Did it?)
There are two brilliant ironies about this exchange:
The brilliance of Jesus' respond did not end the complaint, even today, did it? There are church members in every church who look with distaste on new Christians who do not "fit their preferred mold".
Jesus wasn't really talking about the tax collectors, was He? They understood their need for a Savior. But the Pharisees, they were actually the ones who were truly sick at heart.
There's so much to unpack there. Do you think of yourself as the righteous or the sinner? Do you look at the people around you as the righteous or the sinner?
Here are two potential applications for you:
Your testimony. This might be the perfect time to re-rehearse your testimony. When did you first feel the call of Jesus -- to salvation, to service, and maybe to ministry? What were the circumstances? What was the outcome?
Your perspective on the characters. Perhaps you want to talk about your reaction to this story. What do you think of these disciples' response to Jesus? Do you think they ever regretted their decision? Why or why not?
And then there is one must-have application:
Who are the people Jesus has you "fishing" for? What efforts are you taking to reach them? What help can your church family give you?