Shepherds vs. Fishermen, and Why It Matters



Listen to today’s Daily Text

daily text logoMarch 18, 2016

Matthew 4:18-22

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.


I’ve wondered for many years now why Jesus broke with God’s long tradition of employing shepherds and chose fishermen instead. Have you ever thought about it? Let’s consider it now. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd. Jacob was a shepherd. In the most beloved Psalm in the history of Psalms David famously sang, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Scripture refers to God’s people in a number of places as his flock or the sheep of his hand. And it’s not like shepherds can be relegated to the Old Testament era of human history. After all, it was shepherds tending their flocks by night who got the first breaking news of the birth of Jesus. Even Jesus referred to himself as the “Good Shepherd.” He told an unforgettable parable about the importance of the one lost sheep from the herd of a hundred.

I’ll need to do a much deeper scan, but the only memory I have of fishermen prior to Jesus was in the story of Jonah. On second thought, they were more sailors than fishermen. It turned out the great fish did the fishing in that story. Today’s text reveals Jesus’ draft picks for disciples #1-#4 were fishermen. Yes, he also chose a tax collector and probably a couple other vocations in the mix, but we have no record of him ever choosing a shepherd.

Years ago when I was in seminary—thanks to the generosity of many friends, my wife and I had the privilege of spending a month in Israel as part of our education. It was on this trip two decades ago I first began to ask this question about sheep and fishermen. One of the most memorable (and terrifying) moments of the trip was when I drew the short straw and was elected to preach a sermon to our entire group on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Guess what I talked about? Yep, why did Jesus choose fishermen instead of shepherds.

They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.

Shepherds aren’t out catching new sheep. That would make them cattle thieves. Shepherds tend to their own flock. To be sure, Jesus came looking for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but that was only the beginning. Jesus came after the whole world. Up to this point, if you weren’t a sheep you weren’t included. Jesus picked up an entirely new metaphor because he was after way more than sheep. He came to fish.

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”

It makes sense that a person coming to fish for people would first catch a couple of people who were fishermen. Jesus didn’t just come to fish for people, he came to teach his followers how to fish for people. That implies that we don’t already know how to fish for people. I think we think we know because we associate fishing for people with all sorts of evangelism explosions and crusades and four spiritual laws and roman roads and sinners prayers and packing pews with visitors and all other manner of methodologies. What if for just a moment, we could forget all we have learned about fishing for people over the past two thousand years? We don’t have to critique it, just selectively tuck it way back in the hard drive of our minds. And what if we simply followed Jesus very closely through the rest of this Gospel of Matthew, asking him to teach us to fish for people? What if we watched his every move and hung on his every word and got close enough to his interactions with people that we felt like we may be one of them?

Let’s keep that question at the forefront of our discipleship journey through Matthew: What are we learning from Jesus about how to fish for people? We may be very surprised.

At once they left their nets and followed him.

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1. How do you reflect on this question about why Jesus chose fishermen instead of shepherds?

2. What is your general idea of what it means to “fish for people?” How has that been influenced by methodologies you’ve seen in the past? Do you have any stereotypes about fishing for people?

3. Do you want to grow in your ability to fish for people? Are you ready to learn? What may be in the way of that learning and growing?


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J.D. Walt, is a Bond Slave of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Farmer. Poet. Theologian. Jurist. Publisher. Seedbed's Sower-in-Chief.