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Fishers of Men and the New Exodus

by Brant Pitre March 05, 2021 0 Comments

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Dr. Brant Pitre discusses Jesus calling his disciples to be "fishers of men" to the prophecy of the gathering of the lost tribes of Israel in Jeremiah 16. Subscribers to the Mass Readings Explained can access the full video here:


What would it have meant to become fishers of men in the first century A.D.?  Well on the one hand, you can see this just as a simple metaphor, right.  Obviously, what do fisherman do?  They catch fish.  So he’s going to make them fishers of men, he’s going to call them to come with him and to invite, or to catch, other men to become disciples, to gather a group of followers around him who will believe in the good news of the kingdom and call other people to repent.  That’s kind of an obvious meaning.  However, “fisher of men” is a weird expression.  It's an unusual image, and whenever you see strange imagery or unusual expressions in the New Testament, a lot of times they are allusions to the Old Testament, they are are allusions to ancient Jewish Scriptures.  And in this case Jesus is alluding to a prophecy from the book of Jeremiah that isn't in our readings for the day, it’s not in the lectionary; but I still think it’s important for you to focus on to understand the meaning of the call.  So if you go back to Jeremiah 16, it's in verses 14-16.  There, the prophet Jeremiah, who lives in the Sixth Century before Christ, so this is 500 years or so before Jesus, on the cusp of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Jeremiah the prophet said that one day people were going to forget about the exodus from Egypt.  They weren’t going to talk about that anymore, you know, the exodus under Moses where God set his people free and brought them to the promise land.  In the future, Jeremiah said, people are going talk about a new Exodus, in which God will not just save his people from Egypt, but he will gather his scattered children from throughout the Gentiles, from throughout the nations, where they had been scattered by the Assyrian exile in 722 BC.  Then he would bring them back, right, and in that prophecy Jeremiah uses the imagery of fishing for human beings.  So let me give you those words, Jeremiah 16:14 says this:

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says 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 which I gave to their fathers.  Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.

All right, cool imagery there.  So what’s Jeremiah doing?  He’s saying that there’s going to be a future exodus, but in this exodus God is going to gather his people to himself from all the countries throughout the whole world.  And when he does that though, he’s going to have to send out men, specific people, to act as fishers, so that they can catch them.  This is the prophecy of the new exodus; it was one of the central Jewish hopes of Jesus' day, that one day when God would save his people in the future, he would do it similar to how he had done it at the time of the exodus from Egypt, but in a more universal way, not just from one country, from all the countries of the earth.  So it’s in that context that Jesus comes to Simon and Andrew and James and John and says to them, follow me, and they dropped their nets and they start to follow him, and he says I will make you fishers of men.  So what's he saying to them?  He's basically telling them I'm calling you to, basically, be the prophets of the new exodus.  I'm calling you to be the fishers of the new exodus, who will go not just into one country, but into all the countries of the Earth to bring men back to God and to gather again, watch this, the lost tribes of Israel who Assyria had scattered.  So those lost tribes, you might recall from previous videos, 10 of the 12 tribes were scattered among the nations and the prophet said one day all 12 tribes are going to be gathered together again.  And the Jews at the time said, well how’s that going to happen when we don’t even know where they are, they are mixed in with all the Gentiles.  Well Jesus here steps into that situation and begins to call the first four of the 12 apostles, right, calling them to be fishers of men because they are, in a sense, going to constitute around him a new Israel.  They’re the beginning of a new Israel that’s going to inaugurate a new exodus, and that's going to bring people back to God through repentance from sin and through preparation for the coming of his kingdom. 

And you can imagine, put yourself in Peter or Andrew or James or John's place.  If you had believed in John the Baptist, if you had hopes that he was, you know, the great prophet who is going to inaugurate the new exodus, right.  Think about it, where did John do his public ministry?  He did in the river Jordan.  What was the river Jordan?  That was where the first exodus had ended, right?  In the book of Joshua 5, when they finally got through the 40 years of traveling in the desert, they came to the river Jordan and then they miraculously crossed through the Jordan River and they make it to the Promised Land.  So John the Baptist was also a prophet of the new exodus.  He went to the place where the first exodus had ended and he started in motion a new exodus.  Then he got arrested and he got beheaded, and it seems as if maybe, you know, things are falling apart, maybe it's not coming to pass now.  Jesus, however, comes into that situation and says follow me, I'll make you fishers of men.  In other words, I am going to be the great prophet; I'm going to be the Messiah, the one to bring the new exodus to completion, to inaugurate it and to consummate it, right, through my public ministry.  And now it makes sense why Peter and James and Andrew and John would drop their nets and go follow this guy, because they were already ready to receive that message and to become fishers of men.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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