What It Means To Be “Fishers of Men” (Mark 1:17)

In Mark 1:17 Jesus tells Simon & Andrew: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” But what exactly does this title, “fishers of men,” mean?

The “common-sense” reading of the text suggests that it simply implies that Jesus’ followers will come to have same mission that Jesus has (calling people to follow him). Indeed, this is how the text is normally read and preached. As those who follow Christ, we are called to be “fishers of men” and continue to extend the invitation of following Christ to those around us. However, at least two alternate or supplemental readings are possible:

1) The “Martyr” Reading

If you take the metaphor of fishing seriously, perhaps there is a note of implied suffering involved in the call to be “fishers of men.” Fishing is a somewhat violent activity which involves the hooking of an animal and, usually, it’s eventual death. Already in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, John has been arrested by the authorities, Jesus has been tempted in the desert by Satan, and Simon/Andrew/James/John have abandoned their financial and social security in order to follow Jesus. It won’t be long until Jesus reveals that the call to follow him is ultimately a call to martyrdom – a call to pick up one’s cross and die. Is Jesus playing on the metaphor of fishing and suggesting that the mission the disciples are called to join is one of bidding people to a life of temptation, suffering, and death? William Placher concludes: “Is such a connotation (of suffering) intentional? It is hard to tell. Those who are ‘caught’ in discipleship of Jesus will come to great joy, but only, we will learn, on the other side of suffering.” (Placher, Mark, 37).

2) The “Judgement” Reading

It’s possible, if not likely, that Jesus is drawing this title from Old Testament prophetic images of God “fishing” his people. Perhaps Jesus draws this title from Jeremiah 16:16, Amos 4:2, or Ezekiel 29:4. In these texts, “fishing men” is seen as a euphemism for God’s judgement on his people – the rich and powerful who have abandoned his call to obedience. If Jesus is intentionally drawing on these prophetic traditions, then perhaps he is inviting Simon/Andrew/James/John to “join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 132). To follow Jesus, in this reading, is thus to become part of a people who by their very existence cast judgement on those living in disobedience to God’s true desires. It is to live a life of radical generosity and enemy-love which necessarily clashes with the world and its rulers.

What do you think?
How do you read the call to be “fishers of men”?
What do you think about these alternative/supplemental readings?

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Book Review: Deviant Calvinism (Broadening Reformed Theology) by Oliver D. Crisp

BOOK REVIEW
Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology by Oliver D. Crisp

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Oliver Crisp’s latest book, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology, is an attempt to demonstrate that the Reformed tradition is much broader and wider than it is commonly characterized. His book succeeds in accomplishing this task. Indeed, I was eager to read this book because of my own theological history. I was once part of the young, restless, and Reformed crowd. Gradually, I grew out of my hyper-calvinism and into a gray area that was difficult for me to define. I thought perhaps I could (or should) no longer claim the title of “Reformed” … but I often found much of my theological inspiration from Reformed thinkers such as Barth. Crisp confirms my suspicions: Reformed theology is much broader than the neo-puritan calvinism that most people think of when they hear the title.

Reader be warned: this book is not for the faint of heart. It is a work of analytical theology and thus reads very philosophically. For one not familiar with reformed theological jargon or interested in “variant” strands of this tradition, it might be a difficult or tedious book to read. Crisp explores concepts such as eternal justification, libertarian calvinism, Augustinian universalism, and Barthian universalism. His focus is not so much on the Scriptural warrant (or lack thereof) for certain doctrinal claims as it is on the logic which lies behind them – noting what truth claims a doctrine necessarily requires or denies. Much of the book revolves around a discussion of various ways one in the Reformed tradition might hold to the belief in universalism. Thus, it was a helpful addition to my current interest in the presence of universalism in evangelicalism.

I recommend this book as a thought-provoking read to all those who are invested in the Reformed tradition.


Note: I received this book from Fortress Press in exchange for an unbiased review.

Paul and Prayer

I’m teaching a class on the Holy Spirit this Fall, and this week the subject was The Holy Spirit and Prayer. These two quotes from Gordon Fee’s Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God caught my attention:

One of the more remarkable inconsistencies in studies on Paul is that thousands of books exist that search every aspect of Paul’s thinking, while only a few seek to come to terms with his life of prayer. Indeed, most people’s understanding of Paul is limited to Paul the missionary or to Paul the theologian. But what is clear from Paul’s letters is that he was a pray-er before he was a missionary or thinker…Paul did not simply believe in prayer or talk about prayer. He prayed, regularly and continuously, and urged his churches to do the same.

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It is probably impossible to understand Paul as a theologian, if one does not take this dimension of his “Spirit-uality” with full seriousness. A prayerless life is one of practical atheism. As one who lived in and by the Spirit, Paul understood prayer in particular to be the special prompting of the Spirit, leading him to thanksgiving for others and petition in the Spirit, even when he did not know for what specifically to pray. Whatever else life in the Spirit meant for Paul, it meant a life devoted to prayer, accompanied by joy and thanksgiving.

 

Michael F. Bird on the Fourfold Gospel

“The four Gospels exhibit a plurality and unity that both encourages and restricts christological reflection. As a plurality, they demonstrate that no single Gospel, no one narration, and no solo story possesses a monopoly on describing who Jesus is. It takes the richness and diversity of four different accounts to come close to penetrating into the mystery of the man and his mission. In fact, the plurality of the Gospels stimulates us to write, preach, teach, paint, and sing about Jesus in ways that are far from monolithic but celebrate the diverse ways that Jesus Christ quickens our hearts, fills us with joy, drives us to Godward devotion, and inspires us to love others. At the same time, as a unity the four Gospels are in a sense constricting, setting the boundaries as they do for all christological discourse. They mark out the theological zone in which our discussion and devotion to Christ takes place. This proves that certain images of Jesus are out of bounds. The purely human Jesus, the phantasm Jesus, or the Jesus as an angel view, or the neo-liberal California Jesus, or the ultra-conservative ant-big government Jesus, or the Nazi Aryan Jesus, or the armed communist liberator Jesus – all these are moving beyond the playing field.”

- Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord, 326.

Observations On ‘Hearing’ Mark

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Two days ago I was able to attend a live reading of the Gospel of Mark.* The goal was to experience the Gospel in a way similar to an early Christian community – orally. As Michael Bird correctly notes,

“Our earliest Christian literature is the textual product of the oral activities of the early church, including proclamation, apologetics, exhortations, prayers, debates, hymns, creeds, and storytelling… Several scholars have drawn attention to the Gospel of Mark as a text designed to be orally performed and to be aurally penetrating.”

Some observations after hearing Mark performed:

1: I’m irreversibly textual.

I’m not sure it’s possible to “go back in time” and make-believe that we are an illiterate community. While listening to Mark, it was obviously clear to me that I am a textual person. Part of this is my personality (I learn better that way … I’m not an “oral learner”) but I believe that in a large way all of the developed world is irreversibly textual. In other words: I think textually… I process information textually… I organize material textually. I found myself consistently fighting the temptation to “see the words” in my mind or to place the story to a chapter or verse (chapters and verses are a separate problem: “Have We Ruined the Bible?”).

2: Mark is a genuinely good story.

Bird, and other New Testament scholars, are correct to identify Mark as a legitimately engaging oral narrative. It keeps one’s attention with its pace, it has more than enough humor, and it contains a good amount of dramatic tension. Many of the “themes of Mark” that I knew intellectually, such as the Messianic Secret, had even more of an impact when I heard the entire text at once.

3: The cumulative effect of a story is greater than the sum of its parts.

There’s something wise about keeping a story together instead of breaking it into pieces. A narrative seems to have a “cumulative meaning” – a powerful impression left on the mind when it is told all at once. There are many confusing events in Mark that make me want to stop and ask questions, but with the story continuing on one is forced to accept these elements as they are and keep following the narrative. In fact, having these questions unanswered and lingering in the back on one’s mind actually brings out the overall meaning of the story.

4: I’m often as confused as the disciples, but I want to follow Jesus.

Jesus is an attractive, mysterious, and powerful figure. I want to know him, I want to be like him, and I want to follow him. I’m often afraid. At times I have denied him. But I’ve never been able to shake this haunting feeling that he has risen and I am called to follow him into the future.


* Our church hosted the event and Mark was read by my good friend (and one of our Elders) Jake Milwee. While planning the event, we found out that we were definitely not the first to do so: see Mark’s Gospel Live, Performances of Mark’s Gospel, and Mark’s Gospel (performed by Max McClean).