"Fishing" in the Desert: A Reflection on the 'Place' of Evangelism
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
These past few weeks, I have been reflecting on my "Theology of Evangelism." I'm writing a three part series for KMGC's retreat focused on Evangelism. I'd like to share a summary of my first sermon in that series. Hope it helps! I am no fisherman--but I definitely know that fishing is complicated. One of my friends who is an avid bass fisher shared with me the depth of fishing: picking the right bait/lure, using the right rod, string, and reel, having the right technique, picking the right time of day etc. However, what struck me the most was this comment. "The most important thing is where you fish. Because you may get everything right, but if you pick the wrong place to fish, it's all for naught." As you know, Jesus compared evangelism to fishing. Often, pastors talk, discuss, debate with another on what is the best bait/lure, rod, technique on how to catch "men" for Christ. However, I realized that among missionaries, evangelists, and pastors, we do not really talk about the 'place' of Evangelism too much. I often assumed that when Jesus said "I will make you fishers of men!" meant that the entire world was an ocean. I assumed there was fish all around me. All I needed to do was to just cast my net and pull in a huge catch. However, it struck me. What if I'm casting my fishing net into a wonderful patch of dirt? Would it not be the ultimate amateur mistake to buy the best gear, select the best bait, master the best techniques, and determine the best time of day, then cast my fishing net into a patch of dirt with absolutely no sign marine life? This prompted me to reflect on Jesus's call to be fishers of men, using Ezekiel 47:1-12. I will admit that I had not connected the dots until very recently--Jesus's call to be fishers of men was actually drawing from this very passage. Furthermore, I also realized that we should not freely interpret the image of "fishers of men", if Jesus is drawing from a particular OT vision already. For those who are unfamiliar with the passage, let me unpack the passage for you. (For brevity, I will present it as simple as possible without getting into too much detail.) I drew many of my insights from Ian Duguid's wonderful commentary. The vision contains basically three parts: a temple, a river, and fisherman. First, the Temple/Tabernacle represents God's throne-on-earth that defined the people of God. No temple, meant no throne room of God; No throne room of God meant there was no King; No king means no kingdom or people of God. Therefore, you need a throneroom on earth to create a people of God on earth. Often, we think that God the King calls the people of God into the temple; however, I believe the idea is quite the opposite. God calls people into the Temple and the people who assemble are the people of God. If you were an Israelite who didn't show up, you were cut off from the people of God. And on the flip side, if you were a man or a woman, an adult or a child, a Israelite or a non-Israelite sojourner, a master or a slave, and you showed up to the Assembly of God, you were considered to be part of the "Assembly of God" (think of Ruth the Moabite, the deceitful Gibeonites, and Rahab the Canaanite prostitute). And the New Testament Greek word for "Church" (ekklesia) actually means and refers to this "Assembly of God." Therefore, the people who show up to the "Assembly of God" to hear the Word of the King were considered the people of God--those who did not were cut off. However, in the Old Testament, there was a severe limitation. Only a small number of people (i.e. the nation of Israel) could assemble at the throne of God. Only a small number of people could be considered the people of King YHWH. This brings us to the second part of the vision: the river. The river represents the Holy Spirit extending the Temple's people-creating functions outside of the bounds of Jerusalem. It is said in Psalm 46 that the river is what sustains the joy of the Temple--it is the lifeblood. The Temple had a small pool inside the Temple that was closed off from the public. However, what we see is that this pool of water starts to create a crack in the closed East Gate of the Temple. It's like a crack in a dam. It first starts out with a small trickle, but then grows into a wave of life going through the dry wilderness--first ankle deep, then, knee deep, then waist deep, then we're swimming in this life-giving river. This river breaking forth represents Pentecost. It is the people-creating, life-giving Holy Spirit that was once exclusive to the temple of Jerusalem. It was once exclusive to the Ultimate throneroom of God, heaven itself. But now, it is breaking forth into countries, places, and people groups that did not have access to the throneroom of God. It truly is an amazing sight! However, I want you to remember the climate and terrain of Jerusalem--it is a desert. My Old Testament professor would say it was like the same kind of climate in Escondido, CA--dry, barren, very little vegetation, no water. Essentially, a barren wilderness. There are no large bodies of water around Jerusalem. Furthermore, the nearest body of water is the Dead Sea. And the Dead Sea is called the Dead Sea because everything dies in it :) The extremely high salt content kills any kind of life. But what does the Temple river do? Does this creation of a body of water draw marine life to itself? No, not at all--there's no life anywhere in the first place! This Temple river literally creates marine life out of nothing. The river even flows into the Dead Sea and turns it into a Sea of Life. This is a river that creates life ex nihilo! This is an image of what Evangelism looks like in the New Testament age. It is not a river that flows through a luscious Jungle and attracts nearby life to itself. No! It is a river that flows through the desert and into the Dead Sea and creates a luscious ecosystem out of nothing! Many people ask me what is Evangelism is like in Japan... I should say read Ezekiel 47 :) However, what does the river represent? What does it not represent? I think this is why we must recall the third part of the vision: the fisherman. When I think of the Holy Spirit spreading across to the ends of the earth, for some reason, I thought of Christians going to the ends of the earth. But is that truly the case? Do Christians create life ex nihilo in the barren wastelands of people's hearts? To think that way is extremely presumptuous and man-centered; however, if we are honest, sometimes us evangelists, missionaries, and pastors think that way! We think we are the engineers that are directing the rivers of life, and masters of the Holy Spirit! We need to remember that the fishermen are not the river. I love the image of the fishermen here. They are clearly working to bring the fish in; however, compared to the Holy Spirit, they are pretty passive agents! They just stay on the banks of the river, staying in one place, cast their nets, and catch a HORDES of fish. And it looks like there's really little skill involved too! However, this may seem so obvious, but needs to be said. It is extremely clear that the river is a river, not an ocean. There are parts of the world that have no fish. There are parts of the world that have fish. It would be extremely stupid to start fishing where there is no fish. It is the equivalent of casting your net into the Jerusalem wilderness or into the Dead Sea. That's why the fishermen stand near the river. But what is the river? And this is where Jesus in Luke 5 explains the fulfillment of this "fishing" prophecy. Luke 5:1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. I get goosebumps when I read this passage in light of the Ezekiel 47 passage--perhaps you did too. Let me just clearly delineate this for us all so that we don't miss the point:
Jesus is preaching the Word of God and there are hordes of people (fish?) coming to Him.
Simon went fishing and toiled all night along, but caught no fish.
Jesus got on Simon's boat. He preached the Word of God from Simon's boat. HORDES of people come to the shores.
Jesus tells to let down the net. Simon, without much effort on his part, catches HORDES of fish (with HORDES of people assembling in front of them) it almost sinks two boats.
Then Jesus commissions Simon to be "fishers of men" just like the fishermen in Ezekiel 47.
What is Jesus saying? "Dear Missionary, I am the Temple of God (John 2:21). Those who assemble at my throne are my people (Revelation 7:9-14). By the Word of God I speak, life will be created ex nihilo (Hebrews 11:3). The Holy Spirit will work with the preached Word of God every single Sunday as long as the Word of Christ is preached (2 Thes 2:13-14). Therefore, all you have to do is let down your net where the Word of Christ is preached. Do not be afraid. Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men."
I am not against creative ways of evangelizing and getting people to church--actually I'm actively doing that. But I (we?) need to recognize the risks of my strategies, the overeagerness of my heart to catch fish, and my unintentional disregard of the basics of fishing. Please pray that us missionaries would not try to go bass fishing and cast our lines in the desert and expect Jesus to work. Please pray that we follow Jesus, preach his Word, let down our nets, and wait for the Holy Spirit to create life in the desert, the wilderness, the Dead Sea of Japan.