Peter’s Response to Holiness

What happens when you get a glimpse of holiness? Do you feel all warm and fuzzy inside like a Christmas morning? Are you swept away, feeling all loved and important? The ancient rabbis said that if you picked up the word of God, your hands should feel dirty. It is the holy word of God and you are a sinner. For them, coming into contact with holiness ought to make you painfully aware of how far removed you are from it. There is a truth here; an in your face truth. Maybe when we are able to see Jesus in all of his glory and holiness, we should be glaringly aware of our inadequacy; our sin; our filth. This sounds negative, I know, but it is actually quite healthy. Being exalted comes only after humility after all.

In Luke 5:1-11 we are told of the great call of Peter, James and John and presumably Andrew. Luke’s account is longer than that of Matthew and Mark, who tell of a call and obedient leaving of everything in order to follow Jesus. Luke gives a setting scene and a miracle. The setting scene is that Jesus was teaching the word of God along the shore of the Lake of Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee). The crowd was pressing in so much on Jesus that he was not able to sit and teach which would have been the custom. Instead he is forced to stand and may have been in danger of being crowded into the lake. He sees two boats with their fishermen busy washing the nets. This most likely indicates that it was early in the morning. Fishermen fished through the night and cleaned their nets in the morning. So, early in the morning, we have this crowding crowd eager to hear Jesus teach about the word of God. And maybe we are intended to contrast the crowd with Peter.

Jesus seems to commandeer Peter’s boat. He asked Peter to go out a little way from the shore where he can sit in the boat and teach. Ah, now he can teach in proper fashion. I’m not saying that teaching has to be done while sitting, but that was what was expected in Jesus’ culture. After teaching, Jesus tells Peter to put out to the deep and let down their nets. Often the deep represents chaos, but here it is most likely just about fishing. Let down your nets is plural indicating that Peter had a crew.

I love Peter’s response. He refers to Jesus as “Master” which is deferential to Jesus’ authority. I believe, contra to some scholars, that he respectfully informed Jesus that they spent the whole night in hard labor and caught nothing. He is basically saying, “This isn’t going to work, but out of respect to your authority I’ll do it.” He is willing to obey even though he most likely viewed the whole thing as an exercise in futility. Now, there is something to be said to that kind of obedience. Many offer to obey only when they can foresee some kind of success attached to their obedience.

They cast their nets and catch so many fish that the nets begin to break. They gesture for help. The word literally means signaling with the head. The idea may be that their hands were so busy with trying to haul in the fish that the only way they could communicate was by nodding their heads. The other boat (fishermen often worked with two boats) comes to help them haul the fish in and there are so many the boats begin to sink. Again, I love Peter’s response. This is an epiphany! This is a glimpse of the divine; of the glory and holiness of God in Jesus. Peter didn’t respond by crowding in on Jesus. He instead falls to the ground and pleads with the holiness to leave because he becomes painfully aware of his sin. I love this because I feel this. God’s holiness makes us aware of our filth. I think this is the appropriate initial response to divine holiness.

Jesus tells him not to be afraid – fear being the common response to epiphanies. And then he said, “From now on you will be catching men.” The word “catching” is literally “catching alive,” and it is often used to symbolize fishing for men. Many have pointed out that this story begins with Jesus fishing for men from Peter’s boat. Some have also mentioned that this fishing expedition may be a symbol of what will happen at Pentecost. I think that very likely. Peter humbled himself; acknowledged his filthiness and was made into a fisher of men. Humbling precedes exultation in the Bible. It is the divine order of things.

Jesus is holy. When we glimpse the divine holiness of Jesus we probably should become devastatingly aware of our filthiness. It is only in the midst of this awareness that we will allow Jesus to change us; to shape us; to heal us. And there is another hard lesson here: are you willing to obey when you are convinced it won’t work? Humble yourself; let go of your expertise. May your hands be filthy. Grace.