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A FISH STORY

Posted on December 9, 2014 at 10:05 AM Comments comments (0)

A FISH STORY

It was in 1995. Along with about thirty college students and faculty, Virginia and I followed a guide down a long set of steps into an underground chapel. We sat down to listen as our guide told his well-rehearsed story about the ancient burial ground we were about to visit – the Catacombs of Rome. Before leaving the chapel, we engaged in an unforgettable period of worship in song.

 

We then descended single file down and down through narrow, twisting, dimly-lit tunnels. The air was musty and the walls somewhat moist to the touch. Occasionally, there was a small room arranged as a chapel. Sometimes we saw rectangular openings in the walls of the tunnels, where long ago, lifeless bodies had been placed. At one point, we were shown a drawing on the wall, covered with plastic to protect it – a drawing of a small fish.

 

Although we do not know when the practice began, it is known that during the Roman persecutions Christians often had to meet secretly for worship. The “fish” symbol seems to have been used to identify the secret meeting places. But, why use a “fish” as a symbol?

 

The Greek word meaning “a fish” was ichthus. Our English word “ichthyology” means a study of fish. Some early disciple obviously decided to use ICHTHUS as an acrostic, with each letter beginning a word. The CH and TH are each a letter in the Greek alphabet. Thus, the first letter “I” became JESUS (in translation), the “CH” became CHRIST, the “TH” became GOD, the “U” became SON, and the “S” became SAVIOR – JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, SAVIOR. The “fish” sign began to appear as a secret badge of discipleship!

It would likely have been widely known among the early Christians that several of the Apostles of Christ had earned their living as professional fishermen, and when the Gospel of Matthew was written in the mid 60’s A.D. they were so identified (Matthew 4:18). In addition to Andrew and Simon Peter, and the brothers James and John, Thomas and Nathaniel may also have been fishermen (cf. John 21:2-11). When the Apostle John wrote his gospel, probably in the late 80’s A.D., he stated that Philip also was from Bethsaida, by the Sea of Galilee, the hometown of Andrew and Simon Peter (John 1:44). “Bethsaida” literally means “the house of fishing,” perhaps because so many fishermen lived and worked there. When Jesus called these men to be His special disciples, He told them, “I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).

 

Fishers of men! Jesus called sweaty, smelly fisherman and promised to make them fishers of men! What if you had been on that boat when Jesus made that puzzling promise to these uneducated and unsophisticated fishermen (Acts 4:13)? “Impossible!” you may have thought. “These guys will never amount to anything as preachers!” And you would have been mistaken! All of these men would one day stand in the Temple court fearlessly proclaiming Jesus as the promised Messiah! (Acts 2:5-13). They would with great courage stand toe to toe with the highest religious authorities of Judea, and when threatened if they did not cease preaching in the name of Jesus, they would calmly reply, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).

 

It was only ten days before Pentecost, the springtime Feast of Harvest, and the resurrected Son of God was about to ascend to the Father. He was about to send his “fishers of men” on an extended “fishing trip” which would take some of them to the farthest borders of the Roman Empire. “Go into all the world,” He told them. “Preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). According to Matthew, Jesus told them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Having promised to be with them “to the end of the age,” their beloved Lord disappeared from sight as He passed into the sky (Luke 24:50-51). According to ancient tradition, every one of the apostles, except John, would eventually be put to death by enemies of the cross of Christ.

 

The same “great commission” given by Christ to the apostles applies, to some extent, to each of us today. Although Paul clearly states that not all Christians are called to be apostles, prophets, or teachers (I Corinthians 12:29), it remains true that each of us has some responsibility in the Lord’s “fishing” business. Christian wives of non-Christian husbands, for example, are urged to conduct themselves is such a way as to lead their husbands to Christ (I Peter 3:1); Peter urges all of us to be prepared to answer questions from unbelievers (I Peter 3:15-16), obviously in hopes of gaining “some of them” for Christ (Romans 11:14). And we all are appointed to be the “salt” of the earth and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

 

“Fishers of men”! Jesus could change smelly, sweaty, “uneducated” fishmongers into “fishers of men.” What do you think He might be able to make of you and me?

 

 Donald R. Taylor