“Follow me.” The Greek is a three word phrase, “come after me,” which is idiomatic for “follow me. The word “follow” here is a different word from “follow” in Mark 1:18. The disciple would follow behind the teacher in the biblical culture (cp. Matt. 4:19-20).
“I will have you fish for people.” The Greek text literally reads, “I will make you become fishermen of people.” The kind of fishing the disciples did was not like the fishing that most people think of today, which uses a rod and reel, line, hook, and often a bobber (there was some hook-and-line fishing in Israel, but it was for a quick meal, not for making a living; cp. Matt. 17:27).
The disciples generally would have fished by cast-net fishing. That involved a circular net with weights around the perimeter that was thrown by hand into the water. When properly cast, the net would open into a wide circle that was pulled down by the weights, edges first, over the fish and thus entrapped them. This technique has been improved significantly with today’s monofilament cast-nets that have special strings that draw the net closed after it has been thrown and allowed to sink. Cast-net fishing is why the Gospel records say the disciples cast their nets into the sea (Matt. 4:18; 13:47; Mark 1:16; John 21:6).
Cast-net fishing is hard work. The nets can be heavy and the act of repetitive throwing and pulling in empty nets can be exhausting and frustrating. Furthermore, cast-net fishing, like most fishing, gets the best results before dawn or near dusk and into the night, so the hours are long and inconvenient. Also, if the fishermen have any hope of being successful, they must know both the waters and the habits of the species of fish they are after, so success involves study, not just “dumb luck.”
The other common type of fishing in the Middle East and on the Sea of Galilee involved a dragnet. That involved a net that could be up to 300 yards (274 meters) long and 8 yards (7.3 meters) deep, although it could also be considerably smaller. The dragnet had weights at the bottom of the net and floats at the top, and it was put out into the water parallel to the shore by boats, and then pulled into shore by groups of people who would “drag” the net through the water and over the bottom. Dragnet fishing is mentioned in the Old Testament and the Gospels (cp. Hab. 1:14-16; Ezek. 26:5; 32:3; 47:10; Matt. 13:47-48).
So when Jesus said that he would make his disciples into fishers for people, his metaphor—which was not picked by accident—included hard work, frustration, patience, endurance, and knowledge. No wonder Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you to become….” It is by following Jesus, the master fisherman, that disciples learn to bring people into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is not easy, but it is rewarding in this life and will be richly rewarded by the Lord in the next life.
[For more information, see The Sea of Galilee and its Fishermen in the New Testament by Mendel Nun.]