In the ancient world fish were a staple food and fishing was a common occupation. Of Jesus’ twelve disciples, seven of them worked as fishermen. Jesus commissioned these men using familiar symbolism, saying, “Come, follow me! I will teach you how to catch people instead of fish” (Matt 4:19). The fishing profession that was their livelihood became a symbol for their new calling of spreading the good news of salvation. Both at
the beginning (Luke 5:1-11) and at the end of his ministry (John 21:1-8) Jesus provided a miraculous catch of fish that demonstrated his power and character.
PROVISION AND JUDGMENT
Given the cultural background of his audiences, it is no surprise that Jesus’ miracles and teachings frequently employed the theme of fish and fishing. Jesus used fish and fishing. Jesus used fish in the miraculous feeding of four thousand people (Matt 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10) and five thousand people (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14). The provision of fish and bread on these occasions was a sign of God’s ultimate provision through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This symbolism of fish as provision is further carried out with the fish that provides the temple tax for Jesus and his disciples (Matt 17:24-27).
In the Old Testament, the image of fish is at times connected with the uncertainty of life: “No one knows when his time will come. Like fish that are caught in a cruel net or birds caught in a snare, humans are trapped by a disaster when it suddenly strikes them” (Eccles 9:12). Fish caught in nets are also frequently used by prophets to symbolized God’s judgment over enemies of Israel (Ezek 26:5, 14; 29:3-7) or concerning the Israelites’ rebellion, specifically resulting in their foreign captivity (Amos 4:2; Hab 1:15-17). In this case God is the fisherman gathering the people like fisherman gathering the people like fish for judgment or blessing.
SIGNS OF SALVATION
The book of Jonah describes the rebellious prophet’s rescue from drowning in the storm-swept sea when God sent a fish to swallow him. Beyond the historical account, the great fish also stands as a picture of God’s deliverance and mercy. The account clearly shows that the fish was Jonah’s means of salvation. It was also a sign of the greater salvation offered through Christ. Jesus recalled the story of Jonah in his confrontation with the Pharisees and symbolically connected the three days and nights Jonah spent in the fish with the time that would lapse between his crucifixion and resurrection (Matt 13:47). Fish were often employed in art and literature of the early church as it grew and spread in the first centuries. For these early Christians the Greek word for fish, IXOYE (ichthus), took on added significance because the letters formed an acronym meaning. “Jesus Christ, God, God’s Son, Savior.” The fish symbol eventually became an identifying marker for believers in the early church, and today it continues to be one of the most easily identifiable symbols of Christianity as demonstrated by the popularity of fish decals placed on car bumpers.