John 21:1-14 (90 Days with Jesus, Day 89
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana of Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
“John’s Gospel does not end with the resurrection of Jesus, but with a challenge to His disciples. It is not simply a challenge for belief, but a call for commitment. Paul’s epistles give doctrinal teaching, but each leads to a ‘therefore’ section with practical application of the truths presented. Lives are changed because of acceptance of Jesus and His teaching. Following Jesus demands action, a life that obeys Him. So John’s Gospel not only presents the facts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but ends with the challenge to Peter and to us to follow Him and feed His sheep.”—Lewis Foster, John, 224
All along this entire series of meditations on John’s Gospel, I have tried to maintain the focus that John did, that in writing the Gospel he, the author, was concerned to present his readers with Jesus. So, when, for example Gary M Burge writes: “Chapter 21 is about discipleship and leadership.”—(NIV Application Commentary, 593), he is wrong. From first to last, the Gospel is about Jesus. These are the historical events that took place in the life of an historical person in an historical place. In other words, the events are measurable. These are not ‘cleverly invented stories,’ but the eyewitness accounts of real people about a real person (2 Peter 1:16). So when we read them, we are only learning about ourselves (or leadership or discipleship or hairdressing) as a second, third, fourth, or fifth lesson. I submit to you that if we open our Bibles and Study Jesus, The Word of God, the Gospel, everything else will sort of fall into place. But that’s just me; well, and a bunch of others too.
So then, what would or does a common reader of this Gospel learn about Jesus after reading this last chapter? Well, frankly, it is difficult to wield an exegetical knife and cleave this chapter down the middle, but to an extent we are looking at two distinct historical events that took place ‘the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples.’ What then do we learn about Jesus since all these things ‘were written that [we] might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing [we] may have life in his name.’ In this first section, something happened with fish. In the second section (which we will look at on Day 90) something happened with barnyard animals. This is a very zoological chapter. No, really. We learn here about Jesus a few more lessons.
Before asking this question (‘What do these verses teach us about Jesus?’), there are a few other preliminary questions that must be asked about what is going on in this particular pericope (short historical, biographical paragraph or episode in the life of Jesus). I’ll ask them, but only briefly comment because the lesson we learn about Jesus is intricately tied to the answer to these questions. What the reader must not do with these verses is get caught up in the minutia. I think one can spend so much time calculating the ‘meaning’ of 153 fish, for example, that they miss why they caught anyfish at all. In other words, I don’t think these verses have to be allegorized in order to have meaning. Perhaps it is enough for us to simply read the verses and take them at face value and learn about Jesus.
I think the story centers around four questions. 1) Why does Jesus ask if they caught any fish? 2) Why does Jesus catch so many fish for them? 3) Why does Jesus cook a fish breakfast for the disciples? And 4) Why does Jesus hand them some fish? To be sure, I don’t think this story is necessarily about fish. I do, however, think that these questions give us insight into what we are to learn about Jesus
First, why did Jesus ask them ‘haven’t you any fish’? I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus knew they hadn’t any fish so why did He ask them? Was he making polite conversation? What he chiding them a bit because their skills at fishing hadn’t improved one bit over the course of the three years he had spent with them? Remember Luke 5?
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the Word of God, he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’”
So why did Jesus ask them if they had caught anything? It could very well be that he intended to humiliate them just a wee bit, to make them look on this expedition as yet another failure they had to endure. Perhaps he was intending to make them look at the life of fishing they were leading, and the one they had led, and to compare the two and see: It was getting them nowhere. Perhaps, and here’s the point, Jesus is not all that willing to let those he calls simply go back to their old way of life so easily. Some disagree, but I think that is exactly what they were doing: Going back to their old life. But didn’t the Resurrection of Jesus mean something more than their old way of life? Is that what His resurrection meant to them? Surely it meant more to them, and means more to us! Perhaps he wanted to remind them that they should not have been so willing to so quickly go back to that life. Fishing here represents the life that Jesus called Peter from not the life he called him to. Now that He is alive, there was more to do and it would not be done by people who were so consumed with their past failure (and reliving that failure all over again!) that they were not looking forward, moving forward, in the power of Resurrection. Jesus brings them out of that old life; again.
The second question is this: Why did Jesus catch so many fish for them? John seems to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the number of fish they actually caught. Notice he makes reference to the haul in verses 6, 8, 11. This load of fish really made an impression on John—so much so that he counted the fish! Well, these disciples always seemed to have their nets on the wrong side of the boat. They would fish on one side, catch nothing, and Jesus would have them throw it over again and they would catch something. What are we to learn about Jesus from this part of the story? Clearly something was meant to be learned or John wouldn’t have felt the need to record, in Holy Scripture, the measure of the catch. But contrary to some opinion, I don’t think that the meaning is found in interpreting the number of fish. Whatever else 153 might mean (and I think it simply means that Jesus filled their nets with 153 fish), clearly the point is that the catch was large.
What shall we learn? Do you think it could be something as simple as the fact that it is Jesus who provides for us often in spite of our best efforts? So, contra Burge again, Jesus was not merely their ‘coworker.’ He did all the work! Perhaps it is that Jesus is giving; giving more than we expect. It certain did catch them by surprise. Or perhaps it was not so material after all. Perhaps Jesus was testing Peter and John and Thomas and Nathaniel and James and the other two. Perhaps he wanted to know: What do these men love more: Me or fish? Me or material gain? Now that they have been successful, will they stay in the boat, on the water, fishing? By the time they are all on the beach, ‘No one dared ask him ‘are you the Lord’; they knew.” (I’ll come back to this later.) John saw: “It is the Lord!” I think Peter makes his point too: he jumps in the water and doesn’t even wait for the fish or his friends. For him, Jesus is all he sees. (And we will see this up close and personal in the conversation between Peter and Jesus in the last several verses.)
The third question also has to do with fish: Why does Jesus cook the disciples fish for breakfast? I might ask it another way: Why does the Resurrected Lord Jesus Messiah build a fire, bake some bread, fillet some fish, and prepare anything for the disciples? “Come and have breakfast.” What a strange thing this is! The Lord of the Universe, the First fruits of the Resurrection, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World, the Alpha, the Omega, the Bread of Life, Living Water, the King of Israel—we have come so far in John’s Gospel!—making breakfast on the beach for these ordinary fishermen. It is indeed a strange world Christians inhabit. We have strange ideas about God at times, but this one is the strangest of them all: God making breakfast! And what’s even more is this. If John and Peter knew it was the Lord because a) John saw the fish and b) Peter believed John’s testimony (“‘It is the Lord’…as soon as Peter heard him say…”) then it seems the rest of them figured it out only after Jesus offered them breakfast: “None of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.” Why? Because He made them breakfast?!
So what do we learn about Jesus? I think it is rather simple and it goes back to the upper room. One of the last things the disciples experienced with Jesus was in the upper room when he washed their feet before his crucifixion. Now here is Jesus after his crucifixion, after his resurrection, still doing the same thing; i.e. serving. So Jesus is still modeling for his disciples the sort of life attitude that should characterize us as well. Why does Jesus remain one who serves?
So far, I think we have learned three things about Jesus in this context. First, we learned that he is not content to let us just wander back to our old life—the life that he called us from. Second, we learned that he provides for us even in spite of our best efforts to succeed on our own. Third, we learned that he was among them as a servant and counts it no shame at all to do even menial things like cooking breakfast for friends.
So finally, our fourth question: Why does Jesus hand them some fish? “Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.” I recall a time when Jesus multiplied bread and fish and fed a multitude of people. The story is told in Mark’s Gospel, Matthew’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel, and John’s Gospel. But wherever the story is told, and whatever the focus, Jesus is always the Host. Jesus invites people to sit down in groups. Jesus takes bread and passes it out to others. He provides the fish. He takes the fish. He blesses the fish. Then he gives the fish back to us. He does the same with the bread. But it doesn’t matter if it is an unruly mob that wants to make him king by force, or if it is a group of hungry people who had been with him all day and hadn’t prepared themselves by bringing lunch, or if it was a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus, 5,000 Jews, or 4,000 Gentiles, or a few disciples who had gone back to a failed fishing career. Jesus is the Host. It doesn’t matter if it is 2 fish and 5 loaves or 153 fish and ‘some bread.’ Jesus is the Host
We are invited to a meal that is Hosted and blessed by Jesus. Isn’t it somewhat ironic that it is Jesus who does all the work in this Resurrection story? Jesus catches the fish. Jesus bakes the fish and bread—and builds the fire. Jesus asks all the questions. Jesus invites them to breakfast. Jesus takes the bread and fish and gives it to the hungry disciples who, after a failed night of fishing, were bound to be quite hungry. Do you think this Resurrection story is telling us there is nothing we can do in this life apart from Jesus? Do you think it teaches us about the nature and character of Jesus and that if he is willing to be so perhaps we should too? Why does Jesus remain the host after his resurrection?
Fish! Going fishing. Failing at fishing. Catching Fish. Cooking Fish. Blessing and serving fish with his own hands. Jesus did a lot of things that morning that he had done all his life with the disciples. He caught their fish. He served them. He hosted them at the table. This same Jesus who was on the beach with them that morning was the same Jesus who had been crucified a week or so earlier. It’s not so much that Jesus wanted them to forget things as much as it was that he wanted them to remember things. He wanted them to remember Himself. He reinforced their memories by Being Himself.
Soli Deo Gloria!