To fully appreciate what John is trying to portray in John 21:1-14, we need to have a good picture of where we are in story John is telling us. Just like they had done in previous years, Jesus and the disciples were in Jerusalem for the celebration of the yearly Passover feast. I am sure, as they had also done in previous years they celebrated the Passover feast together. But this time was different. The first signs that their lives would soon radically going to be changed forever were showing. Something was up. The Passover meal turning out different than the disciples expected. It started with Jesus telling them that one of the disciples, Judas, was going to betray Jesus. That must have been quite a shock! They lived life together for the last three years, spending each day together. It must have been unthinkable for them to consider that one was about to betray Jesus. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, after Judas left when Jesus pointed him out, Jesus tells Peter, the leader, the spokesman, the brave one, that before the night is over he will deny Jesus three times. Again, unthinkable! I am sure this must caused them feeling unsettled and confused, anxious for what was going on and about to happen. But then He tells them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1). OK, things settle down…
But then Jesus launches off into a huge monologue, telling them about a Helper who will come and dwell with them, and that He needs to go away otherwise this Helper cannot come. Then He tells them about bearing fruit by abiding in Him, and that the world will hate them. Again He tells them about this Helper who will come and lead them into all truth. In all of this, Jesus is really saying things the disciples do not understand, like “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16), and that they all will scatter and leave Him alone. And He closes off with a huge enigmatic prayer to the Father. If they weren’t unsettled or confused before I bet they were now. What was Jesus all saying? Were these things really going to happen? But there was no more time to think about this or ask some clarifying questions to Jesus, because all that Jesus had foretold them was about to come true. Judas came to betray Jesus and soldiers came to arrest Him. And during the trial that happened that same night, the disciples scattered, and indeed Peter denies Jesus three times while He warms himself up by a fire near the place where they question Jesus. And to top it off, Jesus gets crucified. He dies, and gets buried. Where they were confused and unsettled and anxious, now deep sadness set in. They lost their best friend, their teacher. How could He save them when He was dead?
But the story doesn’t end there, right? Three days later, Jesus rose from dead. John and Peter see the empty grave, but where is Jesus? Well, first He showed Himself to Mary Magdalene, who told the rest of the disciples that she saw Jesus. What! He has truly risen from dead? Is it really true? Sadness makes place for hope. Then on that same evening, Jesus appears a second time, now to all the disciples. Oh the joy that must have been! And He says to them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) He is giving them a mission, and then He disappeared again.
Responding to the Heat
“After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side
of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.” (John 21:1-8)
So we have seven of the disciples getting together one evening, and they go fishing. Now we don’t know why. It doesn’t say in the text. Yet when looking at the other gospels, we could draw some conclusions. Both Mark and Luke end with the Great Commission and the immediate taking up in heaven (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:50-51), so it seems that the Great Commission really came at the end of their time together, meaning that the story here in John 21 happened before they received the Great Commission. So was this a return to the old life? Or were they just providing for themselves and those near to them until Jesus told them what to do next. Well, there is this verse in John 20 where Jesus tells them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) But I guess Jesus by now knew that the disciples usually didn’t get it the first time around, and so what we see here is that the way that the disciples respond to what’s been happening over the last couple of days is that they do what they know best. They do what they are most comfortable with: fishing.
But as is often with us, we see that when the disciples worked on their own strength, their efforts were futile. So, Jesus gives them a little reminder. When after a full night of not catching anything, Jesus tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. This definitely got their attention, because it happened before. In Luke 5, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we read of the first time when the disciples after catching nothing for a whole night they were asked by Jesus to casts their net again, and caught so many fish that their net broke. Jesus was reminding them that He called them to be fishers of men, to be on mission for Him. As the Father had sent Jesus, so Jesus is sending them, and through them the good news of Jesus will spread. The good news that Jesus has come to fill our dead hearts with the living water of the Holy Spirit, that He came to live the life we should have lived, and die the death we should have died, and that because of His resurrection we can walk in newness of life by the power of the Holy Spirit. And both in Luke 5 as well as here, Peter was the first to respond, recognizing the magnitude of the miracle. In Luke 5, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, clearly making a full-time commitment to Jesus. Here in John 21, we see Peter responding by getting to Jesus as fast as possible, for as soon as he heard it was the Lord the ship could not hold him, nor could he stay till the bringing of it to shore, but into the sea he throws himself, that he might come first to Christ. Could it be that Peter already had in mind
that Jesus was about to ask him to again make a full-time commitment?
It’s All About Fellowship With Jesus
“When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” (John 21:9-14)
This story is famous for the fact that it mentions that they caught exactly 153 fish. And every since everyone has had a field day speculating what this number means. I have read through many different reasons, some very amusing, but none were even remotely satisfactory. On the one side the number is specific enough that I presume for the disciples it had significance, but since nowhere else in the Bible the number is used or explained I presume that for us it is not important to know. When reading the story I would say that the breakfast rather is what we need to focus on.
It is beautiful to read that Jesus invited them to have breakfast with Him. He says, “come”. Throughout the Bible a meal is a picture of intimate fellowship. And that is also what Jesus came to do; a method to connect and draw people in. In Luke 7:34 it is even said that Jesus “came eating and drinking.” And throughout the gospels we see Jesus eating with tax collectors, feeding the 5,000, eating at the home of Mary and Martha, inviting Himself to dinner with Zacchaeus, etc. Jesus did evangelism and discipleship round a table with some grilled fish, a loaf of bread, and a pitcher of wine. Meals represent friendship and community; and so also here. It’s Jesus who invites His disciples, His friends, and the ones for which He laid down His life, and He invites them for a meal. He invites them into fellowship with Him, because that is what it is all about: fellowship with Jesus.
And so, John paints for us a final picture. It all started with a picture of Jesus’ mission, and now, at the end, we have a picture of Jesus’ commission. Just like the disciples, we all have a need to be constantly reminded of the mission that Jesus gave us, and that we are sent into the world so that we “may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9), and to be fishers of men. Because just like the disciples we have a tendency to fall back into our old habits, and slip into our comfort zone. But Jesus calls us in whatever situation we are and says, “come, dine with me, have fellowship with me, be in communion with me, for although I sent you I am also with you, to the end of the age. I will never leave you or forsake you. We are in this together.” And that is a beautiful picture that John leaves us with; a picture of our God who invites us and welcomes us with open arms.