We are continuing to explore the post resurrection experiences of Jesus. Today, we are looking at an appearance of Jesus to a few of his disciples as described for us in the 21st Chapter of the Gospel of John.
We would read in Chapter 20 of the Gospel of John that Jesus appeared to the disciples and had said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John then added, “30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you [those who have not seen] may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:29-31). John wanted his church member who had not seen Jesus to believe in the testimony offered concerning Jesus. John’s stated purpose in writing his gospel that all would come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God was relevant today. John is encouraging us to know Jesus as the Son of God.
John, after having felt he had established the record for Jesus as the Son of God, set out to say a bit more. The more that John addressed was related primarily to those who had come to believe in him and were in the process of establishing the early church. Again, what Jesus had to say about the early church remains relevant to us today.
In appearing again to the disciples, we come to see that Jesus appearance played out in two parts. This week we will look at Jesus’ interaction with the disciples as a group and next week we will look at Jesus’ interaction with Peter.
John, in Chapter 21, described the scene with Jesus this way. “1 Afterward [after appearing to all the disciples in Jerusalem] Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee” (John 21:1). The scene and setting for the next appearance of Jesus represents a significant change. Jesus first appeared to the disciples in the city of Jerusalem with the disciples huddled behind a locked door for fear of the Jewish leaders. Now, sometime days after those appearances, Jesus appeared to the disciples seemed to express no fear. The disciples were comfortable and outdoors, away from the city of Jerusalem, and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
John continued, “It [the appearance of Jesus] happened this way: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee [James and John], and two other disciples were together [7 disciples]. 3 ‘I’m going out to fish,’ Simon Peter told them [the other disciples], and they [the other disciples] said, ‘We’ll go with you’” (John 21:1b-3a). There were seven disciples together in Galilee. There was Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two unnamed disciples. These men were likely fisherman who had returned to their hometowns to be in the company of family and close friends. Peter decided he wanted to return to what he had done as a profession and to return to fishing. The other men said they would follow Peter.
John wrote that the experience of the group in fishing was not a satisfying one. “So they [the disciples] went out and got into the boat, but that night they [the disciples] caught nothing” (John 21:3b). Anyone who has gone pleasure fishing can relate to how discouraging and irritating it can be to fish and catch nothing. How much worse must it be for commercial fishermen to expend their energy to feed themselves and their family and catch nothing.
John continued the story this way. “4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5 He [Jesus] called out to them [the disciples], ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’ ‘No,’ they answered’” (John 21:4-5). Jesus’ question is a bit curious. I think most of us coming upon a group of fishermen would be more inclined to ask, “What did you caught today?” or “How did your fishing trip go?” We would not be inclined to ask in the negative. But Jesus’ question shows a foreknowledge of the plight of the disciples. “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” Jesus understood that the disciples had no fish and that their time was unproductive and dissatisfying. To Jesus’ question, the disciples gave a simple answer of defeat, “No.” No excuses were offered. The disciples offered no stories of the fish that got away. Their response was a simple “No” as if to answer the question and close the conversation with this stranger along the shores.
This stranger on the beach was not willing to have their conversation end. So the stranger called back, “6 He [Jesus] said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some’” (John 21:6a). The disciples now had a decision to make. They had been fishing all night without success and now some stranger told them cast the net again, specifically on the right-hand side of the boat, and be assured that they will make a catch. Why should then disciples do as this stranger suggested? Afterall, they were experienced fishermen, and they had no idea about the qualifications of this man on the beach.
But something within the disciples caused them to act in faith. Faith is action. Faith is not some intellectual assent to a proposition. Faith is action taken in response to an unprovable certainty. Let me illustrate. If I lift a half full bottle of water to take a drink, that is not faith. I am certain on my own that I can lift that bottle and that I know with certainty that there is water in the bottle. I am certain that if I tip that bottle while it is pressed to my lips, I will receive water. That is not faith. Faith is trust based action of which I cannot guarantee the result on my own, but I take that action because I believe in the person who is guiding me. For whatever reason, the disciples in this boat, tired from fishing all night on their own, cast their nets onto the righthand side of the boat believing in the words of this stranger on the beach. That is faith.
John wrote, “When they did [disciples cast their net to the righthand side of the boat], they [the disciples] were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish” (John 21:6b). The faith of the disciples was rewarded for the disciples caught so many fish in their net that seven men working together could not manage to lift the full net into the boat. In the previous twenty chapters of the Gospel of John, nothing like this had ever happened to the disciples.
Miraculous things had happened and been recorded by John. John recorded that water was turned into wine, people were healed of illness, thousands of people were fed from two small fish and five barely loaves, people were able to walk on the water, a blind man was given sight, and a man named Lazarus was raised from the dead. Central to all these miracles was their friend, teacher, master, Lord, and God, Jesus the Messiah. John had said earlier that he wrote about these miracles so that people who had never met Jesus would believe Jesus was the Messiah. Now this miraculous catch had occurred after Jesus’ resurrection. This miraculous catch of fish was inspired by the words of a discerning stranger upon the beach on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
John wrote, “7 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 [Peter] wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9 When they [the disciples] landed, they [disciples] saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread” (John 21:7-9).
Suddenly, the miraculous catch of fish made sense. The man on the beach in who the disciples had placed faith in by casting their net was no stranger at all. That man was Jesus their friend, teacher, Lord, and God. The catch was magnificent but not as magnificent as being in the presence of Jesus. The fish and the other disciples meant little to Peter. Peter could not contain himself and he jumped into the water to swim ashore. Peter wanted to the be first on the beach with Jesus. The other six disciples, without Peter, continued the work to bring the boat and catch to shore. Within a short while the disciples landed the boat and discovered that Jesus had built a fire that was now coals and that Jesus already had fish and bread ready for them. The disciples must have been puzzled at first that breakfast was ready. But then it was Jesus, and the disciples would know that Jesus was prepared and ready to meet their needs.
But before breakfast began, Jesus had a request for the disciples. “10 Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish you have just caught.’ 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore” (John 21:10-11a). This time, Peter was eager to respond to the request of Jesus and bring those fish to the shore. Peter was not interested in the help of the other disciples. Peter wanted to meet Jesus’ request on his own, in his own strength. And so, without the help of the other six men, Peter worked to drag the net to shore. Peter who ran to Jesus’ tomb when it was reported the tomb was empty did not hesitate to crawl into the tomb to see where Jesus lay. Peter moments ago, when he realized that Jesus was the man on the shore dove into the water to get to shore first. Now, Peter willingly, almost greedily, worked alone to get the net full of fish onto the shore. We will have more to say about Peter next week.
In the balance of verse 11, we encountered a very unusual report about those fish in that net. John wrote, very specifically, “It [The net] was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn” (John 21:11b). There are four facts here that we need to consider. First, the catch was accomplished by all the disciples working together. Second, the fish in the net were large. Third, the net was not torn. Fourth, there were exactly 153 fish. Let’s consider each of these four facts.
First, the catch was accomplished by all the disciples working together. But more importantly the catch came about by the disciples’ faith in action by obeying Jesus. The story opened with six disciples following Peter’s leading to go fishing. The spent all night and accomplished nothing. Then came the twist in the story. The disciples were unsuccessful until the disciples, including Peter, were guided by Jesus’ direction. Jesus had previously told his disciples, “5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). This fishing expedition served as an illustration to the disciples, the church, must remain obedient and faithful to Jesus for their efforts to bear fruit.
Second, the fruit of the disciples’ effort was large fish. The Sea of Galilee contained good fish and bad fish. Good fish, in the thought of those days, were those fish that were consider clean and worth. Bad fish were those fish that were not suitable and must be thrown away. The implication that all the fish in the net were large fish that counted suggests that the disciples caught up only good fish. The disciples following Jesus’ instruction had separated the good fish from those who were unsuitable. Some commentaries see reference to the large fish as an indicator of the true work for the disciples as fishers of men. Meaning, the disciples were to call out those people who would be made suitable for the kingdom of God by the work of Jesus.
Third, the net did not break. Again, this reference is seen symbolically that though many will be drawn into kingdom, none will be lost. The net was not torn. John said earlier in his gospel account of Jesus that Jesus said, “39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39). The net will not break and none who follow Jesus shall be lost.
Fourth, there was a specific count of fish, 153. Many books have been written trying to understand why John wrote the exact number of fish and why there were exactly 153 fish. There are two options for us to consider. First, there were 153 fish period and there is nothing more to it. Second, the number 153 is a cypher, a code for the early Christians.
In Hebrew and Greek languages, each letter has a number value. Use of a number value in writing allows the writer to convey by number the identity of a person, for example, without using that person’s proper name. So for example, in the Book of Revelation we would read, “18 This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666” (Revelation 13:18). Some biblical scholars point out that the name Nero Caesar yields the number 666 when translated from Greek into Hebrew. The number 666 may have been the way for John, the author of Revelation, to speak about Nero Caesar, who persecuted Christians, without using his name directly. What then might have John meant by 153? There are many theories but the one I liked is that John used in cipher form, the number 153, to numerically represent the letters, Iota, Chi, Theta which is an acrostic way of saying “Jesus Christ is God.” This might at first seem farfetched but it is well documented that in the early church the Greek word for fish, comprised of the letters Iota, Chi, Theta, Upsilon, and Sigma, was an acrostic for “Jesus Christ God’s Son is Savior,” and expression found in the Gospel of John, Chapter 20, verse 31, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” It is also well documented that the sign of the fish was used extensively in the early church for Christians to identify one another. We can speculate as to the meaning of 153 fish, but it seems most likely John intended to communicate something of value to the early church and its need to remain faithful to Christ because of who Jesus was.
When Peter was done dragging and counting the fish, Jesus fed the hungry disciples.
So what then can we draw from this story about fish or this story about breakfast with Jesus. I think there are three things.
The first thing deals with who we follow. In this case, the disciples followed Peter into fishing and worked in their own strength to catch fish for consumption. They caught nothing until they once again began taking direction from Jesus. Who it is that we choose to follow matters.
Second, the work of the church, the work of disciples, is centered on gathering the church to Christ. We should do this as a corporate enterprise that continues from one generation to the next. The work of the church is centered on the proposition that none in Christ are ever lost, the net cannot and will not break.
Third, Jesus is prepared ahead of time. He knows our struggles and he knows our needs. Jesus knew the disciples had struggled on their own and he gave them the wisdom that they needed. Jesus knew the disciples needed the provision of food when they landed, and he fed them breakfast.
To the believer in Christ, we need the continued direction in our life offered by Jesus. If we are trying to live this life on our own, Jesus may well appear as a stranger on the beach. But when we start listening to Jesus, we will see that he is our friend and Lord. Then our desire will be to be with him and feed on what he has for us. So today, let us be willing to listen to Jesus and be blessed in doing so. Amen and Amen.