I’ve said this before; I love reading about the resurrection appearances of Jesus. They are awesome, and there’s so much we can learn from them. But I do wonder how I would have responded if I had been a disciple of Jesus. Would I have coped or freaked out?
Jesus appears to a portion of His disciples while they are fishing in Galilee (John 21:1-14). This appearance can be a bit puzzling. Why are the disciples fishing back in Galilee after having been commissioned by Jesus and having already received the Holy Spirit? Why don’t they recognise Him after having seen Him more than once at this point? Why is this called the third appearance of Jesus when there were already three appearances in chapter 20 of John’s gospel?
His previous appearances in Jerusalem established the faith of the disciples and thus strengthened the nucleus of this new community, one He’d established during His earthly ministry, and that had been further established at the cross and in the breathing of the Spirit. Now He reminds them of His lordship and their dependency upon Him in the fulfilment of the commission He has given them (John 20:21-23).
But, remember that Jesus had told them to return Galilee, where He would meet them (Mark 14:28; 16:7). I’m left with the impression that they seem to be a bit bored, as if they’re unsure of what to do, until Peter decides to go fishing and the others come along (v.3). Peter as often is taking the initiative, but are they just doing that which is necessary? The outcome is certain, they put themselves in a place where Christ meets them. Here is a glorious beautiful, but simple truth, when we are uncertain what to do we should simply do our duty and God will guide. He works like that, using circumstances that we might consider to be insignificant, to bring great glory to Him.
That night they catch nothing (v.3). What a picture of barrenness. They have done what they thought was the right thing but experience utter failure. This prepares them to learn one of the central lessons of discipleship – apart from Jesus they can do nothing (John 15:5). Jesus has taught this lesson before, for never in the Gospels do the disciples catch fish without help from Jesus. But they need the lesson repeated, as we often do as well.
The turning point comes early in the morning, perhaps symbolising the dawning of spiritual light. Jesus is described again as simply standing there, without a description of His arrival on the spot (v.4; cf. 20:14, 19, 26). Also, as earlier, they do not recognise Him at first. There was something different about Jesus’ body.
Jesus takes the initiative and calls to them: “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” (v.5). Think about that question – it’s put in a form that expects a negative answer, but the one asking already knows the answer! The word translated “friends” (paidiai) is more literally “children” or even “little children.” John also uses this word in his other writings where he used it in the sense of “an affectionate address of the spiritual father to those committed to him”. It appears this greeting was unusual to the disciples as they did not know who was calling them.
How readily they admit their failure (v. 5). Jesus instructs them, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some (v. 6). This is not an idle suggestion. He does not say, “Try over there and you might find some.” No, He gives an assurance that they will find fish “on the right side of the boat”. When they obey they cannot get the net back into the boat, there are too many fish (v.6).
Doesn’t this abundance echo the enormous provision of wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1-11) and of bread and fish at the feeding of the five thousand (6:1-13). Aren’t there similarities here to Jesus’ original call, “Come, follow me … and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19 par. Mark 1:17)? But I think a primary point here seems to be accepting Jesus’ lordship and the need to be obedient to Him for any labour to be fruitful.
Earlier, Mary recognised Jesus when He called her name, and the disciples recognised Him through His wounds. Now He is recognised through the abundance that comes through obedience to His word. It is the “Beloved Disciple”, John, who first discerns that the stranger on the shore is Jesus (v. 7). If Peter had been the one to recognise Jesus, one suspects he would have immediately jumped into the sea before they’d cast the net again! Notice that having received insight John immediately bears witness to it. Oh, dear… how often I have failed at this, bearing witness to the insight God has given me!
We have no idea if Peter gets to land before the others do, for we read, “When they landed…” the disciples notice a charcoal fire with bread and fish already on it (v.9). Wow, Jesus has breakfast ready for them. I love it when someone gets my cooked breakfast ready. But this is a sign of Jesus’ grace and provision, like the catch they have just taken. There is no indication of where Jesus got the bread and fish from. The appearance of the food is as mysterious as His own appearance.
The first one to speak is Jesus, and He tells them to bring some of the fish they have caught (v.10). For the second time in this story Jesus gives them a command. Guess who responds – yes, Peter! Although Jesus addresses all the disciples (enenkate, bring, plural), it is Peter who brings the catch ashore, by himself (v.11). Peter’s zeal to come to Jesus is now matched by his zeal to obey him.
This miraculous catch speaks of the abundance that our gracious God provides and how He also enables the abundance to be received. We’ve seen this before haven’t we? At the feeding of the five thousand they had brought the bread and fish to Jesus, and He multiplied them (6:9-11). But in this scene He already has food and invites them to add to it from their catch. We have work to do in order to bring others into Jesus’ kingdom. But such work can only be done with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus and thus following His commands.
Throughout this encounter with Jesus the disciples have not said anything. They are in great awe; none daring to ask Him, “Who are you?” (v.12). There was something different about Him, yet they were able to recognise Him – Jesus is the focus of this story, as He should be the focus in our own lives.
After inviting them to come and eat, He himself comes to the fire. He took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish (v.13). This provides the climax of this story. It answers their unasked questions– He is recognised in this breaking of the bread (cf. Luke 24:30-31). So here we have the master who commands them also serving them, continuing a theme found during His ministry (see 13:5, 13).
John says, “This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead” (v.14). Surely this is at least the fourth appearance? So what is John doing here? I think that here John is counting appearances to the disciples as a group, which would not include Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. This appearance reveals the same key characteristics as Jesus manifested throughout His ministry, namely His lordship, His servanthood, His character as gracious giver of abundance and His love. He has met His disciples at a point of failure and revealed Himself as the awesome Lord of creation who cares for them. The fact that He provides a meal indicates that this type of “lordship” includes fellowship. Such fellowship with Jesus at a meal reminds one of the many times He shared such fellowship during His ministry, especially at the Last Supper. And this is the theme of the new community He has now established and so echoes the Eucharist. This meal itself is not a Eucharist, but it embodies a central aspect of what the Eucharist itself is about – communion with the risen Lord in the midst of His people.
Based on a sermon from 17th May 2020