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The Fishing Trip

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The Fishing Trip

John 21:1-23


I’m going fishing. At least here in eastern Tennessee, this sounds like something one does when they want to relax. And when said in a group, it is an informal invitation for others to join. However, if we were to think this the case of Peter and the other disciples, we would be dead wrong. Fishing was Peter’s way of life as it was for Andrew and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. So this was no pleasure outing.

John is the only Gospel which has resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples in both Jerusalem and Galilee. In Matthew, Jesus appears to the women who bring the message to the disciples to return to Galilee and meet Him there. The account of His appearing in Matthew is different than the one here. There isn’t a problem here as Luke and Paul both indicate that Jesus made many resurrection appearances over the 40 days.

What is interesting here is that Luke records a similar catch of fish at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in chapter 5 of his Gospel. There are some similarities in the accounts such as the toiling of the disciples all night long followed by an appearance of Jesus who commands where the net should be thrown, resulting in a miraculously large catch of fish. Then there is a summons to discipleship. Because of this some think this only happened once and that Luke places it at the beginning and John at the end. However, when one holds to the fact it occurred twice, then the meaning of the passage becomes telling. This will become clear upon further investigation.

Exposition of the Text

John begins this passage by mentioning that after the appearance to Thomas and the other disciples that Jesus made one more appearance to at least several of them including Simon Peter, Nathaniel who came from Cana of Galilee, Thomas, and two others. Nathaniel had not been mentioned since the first chapter and makes his second appearance. We have seen Thomas and Simon Peter on their journey to faith throughout the Gospel. What is interesting, this is the only time that the sons of Zebedee are mentioned in the entire gospel, and here not even by their names of James and John. If John is the beloved disciple and writer of this gospel, then this is an extraordinary act of humility on the part of one the other gospels record as being one of the “Sons of Thunder”. The emphasis of the whole gospel is about Jesus, not his followers. This was seen by the example of John the Baptist who performed his ministry and was willing to fade away once his task of introducing Jesus the Bridegroom was done.

Peter and the others were going back to business as usual. Peter had reverted to his old occupation as though the three years he had spent with Jesus was nothing more than a grand adventure. So he took his boat out of mothballs and went to catch fish and make his living as he had once did. In this, it was almost another denial of Jesus who had initially called Peter from fishing for fish to that of men.

Jesus plans to teach them a lesson by repeating the conditions of the initial call to the disciples. He lets them get out on the Sea of Galilee (Tiberius) and have their way. The normal time for commercial fishing was at night when the fish came up towards the shore. Some would say that Peter’s fishing skills were rusty in that they didn’t catch a thing. But in the calling of the disciples when Peter was fishing, they had caught nothing that night either. And Peter was on top of his game then. The reason they didn’t catch anything is that Jesus had determined they were to become fishers of men. So now the table is set for Jesus’ appearance.

It would be interesting to know what was going through the disciples minds when their own efforts were in vain. I know what some people say when fishing is bad, but those words are not fit to be repeated now. They worked all night and had nothing to show for it. They were by this time exhausted and frustrated. Perhaps they wondered if they would starve also.

Jesus does appear at dawn, the time of resurrection. In the early morning light, it would have been hard to recognize someone. But it was more than this in that Jesus kept them from recognizing Him. He calls out to them “Children, it does not appear that you have caught anything.” Jesus is sort of ribbing them by this comment. It is interesting that John uses the Greek word “children” to refer to the servants of Jesus. It would seem a bit odd in any other context. Yet they did not recognize Him. Jesus asked them knowing full well they had not caught anything. I suppose the tone of address may have annoyed them. Peter was annoyed also in Luke when he halfway protested to Jesus’ summons to try to cast the heavy new one more time, as though He said: “OK smarty pants. I am a fisherman, you are a Rabbi. I know my job. But just to prove to you the futility of this I will throw the net down once more.” In that passage, when he did, the catch was so great that peter knew it was a miracle and begged Jesus to depart from such a sinner as Peter. Instead, Jesus called Peter into the ministry.

So as the famous New York Yankees catcher known for his colorful gaffes would say, it was about to be déjà vu all over again. Jesus tells them if they will cast from what would seem the wrong side of the boat that they would catch fish. When they do, they catch such a great catch that they were unable to close the net. Then the text say that the disciple who Jesus loved recognized the Lord through the miracle and remembered the first occasion this net full of fish had happened. John calls out “It’s the Lord!

Simon reacts in a very odd way. He had been stripped down to work. Whether that meant he was naked or wearing a loincloth, I do not know, but the first thing he did was to cover up. This was the first inclination for the naked Adam and Eve when they discovered that they were sinners. Now we can see the connection with Peter’s confession of being a sinner the first time the miracle of the fished happened. Then he acts in an even more bizarre way by throwing himself into the sea like a Jonah who wanted to escape the mission to the Gentiles by going into a boat to Tarshish and was thrown into the sea to calm the storm, eventually to be vomited on the land to go to Nineveh.

The other disciples took the boat to shore with its catch of 153 fish. The detail that the net was not broken reminds of if Jesus’ words, “Of all you have given me, I have lost none.” These fish may represent those who God would call from the 153 nations of the earth. Jesus tells them to bring the fish they had caught. Jesus had already prepared the fire, and perhaps even had fish cooking before the disciples brought up the fish to Jesus. He then invites them to come and eat. Once more from the desert of an empty fishing trip, God miraculously feeds His disciples. They are fed with the bread and fish with which the 5000 had been fed. We remember at that time that the 5000 wanted to arrest Jesus and make Him king. But this was not the king that Jesus had come to earth to become. This is the time for Him to be revealed to them as Lord and King. They were dumbfounded. They knew for sure this was the Lord Jesus. No one would dare say otherwise. What would this mean?

After they had refreshed themselves, Jesus came to Peter and confronted Peter. What is interesting is that Jesus addresses Him as Simon the son of Jonah and not by Peter. It was as if three years earlier, Peter had not been called Cephas or Peter. It was starting all over again for Peter.

Jesus asks Peter whether he loves them more than these things. Some translations make it “More than these other disciples.” As much trouble as Jesus had with His disciples seeking first place, it would seem out of place. However, the Greek pronoun can also be neuter which makes more sense here. What things then was Peter to love Jesus more than? This is where we remember that fishing was Peter’s business and he was in charge of it. Up to the point he met Jesus, he was in control of his own life. But now things were going to be different. No, Peter, it was not to be business as before. Jesus repeated the call He had given to Peter when the first miracle of the fishes occurred. Instead of the metaphor of catching fish, Jesus calls Peter to the work of a shepherd, to tend to the flock of God. I don’t make any distinction between the use of two different words for love as John often alternates between similar words for stylistic variation. Nor is there a difference in meaning between tending to and shepherding the sheep.

What is significant is that for Peter, everything seems to happen in threes. Peter had denied Jesus three times. Now three times he is asked to confess his love for Jesus. Three times Jesus shows that the proof of this is in taking care of the flock of God, something Peter would also mention in his first epistle. The three times also reinforces the absoluteness of the call. There would be no reversion to life as Peter knew it.

Jesus lets Peter know this by saying that when Peter was young, he clothed himself. In other words, he was in control as we have mentioned. But when he was old, others would take him and hang him naked on a cross. But this death would glorify God. God would be glorified in the helplessness of Peter.

Peter then turned and asked the Lord about whether this would happen to John as well. Jesus replied that it was really none of Peter’s business how God dealt with another of his servants. If He wanted to preserve John alive until His return, so be it. However, John wants to make sure we understand the word, “if”. John felt that he needed to squash a rumor that he would not.


It is an important lesson to learn that the Lord is Lord and uses His servants according to His Sovereign will. This is a lesson Peter learned the hard way, and a lesson we, too, must learn. As Dr. Bruce Waltke noted in a lecture, Abel the first faithful witness was killed. Enoch the second was not but raptured into Heaven. The third, Noah, was preserved alive and everyone else died. Now we can be assured that all three are in glory which is the ultimate goal of our existence. Our purpose on Earth in the meanwhile is “to glorify God” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states is our purpose. This means we live or die, we belong to the Lord and are His servants.

God calls us each according to His purpose for us. He gifts and calls people to different tasks. Whether the work is called “secular” or “sacred” by the world, the vocation we perform is a holy calling. We are called to witness to Jesus in all circumstances and be faithful to Him. The second half of the article in the Westminster Shorter Catechism states the other half of the purpose: “and to enjoy Him forever”. This is the promise that motivates us onward in life. It isn’t to live forever in this broken, sinful world. Who would want to do that? Instead, when things are fully restored, we will be in a place where there is no sickness, death, or other sorrow, a place where every tear is wiped from our eyes by God Himself. So what if we die before someone else. It is as Dickens says at the end of the Tale of Two Cities “It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Just make sure you are headed for the right city. That city is far greater than either London or Paris. Believe in the Lord of the City of God, that He died for you sins, whom God raised on the third day and exalted to His right hand and you shall discover one day that you are enrolled as a citizen of that fair land.

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