John 21: Gone Fishing
7/12/2016 11:46:40 PM
July 10, 2016
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: John 21:1-25
What would you do if Jesus showed at where you work one day? What if, there you were, working away, maybe even having a rotten day at work, and then Jesus walked in the door and asked, “How’s your day going?” Would you recognize him right away? Would you drop everything and run to him? Would you call him over to you? Would you ask him to wait a few minutes while you finished what you were doing?
In many ways, that is what our chapter is about this morning. At least, that is how our chapter starts. The disciples, after having met the risen Jesus on two separate occasions, have gone back home and gone back to work. Over the centuries, people have suggested this was a mistake on their part; that somehow they were giving up on the calling of Jesus by going back to work. I don’t think that’s entirely fair, though. Certainly, this happened before the day of Pentecost! It happened before the Great Commission. The disciples had been in Jerusalem for the Passover when Jesus was crucified and remained there a week after his resurrection. But, after that, they had no reason to be in Jerusalem. Their jobs and families were back in Galilee. And they all had to eat! It is no sin to work. It is no sin to make a living to feed your family. In fact, in one of his letters, Paul even says that the one who isn’t willing to work shouldn’t eat! (2 Thess 3:10)
So there were the disciples, hard at work with no success and Jesus shows up! But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ve been reading through the Gospel of John as a congregation over the past 3 weeks. In case you missed it, we needed to each read one chapter a day between Sundays and on Sunday we would look at the next chapter together. Today, we come to the final Sunday looking at John, the final chapter.
Over the past week, if you were reading along, you read about Jesus’ statement that he is the Vine and we are the branches, his promise of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ prayers for himself and for his followers, his arrest and trials both before the Jewish ruling council and the Roman governor Pilate. It was while Jesus was on trial before the Jewish council that Peter denied knowing Jesus 3 times. You read about Jesus’ crucifixion, death and burial in Chapter 19 and his resurrection on that first Easter Sunday in Chapter 20. After the resurrection, he appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside his empty tomb and then to the gathered disciples on two occasions in the Upper Room. It was there that Thomas said he would not believe unless he saw the holes in Jesus’ hands and side. Then Jesus appeared and Thomas believed!
This is where we pick up our chapter today. Please read with me John 21.
What do we see happening here in this text? I want to break it down into 3 parts for us. First is the miraculous catch of fish. Jesus shows up at the disciples’ work! Second is Jesus’ reconciliation and reinstatement of Peter. Third is Jesus’ discussion with Peter about the path of discipleship.
Let’s begin at the beginning. We are told that after this, after Jesus’ second appearance to the disciples in which Thomas sees and believes, Jesus again “appeared” to his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. There are two things I want to point out here about the language. First, the word “appeared” is actually more “revealed himself” to his disciples. [Frederick Dale Bruner, John, p. 1204] In English, when we hear “appeared” we tend to think of someone appearing out of nowhere, or perhaps of some sort of vision. The emphasis, though, is that Jesus is revealing himself to the disciples in this encounter. He has already revealed himself to them in the Upper Room on the first and second Sundays of the age, the age of the Kingdom of God. Now, he reveals himself to them again on an ordinary day in an ordinary place where the disciples are working. John uses the same word again in verse 14, “This was now the third time Jesus appeared [or revealed himself] to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.”
The second thing I want to clarify in the text is that the Sea of Tiberias was the Roman name for the Sea of Galilee. The disciples are back where it all began, by the Sea of Galilee, where many of them had grown up. We see, again, the theme in John of naming specific places. One of John’s goals is to anchor Jesus in space and time. Jesus was a real person, in a real place, who met other real people at a real time.
Notice who is there. 7 disciples, not all 11 of them were together. Simon Peter is named first, but who is named second? Thomas called Didymus! Thomas missed the first resurrection appearance of Jesus because he was not with the other disciples. Now, though, he’s not letting them out of his sight! He’s going with them! And it pays off that he did so because the disciples again met with Jesus. Could you imagine if Thomas hadn’t gone fishing with them? Could you imagine if he missed Jesus again?!?
Nathanael also went with them. This is the first we’ve heard of Nathanael in John since the beginning of the book. The sons of Zebedee, who we know from the other Gospels to be James and John, and two other unnamed disciples went with Peter to go fishing.
Similar to another account in Luke 5, the disciples have not caught any fish whatsoever. Verse 4 tells us the time of day. If you’ve been with us for the rest of John, you will know that John frequently gives details about the time of day not only because he was an eye witness to these events, but he is very interested in the themes of light and dark. Here, in verse 4, it has been dark but dawn is breaking. It is now light when Jesus appears on the scene! There is both a spiritual element to this light as well as a practicality that in the early light the disciples were unable to discern that it was Jesus on shore. This was either through Jesus’ own design, like when he met with the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke, or just a natural effect of the light in the morning. But thematically in John we know that the light is about to dawn on the disciples and Peter in particular.
What happens next? No fisherman likes to be asked, “How’s the fishing?” when they haven’t caught anything. Even less do they like being given unsolicited advice from a non-fisherman! But Jesus says, “Try putting the nets on the starboard side of the boat.” What happens? They catch a tremendous haul of fish! 153 in total! Amazing!
At this point, the disciple whom Jesus loved, whom we are able to figure out is John the author of the Gospel, says to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” He puts two and two together and recognizes Jesus faster than any of the others. Although John thinks faster, Peter acts faster. [DA Carson, John, p. 671] Peter, who had likely taken off his outer shirt for the hard work of fishing, puts it back on and leaps into the water! This is classic Peter, the first out of the boat, the first to speak, the first to act all the time.
Last month, a few of us attended our denomination’s annual Assembly. The main speaker, Dr Anna Robbins, pointed out that in John’s Gospel, in Chapter 20, when Peter and John race to see the empty tomb, John makes a point of saying 3 times that he outran Peter and got to the tomb first! In John 13, when Peter wants to know who is going to betray Jesus, John is lying next to Jesus, resting his head on Jesus, so Peter asks John to pose the question to Jesus. John was physically closer to Jesus in that moment than Peter was. Here, in a third incident in the Gospel, John shows Peter up! John figures out it’s Jesus on the shore first.
I’m not sure what, exactly, all this means, but it gives us a glimpse of the very human-ness of the disciples and the Gospels. Jesus had different relationships with different disciples. Peter and John may have had a friendly rivalry between them. It certainly seems that way when John keeps repeating that he outran Peter to the tomb! It also shows that Peter wasn’t the “best” disciple, or the “only” disciple who was faithful. John and Peter had different temperaments, different personalities, and both were valued by Jesus and used in different ways by Jesus as we will see moving forward.
Back to the catch of fish! Peter jumps in the water and swims to shore, about 100 yards away. He is the first to meet with Jesus, who already has a fire going and already has some fish cooking. Where he got the fish, we are not told! Here’s an interesting note about the scene. Verse 9, speaking of the fire of burning coals, uses the exact same word as in John 18:18 where, in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, the servants are warming themselves by a fire and the scene in which Peter denies Jesus! This is no accident! [Bruner, p. 1211] The scene is set for Jesus and Peter to be reconciled, for Jesus to call Peter out on his denials and to not only forgive Peter, but to reinstate him in his position of authority as the chief of the disciples.
In verse 12 we are told that none of the disciples “dared to ask ‘Who are you?’” because they knew it was the Lord. This is somewhat confusing for us, but we must remember that the whole resurrection was new to the disciples! The nature of Jesus’ victory was still new to them. One way you could phrase the question would be, “Is it really you?” but they knew it was him. [Carson, p. 674; Bruner, p. 1221] They are still astounded to be with their Lord and Master whom they had seen crucified and killed!
After breakfast, Jesus confronts Peter. He asks Peter essentially the same question three times. The first time he asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” indicating the other disciples. If you recall, back in John 13 Jesus had told his disciples that they would desert him. Peter, full of bluster, vowed that even if all the others deserted Jesus, he never would! He was willing to die for Jesus! That was the context in which Jesus warned Peter he would deny him 3 times before morning. Peter made his boast in front of all the disciples. Jesus predicted his denials in front of all the disciples. Here Jesus reconciles with Peter in front of all the disciples.
Jesus asks Peter if he still thinks his love for Jesus is greater than the love the other disciples have for Jesus. Is Peter still so confident that he loves Jesus so much more than the other disciples love him?
No, Peter has learned his lesson. His answer is refreshingly humble coming from Peter. “Yes, Lord,” he says, “You know that I love you.” He doesn’t bring up the other disciples. He doesn’t make a brash statement about his love for Jesus. He humbly defers to Jesus’ knowledge. Peter loves Jesus and he knows that Jesus knows he loves him.
Jesus says, “Feed by lambs.” The sequence repeats a second time, the same way and Jesus says, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time the question comes it hurts Peter. Why? Because of the number 3. That was how many times he had denied Jesus after boasting he would never abandon him. Peter humbly replies, “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you.” A third time, Jesus commands or commissions Peter, “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus’ next words for Peter must have been hard to hear! Jesus gives a prophecy that concerns Peter’s death. He warns Peter that when he is old he will “stretch out his hands” and another will dress him, or fasten his belt, against Peter’s will. The phrase “stretch out your hands” is one Peter likely would have understood as meaning crucifixion! John indicates that Jesus said this to indicate how Peter would die and glorify God in his death. This is an indication that by the time this Gospel was written Peter had already been executed.
After his prophesy, Jesus says, “Follow me.” These are the same words Jesus spoke to Peter, and the other disciples too, when he first called them! Think of all that had happened between the two times Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” When he first called Peter, Peter suspected Jesus was the Messiah. But he and the other disciples had no clue what that meant. They were anticipating a military saviour, an earthly king who would lead them to victory over the Romans. Fast forward three years, numerous miracles, 3 denials, 2 trials, one crucifixion and one resurrection later. Here is Jesus issuing the same invitation to Peter. Peter now knows a lot more about what he is signing up for. In fact, Jesus has just assured Peter that he will meet a violent end. These verses warn us, or remind us that discipleship is not “a beautiful rose garden nor a triumphant Blitzkrieg. It is, finally, a kind of martyrdom.” [Bruner, p. 1231]
And yet Peter followed Jesus. We know he became a powerful witness for Jesus and eventually served as the head of the church in Jerusalem. He was also executed by Nero. He died for Jesus after all! And when he was facing death, these words would have come back to him. He would have remembered that it was in the very context of Jesus reconciling with him that Jesus warned him of this death. Why was this important? Because when Peter faced his death he would not be wondering, “Is this because I denied Jesus? Have I disappointed Jesus in some way?” [Bruner, p. 1232] No! He faced death with confidence knowing the risen Jesus whom death could not hold. He knew that he had been reconciled to Jesus, that Jesus had forgiven him, not only for the denials but for all his sin! He was assured of his future resurrection and eternity with his Lord Jesus.
We shy away from predictions of martyrdom. We don’t want to think about suffering for our faith. We don’t even like to talk about death at all. But for so many Christians throughout the past 2 millennia death has been the result of following Jesus. And for them, knowing that they were reconciled to Christ is a tremendous comfort and source of confidence. It doesn’t make martyrdom pleasant, but it does make it bearable.
Peter, having followed Jesus, turns and sees John is already following Jesus. John was first again! [Bruner, p. 1232] Peter asks about John and Jesus essentially tells him, “John’s story is John’s story. It is not for me to tell you.” Because of the way Jesus said it, “What if I wanted John to live until I returned?” a rumour started that John would not die before the return of Christ. The way verse 23 is written, it seems that John is trying to quash that rumour already, even within his own lifetime.
Verses 24 and 25 serve as concluding remarks for the Gospel. It is here that we finally see the author identified, “This is the disciple who testifies to these things….” Remember, testifying and bearing witness to what was seen is an important theme in John’s Gospel. The “we” is not clear. It could be that there were members of the Christian community around John that signed the document at the end. Or it could mean “all of us” know that this is true, all Christians. I tend to think it was members of John’s church community, but there’s no way to be certain.
So what does this chapter mean? What lessons can we take from it ourselves? First, Jesus revealed himself to his disciples while they were at work. Matthew records Jesus promise, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there my Spirit will be.” (Matt 18:20) Here in John, the disciples were gathered. Notice, though, they were not gathered together for a prayer meeting or a Bible study. Nor were they gathered for a worship service or an outreach program. They were not gathered in the temple, or even in Jerusalem. They were working together, fishing, on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus met with them there!
Do you ever encounter Jesus at work? Do you ever gather with other Christians, either at work or elsewhere? Do you just gather with Christians on Sunday? Or at church? Or just for small groups or “Christian” activities? Or do you gather with Christians just because you are friends with them? Jesus can and will reveal himself to you when you are gathered with other believers even if you’re not doing “Christian” or “religious” things together.
Furthermore, Jesus didn’t interrupt their work. He didn’t call them away from their work. In fact, he made their work productive! After a terribly unproductive night of fishing, Jesus made their work day incredible!
Do you ever encounter Jesus at work? Would you allow Jesus to reveal himself to you at work? Or do you compartmentalize your work life from your spiritual life? Are you just as much a Christian at work as you are when you’re at church? Do you look to Jesus to help your work be productive? The disciples still had to do the work. They still had to haul in the nets with the fish. But it was the power of Jesus that made their day ultimately change from disaster to success. Do you allow room for Jesus in your work?
One distinctive Baptists hold from many other denominations is that we don’t believe in “holy” places. We believe that Jesus will meet us wherever we are. We don’t have to be in a church building. It doesn’t have to be Sunday or even a church event for Jesus to be with us. On the one hand, this makes Jesus much more accessible. On the other hand, it calls us to be more accountable with how we live at work, at play, with our friends and neighbours and with our family. Jesus wants to be with us in all of these contexts. Do we allow him to be?
Second, Jesus forgave Peter and commissioned him to care for his people. Peter, the great screw up, was commissioned to care for Jesus’ sheep! This is tremendous good news! Because every one of us is a screw up too. We’ve all blown it. We’ve all fallen short. We’ve all messed up big time. And here we see that Jesus can still use us. Jesus can still forgive us. If we are humble and come to Jesus he will forgive us. Our relationship with him can be healed because he chooses to forgive us.
And when Jesus forgives us, he then often gives us new work to do. He doesn’t just save us for heaven when we die, but gives us work to do for him in the here and now. What does that work look like? How best does one characterize what a Christian should do for Jesus? What did Jesus tell Peter to do? Jesus said to Peter, “You are going to be in charge of the church. Go and win the Mediterranean world for me! Create huge churches, transform the world and broadcast my name across the globe!” Jesus said, “If you love me, pray every day and go to church every Sunday.” Right?
No. Of course not! What did Jesus say? “If you love me, feed my lambs.” That is, Peter, the great disciple, was given the task of caring for Jesus’ little ones. He was given the task of caring for people, ensuring that they were well cared for, given good food and protected from danger. And this is a great model for the rest of us too! Success for a Christian means investing in, caring for and building relationships with other Christians. This is the great work Jesus gives Peter to do and it is upon this rock that the church is built. Relationships matter!
Yes, praying is important. Yes, church is important. But why? Because in prayer we come to God with the needs of the sheep we are caring for. In prayer, we look to God for the strength to feed and protect the Christians in our circle of concern. At church, we meet with other sheep, we feed one another, protect one another, encourage one another. It was precisely because early Christians loved one another this way that the Mediterranean world was conquered for Jesus! It is precisely when we do these things, in obedience to Christ, that we show how much we love him.
If you love Jesus, but all you do to show him that love is your own personal devotion, worship or prayer, then you’re missing the boat entirely. You’re missing what Jesus has called you to do. Jesus called us to love one another as our way of loving him!
“But Pastor Dave, all these other Christians I meet are screw ups! They’re all sinners. They let me down. They hurt my feelings. The church blows it way too often for me to want to be a part of that!” Exactly. We are all screw ups, though. We are all broken. We are all sinful. And that is where this starts- with Jesus forgiving the screw up Peter. It is precisely because we are all broken and finding wholeness through the love of Christ that we can love one another. It is because we take note of how much Jesus has forgiven us that we can forgive others. And when we can’t find it within ourselves to forgive someone, we can go to Jesus to ask him to change our hearts so that we can forgive them.
So, Jesus is eager to meet us at work, or wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in his name. Jesus is eager for us to invest in one another, to care for one another as the primary way we express our love for him.
Third, Jesus calls us to follow different paths. Peter’s path was one of martyrdom, of death. John’s path was not. When Peter asked Jesus about John, Jesus basically said, “Don’t worry about him. His path is his. Your path is yours.” We should not be comparing ourselves to one another. While we are to be concerned with one another’s spiritual wellbeing, we do not need to be concerned with whether or not somebody else has a better calling, or a greater calling, or a lesser calling than we have. We are called to follow. That’s it.
I’ve known a lot of Christians who were deeply unsatisfied in their Christian walk because they were consciously or unconsciously comparing what they were called to do to what somebody else was called to do. Frequently this takes the form of Christians comparing themselves to people called into professional ministry, either as pastors or missionaries. I’ve known a number of Christians who were deeply frustrated because they were not called into ministry, or their ministry was not successful by worldly standards and they compared what they were doing to what others were doing. This is particularly common among pastors when we get together and start comparing whose church is bigger. Or we read books by pastors of mega churches and wonder why our churches are small.
But this should not be so! We are called to follow. And if one person is obedient in following and they are called to ministry, so be it. If another is obedient and is not called to ministry, so be it. If you’re being obedient, don’t compare yourself to someone else. You don’t have the right criteria by which to determine if they are being successful in God’s eyes or not. You can only judge by worldly standards. So don’t even try! Instead, be focussed on your own obedience to follow where Christ has called you to go.
Finally, we must also understand that sometimes Jesus calls us to follow him through suffering and death. This has not been the case for most Western Christians over the past century or two, so it sounds odd to our ears, but remember it was the crucified and resurrected Jesus that called Peter, “Follow me.” Jesus calls us too. He calls us to lay down our lives for him. That means laying down our goals for his goals, our priorities for his priorities, our glory for his glory. It may mean following on the path of suffering physically. It certainly means following the difficult path of giving up your own autonomy in order to be obedient to another. But it is with a great goal- the glory of God! The relationship Jesus has with the Father is the relationship he offers all of us. What is counter-intuitive is that even Jesus had to go through suffering in order to attain that level of relationship. We, too, are called to lay down our own lives to have intimacy with God. “The road to intimacy with the Father is the road marked with suffering. That is the path that Jesus trod.” [Henry Cloud quoted by Brian Bulger]
John’s Gospel ends with the commissioning of Peter. It doesn’t just end with the resurrection. Why? Because the good news of the resurrection needs to be proclaimed. Had the Gospel ended with the resurrection, there would be no call to go and make disciples in light of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Too often, we stop with applying the good news to ourselves. We want to end with the resurrected Jesus revealing himself to us. But we not only reveals himself to us, he calls us to be the instruments though which he continues to reveal himself to others. The good news of Jesus comes with a mission to share that good news which we have witnessed. We are called to testify to the truth we have experienced so that others will know that this testimony is true. Amen.
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