Our text is from the Gospel of John, chapter 21, and the first 14 verses. This is a text that sometimes gets overlooked or treated as merely background material to the conversation between Jesus and Peter in verses 15ff. But this text has a lot to say to us in its own right, so let’s turn our attention to God’s Word. John 21.1-14…
- The Sea of Tiberias is simply another name for the Sea of Galilee, also known as the lake of Gennesaret, and that will prove to be a significant piece of information.
- Peter’s declaration that he is going fishing has been the subject of some debate. Some commentators mark this as a “complete apostasy,” as an action that is completely unthinkable after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Others are milder in their criticism, chalking it up as an “aimless activity undertaken in desperation.” I am not persuaded of those criticisms. I think it is more likely that the disciples had obeyed the Lord’s command to go to Galilee, and were simply awaiting further instructions. While they waited, they needed to feed their families, and it may have also been comforting to get back to something familiar after the cataclysmic and confusing days they had just been through.
- The Greek word used in verse 5 for “children” can be used in the sense of “boys” or “guys” or “lads,” and the Greek word for “fish” is a word that typically referred to a small bit, a tidbit. It may be that Jesus is drawing attention to the total inability and weakness of the disciples here – “Boys, haven’t you caught even a little bit?”
- Notice the characteristic responses of John and Peter. John is a man of spiritual discernment; Peter is a man of action! John had been the first to arrive at the empty tomb and the first to believe Jesus was alive, but Peter had been the first to go into the tomb. So here John is the first to discern that it is the Lord on the shore, but Peter dives right into the water!
- The item that jumps out at us in verse 11 is the number – 153 fish. Is that simply a matter of accuracy, of John wanting to convey that he was an eyewitness? Were the fishermen just curious to know the exact count? Or is there more to be seen in this number – is 153 a symbolic number? I’m not going to enter that discussion this morning, but if you’re curious as to the proposals that are out there, I suggest you go on-line and look at a sermon that Pastor Rayburn preached in 2001, in which he nicely lays out the options. The main point is that it was a huge catch.
- They knew it was the Lord, yet there was something different about his appearance. He was the same man they had followed for three years, but something was different. Jesus’ resurrected body was a physical body, but a physical body that belonged to the eternal, imperishable, heavenly order of things.
Some of you married folk have a place that holds particular fondness for you and your spouse—maybe the place where you had your first date, or where you proposed to her, or the place you celebrated your honeymoon. Now, if you were to take a spontaneous drive to that location, your spouse would get it—the very fact of the location would hold symbolic significance. You would not need to announce, “I am driving us to this spot to rekindle those fond memories, and deepen our relationship.”
Now suppose your spouse not only drove you to that meaningful location, but arranged for many of the details of the original event to occur again, so that, for example, it’s the same waiter and you order the exact items from the menu, or you hear the same musician that you had heard that day, or your bridesmaids are present, or it’s the exact same room at the bed and breakfast—if the details lined up to replicate the original event – it would make it all the more of a powerful reminder of those early memories.
Something like that is going on in this text. The disciples are on the Sea of Galilee. That alone is a significant fact – this is where the Lord had walked on the water, and stilled the wind and the waves. This is where he provided payment of the Roman tax money out of the fish’s mouth. On the banks of this lake he fed the multitude with the loaves and fishes. Sitting in a boat on this lake, he taught the parable of the Sower.
But one event in particular would have jumped out at the disciples. The Sea of Galilee was the very place where they were first called to be his followers, and they were given a particular calling. The story is recorded for us in Luke chapter 5…
READ Luke 5.1-11
That experience would have stayed with them the rest of their lives. So when the risen Lord Jesus, having completed his earthly ministry, takes them back to the Sea of Galilee, and events begin to unfold that are almost identical to that experience recorded in Luke 5, the point would not be lost on them. Jesus was reminding them of their central calling—to be fishers of men. “From now on you will be catching men,” or as he said in Matthew and Mark, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mt. 4.19; Mk. 1.17)
We might say the text before us is John’s version of the Great Commission. It is as though Jesus is saying to his disciples, “I have all authority in heaven and on earth, including the fish of the sea, including the waves and the wind, including the hearts of every human being – therefore, you are to go and gather in the nations, and I will be with you, causing your efforts to bear much fruit. I will gather in a great catch, a vast number of men and women to worship the true and living God.”
This is, in a sense, the first thing that comes out of the resurrection. Of course the very first thing is to worship him, as Thomas does, falling on his knees and declaring, “My Lord and my God!” But worship changes you and equips you to do something. And above all else, the thing that worship does is that it leads to mission. Jesus is alive, so we invite men and women to find new life in him. Resurrection leads to mission.
And what is Jesus teaching his disciples about the mission? What is the key lesson they would have taken away from this experience? The key lesson is our utter dependence upon the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Notice that our text is bracketed in verse 1 and in verse 14 with the statement that this event was a revelation of Jesus to his disciples. That is key. This is a revelation of Jesus—his presence, his power, his ability to draw someone to himself. He is the great evangelist. The Lord Jesus Christ is the great angler, as C.S. Lewis once put it in describing his own conversion, the way that Lord caught him.
What is our role? Well, we are with the disciples in the boat, and the lesson is that we are to be listening for the Lord’s voice. The turning point in this story comes at the sound of Jesus’ voice echoing across the lake. Everything changes in that moment. One minute the disciples are cold, tired, famished, defeated, and weak. And then a man’s voice comes from the shore, and they can’t even haul it in, the catch is so great!
What are the things that you are laboring at in the service of the king? Where have you been plugging away in faithfulness, seeking the growth of the kingdom? Does it feel at times as though it is in vain, and you are weak, maybe burned out, wondering what’s the use? Could it be that you have gotten into the habit of laboring in your own strength, looking to your own gifts, your own resources, your own expertise, rather than listening for his voice?
Take heart – the Lord of glory stands on the shore, and he calls to you, instructing you, pointing the way forward. Listen to him, and do what he tells you to do. You might be surprised at the things that God will do through your life. Look at what happens when the disciples hear his voice and follow his lead.
John puts repeated emphasis on the great quantity of the catch. The net was so full they were not able to haul it in (v.6), the net was full of fish (v.8), the net was full of 153 large fish, and even though there were so many, the net was not torn (v.11).
God is gathering a vast, worldwide family – men and women from every tribe and tongue and nation – to worship and serve him. And the gospel has indeed been exploding in recent years in many places around the world – think of Africa which went from 100 million Christians in 1900 to over 360 million Christians in 2000, and some estimates have it approaching 400 million in the next few years. Or think of Mainland China, where by some estimates there are now over 100 million evangelical Christians.
What about closer to home? The Lord of the harvest is gathering souls into his kingdom, and he uses us in that gathering process – with our children, in our families, in our neighborhoods and communities. Are we attuned to his working? Are we on the lookout for opportunities to speak a word about his grace and his goodness? Are we listening for his voice? There are many ways to be involved in Jesus’ mission to gather men and women to himself. Some of the fathers and sons are in White Swan right now, ministering alongside Chris and Mary Granberry in that most spiritually desperate place. And there are many other ways to support our missionaries with prayer and financial resources. We can extend our reach to places like Manipur and Peru and Malawi.
But in reflecting on this text, I was especially drawn to thinking about the opportunities that the Lord often puts before us in our daily routines. I was recently challenged to pray the following short prayer each morning, “Father, give me one conversation today to speak a word that would draw someone one step closer to a saving knowledge of Christ.” I have been amazed at some of the openings that I’ve seen for the gospel to be mentioned.
You can be praying the same thing for your own children. Sharing the gospel with your children is a missionary enterprise; some would argue it is the most strategic missionary endeavor you will ever engage in, to multiply generations of Christians through your children. You could pray each morning, “Father, let me have one moment today with one of my children, one of those teachable moments in which I can speak of your glory and your grace, and let it sink it deep into my child’s heart and mind.”
However the Lord might call you to respond to this missionary call here in John 21, it will be so exciting to see him at work! There is nothing quite like it. You know from certain periods of your Christian life when you were actively sharing your faith how invigorating it can be, how it stirs your heart, it drives you to prayer for God to be at work. You can almost feel this excitement coming off the page in the apostle John’s declaration in verse 7. John is staring at the huge catch of fish, then to the stranger standing on the shore, then back to the fish, and the memories come flooding back to him from the first day he’d been called as a fisher of men, and he turns to Peter and says with reverence and with excitement, “It is the Lord!” There is nothing more rewarding in this life, nothing more invigorating, than to see traces of the Lord at work in people’s lives.
But perhaps you have lost your sense of wonder at what the Lord can do in your life and what he can do in the lives of those around you. You don’t feel especially motivated to be involved in sharing your faith, or being engaged in the mission. If that describes you, I want to draw your attention to verses 12-14. What is happening here? It is a simple breakfast on the beach, but – oh! So much more than meets the eye!
The Washington Post did an experiment in a subway station in D.C. Joshua Bell, internationally acclaimed violin virtuoso, took up a spot as a street musician in a busy subway station. Three days earlier Bell had played to a sold-out Symphony Hall in Boston, where a decent seat would cost you at least $100. A typical paycheck for this man’s talents comes out to about $1,000 per minute. His latest album has been described as “unfailingly exquisite,” “a musical summit to make your heart thump and weep at the same time.” He recently accepted the Avery Fisher prize as the best classical musician in America.
As Joshua Bell in jeans and t-shirt and Washington Nationals baseball cap set up shop in this metro station shortly before 8am, he would play six classical pieces – brilliant pieces such as an excerpt from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, and he played these pieces on a 3.5 million dollar, handcrafted Stradivarius!
The reporters who cooked this experiment up had talked among themselves about what might happen – what if a crowd gathered? What if traffic backed up, and tempers flared, and the National Guard had to be called in? What if the scene turned to total mayhem?
As it turned out, no such thing happened. Over a thousand people passed by. Only seven stopped to listen for even one minute. Only one person recognized him. The amount of money in the open violin case on the ground came to a grand total of $32.17. Some people gave pennies. They did not recognize greatness when it was in their midst.
Of course the illustration comes up so far short of what happened when the Son of God came into the world. Joshua Bell only exchanged a tuxedo for jeans and a t-shirt, the concert hall for the subway station. But the Son of God left the very bliss of heaven and came to earth as a common man. The Creator God took on human flesh, and the unthinkable happened. He was despised and rejected. The mouths he had created were used to curse and mock him and spit upon him.
In the end, he went to a criminal’s death that he did not deserve, because mankind loved the darkness rather than the light. But as we celebrated last week, he went through death and came out the other side, very much alive, having conquered sin and death so that we might have eternal life. We now have real fellowship with God, because of what Jesus did!
That’s what this meal here in verses 12-14 points to – it is table fellowship, a sign of the highest and deepest kind of relationship. And notice that it is at a charcoal fire that Jesus invites Peter and the others to share this meal. There are only two places in the entire NT where a charcoal fire is mentioned, both times in John’s Gospel, one here, and the other time back in John 18 — it was at a charcoal fire that Peter denied Jesus. Now Jesus graciously invites Peter to this meal, restoring him to fellowship.
And that is what Jesus does for you and me – he welcomes us into his presence by his grace.
This ought to be something that astounds us and captivates us, as it captivated George Herbert, 17th century poet and priest, when he wrote these words…
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.
Jesus says to you as he said to the disciples that day on the beach, “Come and eat.” And once you’ve come to dine with him, he calls you to take his most treasured, most sacred message – the message of God’s grace rescuing sinners – into the world. There are many more still to be gathered into the family. Let’s go seek them out. Amen.