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John 21:1-14

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v.1       The NIV’s “appeared again” is literally “he revealed himself again.”  Jesus did not spend the entire 40 days between his resurrection and his ascension in the presence of his disciples.  He was with them from time to time only and when he came, it seems John intends for us to understand, it was another revelation of himself to them.  As we will read in v. 14 this will be his third time with them.  Easter Sunday itself; the next Sunday when Thomas was present, and now here by the lake.  He is preparing them for the time when he will not be with them physically at all and telling them and showing them what they need to know about him for life and for service when he has departed to heaven.

The Sea of Tiberias is the Sea of Galilee.  That John referred to it that way is one argument that John wrote his Gospel later in the first century, when that name for the lake was more common.

v.3       Remember, on the day of his resurrection, Jesus had instructed his disciples to go to Galilee.  And, as they waited they still had to eat.  So they went fishing.  Life goes on, in other words!

v.4       It is hard to know whether the Lord was not recognized because of the distance or because it was still quite dark or mist interfered with clear vision on the one hand, or, on the other, because this was another instance, such as in Luke 24 and the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, when the disciples were prevented from recognizing the Lord for the sake of some revelation of himself that he intended to make.

v.5       The NIV’s “friends” is the Greek paidia, often rendered “children” but which also can mean “fellows” or “guys.”

v.6       Remember, now, the disciples do not yet know that it is the Lord.  But, then, as one commentator puts it, what fisherman has not had to endure the advice of others as to where he should cast his line or throw his net.  Whether from resignation or in hope they cast their nets once more.

v.8       The fact that the narrator’s perspective remains with the boat is an eyewitness touch.  John himself, of course, was in the boat, initially some 100 yards offshore.

v.12     This is very interesting.  They knew it was the Lord, they wished to confirm it, but they dared not do so.  We now, 2000 years after the fact, take the resurrection so much for granted, that it is hard for us to put ourselves back into that moment psychologically.  They were still reeling and they were still confused and they were still nonplussed and, probably, they were still somewhat afraid in the presence of such a supernatural reality as a dead man come back to life.  You would be too!

v.13     Here he does not seem to be proving that he is a human being as when he ate the fish before them Easter Sunday night.  There is no mention here of his eating only of his providing food for them.

v.14     The same word again as in v. 1.  This forms an inclusio and tells us that what we have in vv. 1-14 is a revelation of Jesus Christ to us.

We could very well imagine the Gospel of John having concluded at the end of chapter 20.  Indeed, skeptical scholars have long argued that the 21st chapter is a later addition to the Gospel.  But, in fact, there are many good reasons for believing that the 21st chapter forms an important part of John’s account.  And among those reasons is the great subject of this paragraph, namely, the assurance that, even after his ascension, Jesus Christ would be with his disciples and with his church to provide for them and to empower them for the work to which he had called them.  He would be with them even after he had left them for heaven.  The provision for their needs and for the success of their labors would continue.  As they make their way as his messengers, his witnesses into the world – remember, he has already spoken of that in 20:21 – as the Father sent me, so I am sending you – he will be with them to bless them and keep them and help them.  Is this not what every Christian needs to believe and what every Christian struggles to believe?  And is this not the great confession of the Christian church in the world:  that her Savior is still with her and that she is not alone, not abandoned, not working and serving in her own strength.

But, is this the message of this chapter?  Most agree that it is.  The Lord provided a great catch of fish, at the very time they were discouraged with their failure to catch anything.  Jesus had done the same for them several years before.  Now, after the resurrection, he did for them again what he had done before.

What is more, he laid a fire and fed them breakfast.  Interestingly, he was already cooking fish on the fire when they pulled the boat to shore.  That is, they didn’t eat only some of the 153 fish that they had caught as a result of his advice yelled to them from the shore.  The Lord met their needs and did so with a supernatural, a miraculous touch – he had the complete knowledge of their situation that they did not have.  They had failed to catch anything, but he knew precisely where the fish were to be found.  What is more, the Lord’s provision is perfect.  It isn’t just fish, it is large fish that he provides.  “More than we ask or think,” is how Paul described the Lord’s continuing provision for his people.  All of this is a wonderful picture to us of how the Lord is both able and willing to provide for us no matter what the circumstances of our lives may be, no matter how discouraged we may find ourselves, no matter how much we may seemed to have failed.

But there is something else here.  I suspect the number of fish caught jumped out at you.  It does jump out.  It makes us think.  Usually the Bible doesn’t give us numbers like that, so precise.  153…it is an odd number.  We are led to think and rightly that the precision is of some importance.  Otherwise John would simply have said “many fish” or “ about 150 fish.”  On the first occasion that the Lord gave his disciples a great catch of fish there is no specific mention of the number of fish caught. But here we get the exact number.

To be sure, there are a number of commentators who argue that we have nothing here besides the report of precisely how many fish were caught.  Many of our evangelical commentators assume that we have nothing more than John’s personal recollection of the number.  They think of it primarily as evidence of an eyewitness.  The Gospel was written by someone who was there and remembered how many fish were caught. To be sure, we have no doubt that the number of fish that were caught was 153 and that John knew that because he had been there that morning and had helped drag the nets to shore and had seen the fish being counted, if he did not count them himself.  And it isn’t at all difficult to imagine fishermen, so impressed, so amazed by what had happened, wanting to know precisely how many fish there were – large as they were – and counting them.  But, it is hard to believe, frankly, that the number is not significant, and harder to believe that when one begins to examine that number.

Now, we begin by reminding ourselves that the ancients were more attuned to symbols than we are.  The Bible is full of them, of course.  John wrote the Revelation, remember, which confuses us in large part because it is so symbol-laden.   C.S. Lewis reminds us that “Symbols are the natural speech of the soul, a language older and more universal than words.”  [Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 137]  And among the symbols often used in ancient literature and to which ancient cultures were attuned more than we are, were numbers.  Symbolic numbers, as you know, are everywhere in the Bible.  And John uses them elsewhere:  think, for example, of 666 or 1,000 years of Rev. 20.

153 is the triangular number of 17.  The ancients thought about things like this.  Augustine himself points out the fact that 153 is the triangular number of 17.  That means that it is the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 17 and it can be represented in the form of a triangle.  Imagine 17 dots in a line across the bottom.  In the next line above it 16 dots.  In the line above that 15 dots.  And so on until there is one dot at the top.  The dots thus arranged form a triangle.  Hence 153 is the triangular number of 17.

Well, so what?  Augustine thought that 17 was significant because it amounted to 7 (standing for the seven-fold spirit of God), taken from Rev. 1:4, and 10 (standing for the 10 commandments).  That explanation doesn’t seem likely or contextually significant.  There is no connection between Augustine’s explanation of 17 and what happened that morning by the lake.  It does indicate, of course, that Augustine assumed that the specific number 153 was surely symbolic of something.  Now, hold that 17 in mind.

In Ezekiel 47, in one of the prophet’s beautiful predictions of the age of salvation, he describes a river that flowed out from underneath the temple in Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea.  When it entered the Sea the salt waters of that Dead Sea became fresh and, and this is where it becomes interesting for our purposes, Ezekiel makes a point of saying that large numbers of fish will be there, thriving in the clean and clear water.  “Fisherman will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets.”  [47:1-10]

Here fish are an image of the bounty of the age of salvation.  The Lord, of course, as we remember, even more explicitly, spoke of the advancement of the kingdom of God as like a net gathering a great catch of fish.  And he told his disciples that they would be fishers of men.  That is how he pictured their calling:  to fish for men.   Now, what is particularly interesting is the places named in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the age of salvation:  En Gedi and En Eglaim.  En  is Hebrew for Spring.  So we have two springs of fresh water where great fish will be caught on the shore of the Sea because of the life giving water flowing into it from the temple of God.

Now, as you may know, Hebrew often expressed numbers by letters.  It did not have the Arabic numbers that we use today and, though it had words for each number, it also expressed numbers by letters.  Each letter of the alphabet had a numerical value.  Having no numbers the letters had to do double duty, as it were.  The first nine letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the numbers 1-9.  The next nine letters are the numbers 10, 20, 30, and so on up to 90.  The last four letters of the alphabet are the numbers 100 to 400.  The system of expressing of numbers by letters is known as gematria.  This numerical system leaves its mark on the Bible from time to time.  In a famous example, after nine chapters of introduction, Proverbs 10:1 begins the proverbs per se with the title: “The Proverbs of Solomon.”  The numerical value of the letters in Solomon’s name is 375.  From Proverbs 10:1 to 22:16, where the proverbs of Solomon end, we have precisely 375 proverbs.

Well, according to this Hebrew gematria, the numerical value of Gedi, as in En Gedi, or the Spring Gedi,  is 17.  The numerical value of Eglaim, as in En Eglaim, or the Spring Eglaim is 153.  In other words, the symbolic number ties together great themes in the Bible that are being summed up in this revelation that the Lord makes of himself to his disciples.  The Lord’s disciples will be fishers of men.  The gospel is going to the world and the nations of the world will hear and believe.  The net will draw in a great catch of fish.  As Jesus said in another place in this same Gospel, out of the bellies of his disciples would flow rivers of living water.  The followers of the Lord would become a means of God’s grace and salvation to the world.  Over and again in the Bible and in the Gospel the people of the world are pictured being drawn up in the Gospel’s net.

Interestingly, even a number of commentators who are doubtful that we should invest so much significance in the number 153, agree that the large number of fish caught is clearly a symbol of a great harvest, not of fish, but of people.  The Gospel net will never break, there will be no limit to the number that are caught in it.

The objection that is raised to seeing 153 as a symbol of the great harvest of the Gospel and the nations of the world that will be saved through the witness of the disciples, is that the symbolism depends upon the Hebrew language and John’s readers did not know Hebrew.  Indeed, in this Gospel, Hebrew terms that his readers might not understand are regularly translated.  Even very simple terms such as rabbi and Messiah are translated for John’s Gentile or, at least, Greek speaking readers.

I confess not to be very much impressed by this objection.  Fact is the NT is laden with symbols, the meaning of which must be gathered from a close study of the OT.  John’s Book of Revelation is but one example.  There is a great deal in the Bible.  It is thick with meaning and application.  Every text is thick.  It was written so that it would continue to yield its treasures to its avid readers thousands of years later.  It continues to repay careful reading and close study these thousands of years later.  There was that in the Bible that was difficult to understand even for its first readers, as we know from Peter.  And, as we learned last week in Dr. Rogland’s Sunday School class, there is that in the Bible’s teaching, such as its teaching about the future in 2 Thess. 2, that would be much simpler for us if we had the teaching that Paul had given and to which he makes reference but which he did not include in his biblical letters.  Such a number as 153 could easily have been explained to the people who read John in the first place.  And for the rest, it is something to figure out and then to rejoice over when the symbol is understood.  As Augustine said in his day, “just as there are shallows in the Scripture where a lamb may wade, so there are depths in Scripture where an elephant may swim.”  And as Bernard of Clairvaux put it, himself an ardent student of the Bible, “what is difficult to understand, [should be for a Christian] delightful to inquire into.”

Fact is, John seems to indicate to us by the attention he pays to that number that it was no accident that they caught precisely 153 fish and that it is a matter of some consequence that we know there were 153 fish caught.  He begs us to ask what is significant about that number and about that great catch of fish.  And the entire Bible helps us answer that question.  And, once we have answered it, the answer, got with some difficulty as it was, seems the more precious and important to us.

You and I have cast our nets in vain many times, have we not?  Have we not become discouraged that our witness has not born more fruit than it has.  How many times have we had good hopes of someone that we were talking to, that we were cultivating for salvation’s sake, only to have those hopes dashed by his or her eventual disinterest.  And, on a larger scale, how easy it is to be discouraged in our day as the cause of the kingdom of God seems to be faring so poorly in our part of the world and, indeed, in many parts of the world, in this day and time.

But then we have this immortal picture of things before us here in John’s 21st and last chapter.  The disciples weary after a night without success, ready to call it quits in their frustration.  And then comes the Lord who knew precisely where they were and precisely where the fish were and, in a moment, everything is different.  The net is bulging, so heavy that they cannot lift it into the boat and have to drag it to shore.  And, then, they sit down on the lakeshore, a warm fire in the middle of the circle, broiled fish for breakfast.  “Lord, what a morning!”  And all of that was a revelation of Jesus Christ!  A revelation of his presence with his disciples, of his commitment to helping them fulfill their calling.

I say this to you, as an aside, but a very important one.  I say this to you as your pastor.  There are those of you who are struggling in different ways, I know.  Great and heavy burdens weigh down your life.  But, may I suggest to you that one important impression of our text is that if you want the nearness of the Lord and his power and his provision in your life, if you want to sit down with him by a campfire and feel that all is well with the world, then you have to be fishing, you have to be up and about the work he has called all of us to.   It is to the fishermen that he comes to show himself.  It is to those who are seeking the lost that he reveals his great power and to whom he gives the time of refreshment that he gave to these seven men that morning by the lake.

We can become so preoccupied with our own private woes that we forget the dying world around us.  We wish the Lord would come and help us.  We need a breakfast with him by the lake.  Well, brothers and sisters, there is no better way to get such a breakfast than to go fishing.  Make it your business, no matter what your circumstances may be, to be seeking to win the lost around you, and the Lord will draw near to show himself to you and help you.  I promise this to you in his name.  “He who loses his life for my sake,”  Jesus said, “shall find it.”

But, I thought to myself as I worked on this sermon, what stories could be told just by the members of this congregation, of how the Lord found us in our frustration and our defeat and drew near and helped us and showed himself to us and lifted us up.  It would be wonderful enough that at all times and in all places I knew that the Lord was present, that he knew every circumstance of my life better than I knew it myself, and that he would, at just the right time, draw near to help me.  But how much more wonderful must it be to know that he is just as present with all of you and with every Christian in the world as he is with me.

As Walter Marshall, the author of the great Puritan work on sanctification, put it.  “Though Christ be in heaven and we on earth, yet He can join our souls and bodies to His at such a distance without any substantial change in either, by the same infinite Spirit dwelling in Him and in us.”  [Cited by Whyte, The Spiritual Life, 55]

While the Lord was with them, before he ascended to heaven, he told his disciples, Matthew tells us at the very end of his Gospel, that they were to go to all the world and make disciples of all the nations and, that as they went, he would be with them always, even to the end of the age.

Well, he told them that.  And then one day in Galilee he showed them that!  They were to fish and he would direct them to the catch.  They were to work, sometimes through the night with nothing to show for it, but he would provide the picnic in the morning.

You go fishing and keep at your fishing.  And all the while you are fishing, you keep an eye out for someone walking along the shore.  He will know you are there, and he will be there, even if you cannot see him until the morning!