John 21:1-14. Fishing

John 21:1 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee.  It happened this way:  2 Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus ), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.  3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus.

5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” 

“No,” they answered. 

6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.  8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. 

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.  12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.  13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

The purpose statement at the end of the previous chapter would have been a fitting conclusion to John’s gospel, but chapter 21 provides an epilogue with three interactions: the fishing expedition, Peter’s commissioning, and John’s future. The effect of the epilogue is to show that the narrative of Jesus’ rule and the growth of his kingdom continues, now with the apostles taking centre stage.

It seems that after Jesus’ resurrection the disciples stayed in Jerusalem for 8 days, allowing for two Sunday resurrection appearances in the locked room. Following the instruction of Jesus (cf Mt 26:32, 28:6-10) they then went north to Galilee for this third appearance (v14), and ultimately his ascension. 

The narrative of the fishing expedition is unusual in a number of ways, and yet entirely consistent with the gospel accounts of Jesus. The reason for the fishing expedition is not given: perhaps the disciples were hungry, or unsure what to do while waiting for Jesus, or just glad to be back ‘at home’ by the lake. Peter invites the others to come along to fish. The list of names catches our attention— only the Galilee locals are named and only 8 are in the boat. Thomas is promoted in the order, probably reflecting his increased stature after the events of Jn 20:26-28. Further, the apparently diminished recognition of John and James as merely “the sons of Zebedee” seems curious. Their names would usually be grouped with Peter’s as part of the ‘inner circle’. 

The miraculous catch of fish echoes that of Luke 5:5-7. While the pattern is similar, significant ‘fishing details’ suggest different occasions— the number of fish and boats would seem important to fisherman retelling the story. Although both pericopes focus on Peter, and both conclude with a form of ‘commissioning’, Peter’s actions and response to Jesus are notable points of differentiation.

So what is the point of this part of the narrative? It seems so ordinary. Some guys go fishing. They meet Jesus on the beach. They share breakfast. It seems that the very ‘ordinariness’ of these post-resurrection events tell us something important. Jesus is familiar. He is physical such that he shares breakfast and goes for a walk along the beach. He participates in conversations, not merely barking out commands as he hurriedly departs this earth. The resurrected Jesus engages with his disciples around real events and in common ways, thereby surpassing ‘proof of life’ meetings in Jerusalem and moving forward into the next phase of ministry through his apostles. John’s epilogue draws the reader onwards: Jesus’ mission continues in daily life, with ordinary people. With me.

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you that you are resurrected and ascended, and yet your work continues. Thank you that you journey with your people in such familiar ways as they carry on your mission. Please keep me aware of your daily presence with me, in the person of your Spirit and in the doing of your will. Amen.