Exposition of John 21:1-14

Rev. Lubbers is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

It is a very important and fruitful endeavor to make a little study in depth of the various “manifestations” of Jesus to His disciples during the period be between His resurrection and His ascension to glory.

Most of us know that there were ten such manifestations of the risen Lord. These are called inActs 1:3 “many proofs.” In each of these appearances as the living Lord He “showed himself alive” to them. He is indeed the one who says in Revelation 1:17, 18, “Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.”

Yes, He is the one who stands between the golden candlesticks, seven in number: I am the Son of Man of the prophecies, who was lifted up, even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so that every one who believes in him shall not perish but shall have eternal life!

And what was the subject of which Jesus spoke each time He manifested Himself to His disciples, the “twelve”? The subject was this: the things concerningthe kingdom of God!

There was advancement in this teaching. Jesus was the heavenly pedagogue!

These manifestations to His disciples were the following:

1. The first Sunday evening (Mark 16:14Luke 24:36-43John 20:19-25).

2. The second Sunday evening (John 20:26-29).

3. At the sea of Tiberias (John 21:1-23).

4. On the mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20Mark 16:15-18I Cor. 15:6).

5. The disciples in Jerusalem and Olivet (Luke 22:44-53;Mark 16:19, 20Acts 1:1-11). See A.T. Robertson W.P. at Acts 1:6.

From the foregoing it is rather obvious that, when John says that Jesus “manifested himself again” here at the sea of Tiberias, this was the third such manifestation to the inner circle of His disciples. As we have seen, there were five in all.

It is also of the utmost importance that we notice that Jesus manifested Himself to them. They must notice that this is the very Son of God, who was called Jesus. It is He and no one else. And each time also He is their very own Lord, this Jesus. Later we read “that no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” This too we must never lose sight of, not even for one moment. They who do not speak in the Holy Spirit can only say, “Jesus Anathema” (I Cor. 12:3).

Hence, we should shy away from seeking to find the central thought in this manifestation in one or all of the disciples, and focus our attention instead on the One who is manifesting Himself here for the third time. And to be sure we do have here no mere carbon-copy of the former appearance at all!

The Scene Here at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:1-3)

Once more the disciples are at the sea of Galilee. These Galilean men (Acts 1:11) are now “home” again. It is here that Jesus had called them, commanding them to “follow me,” adding the promise that He would make them “fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19Mark 1:17). Jesus will make them “become=genesthai” fishers of men. It was not a mere earthly change of vocation in life, but a being taken radically out of the earthly calling, and earthly industry, into a calling of being the official witnesses of the Christ. Peter had finally come to see, as had all the others, that this meant that this was a singular office and calling, as he says in the house of Cornelius, “not to all the people, but unto witnesses that were chosen before of God, even to us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:41).

We have to place this Galilean scene in proper focus, do we not? We must see that this fits in the plan and purpose of God. These men were before chosen by God. They were, so to speak, handpicked by the God of heaven and earth. These were indeed separated to be witnesses of Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension in a very special sense. Some of these men were future “secondary authors” of New Testament books of the Bible. Perhaps they were all martyrs for the faith of the gospel.

But in a sense they are “home” once more—at least as “at home” as they could be. The reason was that God, who chose (handpicked) them, was directing their path. That they were here at all in Galilee was their obedience to the repeated word of Jesus, “Behold, I go before you into Galilee; there shall ye see me.” It is rewarding to look up and study such passages as Matthew 26:32Matt. 28:7, 10, 16Mark 16:7Luke 24:6. Surely it was no mere happenstance, nor just some private decision to return to Galilee, but in the two previous visits with the disciples they had become thoroughly convinced that erelong they would come to the point where they were full-fledged official witnesses of the gospel of the cross and resurrection of their Lord!

Surely, in faith, they could know that the Lord Jesus Himself was preceding them to Galilee. And where, pray, would they think of going in Galilee but their familiar home by the seashore, where they had been by trade fishermen. Perhaps Jesus did not appear on the third Sunday to them. Although He hovered near them, He waited till the proper God-appointed moment for this third manifestation.

This time He must have the exact proper historical point of contact; it must be befitting the message which He would this time convey to them concerning the kingdom of God. Besides, as we shall see later, there is the unfinished business of reinstating Peter into the office of being an undershepherd of the Chief Shepherd of the sheep, the flock of God. Here there must be one fold and one Shepherd!

Early in the Morning (John 21:4)

That Jesus’ manifestation was early in the morning is really quite significant. The former two times Jesus appeared to the disciples in the evening. The first time He showed Himself unto the disciples while they were partaking of their evening meal. It was, so to speak, supper-time. In fact, Jesus partook of that supper too, and ate a piece of broiled fish as a “proof” that they had not beheld a spirit when they suddenly saw Him. But, and this is our point, Jesus there appeared at the end of a great and eventful day. Here in this manifestation it was not “thus.” It was in a different setting altogether. It was in the morning, early in the morning, at the beginning of a new day. And this early dawn was the transition-point between their former calling to ply a trade, and future calling to be full-time preachers of the kingdom of heaven (or, if you will, the kingdom of God)!

It does not seem that, when Jesus had earlier multiplied the fish, it was so emphatically part of the symbolism that it was early in the morning; it was at that time not yet emphatically the start of a new day. Great multitudes had already gathered to hear Jesus preach, so that Jesus went into the fishing ship of Peter to preach the gospel of the kingdom. But now there are no multitudes present, and Jesus does not enter the boat to preach, but stands rather on the shore a lone “stranger,” who had built a little fire and who was to be the host of these seven disciples that morning. And the menu was to be the fisherman’s diet of bread and roasted fish.

This early dawn evidently meant to indicate that these disciples were to eat in preparation for their task of preaching the gospel in the day of Christ! For this they will need the nourishment of heaven and earth! It was an early morning breakfast, planned and prepared wholly by the Lord. In fact, it was to be part and parcel of Jesus’ self-manifestation of His being the one who was bringing them into the last stage of their being made fishers of men. He is making them “becomefishers of men.” Here they must say farewell forever to the past, and turn resolutely to the future.

The Point of Contact (John 21:5, 6)

There is some deep and profound psychology here in the manner in which Jesus arrests the attention of the seven disciples!

In the first place, we ought to notice the tender and loving address here on the part of the speaker. He calls these seven men “children.” No, he does not call them “my little children,” as does John in his first epistle to the churches (I John 2:1, 12, 18). But the term Jesus employs suggests very strongly a loving and familiar relationship, a relationship which was one between the Teacher and His beloved disciples. Furthermore, it must also suggest that the “learners” have still a bit more learning to do. They still have some maturing to do before they will arrive to spiritual adulthood. Now who in all the world would, this early in the morning, come to these seven disappointed and frustrated fishermen, except someone who knew them so well that He rightly calls them “children,” except Jesus?

Yet, they did not recognize Him. Why not? Because He did not manifest Himself “thus.” On the day of the resurrection Jesus disclosed His identity to Mary Magdalene by simply saying, “Mary” (John 20:16).

This was here not the point of contact which caused the scales to fall from their eyes. It took place in a different way. And this manner of manifestation we ought not to fail to see; nor should it be glossed over. Jesus asks here a very arresting question: “Children, you do not have anything to add to the meal, do you?” The term in the Greek text is only used once in the Bible. The term is “prosphagion.” The Dutch translation renders this Greek term with one word, namely toespijs. It is in the KJV that this word is translated simply “meat.” The American Version renders it “ought to eat.” None of these translations convey the unique thought expressed in the Greek term. For the term which Jesus uses suggests very strongly that He desired to add of the fish to the meal, the early morning breakfast. And for this the disciples did not have one fish. Evidently they had intended to make their own breakfast from their fish, which they did not catch. Now, as it became evident, they will be adding from Jesus’ supplied fish to the breakfast which Jesus was preparing. They eat as guests at Jesus’ table.

And here is the beginning of the point of contact!

The curtain rises of the self-manifestation of the risen Lord enroute to His glorious ascension at God’s right hand.

(to be continued)