In the gospel according to John, John 21:3-14 (for text consult your Bible), we read of the third appearance of the resurrected Christ to His disciples. Each of these appearances is a manifestation of the risen Christ. According to vs. 1 Jesus showed Himself. That was necessary because He is now the resurrected Christ, and the former relationship to the disciples has been transformed. It’s the same Lord Jesus, only now He is raised from the dead. Unless Jesus reveals Himself He cannot be known. Thus, too, each of these appearances of the resurrected Christ reveals some aspect of the gospel of the resurrection.
So it is with the appearance we consider in this article. In this double miracle at the Sea of Galilee the risen Lord demonstrates the task and calling of the apostles. They are to be fishers of men. They are to preach the gospel and be instrumental in the gathering of the church. And they will do that only in the power of the word of the risen Lord. At the same time the risen Lord will supply all their needs. Thus the work of the disciples will be carried out in the power of Jesus’ word and in Jesus’ fellowship. Really what Jesus does is to demonstrate the great commission: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” This is what is demonstrated by the command: “Cast the net on the right side of the ship.” Jesus also promised: “Lo, I am with you always even unto the end of the world.” This is demonstrated by the words: “Ye shall find,” a multitude of fish and “come and dine,” I will provide all your needs.
What a wonderful word and what a powerful word that is. A wonderful and powerful word it is for the church of all ages, for the church today. These disciples, who became the apostles, constitute, together with the prophets and Christ as the cornerstone, the foundation of the church. And the Word of God is very simple: “I will build My church.” Not men, not the disciples, not the preachers of today, but I will do that work. And no thing can hinder that great work. It is accomplished by the power of the word of the risen Christ and not even the gates of hell can prevail against that power.
The scene is the Sea of Tiberius or Galilee. This must have brought to the minds of these seven disciples many pleasant memories, for much of Jesus’ ministry had been in this vicinity. Here many had been restored to health, many a leper was cleansed, many blind received sight, and deaf their hearing. Here the demon-possessed had been set free, and along these shores the gospel of the kingdom had been proclaimed with gracious words. It was by these shores too that some of the most significant events of the Lord’s ministry occurred. They would never forget the feeding of the five thousand with a few fish and loaves, nor the rejection of Jesus which followed. How could they forget the night He came walking on the angry waves of this very sea and then by a word calmed the wind and the waves? But something else they apparently did forget. Early in their acquaintance with the Savior they had decided to go fishing on this very sea. They toiled all night and caught nothing. Then the Master came, and at His command they cast the net once more and, lo, there were so many fish the net broke. Jesus had told them, “I will make you fishers of men.” He had called them away from their earthly occupations.
They are here in Galilee because of the command of the Lord. Jesus, just before the betrayal, had told them to go to Galilee. He had told them two things: the shepherd would be smitten and the sheep scattered and, after I am risen again I will go before you into Galilee. But they didn’t understand. They went right on arguing who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And Peter vowed never to be offended in the Christ, as did also the rest of them. After the resurrection the angel reminded them of this word. He told the women to tell the disciples, He goes before you into Galilee as He said.
Thus we find them in Galilee but now weary of waiting. They had remained at Jerusalem at least a week. Twice the Lord had appeared to them in the upper room and now they are at the sea waiting for the fulfillment of the promise. But it seems so long to them. Every day they look with expectation for the Christ to come, but He does not. Was He perhaps grieved with them because they were offended in Him and had left Him? Why does He not come as promised? They seem to have forgotten their own slowness to understand. .He had spoken to them plainly of His suffering and death and of their being offended and of the resurrection. All these things they forgot. They were offended. In the darkness of the cross they forgot all about the resurrection. Fools they are and slow of heart to understand. And so are we.
But knowing our own sinful weaknesses we can understand their situation. Everything is so different. They know that Jesus is risen from the dead. All the appearances proved that. They had seen Him, talked with Him, and eaten with Him. There could be no doubt about the resurrection. But everything is changed. Their former relationship was so different. Now the Savior comes and He goes. The daily fellowship is gone. And even when He is with them He seems so remote. Jesus seems to belong to them no longer. It’s just all too much for them: the terrible cross, the strange resurrection, the waiting.
Thus, weary of waiting, they go fishing. Seven of them are there. Five are mentioned by name. They are the three intimates of the Savior: Peter and the sons of Zebedee, James and John. Thomas, who had worshipped the risen Christ and who had put his fingers into the nailprints in His hands and who had cried, “My Lord and my God,” is also there. Nathaniel, in whom there is no guile, one of the first to confess Jesus as the Son of God, is present too. Two others are not mentioned by name, which indicates they were not of the eleven apostles but belonged to that broader group of disciples who followed Jesus.
Already the prophecy of Jesus is happening: “I will smite the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered.” There are only five of the twelve, which means the apostolic band is breaking up. They had been together for three years and they were inseparable. The bond of their fellowship had been their special relationship to Jesus; but now He’s gone from them. And had the Lord not returned in the Spirit, we may easily surmise what would have happened. They would never have stayed together. They would have returned to their former life. They could not of themselves, this means, preach the gospel of the risen Lord. Christ Himself had to do it through them.
So Peter says: “I go a fishing.” Yes, Peter, the impulsive man of action. . . . It is so characteristic of Peter the disciple who had fallen so deeply after boasting of his faith in the Lord. Peter, whose name had been especially mentioned by the angel, “Tell the disciples and Peter”; Peter, who had been privileged by a private appearance of the risen Savior, in his own characteristic way takes the initiative: “I go a fishing.” What does this mean? Much more than meets the eye. Some say the disciples are quite innocent and didn’t mean any harm. It was perfectly natural for them to go about the business of fishing, for they had to eat, and they didn’t know what was in store for them. This does not meet the test of the Scriptures. Peter says literally: “I am going away to fish,” not just going to fish, but I go away to fish. The term means to withdraw oneself, to depart, and that is precisely what Peter decides to do. They had the word of Christ: “I will make you fishers of men.” And they had been instructed to go to Galilee. They had been promised the Spirit of Christ and still Peter says, “I am going away to fish.” Peter decides to leave the Word. He asks no questions and does not invite the others. He merely announces his intentions. He says in effect: “You may wait here all you want; you may do as you please. But I have had it, I can wait no longer; I just do not know what the Lord wants or when, if ever, He will come. I’m going away to fish.” The others respond immediately: “We also go with thee.” We are with you Peter. So they enter into a ship, utterly discouraged, perhaps even disgusted. Away they go, fishing. It is back to business as usual.
And in that night they caught nothing. They toiled, they labored, they cast their net into the sea and drew it out again all the weary night long. The plain, simple, blunt fact is, their fishing is an exercise in futility. They caught nothing. And they grew more weary and impatient as the night wore on. So it is often with the church of the risen Lord. What is the use of preaching and teaching the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? What is the use of all the struggle? There is so much unbelief and so much rejection of the Word and opposition to it. Let’s go fishing, the church is often tempted to say.
Suddenly, “when the morning was about to come,” the weary disciples are called by the word of the risen Lord. All night long they had been fishing (and these were experienced fishermen who knew the ‘Sea of Galilee), but they caught nothing. Suddenly, 6hen the dawn is about to break, they see through the darkness a man standing on the shore, but they know not that it is Jesus. They know not that it is Jesus—not because of the darkness, nor because of the distance, for they weren’t that far from shore; but they see Jesus and know Him not, simply because He is the risen Christ. He is the same Jesus and He has nailprints in His hands, but now He is raised from the dead. The mortal has put on immortality, the corruptible has put on incorruption, the natural has become spiritual, and the image of the earthly is now the image of the heavenly. And they could not recognize the Lord unless and until He reveals Himself by the word. The point is that they and we live by faith and not by sight, and faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of the Lord.
The Lord speaks to them affectionately: “Children”, “my boys.” That is a word full of patience and love, over against the unfaithful impatience of the weary disciples. “My boys,” means the Lord never forsakes His beloved. Then Jesus asks a question which expects a negative answer. Gently but firmly He asks: “Children, have you any meat?” We may paraphrase the question this way: “Children you do not have any meat do you?” Curtly the disciples answer, giving vent to their frustration: “No,” and they go on with their fishing. But the risen Lord has shown their efforts, attempted apart from His word, to be futile.
Then Jesus gives the command, the promise: “Cast the net on the right side of the ship and you shall find.” Did they recognize the voice? Did they catch the note of authority? Did it remind them of that time once before when Jesus told them to cast the net? We do not know. But without argument or objection they obeyed and they found. The net was so full that, struggle though they would, they could not get it into the boat. How must we understand this? There is only one explanation: Jesus drew that multitude of fish into the net.
Now they know Him! John says to Peter: “It is the Lord.” Who else could it be but the Lord? Simon Peter forgets the fish, throws the fisherman’s coat about him and splashes through the water to Jesus. The other disciples come in the boat, dragging the net behind.
Now these weary disciples are encouraged by the word of the risen Lord, by two words really. First Jesus instructs them: bring of the fish which ye have now caught. No, they do not have to bring the fish for food, for Jesus had that all prepared. But the Lord means to lay bare their foolishness and lack of faith. Bring forth the fish ye have now caught, caught by the power of My word. “Look at all those fish,” Jesus means to say. Peter hastens to drag them in. There are one hundred and fifty-three in all, great fish. “Bring them forth, look,” Jesus says, “you went fishing and you caught nothing. Apart from Me ye can do nothing. You cannot even be successful at fishing, apart from my word. And anything you attempt apart from My word is only going to end in failure. Still more: be not faithless but believe. You went fishing, and you will go fishing again. You will be fishers of men! I told you that! And you will find—so many that you will not be able to get them into the ship.”
That is the word of encouragement to the church today, represented so vividly in those faithless, weary disciples. The church can be so discouraged in the work. It is such a struggle. Often the church is inclined to give up, for no one, it seems, wants the truth. The church must hear this word then: “Cast the net.” Preach the Word, the life-giving, world-destroying, powerful resurrection Word of the gospel of Jesus. Preach that Word and do not give up and do not say: “I am going away to fish.” Preach the Word! And the risen Lord from the shore of heaven gives the word of direction, the word of power. That Word will draw the multitude of fish into the net. It will do that; it cannot fail. Sinners will be brought to repentance and faith, and the ungodly will be condemned. Jesus Christ will build His church. Of that there is no doubt.
Casting the net of the gospel, the church need never be discouraged, need never say it is too much, and need never fear. Rather the church must hear the Word: “Come and dine.” Another miracle greeted the eyes of the weary disciples as they came to shore. There was a fire of coals, and on it a fish and some bread. It was all prepared for them by the risen Lord. They did not have to go fishing at all. How little faith they really had. Jesus has the food all ready for them. O yes, it served to reveal the Lord to them. We read that none dared ask Him who art thou; they knew it was the Lord. But it also served to encourage them in the great task which lay before them as apostles and preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Come and dine” means (though they did not understand at the moment) “I will provide.” Jesus is saying to them in effect: “I will be with you alway even unto the end of the world. Preach the Word then, and take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, what ye shall drink, or what ye shall put on. Just preach the resurrection Word.”
May the church of our Lord Jesus Christ in these last days hear this word: “Come and dine.” May they hear the word: “Cast the net—preach the Word.” The church does that in the power of the risen Christ and never in its own strength. And the church may be assured that the saints of God will be gathered out of the nations, a church will be built for Christ, and Christ will provide as He gathers by His Spirit and Word out of the whole human race those children to everlasting life. Some day soon the saints of all the ages will come and dine with Him in the glory of the new Jerusalem. That Word is sure, for it is the Word of the risen Lord. Let the church then be on with the task of preaching the gospel wherever the Lord opens the doors and leads the way.