John 21:1-3, “After these things Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias (this was the Roman name for the Sea of Galilee), and in this way He showed Himself (the Greek word translated “showed” means to make manifest what had been hidden or unknown): Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee (James and his brother our author John), and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We are going with you also.’ They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing.”
John beings the chapter writing, “After these things” which establishes for us a general timeline for this event as being roughly two weeks or so following the resurrection of Jesus. The disciples will soon make the journey back to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost.
The scene itself presents seven disciples hanging out at the Sea of Galilee when Peter gets the itch to go fish — which shouldn’t be a surprise as Peter, James, and John had all been fishermen by trade before they each left behind the business to become disciples of Jesus.
Though John doesn’t explain why these men were in Galilee to begin with, keep in mind, on at least two separate occasions recorded for us in Matthew 28 and Mark 16, Jesus had instructed His disciples to leave Jerusalem and go into the Galilee promising to appear to them on a particular mountain. No doubt they were in Galilee out of obedience.
While theories abound as to the motivation behind Peter making the decision to “go fishing” — most notably that he was opting to kickstart the business and return to his former occupation — I believe the simplest explanation for what motivated him is probably the most accurate. Peter and the boys “go fishing” because like most men they simply enjoyed fishing!
As John recalls this particular evening he remembers how these seven men eventually fish all night and “caught nothing!” John 21:4-8, “But when the morning had now come (no question it had been a long, frustrating night on the Sea), Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know (more accurately they could not see) that it was Jesus.
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Children (would be akin to saying lads or boys), have you any food (literally meat — “Have you lads caught anything”)?’ They answered Him, ‘No.’
And Jesus said to them (again not knowing it was Jesus), ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast (I mean what did they have to loose?), and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved (John) said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’
Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment (for he had removed it), and plunged into the sea. But the other disciples (again for reference this would be John) came in the little boat (for they were not far from land, but about two hundred cubits) (approximately 300 feet), dragging the net with fish.”
Many Bible commentators love to take this particular story and draw from it all kinds of interesting and beautiful applications. For example, one pastor I greatly respect taught that when Jesus commanded they “cast the net on the right side of the boat” He was intentionally asking these experienced fishermen to do something that made zero sense.
The theory is such a great yield was the reward for a willingness to trust and obey Jesus — with the application being if we also trust and obey even when His instructions make no logical sense He will in turn preform a work that transcends anything we could ever imagine.
While this sounds nice and is generally true, the problem with this particular presentation is that it completely overlooks one key reality of our story — these men were obeying a man who was yelling at them from the shore they did not know was actually Jesus! There is simply no evidence these men were trusting Jesus when they “cast the net to the right side.”
You see these men weren’t acting in faith. Instead, these seven disciples were tired after fishing all night without a catch and figured there was no harm in trying something different. For all they knew maybe the man on shore saw a school of fish off the right side of the boat.
With this in mind, what then in the point of the story? First, while the disciples are unaware it was Lord speaking to them, we know it was Jesus. If you want to draw a practical application from this text look no further… Not only is Jesus interested in every aspect of your life, but sometimes He’s active even when you’re completely oblivious! You see these men came to know Jesus was at work, but only after the fact — after the miracle!
Again, I don’t want to hyper-spiritualize this point where you try to see Jesus in every minute aspect of your day. I’ve seen this outlook put into practice and it’s not only maddening, but completely frustrating. The truth is more often than not you’ll only come to know Jesus was at work when you look back at events with the benefits of hindsight.
That said… It should be a great encouragement to know Jesus not only cares about your life, but is working out His will through various events even when you aren’t aware.
The second reason Jesus manifests Himself at this particular time and why the story plays out the way that it does centers upon Simon Peter who is undeniably the main character. Not only was it his idea to “go fishing” in the first place, but when it dawns on John the Man on shore is none other than Jesus Peter is so moved he can’t wait for the boat to get to shore.
As John recalls the scene he remembers how “Peter put on his outer garment (for he had removed it)” — the KJV says Peter was naked, but the original Greek word indicates he was likely clad in his underwear — and proceeded to “plunge into the sea.” This Greek word translated “plunge” literally means to throw or cast a thing without caring where it falls.
When all the dots finally connect in Peter’s mind with an almost reckless abandonment — and I should point out little care about the fish — he puts on a garment and throwing caution to the wind throws himself off the boat to get to shore as fast as he can to see Jesus!
Before we continue I want to provide a little more context as to why this story featuring Peter is so interesting and important. Pertaining to the Gospel of John the only specific reference to Peter following his denial of Jesus and subsequent brokenness was the one scene where he and John rush to the Garden to inspect the empty tomb along with Mary Magdalene.
Beyond this, the only other detail of Peter post-denial provided in any of the other Gospels was a vague reference that Jesus appeared to him privately (Luke 24:34). Apart from John 21 we would have no idea how Peter goes from a broken man to a man embolden in Acts.
There is no question Jesus’ intention for acting in this particular fashion (and the reason John adds this story to the official record) was to initiate an important work of restoration in Peter’s life. That said… To accomplish this task Jesus knew He had to first take Peter all the way back to the beginning. You see for Peter to be useful for the Lord he needed to remember why he’d made the decision to follow Jesus in the first place.
Let me read for you the story found in Luke 5:1-11. We read, “So it was, as the multitude pressed about Jesus to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then Jesus got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.
When Jesus had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, ‘Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ But Simon answered and said to Him, ‘Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.’ And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking.
So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’
For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.’ So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.”
As you can imagine this similar occurrence recorded in John 21 instantly harkened Peter’s thoughts back to his initial encounter with Jesus. He remembered begrudgingly taking the boat back onto the water at Jesus’ commands and even arguing with Him when He proceeded to instruct him to “let down the net.” As Peter now looks into the water to see this incredible haul of fish he remembered the last time he’d witnessed such a catch!
It’s in this moment Peter remembers why he originally decided to “forsake all” and “follow Jesus.” It had been the amazing grace of Jesus manifesting itself in the presence of his obvious inadequacy. Peter rightfully understood he was “a sinful man.” And yet, Jesus still chose and called him to be His disciple! “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.”
The entire reason Jesus waited to reveal Himself in Galilee until Peter and the boys were headed back to shore after an unproductive night fishing on the Sea was to set the scene whereby Peter would remember something important he’d forgotten — Jesus had called him knowing he was an unworthy sinner. “Peter, I knew who you were when I called you!”
John 21:9, “Then, as soon as they had come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid on it, and bread.” I know this is a strange observation, but I wonder where Jesus had gotten the “bread” and the “fish” He was now cooking for breakfast?
Before we continue I also want to bring to your attention a detail concerning this scene Jesus sets up on the shore you might miss, but I promise you Peter noticed almost immediately… In the Greek the word translated “fire of coals” is found in only one other passage.
Back in John 18:18 we read how just outside the chief priests home where Jesus was being illegally tried “the servants and officers made a fire of coals stood there, for it was cold, and they warmed themselves. And Peter stood with them and warmed himself.”
If you recall it was then around this “fire of coals” Peter denied Jesus for the third time, heard the rooster crow, and was crushed when he made eye contact with the Lord. I can only imagine coming out of the water to see such a fire took him to a place he’d rather forget.
When Peter’s walk with Jesus began he knew he was unworthy and undeserving. So much so he tells Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” And yet sadly, the longer Peter walked with the Lord the more and more he’d lost sight of this critical reality.
Don’t forget this vital point… When Peter ultimately denied the Lord three times Jesus learned nothing new about Peter he didn’t already know! Jesus knew he’d fail. So much so just hours before He predicted it would happen when Peter was adamant it wouldn’t.
You see the reason Peter ends up so crushed by his failure is he ends up being reminded of something he’d forgotten. Peter was still “a sinful man” and remained unworthy of God’s grace! Tragically, his pride had blinded him of these realities, but failure brought them to light. The difficult truth is Jesus often allows failure to remind us how much we need His grace.
Christian, this is a point you dare never forget for the weight of condemnation in the moment of failure does not arise because Jesus forgot who you were. Instead, condemnation tends too manifest from the simple fact you’ve lost sight of who you are. Jesus didn’t choose you because you were worthy! He chose you because He loves you knowing you are unworthy. The basis of His favor was and will always be His grace and never your merit!
John 21:10-14, “Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish which you have just caught.’ Simon Peter went up and dragged the net to land, full of large fish, one hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not broken. (This seems to substantiate the historical view of Peter being a large, burly kind of man.)
Jesus said to them, ‘Come and eat breakfast.’ (Literally, He invites them to come and break their fast.) Yet none of the disciples dared ask Him, ‘Who are You?’ — knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then came and took the bread and gave it to them, and likewise the fish.” (It would appear this was an awkward and largely silent breakfast.)
John then adds, “This is now the third time Jesus showed Himself to His disciples after He was raised from the dead.” According to John’s Gospel Jesus appeared first to the disciples without Thomas. Then He appeared to them with Thomas — making this the third.
John 21:15, “So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?’ Peter said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.’ Jesus said to Peter, ‘Feed My lambs.’”
Jesus breaks the awkward silence around this fire breakfast by turning to “Simon, Son of Jonah.” Note: Addressing Peter using this formal, Jewish title was not an accident. In fact, the last time Jesus referred to Peter as “Simon, Son of Jonah” was back in John 1:40-42.
In this passage John tells us that, after encountering Jesus for himself, Andrew “found his brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Now when Jesus looked at him, He said, ‘You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas’ (which is translated, A Stone).”
Not only has Jesus reminded Peter He called him knowing he was a sinner and that the fundamental basis of their relationship was His grace, but in using such a title as “Simon, son of Jonah” Jesus is now reminding Peter of his new identity. Notice in this first reference Jesus says to him “you are Simon” before then adding “you shall be called Cephas!”
In this act of tweaking his name Jesus is letting Peter know that a transformation of who he fundamentally was was going to occur over time. While he’d come to Jesus as “Simon the son of Jonah” Jesus was going to transform him into someone completely different. There is no question — following his failure — this reference intended to remind Peter of this promise.
Please understand, this perfectly illustrates the ministry of Jesus. When we come to Him Jesus says to us all, “While you are (broken, hurting, perverse, selfish, condemned, wicked, separated), you shall be (whole, healed, pure, kind, forgiven, righteous, restored)!” While Jesus loves you just the way that you are, His love refuses to leave you that way!
Like He did with Peter, to all who’d come to Him, Jesus impart a new identity — He makes you into something new. You see life in Christ is not about reclamation, but total regeneration! “Old things are passing away. Behold, all things are being made new!”
After addressing Peter “Simon, son of Jonah” Jesus continues by asking him an important question… Peter, “Do you love Me more than these?” First, the word Jesus uses for “love” in the original Greek is “agape” which spoke of a divine type of love — the deepest of all.
Secondly, Jesus places this initial question into a comparative dynamic — “Do you love Me more than these?” In regards to the “more than these” is Jesus referring to the other men around this fire or is He talking about the fish and therefore his former life? Honestly, nothing in the text itself or the Greek specifies what Jesus is speaking of which may be intentional because it really didn’t matter. “Peter, do you love me more than everything else in this life?”
Look at his reply… Peter says, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” First — and this can’t be overstated — but Peter correctly refers to Jesus as his “Lord” or kyrios — the Christ. There is no question Peter is a believer having already been filled with the Holy Spirit.
Secondly — and we should really appreciate his honesty — while Jesus has asked if he loved Him referring to this agape love, Peter replies saying he loved Jesus with a “phileō” or a brotherly love. To this Jesus tells Peter, “Feed My lambs” or literally “My little lambs.”
John 21:16, “Jesus said to Peter again a second time, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love (“agape”) Me?’ (No longer comparative) Peter said to Jesus, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love (“phileō”) You.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend (care for) My sheep (adult sheep).’”
I think it’s wrong to be critical of Peter in the way he handles this interaction. Peter is finally being humble and honest. Jesus is asking him if he loved Him with a divine love. And the simple truth is Peter knew that it was impossible to love Jesus the way He loved him! It’s as though Peter is saying, “Jesus, you know I can’t love you the way you love me!”
John 21:17, “Jesus said to Peter the third time, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love (“phileō”) Me?’ (Jesus changes the word.) Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, ‘Do you love (“phileō”) Me?’ And he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, You know all things (“eidō” or perceive); You know that I love You (“ginōskō” to have a complete knowledge of).’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed My sheep.’” (The tense implies a continual feeding.)
Twice Peter has told Jesus that he loved Him like a brother. Now in His third inquiry Jesus ask him, “Do you love Me like a brother?” John, who was there for this exchange, recalls how “Peter was grieved” or was made deeply sorrowful because Jesus had asked him this for a “third time.” I’m sure in this moment Peter again recalled his three-fold denial of Christ.
Though there is room for interpretation, I personally believe Peter’s reply acknowledged something very important… While he genuinely desired to love Jesus, Peter was affirming the difficult reality he knew he often fell short in this pursuit. In truth he’d just been reminded of a perfect illustration of this reality. Peter brazenly boasted he’d never deny Jesus to — in the span of just a few hours — denying Him on three separate occasions!
You can’t understate the fact Peter had failed epically. But it is equally true Jesus still had amazing plans for Peter’s life. With each reply Jesus charges Peter to “feed” and to “tend His sheep.” Peter’s usefulness was not based in his ability, but on Christ’s unwavering love!
In this story Jesus is restoring Peter by reminding him of several truths we should also never forget when we fail. First, we should never loose sight of the reality we are sinners saved by grace — meaning our failures are not dis-qualifiers. The amazing thing about our journey following after Jesus is that the same grace that originally calls us always sustains us.
Secondly, we should never forget in the moment of failure that Jesus is actively engaged in a process of transforming us into people we aren’t — meaning failure is an opportunity to grow not quit. Jesus is not surprised when we sin. Instead, our sin should remind us His work in our lives is not yet complete. Christ’s work will continue until the day we’re called home!
Finally — and this is the core lesson we should take from the conversation Jesus has with Peter, the Christian life is not founded upon our love for Jesus, but His love for us! It’s His great love that moves us, motivates us, ultimately changes us forever! Peter’s love for Jesus didn’t matter at all in the context of Jesus’ incredible agape love for him!
Though John doesn’t specifically say, it appears Peter and Jesus arise from breakfast and proceed to go on a walk down the shoreline. While walking Jesus turns to a different topic…
John 21:18-19, “Most assuredly, I say to you (He’s still speaking to Peter), when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.’ (John interprets the prophecy) This He spoke, signifying by what death Peter would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’”
Historically, we know that following a great fire that nearly engulfed the city of Rome in 64 AD Emperor Nero singled out the growing Christian minority to be the scapegoat. As one of the most popular figures of the church in Rome during this time, Peter and his wife were arrested and sentenced to be crucified unless they recanted. Peter’s wife was crucified first and then when Peter still refused to deny Jesus he was eventually executed upside down.
Likely writing this final chapter after receiving word of Peter’s tragic death, John includes this exchange (which hadn’t been documented) to provide a measure of solace to a Christian world in mourning. Many years before Jesus not only told Peter how he was going die, but reassured him that in “death he would glorify God!” How encouraging it must have been for Peter to know that though he’d denied Jesus three times he would never deny Him again!
John 21:20-22, “Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following (John), who also had leaned on His breast at the supper, and said, ‘Lord, who is the one who betrays You?’ (this is a reference to the events recorded in John 13) Peter, seeing him, said to Jesus, ‘But Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.’
Undoubtedly, as they walk along the shore, Peter has received bad news rimmed with sugar. Now noticing that John was “following” them, Peter seeks to shift the topic off of himself and unto John. “Jesus, if I’m going to be crucified, what about John? How is he going to die?”
Before you laugh at Peter’s reaction, isn’t that human nature? Jesus challenges you about something important and all you want to know is what He has to say about someone else!
I love Jesus’ response… “Peter, you don’t need to concern yourself with what My plans might be for John’s life!” Basically, Jesus is telling him to mind his own business and focus on his own walk! Sadly, this statement, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?” is what had eventually been twisted to mean something Jesus never intended.
John explains the development of the controversy writing… John 21:23, “Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?’”
For whatever reason by the time John writes this amendment to his Gospel a rumor had been circulated throughout the church that Jesus would return before John’s death — meaning John would never die. John now seeks to clear up the confusion by correcting the record that this was not what Jesus meant when he made this original statement to Peter.
On a side note… There are modern theologians who claim the rapture of the church and the anticipation for the eminent return of Christ is a relatively new phenomena. Well, John 21:23 is a pretty solid proof that the first Christians not only held to a literal interpretation of these things, but were excited about Jesus’ return potentially happening in their day.
According to Matthew 28:16-20 following this exchange on the shore of the Sea of Galilee Jesus would ultimately appear to all of them on “the mountain which He had appointed.” Matthew writes that “when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’”
In a harmonizing of the accounts provided in Luke 24 and Acts 1, from Galilee Jesus would “lead them out as far as Bethany” stopping on the Mount of Olives where “He lifted up His hands, blessed them, and commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, ‘which,’ He said, ‘you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”
Jesus then adds, “‘But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ Now when Jesus had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up to heaven, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked as He went up, two men stood by them in white apparel, who said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.’ So they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God.”
Because all of these things had already been well documented, John closes out his Gospel by simply affirming… John 21:24-25, “This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.”
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