Lessons from John, 21:1-14 Fishing

John 21:1-14 – Gone Fishing

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Nov. 4, 2007. Craig Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. Tony Campolo gave a great sermon in Wait Chapel last Sunday night. He pointed out that one trouble with the church today is that liberals try to convince you that Jesus never really said it, and conservatives assure you that he didn’t really meant it. Campolo was referring to the Sermon on the Mount. This coming Friday, there is a special treat. Amy Gohdes Luhman will be leading Lay Seminary on Friday and Saturday. Amy is a young Moravian pastor and professor of Old Testament who is one of the most engaging teachers I’ve ever heard. Lay Seminary is open to everyone. Call the Board of Christian Education to sign up.

This was a week in which various people observed Samhain, Reformation Day, Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, or Day of the Dead, with varying degrees of music and make-up. I’ll be preaching this morning at Christ Moravian Church on the theme of All Saints Day, which I think is an important day in the Christian calendar. It is helpful during this season as the year dies and the sun grows cold to remind ourselves that death is not the final word. It seems very appropriate that we have are now studying the resurrection of Jesus. There is a big difference between the resurrection of Jesus and the resuscitation of corpses in the horror movies. According to the gospels, Jesus has been freed from the bonds of death and corruption. He is life itself, and through his spirit we can enter into the life of God. Today we turn our attention to John 21.

Fishing            This is a fishing story. That alone might make some people doubt its veracity. There is something about fishing that lends itself to exaggeration. I think it is because fishermen have so much time to let their imaginations roam. Fishing can be boring. My daughter described Hemmingway’s classic novel The Old Man and the Sea as having all of the excitement of fishing and old men. My mother had an uncle in Minnesota who was a fishing and hunting guide. He had only one arm. Over the years he made up many tall tales about how he lost his arm, but in general he claimed that the dog shot it off. He had gone fishing with his dog and carried a shotgun along because there were poisonous snakes around. When he reeled in a particularly lively fish, the dog got very excited and knocked the shotgun over. It went off, and Gaif lost his arm. Fishing tales can get pretty hard to believe, but that one happened to be true. Perhaps the fishing tales in the gospels are true, too.


Epilogue                        Last week I mentioned that many scholars believe that John’s Gospel originally ended with the story of Thomas. The final verses of ch. 20 certainly sound like a conclusion, and if you are reading the gospel straight through, it comes as a bit of a surprise to see that another chapter follows the conclusion. Raymond Brown calls ch. 21 an Epilogue, and I think that is fitting. The Gospel has a prologue, why not an epilogue? But if this Gospel were a DVD movie, we would call this section “bonus features” or “deleted scenes.”

There is important and useful material here, but it was more dramatic and powerful to leave the scenes out of the main story. Despite some flaws in the final work, the author of John’s Gospel was a masterful writer who took traditional material and reworked it to produce a profound story of faith. Scholars today dispute over whether the stories in chapter 21 are older than the stories of Jesus appearing to the disciples in Jerusalem that we have bee discussing. In many ways, ch. 21 seems more primitive than ch. 20, and it is possible that it was ch. 20 that was added late. As we shall see, ch. 21 is less overtly theological, and its message is more subtle. Although we can never be certain, it seems likely that these stories of Jesus in Galilee were part of the oral tradition about Jesus that the evangelist knew were too good to leave out. But they did not fit neatly into the narrative and so he added them at the end.

History and Story:            The scholarly arguments about whether ch. 20 or 21 is more historical get very complex and technical, but I think the average reader can see that the four gospels present two different settings for Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances: Galilee and Jerusalem. In one version of Mark, Jesus gives a message that the apostles should meet him in Galilee, and in Matthew, they actually go to Galilee. Jesus ascends from a mountain, presumably the one he had been transfigured on. Luke, on the other hand, merely mentions Galilee. He focuses on Jesus’ appearance in Jerusalem, probably because he organizes his story of Christianity geographically. John is unique in having appearances of Jesus in both Jerusalem and Galilee, but it is nearly impossible to put ch. 20 and 21 together.

As we saw last week, according to John, the appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem all happened on Sundays. The first two were on Easter Sunday. The appearance to Thomas was the following Sunday. After we went off the air we discussed the significance of Jesus appearing to a gathering of disciples on a Sunday. These stories reflect early Christian worship, and the evangelist was telling his audience that Christ will be present to them in worship. It was not just Thomas who could see Jesus and his wounds, all may do so. With that in mind, we can assume that the chronology of the resurrection appearances in John is not meant to be historically accurate. John is writing about eternity, not time, and it is not really important whether Jesus first appeared to Peter in Galilee or Judea. It is entirely possible that Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee first. But since the headquarters of the early church under James the Brother of Jesus was in Jerusalem John’s Gospel naturally gives priority to the Jerusalem stories. Rather than trying to put ch. 20 and 21 together as a single narrative, this morning we’ll look at ch. 21 in its own right.

I’m Going Fishing:                         It really bothers a lot of biblical scholars and preachers that the Simon Peter and six other apostles went fishing after the crucifixion. Some have gone so far as to accuse them of apostasy, of forsaking their faith, or at least neglecting their mission to bring good news to all nations. I disagree. I think this is a delightful bit of authenticity in John’s gospel. We already knew Simon Peter and other disciples were fishermen, and we knew that they need to eat like we all do. So why be surprised that they went fishing one night to catch food for the next day? The Gospel of John is filled with all kinds of signs, wonders, and deep theological truths, but it also recognizes that even the apostles had to put food on the table. Even if they had seen the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem, they are still going to need to eat breakfast in Galilee.

They fished all night without catching anything. It is a curious fact in the NT that no one catches fish without Jesus’ help. We are so far removed from a world where our lives depend on catching fish that these fishing stories in the Bible loose some of their edge. The disciples were not fishing for recreation or for bragging rights. They were fishing for food. The fact that they worked all night without catching anything meant that it would be a hungry day.

Jesus                        Around day break they see someone on the shore. They do not recognize him in the dim light of morning, but he calls them friends. If you remember from the Last Supper narrative, it was very significant in John’s Gospel when Jesus called his disciples friends. George Fox, who loved John’s Gospel, recognized the importance of friendship in Scripture, which is why his religious society was called the Society of Friends. But I digress.

The fishermen did not recognize the stranger on the shore. This really bothers a lot of readers, but there have been so many times I haven’t recognized people, I’m not surprised. Sometimes we don’t even recognize our spouse or children or parents. We can explain this lack of recognition several ways, being a good storyteller, John does not explain it. He simply says they did not recognize the man calling to them. We have already seen that lack of recognition was a part of some resurrection stories. This could be evidence that Jesus was transformed, or it be a biblical reminder that moments of spiritual insight may come upon us unawares. Sometimes we look right at the truth and fail to recognize it for years, and then suddenly we see.

Jesus asks if they’ve caught any fish. It is kind of nice to know that for over 2000 years, people have said the same thing on the shores of lakes around the world. Any luck? No. Not a thing. He tells them to throw the net on the right side of the boat. I doubt the Bible is making a political statement here, but you never know. Incidentally, skeptics have sometimes claimed that the guy on the shore could simply see the school of fish on the right side of the boat. Some people want to take the fun and magic out of everything! It really doesn’t matter if this was a miracle or not, though. The point of the story is not that a miracle happened. It was that when the disciples listened to Jesus, they were successful.

This story in John is very similar to a story in Luke ch. 5, expect Luke doubles the number of boats. The stories are so similar, in fact, that these may simply be two different versions of the same story. Luke tells about the miraculous catch of fish early in Jesus’ ministry, before he gives the Beatitudes. John tells the story as a post-resurrection miracle of Jesus. We can’t say for sure which is right. Most likely the story circulated as an independent story that was incorporated into the gospels wherever the author thought it made the most sense. For Luke, this was the miracle that convinced a bunch of fishermen to become disciples. For John, this was a sign pointing to a deeper reality about the post-resurrection church. Those who wish to be fishers of men need to listen to the guidance of Jesus. What began as a simple fishing story in John becomes a metaphor for evangelism. We may toil for years without success and then suddenly find we can barely drag our nets to the shore. The catch of fish in the church depends on the Lord, not our skill in evangelism. Incidentally, the old Moravians called their evangelists “fishers”.

153 Fish            There is a detail in this story that has fascinated readers for centuries. For the most part John and other biblical writers use either round numbers or symbolic numbers. We get a lot of sevens, twelves, forties, and hundreds in the Bible. Rarely do we get a number like 153, but John says that is how many fish the disciples caught in their nets. Scholars have tried for centuries to solve the mystery of the 153 fish. In the 5th century Jerome proposed that Greek scientists knew there were 153 species of fish in the world, and thus John was indicating that the disciples would convert all nations to Christianity. Unfortunately, it appears that Greek zoologists listed 157 varieties of fish not 153. It is possible that John had different information, but he doesn’t seem to focus on the differences in the fish.

Numerology might give the answer. Three equilateral triangles with sides 17 units long would add up to 153. Or if you add two perfect numbers, 10 and 7, you get 17. Multiple that by 3 squared and you get 153. What this means, no one knows, but these were important numbers in numerology. Augustine noted that if you add all of the integers from 1 to 17 you get 153, but what this meant escaped even the great Augustine. Modern scholars have proposed this is a very obscure symbolic reference to a passage in Ezekiel (67:10). A final possibility advanced by some scholars is that this is simply an accurate account of how many fish were caught that morning. I, on the other hand, suspect that this is one of those places in Scripture where a key to interpretation was lost very early and we are left with a puzzle.

More important than the number of fish is the fact that the net did not break. There is no reason to doubt the traditional interpretation that the net represents the church. Even though it is filled with fish of all kinds, the net did not break. John’s Gospel is often used today in a very exclusive manner. People pull out proof texts to argue that God’s grace is only for some, but here we have the image of the miraculous catch of fish and a net that stretches enough to handle the diversity. It is an image worth pondering.

Peter                        Once the nets are full, the Beloved Disciple recognizes Jesus and calls him Lord, but it is Peter who jumps out of the boat. This part of the story is told very awkwardly and translators work hard to make sense of what Peter actually does with his clothes. Some translations say that he was fishing naked and put on his clothes to go and meet Jesus. But it is more than a little odd to put clothes on before jumping into the water. Normally, someone would strip to swim. Perhaps this is a bit of comic relief in John. Impetuous Peter is so eager to meet Jesus that he gets dressed and then jumps in the water rather than just taking the boat with the rest of the disciples. It is possible that this tale of Peter jumping out of the boat to run to Jesus was the origin of the longer miracle story in Matthew where Peter walks on the water. We have seen throughout our study that John minimizes miracles. Peter splashes through the sea here; he does not walk on water. Faith is not about believing in miracles, it is about living in the presence of the Risen Lord.

Fish Fry            After this, Jesus invited the disciples to come and have breakfast. Personally, I love the fact that one of the last stories in the Gospel of John is about a fish fry on the beach. We think of John as the poetic, theological gospel of the word made flesh, but it ends with this wonderfully down to earth story of disciples having a cook-out with Jesus. This is the meaning of the incarnation. The word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, but we did so around the cook fire. Other people walking alongside the lake did not see the Lord; they saw a guy tending the coals.

John does not tell us where Jesus got the fish he is cooking or the bread he offers the disciples. Luke tells a story about the disciples giving Jesus give him fish to eat after the resurrection, but here it is Jesus who provides the bread and fish for the hungry disciples. Clearly, this eating of fish with Jesus had a special resonance with the early church that we no longer have. Some of the earlier Christian artwork shows the Eucharist being celebrated with bread and fish, and there is evidence that some Jewish sects observed sacred fish meals that celebrated God’s victory over Leviathan, the sea monster who was an ancient symbol of chaos (Brown, II:1099). It is possible that the church founded by the Beloved Disciple celebrated the Eucharist with bread and fish. This meal on the beach looks a lot like Holy Communion with Jesus presiding.

Conclusion            Even if this was not Holy Communion, the bread and fish recall the feeding of the multitude, which also took place near the Sea of Galilee. This Epilogue in John’s Gospel thus has a nice symmetry. The Resurrected Jesus fulfills the promises to be with his disciples, to guide them, and to nourish them. It is intriguing that Nathanael, who was called to be a disciple in chapter 1 is mentioned again here in ch. 21. Jesus had promised Nathanael that he would see great things, and that promise has been fulfilled, but not everyone could see these things. The disciples knew they were in the presence of the Risen Lord on the beach, but others would have passed by unaware. Even after the resurrection, the Word of God is simultaneously revealed and hidden. Next week, we’ll walk along the beach with Jesus and talk about sheep.

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  • Translator Chicago  On November 10, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    This is a very informative post, thank you. Fishing reminds me of a quote I once heard from a Bible teacher – he said, to someone who is unemployed – don’t just give them fish when they ask for one but rather teach them how to fish…

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