A Miraculous Catch
Topic: English Passage: John 21:1-14
[Unfortunately, an audio recording of this sermon is not available. But a manuscript is below.]
Reading: JOHN 21:1-14
I have never been fishing. That just wasn’t part of my upbringing. But from what I understand, true fishermen have a distinct approach to life. You may have heard the saying already: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he can avoid his wife for an entire weekend.”
I’ve also heard it said that while a hunter lies in wait, a fisherman just waits, and then lies. The very phrase “fish tale” exists because fisherman have earned the reputation of exaggerating what they’ve caught, and sometimes it gets bigger every time they share it.
Well, as God would have it, the final chapter of John’s gospel includes a fishing story. But this story has some distinct differences with any other fish stories you might have heard. For starters, it’s absolutely true. It’s the word of God. And secondly, the focus of the story isn’t the fish or the fishermen. The focus of the story is Jesus Christ.
Look again with me at verse 1, and you’ll notice how John introduces this section. After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way.
And then skip down to verse 14 one more time. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
John brackets this story with this idea of Jesus revealing Himself, or manifesting Himself. That’s a word that John has used several times. And it emphasizes the idea that Jesus is not someone you get to discover all on your own. Jesus has to make Himself known to you. He has to reveal Himself.
The word here that means reveal comes from a word that means to shine. And that’s how John started his gospel. Speaking of Jesus, he wrote: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Jesus is the Light of the World. He shines. He makes Himself known. He reveals Himself.
Back in chapter 1, John the Baptist said, “I started baptizing people so that the Lamb of God would be revealed to Israel”—same word there as here in chapter 21.
Later, in chapter 2, when Jesus provides abundant wine for the wedding in Cana, John tells us that it was to manifest (or reveal) His glory. And His disciples believed in Him.
In chapter 9, Jesus and the disciples come across a man born blind. And Jesus says, “He was born like this, not because of some sin in his own life or in his parents, but so that the works of God could be displayed (or revealed) in him.”
God wants to make Himself known. God wants to reveal Himself. And though He does that to some extent through nature, through creation, the greatest manifestation of Himself is through His Son Jesus Christ.
That’s why Jesus told Philip in chapter 14, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” And then later, when Jesus prays in chapter 17, He says this: “I have manifested (revealed) your name to those whom you gave me out of the world.”
Jesus showed the disciples the power and the mercy and the love and the compassion of the Father. He is God in human flesh. And the supreme demonstration of the Father’s holiness and love and faithfulness and power to save was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the fulfilment of His promises.
As His future Apostles, Jesus didn’t just want them to know that He had risen; He wanted them to see it and touch it for themselves. He needed them to be firsthand witnesses of what had happened.
And so, on the day He resurrected, which was a Sunday, the first day of the week, Jesus made a special appearance to His disciples. And then, one week later, He does it again, with a specific focus on Thomas, who wasn’t there the first time.
And now, as verse 14 says, this is the third appearance to them. Those first two took place in Jerusalem, where Jesus died. And it was connected to the Passover, which was followed by the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Once the feast was over, the crowds would have begun heading home, and for the disciples, that meant heading north to Galilee. That’s where we have the Sea of Tiberius, which is just another name for the Sea of Galilee.
Just to remind you a bit about the geography, the Jordan River flows into the Sea of Galilee from the north, and then flows out of the Sea to the south, forming the eastern border of Samaria. Then the river flows into the Dead Sea.
For some unknown reason, we’ve only got seven disciples present here. John lists them in verse 2: Simon Peter, Thomas the Twin, Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew), the sons of Zebedee are James and John, the author, and two other disciples John doesn’t name.
These guys probably didn’t just return home because the festival was over. They had been commanded to return to Galilee. That’s where Jesus said He’d meet up with them. You can read that in the other gospels.
So, here they are. And we can’t really know what they were doing at that time, but Peter, as acting leader, has an idea. Verse 3—Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” I’m going fishing.
What’s on Peter’s mind? Frankly, we don’t know. There are two major positions regarding what’s going on here. The first view is that Peter is so disheartened by his failure in denying Christ, or impatient with seeing Jesus again, that he decides to go back to His old occupation. So, in another turn away from Christ, he’s going back to a life of fishing. On the extreme end, some people have even said that this is like an act of apostasy.
The second option is that fishing wasn’t necessarily wrong for them to do. It was just a part of their life. Maybe they did it to pass the time, or to provide for themselves. One commentator basically said it like this: “Jesus was crucified and then He rose from the dead, but the disciples still had to eat!”
So, you can think what you want about the motive here, but that’s not what matters most, because it’s not completely clear. Whatever Peter has in mind, the rest of the disciples there agree to go with him. So, they go out and fish.
Now, the custom there was for fishermen to fish at night. That ensured that your catch was at its freshest in the morning when the markets opened. So, these guys go out and spend all night on the lake, and they catch nothing. Nothing.
For those of you who have fished, what’s that feel like? Give me words… Frustration. Anger. Desperation. Boredom. And with a group of guys, maybe there’s even a little bit of tension that’s starting to rise. You know, “If we would have just fished over there, where I told you, we would’ve caught something.”
Whatever is going on in their mind, as the night is coming to an end, something happens. Verse 4—Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
Some people think that, because of the way it’s worded here, Jesus didn’t walk up to the shore. He just appeared there. That’s definitely possible. Or, it might just be being told from the vantage point of the disciples in the boat. To them this man just appears on the shore. And they have no idea who it is.
Verse 5—Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?”
In the Greek, that’s phrased in a way that expects the answer to be “No.” And the word for “fish” here could refer to different kinds of food. So, the question is: “Hey guys, you don’t have anything to eat, do you?” They answered him, “No.”
That’s a pretty sad response from a group of fishermen, right? They’ve been out all night, working in the darkness, and they’ve got nothing to show for it.
And then this stranger gives these fishermen some advice. Verse 6—He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”
I’m pretty sure they had been trying different spots all night. And, I don’t think this guy is in any position, being a hundred yards away, to give them tips on where to cast the net. But they listen, maybe out of desperation.
By the way, keep in mind that fishing back then was largely done with nets, not with a fishing pole. You took a net and dragged it along the water. Or, if you had a larger net, you could stretch it out between two boats and cover more area. And then you’d use a second net to pin all the fish together.
Well, the end of verse 6 says: So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish.
What a contrast, right? They go from having nothing, to having more than they can handle. And had this happened to an ordinary fisherman, the response might have been, “Wow, this guy knows what He’s talking about!” Or, “Lucky guess!”
But, like we saw seen at the Resurrection, the Apostle John is very perceptive spiritually. He seems to grasp spiritual truths sooner than the rest of the group. So, he figures it out, and he says to Peter, “It is the Lord! It’s Jesus!”
How did he know? Well, Jesus had done that before. It’s recorded in Luke chapter 5. Just like here, the disciples had fished all night and caught nothing. And Jesus said, “Go out a little bit and cast your nets for a catch.”
And on that occasion, they caught so many fish, that the nets were starting to rip. So, who is capable of giving them this kind of abundant blessing? This is Jesus!
And while John is quick to understand spiritual truths, Simon Peter, like most of you know, is quick to act. He’s impulsive.
Middle of verse 7—When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.
The next verse says they’re about a 100 yards away, so that’s gonna be at least a couple minutes of swimming. But Peter doesn’t care. He just wants to be with Jesus again. He’s so overcome with emotion. He’s like a child.
It might seem odd to us that he put on his coat before jumping in the water, but in that culture, greeting someone was a very formal act; it even a religious element. And so, you had to be dressed for that. Peter throws on his cloak, and he probably tucked away the loose ends, and jumped right in.
And then John continues the story from his point of view. Verse 8—The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
If they had an anchor, they would have had to bring it up, and then they had to make their way to the shore with a net full of fish behind them.
By the time they get there, Jesus is still there, and so is Peter. And there was a charcoal fire with fish and bread. For all we know, that could have been a miraculous breakfast too. I don’t know.
Either way, Jesus has just prepared a breakfast for the disciples. And He invites them to contribute. Verse 10— Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.
I’m inclined to think that Peter helped the other disciples, not that he got all the fish out by himself. If he did, that would be pretty impressive.
Just so you know, through the years of church history there have been many, many pastors who have tried to understand the significance behind the number 153. And I’ll tell you, I would be impressed if it wasn’t so misguided.
What’s the significance of the number? Why does John include it? You know why? Because that’s how many fish were caught! That’s all! We don’t need to find some kind of hidden meaning. That’s what fishermen do; they tell you what they caught. And they either counted the fish so they could divide them up amongst themselves, or they counted them just out of natural curiosity.
This is an eyewitness account of what happened. And John is massively impressed with what Jesus has done. The net is overflowing with more fish than they could have imagined, but still it didn’t tear.
And can you imagine what this little intimate time must have been like? They get to see Jesus once more time. Just them.
Notice verse 12—Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
What’s the point of this story? Why does John include it? You know, if you were reading the gospel of John and chapter 21 were missing, you might not notice. Chapter 20 sounds like an ending. And it’s its own way, it is.
But John chose to have chapter 21. And this chapter is not really the ending. It’s more like an epilogue. It’s like the scene you see during the credits that just helps wrap up some loose ends. You’d be fine without it, but it’s nice to have, right?
Well, what is this story here for? What’s it saying to us? I don’t think the point is simply to say that Jesus is compassionate, or that He has power, because that’s we know that already. He turned water into wine. He fed 20,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. What is this story communicating that hasn’t been said already?
Like we’ve seen in this gospel already, John likes to point out the connection between physical, tangible things and spiritual realities. Do you remember that?
John baptized with water, and Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. At the wedding in Cana, the stone purification pots showed that the Jewish purification system was coming to an end. It was being superseded by something better.
The cleansing of the Temple pointed to Jesus as the new temple.
When Jesus talked with Nicodemus, He compared physical birth with spiritual birth. And He also compared Himself with the bronze serpent of Moses, being lifted up for the salvation of the people.
To the Samaritan woman, the well there pointed to living water. The bread for the multitude pointed to Himself as the true bread from heaven that gives eternal life.
And then while Jesus stood in the Temple, under these massive torches in the courtyard, He said, “I am the Light of the World.” And when He healed the blind man, it pointed to His ability to heal spiritual blindness.
And then using the image of a flock, He said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” And when Lazarus was raised, He pointed to Himself as the Resurrection and the Life. This is what John has been showing us throughout most of this gospel. He’s connecting physical realities to spiritual realities. So what’s the connection here in chapter 21? What truths does this miraculous encounter point us to?
I think it’s helpful to remember that John’s gospel was the last of the four gospels. He outlived the other Apostles. And the people to whom John was writing, for the most part, were already very familiar with the other gospels.
For those of you who are somewhat familiar with the gospels, when you think Jesus and fishing, what do you think about? What’s the connection?
What Jesus does here with Peter and the other disciples goes all the way back to the day he called them. He found Peter and Andrew, and He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you…” what? “Fishers of men.” Fishers of men.
And later in Jesus’ parables, He spoke about the kingdom of God, and at one point He compared it to a net that gathered all sorts of fish.
So, I think it’s safe for us, given the way John has been describing Jesus’ miracles, and given the simple connection between fishing and the work of the disciples, to conclude that this miracle has some kind of lesson concerning the work of the Apostles in the church. And then, by extension in history, it would also point to the work of the church.
What’s the lesson? I think this story serves as a pointer to two things—to Jesus and to the disciples.
With regard to Jesus, it points to His power and His provision for the church. Who is the one who actually grows the church? Who is the one ultimately responsible for bringing someone to salvation? Jesus said it Himself: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” That’s John 6:44.
And, you need to know, the word for “draw” there is the same word used in John 12:32, where Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” People from every tribe and tongue and nation.
And it’s the exact same word John uses here it chapter 21, verse 6, where it says there weren’t able to draw, or haul, the fish into the boat. And then later in verse 11, when they finally haul them in, or drag them, onto the land.
Who’s the one who provided the fish? Jesus! Who’s the one who will bring people into the kingdom? Jesus!
But, and this is so important to understand, what are the means by which Jesus draws men to Himself? How does it happen? The disciples have a job to do, right? The disciples needed to be obedient. That’s the second point of this story. In order to experience the blessing of Jesus’ provision, the disciples needed to be obedient.
That's the point of Romans 10. Nobody's going to believe unless they hear the message. And nobody's going to hear the message unless someone give it to them. Someone has to be obedient to Jesus.
And that’s exactly what happened in this story, right? Jesus says, “Cast the net onto the other side,” and they obeyed. They did what He said. The blessing and the provision of Jesus is never separated from the obedience and the dependence of the disciples.
That’s what you need to understand. This is not a story saying that if you obey God, He’s going to bless you abundantly in a material sense. That’s not the point. The disciples obeyed Jesus and it cost them their lives. The point is that as we obey Christ, and particularly with regard to seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness, He will provide what Luke 16 calls “the true riches”—spiritual riches. And that includes converts. It includes gospel growth in people’s lives.
In a special way, the disciples were going to see that happen on the day of Pentecost, and in the early church. They saw the gospel be received by people from all over the known world. And today, that’s what we see with a church all around the world, worshiping Jesus and seeing God bring people to salvation.That’s what we’ll be praying for tonight in our evangelistic prayer service. God is working all around the world. And we are supposed to be part of that. If you ever find yourself somewhat frustrated at the slowness of gospel growth, it might be because you're only focusing on one person or one church. But if yo ustep outside of that and look at things globally, you realize that God is working. And He's doing it through faithful Christians and faithful churches.
So what we should be walking away with from this story is that Jesus abundantly supplies gospel growth. He is gathering citizens of His kingdom. But we have a job to do—to live in righteousness and to proclaim the message of Jesus. We are to do so with a spirit of dependence, knowing the power and the glory are only for Jesus, and with a spirit of obedience, being faithful to do what Jesus has called us to. In terms of gospel fruit, Jesus will provide us with abundance, if we are marked by depedence and obedience. Dependence and obdience lead to the abundance.
It’s a saddening thought to me that we would have people wanting our church to grow and to be blessed by God with gospel fruit, but for their own part, they don’t seek to help others walk with Jesus. They aren’t being obedient. That’s like expecting Jesus to bring the fish, but you never throw the net. Makes no sense.
All of us, individually and corporately, need to think about how we can be obedient and dependent on Jesus for the progress of the gospel.
We don’t work in our own strength. We don’t credit ourselves for the spiritual lives of others. And we don’t rely on superficial human tactics to do it. Jesus is calling us to be faithful to what He has said.
In the church service context, what does being faithful look like? It means we sing the truths of the Bible. We sing the truth of the gospel. And we’re not simply preaching the stuff the culture wants to hear about. We’re preaching God’s word—all of it.
In an individual context, what does faithfulness look like? You’re telling your kids the gospel. Your modeling obedience to and love for Christ. And for your neighbors, you’re not just trying to be polite. You’re praying for opportunities, and you’re praying for boldness. You’re loving them in practical ways, but you’re also going to step into the awkwardness of a gospel conversation and tell them about Jesus. That’s what obedience looks like.
I called someone on the phone this week. And when they picked up, I said, “Have you got a minute to talk.” And they answered, “Well actually, I’m taking an Uber ride right now. Can I call you back?”
Ordinarily, you might think: Oh, that person is free. They’re not driving. They can talk. But I knew exactly what they meant. They were taking the opportunity for a gospel conversation with someone. And as soon as I hung up, I sent a text that just said, “I’m praying for you.” And when we talked a couple minutes later, we talked about how that conversation went.
That’s not just what missionaries do, or the radical Christians in the world. This is what biblical Christians do. They talk to people about Jesus. They want to help others follow Jesus. And in a spirit of dependence, the are faithful to have that conversation.
That doesn’t mean there’s always going to be an immediate conversion. But it means we were faithful to proclaim the gospel truth. And just like the disciples here, if you and I would open our mouths a little more, and be faithful to talk to someone about the reality of Jesus, He will be faithful to abundantly bless us by bringing more and more people to a saving knowledge of Himself.
Dependence and obedience in the gospel bring an abundant blessing for the glory of Christ. With the power and gifts He has supplied, let’s go fishing.