Summary: In the ordinary course of duty we may not always see great success, but when we let the Lord join the party then the extraordinary occurs.
I GO A-FISHING
The miraculous draught of fishes which took place on the shores of Galilee after Jesus' resurrection was not the first instance of its kind. It had occurred similarly at the beginning of His ministry, when He first used Simon Peter's boat as a pulpit. After enclosing a great multitude of fishes, Peter, James and John were immediately called to give up their nets and follow Jesus, for He was going to make them “fishers of men” (Luke 5:1-11).
This idea of catching men is quite literally “catching them alive” (Luke 5:10). The only other place in the New Testament where the same word is used is in one of the Pastoral Epistles, where those caught in the snare of the devil are seen as “taken captive at his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). A lot of water was to pass under the bridge (so to speak) between the first calling of the Apostles and the Great Commission.
John 21 follows on from the earlier post-resurrection appearances of Jesus mentioned in the previous chapter. Thomas had been convinced, and there were other signs which John does not innumerate (John 20:26-31). Perhaps now it was time for the disciples to stop sitting around in Jerusalem, and to make their way to Galilee as Jesus had earlier instructed the women to tell them (Mark 16:7).
This may or may not account for the fishing expedition. Maybe it was just active men at a loose end with the urge not to be idle. Either way, led by Peter, seven of them (including Thomas) made their way back to the sea of Tiberius (John 21:2-3).
On the occasion of the previous miracle, the fishermen had toiled all night without catching anything. Jesus made a command, and “at His word” they let down their net and caught a shoal (Luke 5:4-6). In the ordinary course of duty we may not always see great success, but when we let the Lord join in then the extraordinary occurs.
So on this later trip, they caught nothing all night, but in the morning a stranger appeared on the shore, and asked if they had any fish, as if He desired to buy from them. Then, strangely, He instructed them to try again, specifying where they would find their desired catch (John 21:4-6). Again they knew success, and they caught a total of 153 fishes, which John no doubt could remember painstakingly counting (John 21:11).
It was John who first recognised the Lord. It was impetuous Peter who dragged on his coat and swam ashore, at first leaving his friends to struggle with the catch (John 21:7-8), then doubling back to drag the net ashore himself. It is as if he wished to make sure that he “caught” the Lord, but was again drawn back to the task in hand (John 21:11).
Jesus, of course, did not need them to catch fish for Him: He had already caught His own (John 21:9)! However, the Lord graciously encourages our service, not because He needs anything from us, but because He graciously chooses to use means to accomplish His ends (John 21:10). Meantime there was not one of them who doubted the identity of the risen Lord (John 21:12).
As Jesus blessed the bread and fish (John 21:13), the disciples would no doubt have remembered the feeding of the 5000, and the feeding of the 4000. Peter may have recollected how he once paid the tax man on behalf of both Jesus and himself with a coin found in the mouth of a fish. The blessing may also have reminded them of how Jesus was known the evening after his resurrection by the two on the Emmaus road in the breaking of bread, and of the sacrament instituted on the night when Jesus was betrayed.
The conversation between Jesus and Peter was a reaffirmation of the fact that the Apostle's business was no longer to be about fish, but about pastoral work. This was a gracious restoration which was both gentle and firm. The question remains: do we love the Lord more than the trappings of our secular employment (John 21:15)?
In the first two times of asking Jesus enquired whether Peter (who he called Simon, son of Jonas) had agape love, that same kind of love which God has displayed towards us (John 3:16 etc.), which is attainable only by the grace of God. This is the kind of love that loves God with heart, soul, strength and mind, and loves our neighbour as ourselves (Luke 10:27). Both of these questions was answered with a different word for love: Peter would only admit that he had attained the duty of filial piety (John 21:15-16).
So Jesus brought the question down to Peter's level, and we can almost sense the Apostle's frustration. Are you sure you even have at least duty-love, because God has great things yet for you to do (John 21:17-19)? All along the Lord is reiterating: feed my lambs, feed my sheep, feed my sheep (John 21:15-17) – no more fishing, Peter, but shepherding the flock of Christ.