Summary: What was Jesus fishing for from Peter?
The Fishing Trip
I’m going fishing. At least here in eastern Tennessee, this sounds like something one does when they want to relax. And when said in a group, it is an informal invitation for others to join. However, if we were to think this the case of Peter and the other disciples, we would be dead wrong. Fishing was Peter’s way of life as it was for Andrew and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. So this was no pleasure outing.
John is the only Gospel which has resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples in both Jerusalem and Galilee. In Matthew, Jesus appears to the women who bring the message to the disciples to return to Galilee and meet Him there. The account of His appearing in Matthew is different than the one here. There isn’t a problem here as Luke and Paul both indicate that Jesus made many resurrection appearances over the 40 days.
What is interesting here is that Luke records a similar catch of fish at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in chapter 5 of his Gospel. There are some similarities in the accounts such as the toiling of the disciples all night long followed by an appearance of Jesus who commands where the net should be thrown, resulting in a miraculously large catch of fish. Then there is a summons to discipleship. Because of this some think this only happened once and that Luke places it at the beginning and John at the end. However, when one holds to the fact it occurred twice, then the meaning of the passage becomes telling. This will become clear upon further investigation.
Exposition of the Text
John begins this passage by mentioning that after the appearance to Thomas and the other disciples that Jesus made one more appearance to at least several of them including Simon Peter, Nathaniel who came from Cana of Galilee, Thomas, and two others. Nathaniel had not been mentioned since the first chapter and makes his second appearance. We have seen Thomas and Simon Peter on their journey to faith throughout the Gospel. What is interesting, this is the only time that the sons of Zebedee are mentioned in the entire gospel, and here not even by their names of James and John. If John is the beloved disciple and writer of this gospel, then this is an extraordinary act of humility on the part of one the other gospels record as being one of the “Sons of Thunder”. The emphasis of the whole gospel is about Jesus, not his followers. This was seen by the example of John the Baptist who performed his ministry and was willing to fade away once his task of introducing Jesus the Bridegroom was done.
Peter and the others were going back to business as usual. Peter had reverted to his old occupation as though the three years he had spent with Jesus was nothing more than a grand adventure. So he took his boat out of mothballs and went to catch fish and make his living as he had once did. In this, it was almost another denial of Jesus who had initially called Peter from fishing for fish to that of men.
Jesus plans to teach them a lesson by repeating the conditions of the initial call to the disciples. He lets them get out on the Sea of Galilee (Tiberius) and have their way. The normal time for commercial fishing was at night when the fish came up towards the shore. Some would say that Peter’s fishing skills were rusty in that they didn’t catch a thing. But in the calling of the disciples when Peter was fishing, they had caught nothing that night either. And Peter was on top of his game then. The reason they didn’t catch anything is that Jesus had determined they were to become fishers of men. So now the table is set for Jesus’ appearance.
It would be interesting to know what was going through the disciples minds when their own efforts were in vain. I know what some people say when fishing is bad, but those words are not fit to be repeated now. They worked all night and had nothing to show for it. They were by this time exhausted and frustrated. Perhaps they wondered if they would starve also.
Jesus does appear at dawn, the time of resurrection. In the early morning light, it would have been hard to recognize someone. But it was more than this in that Jesus kept them from recognizing Him. He calls out to them “Children, it does not appear that you have caught anything.” Jesus is sort of ribbing them by this comment. It is interesting that John uses the Greek word “children” to refer to the servants of Jesus. It would seem a bit odd in any other context. Yet they did not recognize Him. Jesus asked them knowing full well they had not caught anything. I suppose the tone of address may have annoyed them. Peter was annoyed also in Luke when he halfway protested to Jesus’ summons to try to cast the heavy new one more time, as though He said: “OK smarty pants. I am a fisherman, you are a Rabbi. I know my job. But just to prove to you the futility of this I will throw the net down once more.” In that passage, when he did, the catch was so great that peter knew it was a miracle and begged Jesus to depart from such a sinner as Peter. Instead, Jesus called Peter into the ministry.