As a young boy and up through my teenage years our family usually vacationed in Sarasota, FL during the 4th of July weekend. We would eat at the same beachside diner every year, enjoy live music, there’d be a large dance, shoot off our own fireworks, chase tiny crabs by the water with flashlights, and finish the evening by watching the official firework show put on by a nearby beach resort. Most of you have seen similar firework displays, where there is all sorts of various booms, sounds, colors, and variations of fireworks all leading up to the grand finale when they would set off hundreds of fireworks at the same time. This grand finale was always the highlight of the evening for me. The loud blasts, color displays, and sheer volume of lights in the sky were captivating to behold.
In a similar but greater manner, as we begin John 21 this morning we have officially arrived at the grand finale of John’s gospel. After such a robust display of who Jesus is for the previous 20 chapters how does John launch into his grand finale? With Jesus inviting His some of His disciples to come and eat breakfast.
There’s something about this invitation to breakfast with Jesus that’s very homey or down-to-earth isn’t it? I find breakfast to be the most wonderful meal of the day, something that warms the soul, prepares for the duties ahead, and when had with close friends it is delightfully encouraging. Maybe this is why J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits were eager to have not just one breakfast but a second breakfast whenever they could! But think about it. I wonder if you think the resurrected and glorified Christ would have no interest in such an ordinary occasion? I mean He has been raised from death, has conquered the world, the flesh, and the devil, and is about to take His seat at the right hand of God where He’ll rule and reign until He returns to usher His kingdom in. He is truly the King of kings, Lord of lords, God over all. Something as common as breakfast would’ve surely appealed to Jesus before His resurrected state, but afterwards…doesn’t He have larger and grander things to attend to? Be of good cheer Church. The resurrected Christ, though being the glorified and highly exalted Son of God, is indeed supreme and above all things, but it delights Him to meet us with His grace and mercy not where we ought to be but where we are. We see that here in this chapter.
Now before we get into the text allow me to state on disclaimer. You should know there are many who believe John 21 isn’t an original part of John’s gospel. If you’ve got a study Bible you may find something of this conversation in the study notes below.The argument is that John’s purpose statement in 20:30-31 forms a perfect ending to the gospel and therefore is truly the end of it. On one hand hearing this shouldn’t ruffle our feathers because we’ve seen this before. There are a few sections of in the gospels that are certainly later additions. We believe the end of Mark’s gospel from 16:9 to the end is a later addition, as well as John 7:53-8:11 about the woman caught in adultery. In these cases we have evidence for such conclusions, the earliest and most reliable manuscripts or copies of these gospels don’t include those sections. These sections only begin showing up a few hundred years after they were written. But when John 21 comes within view, there is no evidence of any early manuscript or copy of John’s gospel leaving this chapter out. In fact, all of them include it. So it seems those who believe John 21 isn’t a true part of John’s gospel, believe this because according to their opinion John doesn’t need to keep going after his summary statement in 20:30-31. But we should remember, our ideas of what a proper ending for a gospel is isn’t necessarily John’s opinion. And perhaps more relevant to this discussion is 1 John 5:13, that seems to be a fitting ending to John’s first letter but he keeps going after that passage as well!So it seems to be John’s pattern to end some of his writing in this manner and we shouldn’t question him about this. Why mention this at all? I know many of you bring study Bibles with you here on Sunday’s, and since most of them include comments on this discussion I wanted to make sure to mention this briefly to help you navigate through it.
Now, onto John’s grand finale!
A Disappointing Evening (v1-3)
“After this Jesus revealed Himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and He revealed Himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to Him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.”
Right away in v1 we get a bit of an introduction to this chapter. “After this” is John’s way once again of giving us a time frame for these things, telling us the events of chapter 21 took place sometime after the events of chapter 20 where Jesus revealed or manifested Himself to the disciples in His resurrection state. In v2 we see the cast of characters, that seven of the disciples we’re present in this moment: Peter, Thomas, Nathanael (who hasn’t been mentioned since chapter 1), the two sons of Zebedee (who we know to be James and John from the other gospels), and two others as well that John doesn’t name. v3 begins the action. The immediate sense v3 gives is that Peter, who must have been feeling quite idle or quite hungry, spontaneously decides to go fishing and these other disciples decided to go along with him. Which in one sense is understandable. Yes Christ has been raised but the disciples can only stay locked up in that room so long until they run out of food! But in another sense don’t you think the disciples seem strangely idle here? Christ has been raised, He’s revealed Himself to them twice, He’s given them a foretaste of the Spirit to come, and they were glad in His presence. But there’s no urgency in them, no diligent gospel labor, no apparent joy like we see in them after Pentecost. So part of me wonders…since the disciples have now lost the physical presence of Christ and haven’t received the fullness of the Spirit yet, I wonders if these men had a desire to return to their former occupation of fishermen.The text doesn’t reveal such a desire in them and it really could be that they’ve run out of food, hungry, and need to replenish supplies. But John does leave v3 open enough to cause us to wonder about their motive here. All in all, the sense is that the disciples here at the beginning of chapter 21 are a group with no apparent drive or purpose.
So off seven of them go to fish, and v3 tells us, though they fished all night they caught nothing. It was surely a disappointing evening for them. Even so, all of this was about to be changed as a dark evening gives way to a bright dawn. So after their disappointing evening comes…
An Abundant Morning (v4-6)
“Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish.”
As the sun rises v4 tells us Jesus came and stood on the shore. Whether He appeared here at this precise moment or walked to this spot we’re not told. We are told the disciples didn’t recognize Him. This isn’t the first time Jesus has revealed Himself to them, it’s actually the third time (as v14 will soon remind us). So one might think they would recognize Him but because they didn’t it means either Jesus didn’t allow them to recognize Him as He did before to Mary briefly, or that it was still so early in the morning that the disciples couldn’t make out who was on the shore. So there’s the scene. Jesus engages them by asking a question, “Children, do you have any fish?” That Jesus uses the word children is interesting. It isn’t Jesus’ usual way He address the disciples but it shows us these disciples are truly immature in their faith. But it also shows us an intimacy present between them. This word children could also be translated ‘boys’, ‘lads’, ‘friends’ even, which implies a deep and lasting relational bond. It is a term of endearment used by One who they think is just a stranger on the beach.Which is then followed by a question that seems to imply the answer “…have you caught any fish?” Or as some translations put it, “…haven’t you caught anything yet?” That they were about a hundred yards away from the shore as v8 says, and that they’ve not caught anything after fishing for an entire evening their response to this stranger on the shore is merely a brief and understandable, “No.” Then, strangely, this One who is a stranger to them gives them some strange advice. Jesus tells them to cast the net on the right side of the boat because they’ll find fish there. Now remember, they don’t recognize this is Jesus yet, but they do heed the advice. The question I want to ask here is ‘Why?’ This isn’t obedience to Christ, they didn’t know it was Christ. Perhaps by this point they’ve tried almost anything to catch something but nothing seemed to be working for them. They could’ve easily replied that they’ve already tried it before time and time again going back and forth between both sides of the boat. Perhaps they sensed there was something about this stranger, a kind of authority in Him which encouraged them to listen to Him, or perhaps they were just so tired of catching nothing that they were willing to try anything at this point to catch something for breakfast. So they did it, and when they cast the net on the right side of the boat, they found it to be as He said it would be. We’re not surprised as readers because we know who gave the advice, but the disciples find their net surprisingly and abundantly full. So much in fact it says in v6 they couldn’t even get it back in the boat!
After such a dark and empty evening this abundant morning had to be a great encouragement. Little did they know how encouraging it was about to become.
A Surprising Savior (v7-8)
“That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” 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 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.”
All the disciples were seemingly struck by the miraculous catch itself, all of them but one. v7 tells us it was ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ (or John) that wasn’t only struck the miracle, something else grabbed ahold of his attention. He, and only he, recognized the stranger on the shore was no stranger at all, but was Jesus. This great catch was all John needed to distinguish the touch of the Master.O for such a sensitivity to be in us. Sensitivity to recognize Christ when He isn’t immediately recognizable, when are nets are full or empty, when no one else around us sees Him. John’s perception is exemplary here and very fitting with what we see of him throughout the gospels. So in his joy he cries out to Peter, “It is the Lord!” And now that Peter is told such good news he responds like he so often does throughout the gospels, with rash and quick action, by jumping into the sea to swim to Jesus. Now you’re probably wondering about why he puts on clothes before jumping in. ‘Don’t people take off clothes before swimming rather than put them on?’ Well, yes they do. But during this time it was customary for fisherman to fish naked or very close to it. So, when Peter learns this is Jesus he covered himself before jumping in, not to warm up from the cold night, but to cover shame. Remember what Adam and Eve did in the garden? After disobeying God they covered and hid themselves because of their shame. So too here, Peter was now going to face the Savior he had denied so naturally he covers himself and then plunges in.But even so, Peter desired to be with Jesus. Yes he had a lot to be ashamed of, a lot to even be embarrassed about, but the moment he saw Him on the shore his heart leapt and his feet followed suit.
I do wonder if you believe as Peter does here. I think too many Christians live life before God believing they’ll see God one day and think He’ll be holding a clip board, ready and eager to tell you all the things you did wrong in life, item by item. Perhaps so many believe this because like Peter, so many have also messed in some big ways and have much to be embarrassed about. This is then why, perhaps, our hearts don’t leap at the thought of Jesus. Yes, Peter sinned – grievously so – but he knew when he got to Jesus on the shore He wouldn’t be holding a list of all the things he’d done wrong. Do you know this? When we see Jesus face to face one day you’ll know what He’ll be eager to show us? Not what we’ve left undone or all the wrong we have done, but His wounds, the marks of what He’s done to enable us to be in His presence! Rejoice in this Church, and in your guilt may you be as glad and gutsy as Peter is here!
Well, after Peter begins swimming to Jesus the rest of the disciples are left to tow the large full net of fish into shore. What happens when they all arrive? They arrive at a breakfast already prepared.
Breakfast with Jesus (v9-14)
“When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So 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. 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. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after He was raised from the dead.”
The disciples get to shore, and the first thing they see in v 9 is a breakfast of fish and bread made ready by a charcoal fire. Curious detail don’t you think? Why not just tell us it was a fire? Why add the detail that it was a charcoal fire? Not only is this further evidence that John himself was an eyewitness to these things (only an eyewitness would know such details), but it has much to do with Peter. The last time we saw a charcoal fire in John’s gospel was in chapter 18 where a cold Peter was warming himself while denying Christ for the third and final time. How interesting that Peter’s denial scene seems to be set up anew here at this breakfast on the beach, where Jesus will soon ask him three times whether or not he truly loves Him.
Anywho, Jesus asks them in v10 to bring their fish to Him as well so He can begin cooking some of the fish they caught along with the fish He already has. Who goes and gets the fish? No surprise, it is Peter in v11. The net proved to be so heavy they had trouble bringing it aboard their boat, so he leads the way getting a few of the others to help him in dragging the heavy load of large fish over to them. And here we see two wonders: first, they caught 153 large fish (an unheard of catch), and second, their net didn’t break but bore the great weight well. The well-known historian Jerome saw here something of the global gospel expansion saying there were at his time 153 different species of fish known in the world, and that the disciples caught 153 fish means they would soon have a similarly great catch through preaching the gospel among all the nations and peoples of the world.Some others have referred to Ezekiel 47 where in a vision of the great river flowing from the temple there is a multitude of fish “…like the fish of Great Sea” (Ez. 47:10).As wonderful as these images are (and they may be true!) it may just be that these are fishermen, who are known to eagerly preserve the details of unusual occurrences so they can tell others! I would encourage to not get hung up on or look for a secret meaning in it, that would be to miss the forest for the tree’s.
The rest of our passage, from v12-14, shows that this was a strange breakfast indeed.Jesus invites them to breakfast, it says in v12 they knew it was Jesus, but v12 implies they weren’t all that sure about that. For disciples who are still coming to terms with the reality of the resurrection and what that now means for them in their future mission, I think the gist of this is something of a hope against hope, like ‘Do I dare believe this is truly Jesus raised to new life and feeding me breakfast?’Nonetheless, v14 confirms it. This was the third time Jesus had revealed Himself to His disciples after His resurrection.
There is much to apply from this text, allow me to mention one as we come to a close here. Remember the disciples net, specifically that it didn’t break. The disciples dark disappointing night turned surprisingly into an abundant morning in Jesus’ presence. And in His presence He overwhelmingly blessed them with more than they’d ever seen, much more than they could handle, but did their resources give in or break under the weight of what God had given them? No! It held firm and bore the weight well. Lesson? God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supply! Faithfulness to God doesn’t look hiding away in a locked room or hunkering down immovably in fear but moving forward with Him into what is often unknown. We need to remember in this: where God leads, where God calls His people to, God provides!
There is as much to be refreshed here in the gospel as there is in the gospel way of life. Christ came, Christ lived, Christ died, Christ rose, Christ ascended, and Christ is calling the world to turn from sin and turn to Him in faith to be saved! Question: will the weight of any sinner’s shame, guilt, struggle, or sin be too much for Jesus to bear? No. His gospel nets never break, His gospel nets can bear the heaviest shame, the weightiest guilt, the largest struggle, and the heftiest of sinners! And once we come to Him in faith and find His arm strong to save, what must we remember as we labor to walk obediently before Him in this world with His message? Elders what must we remember as we seek to follow and lead others to where Christ is taking us? That the nets of His grace and mercy never break, that they can bear the heaviest shame, the weightiest guilt, the largest struggle, and the heftiest of sinners…that as weak as we are His nets will always be strong for us!
We are now waiting for that last and final dawn, when we’ll see the Lord face to face and breakfast with Him forever! Night is almost gone, dawn awaits! It will come!
The Reformation Study Bible, the Gospel Transformation Bible, and the MacArthur Study Bible all deal with it directly or hint at this debate.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1971) page 858-859.
D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991) page 669-670.
Morris, page 862.
Grant R. Osborne, John – Verse by Verse (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2018) page 478.
Morris, page 864.
R.C. Sproul, John – Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Orlando, Florida: Reformation Trust, 2009) page 400.
Ibid., page 402. There is debate here, some say there were 157 species, which would nullify this theory immediately.
Morris, page 867.
Osborne, page 481.
Carson, page 674.