Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

251. "I go a-fishing" (John 21:1-11)

John's gospel now tells of a third appearance of Jesus to his disciples — not the third manifestation since his resurrection (see 20:14), but the third to be recorded here, the other two being both of them appearances in the upper room (20:19,26), one on the day of resurrection and the other exactly a week later. So it seems likely that this encounter with their risen Lord now to be narrated was again on the first day of the week, just two weeks after his resurrection.

Was this to teach the disciples that the first day of the week would prove always to be the best time for communion with their risen Lord?

This new phanerosis evidently took place after an interval of some days during which the disciples were left to their own resources. A full week may have elapsed without any further personal fellowship with their beloved Master. And in this time the eleven had apparently become split into two groups. Six of them were with Peter. But what about the other four? It may be (John gives virtually no detail regarding this) that Peter's leadership had become an issue between them, the four deeming him to be disqualified by his outrageous denials of Jesus on the night of the Lord's arrest. But what of themselves? Hadn't they all turned and fled (Mt. 26:56)?

The threat of a rift in the One Body — a thing disciples of Jesus have always been "good" at — would explain the very strong emphasis in this concluding episode in John's Gospel on Peter and his special responsibilities (see v.7,1 1,15,18,19,22).

Naturally Thomas, the first to be mentioned here among the six, now stood shoulder to shoulder with Peter, for up to a week ago had he not stoutly denied his Master's resurrection until it was madness to deny any longer?

Again, it may be that, after the Lord's repeated message on the gathering-in of Gentiles (ch.171) and the resurrection emphasis on Galilee of the Gentiles (see ch. 256) there were some among the eleven who were already making an issue of this principle. The unexpected use of "Tiberias" instead of the much more familiar "Sea of Galilee" might perhaps be intended as a deliberate hint in this direction.

Nor is it unlikely that John's intensely symbolic mind saw a like meaning behind Peter's abrupt: "I go a-fishing." At the time, the apostle doubtless meant no more than the expression of an eagerness to indulge his old enthusiasm. But, with hindsight, John was capable of unique insight into the significance of ordinary events. The "feed my sheep" episode may also be intended to add a Gentile flavour to this narrative.

There are two curious details about this fishing expedition. It included two who go nameless. Why should John make this deliberate omission? One of the two wasalmost certainly Andrew, Peter's brother and himself a fisherman. Since there is reason to believe that in writing his gospel John had some collaboration from Andrew, it is not unlikely that that apostle insisted: "Keep my name out of this".

The only plausible guess that can be made as td' the identity of the other anonymous member of the party is that he was Philip, for had not he and Andrew been already associated earlier with the Lord's provision of bread and fish (Jn. 6:5-9), and were not he and Nathaniel long-standing friends (1:45fif)?

But why should Nathaniel be included in this fishing expedition? No fisherman he, surely! did he not come from land-locked Cana? Then must not his insistence on joining the rest be read as a declaration of unanimity with them?

But by indulging his enthusiasm for his old trade (see ch.29) Peter was in error here. His Master had called him more than once from his fishing (Jn. 1:41,42 —no longer son of Jonas the fisherman; Lk. 5:8-11; 22:32; cp. Jn. 17:18; 20:21). Peter was giving the wrong lead. The reproof of this retrograde step comes out clearly enough by and by.

Fruitless Toil

In fact, that reproof came, in one sense, right away. It was a dark moonless night, the end of Passover month. Yet when conditions were in that respect ideal, they had no catch at all. Peter, ought you not to have learned something from those long dark discouraging hours?

At last, as the brightness of dawn was spreading across the sky, they headed back to shore. And there at the water's edge they saw a fire, and by it a stranger who hailed them as though he would purchase a fish out of their catch: be'-'Boys, you haven't anything to eat, have you?"

A strange question. Why did he not say:

"Boys, sell me a fish, will you?"

Instead, he seemed to imply a knowledge that they had caught nothing — "not one (fish)", for themselves, let alone for customers.

The reply came, curt and disconsolate:


What fisherman likes to admit to total lack of success? This encounter only served to accentuate their misery.

Why this failure? Was there any stretch of water in the wide world more prolific of fish than Galilee? even a small boy with a stick, a piece of string and a bent pin would have done better? Then, why this failure?

Even whilst a grumbling Peter called to mind the one other occasion (Lk. 5:5) when he had fared so badly, the stranger shouted to them again:

"Try the right side of your boat, and you will find!" Find! It was a strange word to use about fishing; much more suitable to describe finding men.

Now a grumbling Peter had something else to grumble about.

'What does an amateur like him know about this? '"We're the professionals, aren't we? If there were a shoal offish alongside, wouldn't we recognize it in this daylight?'

But there was authority in that voice. So, even though not identifying the speaker, they did as they were bidden, and forthwith (Gk.) their net was loaded (Gk. mestos) with the best fish in Galilee. Six more pairs of hands came to Peter's assistance, yet all their united straining, as they gasped with both effort and amazement, could not bring that net on board. Two hundred pounds of fish per man was more than they could manage.


But now came recognition. Strange that they should have failed to recognize the figure of Jesus. Yet more strange that they failed to identify the voice (Jn. 10:4). But now John, the most discerning of the Twelve when it came to seeing the meaning behind the facts (e.g. 20:8), all at once knew the truth. It is always so. Men whose minds are close to the mind of Christ readily recognize his presence by what he does in their own personal experience.

With a mighty effort of self-discipline John suppressed his excitement and said quietly to Peter at his side:

"It is the Lord!"

Of course, of course! The apostle could scarce hold in a mighty shout of gladness. And then, as on so many other occasions (p.707) he was in the grip of an uncontrollable eagerness to be at his Lord's side. What cared he now for this abundance of fishes? Was not this a repetition of what the Lord had done for him on a certain much talked-of occasion? So he left the net to the helpless six, and grabbing his heavy fisher's coat (for he was clad only in swimming trunks), he wrapped the garment round him, and threw himself over the side to get to Jesus.

The others, just as eager as Peter, doubtless, scrambled into the dinghy, now near to capsizing, and rowed the hundred yards to shore, towing the net-full of fishes into shallow water.

Soon they were all gathered round that fire on the beach, and they marvelled that there on the hot embers lay a large fish, cooked, ready for eating.

"Bring some of your catch, too" said Jesus, and forthwith Peter returned to the net and with a mighty effort quite beyond his normal powers, he dragged all the fish ashore and — his ingrained habit asserting itself—he began to lay them out (in fives?) to facilitate the counting of them. How many he now brought, as instructed, to lay before his Master, the record does not say.

Meantime all the apostolic group knew for sure that it was their Lord to whom they owed this astonishing experience. Yet none of them dared to interrogate him in confirmation of what needed no confirmation. In silence or with restrained speech they tried to cover up their shame and excitement and gladness. Thomas, of course, was quietly pointing at the marks in hands and feet.

Now, reclining round the fire, they satisfied their hunger with bread and fish, just as at the Feeding of the Five Thou sand (6:10). But now there was fire also. John's unusual word for "fish" (opsarion) is the same in both places. And that fish on the coals was sufficient to satisfy the sharp appetites of seven hungry men — and Jesus. They did not eat what they had caught themselves. His provision was adequate, and incomparably appetizing. The words: "he taketh bread, and giveth them" are identical with the Lord's Last Supper usage (Mk. 14:22); so it may be inferred that he also gave thanks for the God-given meal, as at the Last Supper (Mt. 26:26).

And the intensely symbolic mind of John (App.2) brooded on the extraordinary character of it all, and his soul also was nourished therewith.

Symbolism: Fish and FISH

It is now time to read this remarkable record with a different pair of spectacles. John never calls the Lord's miracles "miracles"; he calls them "signs", using a word which bids his reader look for a further meaning than what the superficial details suggest.

The highly symbolic nature of this sign will be the better appreciated when it is set alongside the earlier miraculous catch of fishes in Luke 5. The resemblances and differences between the two are impressive.

Luke 5
John 21
Jesus the teacher
Jesus the absent Lord
Toiling all night
Toiling all night
Not a single fish taken
Not a single fish taken
Peter the leader
Peter the leader
Jesus in the boat
Jesus on the shore — unrecognized
Two boats
One boat
All kind of fishes —
Great fishes —
a precise number
Fish caught from both boats
Fish caught on the right side
Boat sinking
Even the dinghy did not sink
Fish pulled on board
Disciples unable to pull the net in
No fire, no bread
Fire, and bread and one fish shared by all
Nets breaking
Net not broken
"Depart from me"
Peter's eagerness to be with Jesus
"I am a sinful man"
"Thou knowest that I love thee"
"Follow me"
"Follow me"
"A fisher of men"
"Feed my sheep"

The problems provoked here by correspondence and contrast:

The essential difference between the two is that the first miracle describes in symbol the ministry of the gospel by Jesus and his apostles. (See ch. 29 on this). The second miracle, coming at the beginning of a New Day, foreshadows the fruits of that ministry in the future when Christ is "manifested" (21:1).

Then, he is a Teacher. Now, in his unperceived, unrecognized coming, he is a glorious Lord.

The disciples toil all night. By themselves they have no catch in their gospel net. When Christ comes, all at once their catch is unbelievably great.

In the earlier days of the gospel, the nets were riven and the boat sank — a plain prophecy of division in the church and consequent failure, the two boats representing Jew and Gentile in the same work.

In the earlier phase, all kinds of fishes were caught, good and bad. In the last fishing only "great" fishes are caught; the numbering of them signifies that they are redeemed; their atonement price has been paid (see Ex. 30:12-14). And these are caught on the right side, this keyword recalling those who are set at the Lord's right hand on Judgment Day. And in that day there will be no pathetic breaking nets. Instead, the glorious idea of one unbroken Body of Christ will be a realized ideal instead of a hypocritical mockery of truth.

For all there will be a relaxed participation in a meal of fulfilled fellowship, and in this meal Christ will also share. He, and not the apostles, is the one who has prepared it.

At that time the disciple, knowing himself to be sinful and unworthy still, will nevertheless once again be bidden: "Follow me", this time no longer eager to gather fish into the net but instead to minister as a kindly shepherd after the pattern of him who is the Good Shepherd.

One last point: In this pattern Jesus himself is both broken Bread and appetizing fish. Here is the origin of the symbol, very common in the early days of Christian persecution, when Christians silently recognized each other by the wearing of a fish symbol.

The idea went further than that, for here is a mystic anagram, more evocative than any sign of the cross:

In Greek "fish" is:


NOTES: John 21:1-14

The sea of Tiberias. Why this unusual name? To recall the remarkable symbolic happenings in 6:1,22,23,29?

Shewed (note the AV italics); literally: he manifested (his glory in a final miracle?}; s.w. 2:1 1.
Peter and Thomas. The two who denied him are set first!

Nathaniel now experiences the fulfilment of 1:50.

Two other. Gospel fishing is not restricted to the Twelve.
I go.- Gk. hupago often has a suggestion of curt impatience.

I go a fishing. The last occasion was Mt. 1 7:27. Contrast Jn. 20:21; 1 7:1 8. From this point on, in the N T fishing is replaced by keeping sheep; v.15ff.

Caught nothing; cp. Ps. 1 27:1.
On the shore. Mt. 13:48 helps the symbolism here.

Knew not. The Gk. is emphatic: not one of them at all knew him. Does this verse carry disturbing implications concerning disciples when Jesus is manifest in the Last Day?
Children. Boys. Is there a hint of reproof in the non-use of "brethren"? 20:17.

Have ye any meat? Rather: You haven't a thing to eat, have you? More reproof? Note the symbolism behind these happenings, and their appropriateness to the Second Coming:

a. v.5: no food at all; then (v.6) an abundance.

b. Jesus not recognized.

c. The disciple unwilling to come to Christ naked; so he wears his fisher's coat,

d. A sudden endowment of superhuman strength.

e. Christ provides a meal: One Fish for seven men.

f. The text implies that Jesus knew the answer must be a negative.
Ye shall find. This word is unexpected here. But s.w. 1 :45.

Multitude of fishes. For interpretation, see Is. 60:5, and perhaps Ez. 47:9.
When Simon heard. His name means 'one who hears.'

Why did not the others emulate Peter's urgent resolution to go to Jesus? (a) non-swimmers? (b) more concerned about the fishes? (c) lacking Peter's faith? (see next chapter). With reference to the Last Day sign, what is this detail meant to imply?
Bread, fish. Both are symbols of Christ.
In view of v.9, why this instruction? It seems pointless, but certainly isn't. See note on verse 5.
Went up should surely read went back to the dinghy. This prefix ana often has this meaning.
Come and dine. Here again Jesus was made known to disciples in the Breaking of Bread.

None durst ask him. Cp. 4:27; 16:23 (B.S. 1.09).
Fish. Definite article: the Fish, the one now cooking on the fire.
The third time. But it was at least the seventh. Then does John mean the third in his record, or the third appearance on the first day of the week (20:19,26)?

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