Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

252. Miracles, miracles, miracles (John 21:1-11)

Discerning commentators have observed that John not only calls the Lord's miracles "signs", but also that the great catch of fishes is the eighth sign, as though suggesting a new Beginning comparable to the Lord's resurrection on the eighth day. Very discerning!

But why, it may be asked, have they failed to perceive that this last sign was itself a multiplicity of signs? This characteristic almost shouts from John 21, yet its message seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Then, how complete (how discerning?) is the list which now follows?

The first marvel was, as ch.251 has underlined, that in specially favourable conditions, a full night's fishing brought the disciples no reward. Was not that an astonishing negative miracle?

Then, by contrast, there came such a mighty catch that seven men could not bring the full net on board. But, writes John with an amazement which had lasted for years, "for all there were so many, yet the net was not broken!" — and it was a professional fisherman who wrote those words. It has to be remembered, too, that in those days the fishers of Galilee did not have nylon or steel mesh for their trade. Another negative miracle, but not so negative as the other.

Although the weight of the fish was more than the entire group of men could handle (v.6,8), only a few minutes later Peter coped single-handed (v.l1).

Nor was this the only way in which the presence of Jesus made Peter superhuman. To go to his Lord, the apostle "did cast himself info the sea." Certainly the commonest meaning of this preposition eis is "into". Yet, strangely enough, in this short narrative John three times uses the same word with one of its less common meanings:

a. v.4: "Jesus stood on the shore."
b. v.11: "Peter drew the net to land."
c. v.9: "as soon then as they were come to land."

To read into any of these verses the meaning "into", is to make a nonsense, and accordingly King James' men used their commonsense and came away from the strict grammatical meaning. It looks as though John, by these three examples, was giving his readers a hint. It is as if he were saying: 'According to your insight be it unto you.'

Another detail points to the same conclusion that Peter cast himself upon the water, to walk to Jesus.

Why should he "gird his fisher's coat unto him" for this operation? Being virtually naked, why did he not stay so and swim the hundred yards to the shore? (Is there any beach on the verge of hill-girt Galilee where a man can walk only waist-deep a hundred yards from shore?)

Again, would Peter be so absurd as to try to swim to shore with a heavy coat impeding his movement?

When it is remembered that on an earlier occasion (Mt. 14:28-32) Peter had twice walked on the water (when it was tempestuous, and not calm, as now), it is not difficult to understand that with faith begotten out of past experience he would assay to do the same again — and be empowered to succeed once again.

Other features of this complex "sign" suggest a further element of the extraordinary.

Why, for example, did the apostles not recognize Jesus when he shouted to them? If half-a-dozen words on the telephone readily betray a man's identity (a commonplace experience, this), ought not at least one of the seven, all of whom had been with Jesus for three-and-a-half years, to have recognized that well-loved voice at once? Another negative miracle?

And whence came the bread and fire and fish on the coals?

If the suggestion advanced in ch.251 has any substance in it, that this eighth sign was symbolic in various ways of the New Day of Messiah's appearing, this profusion of miracles takes on an appearance of marked appropriateness, for are not the works of the Holy Spirit in the early church described as "the powers of the age to come." (Heb.6:5)?

There is a stimulating homework here for the diligent student - to explore what specific implications there might be behind these findings. What did the symbolic mind of John perceive, and his symbolic pen imply, in this unique assembly of wonders "written for our learning"?

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