SESSION TWENTY-SEVEN: A FISH MIRACLE & PETER REINSTATED (JOHN 21)
INTRO: What is your favorite food on a cookout?
- In fishing all night, using nets, do you think Peter just wanted something to do, or did he return to his old business?
- How does Jesus' preparation of breakfast relate to what he did for them in 13:1-17?
- Why do you think Jesus repeated the same question and charge to Peter three times?
- How is Peter supposed to demonstrate his love and loyalty to Jesus now? In light of 10:15, what would Jesus' shepherd image mean to Peter?
- Where do you go to get away from it all? How does God meet you there?
- Have you ever blown it so badly that you thought your relationship with God was over? If you can talk about it, please share...
- When have you compared yourself with someone else and wondered why his or her life was the way it was?
TAKEAWAY: What is your greatest takeaway from this story? What specific life changes do you need to make? How will you hold yourself accountable?
COMMENTARY: FISH MIRACLE & PETER'S REINSTATEMENTJOHN 21)
John ends his gospel by going back to the beginning. He wants his readers to understand how Jesus is the LIGHT and LIFE. And he does it through two classic stories: one about fish and another about a fisherman. And both stories are wrapped in inconvenience.
AN INCONVENIENT MOMENT
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus[b]), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead (John 21:1-14).
John was no stranger to fishing (that was his profession) nor to the sea of Galilee (his home).
Sometime after John 20, when the disciples were holed up in Jerusalem, they began to scatter. Most went back to their homes. For Simon Peter, James and John, Thomas and Nathaniel, as well as two other unnamed disciples, they ventured back to Galilee.
And it wasn’t long that Peter went back to what he knew best: fishing. It’s where he felt comfortable, safe and appreciated.
When Peter heads back to the open waters, the other disciples followed. He’s already a recognized leader. Wherever Peter goes, they go too. It’s no wonder Jesus saw leadership potential in this salty Galilean fisherman.
Nighttime was the right time to fish Galilee. Using torches to draw fish to the surface, the fishermen then flung a net or threw a spear to secure their catch. These fishermen were likely not more than a hundred yards from shore. In fact, they could’ve been as close as a few dozen because Jesus is going to have an easy conversation with them and Peter will swim to shore.
The seven disciples fished all night long and caught nothing. They likely fished both sides of the boat, in multiple places, as they worked the shoreline. And now it’s dawn. They are tired, discouraged and, likely, grumpy.
One helpful fishing tip is that fishermen, especially ancient fishermen, often relied upon assistance from shore to know where the fish were located. A person from a distance could see a shoal of fish, especially in the early morning light.
It’s an inconvenient moment. Some people think the disciples were hallucinating. In fact many critics of the resurrection appearances argue that people who claimed to see Jesus were delusional. They wanted so back to have Jesus back from the dead that they imagined him. But the facts and this story betray that idea.
The disciples heard a voice from the shore. This is no apparition or hallucination. It’s giving instructions for how to catch some fish (which they followed and found success). Later they gathered around a fire (with fish cooking) for a breakfast meal. How many ghosts kindle a fire for a meal? Its why John includes this story. He’s proving that Jesus is ALIVE.
He’s already told the story of Thomas putting his fingers in the wounds and how Jesus broke bread with the disciples from Emmaus, after walking with them all day. Paul will inform the Corinthians that, at one time, Jesus appeared to over 500 people. It’s easy for one person to be deluded, maybe even for a desperate few to have a collected vision...but 500? At one time? No. Jesus is not an hallucination. He’s a resurrected human body, with the scars to prove it.
One of the simplest reasons John included this story was to prove Jesus was alive. And he should know. He was there. He’s been there from the beginning.
Remember, it’s likely his wedding when Jesus turned the water into wine. John's within earshot and heard the conversation with Nicodemus. He’s present when Jesus healed a paralytic, a blind man and raised Lazarus from the dead. He watched Jesus walk on water, and feed 5000. He watched Jesus preach, teach, debate and comfort. John was the only male disciple to witness Jesus die at the cross. He and Peter were the only male disciples to view the empty tomb. John was in the house when Jesus appeared twice to the disciples. Now he was in a boat on Galilee.
He knew Jesus voice. He knew what Jesus looked like. He knew Jesus’ mannerisms. He experienced Jesus in his most intimate moments, from mountain top experiences to upper room last meals. John summarized his experience in his epistle (1 John 1:1-3):
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
There’s an interesting detail in this story that’s often overlooked. John recorded these fishermen hauled in a a catch of 153 fish. 153. That’s a rather specific number. Nevertheless it doesn’t stop people from literalizing it. Cyril of Alexandrea said the number 153 is composed of three things: 1) 100 (“to represent the fulness of the Gentiles” or a “full flock” of 100 sheep); 2) 50 to represent the remnant of Israel, yet to be gathered; and 3) the Trinity of God.
But spiritualizing a literal number is presumptuous. So why does John feel the need to state 153 “large” fish? Why does any fisherman recall a particular number? Could this have been a RECORD day for the boys? They’d never caught that many fish before and like any fisherman they like to boast (and remember ) their catch.
AN INCONVENIENT CONVERSATION
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep (John 21:15-17)."
Jesus literally brought Peter back to the scene of his crime. John 21:9 says the disciples gathered around a fire of "burning coals." The Greek word for “burning coals” (that described the breakfast fire Jesus had kindled) appears also in John 18:18:
It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire (of burning coals) they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.
This is a powerful moment...and an inconvenient one too.
The smell of the fire, the heat of the flame and the light of the blaze throwing shadows at dawn, would’ve kickstarted Peter’s guilt and shame. That was the last time he had seen Jesus alive. In the early morning hours on Passover Friday, Peter hovered over a fire to keep warm. It was also when he denied knowing Jesus, not once, nor twice, but three times. Peter was devastated.
It's important to know that a rabbinical relationship—like any covenantal relationship—could be broken through denunciation. It’s how a divorce in the first century was executed. A man could divorce his wife simply by stating “I divorce you” three times. And now you know the gravity of Peter’s denial. By denying Jesus three times he had essentially denounced following Jesus. Jesus was no longer his rabbi.
I think that’s why Peter went fishing. His discipleship program was over. Peter thought his career with Jesus was over. He had broken the relationship by his own volition.
Matthew 4:18-20 reminds us of Peter’s original calling: As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
Peter was a fisherman by trade. It’s all he ever knew...until Jesus got him hyped up on talk about a “kingdom.” Peter was one of the inner three, and likely the top dog. We know more about Peter than any other disciple. John will refer to him 34 times in his gospel alone. Matthew will talk about Peter 27 times. In Luke and Acts he’s mentioned a combined 91 times. Peter is popular and prominent.
Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14ff). Peter walked on the water (Matthew 14). Peter boldly claimed Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 16) and experienced Jesus’ transfiguration conversation with Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17). Peter asked Jesus many important questions, including how many times should we forgive (Matthew 18). Peter was criticized for falling asleep when Jesus prayed, cutting off a soldier’s ear and denying he even knew Jesus. Peter initially refused letting Jesus wash his feet. At one point, Jesus called Peter “Satan” (which means “opposer”).
But John is the only one who tells us about Peter’s name change (John 1:42):
And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).
Simon is Peter’s real name but Jesus calls Simon “Peter” because it means “little rock” or pebble, a play on words. A pebble is a “petros” and that’s Peter’s new name. He’s not a Bam Bam but a Pebbles! According to Matthew 16, Jesus built his church upon a huge foundational ROCK CONFESSION (PETRA) that He was the Messiah with the help of Peter (Petros) the Pebble. There's some humor there if you read between the lines. Jesus is the ROCK but the rest of us, including Peter, are just the gravel that builds his Kingdom.
John is also detailed the three denials of Jesus (John 18). And then Peter’s story goes silent. He’s obviously there in the room when Jesus appeared to the disciples. He was also there a week later when appeared to Thomas. Peter, we can imagine, was ruined by shame and guilt. He knew what he had done. He doesn’t feel worthy even to be IN the room with the other disciples (after denunciating his affiliation). Ironically, John and the other disciples might not even know that Peter denounced his rabbi, otherwise that might’ve been enough reason to keep Peter out of the room.
So don’t miss what’s happening.
Peter is disciple number one. And he had called it quits on Jesus. So he’s gone back to fishing because that’s the only other thing he knew. But he soon learned fishing still stinks. It’s hard, tiring work. It’s discouraging. And Peter felt completely lost.
So when he recognized Jesus from a hundred yards out, Peter jumped into the Galilee and swam to shore...only to find Jesus sitting by a fire that took Peter immediately back to an early Friday morning final DENIAL of his rabbi. Peter is all excited and then...immediately...depressed and discouraged again.
And that’s when this inconvenient conversation happens.
Jesus asked Peter three times a simple question “Do you love me?” And Peter answered three times that he “loved” Jesus. It’s a beautiful moment that’s pregnant in deeper truths. The word we translate “love” in the Greek can have several meanings. There’s romantic love (eros). There’s family love (storge). There’s brotherly love or friendship (philo). But Jesus now introducesda new love known as “agape” or Divine Love.
Peter, do you AGAPE me? Jesus asks.
Peter replies that he PHILEOs Jesus as a brother and friend.
Jesus asks a second time, “Peter, do you AGAPE me?” and Peter responds again that he loves (philo) Jesus like a friend and brother.
Finally Jesus pivots and asks Peter a third time: Do you PHILO me, Peter? And Peter responds that yes, he loves Jesus as a friend and brother.
Peter never got it. Despite being asked if he could love Jesus as God loves man, Peter answered differently. Jesus wanted to know where Peter’s heart was at. And Peter wanted Jesus to know that he was his best friend. In the end, Jesus could work with that. Peter wasn’t ready yet to love Divinely. He was still hurting. He was still discouraged. He was still depressed. Jesus always starts where we’re at.
And don’t forget that first question: “Peter, do you love me MORE THAN THESE?” More than what? More than the other disciples? His friends. More than the nets, boats and Galilee? His career and identity. More than the fish that were caught? His success and achievements. Jesus started by attacking the gods of men. What do we love? Our relationships. Our careers. Our possessions. Our achievements.
Essentially, what Jesus is doing here is RE-COMMISSIONING Simon Peter. He was called initially to be a “fisher of men,” to evangelize and tell people about Jesus. But now he was commissioned to be a SHEPHERD, to feed the weakest lambs, to shepherd the flock, to provide and protect the sheep. His Calling to “follow” had not changed but GOD’S PURPOSE for his life sure had.
AN INCONVENIENT PROPHECY
Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true (John 21:18-24).
Peter was a major figure in the early church. He preached the Pentecostal message when 3000 Jews were baptized. He performed many miracles, including healings by his own shadow. He took the good news of Jesus to the first Gentile believers. And he’ll hold some contentious theological debates with Paul.
In the book of Acts, the last time we hear of Peter is in Acts 12. King Herod was persecuting the Jerusalem church and murdered John’s brother, James. He then arrested and imprisoned Peter, but he was freed by an angel the night before his trial. Peter went to Mark’s house where a group of believers was praying. After he told them of his escape, Luke recorded that Peter “left for another place.”
And that’s the last we hear of Peter in Luke’s story about the early church. From here we must rely on other sources, namely the early church fathers who lived between AD 50 and 300.
Many Bible scholars, working from solid church tradition, think Peter traveled to first to Corinth and later to Rome. It’s possible. Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1:12 that different factions were dividing the church, including Paul, Apollos and Peter. The problem is that, other than this reference, there’s no evidence Peter was in Corinth. We know Paul was there, and Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila too in the early days of this church, because Luke said so in Acts. It’s strange that Luke wouldn’t mention the same about Peter (considering his prominence)?
Church tradition, guided by Roman Catholic history, states Peter became the bishop (lead elder) of the Roman church and was later elevated to become its first pope. The early evidence for Peter being in Rome is substantial. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-107), Irenaeus (c. 130-202), Clement of Alexandrian (c. 150-215) and Origin (184-253) all mention Peter as a founder and an influential leader in the Roman church. They also, along with Tertullian (c. 155-240) stated Peter was crucified in Rome. It’s hard to argue against this extensive and early church testimony.
The lingering question is WHEN did Peter arrive in Rome? In 318 AD, Lactantius penned a book on Christian martyrs and stated “the Apostle Peter came to Rome” while Nero reigned (AD 54-68). However, it has to be after AD 57 (when Paul wrote his epistle the Romans). Paul mentioned some 50 people in Rome by name...and none of them are called Peter. That’s a significant omission for such an influential leader.
Tradition stated Peter was crucified upside down on a cross in Rome, as part of the Christian persecution following the great fire of AD 64. Christians were blamed for the blaze. It’s possible that Peter gradually made his way to Rome in the early 60s AD, likely coming from Antioch where he was also a bishop. Again, it had to be after AD 62 when Paul, himself is in Rome for a 2-year Italian imprisonment (Acts 28), because Paul makes no mention of Peter during this time, as he did with so many others. So the best guess is Peter came to Rome sometime in 63 AD and is crucified weeks after the Great Fire of Rome started July 18, 64 AD.
In John 21:18, a prophecy was placed upon Peter’s life that his hands will be stretched out and he will go someplace he wouldn't want to go. And that happened. Peter is crucified, hands stretched out, in far away Rome. He is a faithful and patriotic Jew living in “Babylon,” as he penned in his own epistle (a reference likely to Rome). Peter’s only command is to “follow” Jesus. Wherever it leads.
In our passage Peter then redirected Jesus to John and asks “what about him?” As long as you’re going to tell me how I’m going to die, how’s John going to go? It’s a good question. However, Jesus’ answer is a hard one.
He tells Peter, “If I want John to remain alive until I return, what that to you?” It’s that little phrase “until I return” that’s intriguing. The rumor on the street was John would never die. That Jesus would return and John would escape death. Most Bible students quickly move past this hard and inconvenient prophecy, but that solves nothing. Jesus obviously told John on that day that he would die, but that he would not die “until Jesus returned.”
This may be one of the most difficult prophecies in all of Scripture. And yet, it has a rather simple answer. The early church understood it well. One of the earliest views on the return of Jesus was its connection to the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. It’s hard for most Christians today to accept because we are so “future-fitted” with Jesus’ return, but for hundreds of years the primary “last days” view as that Jesus returned in AD 70, in connection with Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and her beloved temple, to fully bring the New Covenant into force. As long as the temple, and the sacrificial system remained operational, the Old Covenant still had power.
The Hebrew writer, addressing Christian Jews living in Jerusalem in the mid-60s AD, noted this reality between the Old and New Covenants, and the fact the New Covenant was not yet realized (Hebrews 8:7-13):
For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah...
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.
Remember the book of Hebrews was penned around AD 65-66. At the time of its writing, the author stated the Old Covenant was “obsolete” and “soon to disappear” when a New Covenant took its place. In less than five years from when Hebrews was penned, Jerusalem was gone. The temple smashed until not a single stone stood upon another, fulfilling Jesus’ own prophecies about the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24 (see also Mark 13 and Luke 21). Without a temple, the sacrificial system was rendered inoperable. There was no need for a priest or high priest either. For the next two thousand years, Jews would be scattered all over the world...and persecuted.
In other words, since AD 70 the Jews have not practiced biblical Judaism. In AD 66 it was already “obsolete” and soon to disappear altogether.
Why does this matter? Because John is told he will live to experience Jesus’ return...and he did. John is the only apostle to live past the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. He still will die, but he will die under the New Covenant fully realized. It’s a bit mind blowing when you think about it.
We know more about John’s journey in the first century than all other apostles, save Paul. John was an influential leader in the Jerusalem church until his brother was murdered and the church scattered in the early 40s AD. John was charged with taking care of Jesus’ mother and, according to church tradition, cared for her until her death and then migrated to Ephesus. He helped lead the Ephesian church until he got into trouble, was taken to Rome and sentenced to death. In John’s case he was submerged into a vat of boiling oil, but miraculously survived. This miracle happened at the colosseum in Rome and one account said that the entire audience converted to Christianity because of it!
Then John was banished to a Greek island named Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation. After his banishment John returned to Ephesus where there are several stories. He lived to an old age, dying sometime near the end of the first century AD.
If Peter’s purpose was to shepherd the flock. And Paul’s purpose was to be a missionary to the Gentiles. John’s purpose was equally clear. Jesus wanted John to live to a ripe old age to confirm everything he had seen and heard. John witnessed the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He was there when the church began at Pentecost, grew in Jerusalem, and scattered across Roman empire. His job was to be a WITNESS for Jesus everywhere he went...including his return in AD 70 to fully realize the New Covenant and commence His Spiritual Kingdom on earth (through the Church). John's work, in the words of the ancient hymn, was to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
John wrote in his Revelation the “time was short” and the return of Christ was “soon.” Listen to John's words to open the book of Revelation (verses 1-3):
The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
And the time was "near" for those who read the book (initially authored to the seven churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Thyatira, Pergamum, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea). In fact, there’s solid evidence that placed John’s Revelation as being penned between 68 and 69 AD, as one church father stated it was written “after the tyrant (Nero) was dead.” Nero committed suicide June 8, 68 AD.
Given this timeline, we can assume John wrote Revelation just prior to AD 70 and it was primarily a prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem with the RETURN OF CHRIST (Rev 19), RESURRECTION AND JUDGMENT (Rev 20) and NEW (SPIRITUAL) KINGDOM "coming down out of heaven" in its view. Revelation isn't a scary book about our future but fulfilled prophecy (like Daniel) where we can find hope, help and healing.
In the 80s AD, I believe as do other scholars, that John penned this gospel book. The message of his gospel? Jesus is LORD. He is the LIFE and LIGHT. He is the LIVING WATER that becomes "new wine," that washes dirty feet, that heals the lame and quenches the thirst.
John's gospel is an inconvenient story with an inconvenient message, especially for those who misunderstand the return of Christ (as taught by Jesus and the early church). John's overall message is that JESUS is the LIGHT and the LIFE. He is the KING and the KINGDOM. And He's PRESENT with us, not in heaven waiting yet to return. His Kingdom is PRESENT too. It's a positive, powerful and productive view for THE CHURCH today. We are not weak, forgotten or abandoned by God. To the contrary, GOD IS WORKING. And the GODHEAD (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are FULLY PRESENT with us today.
So what do we have to fear? Nothing!
With that said, am I stating there is no future return of Jesus? Not at all. It's entirely possible that God could end this earth, if and when He desires. All I'm saying is the prophecies of Daniel all pointed to a first century realization. The prophecies of Jesus about the temple's destruction and his return were connected for a reason (and Jesus stated "all" would be fulfilled in the generation of his hearers [Matthew 24:34]). It's why the New Testament writers all consistently write that Jesus was "coming soon" and the "last days" were happening THEN (John said it was the "last hour"). Finally, it helps us understand how Jesus could tell John he'd "live to see His return" (which he did).
I recognize this might be hard teaching for most Christians. We have been conditioned by 1800 years of church history, especially in the past 150 years, to think Jesus' return is going to happen in our lifetimes. All I'm saying is the "biblical" return of Christ was fulfilled in AD 70. The evidence is a Jewish temple that's never been rebuilt (and I believe never will be). God does not live in a building. God lives in our HEARTS now. That's the New Covenant. That's the HOPE we can trust. That's the LIGHT and LIFE we can now LIVE.
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