1-3 After this, Jesus appeared again to the disciples, this time at the Tiberias Sea (the Sea of Galilee). This is how he did it: Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed “Twin”), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the brothers Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. Simon Peter announced, “I’m going fishing.” The rest of them replied, “We’re going with you.” They went out and got in the boat. They caught nothing that night.
After Jesus’ first appearances to Mary, and the gathered disciples in Jerusalem, the Johannine writer shifts the narrative back to Galilee. According to New Testament scholar, Dr. Allen Dwight Callahan, the setting of Galilee is important because in the Gospel of John this northern territory represents the province of miracles. Each time Jesus was in the region of Galilee, a miraculous event occurred. It was in Cana of Galilee, that Jesus miraculously turned water into wine. Moreover, it is in Galilee, at the Sea of Tiberias (also called the Sea of Galilee), that Jesus miraculously multiplies two fish and five loaves into enough food to feed over five thousand persons. In this third appearance to the gathered disciples, the Johannine writer narratively sets the stage for yet another miraculous sign.
In verses 2-3, the writer of John lays out how Jesus unfolds this third appearance, and the text gives rise to several observations:
1. There is a division within the faith community. Verse two notes only seven disciples were there. Simon Peter, who betrayed Jesus, Thomas who demanded proof of Jesus’ resurrection, Nathanael who was from Cana, James and John, the sons of Zebedee and two other nameless disciples are together. Where are the rest of the disciples? Not the twelve, but those who stayed with Jesus until the end; witnessed the crucifixion, and saw the resurrected Lord?
2. There is confusion of purpose. The text does not say they have gathered to discuss resurrection events or plot out how they will spread the eugellion, or “good news”. Rather, it appears that they have gathered on the Sea of Tiberias to return to their lives as usual—fishermen. They are going back to what they did before they met Jesus. Peter announces he is going fishing and the others acquiesce without discussion or debate. They too will return to the sea to fish for a living. The fact that they are fishing with nets as explained in the following verses, underscores their decision to return to their previous profession. Commercial anglers fish with nets. They are utterly confused about their purpose.
3. There is confounding failure. Verse 3 says they get on the boat and fish all night long. However, they catch nothing. This lack of productivity should not be surprising. Jesus cross-trained them to fish for men, not return to fishing for fish. They think they can go back to the way it was, but they cannot. Jesus has touched them and they will never be the same. Productivity is now inextricably linked to their newfound call: the call to fish for men.
The seven disciples clearly do not understand what the resurrection means. If they did, they would realize they could not go back to “business as usual.”
4When the sun came up, Jesus was standing on the beach, but they didn’t recognize him.
5 Jesus spoke to them: “Good morning! Did you catch anything for breakfast?” They answered, “No.”
6 He said, “Throw the net off the right side of the boat and see what happens.” They did what he said. All of a sudden there were so many fish in it, they weren’t strong enough to pull it in.
7-8 Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Master!” When Simon Peter realized that it was the Master, he threw on some clothes, for he was stripped for work, and dove into the sea. The other disciples came in by boat for they weren’t far from land, a hundred yards or so, pulling along the net full of fish.
As the sun comes up, the seven disciples see Jesus standing on the beach, but they do not recognize him. As they come out of the night, even though they are witnessing the light, they remain within a veil of darkness. In the Gospel of John, the writer consistently uses dualistic symbols (light vs. dark, above vs. below, spirit vs. flesh, etc.) to highlight how humans are misguided about their identity. Simply stated, the darkness present in this world exists because humans do not understand their identity in God through Christ.
In verse 4, the Johannine writer uses darkness and light to show how the disciples still do not understand that they cannot have abundant life apart from Jesus. Jesus is the way, the truth and the light.
Jesus asks them if they caught anything, and then tells them to throw their nets to the right side. The immediate miraculous onslaught of fish underscores their lack of productivity apart from Jesus, and invokes the miraculous catch of fish in Luke 5:1-11. However, in John’s miraculous catch, the nets do not break. The nets contain enough space for an even greater catch. Symbolically, this represents the limitless supply of God’s gifts. Further, the miracle has evangelistic symbolism. If the disciples are willing to cast their nets to fish for men, then God will bless their efforts with a miraculous catch. Upon seeing the abundance of fish, the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus and informs Peter. The miracle indicated the presence of the Christ, and the beloved disciple’s use of language recounts the words of the Easter proclamation, “It is the Lord.” Peter then swims to shore as the other disciples trail slightly behind him in the boat.
9When they got out of the boat, they saw a fire laid, with fish and bread cooking on it.
10-11 Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught.” Simon Peter joined them and pulled the net to shore—153 big fish! And even with all those fish, the net didn’t rip.
12 Jesus said, “Breakfast is ready.” Not one of the disciples dared ask, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Master.
13-14 Jesus then took the bread and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus had shown himself alive to the disciples since being raised from the dead.
In verses 9-14, the miraculous draught of fish, and the prepared meal symbolizing the Last Supper, emphasizes Jesus’ identity as the source of abundant life. As the seven disciples make it to shore, Jesus has prepared a table for them. The fire is burning with fish and bread cooking. Jesus asks them to add some of the miraculous catch to the fire. Peter helps the six disciples in the boat to haul the net to shore. The verb used to describe their action in Greek is helko—meaning to draw. The writer uses the same word in John 12:32, to describe how Jesus’ death would bring people to Christ. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” (NRSV) or “And I, as I am lifted up from the earth, will attract everyone to me and gather them around me” (MSG). The Johannine writer’s use of this verb to describe the miraculous catch, and disciples act of hauling the net to shore, implies they are now part of God’s team in drawing humanity to Jesus Christ Unlike Thomas, who doubted Jesus’ identity one chapter earlier, the disciples do not ask who Jesus is because they know it is the Lord because of the miracle.
Verses 13-14 describe Jesus as the host of an extravagantly prepared meal. Jesus takes the bread and gives it to them. He does the same with the fish; echoing his miraculous feeding of the five thousand. In some manuscripts of this text, an additional clause “when he had given thanks,” appears before he gives the bread and fish, invoking overt comparisons with the Lord’s Supper as instituted on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. Finally, the reemphasis of this third appearance to the disciples underscores the writer’s emphasis on readers understanding that Jesus’ presence—and the accompanying miracle—is cause for awakened faith and renewed action in light of the Resurrection event. For contemporary Christians, this lesson reminds us that our faith exists because of a risen Savior, who empowers us to transform our communities with resurrection faith.
1) See Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary and Reflection,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003) p. 733.
2) Ibid., 726.
3) See Allen Dwight Callahan’s article, “The Gospel of John,” in Brian Blunt, et al, True to Our Native Land: An African American Commentary, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 186-212.
4) See Robert Kysar, John the Maverick Gospel Third Edition, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) p. 79.
5) See O’Day, p. 735.