The risen Christ by lake Galilee. 21:1-14
John's gospel ends with an epilogue which, like Matthew and Luke, serves as "a confident statement that [the apostolic] mission to the world, undertaken at Christ's command and under His authority, will be the means by which many are saved", Hoskyns. Chapter 21 is most likely a later addition to the gospel, probably added by the original editor to round off the gospel with a commission and to tackle the growing urban myth that Jesus would return before the death of the "beloved disciple" John. Chapter 21 is clearly part of the tradition used to craft the fourth gospel, a tradition ascribed to the apostle John.
v1. This, the fullest description of a resurrection appearance, takes place by lake Galilee.
v2. John lists the disciples present. (For convenience sake we identify John as the author. John is likely to be the source of this gospel tradition, but not necessarily the author of the completed work, cf. 21:24). The sons of Zebedee are James and John, and it is generally assumed that "the beloved disciple" is John. It is possible, although not probable, that he was one of the "two other disciples."
v3. The disciples seem directionless and so Peter proposes a fishing trip.
v4. Jesus appears on the beach (rather than comes to it) and is not initially recognized (similar to Mary Magdalene's meeting with him).
v5. Jesus calls to the disciples. His question implies a negative answer; "You haven't caught any fish have you?"
v6. Imaging the draught of fishes in the synoptics, Jesus tells them to cast the net out on the right side of the boat (there is no significance in this, other than it wasn't where they were fishing). The net ends up so full that they can't pull it into the boat.
v7. The beloved disciple recognizes the hand of Jesus in the event. He was also first to recognize the significance of the empty tomb. On hearing John's words, Peter tucks his fisherman's smock up under his belt, jumps overboard and swims ashore.
v8. The others follow in the boat, dragging the net full of fish to the shore.
v9. Jesus has his breakfast under way and asks the disciples to join with him. Although all this is presented in a matter-of-fact way, we are being invited by John to look for a deeper meaning.
v10. Jesus asks the disciples to contribute to the communal meal. Is he reminding them of their partnership with him in the business of gathering fish for the kingdom?
v11. The number of the catch is noted, 153. Much is often made of this number, given that it is so precise, but its significance lies in it being an impressive catch. More importantly it is noted that none got away.
v12. Jesus' unusual presence prompts the disciples to wonder who it is, although deep down they knew it was the Lord.
v13. Jesus then serves the meal to the disciples.
v14. John notes that this is the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples as a group. Interestingly, it is the fourth time if we count Mary.
The church commissioned
In the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives his disciples a task of great importance. They must gather disciples by proclaiming the gospel, and they must teach those who respond to it.
John, in his unique style, repeats this commissioning at the end of his gospel. The task of evangelism, of communicating the gospel to lost humanity, is driven home in the symbolism of a fishing expedition. The fishing scene, with its wonderful catch of fish, harks back to an earlier catch of fish when Jesus called the disciples saying, "come follow me and I will make you fishers of men", Mk.1:17. The catch is recorded in Luke 5:1-11.
Now, following Jesus' crucifixion, the disciples are directionless and so they have returned to a life that many of them knew well. In the miracle of the draught of fishers, Jesus reminds them that they are fisherman of another sort. The size of the catch, the unbroken net, the invitation to use some of their catch in the meal, adds to the symbolism of the event. They will gather many for the kingdom and those caught by the gospel will not escape. In all this they can rest secure in their partnership with Jesus.
The great commission was not just for the apostles, or even the full number of the first disciples (sometimes numbered at 153!). The commission is for all believers. We are all of us in the fishing business. Yet, life easily diverts us and we end up losing focus; we end up building homes instead of building the kingdom; shaping a career instead of shaping eternity. We, like the apostles, need to be reminded of our eternal profession. Supporting the business of gospel communication must be given a high priority in the allocation of our resources. So, like the disciples of old, let us get busy in fishing for the kingdom.
Consider how we may apply Jesus' commission.
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