Fishing, Feeding, Caring: John 21
In Summary: We come to the end of John’s Gospel. He has told us everything about the ministry of Jesus that he thinks is important, and wrapped up pretty cleanly in John 20. Then, we get John 21. It reads almost like an addendum, an afterthought. It is one more scene in the story—and it’s important. Perhaps if this were a film it would be the in-the-end-credits scene that actually wraps up the story thread and sets up the next film.
We have the appearance of Jesus by the sea, coupled with Peter’s suggestion that they go fishing. I have heard sermons that support Peter’s declaration that he’s going fish, and some that criticize him for it. It depends a lot on how you take Peter’s “I am going fishing” in John 21:3. There is evidence in Mark 14:28 that Jesus had told the Apostles to go to Galilee, and just how would one expect them to find dinner if not by fishing? Others take it as Peter’s declaration that he’s going back to his old life, but that seems unlikely given that this follows the Upper Room meetings with the Lord.
Then we have the miraculous catch of fish. 153 of them, to be exact. Yet Jesus already has fish on the fire for the Apostles. I think that’s informative: we work in our own strength, and fail. We work in obedience to God and see amazing results, only to find that God has already done even more than we got finished for Him. Great moment. The idea that the net was not torn gets imbued with many symbolic meanings, but I’d see this one: when the Apostles first followed Jesus, they were mending their nets. Now, there is not even that task to delay them. They can get right to the work.
In Focus: Our eyes, though, must be drawn at this point to the interaction between Jesus and Peter. It is here that we see the Denier turned into the leader of the Apostles—though we frequently see Peter as in charge throughout, I think that’s reading the end-state into the story. Peter takes a walk with Jesus, and Jesus questions him. Three times, and Peter is instructed by Jesus in response to those questions.
The questions are fundamentally the same: “Peter, do you love me?” Peter has previously denied Jesus, but here is his opportunity for restoration. Peter has had time to think, and he needs to affirm what he believes and thinks. Then, though, he has commands to follow. Jesus does not leave Peter with a “Great, glad it feels good to you, bro.” He gives Peter commands to follow. Peter is commanded to feed and care for Jesus’ sheep—with the lambs being highlighted. Love is shown not in words, feels, or proclamations. Love is shown in actions.
In Practice: From this, we gather a couple of points. The first is one that goes out especially to my pastoral brethren, but is still broadly applicable. Peter is not told to cause any form of problems for the sheep. He is not told to fix them, save them, shave them, rebuke them, or beat them. He is told to tend them and feed them. Now, you can argue that “tending” involves protection from harm, and it does. Yet how do we do what we do? After all “shepherd my sheep” could be put into English as “pastor my sheep.” If we are more concerned with beating down the bad than we are with filling up the good, then trouble will follow as night follows day. Sheep need something to go to, not just correction about what to run from.
This comes into the second practical point: Peter notices that John is following, and asks “What about him?” Jesus tells him, in essence, “Mind your own business.” We so often want to keep tabs on everyone else, and doing so we miss filling our days with what needs to be done. Yes, there is righteous behavior in correcting the wayward and in fighting off the wolves, but the bulk of the time of pastor or any other Christian is in presenting the truth of God, the eternal Bread of Life and Water of Life who is Jesus Christ, the Lord. Be for Jesus—and against anything not of Him.
In Nerdiness: In that same section, there is a valuable illustration about being careful with Greek. I’ve heard, and preached (to my shame) a sermon or two about the different words for love used in this passage. Yet if you take a look at D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, you’ll see that there may not be the differences of meaning that so many of us preachers have claimed.
Words have ranges of meaning, and we must be careful not to hang too much on differences when overlaps exist.
If you are a Bible Nerdy type, I recommend Exegetical Fallacies to you. After you’ve done Grasping God’s Word by Hays and Duvall, it’s the next step in clarifying your hermeneutics methods.