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John 21:1-14

I wonder have you ever been a stage of transition in your life where you weren't quite sure
what to do next? Maybe you've finished a job, or maybe you've lost a loved one. And life has
entered a transition stage where everything is new and uncertain. Sometimes the easiest thing
to do is to go back to the things you know best. When we come to the closing section of John's
gospel, the disciples are probably feeling much the same. Christ has lived his life here on
earth, he has gone to the cross, he has risen victoriously, and has appeared to his disciples.
Now, some short time after the appearances of Christ to the disciples in Jerusalem, they make
their way North back to Galilee. Galilee was where they came from and where they had spent
much of their time being taught by the Lord. And they are, I suppose, in a kind of limbo. The
Lord has commissioned them to be his witnesses, but the power of the Spirit has not yet come
upon them at Pentecost. He has commissioned them, but they still await more guidance from
the Lord. So on this occasion, the Lord appears to them again to teach them. There is much
that could be drawn from the passage, but in this chapter he teaches them about his provision,
about how to care for his Church, and how to wait for his return. But our focus this morning is
on the first 14 verses where he teaches about his provision. And as he guides his fledging
Church, he provides instruction for us that will be as important for us as it was for the early

After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed
himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee,
the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter said to
them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you." They went out and got into
the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the
shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, "Children, do you
have any fish?" They answered him, "No." 6 He said to them, "Cast the net on the right side of
the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in,
because of the quantity of fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, "It is
the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he
was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. 8 The other disciples came in the little
boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards
off. 9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and
bread. 10 Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." 11 So Simon
Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although
there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast."
Now none of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus
came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14 This was now the third
time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Chapter 20 has closed with its emphasis on believing in Christ. Christ has done so many signs
to convince people that he is who he claims to be. Very well. We are convinced. Thomas has
even been convinced, despite his initial skepticism. But what then? What shall the disciples
do? I think the main thrust of the passage this morning, is that just as they have trusted in
Christ to save them, they must now trust in Christ to use them in their service for him. Their
relationship to Jesus has now changed, no doubt; he is no longer constantly with them.
Nevertheless, he will be with them to guide them, provide for them, and encourage them. And
that spiritual presence of Christ will be as needful for them as the physical presence was prior
to the resurrection.

Now the key verse here is ver 1: "After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the
Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way." He revealed himself, and he revealed
himself in this way. John is drawing attention to the way Jesus is revealing himself in this
chapter. And if we take that as our cue for interpreting the rest of the section, we can make
several observations. The first is this: When Jesus reveals himself, he reveals himself in the
midst of their desperation. Secondly, when he reveals himself, he reveals himself, not to their
natural eyes, but to their spiritual eyes; to the eyes of faith. And thirdly, he reveals himself as
the one who meets their need. These are the ways in which Jesus reveals himself in this
passage, and they are most instructive to us.

Let's begin with the first observation: Jesus reveals himself in the midst of the disciples'

The disciples had come back to Galilee. It was there that the Lord had called them at first. He
said to Mary, "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me." So they
went. And as they wait, the lure of the fishing appeals to them. These were men who had been
raised on the fishing boats and they felt at home here on the Sea of Galilee. They might be
called to bear witness to the Lord Jesus and his death and resurrection, but for that, they felt
rather inadequate. But give them a boat and a net, then they could do a thing or two. Maybe
too, they simply needed a bit of extra money, so they resort to the fishing again to help them
out for the meantime. It's hard to say exactly, and the disciples receive no rebuke for going
fishing, so I don't think it was wrong of them. But however, Peter rounds them up and says,
"I'm going fishing." Various other disciples think it's a great idea and they say, "We're coming
too." And together they launch their little boat onto the lake for an evening of good fishing.

Alas, experts though they were, we read in verse 3, "But that night, they caught nothing." It
was probably unusual for them to catch nothing. They were used to these waters, so they
knew what they were doing. But still they caught nothing. They're probably embarrassed to
come back to shore with nothing. Their old friends would chuckle and tell them that they'd lost
the touch. So they labour on until the day breaks - and still nothing. And just as day was
breaking, Jesus stood on the shore.

At one level, you can read this story as the tale of a frustrating night of fishing. But for John,
everything is laden with significance. And what takes place here echoes a theme that has
reverberated throughout the gospel. From its earliest pages, John the Baptist announced, "A
person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven." He acknowledged
that his ministry of testifying to Christ was a gift from God. Eventually God would take it away,
and he was content to know that God was the one who dispensed this ministry as he saw fit.
Then when we get into Christ's teaching to his disciples in chapter 15, the Lord presses this
home: "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me, and I in him, he it is that
bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." (v5). The life of a disciple is one that
must lean heavy on the Lord Jesus, because it is a life that realises that everything comes from
him; it's a life that acknowledges we can do nothing without him.

Sometimes the Lord brings us to points in our experience we we feel utterly without strength.
He saps us of all energy and resources and we say, "I can't go on - this is hopeless." But why
does he do that? The Apostle Paul had that very experience. He wrote to the Corinthians in 2
Cor 1:8-9, "For we don't want you to be unaware brothers of the afflication we experienced in
Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.
Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death." But, he says, and mark this,
because it's really important: "This was to make us rely, not on ourselves, but on God who
raises the dead." Why, Paul, did you experience this burden beyond your strength to bear?
This was to make us rely, not on ourselves, but on God.

And that's what the Lord Jesus is doing to these disciples. They were experts at this, but he
lets them fish all night and they catch nothing. And what they learn on the lake, they'll soon
learn in the daily experience of following Christ. It doesn't matter how equipped you think you
are, without relying on the Lord Jesus, it will all be fruitless. And the Lord brings them to that
point of despair where they don't know what to do.

Maybe there have been times in your own life where the Lord has brought you to a point where
you have utterly despaired of any way out. And at that point, the Lord met you and showed you
kindness. There are probably many such times ahead for many of us, and in the midst of
despair, we must hastily rid ourselves of any pretense of being able to bear the burden, and
run to Jesus for the strength that we need. But I think as an assembly, we need to hear these

We feel like these disciples at times. We have toiled all night and caught nothing. This baptistry
has been closed for a long time now. We haven't seen people trusting Christ in our gospel
meetings. And we wonder what's going on. We put our fingers to our spiritual pulse points and
see where the sickness might lie. I'm no prophet, but I feel very keenly that the Lord is bringing
us to a point where we realise our need more deeply than before. The Lord lets us toil all night
and catch nothing, but why? Because he wants us to see more acutely our need of him. He
makes us be burdened beyond strength in order to make us rely, not on ourselves, but on God.
The way we express that need is through prayer, and yes, through fasting also. They are the
God-ordained means of expressing to God the depth of our need of him. We say aloud in
prayer, "We need you God. We need you to save, to move in people's lives to bring them to
Christ." And we express that symbolically through fasting when we say, "We need you more
than even we need food." The Lord has brought us to this point, he may bring us still deeper
into this barrenness, but let's not miss what the Lord is trying to say to us: he will meet us, just
as he met the disciples, when our resources run dry and we feel our need.

But in the midst of their need, the Lord meets them. Jesus stands on the shore watching them
as they struggle to catch a single fish. He calls to them, "Children, do you have any fish?"
Perhaps it might be better translated, "Lads, have you got any fish?" since the word is not the
same as the word he used in 13:33. If he'd said that, they probably would have instantly
recognised them. But for the moment, he conceals his identity. And so we read in verse 5, "the
disciples did not know that it was Jesus."

This is rather strange. One might expect that the man they had spent so long with over the
past few years would have been instantly recognisable. You say, "Is it not just that he's far
away on the shore?" Well, no actually. Verse 8 says they were not far from the land. And even
when they get to land, verse 12 says that none of them dared ask him, "Who are you?" And
that would be a strange thing for John to say if there wasn't something about him that made
him different. I'm not going to speculate. Perhaps his resurrection body looked different in
some way. Or perhaps there needed to be some special spiritual revelation in order to
recognise the risen Christ. Or even both. But suffice to say, it was common for those who knew
Jesus to not recognise him after the resurrection. Mary didn't recognise him in the garden.
Those on the road to Emmaus didn't recognise him as he talked with them until their eyes were
opened. And now, the disciples don't recognise him.

So how do they realise that it's the Lord? Well, after they acknowledge that they don't have any
fish, Jesus says, "Cast the net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." They
maybe assume that he's an experienced fisherman so they decide to give it a shot. And
suddenly, they aren't able to pull the net in because it is so full of fish. At that instant, John
looks at Peter and says, "It's the Lord!" But how does he know that?

I think one reason is that in Luke 5, we see that a similar incident had happened before. John
knew that only Jesus could do a miracle like this. And so John's mind starts whirring - who is
this who can command fish to swim into nets? who is this who tells us exactly where to find the
fish? why does he sound so much like my Lord from previous experience? The conclusion is
inescapable - it's the Lord!

But it's interesting, that the vision, the sight that sees Jesus is not physical sight. The way the
disciples apprehend Jesus, is not through physical eyes, but through the eyes of faith. They
see a man who can work miracles like no other man, and they see that this is their Lord. They
hear a man who speaks like no other man, and they see that this is their Lord.

It marks a transition for the disciples as they realise that, while Jesus will soon be with them no
longer, they will recognise his presence with them not by sight, but by faith. By spiritual sight
they will see that the Lord is with them. And it stands true for us especially, because while we
have never seen the Lord with our physical eyes, we do see him at work in our lives and in the
world around us. We see him arranging the circumstances of our lives and like John, we turn
excitedly to fellow believers and say, "It's the Lord!"

And thus, as the disciples sit with Jesus eating breakfast, none of them dare ask him who he
was, because, as verse 12 says, "They knew it was the Lord." Not that they suddenly were
closer and his appearance matched up with their memories. But because they had seen what
he had said and done, and it matched perfectly with what they knew of him. And they knew
that this was the Lord.

Well what does this insight do? Previously in Luke 5, when Peter realised the majesty of the
person in whose presence he was, he fell down and said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful
man O Lord." I'm not sure that Peter has become much less sinful. And certainly, it's not been
more than a few weeks since he denied the Lord Jesus. But what does he do this time? He
hears John saying that it's Jesus, and Peter dons his clothes and jumps into the water and
swims for it. And he's not going away from Jesus. He's going straight towards him.

That's what this spiritual vision does - it makes you want to be with Jesus. Even when we feel
our sinfulness, we know that he is the only one who can deal with our sin and cleanse us, so
we run to him for grace. And even this morning, as we have gathered to worship the Lord
Jesus, we have come with our sin to the Saviour because we need him to deal with it. It gives
him no honour to come claiming that we have risen above sinning. It gives him great honour to
have us come acknowledging our sin and claiming the cross as our only hope. We come as
guilty sinners to praise his greatness. And what does he do? He gives us the bread and says,
"This is my body which is broken for you." He gives us the cup and says, "Drink it, all of you.
This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." He
instituted this meal so that he could say this to us as often as we keep it. And as we hear him
speaking such words to us, we know that no one else can speak like this. And like the
disciples, none of us dares ask who it is in our midst - we know that it is the Lord. We don't see
him, but we see him through the signs. We don't hear him, but we hear him through the written
word. And like Peter, we love to be with him.

Finally, the Lord meets them as the one who meets their need. Maybe the disciples were
wondering how they would survive as itinerant preachers - if that was what they were to be.
Would the Lord provide for them materially? We maybe forget how daunting it would be for
them to once again leave behind their employment and venture out, not this time to follow a
visible Christ, but an unseen one. And I think that one of the things the Lord is trying to tell
them is that he will provide for their needs; they don't need to worry. So he tells them to cast
the net on the right side of the boat - and the nets are full. He knows exactly where the fish are,
he tells them exactly what to do, and when they haul them ashore, he even cooks the fish for
them and serves them breakfast. He is underlining, that he is Lord over all creation, it all
serves his beck and call, and he will provide for them. He had provided for Elijah with a raven,
but now he'll provide for them personally by even making fish swim into their net.

I pass over the 153 fish. What it might mean is beyond me. Perhaps it symbolises
completeness because some people thought that was the total types of fish in the sea.
Perhaps it's more obscure. Or perhaps it just means that there were 153. In any case, the point
is clear - the Lord knows exactly how to provide for his own.

What is it that the Lord is calling us to do and the fear of not being provided for hinders us?
And I'm not initially talking about things that the Lord is calling us to do in ways outside of his
word. I'm thinking about the desires of the Lord expressed in Scripture, and we're afraid of
what obeying them might mean. I've been reading 2 Corinthians this week and in the midst of
asking the Corinthians to generously help poorer Christians in Jerusalem, he assures them
that God won't leave them empty. He says, "God is able to make all grace abound to you, so
that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work." (9:8).
If we obey God's call to be generous, he is able to ensure that we have "all sufficiency in all
things at all times." He will supply everything we need.

Or maybe we're afraid of devoting more time to serving the Lord because we're afraid that it
will detract from the time we can spend at work. But the Lord tells us to seek his kingdom first,
and all these things that we need will be added to us.

And then there are the personal calls that the Lord puts to us; things that he maybe hasn't
asked directly in Scripture, but we feel a sense that the Lord really wants us to do something.
But we worry about resources - we wonder how the Lord could support us if we ventured out
for him. But to the disciples, and to us, he assures us that he supplies our needs when he calls
us to serve him. And so, to us, as much as to the disciples, he promises that being his
witnesses will involve his presence with us to provide our needs. But I must clarify, that he
supplies our needs, and not our wants. And sometimes what we need is not what we think we
need. But I leave that to your consideration.

And so we leave the disciples as they sit with the Lord, having breakfast by Lake Galilee. I
wonder have we learned what they learned that day? It was in their moment of need that he
appeared to them, just when they had almost lost hope. And even when we have almost lost
hope, the Lord will be there to bear us up. He does it to make us lean on him more heavily. His
grace is magnified by heavy leaning.
The disciples learned that they would see him most clearly, not by physical sight, but by
spiritual sight. What comfort that gives to us, who have not seen him, to realise that the most
significant sight is the sight of faith. We can leave this morning then, saying that we have been
with Jesus.

And having been with him, they realised that he was the one who would meet their need. Have
we learned that? Let the confidence of his provision buoy us up in our service for him so that
we would be more bold in our service, knowing that he will not leave the righteous forsaken.