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 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. – John 21:5-14 ESV
The sun was just coming up as the weary disciples began to pull in their net after an unsuccessful night of fishing. They had returned to the Sea of Galilee just as Jesus had told them to but, apparently bored with waiting, seven of them had decided to try their hand at fishing. But as they prepared to return empty-handed, they heard someone call out to them. Whether it was due to a combination of their distance from shore and the poor morning light, they were unable to make out the identity of the stranger who shouted to them from the shoreline.
But it seems likely that they were a bit put out by His impertinent and somewhat invasive question: “Children, do you have any fish?” (John 21:5 ESV). And you can hear the tone of irritation in their curt response: “No.”
Peter and his companions were worn out and probably a bit put out by their failure to catch a single, solitary fish. These men were professionals and they had probably used every trick of the trade they could think of – but all to no avail. Now, this nosy bystander was unknowingly rubbing salt in the wound, leaving what little pride they had left completely destroyed.
John makes it clear that they failed to recognize Jesus. Again, it could have been because of their distance from shore and the poor lighting conditions. But, like the two disciples who encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emaus, these men could have been a case of divine disablement.
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. – Luke 24:14-15 ESV
Whatever the case, the disciples had no idea that it was Jesus who was speaking to them. So, when this “stranger” suggested that they cast their net on the other side of the boat, they must have felt a strong urge to tell him to mind his own business. And yet, surprisingly, they did just as the man suggested. It could be that they did so out of respect. When the man had called out to them, he had called them “children.” The Greek word is paidion, and it was typically used to refer to a young child. It was a term of affection. So, perhaps they understood their well-meaning friend to be an older gentleman to whom they wanted to show honor by heeding his advice.
So, when he shouted out, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (John 21:6 ESV), they immediately complied. Yet, it is doubtful that they harbored any suspicions that this time would be any different than all the others. They had no expectations that their efforts would prove successful. They simply wanted to cast their net, haul it back in, and call it a day. But they were in for a big surprise.
John, still writing in the third-person just as he has done throughout his gospel, recounts what happened when he and his fellow disciples did as the man had suggested.
So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. – John 21:6 ESV
It was a miracle. And John was the first to recognize the nature of what had happened and the identity of who was behind it all. He immediately called out, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7 ESV). And in that split second of time, the eyes of every man in the boat shifted from the amazing sight of the net full of fish to the man standing on the shore. And forgetting all about the net, they began to row to shore. The always impulsive Peter, too excited to wait, jumped into the water and swam to meet Jesus. Suddenly, the Giver became more important than the gift. The net full of fish lost its appeal as they recognized their resurrected Lord and Savior.
When they finally made it to shore, they found Jesus standing by a charcoal fire grilling fish. It’s important to note that, in the Greek, the word for fish is in the singular tense. He is cooking one fish. And this entire scene should call to mind an earlier occasion that took place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus and His disciples had encountered a large crowd of His followers and Mark recounts that Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34 ESV). Jesus, knowing that the people were tired and hungry, instructed His disciples to feed them. But they responded in disbelief, indicating that they did not have the resources to feed such a large crowd. And when Jesus asked them to gather what was available, they came back with fives loaves of bread and two fish. And Andrew, upon taking a look at the meager resources at their disposal, had responded, “what are they for so many?” (John 6:9 ESV).
The disciples were full of doubts. They looked at the circumstances, assessed their potential for success, and concluded that the numbers were not in their favor. But they were wrong. John records that Jesus “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted” (John 6:11 ESV).
Yet, as Peter and his companions stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they were looking at a single fish roasting on a charcoal fire. And it seems likely that the famished Andrew once again thought to himself, “what is this for so many?” How were eight men going to satisfy their hunger with one measly fish? But Jesus refocused their attention on the net that still remained tied to the boat and lying in the water.
“Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” – John 21:10 ESV
John reveals that there were exactly 153 fish in that net. Many commentators have tried to come up with some hidden meaning behind that number, but it would seem that John is simply trying to compare and contrast the two stories. In the earlier case, the disciples had only been able to find two fish. But on this occasion, they had shown up with 153. And the difference between the two numbers the work of Jesus. He had been the one to instruct them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. So, the miraculous supply of fish had been His doing. But in graciously inviting them to bring what they had “caught,” Jesus was allowing them to contribute to the meal.
And what Jesus did next should not be overlooked.
Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. – John 21:13 ESV
There is little doubt that John had the feeding of the 5,000 in mind when he recorded this scene on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. What he describes is remarkably similar to what happened on that earlier occasion.
Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. – John 6:11 ESV
They ate and were satisfied. Jesus had miraculously met their need by transforming what was insufficient into an overabundance. But in this story, we see Jesus providing an overabundance before He met the need. And He allowed them to be participants in the miracle of provision. They had cast the net. They had rowed the boat. And Peter had hauled it to shore. But there were far more fish than they could eat. The supply outstripped the demand.
This entire scene was intended as a lesson in the sufficiency of Jesus and the need for their complete dependency upon Him. It was reminiscent of His earlier words to them.
“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.
“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:4-5 NLT
They were learning the invaluable lesson that the apostle Paul had learned.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13 ESV
And Paul would add:
And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:19 ESV
As Jesus prepared to return to His Father’s side in heaven, He was letting His disciples know that they would become His ambassadors, carrying on His mission and conveying His message of Good News to the world. But they would need to rely upon Him. They would need to abide in Him. In just a matter of days, they would receive the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God, who would provide them with the power of God so that they might do the will of God. They would have all the resources they needed to do all that Jesus would commission them to do.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.