Just after the resurrection, in John 21, Peter said, “I’m going fishing” and the other disciples typically followed him (Jn 21:3). They fished all night and caught nothing.
Darkness and Nothing
This isn’t the first time Peter had been out fishing all night and caught nothing. All the way back at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we find a similar event. Luke 5:1-11 records:
As the crowd was pressing in on Jesus to hear God’s word, he was standing by Lake Gennesaret. He saw two boats at the edge of the lake; the fishermen had left them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, which belonged to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from the land. Then he sat down and was teaching the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” “Master,” Simon replied, “we’ve worked hard all night long and caught nothing. But if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.” When they did this, they caught a great number of fish, and their nets began to tear. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them; they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’s knees and said, “Go away from me, because I’m a sinful man, Lord!” For he and all those with him were amazed at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s partners. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus told Simon. “From now on you will be catching people.” Then they brought the boats to land, left everything, and followed him.
Perhaps Simon Peter thought about that night several times over the last three years and especially as he was unable to catch any fish on this particular night.
Sometimes God allows us to go through “droughts” and sometimes God causes us to go through “droughts.”
Perhaps John 21 is an example of God withholding temporary success so that something greater can be done. Perhaps we could see here that “the narrative context contrasts the disciples’ lack of success in providing a meal with the Lord’s role as chef”2
These droughts can seem hurtful, but we should remember Gods’ providence continues to smile even behind the storm clouds. Jonathan Edwards said, “And that night they caught nothing.”] During the dark season of the church, ministers labor in vain (See Luke 5:5.); but when the morning, the appointed time of the church’s light and glory comes, then Christ will wonderfully appear.” These “dark nights” are hard for all of us, but we should trust that each dark night will be erased by the rising sun. 3
Despite our ignorance of the situations, God arranged history—even our history—so that the most good can be done and he can be glorified. We would do well to remember Habakkuk 3:17-19, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there is no fruit on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though the flocks disappear from the pen and there are no herds in the stalls, yet I will celebrate in the LORD; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation! The LORD my Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like those of a deer and enables me to walk on mountain heights!” John Calvin wrote:
God permitted them to toil to no purpose during the whole night, in order to prove the truth of the miracle; for if they had caught any thing, what followed immediately afterwards would not have so clearly manifested the power of Christ, but when, after having toiled ineffectually during the whole night, they are suddenly favoured with a large take of fishes, they have good reason for acknowledging the goodness of the Lord. In the same manner, also, God often tries believers, that he may lead them the more highly to value his blessing. If we were always prosperous, whenever we put our hand to labour, scarcely any man would attribute to the blessing of God the success of his exertions, all would boast of their industry, and would kiss their hands. But when they sometimes labour and torment themselves without any advantage, if they happen afterwards to succeed better, they are constrained to acknowledge something out of the ordinary course; and the consequence is, that they begin to ascribe to the goodness of God the praise of their prosperity and success.”4
We don’t have to understand life, we have to trust the one who gives life. Nahum 1:7 reminds us, “The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.” This promise is true—even in the darkness.
Day of Blessing
John 21:4-6 records the beginning of the day and of blessings, but this day of blessings began with a challenge. It was a small challenge, and one Peter was familiar with, but it was a challenge. Jesus said, “When daybreak came, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not know it was Jesus. “Friends,” Jesus called to them, “you don’t have any fish, do you?” “No,” they answered. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat,” he told them, “and you’ll find some” (Jn 21:4-6a).
This may not seem like much of a request, but these were professional fisherman who knew how to fish and they knew that they had not caught anything all night. In Luke 5, you can hear Peter’s hesitancy as he said, “we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your word we will let down our nets. Jesus challenge for the apostles to let down their nets again sounds like a minor thing to us, but most of God’s blessings come through comparatively minor actions on our part.
You’ll remember Naaman who was told to dip in the Jordan seven times and balked at the opportunity because he thought he knew better and had better resources himself. How often do we think we know better than what God has said? How often do we act like we are able to take care of ourselves rather than depend on God? Naaman found healing in obedience. The disciples found fish in obedience. What could we find.
As soon as the disciples were obedient, they were rewarded with blessings. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat,” he told them, “and you’ll find some.” So they did, and they were unable to haul it in because of the large number of fish. The disciple, the one Jesus loved, said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tied his outer clothing around him (for he had taken it off) and plunged into the sea” (Jn 21:6-7). God blessed them so much that they could hardly enjoy all he gave them.
There is a hidden gem in the text that should be emphasized. Jesus, in verse 5, asked if they had any “fish,” but the Greek word for fish there is not what we expect it to be. The word translated “fish” in verse five is “προσφάγιον.” This word, “προσφάγιον” refers to tiny fish or “a relish eaten with bread” (BDAG). Instead of something small to be eaten with bread, Jesus gave them 153 large fish (ἰχθύων μεγάλων). God gives us no insignificant blessings—all God’s mercies are glorious.
Day of Revival
Once they got on land, the Lord went back to work on Peter. Jesus had already cooked some fish for breakfast. But we should notice an important detail—Jesus cooked on a charcoal fire (21:9). The words “charcoal fire” are only found twice in John’s Gospel, here in 21:9 and in 18:8. In John 18:8 Peter warmed himself by that charcoal fire after he denied our Lord the first time. The charcoal fire in 21:9 reminds us what happened in 18:8. Peter had denied Jesus, but Jesus restores Peter. Interestingly, the only other time that the words “charcoal fire” are found in Scripture is in Isaiah 54:16,
Look, I have created the craftsman who blows on the charcoal fire and produces a weapon suitable for its task; and I have created the destroyer to cause havoc. No weapon formed against you will succeed, and you will refute any accusation raised against you in court. This is the heritage of the LORD’s servants, and their vindication is from me.” This is the LORD’s declaration.
Isaiah 54 records a prophecy about God’s Servant. Here in John’s Gospel, perhaps the charcoal fire is noted twice to remind us of Isaiah 54 so that we see Peter and the other disciples as the “weapon suitable for its task.”
Although we have heard many well meaning sermons from John 21:15-19 built off the different Greek words for love, we should recognize that those Greek words for love are used interchangeably and aren’t as different as we once thought. What is important in this section, is that the same disciple who denied the Lord is revived by the Lord.
Our Lord revives us. Even when we were sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. Even when we turn from him, he says “come.” Just as Jesus restored Peter, he restores us daily.
This section of Scripture focused on revival and food, but those were never the important elements of the chapter. The most important message we see in this section of Scripture, and in most sections of Scripture, is that we should rely on God for life. Not just say we rely on God or rely on God for things in life. We should understand that we rely on God for life itself.
Jesus was often compared to food. Ancient Christians used the fish (ixthus) to confess their faith that Jesus Christ is God’s Son and Savior. Jesus used water to refer to himself as “living water.” Jesus also used bread to show that he was the bread from Heaven—that upon which we truly depend for nourishment. In the Lord’s Supper, we are nourished on Christ’s body and blood as we eat the bread and drink the fruit of the vine.
On our own we are like Peter. We can fish all night and catch nothing. We can deny Christ all night and be spiritually empty. But with Christ we are spiritually filled with life and nourished.
2 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 886.
3 Jonathan Edwards, The “Blank Bible”: Part 1 & Part 2, ed. Stephen J. Stein and Harry S. Stout, vol. 24, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), 965.
4 John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 2, 284–285.