Monday, May 02, 2016

Daybreak on the Beach (John 21:1-14)

On the Sunday morning when I planned to preach
this sermon, I did a final check of Facebook before
leaving my house for church. The first post I saw was
this picture, posted by Rev. Jay Pollan, of sunrise over
the Sea of Galilee! It was a scene much like this in which
this text takes place.

I don’t know about you, but I love watching the sun come up on the beach. In fact, would say it is my favorite thing to do at the beach, and my favorite way to watch the sun rise. C. S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Just as the risen sun dispels the darkness and makes everything else come into clearer view, so the Risen Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, makes all things visible to those who walk with Him by faith. And here in our text, we find the Risen Son of God standing on the beach of the Sea of Tiberias as the morning sun rises over it. As He stands there on the shore, He brings to light important realities for His followers. Though we are inclined to see Peter and the other disciples as the key figures in this narrative, the Apostle John tells us in verses 1 and 14 that the Lord Jesus should occupy our attention as we examine this text.

The chapter begins with the words, “After these things.” What “things” are “these”? “These things” are the things recorded in Chapter 20, and more specifically, the appearance of Jesus in the locked room with His disciples on the first Easter Sunday, and the appearance of Jesus on the next Sunday when He confronted Thomas’s unbelief. In verse 14, John says, “This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.” There had been other resurrection appearances, but this was the third time that He appeared to the disciples as a group. It is that word manifested that we should take careful note of here in the passage. It is used three times: twice in verse 1, and once in verse 14. In the original language, the word means “to make known,” “to make visible,” “to reveal,” or “to show.” And what is it that the Risen Jesus “makes known” or “reveals” here in this text? Each of the three times the verb is used in our text Jesus Himself is both the subject and the object. That is, He is the One who reveals, and the One who is revealed. So, the point of the passage is that He showed Himself to the disciples there on the beach at daybreak, and through this account of it, He shows Himself to us. So, how do we see Him manifested here in this encounter? That is the question that the text answers, and we will see four aspects of this manifestation as we look at these verses.

I. Jesus manifests Himself as the Promise Keeper (v1) 

Verse 1 tells us that this scene unfolds at the Sea of Tiberias. This body of water went by several names. In the Old Testament, it is called the Sea of Chinnereth. In various places in the New Testament, it is called the Sea of Gennesaret, and more commonly the Sea of Galilee. More a lake than a sea, measuring about 12 miles by 7 miles at its widest points, it was the site of so much of Jesus’ ministry. Capernaum, the city where Jesus spent much of His time, was on the shores of the lake. As one writer said, “The Sea of Galilee is indeed the cradle of the gospel.”[1] It was here on the shores of this lake that Jesus spoke profound words and did miraculous deeds. It was here that He first called His disciples to follow Him. Most of them were natives of this area, so it is natural that they would have returned to it after leaving Jerusalem following their encounter with Jesus after the resurrection.

Of course Jesus knew that is where that is where they would go. In fact, twice before He had promised them that He would meet them there. Once was before His crucifixion, when He foretold of how the disciples would all forsake Him in the moments leading up to His death. He said in Matthew 26:28, “But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Again, in Mark 16:7, following the resurrection, the angels at the tomb told Mary Magdalene and the other women, “Go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you’” (Mark 16:7). And here in our text, the promise is kept. Jesus has come to Galilee to meet His disciples in those familiar surroundings where they had spent so much time together since the day He first met them.

It is of the utmost importance for each of us that we come to know this Christ as a promise keeper! The Bible is filled with promises that affect us both here and now and in eternity. There will come times when it seems that the Lord is slow in delivering on His promises, or that He has forgotten us or the promise He made to us, or has had some change of mind. That can never be! When He says He goes before us, we can expect Him to, and when He says He will meet us in Galilee, we best be on the lookout for Him there. He has never, will never, and can never break any of the promises that He has made! He may not deliver on the promise when or how you think He should, but that doesn’t mean that He will not make good on it in His time and in His way.

That brings us to the second way in which we see the Lord Jesus manifesting Himself here in our text.

II. Jesus manifests Himself as the Gracious Seeker (vv2-5)

Sometimes when the Lord does not fulfill His promises to us in the way or time that we think He should, we are tempted to give up on waiting for Him to do so. It may be that Peter and the other disciples had done just that as we find them here in our text. Verse two tells us who was there. There was Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee (James and John), and two others who are not named. Of the ones named, we know that James, John and Peter were all fishermen by trade. They were fishing when Jesus first encountered them. We also know that Peter’s brother Andrew was a fisherman as well. Additionally, we know that Philip was from the same hometown as Andrew and Peter, and was also a friend of Nathanael before they began following Jesus. So it is not out of reach to suggest that the two unnamed disciples here in our text may have been Andrew and Philip. So, for sure three, and maybe four or more of those mentioned in our text had been professional fishermen before Jesus first approached them and called them to follow Him that He might make them “fishers of men” (Mt 4:19).

We do not know how much time had elapsed since they had last seen Jesus on that Sunday a week after the resurrection. John only says it was “after these things,” so it could have been a few days or a couple of weeks. They had made their way back to Galilee, their home region. Of course, Jesus knew they would go there, hence His promise to meet them there. But at this point, for reasons that are not clearly stated in the text, Peter says to the others, “I am going fishing,” and they responded, “We will also come with you.” Now, the question I want to pose is, “Why did they decide at this moment to go fishing?”

Several answers have been proposed to that question. Some have suggested that they merely sought to find some way to occupy themselves until they met with Jesus. Others have suggested that economic reasons for going fishing. The disciples needed money to live on. Still others have said it was perhaps for more personal and practical reasons. Risen Jesus or not, a man still has to eat, and these men were fishermen. They catch their food in nets.

Still others have suggested that the motives for this fishing excursion were more serious than all these. Though the text does not explicitly tell us why Peter wanted to go fishing, there are clues in the text. The first one concerns a detail found in Matthew 28:16, where we read that they were to meet Jesus in Galilee at a designated mountain. They weren’t on a mountain here, they are in a lake! Second, we find a clue in Jesus statement to the disciples before His death in John 16:32 – “Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home ….” The word home is not represented in the Greek text, and has been supplied by the translators. The idea is not just going to one’s own house. It carries the idea of “one’s own affairs,” or as used in 1 Thessalonians 4:11, “attend to your own business.” Peter’s entire life before he met Jesus was fishing. It was all he’d ever known. The third clue concerns their fishing vessel. Verse 3 says that they got into the boat, and the definite article is important. It wasn’t just any boat, it was the boat, likely the one Peter had used in his career as a fisherman. The final clue comes in the next passage, in verse 15, when Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” The “these” to which Jesus refers is not explained, and is often assumed to be the other disciples. But this would be entirely unsuited for this context. It is just as likely that when Jesus said, “Do you love Me more than these,” the “these” to which He referred was these boats, these nets, these fish.  

So, from all these contextual clues, it is reasonable to suggest that Peter has decided to return to the fishing business and give up on the mission that Jesus has given to him. Perhaps still despondent from his previous failure when he denied the Lord, or desperate to find a way to make ends meet now that Jesus is no longer physically present with him, the decision seems like an easy one to make, humanly speaking. What is perhaps more surprising is how quickly the others (including Thomas, who has just uttered one of the most profound confessions of faith in Jesus recorded in Scripture!) decide to follow him! Though not the primary lesson of this passage, it is a lesson nonetheless concerning leadership. Leaders lead, and people follow them. It is easy to spot a leader – he is the guy with people following him. A leader who has no followers is not a leader; he’s just a guy taking a walk. Peter had been a leader of the disciples during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and these men followed him. Now they follow him still, in spite of his failures, and in spite of the tragic error of this decision. So there is a lesson here for leaders to be careful stewards of our leadership and realize that others are watching our decisions and basing their own decisions on ours. And there is a lesson here for followers as well. Before just blindly following someone we consider to be a leader, we must ask ourselves if following them is going to lead us into or away from a closer walk with Jesus. But as I said, this is not the main lesson of this passage. The focus here is not on how Peter or anyone else manifests themselves. The focus is on how Jesus manifests Himself, and we see Him doing so as the Gracious Seeker here in this passage.

All night long, the disciples have been fishing, and they have nothing to show for it. In one sense, I am sure this came as quite a surprise to them. After all, they were experienced fishermen. They knew the lake, they had the right tools, and the right expertise. But their nets were alarmingly empty. In another sense, however, this should have come as no surprise to them. After all, Jesus had told them in John 15:5, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” It is not that fishing is bad, or that Christians can’t fish. But when Christians abandon the mission to which Christ has called them, we should not expect to find success or satisfaction in any other endeavor. The Lord does not promise to bless us in our disobedience or defection from Him or His mission for us. When we go off mission, we can expect the same results that these disciples found: empty nets.

Now, if Jesus were to stand up on the mountain where He had promised to meet them, looking down and laughing at them, and determining in His heart and mind to turn away from them and round up a new group of followers, it would have been understandable to a certain degree. But, this is the Jesus who does not go back on His Word, and He has promised to not lose any that the Father has given Him. This is the Shepherd who leaves the 99 to go seeking for the one who has wandered off from the fold. And that is what He does here. As the sun rises, the Risen Son stands on the beach coming after and calling out to His wayward followers.

They did not know that it was Jesus. Rarely did anyone ever recognize Him after the resurrection until He made Himself known to them. But, perhaps the darkness, or the fog rising from the lake obscured their view of Him. For all they knew, He was just a stranger on the beach. And the Stranger on the beach asked them the one question that no unsuccessful fisherman wants to hear: “Are you catching anything?” Actually, the question is a bit more condescending than that: “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?”

That they were not amused by His question is seen in how curtly they respond: “No!” But the reply is honest, is it not? And that is all Jesus is looking for from us when He comes graciously seeking after us: an honest confession. He isn’t looking for carefully nuanced explanations or excuses or our feeble attempts at self justification. They might have tried to say something like, “Well, we aren’t really catching anything, but fishing is just as satisfying as catching, so we don’t mind so much.” Or they could have tried to get into a prolonged discussion about whether or not the conditions were favorable or not. Jesus wasn’t interested in any of that kind of discussion then, and He isn’t now. When He comes after us as the Gracious Seeker, and asks us those probing questions (and He will, and He does), He is looking for an honest confession. “Are you content? Are you satisfied? Are you finding what you were looking for? Are you so much better off now that you have gone off mission and wandered away from Me?” You might fool some people with your carefully couched defenses and justifications. “Well, I’m on a personal journey. I’m still trying to find myself you know. I’m learning to become content with discontentedness.” Whatever we may try to say, the answer He is looking for is the honest one: “No.”

So, we see that Jesus manifests Himself as the Promise Keeper and the Gracious Seeker. Now thirdly we see …

III. Jesus manifests Himself as the Sovereign Lord (vv6-7)

A few weeks ago, Solomon and I were running on a lakeside trail, and just off the shore there was a guy fishing in a boat. I like to talk to people when I run long distances; it takes my mind off of the fact that I chose to run a long distance without being chased. So I said to the guy, “Catching anything?” He said rather matter of factly, “No!” And I gathered that he wasn’t interested in a prolonged conversation. The disciples probably weren’t either when the Stranger on the shore asked them about their catch. But Jesus does not give up. That is something we must know about Him. He never gives up. So he probes deeper.

He said, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” I don’t know about you, but I would have been significantly aggravated by that statement. It’s really easy for the guy on the shore to tell the guy in the boat how to fish. I might have said, “Why don’t you come out here and do it yourself!” Now, in fairness to the fishermen here, there is evidence that fishermen sometimes used a man on the shore to help guide them. Sometimes, the man on the shore can see disturbances in the water that the man in the boat cannot, so he can help guide the fishermen to find the fish.[2] Perhaps relying on this sort of information, or else in sheer exasperation, the disciples did just what the Stranger on the shore commanded. The results were astounding! The Bible says that they cast, and then they were not able to haul in the catch because of the great number of fish! As a result, there was no longer any doubt about who the Stranger on the beach was. He was no stranger after all. John could hardly contain himself as he acknowledges, “It is the Lord!”

Indeed. Jesus is the Lord. He is the One with all authority. He has complete, sovereign authority over our circumstances. The Lord who supernaturally provided the abundant catch of fish is the same Lord who providentially arranged the circumstances of the entire evening, including the lack of fish until that moment. We are often quick to acknowledge the Lord’s hand when we are blessed and amply supplied for our needs and desires. Are we as quick to acknowledge His sovereign control over our circumstances when things are not going well? How often have considered that the things that we have encountered – the bad as well as the good – have been orchestrated by the hand of the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-loving God? Whether in His provision, or in His withholding of provision, He is always choreographing the affairs of our lives for our good and His glory. Here, with these fishermen, He was bringing them to the end of themselves; causing them to realize the futility of trying to live apart from Himself; making them to discover that He is never going to leave or forsake them; and forcing them to realize their desperate dependence upon Him. Those are good things by which He is glorified in and through us! And He is doing the same things in our lives. When things do not work out as we desire or plan, we need to see the Sovereign Lord there in those moments as clearly as we do when all works out just as we hoped they would. What is He doing? He is deepening our dependence upon Him. He is bringing us to repentance of our futile self-efforts. He is drawing us near to Himself and bringing us back to the place of worship and service. He is directing us to find our satisfaction and contentment in Him and in Him alone. And those are good, God-glorifying things that He is doing in our lives.

At the realization that it was the Sovereign Lord speaking to them from the shore, notice what happens to Peter. Here, the one who proposed the idea of the fishing trip in the first place, put on his garments and jumped into the sea in order to get to Him. I will be the first to admit that there are some puzzling details here. The Greek wording implies that he was naked or at least nearly so, and I don’t know if that was customary for fishermen in that day or not. I also don’t understand why a person puts on more clothes before jumping into a lake. I’ve read various interpreters supply suggestions on these matters, but in the end, I have to confess that I do not know. But I think what is most important here is that Peter was overjoyed to know that the Sovereign Lord, whom He had denied three times before the crucifixion, and from whom he had defected in his attempt to return to the commercial fishing industry, had stopped at nothing to come after him and restore him. And friends, when we ourselves come to that realization that the Sovereign Lord will divert and detour all of the paths that we travel trying to get away from Him in order to redirect us back to Him, we will be overcome with joy as well. Throw down the nets, gird yourselves, and run to Him – swim to Him, splash your way to Him if you have to, but let this joy settle into your hearts that the Sovereign Lord has not given up on you, even if you have given up on Him, and He has purposely orchestrated the events of your life to bring to this place where you just jump overboard to return to Him in worship and obedient service!

Now we come to the final aspect of this manifestation of Jesus in our text.

IV. Jesus manifests Himself as the Abundant Provider (vv8-14)

In the Book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus rebukes one of His own churches saying, “you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev 3:17). Oh Peter had this idea – we need food, and we need money, and we have better things to do than stand around here all day waiting for Jesus to show up, so let’s go out in our boat and catch some fish like we know how to do! But the text uses remarkable eyewitness detail to show us the futility of attempting to live apart from the Lord’s purposes. They are miserable, having fished all night and caught nothing, and only managing to get about 300 feet off the shore. They are poor, which is probably why they went fishing in the first place, and is highlighted by the fact that their boat is called a “little boat” in verse 8. They are blind, unable to see or recognize the Lord Jesus on the shore, or the school of fish swimming just on the other side of the boat. They are naked, and it appears nearly quite literally so at that. But when the Lord speaks, provision comes in abundance.

I’ve never known a fisherman yet who could not tell you what he caught, how many, what kind, how big, etc. And John is no different. He said in verse 11 that there were 153, and they were large. Before the Lord provided: ZERO. After the Lord provided: so many that they were unable to get the net in the boat, and amazed the net didn’t break. And once they came ashore, He is standing there with the fire already lit, ready to serve them as He always had.

It is a wondrous thing about the Lord’s provision. He has unlimited resources at His disposal. And yet He invites us to participate in His work by giving back to Him a portion of what He has given to us. He doesn’t need it, but He wants us to know the joy and blessing of investing in the work of His kingdom. We see that illustrated here as Jesus says, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.” But what is already on the fire? Fish! He didn’t need their fish, but He allowed them to take part in what He was doing. It was an invitation into the fellowship of His service. And that is what we do when we take offerings every Sunday. We aren’t saying that God needs your money. God is the One who gave you that money. But, He always provides more than enough, so that a portion of it can be given back to Him for His use in accomplishing His purposes. Just like with these fish.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says in verse 12. Still dumbfounded by the entire encounter, apparently the disciples could not move. So in verse 13, John says that Jesus came to them. He provided the meal, cooked it, delivered it, and served it. There was nothing more to be done that what He had done for them. And in this we see that He is our Abundant Provider. All that we have, all that we need, comes from His hand. You say, “No, I earn what I got. I work hard and get paid for what I do.” Right, and the Lord gives you the ability and the energy and the skill and the opportunity and so on. It all comes from His hand. Without His provision, it would just be empty nets and frustration. Everything we have, and everything we need, comes from Him.

And of course what we need most is Him, because He is the One who can save us from our sins and reconcile us to God by His grace. As the disciples came ashore, John tells us what they saw. But before they saw what they saw, they had to smell something. John says that they saw a charcoal fire, and charcoal fires have a very distinct smell. This word for “charcoal fire” in the Greek text is only used in one other place in the New Testament. That is in the courtyard of the high priest, where Peter stood warming himself by a charcoal fire, and where he denied the Lord Jesus three times. They say scent is the strongest sense tied to memory. The smell of that fire would take Peter back in his mind to that moment of great failure. And here, the One he denied stands with outstretched hands offering to serve him breakfast. The failures of Peter’s past had been dealt with in the death of Jesus, and defeated by His resurrection. And the same is true for all of us. The death He died was for us, so that He bear the divine wrath our sins deserve as our substitute and sacrifice. In His resurrection, He overcomes that sin and its penalty by everlasting and indestructible life, which He offers to us by faith in Him. It is that Risen Jesus who manifested Himself on the beach at daybreak that morning as the Sovereign Lord, the Abundant Provider, the Gracious Seeker, and the Promise Keeper. And it is this same Risen Jesus who manifests Himself to us time and again in the same ways.

If you have never come to know Him as your Lord and Savior, I pray you would even this day. For those of us who have, let us examine our hearts as to our faithfulness to the mission and purposes to which Christ has called us. Are we waiting in faith and hope for the fulfillment of His promises? Are we serving Him in the strength of His power and in faithful obedience? Are we trusting Him to provide for our every need? Or, if Jesus should come around to meet with us, would He find a sign on the door of our hearts that reads simply, “Gone Fishin’”?

[1]Galilee, Sea of.” M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition. Public Domain. Accessed online at; April 27, 2016.
[2] H. V. Morton, In the Steps of the Master (London: Rich & Cowan, 1935), 199. 

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