Widely Universal Yet Intensely Personal

John 21:1-17

Jesus and the Miraculous Catch of Fish

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee.[a] It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus[b]), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.[c] When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them,“Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Jesus Reinstates Peter

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

Dear Friends in Christ,

I came across a story recently about a little boy who was passing a few Saturday morning moments in the lobby of a high-rise building while he waited on his dad who was on the top floor getting caught up on some work.  You see, his dad was the CEO of a major corporation as well as the owner of that building.  But while the boy jumped up and down on the steps and played in the lobby as little boys will do, he caught the attention of a maintenance worker who approached him, not realizing who he was.  And that worker scolded the boy for what he was doing.  He said, “Mr. Reynolds owns this building.  He’s the boss.  And I don’t think he would want you jumping around down here like you’ve been doing.”  The little boy looked up at the worker and innocently said, “Well, Mr. Reynolds may be your boss, but he’s my daddy.”

Something wonderful happens when you can say the same thing about God.  “Yes, he’s the Creator of the universe.  He’s the boss of this world.  He’s the King of kings and Lord of lords.  But you know what?  He’s my Father.  He’s my daddy.”  And yet sometimes we have trouble believing that truth, don’t we?  We understand passages like John 3:16 – “For God so loved theworld” – but we don’t personalize it for ourselves and believe that God so loved me, that if I was the only person alive when Jesus walked this earth, he still would have gone to the cross just for me.  He still would have died just for me.

If you find that too good to be true sometimes or too difficult to believe, at least you’re in good company.  For Peter must have felt the same way.  Yes, I’m talking about Peter the apostle; Peter the writer of the 2 New Testament epistles that bear his name; Peter who walked on water, at least for a few moments, when Jesus invited him to.  That Peter had trouble believing that Jesus could love him that much.  But that’s the story that is recorded in our text for today and that we want to spend our time looking at this morning because this is the account of the day that Peter learned that while God’s love is widely universal, it is also intensely personal.

Let’s begin by looking at Peter’s situation in our text.  That situation is stated pretty clearly by Peter himself when he says to 6 of his fellow disciples: “I’m going fishing.”  Now that seems harmless enough until we start asking a few questions, like:  Isn’t this an unusual time for Peter to be thinking about going fishing?  I mean, Jesus had just risen from the dead a few weeks before.  The most miraculous event in the history of mankind had just occurred.  And Peter was there to see the evidence of it.  He saw the stone rolled away, the empty tomb, the grave clothes Jesus had left behind neatly folded up.  In addition to that, he was present with the other disciples in the upper room later that Easter evening when Jesus appeared to them behind locked doors.  And now Peter is wanting to go fishing?  Doesn’t that strike you as rather odd?

But there’s more.  Didn’t Peter quit fishing?  Remember, that had been his occupation until he’d met Jesus and Jesus had convinced him to stop fishing for fish and to start fishing for men.  But here he is, back fishing for fish again.

So why is he fishing?  Well, maybe he’s hungry.  Maybe we can attribute this fishing expedition to nothing more than growling stomachs.  But I don’t buy that.  I think there’s more to it than that.  I think we can attribute it to a broken heart because if there is one thing that Peter is remembered for it is how miserably he failed Jesus the night before Jesus was put to death.  Though Jesus had warned him that Peter was going to deny him, Peter vehemently protested that he would never do that.  And yet that is precisely what he did, didn’t he?  And while denying Jesus was bad enough, did he have to do it 3 times?  And while denying him 3 times was bad enough, did he have to resort to cursing and swearing to get his point across to those who were questioning him?

There’s a part of this story that only one Gospel writer records and it just breaks my heart every time I read it.  In Luke 22:60-61 we’re told:  “Just as he (Peter) was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.  I suspect Jesus was being led through the courtyard at that time and amid all the noise and chaos he heard this outspoken disciple of his vociferously saying to those around him, “I don’t know the man!  Never met him before!  Never had anything to do with him!”  And when Peter looked away from his questioners, there was Jesus looking at him.  And for just a moment their eyes locked.  Do you think Peter ever forgot that look of hurt and disappointment that Jesus gave him that night?  The guilt and shame he felt must have been overwhelming.  In fact, I would suspect that not even the evidence of the resurrection that Peter saw on Sunday morning – as wonderful and miraculous as it was – was enough to erase from Peter’s heart what he had done on Thursday night.  He knew that Christ had risen from the dead, but he couldn’t bring himself to believe or say “Christ has risen from the dead for me.  He may be the Savior.  He may be the Lord.  But there’s no way he could be my Savior and my Lord.  Not after what I did.”

Have you ever had similar thoughts, my friends?  “I can see how Christ could love the world, but I can’t see how Christ could ever love me – not after what I’ve done; not after what I’ve said; not after where I’ve been; not after who I’ve been.”  If you can relate to Peter’s thoughts, then you know why he went back to his old life.  He went back to the path of least resistance.  He went back to his comfort zone.  And sometimes we’re tempted to do the same.  We’re tempted to think: “I’ll never be good enough to be a Christian.  I’ll never be able to live up to God’s standards.  I’ll never be worthy of his love.  So I might as well just give up before I blow it any further.”

My friends, if you’ve ever felt that way, please don’t miss what happens next in our text.  For Jesus meets Peter right where Peter is.  He shows up on the shore while Peter and his buddies are fishing.  Now they haven’t caught anything thing all night long.  But then they hear a voice from the shore which tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  When they do it, mmediately the nets fill with fish.  John is the first to realize what’s going on.  And when he says, “It is the Lord,” good old impetuous, spur-of-the-moment Peter doesn’t waste any time.  He dives in the water and swims to shore.  And what is the first thing he sees when he gets there?  A fire.  A charcoal fire.  When was the last time we saw Peter near a fire?  It was when he denied Christ, right?

Oh, I see what Jesus is doing here!  He’s recreating the moment to get even with Peter.  Is that what Jesus was doing?  It might be what we would do, but I guarantee you it’s not what he would do.  Instead, you know what Jesus does?  He invites Peter to breakfast, along with the other disciples.  In essence, he says, “Hey, Peter, you got a minute?  Are you hungry?  I’ve fixed breakfast for you.  Won’t you join me?”  Notice, Jesus was including Peter when Peter no doubt felt as though he was far from worthy of being included.  And when breakfast was finished, Jesus invites Peter to go on a little walk with him because Jesus wants to have a heart-to-heart talk with this fallen disciple and provide healing for his broken spirit.

And in the course of their conversation, Jesus poses 3 questions to Peter that we need to examine in the original Greek language in which they were written in order to get the full grasp of them because sadly, something big gets lost in the translation to English.  But first I need to teach you the meaning of 2 Greek words that Jesus uses here, both of which are translated as “love.”  The first one is agape.  This was the highest form of love according to the Greeks.  It was the most noble, unselfish, self-sacrificing kind of love imaginable.  The second word is the second highest form of love which in its verb form was known as phileo, which means to have affection for.  It’s the kind of love that exists between friends.

Now getting back to our text, Jesus first of all asks Peter:  “Do you agape me?  Do love me with the highest form of love?”  And Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I phileo you.  I have affection for you as one friend does for another friend.”  You see, Peter is not boasting anymore.  The pride is gone.  The swagger has left.  Something has happened to Peter.  So Jesus asks him again, “Do you agape me?”  And Peter’s reply is the same.  “I phileo you.  I have affection for you.”  And it’s at that point that Jesus asks the most pointed question of all.  He says, “Peter, do you phileo me.  Are you sure that you even have affection for me?”

Do you understand what Jesus is doing here?  As painful as it is, he’s meeting Peter right where he is.  He’s helping Peter to take a good honest look at himself.  But he does so, not to condemn Peter, not to embarrass him, but to restore him.  For three times in our text Jesus re-commissions Peter when he says, “Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep.”  Don’t miss the obvious there: 3 denials by a fire; 3 re-commissionings by a fire.

And you know what?  Jesus does the same with us.  He meets you wherever you are.  You may be thinking, “I’ve got to get my life together first before I can go and meet Christ.”  No, Christ will meet you in whatever mess you may find yourself.  “I’ve got to get sober before I can meet Christ.”  No, he’ll meet you right there in the bar.  “I’ve got to get my marriage together first.”  No, he’ll meet you right there in the middle of that troubled marriage.  Whatever your struggle is, wherever your struggle is Jesus will meet you there, not to condone what you’re doing, not to condemn what you’re doing, but to help you overcome it.  If you think you’re too dirty, he says, “I’ll clean you up.”  If you think you’re too sinful, he says, “I’ll give you my righteousness.”  If you think you’re not worthy, he says, “I’ll make you worthy.  Just give me the chance to do for you what you can’t do for yourself.”

Don’t miss the personal aspect of all this, my friends.  Yes, Christ died for all, as the Bible says, but he died for you in particular.  Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, but God loved you so much that he gave you his only begotten Son so that if youwould believe in him, you will not perish but you would have everlasting life.  He did it all just for you.

Let me close with a true story about an airplane flight that was loaded with sophisticated, dark-suited businessmen who were heading to their appointments for the day with the exception of one mother and her young daughter.  Shortly after take-off, the plane experienced mechanical problems and it appeared as though they would have to make an emergency landing without the aid of landing gear.  As all of those men began to cry out in despair, that mother was the picture and presence of absolute calm.  She cupped her little girl’s face in her hands and looking deep into her eyes said, “Listen to me, honey.  Mommy loves you.  No matter what happens, I love you.  Please don’t ever forget that.”  Then she stood up and straddled her daughter with her legs.  She then gently sat on her daughter’s lap and extended and secured the seatbelt around them so that any flying debris would have to get through her before it could get to her daughter.

Now thankfully, that plane did not crash and everyone survived.  But that young girl was given a memory that someday she’ll look back on and say, “You know, my mom did that for me.  She was willing to die for me.”

I hope you hear the Lord saying that to your heart today, my friends.  “You see that cross?  I died there just for you.  You see that empty tomb?  I rose there just for you.  I took all the fury that hell could give, and I did it just for you so that you would know that while my love is widely universal, it is also intensely personal.”