From Fish to Sheep

The death of Jesus had rocked the disciples to the very marrow of their being. Although they had met the risen Lord on two occasions, Jesus had not remained with them. Was their whole 3-year stint with Jesus really just to end in failure? Probably. Had it been a total waste of time? Probably not. But what now? It was time to head back home to Galilee to an uncertain future.

  1. Gone Fishing

Peter certainly takes the role of the head disciple. He is for sure the man of action: the man who walked on the water towards Jesus, the man who was first to (sort of) defend Jesus with physical force, the man who was first to look into the empty tomb. Therefore, when Peter said ‘I’m going out to fish,’ it was not unnatural that a good number of the disciples went with him. John, who was among them, tells us that six disciples followed Peter into the boat.

Peter had said ‘I’m going out to fish,’ the Greek grammar experts note a couple of revealing nuances in the specific language Peter used. The verb John records is a word, which was used in those days to mean ‘Final departure of one who ceases to be another’s companion.’ Moreover, the tense is a continuous one, so Peter seems to be saying that he is going back to fishing on a permanent basis. We don’t know exactly how long it was since the 8th day since Jesus’ resurrection, but it seems that Peter (and presumably the other six disciples with him) had decided that their future was no longer working for the cause of Christ. I suspect that this was known to the Lord and was part of the training process for the next task of the disciples!

Perhaps in Peter’s mind was his betrayal, and the apparently wasted and difficult years they had spent with Jesus, years that had all started so well, but which very quickly turned bad as John, ‘the forerunner’ was beheaded and the religious leaders bitterly opposed Jesus at every turn – even the people turned against Jesus. These enemies had won in the end had they not? Peter knew what he was good at! He had been a successful fisherman and he could be one again!

It was night. Apparently, if the days are hot, fish will tend to swim a bit deeper in the cooler parts of the lake, as the night comes and the surface of the lake cools, the fish are easier to catch as they swim a bit nearer the surface. I can imagine Peter enjoying the smells if the lake, the feel of the boat and the wind in his hair – this was his thing and it was good to be back! However, the night wore on and there was not a fish to be had! One can imagine the disciples becoming increasingly frustrated – now they had lost the art of fishing! The morning arrived and still nothing – it was surely time to give up. However, there was a man spotted on the shore, it was Jesus but once again, we note that he was not readily recognizable. ‘Have you not caught anything lads?’ ‘No!’ The reply was strange to say the least: ‘throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ Now I can imagine a few sarcastic comments coming from these seasoned fishermen who have been up all night, are tired, cold, and fed up! Was it the authority of the advice or was there awakening in the disciples some sort of recognition of this stranger on the shore? Whatever the explanation, the disciples did throw their net over the right side of the boat and when they did; ‘they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.’

It seems that if Peter was the first disciple to action, that John was the first disciple to think things through – his mind had been racing as the instruction came from the shore and now the fish were in the net, it twigged in John’s mind – ‘It is the Lord!’ I suppose this is one of those occasions in which the other disciples would have later wondered why it took so long to realise who the stranger was! Having wrapped his outer garment around him, Peter was straight into the water and wading ashore! It was a decent distance – some 100 metres. The remaining disciples were left to deal with the fish! This is quite a revealing event – at that moment, Peter seems to have realised that in spite of the great number of fish his love was not for fishing after all!

  1. Breakfast

John makes little of it, but isn’t it rather remarkable that on arriving at the shore with boat and fish that the disciples not only meet Jesus again (for the third post resurrection appearance) but there is already a charcoal fire burning, with fish cooking and fresh bread! If Jesus could feed 5,000 people with bread and fish what was it to feed seven hungry fishermen! It must have been a welcome sight at that early hour. There was some important talking to be done and it needed the benefit of full stomachs! It seems that Jesus had not prepared enough fish and more were needed – he knew that the disciples would have plenty to spare! Peter (who else) was the one who climbed back on board to help drag the net to shore. John notes that there were no less than 153 fish in the net! Moreover, it was not damaged! Much has been written of the significance of the number 153. I think the prize for the most ingenious explanation is that there were 10 commandments and 7 disciples and 1+2+3…+17 = 153! It seems that one of the disciples was so impressed with the catch that he decided to do a count. The total of 153 seems to have lodged firmly in John’s mind!

There was a slight uneasiness in the air. The disciples knew it was the Lord, but it seems that recognition was not as straightforward as one may have expected. John records that ‘none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘who are you?’ It seems that there was indeed something different about the appearance of the risen Lord, but it remains uncertain just what that difference was.

Jesus served the disciples. When they had eaten, it was time to talk.

  1. Peter

Jesus had met the disciples on two previous occasions, but it seems these were rather short meetings. This time they would meet around a meal and I can imagine that this was the start of a period of intense instruction and training as Luke mentions in Acts 1. I can see Peter stealing glances of the Lord as he ate his fish and bread – he’d be wondering what Jesus would say, especially since Pater had failed in such a spectacular way. Doubtless, it would have weighed heavily on his mind, to add to that Peter had returned to fishing – it was all just a bit awkward!

The conversation begins with a question for Peter: ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ So begins a three question, three answer exchange that somewhat mirrors Peter’s three denials!

This conversation would have taken place in Aramaic, but John writes in Greek. Since John is writing under the prompting of the Holy Spirit I think his selection of Greek words do bear some significance. What is interesting is that two Greek words for love are used throughout: Agape and Phileo. The New Testament writers do seem to have used these two words to convey two distinct features of love, which are not readily apparent in our English translations. John was certainly in a good place to pick up on the nuances of Jesus’ three questions to Peter. Kenneth Wuest*, points out that the Greek word agape was used to express a love that was about prizing and self-sacrifice for the object of the love – it seems to have been used to convey the idea of devotion on the one loving towards the object of the love. Parents will recognise this type of love as the love of a parent for a child, the child may be difficult to love and bring all sorts of difficult for the parent but this does not diminish the love. Phileo on the other hand seems to relate to a love that is related to the benefits that the object of the love brings to the one loving. So for example, I love to see England beating Australia at cricket (a somewhat rare occurrence!) – but you see that this love is about the pleasure the object of the love brings. So, three questions and three answers, see the table below for a summary.

QuestionJesus’ QuestionPeter’s responseJesus’ response
1Simon son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?Yes Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.Feed my lambs.
2Simon son of John, do you love (agape) me?Yes Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.Take care of my sheep.
3Simon son of John, do you love (phileo) me?Lord, you know all things; you know that I love (phileo) you.Feed my sheep.

So what do you make of that! John says that by the time Jesus had asked the third question Peter was hurt! Jesus seems to have begun by asking Peter if he had a love of devotion for him – and the specific question was, ‘do you love me more than these?’ What exactly was the ‘these’ Jesus was referring to? It could have been the rest of the disciples or the fish. I think it was the fish! Peter had gone back to what he seemed to love best. It seems as though Peter, knowing his own inability could not answer with a stronger word than ‘phileo.’ Question 2 follows the same pattern. It’s the third question that hurt so bad. Jesus seems to have questioned Peter’s ability to muster up even the weaker phileo love. Why such a brutal line of questioning? I suspect that Jesus wanted to lead Peter to the point where he would realise that without supernatural intervention and help Peter would keep on failing! That help was to come in the form of the residence of the Holy Spirit within the heart of Peter.

What was of encouragement to Peter was that in spite of his inability, Jesus would use him in a very specific way; he was to change his job description from a fisher of men, to a shepherd of sheep! Peter was to take care of, and feed Jesus’ lambs and sheep. It seems to me that this task can only be successfully done by those who realise that they are incapable in their own strength (Peter had successfully proven that!) and can only carry out such work with God’s help.

However, Jesus had more to tell Peter. Peter’s devotion would be such that one day he would give his life for the cause of Christ! Now that really is an expression of a life of devotion! Here’s what Jesus said with John’s commentary: ‘ Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.’ This must have been a bittersweet moment from Peter, Jesus is telling him that he will one day display an extraordinary love for Jesus, but it would be at great cost. I can’t help but ask myself how I would honestly answer the same probing questions that Jesus posed to Pater. How much do we love him? The sad truth is that for most Christians our love is weak at best and our desires are for other things, material wealth or success on the terms of this word or just an easy life.

All of this discussion about Peter’s future prompts a rather practical and somewhat unnecessary question on Peter’s part! Peter and John seem to be the lead disciples; would it be too simplistic to say that Peter had the brawn and John the brains? If Peter was to die, what about John? Jesus’ reply is of some significance. We have just learned what will happen to Peter, now Jesus gives us another piece of data: ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.’ Apparently, by the time John wrote his gospel, this statement had morphed into a belief that Jesus had indicated that John would not die! However, John sets the record straight by simply quoting the words of Jesus! What can we learn from this? The two pieces of information are: 1). Sometime in the future Peter would die and 2). There was a possibility that Jesus could return within John’s lifetime. I think there are some significant implications in this. There would be a period in which Jesus would not return and then there would follow a period (which extends to the present time) when Jesus could come.

Peter would later be known as, ‘the apostle to the circumcised (Jews).’ Peter would (as you can see in the book of Acts) have the responsibility of once again preaching to the Jews – but it would end in another rejection of the Messiah, and ultimately Peter’s death. It seems to me that once this period of Israel’s rejection is over, there is a significant change. Israel suffers judgement at the hands of the Romans, the nation is de-selected (temporarily see Romans 11) and the new entity of the church emerges.  The church age seems to be characterised by an ‘any moment’ return of the Lord. In contrast for Israel it seems that the return of the Lord is in some way contingent on repentance of the Jews (simply read what Peter actually preached in Acts 3: 13-21). This points forward to two separate comings, an ‘any moment’ coming to the air (see 1 Thessalonians 4:17) for the church and a return to the ground at the mount of Olives where Israel is in view (see for example Zechariah 14: 4).

You may think that this is all a bit technical and complicated, but it is of immense practical importance. Jesus may return at any moment, and the question for right now is how much do you love him?