Futile Fishing. 1 After this, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. 2 Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Many quickly pass over the beginning of this passage to move to the miraculous catch signaling the presence of Jesus on the shoreline. But to do so would be to miss the “apostolic roll call.”
We should not be surprised to hear Simon Peter and Thomas on the list, those who figured so prominently after the Transfiguration, before the raising of Lazarus, and in the post-Resurrection appearances. But what about Nathanael – why is he listed? This is his first appearance since John 1:45-50 when Jesus promised him that he would see “greater things,” and certainly Jesus’ appearance signals the fulfillment of that promise. And why are they in Galilee and why are they fishing? The answer that usually arises is that Jesus told Mary to tell the brothers to go to Galilee… but not in John’s gospel. In fact they might be just what they did, waiting for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit given in 20:21. But might not John have a symbolic reason for the fishing scene?
Perhaps it is to return to where the public ministry began in Galilee – Cana where the miracle of the water/wine was prelude to the ministry and now the miraculous catch will be the prelude to the mission of the Church. In both instances, they are miracles of abundance and the means of revelation to the disciples. But then again, some scholars have offered the Galilean fishing event as a sign of the men’s apostasy: “Behold, the hour is coming and has arrived when each of you will be scattered to his own home and you will leave me alone.” (John 16:32) Simon Peter is back at his old job of fishing? If he had seen the risen Jesus twice before, if he had received the commission “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21), what’s he doing back in the boat? Some scholars see the event as parallel to the other gospels’ call narratives (Matt 4:18–22; Mark 1:16–20; Luke 5:10), here serving also as a commissioning. Perhaps it is just “what-do-we-do-now” aimlessness while we figure things out.
Why ever they are in Galilee fishing, they are having no success: “that night they caught nothing.”
Fantastic Fishing. 4 When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” 6 So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.
The Sea of Tiberias (v. 1) is a Johannine locale (6:22–23), and the fishing companions are, in general, already known to us, with the exception of “Zebedee’s sons,” who here make their only appearance in the Fourth Gospel. Among the “two other disciples,” seemingly, is the Beloved Disciple (v.7). The lack of success during the night, followed by enormous success with the daylight presence of Jesus (vv. 3–6), is a practical application of John’s frequent comments about night and day, light and darkness. The appearance of Jesus [w]hen it was already dawn echoes the scene in the garden with Mary Magdalene – the disciples’ fail to recognize Jesus as did Mary (20:14), and similarly, the Beloved Disciple is the first to recognize the Lord (v. 7).
Jesus reinitiates contact with the disciples addressing them as children (paidia). The form of address is unique to the fourth gospel and points to an authority rooted in intimacy. This authority must have been intuitively sensed, for even after a fruitless night of fishing, tired and ready to “call it a night”, the disciples dutifully cast the nets again. On their own they had caught nothing, but in response to Jesus’ command, there is a phenomenal catch of fish (cf. 4:50, 53; 5:8; 11:43).
The mention of precisely 153 fish (v. 11) has led to symbolic interpretations of all kinds. And indeed, there must be symbolism involved (unless one assumes that the disciples took time out to make a count). Saint Jerome believed that the zoology of his time taught that there were 153 different kinds of fish; and the number, as a result, reflected universality. Jerome was probably incorrect about the zoologists of his own day, but his idea about universal symbolism was probably correct. Augustine of Hippo argued that the significance lay in the fact that 153 is the sum of the first 17 integers with 17 representing the combination of divine grace (the 7 gifts of the Spirit) and law (the Ten Commandments). Augustine goes farther and notes that “153” is the “triangular number.”
He arrives at this conclusion noting that 153=1!+2!+3!+4!+5! (math refresher: factorials). When the factorials are arranged (see diagram), one sees an image of the Trinity. (Sorry: I was a math major undergraduate… I had to throw this one in….)
Over time there have been a host of theories, but the scholar D. A. Carson discusses this and other interpretations and concludes “If the Evangelist has some symbolism in mind connected with the number 153, he has hidden it well.” Perhaps we can let Carson have the last word.
21:1 revealed: phaneroō; this verb is not used anywhere in the NT to speak of resurrection appearance – and hardly at all, other than in John where it is used to speak of the revelation that takes place in Jesus (1:31, 2:11, 3:21, 7:4, 9:3, 17:6). The use of this verb speaks to more than a simple resurrection story. Rather indicates that there is more to be revealed in this passage than just the physical appearance.
21:2 Zebedee’s sons: the only reference to James and John in this gospel. Perhaps the phrase was originally a gloss to identify, among the five, the two others of his disciples. The total of seven may suggest the community of the disciples in its fullness.
21:3 I am going fishing: This story may well be the same as that recounted in Luke 5:4–10. Luke purposely limits Christ’s resurrection activities to the area of Jerusalem, so he placed this Galilee story in chapter 5 of his Gospel for its rich homiletic advantage. Called to be fishers of men and women, the disciples can catch nothing without the assistance of the Lord. And indeed, Peter’s confession in Luke 5:8, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” makes more sense if this was originally a post-resurrection story following Peter’s denials.
In the ages, many have asked how is it possible that the disciples returned to their everyday activity. Speculation covers the range from the state of the disciples mental condition in the post-Easter environment, a practical need for income and livelihood in the early days of the mission. In the end, all speculation is simply that.
21:6 pull: the Greek helko (pull, haul, draw) also refers to the Father drawing people to Jesus (6:44) and Jesus drawing all people to himself (12:32). Now, after the resurrection, it is the disciples who are responsible for doing the drawing or hauling (21:6, 11). However, when the disciples seek to haul in fish on their own, they catch nothing. When they act in response to Jesus’ command, their catch is almost more than they can handle.
21:7 tucked in his garment: The word the NIV translates as ‘outer garment’ (ependytēs) is found only here in the NT and may need to be rendered differently in the light of its context. The expression ēn gar gymnos, literally rendered would be ‘for he was naked/lightly dressed’. Ancient art and literature indicate that cast-net fisherman worked naked, and it is not impossible that Peter, being naked, wrapped not a full ‘outer garment’ but a simple loincloth around him to show respect for Jesus before jumping into the water to make his way to the shore to meet him. The verb diazōnnymi, translated ‘wrapped’, can also mean ‘hitch up’.
Brown (John, The Anchor Bible, 1072) suggests a more logical picture of Peter being clad only in his fisherman’s smock (ependytes) — without the normal undergarments — thus being “poorly dressed” rather than “naked” — both are meanings of gymnos, Peter “tucks it into” his cincture (a more literal meaning diazonnymi than “put on”), so that he can swim more easily and dives into the water.
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in Anchor Bible series, ed. William Albright and David Noel Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 1072
- A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar Commentaries Series), (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991) 673
- Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in vol. 9 of the New Interpreter’s Bible; ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004) 854-62
Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm