The miraculous catch of fish in John 21

Tue, 27/04/2021 - 15:44 -- James Oakley
Tabgha, Sea of Galilee

This Sunday I'm preaching on John 21:1-14, the miraculous catch of fish. I've been asking myself why this miracle is recorded in John's gospel. Here are some thoughts.

What's the Puzzle?

Here's why the question needs asking. The story is a miracle (the catch of fish), and a post-resurrection appearance (“Afterwards Jesus appeared again to his disciples. … This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead”).

However, John's gospel has already had enough miracles for his editorial purpose (20:30-31). John's gospel has also recorded Jesus appearing to his disciples enough times to bring them to faith.

So why do we need a further story that is both a resurrection appearance and a miracle?

Chapter 21

Perhaps we should ask why chapter 21 is here, rather than treating the miracle (21:1-14) in isolation. After all, the miracles in John's gospel are "signs", and the dialogues before and after the miracle guide us in their interpretation.

Reading on into chapter 21, it seems it's there to record Jesus commissioning his apostles. We see Peter commissioned to feed and care for the sheep; we hear John commended to us for writing the book.

Which means we should see the miraculous catch of fish as shedding light on the apostolic commission, rather than as being about Jesus' divinity or resurrection per se.

So how does the miracle set the scene for the second half of the chapter? Notice two emphases.

The Risen Jesus Provides Food

One emphasis in this story is on Jesus as the provider of food. Not only does he enable the miraculous catch of fish, but when they get to the shore they find that he already has a fire alight with bread and fish cooking. He provides the food, both in the sense that he already has food for them before they land their catch, and in the sense that they only caught fish because he enabled it.

So, Jesus' invitation is: “Come and have breakfast.” He wishes to feed his disciples before he commissions.

My Flesh is Real Food

Next, we have to notice the resonances here with John 6.

The account opens “Afterwards” (Μετὰ ταῦτα) Jesus appeared by the “Sea of Galilee” (literally - Sea of Tiberias: ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης τῆς Τιβεριάδος).

John 6 opens “Some time after this” (Μετὰ ταῦτα) Jesus crossed to the far shore of the “Sea of Galilee, that is the Sea of Tiberias” (πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης … τῆς Τιβεριάδος).

The menu at both meals is bread and fish. You could be forgiven for forgetting about the fish in John 6, since the following dialogue is all about bread initially, then flesh and blood. You could be forgiven for forgetting about the bread in John 21, since the miracle is the production of a large quantity of fish. But the menu, at both meals, is bread and fish.

Furthermore, John uses an unusual word for fish in chapter 6 (ὀψαριον). The other 3 gospels use the word ἰχθυς, familiar to us from the acronym that led to the fish being used as a symbol for early Christians. It's not that John didn't know or like the word ἰχθυς, since he uses it three times in John 21. He just chose to use a less common word. Perhaps in John 6 it stressed the small size of the fish the boy had (the word is a diminutive form), little more than a sandwich filler.

Three times in John 21 (in verses 9, 10 and 13), he uses that same word. This time, it was not because the fish were small; indeed, in John 21:11, John explicitly says that they were "large" fish. Instead, it reinforces the concrete allusion back to John 6. The word ὀψαριον occurs only 5 times in the New Testament, twice in John 6 and three times in John 21.

The dialogue in John 6 shows us that the feeding miracle is a sign for the true spiritual food we all need, and that food is Jesus himself. He is the one God the Father sent down from heaven to give life to the world.

Feed on Jesus

Put these two observations together.

In John 21, Jesus needs to feed his disciples before he commissions them. In so doing, reference is made to John 6, where we learnt that Jesus himself is the true food.

So, before the disciples are commissioned to feed others with Jesus (John 21:15, 16, 17), they need Jesus himself to feed them. They need to be fed by and with Jesus before they seek to feed others.

Maybe this points to an application for us that there is a danger, reading John and reaching John 20:30-31, that our minds fill with people who would benefit from such a book. We'd like to share the message of this Jesus with them. John is a book that should spur is to evangelism, but John 21 would caution that we need to receive and feed on this Jesus ourselves before we do.

This sharpens considerably for those with any kind of public ministry. We must not minister Jesus to others as an alternative to receiving him for ourselves. We must not minister to others out of our own emptiness, so that the spiritual food we serve is something we have sought to produce. There are many qualifications in the New Testament for ministry, but the foundational one is surely that we've heard Jesus' call to come and have breakfast, and we've made our lives a lifetime of breakfast with Jesus. He needs to feed us, and he is the food we need. Only then are we qualified to minister him to others.

Over to you. Any more thoughts on how this miraculous story applies to us today?

Part 2 follows on Friday.

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