Scripture Commentary — John 21:1-19
John 21:1-19 — Peter says, “I go a-fishing.”
Verse 1: The disciples were not conversing in an assembly or in a synagogue, praying for His return. They were involved in their common employment, not expecting a divine appearance. Christ can make His spirit presence known when we are engaged in our common daily occurrences. Recall that the shepherds were watching their flocks by night when an angel appeared to them.
Verse 2: Seven disciples were at the seashore, namely Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and 2 others (possibly Philip & Andrew). Was Nathanael the same as Bartholomew? The Law of Witnesses was in play here, as He appeared to several witnesses at once. Roman law required SEVEN witnesses for binding oaths. It is a good thing to be gathered together in Christian society, enjoying camaraderie and communion.
Verse 3: “I go a fishing.” Just a temporary break or respite? Had he forgotten his charge, his duty? Had he taken his hand off the plow and looked back (Luke 9:62)? “Devote all thy service in Zion, in this thou shalt have strength. In temporal labors thou shalt not have strength (Doctrine and Covenants 24:7-9). By appearing to them in this instance, perhaps Christ was approving of them being together in companionship. Good for them for not sitting idle, for moving forward. They needed sustenance and money. Perhaps they were not yet fully commissioned to preach Christ’s resurrection. They caught nothing – coincidence or divine design? A message – you will only have success in your labors, temporal or spiritual, with MY help! Another message – Even good men, at times, toil for no demonstrable reward. How did the other 6 react to Peter’s statement that he was going fishing? None of them took a stand to say, “No, we should be preaching the Word.” They all followed their leader.
Verse 4: “…knew not…” Was He too far away to recognize? This time, they had to come to Him. He didn’t walk on the water to them. The possible message was that His mortal ministry was over, it was now time for disciples to come to Him. My travail is over; your travail lies ahead, as symbolized by an entire night of toiling at the nets with no success. There is more symbolism in the fact that he appeared to them at ‘dawn’, as the morning was breaking, as the disciples were near exhaustion and despair. The dawn symbolized renewal and revival. The Savior will always be “on the shore”, signaling a safe harbor. He could have appeared to them at any point during the night, but He waited until they had given their all.
Verse 5: “Children…” – Though exalted now, He remains intimate and friendly, close and compassionate. Why did He ask about having meat? He was concerned for their welfare, and it also could be a reference to his statement in John 6:54-56 in which He said that his flesh was MEAT indeed. Do we ask our friends and family and associates often enough if they “have any meat”, if they need our help? Why didn’t He say, “It is I, your Lord. Come unto me.” He perhaps wanted to emphasize their dependence on Him, He wanted them to express their need. He knew the answer to the question before He asked the question. When He asked about meat, was He only asking about fish? He could have been asking not only about physical sustenance, but also about spiritual sustenance, as mentioned above. Their reply of ‘No’ was abrupt, almost curt. Were they embarrassed, exasperated, exhausted?
Verse 6: Did they recall the prior time when He asked them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and the results (Luke 5:4-6)? There was no hesitancy in throwing the nets. At this point, did they realize who it was that they were talking to? Significance of throwing to the right side of the boat? See Matthew 25:33-34. All creatures are under the command of the Lord, even shoals of fish. How incredible. That large catch of fish now meant income, sustenance, and purpose. The message was also sent that with My aid, you can catch and harvest, gather and glean, you can have success! How wonderful that they obeyed the request. They perhaps did not yet know that it was the Lord they were talking to, but they took counsel, they were submissive. Nothing is ever lost by obeying the Lord, knowingly or unknowingly. Their submission turned to their gain. They could have said, “Mind your own business. Don’t you think we have tried both sides of the boat already? We’re tired. We have been fishing all night.” Christ often reveals himself to his disciples by doing things others cannot do. Where we fail, He can succeed. Where they had had little success during His ministry, they were now to reap many souls, even 3000 in one day.
Verse 7: ‘Therefore’ — Because of John’s remembrance of the similar prior incident, he understood that it was Christ on the shore, and he shared that ‘revelation’ with Peter. John was the first to recognize the Lord. Perhaps he was the closest to the Lord, the most devoted, the most influenced by Him. Apparently none of the other six had recognized that it was the Lord on the shore. When Peter HEARD, not recognized, or understood, or deduced, but heard. How important is it to share spiritual insights? Peter cast himself in the water and headed for shore. What about the net full of fish? What about the other six in the boat? He truly left all and followed Christ! Peter, out of respect for the Lord, clothed himself more appropriately before leaving the boat. In essence he said, “I will not wait. I will come unto Christ with all my heart, might, mind, and strength.” He demonstrated humility and respect and devotion. He had momentarily let his faith sag when he denied the Lord a few days before, but he would not let that happen again.
Verse 8: The other 6 disciples were careful and deliberate, but they made sure they brought the “blessings” with them (the net full of fish). We need to be careful to not overlook or dismiss our blessings. Peter and John stand out in this story, but the other 5 disciples also “came unto Christ”, unheralded, unremarkable, but very faithful and dutiful. In the kingdom, some are “heads and eyes”, while others are “hands and feet”. All are needed. See 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 (“And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor.”)
Verse 9: Hours or days prior to this event, Jesus had been welcomed into the heavens in jubilation, exultation, and praise, celebrating the completion and fulfillment of the Infinite Atonement. Try to imagine the scene! And now, here is the Savior of all Mankind, the Perfect Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, The Resurrected Savior, and now here He is humbly seeking out a few pieces of dry wood on the shore, starting a small fire, and preparing a meal for 7 weary and discouraged disciples. They were obviously hungry and thirsty from their long night of toiling at the nets. Here was the Savior, serving, lifting, blessing. How did He start the fire? Where or how did He obtain the fish? Did he bake the bread, provide it miraculously? He was about to tell Peter to feed His sheep, with the exact compassion and love with which He was going to feed them.
Verse 10: “Bring of the fish which YE have now caught.” Jesus was actually responsible for the catching of the fish, but, yes, they had actually pulled them up in the net. He continues to provide for, bless, lift. He would also have them eat of the labors of their own hands. Jesus gives us opportunities, and then “adds to” our efforts and meager abilities (Abraham 3:26 – “…and they who keep their first estate shall be added upon…” Yes, come unto Me, but don’t leave your temporal concerns unattended to.
Verse 11: Not just fishes, but “great” fishes. The Lord, with His infinite control and power, had brought LARGE fish to fill the nets, not puny fingerlings. He indeed pours out blessings such that there is not room to receive them (Malachi 3:10). How interesting that they actually counted the fish. Surely they counted the fish out of gratitude for the blessing (Count Your Many Blessings, hymn # 241). Did Jesus intervene again in making sure the net did not break? Symbolically, the gospel net will never break either, as it can accommodate all who enter. The net belongs to the Lord, and He will guarantee its integrity. Interesting that it was Peter, the one who had swum to shore, who actually drew the net to the shore. Perhaps he offered to do this because he was already wet.
Verse 12: Those who work for Christ and do His bidding should be fed (Luke 22:30). His servants eat and drink at His table in His kingdom. “Come and dine with me”! A family setting, close, intimate. He didn’t say, “Feed me” or “Eat by yourselves”. There was no reason for them to ask, “Who art thou?” The evidence was clear: 1) He treats them as family 2) He calls them, “Children”. 3) The incredible catch of fishes 4) He serves them 5) He reminds them to bring along the fish He helped them catch Groundless doubt must be stifled. Jesus feeds them just before He asks them to feed His sheep!
Verse 13: He served them! Mark 9:35 says: “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” He served them a very simple and homely meal. It was not a lavish banquet, an extravagant feast; it was bread and fish. The bread is symbolic, as stated in John 6:58: “This is that bread which came down from heaven…” We should let our souls delight in plainness (2 Nephi 25:4). Elder Marvin J. Ashton gave a conference talk entitled “The Glory of Plainness”.
Verse 14: Why three times? Wouldn’t one be sufficient? In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. Multiple witnesses is the Lord’s way. This was the third time he appeared to the disciples AS A GROUP. Do we keep track of the number of “appearances” (manifestations) of the Lord in our own personal lives??
Verse 15: The Lord addresses Peter by his original name, Simon, rather than by Peter the Rock, perhaps due to the recent denials. Was Peter expecting chastisement from the Lord, perhaps even expulsion from the Twelve? Christ showed him great love, tenderness, mercy, and compassion. There was no open rebuke for Peter; Christ speaks to him only of LOVE. How charitable are we in circumstances where someone has misused us? Interestingly, Christ asks Peter THREE TIMES if he loved Him. That is the same number of times that Peter denied the Savior. This was probably for effect and for emphasis. Jesus asks Peter if he LOVED Him, not worship or adore or fear, but LOVE. This was representative of devotion, not emotion. Perfect love casteth out all fear, as mentioned in 1 John 4:18 (John was witnessing this interaction). You must love me first if you are going to feed my sheep. You have to love them as I love them. I love my flock intensely, and I will not entrust them to a casual shepherd. Lovest thou me more than these? By these, was Jesus referring to the nets, the boats, the fish, the fellow disciples? More than worldly pleasures, worldly pursuits, friends, companions, comradery? Do you love me first, foremost, and always? Do you love me more than these other men love me (Matthew 26:22)? It is interesting that Peter responds to the Savior’s question by saying “Thou knowest…” not just “Yes”. It was only after they had dined that Christ addressed the issue of love and feeding His sheep. He served them first, always attentive to the needs of those around Him. The setting and the circumstances were also important. The disciples had spent all night fishing, without His help and without success. He was now saying, “Brethren, it is time to step away from mundane pursuits (fishing) and engage in spiritual pursuits (preaching). You will no longer seek “fish”, you will serve “my sheep”.
Verse 17: The Lord tells Peter to “feed” his sheep and lambs. Feeding is different than just providing food; to feed implies teaching, leading, blessing, inspiring, and edifying. He mentions lambs and sheep, implying young and old, strong and feeble. Peter’s answer is different in this verse than in the other 2 verses. He adds, “Thou knowest all things.” In essence, Peter adds a brief testimony of the Lord’s omniscience, and with this acknowledgement, the Lord’s admonitions come to an end. See Ephesians 3:18-19 for a description of all things.
Verse 24: Some have said that another writer, other than John, wrote this final chapter of the Gospel of John, but verse 24 expressly states that the beloved disciple who leaned on Jesus’ bosom (John) is he that wrote and testified in this final chapter.
Verse 25: Of the Savior’s earthly ministry, we have recorded events on only about 30 days. In other words, we have 1/36th of His life recorded in the New Testament.
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