Notes on John 21:1-6

John 21:1‑6  •  8 min. read  •  grade level: 11
It is impossible fairly to sever the manifestation of Jesus at the lake of Tiberias from the two previous scenes of which it is the complement; as indeed verse 14 warrants us to say with decision. It is therefore quite improper to speak of the chapter as an appendix, still more so to speculate on its being written at an interval of some length after the rest of the Gospel: an inference due chiefly if not altogether to a misunderstanding of the two closing verses of chapter 20, as has been already pointed out. The connection is immediate and marked with the two previous manifestations of the risen Lord. First, we have seen Him, (after making Himself known to Mary of Magdala and sending by her a most characteristic message to His disciples,) standing in their midst when gathered together without seeing Him on the first or resurrection day of the week, in their enjoyment of peace and the mission of peace in the power of the Spirit to remit and retain sins in His name. Secondly, we have seen Him eight days after meeting His disciples again when Thomas was there, representing saved Israel of the latter day who only believe by the sight of Him risen. Now we have the beautiful picture of the millennial ingathering from the sea of Gentiles, which follows the Jews returning as such to the Lord, as all prophecy leads us to expect.
“After these things Jesus manifested himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and he manifested [himself] thus. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus [that is, Twin], and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the [sons] of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter saith to them, I go to fish. They say to him, We also come with thee. They went forth, and entered1 into the boat, and that night took nothing. But when early morn was now breaking,2 Jesus stood on the shore: however the disciples did not know that it was [lit, is] Jesus. Jesus therefore saith to them, Children, have ye anything to eat? They answered him, No. And he said to them, Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and ye will find. They cast therefore, and were no longer able3 to draw it from the multitude of fishes.” (Vers. 1-6.)
Peter with his usual energy proposes to go a-fishing, and six others accompany him. But the result is no better than when some of the same disciples with the same Peter essayed to catch fish before his call and theirs. Even in the days of the kingdom the power must be manifestly of the Lord, not of man nor of the saints themselves; and Peter must and would learn the lesson, if the Catholic church falsely claiming Peter refuse it in pride. It is not yet the kingdom manifested in power and glory, but in mystery for such as have ears to hear. And although grace work its wonders, the nets break, and the boats threaten to sink, even when their partners come to share in taking the great multitude of fishes.
Here Jesus is not aboard, and there is no putting out into the deep, but with the early morn just breaking He stood on the beach, and still unknown put a question which brought out their confessed lack of success. Then comes the word, Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and ye will find. And so it was; for so casting they were now unable to draw the net for the multitude of fishes. It is the figure of the great millennial haul from among the nations, when the salvation of all Israel will prove to be incomparably blessed to the Gentiles. If their “fall” has been so fraught with good in divine grace, how much more their “fullness” (Rom. 11:1212Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness? (Romans 11:12)), of which the seven Israelites may be the pledge? The once rejected but now risen Christ is to be the head of the heathen, not only of the church now on high, but by-and-by of the nations on the earth, owned by previously unbelieving Israel to be their Lord and their God. Then will the Jew sing, God shall bless us; and all the ends of the earth shall fear Him; and again, Princes shall come out of Egypt: Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God, Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth; O sing praises unto the Lord. In the figure of that day the nets do not break, nor is there any thought of putting the fishes into the boat, still less of gathering the good into vessels and casting the bad away. The weakness of man and of earthly circumstances wanes before the present power of the Lord who directs all.
Augustine may be safely regarded as the ablest and most enlightened of the early writers on this sign, which he compares with that which preceded the call of Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee. He is right in distinguishing the take of fish which followed the resurrection from the miraculous draft before it. Nor does any other among the ancients add to the truth of his observations, Gregory the Great rather darkening the force of our scripture by his effort to make much-of Peter's part in order to help on the Papal pretensions then in course of rapid growth. The earlier miracle he regards as significant of the good and evil in the church as it is now; the later, of the good only which it is to have forever when the resurrection of the just is accomplished in the end of this age. (Serm, ocxlviii.- cclii., &c.)
Enough perhaps has been said already which anticipatively corrects so erroneous an interpretation of the sign before us. There is no thought of a fishing scene in the resurrection either of just or unjust, no truth in the employing of Jews or men for gathering in the risen righteous to their heavenly and eternal rest. The fathers saw nothing of the future restoring of the kingdom to Israel, nor of the general blessedness of all nations as such under the reign of the Lord in the age to come. The moderns are in general no less uninstructed; for though some see and allow the restoration of Israel to their land and the accomplishment of the glory promised so largely throughout the Old Testament, they somehow with strange inconsistency merge all into this age. They do not perceive that these are among the constituents of the age to come, before the eternal state, when there will be no difference between Jew and Gentile absolutely, as there is none even now for the Christian and the church.
But here is another source of this deep, long-lasting, and widespread misconception. Men and even good men fail to see the true nature of the church, as they do not believe in the special features of the millennial age. How much error would be avoided if they discerned the peculiar character and unexampled privilege of the body of Christ in union with its heavenly head, since redemption, while He sits at God's right hand! How much more, if they looked for His return with His bride, already complete and caught up to be with Him on high, to make His foes His footstool, and Judah His goodly horse in the battle which introduces Jehovah-Jesus King over all the earth-one Jehovah and His name one in that day. It is as egregious to confound with the church wherein is neither Jew nor Greek all this distinctive blessing of Israel and the nations on the earth under the reign of the Lord, as it is to merge both in the end of the age or in the eternity which, they assume, is to follow, blotting out the new age to come, which is to be characterized by the reign of the Second man, the Lord Jesus, the absence of Satan, the exaltation of the glorified saints in power on high, and the blessedness of all the families of the earth here below.
But these all stand indelibly written in the scriptures; and no wrigglings of unbelief can get rid of a truth which may be and is offensive to the pride of nature and the worldly mind, as it would prove full of help and value to Christian men often perplexed by their own misreading of revelation and their misconception consequently of what is to be sought or expected at this present time. For there is no error which does not bear its own baneful fruits; and the error in question, though not assailing fundamental truth, affects most extensively the right understanding of the past, the present, and the future, by blurring their chief characteristic differences, and so presenting an undistinguishable vague, where the word of God affords the fullest light on the various dispensations, as well as on that mystery in regard of Christ and of the church which comes in between and is superior to either.