The Church’s worldwide celebration of Easter has just demonstrated that its power is in the changed lives of Christians and not in our buildings or rituals. This theme is picked up by the writer of the fourth Gospel, John, who builds fascinating significance into His post-resurrection encounters with the risen Christ. One of these is in his final chapter which offers three important insights to the way in which these encounters can transform us.
1. Revelation of the risen Christ ignites a transformation.
Jesus is not recognised at first, despite already being seen by His disciples in chapter 20. Perhaps the early morning light was poor. Perhaps He kept Himself from being recognised to get their attention via a miracle. But look at the structure of the story and it suggests that the moment of revelation of Jesus as Lord is the significant centrepiece of verses 1-14.
The pairing of related thoughts draws our attention to the middle, remembering that there were no verse numbers marked in the original text. (Here, the extremities connect to the centre, often a key feature of such ‘chiastic’ structures).
A – Verses 1-2: The bookend verse on Jesus’ purpose to reveal Himself
B – Verse 3: Seeking food
C – Verse 4: Not realising it was Jesus
D – Verse 5: No haul of fish without Jesus’ miracle
E – Verse 6: Fish provided by Jesus
F – Verse 7: The revelation that “it is the Lord!”
E’ – Verses 8-9 Fish provided by Jesus
D’ – Verses 10-11: A huge haul of fish with Jesus’ miracle
C’ – Verse 12: Realising it was Jesus
B’ – Verse 13: Receiving food
A’ – Verse 14: The complementary bookend on Jesus’ purpose
Some present-day followers are similarly lacking in perception, familiar with the historical Jesus but without an encounter with the resurrected Christ. Peter’s moment of recognition is pivotal in this story and also in the story of his own personal transformation.
2. Revelation of the risen Christ involves a work of the Spirit.
In 1 Corinthians 12:3, we are told that it is only possible to confess Jesus as Lord by the work of the Spirit. The Spirit also eventually empowered the disciples to preach the need for faith (Acts 1:8) and these disciples were to engage in that work as “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).
Here, the work of bringing people to Christ is represented by the haul of fish, 153 large ones! Plenty of people have speculated on the meaning of the number, given John’s love of symbolism. Perhaps the disciples, who typically counted their catch anyway, simply marvelled at the provision.
On the other hand, John 7:37-39 indicates that the Spirit is associated with faith. This echoes the link between being born of water and the Spirit in John 3:5 which connects the twin elements of water and Spirit seen in Ezekiel 36:25-27.
Chapter 47 of Ezekiel parallels the John 7 reference and shows two places marking the catching of fish where the river of life – symbolic of the Spirit – flows. These are Engedi and Eneglaim, numerically representing 17 and 153, respectively. Dividing 17 into 153 gives 9, the number of the different aspects of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and also the number of gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 (just after the verse on the Spirit’s role in confession of Christ). Furthermore, successive adding of the numbers from 1 to 17 gives 153 (a pattern possibly repeated by John in giving the number of the beast in Revelation 13:18 as 666, the sum of the numbers between 1 and 36). [For further details, see Richard Bauckham, “The 153 Fish and the Unity of the Fourth Gospel” in Noetestamentica 36 (2002): 77-88].
Coincidental oddities? Perhaps. But the link between the texts in Ezekiel 36 and 47 and then John 3, 7 and 21, all reinforce the desire for new children of God (a phrase used by John in 1:12 and 11:52). That this is a work of the Spirit is further reinforced in John 20:21-22. He is given but must also be received and often the seeds of faith find unreceptive soil which must be watered by the Spirit as we pray for His intervention in a person’s life.
3. Revelation of the risen Christ inspires a response.
The miracle of the catch in John 21:6 recalls the similar miracle of Luke 5:1-11. On that occasion, Peter fell at Jesus’ feet. Jesus called him at that point to fish for people. Now, after the resurrection, the repeated miracle again prompts a similar response from Peter.
In the first story Peter confesses Christ, whereas in the second he commits to Him. Following his three denials prior to the Cross in chapter 18, Jesus leads Peter to reaffirm Him three times (setting the scene with a charcoal fire as in the first story). This depicts the grace available today, despite a person’s prior abandonment of Jesus, showing the availability of forgiveness regardless of past choices.
In focus here is Peter’s restoration to service and not an elevation to prominence. Guilt often keeps us from walking in the power of redemptive grace and therefore from fulfilling our potential.
In conclusion, the risen Jesus calls each of us to respond, and it is to a work of the Spirit made possible because of His sacrifice. He inspires us when we, like the disciples, are busy with our own agenda, doing what might well seem natural to us. Peter went fishing and Jesus intervened just as He seeks to break through into our world today.
Within our everyday life, it is the risen Jesus who is drawing us to Himself. And as we become new-generation “fishers of men” in His service, the same Spirit works though us. He testifies to the same Christ who leads us to help more people find the same God, a God who longs for relationship with us today just as much as ever.
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