My dad enjoys fishing. If I call him early on a weekend morning, and he does not answer, the odds are that he was out on a lake somewhere. There is something serene about the fishing experience for him. I have accompanied him on a few trips, and I have found the whole ordeal to be somewhat stressful and boring. The actual reward of catching a fish seems worth it. But, too often, my dad gets up early on a day off, only to return home empty handed. To me, that is the worst experience eve
Sometimes my dad has returned fishless but he appears rejuvenated. He immediately delves into an activity on his to-do list with much vigor and energy. I have often envied his ability to recuperate, especially after a disappointment. But his response suggests that fishing trips bring more rewards than the obvious expected catch of fish. To the avid fisherman, fishing trips bring an intrinsic satisfaction worth more than two or three small fish.
John 21:1–14, at first glance, contains a simple narrative about a successful fishing trip. The narrative unfolds after the death and resurrection of Jesus. At this point, Jesus had appeared to the disciples in at least two other instances. It is unclear why Peter decided to go fishing. Perhaps, like my dad, he needed a quiet getaway.
Maybe there was something about water that reminded Peter of Jesus. After all, Jesus did many things in, with, and around water. He calmed storms. He made wine. He walked on water and healed with it too. As a matter of fact, Peter met Jesus while he was out on the water. For Peter, going fishing was a good idea.
Peter and the other disciples were in a time of waiting and uncertainty. They were confident that Jesus was alive. They had seen the empty tomb, and Jesus had appeared to them multiple times. At His last appearance, Jesus told the disciples to wait in the city until they received the Holy Spirit. This directive more than likely explains the disciples’ presence in Galilee, which was far from Jesus’ burial site.
Peter did not know, however, that Jesus was getting ready to show up again. In John 21:1 the Johannine writer uses the Greek word, phaneroō. Phaneroō means “to manifest” or “to reveal oneself”—to make something known that was unknown.1 The departure of the disciples’ present leader was imminent. After three years of shared ministry, what was left for Jesus to reveal or to make known to the disciples during this time of uncertainty?
John 21 includes an intense plot of activity with minimal recollection of dialogue. Through the close study of John 21:1–14, Jesus’ example provides several leadership principles. When confronted with change and in times of uncertainty, His example demonstrates that it is important for leaders to: (1) engage with employees in simple day-to-day activities, (2) share in and meet the needs of organizational members, and (3) remind the organization of its original mission.
The previous time phaneroō was used in the book of John was John 17:6, when Jesus talked with the dis-ciples for the last time before Judas betrayed Him. During the conversation, Jesus paused to speak to God, confirming that He had revealed God’s name to the men that were given to Him by the Father. It was almost like a farewell speech. Jesus’ prayer confirmed that He had done what He was supposed to do.
The next time we encounter phaneroō is after the Resurrection. In the book of John, phaneroōappears in only one post-Resurrection narrative, here in chapter 21. However, the writer shares that this is the third manifestation, or phaneroō, of Jesus. If the four books in the biblical canon on the life of Jesus are connected, the word is used for the post-Resurrection in two additional instances. The book of Mark details both of those other times.
In Mark 16:12, Jesus manifested Himself, phaneroō,among two men walking to the country. The story is told in more detail in Luke 24:13–31. In the passage, Jesus joined two men walking on the road to Emmaus. While walking and talking, not knowing who Jesus was, the men recounted to the Stranger the rumors of Jesus’ resurrection. Disappointed by their apparent doubt, Jesus led the two men in a Bible study, reminding them of all the things in the Scriptures that pointed to His own death and resurrection. As the journey ended, the men, still not recognizing Jesus, begged the Stranger to stay with them. As Jesus broke and blessed the bread at dinner, the two men’s eyes were opened. Jesus then disappeared, but the two men immediately ran to the other disciples to share what they saw. As they reported their experience, Jesus manifested Himself, phaneroō, again, this time in the room with the disciples (Luke 24:36; Mark 16:14).
After these two manifestations, phaneroō is not used post-Resurrection until John 21. The narrative in John 21 begins with inside information to prepare the reader. Jesus is getting ready to manifest Himself again.
The third post-Resurrection manifestation of Jesus is eerily familiar. The story line closely mirrors the first calling of Peter and the other disciples, as written in Luke 5. Prior to becoming disciples, Peter and his brother were professional fishermen. While they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus walked by. At this point, the fishermen
had not caught anything until Jesus instructed them to cast their nets again. Following Jesus’ instruction, the disciples caught so many fish that their nets broke. In Matthew 4, Jesus then responded with the Greek word, deute, meaning “come now.” The disciples immediately left all and followed Jesus (Luke 5:11).
In John 21, the story repeats. While fishing, Peter and the other disciples found themselves in the same predicament—a night of fishing—but no catch. As morning dawned, a Stranger appeared on the shore, telling them to cast their nets to the right side. Obeying immediately, they cast their net, and it filled quickly. Realizing that it was Jesus, the disciples quickly made their way to the shore. As they met land, Jesus used the same Greek word, deute,to call the disciples to breakfast. To Peter and his friends, this word, more than likely, served as a reminder of their first calling to discipleship
What about the fish?
John 21:11 informs the reader that there were 153 large fish in the catch. While the disciples use some of the fish in breakfast with Jesus, there is no mention of what the disciples do with the rest. It is almost as if the experience with Jesus is so satisfying that the disciples forget about the large catch. In the first fishing story, in Luke 5, there are so many fish that the net breaks. But the disciples do not seem to focus on the count in that instance either.
At this point in the narrative, there is a sense of excitement. Peter is leaping and swimming. The other disciples are pulling, counting, and towing. Is not this why Peter went fishing in the first place? Yet, as the narrative continues, the writer reveals that the excitement is not really about the fish at all—but about something more rewarding: another moment with Jesus.
Leading an organization through uncertainty
The story of the third manifestation of Jesus is significant because it is surprisingly practical. As before, Jesus could have revealed Himself with a grand parade through the streets of Jerusalem (Matt. 21:9). He could have made the skies open and speak in confirmation of His deity (Matt. 3:16, 17). He could have returned to Jerusalem as the travelers returned home from the Passover and loudly declared His name in the temple (John 2:13–22). Instead, He chose to manifest Himself in a much less dramatic way. In this last manifestation, Jesus revealed Himself in the simple ways of life.
As a leader, Jesus needed to leave a lasting imprint. The disciples were getting ready to experience ministry in a whole new way. This moment on the lake was a calm before the storm. In a short time, the disciples were going to be propelled from the positions of followers to leaders.
Connect in the day-to-day. The Sea of Tiberius was also known as the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1). One commentator suggests that the author of the book of John used the word “Tiberius” to relate to the Gentile reader years later.2 Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, He returned to Galilee regularly. While the Bible suggests that crowds found Jesus in Galilee (Matt. 14:13), it also provides evidence that the Sea of Galilee was desolate and a place of respite for the Messiah (v. 15).
Much of Jesus’ ministry developed in the region. Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, was located in Galilee, and His first and second miracles were in Galilee. In Cana, He turned water to wine. In Capernaum, He healed a sick boy nearing death. When Herod captured John the Baptist, Jesus retreated to Galilee. He performed miracles there, prayed there, walked on water there.
Thus, it is no surprise that Jesus appeared to the disciples one last time in this location before His ascension. Some scholars suggest that Jesus revealed Himself only to believers after His resurrection.3 This possibility is significant because there is nowhere in the text that provides evidence of the disciples being the only ones on the lake. But the passage does imply that the only ones who recognized Jesus were His disciples (John 21:12). Perhaps, if someone recognized Jesus, as at times before, it would have initiated crowds in wonder of the resurrected Christ. But for this moment, the crowds were unnecessary.
By returning to the lake, Jesus revealed that at the point of organizational change, the most important place was not a press conference or grand opening. He revealed that the most important place was in the stillness of day-to-day activity. It was in the stillness of intimate moments and fond memories. I imagine that the presence of Jesus on the lake brought peace to the troubled and uncertain disciples. As they slowed down in waiting for the Holy Spirit, Jesus slowed down too.
Meet and share needs. In addition to a place of reminder, Peter’s decision to go fishing suggests a return to his former occupation. As they waited for the next instructions from their leader,
there were still immediate needs for the disciples. As an area of expertise, fishing was a realistic option for income.
As they continued into the morning, Jesus appeared on the shore and spoke to the disciples, asking questions that confirmed their need. He asked them if they had fish and then directed them to cast their net on the other side. Immediately the net was filled.
Jesus’ example in leadership revealed that, in a time of organizational change, it is important to meet and share the needs of the followers. As the disciples arrived to see a breakfast of fish and bread on coals of fire, Jesus did not simply disappear. He sat down with the disciples and ate with them. By sitting with them, He shared in their needs.
Jesus also utilized some of the fish caught by the disciples. Through this act, He reinforced the disciples’ methods for provision. He empowered the disciples by partaking with them in their own area of expertise. Jesus’ leadership example demonstrated that leadership affirms the follower. If He had provided in another way, it would possibly have had a diminishing effect on the disciples’ confidence. They would have walked away feeling as if any participation from them was futile.
Revisit the organizational mission. The John 21 narrative mirrors Jesus’ first calling of the disciples. This reminder of the beginning was crucial for strengthening the disciples for the future of the organization. Without this moment, the disciples would have entered a time of leadership in a whirl-wind, perhaps, with little ground for faith. They needed this time of reminder before the next phase came.
It was through this moment that Jesus communicated explicitly to the disciples through His actions. He declared loud and clear: Do not forget that I called you! Do not for-get what I called you to do! Do not forget what I have done and can do for, with, and through you! This reminder propelled the disciples into a time of remembrance. It took them back to the first time they left all and followed. Jesus’ use of the same Greek word to call them to breakfast sounded in the disciples’ ears like His call to “Come follow me!”
The book of John was written, it is believed, after the early Christian church had formed. It was written to Christian readers to deepen their reflection on the significance and richness of the treasure in Jesus. It was also written to encourage the reader to hold on to this treasure.4
Some suggest that John 21 is an addendum to the book of John, added to the completed manuscript in later years.5 If true, then this passage reveals that from the future perspective of the author, the most important information for the believer at the moment of change was a reminder of mission and calling, “I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17; Matt. 4:19). “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19).
In a time of organizational uncertainty, Jesus’ example demonstrated that it was important for leadership to remind the organization of the original mission. No time was more important to ground organizational members in the mission of the organization. This reminder served as an anchor for what lay ahead.
Conclusion: Leading simply
Oftentimes, as leaders, we are so busy looking for the next best thing that we neglect the simple things in life. Through John 21:1–14, God communicates a vision of leadership striking in contrast to some of the more innovative and progressive Biblical models. Jesus’ final earthly manifestation highlights the need for leadership to slow down sometimes.
Following the ascension of Christ, the disciples are thrust into rapid change (Acts 2:1–4). There are no more fishing stories. The rest of the Bible, detailing the accounts and writings of the Christian leaders, is filled with speaking engagements, large-scale evangelistic meetings, baptisms, home visits, small group sessions, and prayer meetings. Foreseeing the needs of the future global evangelists, Jesus slowed down to help the disciples refocus on what was most important. He found them in their day-to-day activities, met their unspoken needs, and then set them purposefully in a place of focus on the mission.
As the spouse of a minister, I have the privilege of sitting in a front row seat while witnessing some of the most powerful and Spirit-filled moments that I have ever experienced in my life. But in all honesty, my most favorite moments in ministry are not the moments when we stand in crowded auditoriums with our hands lifted, tears streaming, as soul after soul takes a stand for Christ. My most favorite moments are not the pastor-appreciation dinners, completed building projects, or successful back-to-school community outreach events. My most favorite moments are actually quite simple.
My husband is still in close contact with many fellow seminarians, and while more than a decade has passed since they embarked on separate ministries, we have regular moments where our worlds come together and we celebrate the acts of God. As we sit together laughing, talking, and reminiscing, while our kids argue over the gaming system in the background, I am overwhelmed by the goodness of God in my life and the lives of those I love. Strangely enough, these are the best moments. They are like short fishing trips. I really do not care if I catch anything at all. The simple experience in itself is worth more than a few fish.
1 All Bible quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible.
2 Henry D. M. Spence-Jones (ed.), St. John, vol. 2 (New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 499.
4 David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods, and Ministry Formation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,2004), 405.
5 Ibid., 403.