July 24, 2016.
“Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.'”
There is a phrase in the KJV rendition of this story that has resonated with me many times throughout the years, though I’m not quite sure that I have always known why. Here, I would like to attempt to put my thoughts to words as we take a few moments to think about what the evangelist records as the third time that Jesus appears to the disciples after He is resurrected from the dead. I don’t know if the way my mind processes this story is truly the reason that John presents the story, but I would like to share my thoughts. Perhaps they will resonate with you as well.
If I am being honest, the disciples up to this point have had a crazy ride. For ~3 years they had given up everything to follow this man who made the claims to be the Christ, the Messiah, the prophesied Savior of Israel and the world. His ministry had had high points and low points in terms of the reception of the people who were listening. These men had been with him through it all, sticking through to the end (save for one). But the end didn’t come as expected. In the prophecies, the Christ seemed to the people of Israel to come as a conquering King. Actually, at least once in Jesus’ ministry the people tried to make Him king (John 6:5). But this wasn’t the plan of God, to re-establish the physical kingdom of Israel with Jesus as the conquering King, subduing all nations. That wasn’t really the plan for the theocracy of Israel in the first place, as the Israelites were supposed to be a light to the world (Genesis 12:1-3, eph. v3, Lev. 19:33-34, Isaiah 45:22, 49:5-6, 66:18-19, Romans 10:5-21). But now the Christ had come, and the twelve had an intimate relationship with Him. Surely they thought they were bound to be foremost in the kingdom He was to establish (we know they bickered about it often). Even the persecution and denial from the Jewish leaders wasn’t enough to shake them. They had seen His miracles. They had heard His teaching. They were His closest friends.
But then what was never supposed to happen, happened (cf. Matt. 16:21-23). He was arrested in the garden. He was tried before Pilate and Herod. He was beaten and scoffed and. And ultimately, He hung on the cross.
From the perspective of the disciples, think of how confusing this would have been. The Jews had been waiting for thousands of years for the Messiah to come. Now here was Jesus, who claimed to be the Christ, who did the miracles and fit the messianic profile, suffering and dying at the hands of the Jewish leaders. From the human perspective, gods don’t die. How could Jesus be the messiah if He was hung on a cross?
It is this cognitive dissonance that I believe is what drove Peter to deny the Lord three times before His death. Peter had trusted Jesus, and now Jesus was willingly being arrested. He was taken in by the mob and put on trial. I don’t think Peter knew what to think. His world was turning upside down. He watched His master be taken by men, and eventually die on the cross. But he knew what he had seen in the past. He knew that Jesus had made the blind see, the lame walk and the deaf to hear. Even in the midsts of His trial, the prophecy that Jesus had made about Peter denying Him three times came true (Luke 22:54-62). I imagine that Peter was in total emotional turmoil.
The ride doesn’t stop here, however, as this low gave forth to an ultimate high. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, proclaiming victory over death and sin. Over the next fifty days before pentecost, Jesus would make various appearances to His disciples. He had been right all along. He was the Messiah, the coming King. This is where we find the disciples in the opening of John 21.
All of this would have been so much to process. I believe that is the mindset behind Peter’s statement “I go a fishing.” Have you ever been in a situation where so much has happened that you just need time to step back and think? To get away from it all an process the circumstances. So many times have I heard this passage preached as Peter and the disciples with him reverting back to an old way of life, almost as if they were giving up on the message they had heard for three years. Though there might be some truth in this, I don’t think that is exactly what is happening here. I think Peter needs some time to process, and I think he was using something that was familiar to him to take this time. Let us observe three things from this story that might speak to our own lives.
Sometimes we need to do things that are comfortable with, have a handle on or know we understand in effort to deal with/process that of which we are unsure. Sometimes we just need to go fishing, so to speak.
We need to think about why Jesus took this opportunity to appear to the disciples. Notice how Jesus doesn’t come into the scene and tell Peter and those with him to just stop what they are doing because there are more important things to do. Instead, He recreates one of the original calls he has to the apostles by telling them to cast down their nets after a night of catching nothing (cf. Luke 5:1-11). When the nets were full of fish, Peter had no doubt that it was the Lord, and he dove into the sea to swim to him.
Jesus showed up at a very important moment in Peter’s life. When Peter was processing everything and trying to figure out what he was going to do with it, Jesus shows up to help. Note the compassion and love of the Lord here, as the disciples come to breakfast that is already being cooked. Jesus is here to help all of them process what has happened, and what they are going to do about it. It wouldn’t be easy, however, as Jesus would challenge Peter by asking him three times if he loved Him, mirroring Peter’s denial. Jesus shows up with compassion in a time of need, but He shows up with a challenge. “Do you love me more than these? Feed My sheep.”
Perhaps my world has never been as turned upside down as Peter’s was, but I think I at least partially understand what he was feeling. There are times in our lives when everything just seems to happen at once, and times that make you question what you are doing and why you are here. There are times that we even question God (cf. Ps. 13). Have you forgotten me? Are you there? Am I on the right path? Have I been wrong this whole time? What should my next step be? I think Peter was wrestling with some of these questions when Jesus showed up.
See here how Jesus comes to help, but He loves us too much to let us stay where we are. It is normal to have these questions. It is okay to take a step back and think about things. There is nothing sinful in processing the situation. Jesus shows up in our time of need. But we need to be ready to be challenged. It is not sinful to process, but we must move forward.
Peter would go on to be a strong leader in the church, being amongst the first to preach the gospel message on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). He would see many give their lives to Christ and be lead by the Spirit. He would suffer great persecution, even to the point of martyrdom, but I believe this instance with Jesus by the side of the sea would play an important role in solidifying his faith. That’s not to say he would never struggle again (Gal. 2:11-14), but rather to say that from this point on, Peter seems to be heading in a forward direction. With this mission and purpose, he would make a huge impact for the kingdom of God. Jesus’ challenges Peter to become more, and He is with him each step of the way.
What about you? Have there been times in your life where you needed to go fishing? Have you taken a step back to process your life, or has the distractions of this present world shrouded the true question of existence and purpose in mystery? The people of God are here to help. Jesus is here to help. Let Him in.
Suggested Reading: John 18-21.
Take a fishing trip.