Meditations on John 21
Since Easter, the disciples have seen Jesus several times – even Peter and
Thomas. This unique interim between the resurrection and the Spirit being poured
out at Pentecost was still primarily a time of waiting, in between those
glorious moments when Jesus unexpectedly turned up in their midst. I would like
to begin this overview of John 21 by considering the significance of these
Have you ever thought what a high percentage of your life is spent in waiting
for things? For important letters and documents to arrive, for friends to appear
and appointments to occur, to
advance beyond the endless loops on the answer phone, for Jesus to finally
return . . .
extreme cases, it can feel as though our life enters a state of suspense –
either eagerly expectant or apprehensively watchful. In one sense, we could go
so far as to say that all of life is a preparation for the day we reach our
It is easy to get frustrated and look on these waiting times as an interruption
and a distraction from getting on with the real work. Or are we able to
appreciate that they, too, have their role to play in God’s purposes for our
life? After all, to Him the journey is every bit as important as the
destination. God waited so many thousands of years before sending His Son to
earth, just as He now awaits the right time for His Son to return.
Some years ago Canon Vanstone published a book called The Stature of Waiting
in which he showed Jesus actively at work in the course of His active ministry.
Even the key verbs in these sections of the gospels are primarily in the active
tense. Jesus toured the nation, He taught, He healed, He delivered the sick and
demon possessed and so on. There came a moment, however, in which His active
ministry came to an end – and working gives way to waiting.
Earlier, Jesus had declared that He had completed the work His Father had sent
Him to do. (John 17:4, cf 19:28) Something more than work was required,
therefore, to save mankind: namely, His own suffering and sacrifice. (John
10:17-18) From the moment He was betrayed, things were done to Jesus – a shift
that is subtly illustrated by the key verbs in the text appearing in the
“passive voice” – to illustrate the fact that Jesus had become ‘passive’. He was
betrayed, was tried before a prejudiced jury, He was mocked, humiliated, flogged
and finally crucified.
At the very end, God the Father shows that although Jesus was past all human
help, He was still in control. He demonstrated this supremely by raising Him
from the dead. These are incredibly sustaining thoughts for us to ponder when,
for whatever reason, situations feel ‘out of control.’
For most of us, waiting focuses on specific end results. Students will soon be
awaiting their exam marks and others of us are awaiting other things. Our
daughter, Ruth, applied to do an MA in Social Work here in Canterbury at the end
of last year. Weeks went by without hearing anything. It was not until the end
of March that eighty people were invited to interview for thirty places – with
only three day’s notice! Ruth has since been offered a place, but for several
weeks it felt as though much of her life was on hold. Others again are waiting
for something they are looking forward to less: like the results of medical
tests or other forms of investigation.
We too share in His passion on a
minute scale when we go through testing times of waiting and delay. One
thing we are likely to feel at such times is a sense of helplessness.
This is not necessarily a negative thing, provided we ally our sense of
helplessness to His great power. The Lord loves to meet us at our point
of lack and loss. This it is which elevates our many times of waiting
from being ‘a necessary evil’ into an authentic part of our pilgrimage.
Currently, we are going through highly challenging times. While driving along a
country road on my own the other day in France, the Lord sent a great
encouragement. I was suddenly aware that I was not on my own. Someone unseen was
in the back of the car, bringing with him the crystal clarity of the Lord’s
presence. I believe it was an angel, sent to strengthen me at a vulnerable
moment. ‘Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will
inherit salvation?’ as Hebrews 1:14 puts it. God sends His angels as and when we
need them to help us complete the pilgrimage He has set us on.
In John 20:20 it says that the disciples were overjoyed to see the Lord again. I
love that phrase. It means so much at the end of particularly severe testing
times when the tension of months or even years of strain is lifted, and a deep
sense of the Lord’s presence and peace returns. Are you in need of such a touch
from the Lord again?
Jesus reaches us where we are
In the final chapter of John, we can see something of these principles happening
in the disciples’ lives. In terms of dramatic tension, the first verse dispels
the stress of the waiting, even as it spells out the fact that Jesus once again
appeared to the disciples. The word ‘appeared’ means that Christ chose to reveal
Himself. Such occasions do not happen by chance: they are carefully planned by
Meanwhile, now that Jesus was no longer there to lead them, Peter led the
disciples back onto Lake Galilee to do what they were most familiar with:
fishing. It would have been a relief to escape the prying eyes of the Jerusalem
mob, whose blood was up. It is always sensible to use the ‘gap’ times in life to
get on with something practical, rather than frittering time away. As American
writer Annie Dillard put it, “These gaps are the spirit’s own home, the
altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can
discover itself for the first time, like a once-blind man unbound.”
Given that the disciples had not yet received their commission to begin their
public ministry, what they were doing made good sense. Nevertheless, I sense
some degree of failure and defeatism gnawing away in Peter’s heart. Something,
perhaps, along the lines of, ‘I haven’t made it as a follower of Jesus; I’d
better get back to doing something I really do know something about’
In those days before echo sounders made locating shoals of fish easy, can you
imagine how bleak they must have felt after a whole night without catching so
much as a sardine? In different ways, many of us feel the same: ‘I hardly ever
help people come to know the Lord; nothing much happens to me.’ Such thoughts
bring bleakness to our soul.
The Lord is a brilliant psychologist. If the
disciples had landed a bumper catch straightaway,
they might have been tempted to think, ‘Oh well,
fishing isn’t such a bad way to earn a living. Let’s
get back to it!’ Little did they know it, but God
had amazing plans in mind that day to bring great
blessings out of deep disappointment. He loves to do
the same in our lives!
Suddenly they heard someone calling them from the shore: ‘Children!’ (This is
the expression the KJV uses; the NIV translates it, ‘Friends). Either way, it
provides an important clue: Although the disciples would not have been that much
younger than Jesus, they were His best friends and His spiritual children – just
as we are.
Once, Jesus had come to His disciples walking on water; now He bids them come to
Him. Sometimes we hope He will come to us and do it all for us when, instead, we
must make the effort to go to Him. It is so important that we use the ‘waiting
times’ to press in and seek God more.
Suppose you were to spend a long time in a waiting room before you finally get
in to see the doctor. You close the door behind you, tell him (or her) all your
troubles and then march out again, before they can get a word in edgeways.
Because you didn’t wait to hear the doctor’s wisdom, you haven’t benefited from
the waiting period in the slightest. We can be like that when we barge into the
Lord’s presence, pour out our heart, and then rush out again. There is a place
for lingering longer in His presence.
||I love the fact that the Lord Jesus
chose to meet with people in their place of work. Knowing people in
their place of employment opens up new dimensions of understanding them.
Invite God into your place of work. He loves to meet with us there, and
to use us. After all, for most of us, our place of work is our principal
On this occasion, Jesus only reveals Himself gradually – just as we are often
realise when the Lord really is involved in some situation or other. We bring as
much of ourselves as we can to as much of God as we understand – and trust Him
to make up the difference. What a lovely thought!
The Lord asked the disciples
(literally), ‘Do you have anything to eat?’ He knew full well that they
did not, but He wanted to hear it from their lips – not least because
those who are most in need are often the most reluctant to mention the
It is a question that we should also be willing to ask as we look around
at people who may be in greater need. There may be more that we can to
do to help than we are currently doing. Every meeting with people
provides a chance to love and serve them.
At any moment the Spirit can move, and new opportunities open up. I was talking
with a secular children’s worker in France last week, when suddenly the
conversation steered around to spiritual things. Instead of brushing it off, I
could see his spirit questing and thirsting. We went on to have a really
meaningful conversation. Similar things happened on several other occasions
during our time away. You never know when God is going to break through.
We must be alert, for these moments usually come out of the blue: unheralded and
unannounced. Perhaps John was reminded of how Jesus had first called the
fishermen to be His disciples in Luke 5:4, when, after another lean night of
catching nothing, Jesus told them to put out into the deep – and they caught so
many fish that their nets began to break. What God does for us today is often
meant to remind us of what He has done before, and to inspire fresh faith. On
this occasion 153 lively fish swam into the net – and the net did not break.
The disciples rowed toward land, itching to ask the man on the shore who He was,
even whilst sensing instinctively that it must be Jesus. Why did it take them so
long to recognise Him? The answer is simple. It says in Mark 16:12 that Jesus
appeared to them after the resurrection ‘in a different form.’
The fact that the Lord deliberately disguised himself during this forty-day
period before the Ascension is yet another reminder that we must be quick to
notice when the hand of God is at work in situations. His working is rarely so
crystal clear that we no longer need to respond by faith. That would be to live
by sight, and that is not the way that God has ordained. May we not grieve the
Father’s heart by our lack of faith and trust.
A fresh touch from God
It was John who discerned first that it was the Lord – but it was Peter who
plunged into the water to get near Him, leaving the other disciples to follow
him and tow the net ashore. (21:8) The Church needs both visionaries in the
church and doers – but we also need people who are simply prepared to do the
work that needs to be done. Not all of us can be up-front Peters; some are
practical like Martha, or more deeply thoughtful like Martha’s sister, Mary, or
John himself. Some of us are the church’s eyes (the prophets), and some are the
church’s hands. We need all the giftings working together in the church.
Although the Lord had appeared on two previous occasions to Peter, it is highly
likely that he was still feeling uncertain about his relationship with the Lord.
After all, he had vowed that he would never deny Him, even if it meant going to
prison and then immediately proceeded to do so, not once but three times.
Jesus went to considerable lengths to prepare for this encounter. He made an
early start and was preparing breakfast on the beach for His disciples: roasting
fish over a brazier of coals. The symbolism is profound. It was in the courtyard
of the high priest, while the trial of Jesus was getting underway, that Peter
had hunkered down with the guards, warming his hands over a charcoal fire.
So often, when we, too, fail the Lord in some way, He allows us a sort of rerun,
to see how we will respond the next time around. Jesus had planned this present
rendezvous with His disciples to restore and re-commission Peter for all He had
in store for him. He did not want him to begin his apostleship with a heart
weighed down by a sense of failure – let alone to miss out on his calling
It is a lovely touch that Jesus brought fish with Him to put on the brazier. We
are so prone to thinking that everything depends on us. We are quite right to do
our very best to earn our daily bread, but Jesus is already taking thought of
this for us. Think about the two Mary's en route to the tomb, wondering who
would move the stone – only to find when they got there that an angel had
already done the job for them! (Mk 16:3-4)
When something is too difficult for us, God often intervenes to help us, even in
the smallest things. Last week, Ruth was lugging a huge suitcase crammed with
books and clothes across London. It was too heavy for her to carry, but every
time she came to a set of steps, someone offered to help her, just as we had
prayed they would.
For the disciples, there would soon be many other ‘waiting’ times, for instance,
when they prayed and waited for the coming of the promised Holy Spirit. If we
are persistent in keeping going in what we have been called to do, and do not
lose heart, God will always find ways to bless.
The re-commissioning of Peter
What happened next might best be called ‘The re-commissioning of Peter.’ When
the Lord asked him if He loved him, He was really asking him if he wanted him to
touch His life and realign his heart. And when Peter answered, ‘You know I do,
Lord,’ that ‘you know I do’ isn’t the bolshy response it might at first appear.
It is rather a profound recognition that Jesus really does know everything.
Neither does Jesus’ question, ‘Do you love me more than these?’ mean, ‘do you
love Me more than John and the others do?’ God isn’t into those sorts of
comparisons. It simply means that we cannot afford to put anyone ahead of the
Lord Himself. Anything can become a rival – and God isn’t into rivals.
Jesus asked the question three times, as if to match Peter’s three, previous,
emphatic denials. Peter’s first response sounded fine, but the Lord needed it to
move from head to heart. Where our hearts have strayed towards something or
someone that they should not have done – or when we have simply become
accustomed to living in a lukewarm state – we, too, need to hear again the
Lord's probing challenge. Of course this is painful. Peter was hurt because
Jesus insisted on looking below the surface to probe the depths of his
The direction of our heart is
all-important. All of us tend to move in the direction of our dominant
thoughts. Are ours centred on the Lord?
Jesus knew that a great battle was being waged for Peter’s soul. It is rather
like a New Testament equivalent of the beginning of the book of Job, where Satan
asked to sift Job’s faith. ‘Simon, Simon,’ Jesus had previously warned Peter,
‘Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that
your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your
brothers.’ (Luke 22:31-32)
With the benefit of hindsight we can see just how serious the sifting was.
Disappointment with himself could have caused Peter to spin right out of the
Lord’s orbit. This was why Jesus was being rough about the restoration process.
Each time, the Lord’s response was slightly different. ‘Feed My lambs.’ This
signified that Peter would be bringing many newborn souls into the kingdom,
doing the work of an evangelist and caring for them. Then, since lambs grow up,
the Lord tells him to ‘Take care of my sheep.’ As the one on whom Jesus’ mantle
was being most directly placed, Peter must take responsibility for pastoring the
church that God was about to birth. Finally, there came the call to ‘Feed My
sheep.’ It is not enough to have an strong organisation in place; there must be
real spiritual growth, making room for God’s people to flow and function in the
power of the Holy Spirit.
Notice Jesus never asked him, ‘How
much have you wept? I hope you feel thoroughly wretched about what
you’ve done!’ He asked him, ’Do you love Me?’ Love covers a multitude of
sins and failures.
Jesus then gave Peter a clear commission: ‘Follow me.’ Literally, in the Greek,
this means ‘go on following Me.’ It is a continuing action. Although we may
initiate many things for the kingdom, it is only because we are following the
direction we have glimpsed. Like John, who first understood that it was the Lord
on the beach, so we will glimpse His hand in certain ideas and projects – and
then we will have to devote ourselves to bring those visions about. It is a
vigorous call that will require every ounce of our strength.
From zero to 153 fish in the time it takes to cast and fill a net – and just as
dramatically would the band of one hundred and twenty become a thriving church
of over 3000 in a single day. (Acts 1:15; 2:41) Everything about the ministry of
Jesus speaks of multiplication. When we think of the current growth rate of the
church in parts of China, Africa and India, it is breathtaking. The spiritual
‘net’ that is gathering people into the kingdom of God around the world is huge
– and there is always room for more!
With so much emphasis on the mega-macro-cosmic, however, it is still important
to remember that God has time for the mini-micro-personal. I remember seeing a
photo-graph on a T-shirt of a mother nursing her baby, and the slogan:
prayer is too small for God.’
He is the Lord who says, ‘Do not despise the day of small beginnings.’ Jesus
speaks of having faith as small as a mustard seed. Of those who are trustworthy
in very small matters being entrusted with greater responsibilities, He notes
the widow who offers her two small coins. He blesses and multiplies a boy’s
small picnic to feed the multitudes. He also warns that ‘small is the gate and
narrow the road that leads to life.’
How does the multiplication occur? By being good stewards, and using what He has
given us – as well as by crying out for ‘more’ during the seasons of waiting.
Jesus was already cooking fish for His disciples, but He also asked them to
bring Him some of their catch to supplement the meal. What we offer Him, He
Living with a shadow
No sooner had He re-commissioned Peter to care for His sheep, than the Lord
warned Peter that this would be a costly matter. The old version begins ‘Verily,
verily, I say unto you,’ as if to underscore how solemn what Jesus had to say
really was. Gravely, yet lovingly, He described the martyr’s end that Peter
would meet. The flesh shrinks from such things, just as it did for Jesus in the
Garden of Gethsemane. No wonder Peter writes about suffering with such insight
and clarity in his epistles.
‘Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are going through, as though
something strange were happening to you . . . these have come so that your
faith, which is of greater worth than gold, may result in praise, glory and
honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love
Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled
with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your
faith, the salvation of your souls.’ (1 Pet. 5:12 1:7-9)
Peter exhorts and comforts us based on what he learned from Jesus, for the
Saviour told him, in effect, that, like master like disciple, the same fate
awaited him. It takes special grace to live with the knowledge that a prophecy
of crucifixion is looming over you! It could drive a person mad if they took it
the wrong way.
To his credit, Peter didn’t succumb to foreboding and spend the rest of his life
worrying about whether ‘today was going to be the day that it happened.’ Peter’s
secret was that he focused on the whole of what Jesus said: that this would be
not a dismal end to a great ministry but rather a means of glorifying the Lord.
He trusted God, therefore, to keep the rage and pressures of men and demons at
bay until that time, just as He had done when He sent an angel to rescue him
miraculously from prison. .
Those who follow where Christ leads will follow Him to glory. Don’t think of
eternity as a passive state of being. If His presence invigorates us in this
life, how much more will it do so in the next? It is in Heaven that we will be
most fully alive.
‘What about him?’
It is at this point in our text that Peter looked over his shoulder, noticed
John and couldn’t refrain from asking, ‘What about him, Lord?’ It may have been
a genuine desire to see his friend honoured that prompted this remark – or was
it that, having just been told that he was going to meet a martyr’s death
himself, he was rather keen to find out whether John would get off scot free?
Jesus’ answer indicates that there was something not quite right about Peter’s
question. ‘What is that to you?’ He replied. ‘You get on with doing what I have
called you to do.’ As Aslan famously says to Lucy when she is starting to pry,
‘That is someone else’s story’!
In verse 22, Jesus speaks of something that all believers are meant to be
waiting for with eager yearning – His return. I believe the Lord was speaking
here of two things: both the moment of His literal return to Earth, (an event
that is often signposted for us in Scripture), and, His coming at the end of His
beloved disciple’s life to fetch him home to heaven. God has myriad ways of
taking His people home, and plenty of practice in it. When He is ready, He will
come us for us too. Meanwhile, it is good to seek Him as to how we can glorify
Him from day to day.
The fact that verse 24 spells out the details of the author of this record is
doubly precious to me as an author. This, too, is work that often depends on
waiting as ideas gestate and ripen. So often, it is in these ‘gap times’ that
the best insights emerge.
Praise God for the disciples who told and retold the stories. Praise Him for
those who, in the days before computers and biros, laboured to record the word
of God and make it available for us today. Wouldn’t it be amazing to know all
the stages of copying that the Scriptures went through, during those long
centuries before Gutenberg invented his printing press? How precious it is to
feed and feast our souls on the writings of those who have gone before us and
who waited on God themselves, and are therefore able to tell us more about who
God really is, and what He is doing.
Between life’s proverbial waiting rooms and His dazzling throne, may we, like
Peter, seek to master the art of waiting – which is also a work of love.
Copyright Robert Weston 2007 Canterbury.
All material may be freely used if properly attributed to:
Ruach (breath of life) Ministries
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