RECOGNIZING THE PRESENCE OF JESUS
Topic: Sunday Morning Messages Passage: John 21:01–21:14
1 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. 8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
The gruesome yet glorious events of Good Friday had given way to the awareness that Jesus Christ was alive. Not only was there an empty tomb where His body had lain, but He there were eyewitnesses of those who had seen Him, spoken with Him, and even broken bread with Him. But it had been several days since His band of disciples had been with Him or heard from Him. He had told them that, following His resurrection, He would go before them into Galilee and meet with them there (cf. Mark 14:28, 16:7). But the days had now stretched into weeks, and the wait was becoming unbearable.
We have all have found ourselves in similar situations, haven’t we? Waiting for God to show up and reveal to us the next steps He wants for us to take. Our prayers have been like those voice messages we leave that are not returned and those emails and texts that go unanswered. We find ourselves wondering what is taking the Lord so long to get back to us. At those times, what we cannot see is that God is perpetually active in bringing about His glory and our good.
Jesus’ disciples had gone through the gamut of emotions in recent days, ranging from the solemn despair created by their Lord’s passion to the sheer elation of seeing Him alive again. While instructing them, Jesus had painted a picture of their future with broad strokes. They had been given no timetable or schedule of events or told how they would happen. They had simply been told to watch and wait.
As you and I know firsthand, in the midst of our waiting life must go on. As one day passed into another, and then another, how would they—and how are we—to maintain our reliance upon Jesus? Trust can easily erode with the passage of time, so is there a safeguard that will preserve our faith in His promises when He is silent and seems so far away?
Providing an answer to those questions is one of the reasons that John 21 is in our Bibles. John has already written a fitting conclusion to his Gospel record in the final two verses of chapter 20. It was a perfect place to stop. Why does he then proceed to give us another post-resurrection vignette, an account that reads almost like an afterthought? I believe it is to encourage us to continue watching and waiting, realizing that even in the midst of those seemingly silent hours, Jesus is at work in the lives of His people. The challenge for us is to recognize that and to remain ever mindful of His presence.
Here in the first three verses of this chapter we observe...
The restlessness of the disciples (21:1-3).
An indefinite length of time had passed since the end of chapter 20 when Jesus had appeared to the disciples, first with Thomas absent and then a week later with him present. During the forty days following His resurrection (cf. Acts 1:3), we know that Jesus intermittently revealed Himself to many eyewitnesses. This was a time of transition between our Lord’s earthly ministry and Hid return to the Father. Collectively, the Scriptures tell us that He appeared to others on at least a dozen occasions before ascending into heaven. Several weeks, perhaps a month, may have passed and the disciples since the disciples had last seen Him and they were growing restless.
By now at least seven of them had returned to the familiar region of Galilee, where Jesus had instructed them to wait for Him. Where the others were at this time, we cannot say for certain. Perhaps they were en route and had not yet arrived. In the scene before us it is only those who were fishermen by trade who are mentioned, and it appears that they had decided to resume their previous vocation.
While Peter and the others undoubtedly would have been filled with uncertainty, we should not construe their decision to return to fishing as repudiating or “turning away” from their commitments to following Jesus. They were not forsaking His call on their lives, but they did need to eat! They had to support themselves, and the only work they had ever known was on the sea.
Led by Peter, the group sets sail upon the Sea of Galilee, referred to here as “the Sea of Tiberias” (cf. John 6:1). We are told that they toiled all night and “caught nothing.” Already unclear as to their future, they had grown discouraged and maybe even frustrated with their present circumstances. It was a perfect backdrop for...
The revelation of Jesus (21:4-8).
Twice in verse 1, we read that Jesus “revealed himself” to His disciples. That word (“φανεροω”) is translated “appeared,” “manifested,” or “shown” in different versions. Its most natural meaning is to be “made known.” It carries the idea of “self-disclosure.” Jesus “revealed himself” or made His presence known to His disciples. Just how He did this is the subject of the rest of this passage.
Verse 4 tells us that at sunrise an unrecognizable figure “stood on the shore” and called out to them. From the distance that they were away from land, “the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.” We have seen this phrase before when it was said that Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus at the empty tomb (cf. John 20:14). Whether it was His glorified presence or the blinding light of the early morning sun that obscured their vision, we cannot say for certain. Even when Jesus called out to them, they still did not realize that it was Him.
Referring to them as “children” (“παιδιον”) was akin to our use of the word “guys.” And by asking them if they had “any fish,” the implication was whether their catch of fish had been ample in supplying their morning meal. Their negative reply revealed that they had had no “luck” at all, even though they had fished all night. It was daybreak and their nets were still empty
Throughout this passage, there are “flashbacks”—“hints,” if you will—that should have suggested to them the presence of Jesus. The first hint is found in verse 6, when Jesus responds to their futile night of fishing by telling them to “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” It should have caused them to recall that day they first met Jesus...the day when He called them to be His disciples. Luke records it this way in chapter 5(:1-11) of his Gospel:
1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret (another name for the Sea of Galilee), 2 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
More than three years had passed since that day. The last time they had taken a stranger’s fishing advice, the outcome had been bountiful. It had been another frustrating night, so what did they have to lose by doing so again? Recasting their net on the starboard side, immediately it began to fill with fish, so many that “they were not able to haul it in.” Doubtless thinking back to the earlier incident, John immediately realized the identity of the Stranger on the shore. “It is the Lord!” he exclaimed.
Contrasting the personalities of John and Peter makes for an interesting study in the Gospels. Whereas Peter tends to spring into action before John does, John is quicker to understand. Peter is impulsive, but John is analytical and thoughtful. Responding to John’s recognition of Jesus, Peter hurriedly ties the belt of his garment around him and, in character, jumps into the water making his way to the shore. Like John’s, his instincts were now sufficiently clear to recognize the Stranger who had called to them was none other than Jesus. This miraculous catch of fish was strikingly similar to the earlier one three years earlier when Jesus had left an indelible impression upon him.
Still some distance from land, verse 8 finds the disciples straining to bring the boat filled with fish to shore. Tired and exhausted they finally arrive and are reunited with their Lord. Jesus had stirred their memories by once again revealing Himself to be their Provider. Such a realization in would have begun to calm the restlessness of the disciples, just as it should bring clam to us during our times of discouragement and frustration and we wonder “Where is God when we need Him?” The truth is that He has been there all along, waiting for us to admit our need for Him so that He be our supply.
But the day had just begun. While the morning skies brightened with the rising of the sun, the disciples gathered closely on the beach. As they sat with Him, listened to Him, and ate with Him, they further received...
The reassurance of Jesus (21:9-14).
Although the reference is more subtle, there is a second hint or “flashback” found in verse 9 that suggested that the One in whose presence they now found themselves was truly the Lord Jesus. Making land, we are told that they were greeted with the sight and smell of a “charcoal fire.”
Among the five senses, sight is considered the strongest. Teachers have long known that students retain much more of what they see than what they hear. Greater than both of those, however, the one that most quickly triggers memory is the sense of smell. The perfume and cologne industry has been built upon this connection. Fragrances have been developed that are able to convey a vast array of emotions and feelings...from vitality and strength to passivity and relaxation. Consider the last time you salivated or your stomach growled at the aroma of a homecooked meal..
There is only one other place in the New Testament where the word for “charcoal fire” (“ανθρικια”) is used, and that is in John 18(:18). We looked at this scene a few weeks ago, but let’s review it again. Following Jesus’ arrest on the night before His crucifixion, we read in John 18:15 and following,
15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. 17 The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the servants and others had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.
The distinct smell of burning charcoal on the beach would have triggered an instant memory with Peter. It was little more than a month earlier, while warming himself near a “charcoal fire,” that he had denied the very Lord before whom he now stood. But things were different on this occasion. The unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach at having denied Jesus on that night had been replaced by the pangs of longing and hunger for fellowship with Jesus. Was the memory created by the smoke-filled air to haunt him that morning and ever after because of his dreadful failure? Would he have to live with his denial for the rest of his life?
Just then Jesus spoke to him...to all of them actually: “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” Already Jesus had begun preparing a meal for His men. Verse 9 informs us that there was a small fish and some bread being warmed by the heat of the “charcoal fire.” Now Jesus is inviting them to bring their share—their contribution—and place it alongside His.
Lest we be tempted to believe that the Lord was equating the disciples’ contribution as equal to His own, let us be reminded that they would have had no offering at all to make had not the Lord provided it for them. Nevertheless, they are invited to bring their share and unite it with His.
What was it that the Lord provided for them? Verse 11 tells us that it was their “net (was)...full of large fish, 153 of them.” It was an abundant supply.
Some think it strange that the total number of fish is so precise, while others argue for its numerical significance. The simplest explanation is that the catch was counted so that it could be evenly divided among the seven fishermen, a fact that John would have remembered. To look for a “deeper meaning” is purely speculative. Unlike the experience in Luke 5, this time “the net was not torn,” as if to imply no fish were lost.
Having hauled the full and weighty net to land, the disciples hear the further word of Jesus in verse 12: “Come and have breakfast.” Clearly, this is Jesus’ cookout. He is the “Host,” and He is the “Server.” He is the One who has prepared the meal. The disciples’ part was to feast on Jesus’ abundant provision.
Uncertainty and confusion still seems to have filled the minds of the disciples—at least some of them. Though questions abounded, “None...dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’” As if to say almost unbelievingly, “Are You really who we think You are?” or “Is it really You, Jesus?” Intuitively—and that is what the word (“οιδα”) means—“They knew it was the Lord.”
A third hint or reminder is found in verse 13. It would add further to their recognition of Jesus and reassurance that they were in His presence and reunited with Him. Here we read, “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.” This “flashback” would have caused them to recall the earlier days of Jesus’ ministry. The feeding of the multitude is the only miracle recorded by all four Gospel writers. In chapter 6(:1-14) of John, his account reads this way:
1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias, 2 and a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
It would have been impossible for the disciples not have recalled that remarkable day when Jesus created a feast for thousands from a small boy’s lunch. From that day forward a meal of bread and fish would never have been the same. And having the Lord serve it, as He was doing on this morning, would have only further reinforced their belief and trust in Him as Savior and Lord.
It was an intimate setting on a private beach. It marked the beginning of a new era in their relationship with Him and the inauguration of the work they were about to enter into. He would provide, they would partake; and, through His provision, they would provide for others. And throughout the process, they would need the reminder that He was with them always (cf. Matthew 28:20). Their task would become progressively more difficult. Therefore, theirs would be the need to recognize His constant presence even when He seemed distant or remote.
Verse 14 concludes this section by telling us, “This is now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” This closes the account that began in verse 1. Soon Jesus would leave them to be seen no more. But He would not leave them as orphans. He would send His Holy Spirit to equip them for the journey and the job that awaited them. Along the way, His presence would not be as clear and visible as it was in this early morning light. He would remain with them perpetually, but theirs would of necessity be a continuous walk of faith.
These fourteen verses are set off from the rest of chapter 21 by the repeated phrases “Jesus revealed” in verse 1 and verse 14. John seems to be stressing the fact of Jesus’ active presence even when it is hidden or difficult to recognize. Do you recall Jesus’ response to Thomas which we saw last week? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (cf. John 20:29).
There is no less need for us to recognize the presence of Jesus in our lives than there was for these first disciples. And while our Lord may not meet us along a beachfront at sunrise, He will make us aware that He is with us as we remain open to His providential involvement in every area of our lives. In His extended time of instruction with the Twelve on the eve of His death, Jesus promised that “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name...will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).
That remembrance would, of course, have included the faithful words and deeds that He had spoken and performed. And while that promise was given to these original disciples, it also holds true for us. You and I can recognize the presence of our Lord day after day—but especially in those times when He seems far away—by recalling His past acts of faithfulness on our behalf.
How quick we are to forget. No sooner has the Lord come to our aid in overcoming a “giant” in our lives than we are faced with another and find ourselves wondering—and even doubting—if He is able to do it again. We tend to have incurable cases of “spiritual amnesia,” when the Scriptures repeatedly challenge us to “remember” His faithfulness.
Nothing is more delightful than when family and old friends are reunited and begin sharing past experiences: “Remember when...?” “How about the time...” Three times in this section Jesus made His disciples aware of His presence by reminding them of occasions in their three-year relationship when He was there for them. In the days that lay before them, they would need to recall still more of those unforgettable moments that are too often buried beneath a pile of cares and concerns.
At those times when they felt alone and possibly even estranged, He wanted them to know that He was near...just as He always is. Even so with us, the Lord is so gracious to us. He understands our forgetfulness and yet longs for us to have the awareness of His abiding presence.
Let me leave with you a few practical ways that can help keep our minds refreshed as we recognize and practice the presence of Jesus in our day-to-day lives.
- • Begin by thinking of those events when the presence of the Lord was most especially meaningful for you...a “defining moment,” if you will, when He guided your steps, answered a prayer, or fulfilled a promise. Psalm 77:12 reads, “I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.”
- • As His actions on your behalf are recalled, be thanking Him out of a heart filled with sincere gratitude. David wrote in Psalm 9:1, “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.”
- • And then be telling others of the great things that He has done for you. Let your conversations be filled with praises to the Lord for His work of redemption and acts of lovingkindness toward you. In Psalm 77:15 we read, “My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge.”
- • Something that I have found very helpful is in transcribing or writing out my prayers and the answers to those prayers in a journal. All of us have those difficult stretches of time when the distance between ourselves and the Lord seems too great to bridge. Going back through previous journal entries and recalling His manner of deliverance serve to refocus our perceptions and give us strength to overcome the discouragements that we feel.
- • Finally, let me encourage you to be constantly tasting and seeing “that the LORD is good!” That is what we are exhorted to do in Psalm 34:8. We find this to be true metaphorically as we feast upon the blessings of God’s Word and discover the nearness of His presence. But it is also true in a more literal way as we participate in the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. As 1 Corinthians 15:25 and 26 instruct us, these are profound ways that the Lord has left for His Church to remember and proclaim the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Therefore, do not neglect the ordinances that serve the purpose of ministering grace to us.
Dear saints, though our Lord may at times seem distant we are never out of His thoughts. And because He is the omnipresent God from whose presence we shall never flee (cf. Psalm 139:7-12), we can rest assured that He is that “friend who sticks closer than a brother” (cf. Proverbs 18:24).
We can be certain of that because we have His word on it. He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (cf. Hebrews 13:5). When I personally feel alone and grow impatient or feel at a loss in knowing which direction to turn, a verse that I cling to is Isaiah 40:31: “But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
We are able to recognize Jesus in the present and trust Him for our future when we recall His faithfulness in the past. May God, therefore, grant us grace to recognize the presence of Jesus.