Jesus the Fisherman

Jesus the Fisherman

The emblem of a fish—sometimes referred to as “ichthus” or “icthys,” an English transliteration of the Greek word for fish[1]—has been associated with Christianity since as far back as the 2nd century A.D. According to St. Augustine, a believer and theologian who lived in the 4th to 5th century AD,[2] each of the letters in the Greek word for fish was assigned a name associated with our Lord:

the iota is the first letter of Jesus’ name in the Greek, Ἰησοῦς ;

the chi is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Χριστός;

the theta is the first letter of the Greek word for God, θεός;

the upsilon is the first letter of the Greek word for Son, υἱός;

and the sigma is the first letter of the Greek word for Savior, σωτήρ.

Taking the first letter of each of these words results in an acronym in the Greek in which each of the letters in the word for fish, ἰχθύς, combines to form the following declaration: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” And during a time in which Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Empire, early followers of Jesus were able to use the sign of the fish to identify other fellow believers both individually and as a church.

Well in turning to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we can well appreciate the appropriateness of the fish as a symbol representing both him and all who belong to him. For fishing not only was an important livelihood during the time in which he lived but some of the most memorable events in the life of Jesus and those of his disciples centered around fish. For Jesus didn’t hesitate to make use of this important earthly occupation to communicate eternal truths. So, for instance:

Among the Twelve disciples Jesus chose, there were a number of fishermen: Peter and his brother, Andrew, as well as the sons of Zebedee, James and his brother, John. And it’s possible that Thomas, who is mentioned in our passage, was also a fisherman given that he went out with Peter and the others to fish;

Too, on at least two occasions Jesus miraculously fed five and four thousand people, respectively, with but a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.[3] And as he fed the crowds physically with the bread and fish and spiritually with his teaching so he called his disciples to do the same;

Jesus also used this common occupation in his teaching. For he used fishing to speak about the judgment to come as he likened the Kingdom of Heaven to a net let down into a lake that catches all kinds of fish. When the net is pulled ashore, the good fish are kept and the bad are discarded, representing the righteous and the wicked, respectively;[4]

On another occasion Jesus again used a fish, the great fish of Jonah the prophet, to indicate not only his resurrection—“as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”[5]—but also judgment for those who reject him;[6]

And Jesus also used fish as a means of expressing the generosity of our heavenly Father who, like Jesus, also provides for us not only materially but also spiritually, saying “11 Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”[7] Jesus thus spoke of the good gift of fish as a way of reminding others of the even better gift of the Holy Spirit available to any who but ask our generous Father in heaven.

Given all of this, it shouldn’t surprise us that two of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances include fish. Luke tells how Jesus appeared to his disciples and asked, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” And, after showing them his hands and feet, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” Therefore, “42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.”[8]

Our passage this morning similarly revolves around fishing for as some of the disciples were out fishing, verse 4, “Early in the morning, Jesus appeared on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was” he. Perhaps they didn’t realize this because it was still darkish outside, being early morning; or perhaps because they were too far out to see him clearly—verse 8 states that they were about a hundred yards out; and certainly expectations may have come into play as they weren’t expecting to see him but were focused on the task at hand. But though a hundred-yard distance at dawn may have kept the disciples from seeing Jesus clearly, they were certainly able to hear, verse 5, when “He called out to them, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’” They answered that they didn’t. And then, not for the first time, Jesus helped them out by telling them where to place their net, verse 6: “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” And so also not for the first time, Jesus’ advice resulted in success for “[w]hen they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.”

Well given how reminiscent this scene is from an earlier one Jesus’ disciples had experienced, it’s not surprising that John’s sense of déjà vu turned into recognition for, verse 7, “Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” Now we know that this disciple is John for in verse 24 at the end of this chapter he says as much: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” Regardless, when Peter heard John’s exclamation, “he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.” Peter couldn’t wait to see the Lord! Rather than stay with the others as they rowed in, he swam ahead while the other disciples followed, verse 8, “towing the net full of fish.” And “When they landed,” verse 9, “they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.” Again, brothers and sisters, the post-resurrected Jesus was not a ghost. His resurrected body was a real body—this is part of our confession each week when we recite the Apostles’ Creed: “And I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

Jesus’ resurrected body was visible;

he could speak with this body;

he could shout out with this body;

he could give advice with this body;

for goodness’ sake, he could even prepare a fire with burning coals with fish with this body!

For the post-resurrected Jesus was alive. He was even more alive than the pre-crucified Jesus for the post-resurrected Jesus, having conquered death, lived never to die again. And now he was appearing to his disciples in order that seeing—and hearing—and touching—and feeling they might believe and know and follow him to heaven as they had believed, known, and followed him on earth. This is no doubt why later, when John wrote his first epistle, he proclaimed,

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.[9]

John reflected back on his experiences with Jesus—both pre-crucified and post-resurrected—that others, too, might believe that he is alive, never to die again, and thereby receive the eternal life Jesus so freely offers.

Well returning to our passage, after these fishermen disciples landed on shore Jesus said to them, verse 10, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Peter did. We’re told that he “climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.” As noted earlier, this entire scene is reminiscent of an earlier one when near the outset of his earthly ministry Jesus first chose his fishermen disciples. According to Luke, after coming upon two boats at the edge of water—the boats having been left there by fishermen who were washing their nets—Jesus “got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore.”[10] And after teaching people on shore from the boat he said to Peter words similar to those found in our morning’s passage, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”[11] At that time a tired, incredulous, and seemingly frustrated Peter answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”[12] And this first incident of fisherman Peter obeying Jesus the carpenter resulted in the disciples catching “such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.”[13] And this first incident of fisherman Peter obeying carpenter Jesus then resulted in Peter’s falling at Jesus knees and saying, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”[14] This is how many in Scripture have responded when finding themselves in the presence of God. Luke then notes that Peter’s astonishment was shared by all of his companions among whom were “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners,”[15] who were also present in this morning’s account. So this earlier encounter during which Jesus called these fishermen to become his disciples provides an initial bookend to that found in our passage.

Well after inviting these, his fishermen disciples, to “Come and have breakfast,” verse 12, we’re provided with yet another poignant connection to our Lord’s pre-crucified life with his disciples for we’re told in verse 13, “Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.” As he was now feeding his disciples breakfast, so Jesus also fed his disciples, the day before he was crucified, at his Last Supper when he told them to eat the bread of his body and drink the cup of his blood.[16] But as to this incident in which he provided his disciples a breakfast of fish, as stated in verse 14, “This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.”

Still Jesus’ work wasn’t yet done. He hadn’t come to his disciples simply to feed them and demonstrate to them that he who had been crucified and died was now alive. No, Jesus had another purpose in coming to his disciples this early morning, namely, to restore and reconcile his beloved, Peter, to himself. It’s worth noting that all four of the Gospels record how after Jesus fed his disciples at the Last Supper, he went on to predict that Peter would deny him not once, not twice, but three times.[17] And as is the case with all that Jesus—who is the way, the truth, and the life,[18]—stated, this prediction tragically came true.[19] This is why some of your translations may include the addition of the title, “Jesus Reinstates Peter” just prior to verse 15 in our passage. For Peter, having rejected the Savior and Lord he adored three times, now needed to be restored to him. And so after “they had finished eating,” verse 15, Jesus said to Simon Peter,

“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” And when Peter affirmed that he did, Jesus told him, “Feed my lambs.[20]

Jesus then posed the question a second time, verse 16, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” And again, after Peter answered in the affirmative, “Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’”

And painful though it was for Peter to hear, Jesus turned to him yet a third time, verse 17, and asked, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” And this time we’re told how “Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’” And again, Jesus responded, “Feed my sheep.”

As Peter had rejected his Lord three times, now Jesus his Lord offered him an opportunity to affirm three times the love he always knew was there. No hard feelings. All was forgiven. Jesus understood. And Peter, despite the no doubt painful reminder these questions were of his prior rejection of his Lord, nonetheless had answered honestly and truthfully. Yes, I love you. You who are God know that I love you.

And it’s interesting to see that as Jesus had taught his disciples prior to his crucifixion that if they loved him, they were to keep his commands,[21] now the command that Jesus focused upon as a demonstration of that love for him was for Peter to love those who are his: to feed his lambs (verse 15); to take care of his sheep (verse 16); and, again, to feed his sheep (verse 17).

And when he was questioning Peter, Jesus made yet another prediction concerning him, verse 18: “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” As John explains in verse 19, “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.” Concerning this, one commentator notes, “Early evidence shortly after the [New Testament] mentions Peter’s martyrdom without telling how it happened. There are some later accounts that say Peter was crucified upside down, refusing to die the same kind of death as his Lord, but some of these are overlaid with legendary material that many scholars consider unreliable, so this tradition is uncertain.”[22]

But we can’t leave our passage until we consider the final words Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me!” Follow me! These were the words Peter heard from his Lord when he first called and said to him and Andrew, his brother, “Come, follow me,… and I will make you fishers of men.”[23] Peter’s reinstatement was now complete as Jesus reminded him of his initial call. And we know how Peter would go on not only to fish for men for Jesus; not only to feed Jesus’ sheep; but also to die a martyr for his Savior and Lord.

Sisters and brothers, our passage this morning teaches us that though Jesus the man may have been a carpenter by trade, his real calling was a fisherman. For as God who brought the entire world into being, [24] Jesus had mastery over the creation he had made. Therefore,

Jesus the Fisherman could multiply fish so that thousands could be fed;

and Jesus the Fisherman could cause fish to come to places where experienced fishermen had failed to catch any;

and Jesus the Fisherman could no more be held by death for three days than Jonah was held by the big fish for three days;

and Jesus the Fisherman, the eternal Christ, came to earth in order to cast his net wide that those whom he made in his image might recognize and acknowledge and come to him as their Savior and Lord;

and Jesus the Fisherman, who is the very definition of goodness, desires to give us, his children, not only fish for food, but eternal life by his life and by the Holy Spirit he sends to seal and indwell us, that we might enjoy life not only now but eternally with our generous and loving Father in heaven;

and Jesus the Fisherman, as he did for Peter, will forgive our sins not only three times but as many times as we need in order that we might be reconciled to him and express our love for him and so be restored to him whom we love;

For for those who have come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus the Fisherman, he is not only the author but also the perfecter of our faith, helping us to be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not yet see;

And part of the perfecting of our faith by Jesus the Fisherman isn’t simply heeding his call to follow him, but also feeding his sheep. For Jesus the Fisherman has made us not only for himself but also for each other and so he calls us to love and care for one another;

And, finally, Jesus the Fisherman calls us to follow in his steps that, whatever our trade or job or vocation, we, too, might be fishers of men so that others may come to own and recognize the emblem of the Fish, of the icthus, and also bear witness to Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

Let us pray.

[1] ἰχθύς, -ύος, ὁ.

[2] Augustine lived from 354–430 A.D. He became bishop of Hippo in North Africa in 396, hence, “St. Augustine of Hippo.”

[3] Feeding of the 5000 may be found in all four Gospel accounts: Matthew 14:13–21, Mark 6:30–44, Luke 9:10–17, John 6:1–14; Feeding of the 400 may be found in Matthew 15:32–39, Mark 8:1–9.

[4] Matthew 13:47–50.

[5] Matthew 12:40.

[6] The entire account may be found in Matthew 12:38–45.

[7] Luke 11:11–12.

[8] Luke 24:36–43.

[9] 1 John 1:1–4.

[10] Luke 5:3.

[11] Luke 5:4.

[12] Luke 5:5.

[13] Luke 5:6–7.

[14] Luke 5:8.

[15] Luke 5:9–10.

[16] Matthew 26:26–30: 26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.; Mark 14:22–26: 22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” 23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. 25 “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” 26 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.; Luke 22:17–20: 17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.; John 13:1–17:26.

[17] Matthew 26:34: “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”; Mark 14:30: 30 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” Luke 22:34: Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” John 13:38: Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

[18] John 14:6:“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

[19] Matthew 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:54–62; John 18:15–18 (first denial); John 18:25–27 (second and third denials)

[20] A lamb is a young sheep.

[21] John 14:15.

[22] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on John 21:18–19.

[23] Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17: “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”; Luke 5:10b–11: Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

[24] 1 Corinthians 8:6:  yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.