He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat…” When they did, they were unable to haul the net because of the large number of fish.
On Our Own
We can assign the wonders Jesus performed to one of two categories: healing and miracles. Healing is manifestation, observed proof of His life-changing authority over physical reality. The Gospels include accounts of healing to seed our faith, to encourage us to look beyond what we see and trust God’s sovereign power over all of creation. We get that from miracles, too. But miracles also function as metaphors we can apply to many circumstances. In other words, healing teaches us to believe; miracles teach us how and why belief is essential. The miracle of the fish, as told in John 21, demonstrates this. If the point were just proving nature waits at God’s command, the story’s moral might be reduced to “Jesus had Sonar. He could detect the highest concentration of fish in the sea.” But the fish miracle tells as much, maybe more, about us as it reveals about Christ.
First, it shows what often results when we’re on our own. Jesus has risen from the dead, transitioning His ministry to the disciples, who’ve returned to their various homes and pursuits. Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and four other disciples hang together. One afternoon, Peter invites them on a fishing expedition. They trawl the Sea of Galilee all night and come home at sunrise with nothing. We infer their empty nets frustrate them, but John doesn’t report this. It’s arguable that, being experienced fishermen, they’re disappointed yet not despondent. Surely this isn’t the first time they’ve seen this. Sometimes fish bite, sometimes they don’t. And that’s one of our biggest liabilities when we sail off on our own. We stick with what we know and “realistically” settle for less, when following Jesus’s example and instructions changes our usual M.O. and produces unexpected success.
About 100 yards from shore, the disciples spot someone on the beach without recognizing He’s Jesus. John begins the story by saying Jesus appears, explaining why the disciples don’t realize it’s He—even though they’re close enough to hear when He calls to them. “Any luck?” Jesus asks. They tell Him they’ve not caught anything. “You’re fishing on the wrong side of the boat. Throw your nets to the right and you’ll find some,” He yells back.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Seven seasoned fishermen haven’t already thought to do that? It seems unlikely they spent the night pulling up one empty net after another and not once did one of them say, “Maybe we should try casting our nets off the starboard side of the boat.” By the time Jesus appears, they’ve given up. They’re dragging their net rather than fishing with it. And since they’re close enough to call back and forth to Him, they’ve reached the shallows, far from the depths where big and plenty fish normally swim. They don’t know that Jesus is Who’s telling them how to fish, which cancels the possibility they decide to try again because it’s He. More reasonably, they decide to give it a shot because they’ve nothing to lose. If their nets come up empty again, they’re no worse off. They recast their nets and the boat tilts, listing under the weight of large fish—153 of them—leaping into the net. In the middle of the chaos, one of the disciples puts everything together and nudges Peter: “It’s the Lord!” With what’s happening, really, who else could it be?
Back to Shore
Sailing off on our own from time to time is necessary because it’s instructive. The disciples weren’t at fault, nor were their methods faulty. Their approach yielded consistent success in the past, much like doing the same things the same ways often works for us. But mistaking consistent success for failsafe predictability will sooner or later find us coming up short. We have two options. We can continue casting nets as we always have, hoping the currents will turn in our favor and send what we’re after our way. Or, we can admit this is one of those times when our best isn’t good enough and head for shore. Dropping anchor in deep seas and trying the same things over and over won’t assure our success. First of all, out alone in the depths, we can’t see Jesus or hear Him. Second, we don’t control our environment. Our failure may not be caused by ineptitude; it simply may not be as effective as it was due to environmental shifts below the surface. When the tried-and-true becomes truly trying, we start for home, knowing we’re losing time going through the motions on our own.
Asking why we fail sets us searching for answers that may not emerge. When we turn back to shore, however, Jesus appears. We may not recognize Him; in fact, from a distance, He quite often resembles a stranger. Still, He’s there, waiting for us to come close enough to hear Him—and watching our position very closely to ensure we’re exactly where He wants us when He speaks. What He instructs us to do may be what we’ve always done or already thought to do. Yet it’s more than the doing. Success also depends on time and place. Christ never directs us to recast our nets before we arrive at the best moment and spot. It may not make sense. Our experience may encourage us to doubt anything will come of it. But we obey when He tells us to move, always aware He sees what’s happening below the surface. It’s then, marveling at how we’ve never done this well before, that we can question why. Everything we know on our own suggests we shouldn’t succeed. Why we do can’t be found in us, on the boat, or in the water. The Answer stands on the shore.
When our nets keep coming up empty, we should head back to shore, where we're close enough to see and hear Jesus when He appears.
(Tomorrow: Foolish and Weak Things)