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A Refresher Course on Fishing: 101

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: John 21:1–14

As followers of Christ, we are always students, learning and growing through both successes and failures. Thankfully, our Teacher knows us thoroughly. He knows what we need and what will best develop our faith.


After Jesus’ resurrection, and even after Jesus appeared to His disciples, those disciples remained unsure of their future. In fact, seven of them go back to fishing!

What happens next is recorded only in John’s Gospel. As we study these verses together, I want to make several observations. And here is the first one: The Lord often uses ordinary places to teach us special lessons.

Chapter 21 opens with Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two other unnamed disciples back out on the Sea of Tiberias—usually called the Sea of Galilee. They are riding on the familiar waters of their hometown lake.

For you, beloved, that familiar place might be the laundry room, the kitchen, the school room, the board room, the classroom. Those familiar surroundings have a way of becoming a canvas upon which Jesus can paint the most profound lessons.

Now, observation number two is this: The Lord takes us to places of confidence to teach us our need for dependence.

Verse 3 says, “They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.” Listen, these men know every good fishing spot on this lake—they are experts at their craft; they are experienced and confident. And what is true for them here can be true for us now: sometimes in our field of expertise, we can fail. And that should teach us, all over again, that self-confidence needs to be replaced by dependence on Him.

They don’t know it, but the Lord has kept those fish out of their nets. And that is because He is about to do something miraculous.

In fact, here in verses 4-5, the Lord appears on the seashore and calls out to them—though the disciples do not yet recognize Him:

Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.”

The Lord is not asking because He does not know the answer. He is bringing them to admit their failure, which would have been difficult for these men to do.

I have read that Thomas Edison, the inventor, would often go fishing without any bait on his hook. He had no intention or desire to catch anything—it was just a time to think and to relax. Well, Simon Peter is not Thomas Edison. He is not out there to relax; he is out there to catch fish—as are the other disciples.

Now verse 6: “[Jesus] said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” I am not a fisherman, but that sounds like a rather strange command. You have been throwing the net over the left side of the boat; now throw it over the right side—a difference of just a few feet.

But the fishermen comply, probably thinking they have nothing to lose. Verse 6 again: “So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because of the quantity of fish.” It is at this point they realize it is Jesus on the shore (verse 7) and He has just guided every fish in that area to swim right into their net.

The point He is teaching them, though, is about far more than fish; it is about life. Follow His directions, and there will be fulfillment and fruitfulness. Disregard His advice, and your life will be like an empty net.

Let me make another observation: Special surprises are often hidden behind doorways labeled “simple obedience.”

It is possible that the disciples could have refused the Lord’s instructions and simply rowed to shore. He still would have fed them and then taught them the connection between disobedience and empty nets. But they would have missed this incredible miracle described in verse 6. Read it again: “They were not able to haul [the net] in, because of the quantity of fish.” They obeyed, and the result was surprising—and amazing.

Beloved, when you choose to obey the Lord, even in the simplest of ways, you probably ought to buckle your seat belt because life might deliver some interesting turns and some unpredictable events. You do not know what God is going to do next. And that is why a lot of Christians stay close to shore to begin with—they fear the unplanned and the unexpected nature of obeying the call of God.

Now, with that in mind, let me encourage you with another observation: The Lord’s direction will always be accompanied by His provision. Wherever the Lord directs you, He will be there to develop you. He will never lead you and then leave you.

Think about these fishermen. They have spent their lives around the Sea of Galilee. But now, John will end up in Ephesus, Thomas will go to India, and Andrew will travel to Russia. Talk about unexpected and unplanned lives! Yet, they would not trade any of it, for life back on the familiar waves in Galilee.

They learned over a lifetime of ministry that God’s calling guarantees God’s enabling. If He wants you to fish, He already knows where the fish are and how many fish you will catch. He knows when you need encouragement, and He knows when it is time to row in to shore and take a break.

Now, let me offer one final observation: The Lord is always willing to forgive us and to provide even more opportunities to serve Him.

Recognizing now that it is indeed Jesus there on the shore, Peter swims ashore, and the others drag their nets full of fish onto the seashore. Once there, verse 9 tells us that Jesus had prepared a “a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.”

These disciples had all failed the Lord. They had abandoned Him in His darkest hours. Yet here Jesus says to them, “Come and have breakfast” (verse 12). In this culture, to offer a meal to someone who had wronged you was to show that you had forgiven that person. That is what the Lord is doing here. He has forgiven them; He has not given up on them; He still has plans for them. He is telling them, “Don’t quit; stay the course.”

According to one popular legend, Poland’s famous pianist and prime minister, Paderewski, was performing. The concert hall was packed, and everyone was waiting in anticipation. A mother had bought tickets for herself and her little boy, who had recently begun taking lessons. They soon found their seats, near the front of the hall. The boy sat in awe of the surroundings, especially that magnificent grand piano waiting on stage.

The mother found a friend nearby to talk with, and her son slipped away. Suddenly, the sound of the piano was heard, and the audience looked up to see this little boy seated on the bench, innocently picking out, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

His mother gasped, and the crowd laughed. Soon, however, people began to demand that he be removed from the stage. Before his mother could get to her son, Paderewski had heard the commotion and appeared on the stage. He quickly moved to the piano and whispered to the boy, “Don’t stop.”

He reached around with his left hand and began filling in a bass part. Then, with his right arm, now encircling the child, he added a running obbligato. Together, beautifully, the old concert master and the young boy played, and all the while, Paderewski was whispering, “Don’t stop, son. Don’t quit; play on.”

I think we are like that little boy when it comes to life and serving the Lord. Even when we fail Him and confess to Him, He faithfully forgives us. He continues to encircle us and direct us. Frankly, no matter how old we are, not one of us is all that accomplished. We play wrong notes and lose our concentration. Our hands grow tired, and our minds get distracted. But Jesus is always on stage with us; and He whispers to us—even today—“Don’t quit. Don’t stop; play on.”

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