In our passage today we have 7 of the disciples in a highly frustrating position. They’ve been fishing all night – night being the best time to catch fish. However, they have nothing to show for it. They haven’t caught anything. Not one single fish.
1. The disciples’ failure
I don’t think that the disciples’ failure lies in the fact that they had returned to fishing for a time. After all, the Lord had instructed them to go to Galilee, and they have been obedient to his command. I think it is right to see this incident as symbolic, with a spiritual lesson for us. Why should we be confident in this approach? Because Jesus has already used fishing as symbol for evangelism himself. (Luke 5:10)
This incident is like a parable of the words of Jesus, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5)
Jesus is indispensable. Tragically, as Christians we are sometimes slow to learn this lesson. We can be like the disciples, trying to live good Christian lives, and trying to witness to others, but doing so in our own strength. That’s the fatal mistake- doing things in our own strength.
For example, I might want to see growth in this church, as I hope we all do. But it’s so easy to think along merely human lines, and to think, if only I do ‘this’ or ‘that’ then we will see success. The kind of thinking might be: if only we had another worker, or shorter sermons, or better music, or a nicer building, or tone down the message a bit, or have ‘messy church’ or have more ‘meal with a message’ events, or get a community worker again then things will succeed. Some of these things might have their place – but not all!
The danger is, however, if we do these things and the church grows numerically, we might praise the new programme, technique, or even ourselves, for doing such a great job. Jesus is not central to our thinking. In reality, we are trying to grow a church with our strength, our own ideas. We might be working really hard, all through the night (like the disciples) but we’re catching nothing.
Principle: The Lord’s work must be done in the Lord’s way. This is not a cliché. But it is evident from and illustrated by this fishing expedition.
Sometimes I fail on a personal level and am just like the disciples. There are areas of my life which need to change – sins to be weeded out, and spiritual fruit to be planted, and it is oh so easy (and oh so foolish) to do so in my own strength, before I realise I’m not really going anywhere. I’m catching nothing. I’m making no progress. There has been no actual positive change. Do you ever do this?
2. Jesus’ question
‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’ (verse 5) In other words; ‘You haven’t caught anything have you?’
Jesus knows fine that they haven’t caught anything, but he knows that the disciples themselves must come to recognise not only their own failure, but their need of him.
Sometimes Jesus comes to us with questions in order to highlight our own emptiness and our real need of him as the only one who can satisfy. He wants us to turn to him. The Holy Spirit might come and speak to us when we’re relying on self, or when we’re headed off the rails. He might come and ask us: ‘Is this sin really making you happy?’ ‘Is living your life largely ignoring God really bringing you the happiness you thought it would?’
3. The blessing of doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way
He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. (John 21:6) The meaning is clear: those who labour in obedience to Christ’s Word will enjoy the blessing of his power and provision.
What a contrast! All night they have toiled, and nothing. Yet with just one cast their nets fill up. Satan wants us to think that the way of blessing is to do things our own way. This is his great lie. The reality is that Satan’s ways will never bless or satisfy. As a church, let’s ensure that we are focused on the main things – doing Jesus’ work his way.
This involves 2 ingredients; prayer and action. Prayer is the main we express our dependency on God, but he doesn’t want us to be passive in the Christian life, and so we must be active Christians too.
Harry Reeder III has a helpful illustration of the importance of prayer and action in the Christian life: ‘Just as the airplane must have both wings to fly, so we must exercise both discipline and dependence in the pursuit of holiness… We must not try and carry our responsibilities in our own strength and willpower. We must depend on the Holy Spirit to enable us. At the same time, we must not assume that we have no responsibility simply because we are dependent. God enables us to work, but he does not do the work for us.’
Picture those disciples fishing in the darkness. Working and working but achieving nothing. That is what we are like if we are prayerless in the Christian life. But what blessing there is in this passage. 153 fish! And this time the nets don’t even break – not a single fish will be lost – perhaps there’s meaning there too, that none of the sheep will be lost (if I can mix the metaphors).
4. Jesus continues to sustain us
The disciples were hungry and tired after all of their work. Jesus continues to sustain them with a fine breakfast – I bet it tasted good. The Christian life can be exhausting and hard. Fishing for men is not an easy task. However, Jesus invites us to come to him: ‘Come and have breakfast,’ he says to the disciples. If we take part in Jesus’ mission, and do his work in his way, then we too will know the presence and power of Jesus sustaining us!