In the Gospel of John, the Apostle Peter said something that I have wondered about from time to time. When he spoke the words, it was after the resurrection of Jesus, and even after Jesus had appeared to the disciples the initial times to convince them that he actually had risen from the dead. Peter was together with some others who had been his companions over the previous three years.
Suddenly Peter makes an announcement. “I am going fishing,” he says (John 21:3).
This may have been a very innocent statement and perhaps we should not read anything more into it than what initially appears. But what he said is still intriguing to me. To me, Peter’s words take on a meaning that is a little deeper than a simple expression of a whim to go out on the boat for a quiet afternoon of fishing.
Peter was near the end of a series of trying experiences and near the end of what had been a very difficult time for him. I think that Peter may have been speaking out of weariness.
Perhaps the reason that I have wondered about these words of Peter’s is because, in the past, as I have worked in different capacities in various countries, I also have sometimes found myself coming through what were difficult times for me, and where my faith and dedication to the Lord had been tested. In no way do I wish to compare my experiences with those of Peter’s, but I find a sort of commonality in what he may have been feeling. His statement of going fishing has come to have additional significance for me.
Being in Control
Before he began to follow Jesus, Peter was a man who was used to being in control. He was a man of strong self-determination and drive. These qualities made him a good fisherman. Of course, he had to work with variables, such as the weather and the movements of the fish. Sometimes he would return to shore with a great catch of fish and sometimes with very little.
Basically however, success in his occupation meant hard work. The longer the hours he put in and the better he refined his fishing techniques, the more success he would have. There is a certain comfort to this perspective.
But the years he spent with Jesus had turned that perspective on its head. Suddenly success was not a direct result and product of labor. Self-determination did not seem to carry the weight as it had in his earlier life. This never became more evident to him as it had in the days before he made the comment about going fishing.
“Even though all may fall away,” he had said to Jesus earlier, “yet I will not” (Matthew 26:33).
Peter believed it of himself. He could not imagine distancing himself from the One whom he had made his Master.
Trying to Retain Control
“You will, Peter.” Jesus told him. “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”
These words of Jesus made Peter all the more determined. “Even if I have to die with you I will not deny you!”
As if to prove himself, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus later that evening, Peter went on the offensive. He picked up a sword and attacked one of the high priest’s servants, cutting off the servant’s ear.
Perhaps Peter was surprised by the response of Jesus. Perhaps he would have thought that Jesus would have seen his bravery and determination and complimented him.
But instead, Jesus said, “Stop! No more of this.” Jesus restored the ear of the servant.
However, despite this rebuke from Jesus, Peter thought he would make good on his pledge to stay with Him. When the soldiers arrested his Master, Peter did not flee, but followed along.
…It was night now. Peter felt chilly and the sight of a fire seemed welcome. He sat down along with many that were seated around the blaze. The arrest of the Nazarene was the talk that night. All were offering their perspective and facts that they knew, or things they that had heard.
There was a servant-girl there who kept staring at Peter. It bothered him. Finally, she spoke up, “This man was with him,” she said.
“No, you are mistaken. I don’t know Him.”
The words were out before Peter realized it. He may have wondered if he had actually said them.
Then it happened again. Another person saw Peter and asked him if he had been a disciple of Jesus. Another denial.
Then a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off spoke and asked Peter “Did I not see you in the garden with Him?” Again, Peter swore that he did not know Jesus.
The Gospel writer, Luke, mentions in his book that at the third denial, Jesus turned and looked at Peter. Jesus must have been in sight of Peter. Perhaps Jesus heard the denial or maybe he just knew Peter had done it. Whatever the case, their eyes met, but Peter could not continue to look at his Master in the eye.
He dropped his head, ran off, and wept. This man of self-determination and strength knelt like a little child, his head in his hands, and wept over what he had done.
Out of Control
The hours and days that followed were agony for Peter. He could not believe the things he was seeing and hearing. The Promised One was beaten and then crucified. Peter remembered Jesus talking about how he, Jesus, would suffer and be crucified. Peter also remembered how he had told his Lord, “No! This should not happen!”
But now it had happened. He also remembered the rebuke he had received from Jesus at these words: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matthew ).
…The first day of the week came. Peter was living in a daze. So much was happening that he could not understand. He felt as though he had lost control of things. He had lost control. As he sat with his friend John, Mary Magdalene suddenly burst into their presence.
“They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb,” she said, “and we do not know where they have laid Him.”
The two men rushed to the tomb where Jesus had been laid, but when they got there, they saw only the grave cloths. As the day itself was dawning, it also began to dawn on these two disciples what had occurred.
Jesus had explained it to them before, but they had never understood. Now, seeing the grave cloths lying by themselves, his words came back to them. Peter had not yet understood it fully even when he saw the empty tomb, but eventually he would come to realize, Jesus had risen from the dead!
Seeking to Regain Control
When Peter announced to his friends that he was going fishing, it was several days after all of this had occurred. Jesus had already appeared several times, either to the disciples or to others. Peter marveled at all that had happened in those days since Jesus came back to life, but there was still that nagging thought—he had denied his Lord when he needed him most.
Peter remembered that Jesus once called him a “rock” (Matthew 16:18). It made him shake his head to think of it now. He felt more like the reeds in the shallows of the Sea of Galilee, swaying back in forth with every ripple in the water.
The past three years and especially the past few days had been too much. It had been a time of emotional highs and lows, of great expectations and deep grief, of excitement and disappointment. The greatest disappointment was in himself.
How could he have been so blind not to see what Jesus was doing and saying? Jesus had been true to his word, but Peter felt that he, himself had been a complete and utter failure. The worst was the fact that he had denied his master! Why did he let that happen?
Somehow, the old life of a fisherman held an attraction. Peter was in control in those days, and he saw a direct correlation between his own effort and the success in his work. Failure in one day simply meant you worked harder the next. His old life now seemed almost like an escape from that confusing period he had been going through.
“I’m going fishing,” he said.
I’m Going a’Logging
I do not know if I am being fair to what Peter was thinking in those days and what he had meant by those three or four words. But I know that he must have felt weary. One cannot experience all that Peter did and not long for something more straightforward—something easier to understand.
It is the weariness that I have sometimes felt.
In my early years I worked as a carpenter and also as a logger. I loved those jobs. Of course there were frustrations, but at the end of the day, I could stand back and see physical evidence of what I had accomplished. If something did not go right, I would simply try again and work harder until I had success.
I confess that there have been times in my life as a follower of Jesus when I wanted to say, “I’m going a’logging.”
What Peter Caught
Peter did go fishing. In fact, he got a few of the others to go with him. They fished all night but caught nothing. It was disappointing, but they would have to try again the next day.
As they approached the shore, in the dim light of early dawn, they saw a figure of a man on the beach. The man called out; “You do not have any fish, do you?”
“No,” they answered.
It had not been a good night of fishing.
The unidentified man told them to cast their net on the right side of the boat and they would have a catch.
Well… they had nothing to lose, so they cast it out. To their amazement, the catch was so great they could not even haul it in.
It was John who realized who the man was. “It is the Lord,” he said.
When Peter heard this, he jumped off the boat and headed for shore. In his heart, he wanted to be with Jesus. He could not make himself wait to go all the way to the shore in the boat with the others, who would be there shortly dragging the net full of fish behind them.
When the others joined Jesus and Peter, they found a fire already laid on the beach with some fish already cooking. “Bring some of the fish you have caught,” Jesus told them.
Peter immediately stood up to do the work. He himself went and pulled up the net full of fish, and John mentions that even though the net was so full, it did not tear.
That which follows is the well-known account of Jesus asking Peter three times if he loved Him. The opening question of Jesus is: “Simon; son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Peter no doubt knew what Jesus was referring to, but in reading this account, we are left to try to understand. Did Peter love him more than what?
Some say it was the other disciples. In other words, Jesus asked Peter if the love that he had for his Lord was greater than the love the other disciples had for him. It very well may be that this is what he meant.
However, I see it a bit differently. I think Jesus was asking Peter if he loved him more than he loved the fish. Jesus did not mean, of course, Peter’s love for the little marine animals. Rather, he meant his love for his former way of life.
Jesus saw that Peter was retreating into the past. He saw that Peter longed for a simpler life, where things did not confuse him so much and where he saw some correlation between what he attempted to do and the results of his labor.
Jesus repeated the question three times. A person may answer a question once without really thinking. Even twice. But when he is asked the same question a third time, he cannot answer it without really considering what his answer should be.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Lord, you know all things, You know that I love you.”
There may be significance in the different words that Jesus and Peter may have used to describe the depth of the love in question. But I think the greater significance lies in the fact that Jesus was causing Peter to really think about his commitment. The future would be no less difficult to grasp than the past.
How could a Peter, who constantly dreamed about being out in the boat working the nets, ever handle the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? Or the inclusion of the unclean Gentiles into the promises of Israel? Or the coming persecution? No… difficult days were ahead, and Peter needed to know well the depth of his commitment.
“Tend my lambs.”
“Shepherd my sheep.”
“Tend my sheep.”
Becoming a Follower
I believe that Peter and I would have a lot to talk about. I could talk about my carpentry work and logging, and he could tell me about fishing. And then he could tell me about leaving it all to follow Jesus. He did it initially. He was among the first of the people to follow.
But almost more importantly, he did it again. The first decision was without much understanding of what was involved; the second was with a much fuller understanding.
When Peter answered for the third time, Jesus repeated the words that he had said to Peter three years earlier. “Follow me.” For the second and final time Peter left his old life of being a self-made man and followed.
He was a disciple.