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The Life of Jesus - Series 14: Episode 6

Jesus appears to the disciples in Galilee

| Martin Charlesworth
John 21:1-25

The disciples have a miraculous catch of fish and recognise Jesus on the shore. They breakfast with him and then he reinstates Peter to his important role as pastor/leader of the Church.

The disciples have a miraculous catch of fish and recognise Jesus on the shore. They breakfast with him and then he reinstates Peter to his important role as pastor/leader of the Church.


Hello, welcome to Series 14 and Episode 6, in which 'Jesus appears to his disciples in Galilee'. We are going to be following the story from John 21: 1 - 25.

Introduction and Recap

We are getting towards the end of our accounts of the resurrection of Jesus which has been the only topic of Series 14. It has been tremendously exciting for me to be able to go through these wonderful accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, to conclude the story of the Gospels. We spent a lot of time before that talking about the very dramatic events of the last week of Jesus' life, leading up to his arrest in Gethsemane, his trial by the Sanhedrin - the Jewish ruling council - and then the decision by Pontius Pilate - the Roman governor - to execute him, under great pressure. He was reluctant. We saw the account of the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus - such incredibly dramatic events, especially when you remember that that week started the previous Sunday, with Jesus entering into Jerusalem - in what is known as the Triumphal Entry, that we now call Palm Sunday in the Church's calendar - when he was at the height of his popularity and people were really thrilled to see him and large crowds acclaimed him. This week was a rollercoaster of events and it came to a conclusion, dramatically on Easter Sunday.

So far, most of what we have discussed in Series 14, has been concerning the events of Easter Sunday, where there were a number of resurrection appearances. Jesus appeared first of all to Mary Magdalen near the tomb; to the other women disciples also near the tomb; then to Simon Peter in an unknown location; to the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus; and then to a group of disciples, including ten out of the twelve Apostles, in a house behind locked doors in Jerusalem. All these events took place on Easter Sunday. We studied them in some detail, in earlier episodes.

In the last episode, we followed John's account and we are still going to be in John's account today because John adds in some significant events concerning the resurrection, as he does in all parts of his Gospel. He adds in things that are not in the other three Gospels. In the last episode, he added in a very interesting and significant episode in Jerusalem. He told us that this took place a week after Easter Sunday, when the Apostles, which equals the disciples in this context, are gathered together in Jerusalem, in the same house, behind the same locked doors, that they were gathered a week earlier - still fearful and anxious and not sure what going to happen next. He told us that Thomas the Apostle was with them for the first time. He had missed the events of Easter Sunday. He missed that experience the disciples had with Jesus' resurrection in the house in Jerusalem. Thomas had his personal encounter with Christ, in the last section of John 20.

The Disciples Return to Galilee

Events have now continued for at least a week after the resurrection but interestingly in our episode today, our location changes and we are no longer in Jerusalem but back in Galilee. It is a long time since Jesus had been in Galilee. You will remember, from our account of the Gospel narratives, that he left Galilee with great determination and spent many months on the road as he headed towards Jerusalem. It is interesting that Matthew identifies the fact that Jesus would also return to Galilee in the period of the resurrection. Matthew 28: 7 gives the instruction that an angel gave to the women to tell his disciples the following message:

‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’

Matthew 28:7, NIV

The other Gospel writers are aware of this fact, that Jesus is going to also appear in Galilee but it is John who tells us the first appearance in Galilee after the resurrection.

Why would they go back to Galilee? it is a good question. They had been told that they needed to be in Jerusalem, to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. We saw that in the account in Luke 24, in the first appearance to the Apostles as a group, in the house in Jerusalem, behind closed doors. Jesus had said they needed to remain in Jerusalem, in order to experience the power of the Holy Spirit, and then be launched into their mission. It also appears that this other message about going back to Galilee for a period of time had also got through to the disciples. We will find them here, in John 21, back in Galilee. Thinking of this a little more, from a human point of view, from their own personal needs, it makes a lot of sense for them to have returned to Galilee for a season. For this reason: they were in Jerusalem for the Passover feast. When the Passover feast ended - which it had done by now - everybody dispersed from the city back to their homes. All their friends, and all the people from Galilee, would be returning to Galilee anyway. Not only that, but the disciples had depended on a common purse, and a financial collection or money bag was kept - in fact it was Judas Iscariot who looked after it - that supplied all their needs during the time they travelled with Jesus. Various people paid money into it, and provisions were bought for them, for their accommodation and food, as they travelled along the road. That no longer existed, was no longer administered by Judas Iscariot who had committed suicide, was no longer organised by Jesus who wasn't with them. How are they going to earn money? Where were they going to stay? It makes sense to them, for a period of time, while they are waiting to see what happens next, for them to return to Galilee, to earn some money and to see their families. These are probably the reasons why they had returned to Galilee. Let us read John 21: 1 - 14, the first half of this story,

1Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: 2Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3“I'm going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We'll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. 5He called out to them, “Friends, haven't you any fish?” “No,” they answered. 6He 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. 7Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards or 90 metres. 9When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter 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. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

John 21:1-14, NIV

Jesus Appears to The Disciples

It is a very dramatic story. Here they are by the Sea of Galilee, their home area. The decision to go fishing was a very obvious one; they were making money, as I indicated earlier on. They were going back to their earlier work. Peter and some of the others here, the sons of Zebedee - that's James and John - they were all fishermen. We know that from earlier in the story. But they have a frustrating time fishing. Generally fishermen fished at night on the Sea of Galilee. That was an easier time to catch the fish but they didn't catch anything that evening. It was a real surprise. Then comes an extraordinary encounter with this man who is talking to them from about 90 metres away and calling out to them, advising them to put their net on the other side. They got this huge catch.

Suddenly, they realised something miraculous was taking place. It was the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’ who made the initial recognition, verse 7. We know from earlier statements in John, that this disciple is anonymously named several times through the last chapters of the Gospel. We know, or are almost certain, that this is a reference to John himself. He recognised Jesus and Peter jumped in and rushed ashore. They had this amazing reunion on the beach, where it was difficult to know what to say to Jesus. It was such a shocking, surprising, moving and powerful event. It reminded them of something that had happened much earlier on in their lives, at the very beginning of their ministry when, as described at the beginning of Luke 5, which we looked at in an earlier episode, where Jesus again called out to the fishermen as they were fishing. Peter, Andrew, James and John in their boats had had a frustrating night fishing and they put their nets in again and got a huge haul of fish. Jesus, at that time, said that he would make them fishers of men. They had had a very similar miracle take place on an earlier occasion. There was this memory and it was a powerful moment for them.

Jesus is described here, as appearing to them, in verse 14. That is the third time he appears to the disciples as a group: first of all, in the house behind locked doors in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday evening; then in the same location a week later but with Thomas added; and this is now third time and there is a group of seven out of the eleven remaining Apostles gathered together on this occasion. 

Jesus Reinstates Peter

We need to press on with the story because the second half the story focuses on an individual - that individual is Peter. John has focused on Thomas earlier on because he missed the experience of the resurrected Jesus on Easter Sunday evening. Now he is focusing on Peter. As soon as we think of Peter, we remember very vividly that Peter has been through a tremendous trauma in these last few weeks, and particularly around the time of Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion because he denied three times to the servants of the High Priest, that he even knew Jesus, in the courtyard of the High Priest, while Jesus was being tried inside. They questioned him. 'Aren't you from Galilee? Aren't you one of his followers?' Three times he said no, he wasn't. He lied. Jesus had predicted that he would deny him. Peter was devastated and wept bitterly when he realised what he had done. Jesus had already appeared to Peter on three occasions, as far as we can gather, from the narrative so far - on his own, and twice in the room in Jerusalem, behind the locked door. The focus of this particular passage is on the reinstatement of Peter. There is a lot of emotional damage that has taken place in him, as a result of things that have happened, and things that he has done. Jesus senses that there needs to be a deeper restoration. Let us read John 21: 15 - 24,

‘When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” 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.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18Very 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.” 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” 20Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?” 21When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” 22Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” 24This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

John 21:15-24, NIV

It appears here that Jesus is taking a walk along the beach with Peter. They have had breakfast: this amazing event - seven disciples gathered around Jesus preparing food for them, the fire he has made up, and serving them with the food - a very powerful and moving occasion. Then Jesus takes Simon Peter aside. As the narrative goes on, we realise that they are going for a bit of a walk along the side of the lake. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, his friend - his particular friend - is following them at a little bit of a distance. That is the sort of picture we need to keep in our minds to understand what is going on here. Jesus is asking Peter to reaffirm his love for him, the priority of Jesus in his life, and then giving him a particular command, which comes three times, verses 15,16 and 17: ‘Feed my lambs’, ‘Take care of my sheep,’ ‘Feed my sheep’ What does this mean? This is a command to be a shepherd, to look after the Church. We will look at some of the details of that in just a moment. Jesus predicted that Peter would be martyred. The freedom to travel around and move and do what he wanted would be taken away from him, and he would be martyred. Jesus asked him to follow him even though the ultimate destiny of that decision would be Peter's death some years later.

There was a part at the end about John, about whether he would die a natural death, or otherwise. or will not die at all before Jesus came again. All that Jesus is saying is to distinguish John's life and destiny, from Peter's and that Peter would be a martyr.

John is an Eye Witness

John underlines that he is an eyewitness and this is an eyewitness account in verse 24. We have noted many times how important this concept of the eyewitness account is in the stories of the Gospels. This account ends, and John's Gospel ends with this well-known verse, in verse 25:

‘Jesus did many other things as well. If everyone of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.’

John 21:25, NIV

He is basically saying that he is telling only a very small part of the story of Jesus, and particularly the miracles of Jesus. He is encouraging us to think of Jesus having performed countless untold miracles in his lifetime. Many of these miracles John would have experienced but he chose not to record them. As I have stated many times in other episodes, he records seven major miracles and he calls them signs. They are representatives of the many hundreds of miracles that Jesus performed recurring to the very end of John's Gospel in this episode.

We will be moving on to other material in the final episodes of our teaching, so it is a good moment just to pause and reflect and to be very thankful that we have got John's Gospel. It provides a unique perspective on the life of Jesus. Time and again, it sheds a different light on the story of Jesus. This is because John wrote later than Matthew, Mark and Luke, as I have explained in earlier episodes. It is also because he deliberately wanted to add in material that he felt would shed light on the story of Jesus. That is exactly what he has done in this episode here. None of this is recorded anywhere else in Matthew, Mark and Luke.


In terms of reflecting and thinking on the significance of this passage. First of all, it is important to say this is the seventh resurrection appearance identified in the Gospels and in the New Testament. It is the first one in Galilee and it is a remarkable description of a unique event, and we are grateful that we see it. It obviously sheds a huge amount of light on the particular calling of Peter. Let us think about that for a few moments. Peter was the leader of the Apostles. This is made clear in Matthew 16, where Peter is called out, during the Caesarea Philippi discussion. His leadership of the Apostles is stated there. It is also implied on the Day of Pentecost, by the fact that when the Holy Spirit came and crowds gathered, it was Peter who stood up to speak. His leadership is identified very clearly throughout the New Testament, particularly in the book of Acts but he is called upon here to a pastoral leadership role. ‘Feed my sheep’, feed my lambs’. This is a combination of care and teaching. Peter has a particular responsibility for teaching, for shaping the doctrine of the Church. He is one of the most important people in that particular responsibility amongst all the Apostles. Paul plays a decisive role, but Peter is the overall shepherd and father figure of the developing doctrine of the Church. His responsibility is to look after the Church, which he does from his base in Jerusalem for many years, and then as he travels around. We see an interesting insight into Peter's understanding of this role in 1 Peter 5: 1 - 4 where he identifies the role of elders, or pastors, the senior leaders of the Church with the following words:

‘To the elders among you, I appeal, as a fellow elder, and a witness of Christ's suffering, who will also share in the glory to be revealed, be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them. Not because you must be but because you're willing as God wants you to be, not pursuing dishonest gain but eager to serve, not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being a good example to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.’

1 Peter 5:1-4, NIV

This passage indicates something of the heart and the call of Peter. The Church is healthy and strong when the pastors, or elders of churches commit themselves to looking after the members of their church as a shepherd looks after a flock, and also teaching them, bringing the word of God to them to strengthen them.

That is the particular calling of Peter but the restoration of Peter is a very interesting fact as well. There are some important things going on there. We are going to come back to that in a moment, as we end our episode. Before we do that, just to mention again the utter physicality of the resurrection is clear again: Jesus' loud voice booms across the Sea of Galilee; he is cooking, eating, walking and talking. These are all the actions of a physical person. The resurrection is totally physical. All this is based on eyewitness testimony again - John's own testimony. John's testimony is identified as the foundation for this story. It is important to remember the miraculous catch of fish is a symbol of the spreading of the Gospel, and the gathering of people up into the Kingdom of God that will happen. It gives confidence to the disciples to know that that is their calling.

Let us end this episode with a few thoughts on the restoration of Peter. This is a story of emotional healing. Peter denied Jesus three times; and Jesus had appeared to him already three times - once on his own, twice with others. He knew the forgiveness of Jesus. He knew that he was still an Apostle and he knew that this failure was not a total permanent failure. It wasn't the end. He was being given another chance, even though it was very humbling to have to admit that at the point of Jesus' greatest need, he had deserted him by denying that he even knew him, while Jesus was going through the agony of the trial before the Sanhedrin and the agony of anticipating his crucifixion the following day. Peter still needed emotional healing. He needed a sense of connection with Jesus. He needed reassurance about forgiveness and he needed his calling to be restated. That is exactly what Jesus did for him. This tells an interesting fact in our lives, particularly when we have experienced failure and sin - some of you will know exactly what I mean - things that you have done that you are deeply ashamed of, you know profoundly to be wrong and affected your life, and the life of others - there can be a feeling that forgiveness is not enough, that you still feel empty inside. You still feel emotionally traumatised by the things you have done. The great encouragement of this passage is that Jesus understands that. He wants to restore us at an emotional level, to give us confidence as well as to give us actual forgiveness. He can forgive past failures. If he can forgive Peter denying him three times, then he can forgive you for the things that you have done wrong. As you ask him, he will restore your emotional health as well, and your inner confidence. Peter's confidence was rebuilt on this day and it was only a few weeks later that he stood up boldly on the Day of Pentecost and preached confidently, and hundreds and hundreds of people came into salvation in that moment. The great miracle happened for Peter. It can also happen for you. We will continue with the story as we bring our teaching to a conclusion in the next two episodes.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Use tagging to trace John ‘the beloved disciple’. What does this tell you about his relationship with Jesus?
  • Discipleship
    1. In what ways does this event encourage you when you fail Jesus? Ask for forgiveness and receive his grace.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What are the characteristics of a shepherd and how does that relate to leading a church?
    2. How important is it to have John’s Gospel alongside the other three Gospels?
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