JOHN 21: From Fish to Sheep

fish_12232013Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men and women (Matthew 4:19).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I worked in the hospital with psychiatric patients, I met a man with a huge Bible. When we spoke, he opened up this Bible and showed me the many color photographs. When he spoke with the other patients, they ridiculed him for his lessons which he had never applied to his own life. He fashioned himself as a fisherman, but he was no shepherd.

John 21 tells the story of the disciples going fishing on the Sea of Tiberius, but catching nothing all night long. In the morning, a man on the beach advises them to try again, but on the other side of the boat. When they do, they are overwhelmed with fish. At that point, they recognize that the man on the beach is Jesus.

After Jesus offers the disciples breakfast on the beach, he asks Peter a pointed question three times. He said: Simon, son of John, do you love me? He said to him, Yes, Lord; you know that I love you. He said to him, Tend my sheep (v 16). Because Peter had denied him three times on the night of his arrest, the three-fold question and response served to restore Peter to relationship with Jesus and leadership among the disciples. Both events took place in front of a charcoal fire (John 18:18; 21:9)

In Matthew 4:19, Jesus promises that if the disciples follow him, then he will make them fishers of men and women. Now, Jesus is asking Peter—and us—to give up fishing and become a shepherd. A fisherman catches fish with nets and hooks, but a shepherd feeds and protects sheep. This is a story about Christian leadership—the English word, pastor, originally meant shepherd.

The story continues. Jesus goes on to prophesy Peter’s death by crucifixion (v 18). At this point Peter’s rivalry with John rises to the surface. Peter asks: Lord, what about this man? (v 21) At this point, Jesus rebukes Peter: what is that to you? You follow me! (v 22) In other words, as Christian leaders we are to lead out of obedience to Christ, not rivalry with one another.

It is interesting that three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) end with the disciples being given new responsibilities for evangelism. Matthews ends with the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20); Mark ends with the disciples preaching everywhere and performing miracles (signs); John ends with a lesson on Christian leadership. Only in Luke do the disciples simply hang around the church. However, Luke is like an extended preface to the Book of Acts (also written by Luke) where virtually the entire book is about early church evangelism and the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel of John is not bashful about describing its objective.  John writes: these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).  My prayer is that his objective is accomplished.

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