‘Then 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.’ (John 21:7 NIV)
Some of the most moving stories in the Bible tell us about Christ’s final meetings with His disciples before He ascended into heaven. On one occasion, for example, He spent a long afternoon with two disciples, whose names the Scriptures do not reveal, on the road to Emmaus. They ‘were kept from’ recognising Him until He broke bread with them that evening and then He disappeared before their eyes. ‘They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”’ (Luke 24:32 NIV).
In this post, let us reflect on His meeting with Peter, John and five others by the Sea of Galilee, where they had first heard His call to “Come, follow Me”. Leaving their boats and livelihoods, they had obeyed without question, for His promise – “I will make you fishers of men” – held a strange, indefinable appeal for them. Counting all that they might have been or have had, up to that point, as no account, they began a new journey into unknown spaces.
Three years afterwards, to be with Christ meant all to, at least eleven of those first disciples. So, as they drew near to Jerusalem for that fateful Passover, and being confronted with the possibility of their Lord’s crucifixion, and being warned that they would all scatter like sheep, each in fear for his own life, abandoning their Shepherd, they all like Peter, had this to say, “Never, Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
How easy it is to feel confident that we will always do the right thing until we come to the bridge that must be crossed – “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33 RSV), said Peter, when the Lord warned him that he was about to be sifted as wheat, at Satan’s demand, just as the adversary had once demanded that God afflict faithful Job. How confident he was then of his own power to endure, how incensed about not being ‘trusted’.
So, it was a very different Peter that met the Lord by the sea. For he had indeed gone back to his nets, taking six others with him, hoping to find some comfort from the routines of his old life in contrast to the extremely turbulent days they now had to endure. He was now certain that Christ was who He had said He was; there could be no doubting that, not after he had seen the empty tomb and seen the Lord Himself holding out His hands to Thomas, so that the doubting apostle might probe the nail marks on His palms and side. Yet, he, Peter, had failed. He had not proven worthy of the call and having set his hands to the plough, had turned back. Perhaps he did not really want to return to his boats, but he no longer trusted himself, having denied his Master three times. He was unworthy to be considered a servant, let alone a friend, of the Lord.
At Simon Peter’s first meeting with Jesus three years before, he had laboured all night and caught no fish. As he obeyed the Lord’s instruction, ‘“Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch”… they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break…When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:4-6 NIV). On this, Peter’s final fishing expedition, again their labours were futile until they had cast the net on the other side of the boat- again at Jesus’ command and found that “they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish” (John 21:6 NIV).
John, the beloved apostle, was the first then to recognise that the One who was speaking to them was the Lord. “It is the Lord!”, he cried. The one who loves is always the first to see. John’s heart was so melded to the Lord’s that he called himself, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, and he was as always given a rare and deep insight into the Lord’s ways that the others simply could not have.
Those who love the Lord are always quick to recognise Him, even in a crowded space. Simeon and Anna had spent all their days at the temple, in prayer and fasting, waiting on the Lord, and seeking the hour of His redemption. God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the ‘Consolation of Israel’. When the Redeemer came to the temple as a babe in Mary’s arms, Simeon and Anna were the first to recognise Him. Like John the Beloved so many years afterwards, they were chosen to point Him out to the others – all busy folk coming to the temple those days to fulfil their spiritual duties and leadership responsibilities – “It is the Lord!”
When Peter heard the words, “It is the Lord”, his eyes too were opened, and he once more sensed the old fire coursing through his veins, and without a second thought, “he… jumped into the water” (John 21:7 NIV). Did Peter walk on the water then? Possibly, the boat was still afloat meaning the water was very deep. If not, he had to swim across the icy sea to meet Jesus, when he could have reached Him in the comfort of his boat.
So, this is what being near Jesus is like – our hearts burn within us as we hear His voice. We receive the strength and the power to go on, just when we have been feeling drained of all our resources, for we realise that we are still loved and welcomed by our Lord, even when we have stumbled and failed. John loved the Lord deeply, but he called himself the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, for he knew this was all that truly mattered in the end: that Jesus loved him as indeed He loves us.
Why did Jesus visit them that day? Perhaps He wanted to spend one more day in fellowship with them before He left for His Father’s home, to serve them again, to refresh their bodies and souls Yet, there was another reason. Let us not forget that all his disciples had left Him in His hour of need, yet some were worse than the others as they disowned Him. These, the ‘most unworthy ones’, were those He sought out that day, not for rebuke or condemnation, but to reaffirm His love for them, and to restore them. Peter had denied him three times. Thomas had refused to believe that He had risen without tangible proof. All had gone back to their old lives, their fishing boats. Finally, there was John, who had lingered by His side, even near the cross and Jesus came to him also, for He loved to spend another day with His beloved friend.
What did Jesus want from them at the close of that morning? He did not want anything from them, so much as He wanted to do something for them. He had come to call them again to their place by His side. Each had turned away from Him, realising his own unworthiness and doubting his fitness for the relationship that Christ had called him to enter. Yet, after they had failed a crucial test – a test that they would not have failed, if they had only obeyed Him and kept watch in prayer at the Mount of Olives, on the night He was betrayed – there Christ was, to treat them as if they had never failed their test – or Him.
Rarely, are we treated so well in this life. Such love, sadly, is rare even among the closest of friends; if we ever fail a friend or loved one so badly as to abandon them in their hour of greatest need, rarely would that friend ever look at us with trust in their eyes. They might possibly forgive us, but trust is not so easily rebuilt. Yet, this is what Christ was willing to do for them – offer them His trust once more.
“It is the Lord!” It is Christ, indeed, beckoning us once more to His side. This is where we still belong after everything that has been imperfect. We have been called to walk with Jesus, clinging close to Him like the beloved John, all the way until we are home with Him. There is only one thing that should matter to us – that we are among those He loves.
Jesus, thank You for Your love.