The most essential characteristic of the bible is that it provides a ‘place’ where Jesus reveals himself and where we can encounter him.
I know that some people find reading the bible a rather dull and unrewarding exercise. I also know many folks who love to study the bible. In both cases, most fail to encounter Jesus in and through the scriptures. This article is my attempt to provide some remedy to this situation.
The Way we are Programmed
I think that the Western education system most of us have experienced bears some blame. It has trained us to value knowledge above relationship, yet at the same time, it has largely failed to teach us to think analytically, critically, and creatively. The legacy of this is a belief that studying is about knowledge without necessarily knowing, and reading without revelation.
The Bible’s Primary Purpose
However, the bible is not just a repository of knowledge or a rule book; it is primarily a revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. A knowledge-acquisition mindset tends to exclude relationship. We can’t have a relationship with a book, no matter how inspired we believe it to be.
Jesus said to the Pharisees of his day: ”You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). The scriptures they had at that time consisted only of what we call the Old Testament. How much more would the Lord’s words apply to us who have the Gospels and the epistles, yet still fail to encounter him in and through the bible? So, this article is about how we can remedy this condition. The passage I have selected to showcase what I propose is John 21:1-14.
(1)‘Afterward, Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: (2) Simon Peter, Thomas (called 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. (4) Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. (5) He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. (6) 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. (7) 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. (8) The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. (9) When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. (10) Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” ( 11) Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. (12) Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. (13) Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. (14) This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead’.
A Knowledge-acquisition Approach
Now, if we adopt a knowledge-acquisition approach to this passage then these are the sort of things we will probably experience:
- We start reading and in verse 1 it has, ‘Jesus appeared again’. Straight away our minds click into analysis gear and we wonder to ourselves, ‘how many post-resurrection appearances were there?’ So we stop reading and consult a commentary or the notes in our reference bible. But tell me, how does knowing that there were three such appearances help us to relate to Jesus here and now?
- Then in verse 7, we find the words, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ and we wonder who that was. If it was John then why didn’t he just write that? Perhaps it was one of the others? But how does the answer to this help US to love Jesus more?
- Verse 11 contains the most obvious example of all where it mentions that there were exactly 153 large fish in the net. Why such a precise number? What does it signify? We immediately dive down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland and try to chase down an answer in the commentaries and reference books. 153 fish species in lake Galilee symbolic of all the people in the region? Not likely. Perhaps the square number of the sum of 1 to 17? Yes, but so what? How does this all add to our relationship with Jesus?
No, we need another approach to reading the bible. Study certainly has a place, and analysis has a place, but surely we must give first place to knowing Jesus in and through the bible?
An Alternative Approach
I want to demonstrate an alternative approach that uses sanctified imagination sparked, and not snuffed out, by logical deduction. So, first I will shed a different and more relational light on the passage, and then I will show how we can see Jesus in and through it.
The narrative starts with seven disciples leaving Jerusalem and going down to Lake Galilee. Peter was not necessarily running away because he was ashamed, but rather because Jesus had previously told him that after he rose from the dead he would go ahead of them to Galilee (Matthew 26:32). The angel at the empty tomb had then confirmed this to Mary and instructed her to tell this to Peter and the others (Matthew 28:7 Mark 16:7). So Peter was simply obeying the Lord and going down to the lake expecting to meet Jesus.
It seems that this meeting did not immediately occur because at some point Peter says, “I’m going out to fish” and all seven of them went off in a boat and fished the entire night. They caught nothing, but as dawn was breaking a man appeared on the shore, about 90 meters away and called out to them: “You don’t have any fish do you?”. The light was poor and he was far away so they could not recognise him yet his voice was strangely familiar. Then the man called, “Throw your nets on the right side and you will”. And they did! Now, why did they obey? They must have been tired and frustrated. The man was on the shore with a worse view of the water around the boat than they had. Yet they immediately cast their net on the right side of the boat. Why?
Well, perhaps you will recall the passage describing when Jesus called Peter and John to follow him some 42 months earlier? If not, look it up in Luke 5:1-11. They had been fishing all night but had caught nothing. They pulled the boats up onto the shore and started mending their nets when Jesus approached. He told them to go out one more time, they did, and caught so may fish that the boats were swamped and in danger of sinking. On that occasion, Jesus had invited Peter and John to follow him and to become ‘fishers of men’. Now here they were again, in remarkably similar circumstances. Imagine Peter and John exchanging glances as the unspoken question hung in the air; “Could this man be Jesus?”
They started pulling in the net and felt the weight of fish in it. As it neared the surface, they must have seen the fish jumping and squirming in it. John turns to Peter and exclaims, “It IS the Lord!” and Peter does something very strange. He has been fishing all night in his loincloth (underpants) but now he pulls on his robe and jumps into the water to swim the 90 meters to the shore. Why would he do this? Have you ever tried to swim in a robe or something similar? Well, when Jesus had called Peter three and a half years earlier, Peter had fallen on his knees amid the fish in the boat and had cried out: “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man!” Peter had profound respect for Jesus and no way was he going to stand before his Lord dressed only in his underpants.
When the others got to the shore with the catch of fish that Jesus had provided for them, what did they find? Jesus was cooking them breakfast of braaied fish and bread. He blessed the food and served them.
Peter had covered himself up but Jesus laid himself bare, revealing his nature and character to them – caring, serving, providing, and loving.
Step into the Scene
Ok, now that you have a sense of what was probably happening in the narrative, why not take a step further; instead of just observing, why not BE there? At the start of the passage, it names just five of the seven disciples, so the other two were probably not members of the original twelve but rather just ordinary folks like you and me. So, be one of them as they sit around the fire at dawn on that memorable morning. Feel the warmth of the fire, hear the sizzle of the fish, and smell that fresh bread. Hear the way Jesus is speaking and see the expression on his face. How do you feel? Do you sense the reverence of that group as they eat with Jesus, the resurrected Lord of creation?
It is All About Jesus
The bible is God-breathed and contains information, wisdom, and direction. But it’s primary purpose is to reveal Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In and through its pages God reveals himself to us so that we might know him now and eternally. The last verse of John chapter 20, just before the start of this Galilee narrative, contains these words: ‘These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’
My prayer for myself and everyone who reads this article is just what Paul prayed for the Christians in Ephesus:
As in the words of the song known to so many of us:
‘Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus. To reach out and touch him, and say that we love him. Open our ears Lord, and help us to listen. Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus.’