I am by no means an authority on fishing; it’s not really a hobby of mine. I do know, however, that many factors go into determining where the fish will be biting today. The temperature of the water, the winds, the supply of nutrients, and other factors can all impact the fish. Fish tend to follow their food sources, so if you find what the fish eat in the water, then the fish are likely to follow.
From my work at NASA, I know that today’s commercial fishing industry is becoming more and more rooted in science. It’s not uncommon for fishermen to consult weather maps, ocean topography charts, and other data from satellites and other sources to help them try to maximize their chances of bringing in a good catch. But at the end of the day there’s still an “art” to fishing. You can go where the data tells you to go and still find no fish…
The men that Jesus encountered along the shores of the Sea of Galilee did not have access to sophisticated technology to track schools of fish, but I am quite certain that fishing the same waters day after day, year after year, gave them an intuitive feel for when and where to cast their nets on a given day. When they put down their nets in a given place, it was because they thought they had a reasonable chance of catching something.
Imagine then how you might feel if a non-fisherman standing on the shore presumed to tell you where to drop your nets? Imagine further that it’s already been a long and unproductive night of fishing. You are tired and would just assume call it a day. Would you listen to the suggestion?
Well, in John 21:1-14 we’re told that these seasoned fishermen did listen to the advice of the “stranger”. They knew Jesus, but John tells us they didn’t recognize him at first—they couldn’t see him clearly from where they were. It’s only when they pull in the huge catch of fish it becomes clear to them who was standing there all along. Peter swims to shore (vintage Peter here!) leaving the others to haul the boat into shore. They all sit down to breakfast with Jesus and not one of them asks: “Who are you?” It’s as if what they witness that morning along the shores of Galilee removes any lingering doubts they may have had about whether Jesus is really alive. (These doubts are very apparent in the disciple’s previous encounters with Jesus in Jerusalem after the resurrection—e.g., Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-29)
I find it interesting that the disciples obey Jesus’ commands to “cast your nets on the right side” before they actually recognize Jesus in the flesh. It says something about having faith in and placing our trust in what we cannot see. I often think it was easier for the first disciples to believe because Jesus was there with them in the flesh, and maybe it was, but this is a good reminder that faith is never simplistic.
Just as these men have an instinctive sense for where the fish are biting, they seem to instinctively recognize Jesus’ authority—he commands not only the fish but the fishermen as well. And after this encounter, these rugged fishermen from Galilee leave their boats on the shores of Galilee once and for all and follow the Risen Lord where he leads them. After Jesus ascends and the Holy Spirit descends these men are sent forth to drop their nets on other seas and their labors lead to a huge “catch” for the Kingdom of God—all because they were obedient to Jesus, and put down their nets on the right side of the boat.