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Lesson 105: Serving Christ Effectively (John 21:1-14)

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September 27, 2015

My desire for this church is that everyone who comes would know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and that each of you would grow in the character qualities and skills that will make you effective as you serve the Lord. This church will be healthy only to the extent that every person walks closely with Christ and serves Him as a member of His body, the church. As Paul says (Eph. 4:11-16), the job of pastors and teachers is to equip the saints for the work of service (or ministry), so that when every part works together, the whole body will build itself up in love. So, the pastors equip, but the saints do the work of the ministry. That means that we’re all in the ministry! There is no spiritual gift of “bench-warmer”!

This means that the body will only fulfill its purpose when each individual part is working properly. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve compared my body to an old car. When you drive an old car, certain parts stop working. If it’s not too serious, you can keep driving the car, but it isn’t as functional as it used to be. Well, I’ve noticed that certain parts of my body don’t work so well anymore! When that happens, my body is hindered from doing everything that it’s supposed to do. And when certain parts of the body of Christ don’t work properly, the church is hindered in its mission.

I’m concerned that some parts of this church body aren’t working. They aren’t serving the Lord. They may be official members of this church, but they aren’t doing anything to help the body be healthy. They usually attend services, but that’s about it. They hear about opportunities to serve, but they don’t respond. They’re broken parts of the body!

Other parts are serving in ministries of helps. That’s good, because ministries of helps are vital for the body to function. We need faithful ushers, people to help out at socials, and people to help keep our facilities and equipment in good shape. If these types of ministries don’t get done, the church will not function well.

But beyond these helping ministries, Scripture is clear that every believer should be serving in ministries that impact others spiritually. Scripture commands us to “admonish one another” (Rom. 15:14) and “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). Paul exhorted Timothy (2 Tim. 2:2), “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” That command doesn’t just apply to pastors or those in “full-time” ministry, but to every believer. We all have a responsibility to make disciples of others (Matt. 28:19).

Spiritual ministry involves imparting what you have received from Christ to others. This may include sharing the gospel with those who do not know Him. It also includes helping newer believers get grounded in their faith. If the Lord has helped you to grow in Him, you should be helping younger believers to do the same. If Christ has helped you overcome temptation or work through conflict in your marriage, He wants you to link up with others whom you can help. Christ didn’t save you so that you can be an isolated Christian, but so that you can be in relationship with other members of the body to help them grow in Him.

Here’s the convicting question: Are you doing that? In whose life are you having a spiritual impact? You may say, “I’m too busy to do that!” Seriously? You may need to rearrange your priorities. Christ saved you so that as a member of His body, the church, you can help in the cause of making disciples for His kingdom. But to do that assumes that you are walking closely with Christ. You can’t impart what you do not possess.

By this point you may be asking, “What does all this have to do with our text, which is the story of a bunch of guys going fishing?” The theme of John 21 is service for Christ. It follows John 20, where the disciples come to full faith in the risen Christ. The question then is, “What do you do with that faith?” You serve Him! Merrill Tenney (John: The Gospel of Belief [Eerdmans], p. 287) explains, “The purpose of the Epilogue is to show how the belief which the disciples had achieved should be applied.” It shows that service in dependence on the risen Savior is always fruitful and will always have His presence and support.

Seven of the disciples were in Galilee waiting for Christ to meet them after His resurrection, as He had directed them to do (Matt. 28:7; Mark 14:28; 16:7). We aren’t told where the other four were. At Peter’s initiative, they decided to go fishing. Some say that they were wrong to do this. Others say that they were right, working to support themselves. Dr. Tenney (ibid., p. 289) says that they weren’t sinning, but they were exposing themselves to danger: “They might forget … the life of which Jesus had spoken, and they needed to be recalled to it.” Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p 862) observes: “The general impression left is that of men without a purpose.” D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 669) concurs: “This fishing expedition and the dialogue that ensues do not read like the lives of men on a Spirit-empowered mission.” This incident would have reminded them of the earlier miraculous catch of fish, after which Jesus called them to be fishers of men. And this story is followed by Jesus deliberately restoring Peter to ministry. So the theme is:

Our faith in the risen Lord should lead to effective service for Him.

Note how John introduces this incident (John 21:1): “After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias [Galilee], and He manifested Himself in this way.” By repetition, John wants us to know that this story was a manifestation or revealing of the risen Lord. But it was a manifestation with a purpose: to call the disciples (and us) back to the purpose for which He saved us. He wants His followers to be fishers of men. And, as the story of Peter’s restoration shows, He wants us engaged in tending His lambs. In other words, He wants us serving Him in spiritual ministries by making disciples. This story reveals five qualifications that we must have to serve Christ effectively:

1. To serve Christ effectively, you must have trusted in Him as your risen Savior and Lord.

The foundation for chapter 21 is chapter 20, where Thomas and the other disciples came to full faith in the risen Lord. I include this point because invariably there are people in evangelical churches who come regularly and even serve in some capacity, but they have never been born again. They would profess that they believe in Jesus, but they never have trusted in Him personally to forgive their sins and give them eternal life. Often these folks are “good” people, but that’s the problem—good people don’t need a Savior. If you’re swimming laps at the pool, you don’t need the lifeguard to jump in and save you. You’re doing just fine by yourself. But if you’re drowning, you desperately need that lifeguard!

The Bible teaches that we’re all worse than drowning—we’re spiritually dead! In God’s sight, no one is righteous; no one does good (Rom. 3:10-18). Romans 3:23 sums up, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But Romans 6:23 gives the good news: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If you will come to Christ as a guilty sinner and trust in His death on the cross for you, He forgives all your sins and gives you eternal life as a free gift! So the first point that you must understand is that good people can’t serve Christ; only forgiven sinners can serve Him. Make sure that you have put your trust in Him alone to save you from your sins.

But, maybe you have trusted in Him, but you feel inadequate to serve Him. The next point is for you:

2. To serve Christ effectively, realize your insufficiency and Christ’s all-sufficiency.

The disciples were experienced professional fishermen, but we read (John 21:3b-5), “… that night they caught nothing. But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you do not have any fish, do you?’ They answered Him, ‘No.’” Their one-word answer may reflect their frustration: “No.” Whenever you read that Jesus asked a question, you need to understand that He wasn’t looking for information. He knew that they had not caught anything, but He wanted them to recognize and acknowledge their insufficiency.

Andreas Kostenberger (John [Baker], p. 590) observes, “Remarkably, the disciples never catch a fish in any of the Gospels without Jesus’ help.” Jesus wanted to remind the disciples of what He said in the upper room in the context of bearing fruit for His kingdom (John 15:5), “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” In the Greek text, “nothing” means “nothing”!

The fact is, we only trust in Christ to the extent that we recognize our own insufficiency, as well as His all-sufficiency. The apostle Paul reflected this when he was talking about the serious responsibility of preaching the gospel and he asked rhetorically (2 Cor. 2:16), “And who is adequate for these things?” But then a few verses later he elaborates (2 Cor. 3:5), “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God ….”

But there are two dangers to avoid. When you feel your own inadequacy (and I feel it every time I prepare or deliver a sermon or whenever I have an opportunity to talk to someone about Christ), the first danger is that you will be paralyzed and do nothing. Moses fell into that danger when the Lord called him to deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt (Exod. 4:1-17; see, also, Gideon, Judges 6:11-16). But note that here the Lord didn’t tell the disciples, “Stand back!” while He made all the fish jump into the boat without any effort on their part. They had to cast their nets as He told them to do and use their strength to haul the catch to the shore. The lesson is: Use what the Lord has given you to serve Him. Don’t let a sense of inadequacy immobilize you. If He wants you to tell someone about Him, He won’t use you like a ventriloquist uses a dummy! You’ve got to trust Him and then open your mouth and talk!

The second danger is that you will get some training and then fall into the trap of thinking that your training or experience makes you adequate in yourself. Peter and the other disciples could have thought, “We’re professional fishermen! You don’t need to tell us where to cast our nets! We know what we’re doing!” But they would have missed experiencing the Lord’s miraculous power. I believe that it’s helpful to get trained in how to share your faith, or if you’re called to preach, to be trained in how to do it. I keep reading books in both of those areas to help me learn and grow. But techniques or methods are never adequate substitutes for trusting in the Lord. So get all the training and expertise in whatever the Lord has called you to do, but never trust in it. Rely on Him through faith and prayer.

3. To serve Christ effectively, obey His commands.

Granted, the disciples did not yet know that it was the Lord. John doesn’t explain why these tired, seasoned fishermen would have obeyed some stranger giving advice from the shore. But his point in telling the story is to show that if you do what Jesus commands, He will give the blessing. Also, I’m sure that their experience reminded them of that night on the front end of Jesus’ ministry, when He told Peter to put out into the deep water and let down their nets for a catch. But Peter protested (Luke 5:5), “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.” When Peter obeyed, the Lord almost sank their boat with the miraculous catch of fish.

It was on that occasion that Jesus told Peter (Luke 5:10), “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” This post-resurrection repetition of the miracle would have refreshed their memories of that first catch of fish and reminded them that people, not fish, was now to be their focus. In that first miraculous catch, Jesus was in the boat with the disciples, picturing His presence with them when He came into this world. Now, He is on the shore, picturing Him in heaven as He directs and provides as they fish for men. But on both occasions, the abundant catch came when they obeyed the simple command of Jesus.

Think of the excuses that they could have used: “Are you kidding me? We’ve been out here working all night. Don’t you think that we’ve already tried casting the net on the right side of the boat? It didn’t work! Besides, we’re professional fishermen. We know our business. This just wasn’t a good night.” But if they had made up excuses, they would have missed the catch that the Lord wanted to bless them with.

If you make up excuses for why you can’t serve the Lord, you’ll never see Him work in a mighty way. J. C. Ryle commented (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], p. 437), “Our Lord’s object was to show the disciples that the secret of success was to work at His command, and to act with implicit obedience to His word.” The Lord blesses our obedience, not our excuses.

Many years ago, I was shopping for a winter coat at a mall in Southern California. I paid for the coat and walked out into the mall when I got a very strong impression from the Lord, “I want you to go back into the store and tell that salesman about Me.” I almost never get such impressions! So at first I shrugged it off and started to walk away. But the impression didn’t go away: “Go back and talk to that salesman about Me!” I went and sat down on a bench outside the store and prayed about it. It seemed crazy. He was helping another customer. He would think that I was really weird! After I ran through all of my excuses, I realized that if I walked away without going back in there and talking to that salesman, I would be disobedient.

So, I prayed and went in and said, “When you’re through helping those people, I need to talk to you.” He thought that something must be wrong with the coat he had sold me. But I said, “No, the coat is fine. But I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and I had a strong sense that He wanted me to talk to you about Him.” His eyes got big and he said, “Really?” He went on to tell me that he had made a decision to follow Christ a few months before, but he had fallen away. My taking just a few minutes to talk to him in obedience to the Lord impressed him to get right with the Lord and go back to church. God blesses our obedience, not our excuses! And when God blesses, don’t take the credit yourself, but acknowledge, as John does here (John 7:7), “It is the Lord.”

So to serve Christ effectively, put your trust in Him as the risen Savior. Realize your insufficiency and His all-sufficiency. Obey His commands.

4. To serve Christ effectively, be eager for fellowship with Christ.

The disciple whom Jesus loved (John) first recognized the Lord, but it was Peter who couldn’t wait for them to row to shore, but jumped in the water to get to Jesus. It’s significant that Peter did this in spite of his recent failure in denying the Lord. The Lord had met privately with Peter on resurrection day (Luke 24:35) to restore him in his relationship with Him. But sometimes we allow previous failures to keep us from wanting to be with the Lord, even after He has assured us of forgiveness. We think that we need to do penance or feel guilty for a while before we come back to Him. But grace means that we must accept His forgiveness freely. Grace doesn’t lead us to sin more, but to sin less. A person who has experienced God’s grace will have an impact on others. A guilty person or one prone toward legalism, will not be effective serving Christ.

Also, Peter’s eagerness to be with the Lord is significant in light of his present companions. He had boasted before them that he would follow Christ, even if they did not. But then he failed miserably, denying Jesus before a servant girl. When Peter jumped into the water, his friends could have thought, “What a hypocrite!” But Peter didn’t care what they thought. He just wanted to be with the risen Lord.

Sometimes your friends or your family will try to dampen your enthusiasm for the Lord because it makes them look bad. Graciously, politely ignore them! Get up early and spend time with the Lord because you want to be with Him. When He invites you to come and have breakfast (John 21:12), don’t miss the opportunity!

John’s comment (John 21:12), “None of the disciples ventured to question Him, ‘Who are You?’ knowing that it was the Lord,” sounds a bit strange. D. A. Carson (ibid., p. 674) explains that we need to put ourselves back into their situation. They have already seen several proofs that Jesus was risen, including the appearance to Thomas in chapter 20, so they knew “that it was the Lord.” But even so, after Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared and disappeared suddenly. They had last seen Him in Jerusalem, but now here He was in Galilee. Where had He gotten the fish that were on the fire or the firewood? It all seemed strange and made them feel a bit uneasy. But in spite of their uneasiness, no one dared to ask, “Who are You?” because they knew it was the Lord.

Jesus’ invitation to the disciples to come and have breakfast is similar to His invitation to the lukewarm church of Laodicea (Rev. 3:20), “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” It’s His standing invitation to all of His people: “Come, dine with Me.” Fellowship with the Lord is necessary if you want to serve Him effectively.

5. To serve Christ effectively, first let Him minister to you.

Jesus already had some fish prepared on the charcoal fire, but then He took some of the fish that He had just provided for them, cooked them, and served them breakfast. By the way, although some commentators come up with some fanciful allegorical significance to the 153 fish they caught, it’s probably just an eyewitness account that shows that John wasn’t making up this story. Like all fishermen, they counted the fish.

Peter didn’t protest having Jesus serve him breakfast, as he had done when Jesus took the servant’s role and washed the disciples’ feet. But the point here is, have breakfast with Jesus and let Him minister to you before you try to serve Him. Ministry occurs when you’re full of Jesus and spill Him over onto others. So let Him fill you by eating what He has provided in His Word and then you’ll have the strength and resources to minister to others.


I come back to my earlier question: Are you being used to impact others spiritually? I’m not asking whether you’re busy in serving the Lord. Rather, is the Lord using you to tell the good news of salvation and to help others grow in Him? To be effective, first make sure that you have trusted in Him as your Savior and Lord. Then recognize your insufficiency to serve Him, but trust in His all-sufficiency. Obey His commands. Be eager for fellowship with Him. Let Him first minister to you. Then, make it your purpose by His grace to impact those around you by spilling your full cup of Jesus onto them. Begin with your family. Pray that your children will come to genuine faith and seek to lead them there. Pray for opportunities in the neighborhood, your workplace, or at church to be God’s channel for spiritual blessing to this needy world.

Application Questions

  1. This story is a manifestation of Jesus John 21:1). What qualities of His are manifested here?
  2. What is the biblical basis for saying that every Christian must have not only a ministry of helps, but also a spiritual ministry in the lives of others?
  3. How can you know whether your sense of insufficiency stems from not being gifted in that area or from not trusting God?
  4. Why is “dining with Jesus” the foundation for serving Him? What happens when we let this slide?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life

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