The question now remains to be considered: has the narrative contained in these fourteen verses any deep spiritual and allegorical meaning? Were we intended to read the passage simply as a description of one of the Lord’s appearances after His resurrection, and an account of one of His miracles? Or is the narrative a typical one? Is the passage intended to convey, under figures and symbols, great prophetical truths concerning the work of the ministry, and the history of the Church in every age, until the Lord comes? The question is a serious one, and demands serious consideration.
On the one hand, there is undeniable danger in the habit of seeking spiritual and allegorical meanings in the plain historical facts of God’s Word. We may go so far in this direction that, like Origen, and too often Augustine, we may lose sight of the primary simple meaning of Scripture, and turn the Bible into a mere book of riddles, which is useless to any common man, and useful only to those who have very fertile and fanciful imaginations. In fact, if we are always extracting figurative meanings out of Scripture, we may destroy the usefulness of the Book altogether. There must be some limit to the system of figurative interpretation. As a rule, I shrink intuitively from putting any sense on God’s Word which is not the obvious and plain sense of its language. Hooker’s words are weighty and wise: “When a literal construction of a text will stand, that which is furthest from the letter is commonly the worst”.
On the other hand, it is impossible to deny that all Christ’s miracles were meant, more or less, to teach great spiritual truths, under allegories and figures; and the passage before us is a miracle. In addition to this, we must remember that the occasion of the miracle before us was a specially solemn one – that the Apostles needed certain great truths to be impressed on their attention with special force, by facts as well as by words – and that, on the eve of His ascension into heaven, Christ would be exceedingly likely to remind them of their duty, and their position as ministers, by things under their eyes as well as by instruction in their ears.
Finally, let us try to put ourselves in the position of the seven Apostles on the occasion before us, and try to imagine what they thought and felt about the incidents of this remarkable morning. It is very hard to imagine that they saw nothing but a miracle in all that happened. I cannot think so. I think their hearts must have burned within them, and old spiritual truths, which they had heard before, must have revived in their minds with fresh power, and been written on their souls as with the point of a diamond, never to be effaced.
On the whole, then, I cannot avoid the conclusion, that the familiar verses before us probably contain, under symbolical facts, great spiritual truths. I think we are fairly justified in regarding the passage as a great parable, or vision, or allegory, intended to convey to the Church of Christ lessons for all time. And I am strengthened in this conclusion by the remarkable fact, that almost all commentators, of every school and in every age, have taken this view of the passage. Even Grotius, cold and rationalistic as his tone of exposition too frequently is, puts a figurative sense on several circumstances of the passage. Other expositors, of a more figurative and imaginative turn of mind, go into heights and depths, where I cannot pretend to follow them. I shall content myself with pointing out the more obvious spiritual lessons which I think the passage was probably meant to convey.
I think that Christ’s remarkable appearance to the disciples, when they were in the act of fishing, was meant to remind them and the whole Church of the primary duty of ministers. They were doing work which was strikingly emblematic of their calling. They were to be “fishers of men”.
I think the want of success in catching fish which the disciples had, until the Lord appeared, was meant to teach that without Christ’s presence and blessing ministers can do nothing.
I think the marvellous success which attended the cast of the net, when Christ gave the command, was meant to teach that, when Christ is pleased to give success to ministers, nothing can prevent souls being brought into the gospel net, converted and saved.
I think the drawing of the net to shore at last was meant to remind the disciples, and all ministers, of what will happen when Christ comes again. The work of the Church will be completed, and the reckoning of results will take place.
I think the dinner prepared and provided for the disciples, when the net was drawn to the shore, was meant to remind ministers that there will be the great “marriage supper of the Lamb” at last, when Christ Himself shall welcome His faithful servants and ministers, and “come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37).
I think, beside this, that the respective positions of the disciples and Christ, when they first saw Him, may possibly be intended to represent the respective positions of Christ and His people during this dispensation. They were on the water of the sea. He was looking at them from the land. Just so Christ is in heaven looking at us, and we are voyaging over the troublous waters of this world.
Finally, I think that the Lord’s sudden appearing on shore, when the morning broke, may possibly represent His second advent. “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” When the morning dawns, Christ will appear.
With these conjectures I leave the passage. They may not commend themselves to some readers. I only say that they appear to me to deserve consideration and reflection.
1. An edited extract from “Notes on John 21:1-14” in Expository Thoughts in the Gospels.