Two Coal Fires

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The presence of the Lord Jesus, alive just as He had promised He would be, transforms everything. We can see this very clearly in the fall and restoration of the apostle Peter after the resurrection. The account of Christ’s care for Peter is given to us so that we might understand more of His care for us. We see it in His warning Peter beforehand, and His restoration of Peter afterward.

The Text:

“And the servants and officers stood there, who had made a fire of coals; for it was cold: and they warmed themselves: and Peter stood with them, and warmed himself” (John 18:18).

“And the other disciples came in a little ship; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes. As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread” (John 21:8-9).

Summary of the Text:

These two verses are just a few pages apart, and the Greek for the charcoal fire is identical (anthrakian). The apostle John is a very careful writer, and I don’t believe this is an accident. I believe we are being invited to compare and contrast the two fires as occupying the center of two quite different settings.

The first fire was built by the enemies of Christ (18:18), and the second was built by Jesus Himself (21:9). This is a contrast. Peter was present in both settings, and he was present because of something that had been said by the apostle John (18:16; 21:7). In the first, John got him into the place where Christ was being tried, and in the second it was John who pointed out that the man on the shore was the Lord. And of course, Jesus was present in both settings. In the first He was on trial for His life (John 18:27; cf. Luke 22:61), and in the second He had conquered death (21:1). In the first setting, Peter denied the Lord three times, just as Jesus had predicted (18:17, 25, 26), and fell into sin. In the second, he affirmed his love for the Lord three times, and was reinstated (21: 15, 16, 17). In the first, Peter received something from wicked men (warmth), and in the second he received something from the Lord (food, and forgiveness). In the first, Peter does not compare favorably with the disciple that Jesus loved—John was more influential “at court,” John didn’t deny the Lord, and John didn’t run away. In the second, Peter has all such comparisons put to rest (John 21:21-22). “What is that to you?” In the restoration of Peter we see the death of all envy and striving.

153 Fish, and Big Ones Too:

One of the things that novelists do is that they describe details of a scene, and they do so in order to paint it in a way that makes it seem realistic. But the gospels, although true accounts, are not novels. We do not see the gospel writers tossing in random details that have no particular meaning other than to make it seem real. So keep that in mind for what follows . . .

As the disciples approached the shore, they were dragging a net filled with fish, which Jesus had essentially caught for them, and they cooked some of them on this coal fire. This is not a mystical or a “spooky” reading of the text—this is a literary reading of the text. The issues are placement, foreshadowing, parallelism, literary conventions, and so on.

To illustrate the difference, consider another detail from this text—when Jesus called out to His disciples fishing about 100 yards offshore, He told them to put their nets down over the right side of the boat, which they did. When they had done so, the result was a huge haul of fish. This was a way Jesus had of identifying Himself. When He had first called them to ministry, He had called them away from their nets (Matt. 4:18-22) so that they could become fishers of men. And when Jesus had done a similar miracle like this one before, telling Peter where the fish were, the response that Peter had had was that of being overwhelmed with his own sinfulness (Luke 5:8).

This scene in John therefore has a return to both elements—Jesus is dealing wonderfully with Peter’s sin and fall, and Jesus recommissions him to ministry as a fisher of men. He tells him three times to “feed the sheep” (21:15, 16-17). We should have no trouble seeing the fish as emblematic of the coming haul at Pentecost. The nations were to be brought into the boat, and Jesus indeed made His disciples fishers of men. In this case, Peter had jumped out of the boat, and the others had brought the fish in. But Peter is soon to rejoin them in the work.

But what is it with the specific number of fish? Is there anything to that? Or is it just a little realistic detail thrown in? This is a good place to illustrate the difference between a careful literary reading and mystical reading. This number has been the occasion of a goodly amount of ingenuity that has been spent on it. Some of it has been fanciful, some of it sober, and some of it pretty pedestrian.

Bear With Me:

The pedestrian reading is that 153 is mentioned because that’s how many fish there were, darn it, and John was simply  interested in adding an irrelevant little detail. A fanciful reading is that when you add the ten of the commandments to the seven of the seven-fold Spirit, as Augustine urged us to do, you get seventeen, and 153 is the triangular of 17. So what is a triangular? The word “triangular” means that if you add the numbers 17 to 16 to 15 to 14 and so on down to one, the sum is 153). For another example, the triangular of 3 is 3 + 2 + 1, or 6. The problem here is that you can also get 153 from Seventeen magazine, and that doesn’t mean that John is talking about the challenges of adolescence. This is the kind of thing that John Calvin called “childish trifling.” It is nothing more than free association.

But 666 is the triangular of 36 (and 36 is 6 times 6). The biblical writers did make some of their points with numbers, and John in particular did this. The fact that it is unusual to us doesn’t make it unusual or odd to them. We already have solid grounds for understanding the fish as representing all the Gentile nations. We have the “fishers of men” call that Jesus gives Peter and Andrew, James and John. We have the fact that throughout Scripture, the sea represents the Gentiles and the land the Jews. No one in the Old Testament is shown eating fish, but in the New Testament fishing (and the eating of fish) comes to the front and center.

On the day of Pentecost, how many nations are listed? Well, 17 actually (Acts 2:7-11). And we have to remember the practice of encoding numbers in names (called gematria) was common in the ancient world. They could do this in a way that we cannot because they used the same symbols for letters as for numbers. We have Roman letters and Arabic numbers. But in Hebrew, the first nine letters corresponded to 1-9, the next nine were 10-90, and the last five were100-400.

For example, if our English alphabet worked in this way, the numerical value of my name Doug would be 4 + 60 + 300 + 7, or 371. Make of that what you will. So in a world without crossword puzzles, or the Internet, or clever memes, the world back then still contained the kind of person who would figure out that if you rearranged the letters of Britney Spears, you get the word Presbyterians. Make of that what you will. And so, in this ancient world, this was a common parlor game. In the ruins of Pompeii, for example, they found graffiti that said, “I love her whose number is . . .” This is how we surmise that the 666 in the book of Revelation refers to Nero Caesar.

So? Well, the prophet Ezekiel had promised that the time of the New Covenant would be a time of glorious fishing—fishing in the waters of life that flowed out from the glorious Temple.

“And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from Engedi even unto Eneglaim; they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the great sea, exceeding many” (Ez. 47:10).

The prefix En simply means spring, and so if we look at the numerical value of Gedi in Hebrew apart from the prefix, we find that it is 17, and the value of Eglaim (also apart from the prefix)is 153. Ezekiel is talking about the salvation of the Gentiles under the figure of fish, and he uses these two numbers as he refers to it. John refers to the same thing, and it has the same meaning as the explicit meaning given to it by Jesus in Luke—fishing for men. This means that 153 is a symbolic number for the Gentile nations who will be brought into the kingdom of God, and Jesus saw to it that this was the number of fish they would find if they lowered their nets on the right side of the boat. Jesus is Lord of everything.

But Back to the Charcoal Fire:

Now remember that Peter is being restored. The antithesis is very clear here. The charcoal fire built by the enemies of Christ is not really a good place to warm yourself—and it ends with snarling, cursing, devouring, bitterness, and tears. The charcoal fire built by Christ is built in order to feed the disciples, to feed the fishermen, and then, as Peter is being restored, he is commanded (in his turn) to feed the Christians who will follow him.

So the resurrected Christ forgives and feeds. Our responsibility is to be forgiven, to be fed, and then to forgive . . . and to feed. And this helps us to be nourished and to worship both. Feeding is something newborn infants can understand, and toddlers most certainly do. Nutrition is so complex that only God understands it. At the same time, a person trained in nutrition understands more than most of us do, understanding exactly how much is going on when we eat a sandfish. And it is the same with texts like these. We can simply feed, but we can also stand back, amazed, and adore.

And so here is the appeal. All of us have sinned. All of us have denied the Lord in some fashion or other. All of us have warmed ourselves around the wrong coal fire, and all of us stand in need of being forgiven and restored around a different coal fire. One fire is in the house of the enemies of God. The other is on an open beach. The resurrected Lord stands by it, inviting you to come. Have you sinned like Peter? Have you wept bitterly like Peter? Have you looked at the cross, and there calculated the weight of your sin? The Lord was crucified, and by that means was murdered, and this is what enables us to see the true magnitude of our sins and sinfulness.

Look at the cross, as the hymn puts it, and by that means calculate the weight of your sin:

Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly
Here its guilt may estimate

Have you sinned grievously? Have you wept over that sin bitterly? Then come. The risen Lord is standing on the beach, and invites you to share breakfast with Him.

An earlier form of this sermon was preached in 2007.