“When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread.” John 21:9
This week’s text may seem unusual. I doubt you ever memorized it for a Bible drill. It’s not included in any great devotional that I know of. But after reading this week’s GraceWaves I doubt you will ever forget it, or will ever look at a backyard cookout the same way.
The scene is the shore of the Sea of Galilee, some undetermined time after Jesus’ resurrection. “They” are the disciples, and the fire was prepared by Jesus. The narrative order in John’s gospel is very important. In chapter 20, Jesus had appeared a few times, He breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples, and commissioned them to go out and change the world. After an appearance to Thomas the gospel ended.
Or so it seems. Though John 20:31 does sound like a fine ending, we find chapter 21. The disciples’ de facto leader, Peter, said “I am going fishing,” and a handful of the disciples returned to their previous work. They fished all night and caught nothing. Then in the early morning mists they saw a figure on the shoreline they soon realized was Jesus. Peter, always impulsive, jumped in and swam to the shore. And that brings us back to the fire and the fish.
You see, Jesus had prepared this fire so He could cook a breakfast for these hungry disciples. But it was not just any fire. The text is quite specific, John used a word that we find only twice in the NT, anthrakia, a charcoal fire. He wanted us to know Jesus had prepared a charcoal fire.
Along the shores of a lake (the Sea of Galilee is a large fresh water lake) you can always find plenty of driftwood. It has dried out in the sun and is perfect for a fire. But Jesus did not use driftwood. He used charcoal. Now we have to use our imagination here, but it might be fun, so play along. Before Jesus left heaven again to make this appearance, He got some charcoal. Maybe He had Gabriel go for it. “I need some charcoal,” He might have said, and Gabriel obeyed. He was a bit puzzled but he obeyed. And so Jesus appeared on the shore and built a charcoal fire.
Now let’s get back to the narrative. Recall that Peter had jumped out of the boat and swam ashore. He crawled up on the beach and ran to Jesus. He saw the fire, and, more importantly, I am sure he smelled the fire. Charcoal has a distinct smell, doesn’t it? Not like wood at all. Peter smelled the charcoal fire. One or the most powerful memory triggers is the sense of smell. A certain aroma will fire synapses and take you back to an event associated with that smell.
Remember I said that the word anthrakia is only used twice in the NT? The first time is in John 18:19 where Peter stood and warmed himself while denying that he even knew Jesus. Don’t you think that when Peter smelled that breakfast fire on the shores of the sea, he might well have remembered the last charcoal fire he stood by? Don’t you think that he remembered at that moment the denials and felt the shame? Don’t you think that is probably why he went fishing in the first place?
John 21 is best remembered for Jesus’ asking Peter three times if he loved Him, Peter affirming three times that he did, and Jesus telling him three times to go and get back to work feeding and tending the sheep. A threefold grace for a threefold denial, prefaced by a charcoal fire that would drive home the genuineness of that grace. The literary symmetry is a beautiful and unmistakable reflection of Jesus’ intent.
Peter went fishing because he believed that was the only thing he could do well. Jesus knew better. He knew Peter loved Him. He knew Peter’s faults. He knew what Peter could become through grace. And Jesus knows all of these things about you as well.
Sometimes you shy away from God because you are ashamed. You’re convinced God is disappointed in you, and so you have pulled in on yourself. You may feel that way this week. If so, come to the charcoal fire. Remember that God was not surprised by a single stumble on your part. In fact, He meets each failure with a grace that is so puzzling, so limitless, so real that all of us limping saints can find courage in that grace to get up and serve. Peter did, and so can you.
Your Father in heaven loves you dearly. Trust His grace and live in its power.
Dr. Terry Ellis