The epilogue of John’s gospel begins with seven disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:2-4). It seems that after Jesus’ death threw their lives into chaos, the disciples reverted to what they knew, namely fishing. After a long day, the disciples are at the end of their rope after having presumably tried everything without catching anything (John 21:4-5). From the shore, a man commands them to try fishing from the right side of the boat (John 21:6). Unbeknownst to his own disciples, the man is the resurrected Jesus (John 21:4). Despite this failure to recognize Jesus, the disciples inexplicably follow his instructions and their fortunes are reversed.
And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish. (John 21:6 NASB)Success was nearer than the disciples thought as the small adjustment made a large difference.
Jesus does what Jesus commonly does: asks his followers to do the opposite of what they are doing. He does not chastise his pupils for returning to their previous profession. He simply orders a minor alteration. Such adjustments are easier to follow but often harder to believe. How could such a minor modification affect change?
On the surface, Jesus’ suggestion is a long shot but it must not be totally preposterous as the seasoned fishermen do not object to it. Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) describes:
The morning sea had been unfruitful and the seven disciples were frustrated. With sunrise they were finishing up when an unknown voice from shore called out, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some,” (John 21:6). To toss a cast net at random into the sea was virtually futile. Only a school captured by a trammel net could be picked up in this manner. But the stranger may have seen a large school of fish from the shore. (Craig A. Evans, Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: John, Hebrews-Revelation, 159)The text does not simply record that Jesus instructed his followers to cast on the “other side” of the boat but rather specifies the “right side” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV). To avoid confusion with the meaning “correct” some modern translations designate the “right-hand side” (NASB, NLT).
Merrill C. Tenney (1904-1985) rationalizes:
The command to cast the net on the right side of the ship may be interpreted in two ways. Either Jesus was testing their faith by recommending a procedure the Galilean fishermen never used, or he could discern the presence of a school of fish from the more advantageous viewpoint of the shore. (Tenney, John-Acts (Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 199)Jesus’ request is likely counterintuitive to the disciples as evidenced by the fact that they have not already attempted it. In nautical terms, the right side is the starboard side. The word comes from the Old English steorbord meaning the “side on which a vessel was steered”. Unlike modern craft that utilize centerline runners, the steering apparatus in first century vessels was placed on the right side of ships because most seamen were right-handed. Since the starboard side was the right side, it was impractical to position the right side of the boat against a pier when in port, hence the left side of the boat became known as the port side. First century fishermen would seldom have fished the right side of the boat because they might tangle the nets and consequently lose their catch.
Some have suggested that the right side was considered “lucky” but this connection would defeat the purpose of the text. Leon Morris (1914-2006) refutes:
Some commentators draw attention to passages in classical authors showing that the right side is the fortunate side, but it is difficult to understand what relevance this has to the New Testament. Obedience to Christ, not luck, is the important thing. (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 761-62)Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) sees a literary device in play:
The right side may have been regarded as lucky but that is not the cause of the change; “the success...is due entirely to...obedience to Jesus’ word” (Barnabas Lindars [1923-1991], 627). The fact that the obedient Peter and the disciples to the word should be linked to the right side makes sense: in the gospel’s only other reference to the “right,” the cutting off of what was right (the right ear, John 18:10) reflected Peter’s failure to hear the word. In other words, within the gospel the right side is connected with hearing; cutting it indicates a failure of hearing; using it shows a return to hearing. (Brodie, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 583-84)The fact that Jesus’ suggestion is insignificant may be its significance. James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) asserts:
Why the right side? Because that was the side they were directed to by Jesus! If He had said the left side, there would have been fish there. They would have swarmed from every part of the Lake of Galilee, so anxious would they have been to be caught. (Boice, The Gospel of John, Volume 5: Triumph Through Tragedy (John 18-21), 347)Why does John include this detail? What do you associate with the right? Do you value right over left? Why do you think the disciples were suddenly successful? Would the fish on the right have not eventually swum to the left? Are you working the right side of your personal boat? Are you more apt to make minor or major adjustments in your life? Why do the disciples take instruction from a person who, to them, was merely an unproven armchair quarterback?
One of the most shocking aspects of this text is the fact that professional fisherman alter their course based upon the unsolicited advice of someone who has not demonstrated expertise.
D.A. Carson (b. 1946) remarks:
Although the right side of anything was widely considered in Greek circles to be a sign of good luck, it would be utterly trivial to think that this is why Jesus gave his command...or why the disciples heeded it. Why he gave the command is straightforward: he knew there was a great school of fish on the starboard side, as he had known it on another occasion (Luke 5:1-11). What is at first more difficult is why these fishermen should pay any attention. If they had already recognized the Master, their obedience would make sense, but not John 21:7, where recognition comes only after the catch; if they have not recognized him, why listen to the voice of someone calling in early dawn gloom from the shore of the lake? (Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 670)For casting right to have been an act of faith, the disciples would have had to known that it was Jesus who made the demand. As such others have seen the disciples’ action as an act of desperation: they simply have nothing to lose.
T.T. Crabtree (1924-2007) imagines:
The command of Christ may call for the unusual. The disciples’ net was usually let down on the left side of the ship. The command to lower it on the right side called for unusual action. “Anyway,” they could have reasoned, “we have been lowering the net not far from the place where you have commanded that we lower it now, so why should lowering it again make any real difference?” (Crabtree, Zondervan 2010 Pastor’s Annual: An Idea and Resource Book, 77-78)Perhaps there is some faith entailed. In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell (b. 1963) informs that sometimes our instincts are correct because our subconscious has already discovered something that our conscious mind has yet to process. The scene in which Jesus is revealed in John’s epilogue is strikingly similar to the memory of the time that Jesus initially called the disicples (Luke 5:1-11). Perhaps the disciples comply with Jesus’ request because on some deeper level, they realize that the man speaking is the Lord.
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) hints:
There may be some deeper significance in his direction to ‘shoot the net to starboard’ (NEB). In popular belief the right was the side of good luck, but the disciples would know this in any case, and it would be trivializing Jesus’ words to find this kind of meaning in them. We may take it that he knew there was an abundance on their starboard side; as for the disciples, the old instinct of implicit obedience asserted itself almost before they became fully conscious of his identity. (Bruce, The Gospel of John, 399-400)Perhaps something deep inside of the disciples recognizes their master before they become fully conscious of his identity.
Do you think the disciples recognized Jesus on any level? What motivates the disciples to change course? Have you ever followed a command that made no sense or taken advise from someone who has demonstrated no expertise? Are you willing to change your methodology at Jesus’ directive? Are you letting Jesus guide you?
We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it...But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world.
- Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking, p. 13