“Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.”” (John 21:2–5, ESV)
John 20.31 seems to be the fitting ending to the whole book of John, wherein the apostle states clearly his purpose for writing all that he had written about Jesus (that you, dear reader, might believe that Jesus is the Messiah and by believing you may have life in his name!).
Instead, we have a chapter in which the disciples are back in Galilee and decide to go fishing! It’s not clear exactly why John added this epilogue at the end of his book, perhaps because early believers had questions about Peter’s restoration to fellowship with Christ, and a legend had grown up around the beloved disciple (historically the church has believed this is John himself) and whether or not he would live until Jesus’ returned.
At any rate, the disciples–7 of them anyway–led by the irrepressible Peter, decide to go fishing. They fish all night using drag nets and they get nothing, nada, zilch. Remember that most of these men were professional fishermen and were fishing on their home grounds. It seems unlikely to us (and one would have to say even more unlikely to them) that they end up with not a single fish. Their effort are absolutely futile!
Indeed, we get a hint of this as the dawn breaks and a man (who will turn out to be Jesus, though the disciples don’t know it yet) shouts out to ask if they have caught anything. Their one word, terse response: “No.” Having been skunked more than once fishing I can identify with their frustration.
The point of all this–as we shall soon come to see–is that this was providential futility. Jesus was going to teach them something, but they would not learn it until they had first experienced a long night of futility.
God uses ineffectiveness and apparent lack of fruitfulness to drive us to our knees to seek him and so that we recognize our own inability to function in the spiritual realm, apart from him. When he steps in and directs us towards effective ministry after or through or in spite of our futile efforts, we recognize that all of the praise and glory go to Him alone.
Jesus was teaching the disciples an important lesson here and it had to start with their own efforts which produced nothing.