Coming Up Empty
“I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. John 21:3
Jesus often taught complex heavenly truths by means of simple earthly lessons. He would begin with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and then paint a word picture that everyone could understand. But he did not confine his teaching to the use of words.
Sometimes he taught with actions. At times, he even used the failure of an action to drive home the most critical points. We watch as he teaches his disciples about success by having them first come up empty.
The disciples were up north on the shores of Lake Galilee, waiting for Jesus to meet them there after his resurrection from the dead. Bored with waiting, Peter decided to go fishing. The rest joined him. They fished the entire night—and came up with nothing.
When morning came, someone on the shore told them to “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” They did. They found some. They found so many fish that they could not haul the net in. Seeing this, John shouted out: “It is the Lord!” and Peter jumped into the water to head off to meet him.
For Peter and John, this was déjà vu—they had seen this before. Three years earlier, when Jesus first called them to full-time discipleship, the same thing happened. They had fished all night. They came up empty. And when, at Jesus’ instruction, they put down their nets once more, they caught so many fish that it filled two boats! (Luke 5:4)
What’s the lesson? It’s the same one taught throughout the Scriptures. The Lord God declares: “Apart from me, you can do nothing!” (John 15:5) But there is more to the lesson: The gracious God can accomplish more for us than we can hope for or desire.
If we had success every time we tried something, we soon would become convinced that we were the reason for the achievement. “We were smart.” “We were strong.” A degree of failure may make us wonder a bit. Total failure drives the point home. “Without me, you can do nothing!”
Then, he shows us, that with his power, nothing is too great to expect.”
The disciples needed to learn this lesson. They were going to accomplish awesome tasks. People would praise them. They also would meet horrible failure. People would turn against them. All but one of the Twelve would be executed because they testified about Jesus.
They needed to be prepared for apparent failure so they could achieve overwhelming success. They needed to learn how to look at life through God’s eyes.
Humans tend to measure success by how much a person can accomplish. We look at what office the person holds; how popular, or how rich, the person is.
But all of that is temporary, and in the end, meaningless. It’s like shifting sand beneath our feet. Jesus warned about treating such things as treasures. The warning was necessary.
Recall how the disciples argued about who was the greatest (Mark 9:33)? Remember when the mother of James and John asked Jesus, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:21)?
The followers of Jesus still had much to learn about being a disciple of Jesus. An attitude adjustment was required.
They needed to understand that even when they came up empty, God was still in control. Sooner or later his power and glory would show through.
The Apostle Paul tells of the time he pleaded with the Lord to take away a problem that was plaguing him. He reports, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses,” Paul wrote, “so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
He concludes, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
We need the same lesson. When we work long and hard at something, when, in spite of our best efforts, we come up empty, we can begin to feel hopeless and helpless. We start to see ourselves as failures. We are ready to give up.
Let us then remember these empty nets of the disciples. Then, let us step back to wait to see what God might have in mind. After all, his abundance can overfill our every need.
And then, let us smile as we remember that the day will come when we will never, ever, come up empty again.
We pray: Lord Jesus, too often we place our plans ahead of your plans. Too often we rely too much on our own strength and skill. Show us again the big picture of your saving work and the success you have gained over all that would destroy us. Point our eyes to the cross and the empty tomb. Fill us with the hope and joy only the Holy Spirit can bring. Amen.
Points to Ponder
- Why is it so easy to believe that our plans must be God’s plans?
- Knowing that the Lord is in control of our lives, why do failures bother us so much?
- Why does the death and resurrection of Jesus give us the confidence to understand that our failures in life do not mean that we are a failure?