The Gospel of John paints a beautiful narrative found in two separate parts but linked by a particular word: anthrakia. In Greek, it refers to a fire of coals. The same word is the root for the bacterial infection (anthrax) that causes scarring, which itself apparently looks like coal (anthracite). Anthrakia is found only twice in the book of John, connecting the two scenes of Peter.
It is first found in John 18:16–27, where Simon Peter denies Jesus three times. In the first denial, Peter stands before an anthrakia, a fire of coals. As if it paralleled the denial, John details that it was cold (he was there with Peter), associating the temperature of the air with the condition of Peter’s heart. Verse 18 mentions that the people around the fire “warmed themselves” and that “Peter stood with them and warmed himself.” At a time when Peter should have stood for Another, he instead stood for himself. One can almost imagine Peter staring at the fire of coals while chaos ensued within his conscience.
A fire of coals is found the second time in John 21:3–19. Peter was a disciple, originally called by Jesus at the beginning of the book. But after the incidents of the passion week, Peter leaves this calling and at least temporarily takes a reprieve by going back to fishing (21:3). Because Peter is the leader of the pack, the other former fishermen follow him, returning to the only profession they had known. On their first try, despite having spent the whole night at work, they caught nothing. If anything, they should have at least been good at fishing, but even in this, they had failed.
When Jesus comes to them, rather than rebuking Peter outright for his denial, Jesus gently recreates the conditions of his first calling. Instead of a direct encounter, Jesus offers fishing advice to the fishermen, which results in the draught of 153 large fish (21:11). Having proven Himself the Lord of fish, fishing, fishermen, fishers of men, and of all Creation, He is reunited with the disciples (in the case of Peter, quite dramatically). Upon coming to shore, the disciples see bread and fish, an allusion to the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fishes as well as the feeding of the 4,000 with seven loaves of bread and a few fishes.
Without saying much, Jesus communicated that without Him, they couldn’t catch fish, or souls, despite their expertise. Granting another opportunity for discipleship, Christ pulls Peter aside and asks him a question three times—one for every denial. Peter had “messed up” and was pained with shame, but Christ tenderly offered him the mandate to shepherd His people. For every denial, Jesus asks him a question to heal the wound as well as to inspire him to minister to His flock—to feed the young ones, to guide the older ones, and to feed the older ones (John 21:15–19). With that, Christ concludes with the evocative words, “Follow Me.”
The church is composed of the Peters who are discouraged, who have spiritual shame and histories of pain. The church as the body of Christ is full of weak disciples. And yet is able to overcome through these anthrakia experiences. And through these experiences with Jesus, the Peters, who often can’t get anything right, can be successful again—to catch 153 fish! If Christ can perform miracles with fish and with Peter, how much more with us, the church, and souls for the kingdom!