The Apostles have gone back to their old method of earning a living (Augustine, Gregory the Great). Jesus reveals himself to them, but not immediately as he does not want to frighten them (Chrysostom). The symbolism of their not catching any fish is noted by all the Patristic commentators, as is the fact that Jesus addresses them as children – which is the ideal mindset for discipleship (Clement). The Fathers also note that when the follow the word of the Lord, this changes and they have great success – the fish multiplied, even as Christian multiply where the word is preached (Augustine). It is the more contemplative John who first recognises Jesus, but Peter, the more fervent, who first comes to him (Chrysostom). It is, naturally, Peter who plunges headlong into the water in search of the pearl of great price (Ephrem). Jesus eats fish with them to show, again, that he is no phantasm (Jerome). The fish he serves them is the first fruits of his catch (Cyril).
There are any number of symbolic interpretations of the number of fish – 153. Augustine sees it as a symbol for the fulness of the grace of all those who partake of the Spirit, as Peter brings the catch for the fulness of the Gentiles (100) and the elect of Israel (50) for the glory of the Trinity (3) (Augustine). Or some see it as pertaining to the end of the world, using an arithmetical triangle that utilizes the prime number 17. The unbroken nets symbolise the unified church unbroken by schism. Christ came in from the sea, which is the world, tossed about, onto the solid shore which is the Church (Gregory). He then commits the Church to Peter, since he is the one who brings the catch safely to shore where there is true rest. (Gregory).
The disciples are in awe of him because he no longer shields his divine power from them (Chrysostom). Just like the meal they consumed, Christ is the broiled fish who suffered and is consumed; he is the bread that came down from heaven (Augustine). The seven disciples present for this meal signify the future eschatological banquet when all things will be brought to perfection (Gregory). John speaks of this as the third time, which is a reference to the manifestations, and not the number of days. These appearances make us look forward even more to our own resurrection (Chrysostom).
Jesus deals gently with Peter – he neither brings up his denials, neither does he reproach him for his failures (Chrysostom). Peter’s threefold denial is now replaced by a threefold confession (Jerome) which effaces his offence (Ambrose) and restores him. He is restored by the Good Shepherd and then called, along with those ministers who follow him, to feed his lambs (Augustine). This is how we show the lobe Christ was asking for from Peter – by serving our neighbour and tending each other (Chrysostom).
Peter is reminded, as all pastors are reminded, that these are not their sheep, they belong to Jesus, and they should remember their fall so they practice mercy to others (Augustine). The Fathers all note that Peter is shaken and made more cautious by the questioning. They also note the nature of the commission. To feed Christ’s sheep is to feed the faith of those who believe in him by exercising proper pastoral care (Bede). The threefold denial and threefold confession mirrors the name of the Trinity, used thrice in baptism. Our Lord’s questioning and Peter’s confession of love ends in the call for a selfless love that focuses on God and neighbour and not oneself (Augustine). Peter is called to serve even unto death – and so must all pastors if that is necessary to defend the sheep (Gregory).
Peter is now willing to suffer for Jesus in his older years in a way he was not when he was young (Chrysostom). The Fathers all reflect the tradition received in the Church of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, and his crucifixion, upside down, by Nero. Thus it is that Peter will fulfil his promise that he would die for the Lord. Now the hour is coming for them all when, tried by events, they will give all they have for the Lord.