Letting go

Bible study

Bible passage: John 21 v 1-19

Sit lightly to things

The theme to be explored in this study is the Biblical call to sit lightly to things that we might naturally wish to grasp in an attempt to give ourselves a sense of stability and security, or legacy and immortality. This requires us to get our priorities straight and, in the light of Christ and his kingdom, to focus on what is essential at any one time.

Before reading the Bible passage(s) your group may find it helpful to look at this painting by William Turner, called The ‘Fighting Temeraire’ Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, which dates from 1838.

William Turner: The "Fighting Temeraire" Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken up
William Turner: The "Fighting Temeraire" Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken up

Notes on the painting

  • Turner painted this in the midst of what may have been depression or a very long and complicated bereavement reaction following the death of his father, his main close confidant, in 1829.
  • Its subject is a 98-gun naval warship that had been launched in 1798 and went on to play a key role in the Battle of Trafalgar, going into action astern of HMS Victory. She went into retirement in Plymouth in 1812, had an afterlife as a prison ship, but was eventually broken up in 1838.
  • The painting depicts a steam-powered tug towing the magnificent but now elderly and rather ghostly looking ship to her final destination. The ship that had once been part of a sailing fleet that ruled the waves is now obsolete in a new age of steam power and industrialisation, already fading in memory as she is in the picture.
  • She is being led ‘where you do not wish to go’ (John 21v18)
  • opening questions

  • Is this sunrise or sunset?
  • What is the mood of the painting?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • Bible passage

    1After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.3Simon 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.

    4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” 

    When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

     12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

    15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”


    • What is behind Peter’s decision to go fishing (v3)?
    • The whole story points back to earlier events. How many can you identify?
    • Why do you think John draws out these earlier connections?
    • What is Peter being asked to let go of here? What is driving him forward (see John 6v66-69)?
    • Jesus himself is letting go here. What does he have to say goodbye to and how does he do this?
    • What can this passage tell us about making good endings?

    wider questions

  • How do we help people make transitions, especially those that involve laying down a responsibility in our churches? Should we challenge the idea of ‘jobs for life’ in the culture of many congregations?
  • How do we make a good transition from old ways of doing things to ways that are more suitable for our time without doing violence to the wisdom and beauty of the past?
  • How can we challenge the instinct that retirement is simply the prelude (however extended) to a final journey to be broken up?
  • Additional passages

    Here are four  passages in addition to the main one above. You could have a one-off study on a single passage, a series using all five passages, or break up a larger group into small subgroups to look at one passage each and then come back to share common themes. Click on the texts to find the suggested questions.

    • In this passage Paul is exhorting his readers to imitate Jesus in his act of letting go of his entitlement and status and taking on the lowliest of human forms. How did Jesus show this in his life? How did he show it in his death? How are the two connected?
    • Unlike Jesus, we are not divine. What are we asked to let go of?
    • What are the things that are most difficult for you to let go of? What does that tell you about yourself?
    • In talking of the ‘mind’ Paul seems to be saying that our attitude is at least as much as our behaviour. How might a ‘letting go’ attitude be life-giving for us?
  • What do these fishermen leave behind and what do they take with them when Jesus calls them?
  • Taking up one’s cross might mean physical martyrdom, but it might be expressed in losses in other aspects of life. What might this look like? Can you make sense of your own Christian journey as laying things down in order to take up the cross?
  • The Greek word translated ‘life’ here (psuchē) can also be translated ‘self’ or ‘soul’. What does it mean to lose your soul in order to gain it? Does the idea of a false self (or persona) versus a true self help?
  • These passages are a small part of Jesus’ long goodbye to his disciples during the last supper. He is helping his followers to let go of him. How does he do this?
  • The passages are full of emotion that goes beyond the surface meanings of the words. What feelings can you detect in them? How do they make you feel?
  • Jesus talks of the Holy Spirit as the ‘paraclete’, translated here as ‘advocate’ but in some other versions as ‘comforter’. These words capture different aspects of the Spirit’s role: to help us see meaning and truth in the dark events of the death of Jesus and to assure as that we are not alone. How do these two themes relate to your experience of bereavement?
  • What do you think the rich fool is trying to protect himself from?
  • Do you think this passage is about material acquisitiveness or does it also have something to say about bolstering self-worth through building up achievements or marks of status?
  • This is a story about an individual who seems to be cut off from others (v.20 emphasises this). What does this have to tell us about the need for interconnectedness if we are truly to live? Could we apply this to nations as well as to individuals?
  • Click on the buttons to go to related pages.

    living well
    more on letting go
    other Bible studies