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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
John 21

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-25

Chapter 21

THE RISEN LORD (John 21:1-14)

21:1-14 After these things Jesus again showed himself to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. This was the way in which he showed himself. Simon Peter, and Thomas, who is called Didymus, and Nathanael, who came from Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples, were together. Simon Peter said to them: "I am going to fish." They said to him: "We, too, are coming with you." They went out, and went on board the boat, and that night they caught nothing. When early morning had come, Jesus stood on the seashore. But the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them: "Lads, have you got any fish?" They answered: "No." He said to them: "Cast your net on the right hand side of the ship, and you will find a catch." So they cast the net, and now they could not haul it in for the great number of the fishes. The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter: "It is the Lord." So, when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he was stripped for work) and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came to shore in the boat (for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards) dragging the net full of fishes. When they had disembarked on land, they saw a charcoal fire set there, and fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them: "Bring some of the fish you have just caught." So Simon Peter went on board and hauled the net to land, full of large fishes, one hundred and fifty-three of them; and, although there were so many of them, the net was not broken. Jesus said to them: "come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared to ask him: "Who are you?" because they knew that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took bread and gave it to them, and he gave them the fish in the same way. This was the third time Jesus showed himself to the disciples after he had been raised from among the dead.

It was certainly someone who knew the fishermen of the Sea of Galilee who wrote this story. Night-time was the best for fishing. W. M. Thomson in The Land and the Book describes night fishing: "There are certain kinds of fishing always carried on at night. It is a beautiful sight. With blazing torch, the boat glides over the flashing sea, and the men stand gazing keenly into it until their prey is sighted, when, quick as lightning, they fling their net or fly their spear; and often you see the tired fishermen come sullenly into harbour in the morning, having toiled all night in vain."

The catch here is not described as a miracle, and it is not meant to be taken as one. The description is of something which still frequently happens on the lake. Remember that the boat was only about a hundred yards from land. H. V. Morton describes how he saw two men fishing on the shores of the lake. One had waded out from the shore and was casting a bell net into the water. "But time after time the net came up empty. It was a beautiful sight to see him casting. Each time the neatly folded net belled out in the air and fell so precisely on the water that the small lead weights hit the lake at the same moment making a thin circular splash. While he was waiting for another cast, Abdul shouted to him from the bank to fling to the left, which he instantly did. This time he was successful.... Then he drew up the net and we could see the fish struggling in it.... It happens very often that the man with the hand-net must rely on the advice of someone on shore, who tells him to cast either to the left or the right, because in the clear water he can often see a shoal of fish invisible to the man in the water." Jesus was acting as guide to his fishermen friends, just as people still do today.

It may be that it was because it was the grey dark that they did not recognize Jesus. But the eyes of the disciple whom Jesus loved were sharp. He knew it was the Lord; and when Peter realized who it was he leaped into the water. He was not actually naked. He was girt with a loin cloth as the fisher always was when he plied his trade. Now it was the Jewish law that to offer greeting was a religious act, and to carry out a religious act a man must be clothed; so Peter, before he set out to come to Jesus, put on his fisherman's tunic, for he wished to be the first to greet his Lord.

THE REALITY OF THE RESURRECTION (John 21:1-14 continued)

Now we come to the first great reason why this strange chapter was added to the already finished gospel. It was to demonstrate once and for all the reality of the Resurrection. There were many who said that the appearances of the Risen Christ were nothing more than visions which the disciples had. Many would admit the reality of the visions but insist that they were still only visions. Some would go further and say that they were not visions but hallucinations. The gospels go far out of their way to insist that the Risen Christ was not a vision, not an hallucination, not even a spirit, but a real person. They insist that the tomb was empty and that the Risen Christ had a real body which still bore the marks of the nails and the spear thrust in his side.

But this story goes a step further. A vision or a spirit would not be likely to point out a shoal of fish to a party of fishermen. A vision or a spirit would not be likely to kindle a charcoal fire on the seashore. A vision or a spirit would not be likely to cook a meal and to share it out. And yet, as this story has it, the Risen Christ did all these things. When John tells how Jesus came back to his disciples when the doors were shut, he says: "He showed them his hands and his side" (John 20:20). Ignatius, when writing to the Church at Smyrna, relates an even more definite tradition about that. He says: "I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection, and when he came to Peter and his company, he said to them: 'Take, handle me, and see that I am not a bodiless demon.' And straightway they touched him, and they believed, for they were firmly convinced of his flesh and blood.... And after his resurrection he ate and drank with them as one in the flesh."

The first and simplest aim of this story is to make quite clear the reality of the resurrection. The Risen Lord was not a vision, nor the figment of someone's excited imagination, nor the appearance of a spirit or a ghost; it was Jesus who had conquered death and come back.

THE UNIVERSALITY OF THE CHURCH (John 21:1-14 continued)

There is a second great truth symbolized here. In the Fourth Gospel everything is meaningful, and it is therefore hardly possible that John gives the definite number one hundred and fifty-three for the fishes without meaning something by it. It has indeed been suggested that the fishes were counted simply because the catch had to be shared out between the various partners and the crew of the boat, and that the number was recorded simply because it was so exceptionally large. But when we remember John's way of putting hidden meanings in his gospel for those who have eyes to see, we must think that there is more to it than that.

Many ingenious suggestions have been made.

(i) Cyril of Alexandria said that the number 153 is made up of three things. First, there is 100; and that represents "the fullness of the Gentiles." 100, he says, is the fullest number. The shepherd's full flock is 100 (Matthew 18:12). The seed's full fertility is 100-fold. So the 100 stands for the fullness of the Gentiles who will be gathered in to Christ. Second, there is the 50; and the 50 stands for the remnant of Israel who will be gathered in. Third, there is the 3; and the 3 stands for the Trinity to whose glory all things are done.

(ii) Augustine has another ingenious explanation. he says that 10 is the number of the Law, for there are ten commandments; 7 is the number of grace, for the gifts of the Spirit are sevenfold.

"Thou the anointing Spirit art,

Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart."

Now 7+10 makes 17; and 153 is the sum of all the figures, 1+2+3+4..., up to 17. Thus 153 stands for all those who either by Law or by grace have been moved to come to Jesus Christ.

(iii) The simplest of the explanations is that given by Jerome. He said that in the sea there are 153 different kinds of fishes; and that the catch is one which includes every kind of fish; and that therefore the number symbolizes the fact that some day all men of all nations will be gathered together to Jesus Christ.

We may note a further point. This great catch of fishes was gathered into the net, and the net held them all and was not broken. The net stands for the Church; and there is room in the Church for all men of all nations. Even if they all come in, she is big enough to hold them all.

Here John is telling us in his own vivid yet subtle way of the universality of the Church. There is no kind of exclusiveness in her, no kind of colour bar or selectiveness. The embrace of the Church is as universal as the love of God in Jesus Christ. It will lead us on to the next great reason why this chapter was added to the gospel if we note that it was Peter who drew the net to land (John 21:11).

THE SHEPHERD OF CHRIST'S SHEEP (John 21:15-19)

21:15-19 When they had breakfasted, Jesus said to Simon Peter: "Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me more than these?" He said to him: "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him: "Be a shepherd to my lambs." Again he said to him a second time: "Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?" He said to him: "Yes, Lord. You know that I love you." He said to him: "Be a shepherd to my sheep." He said to him the third time: "Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?" Peter was vexed when he said to him the third time: "Do you love me?" So he said to him: "Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you." Jesus said to him: "Feed my sheep. This is the truth I tell you--when you were young, you fastened your girdle around you and you went where you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your arms, and another will gird you, and will carry you to a place not of your own choosing." He said this to show by what kind of death Peter was going to glorify God. When he had said this, he said to Peter: "Follow me!"

Here is a scene which must have been printed for ever on the mind of Peter.

(i) First we must note the question which Jesus asked Peter: "Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me more than these?" As far as the language goes that can mean two things equally well.

(a) It may be that Jesus swept his hand round the boat and its nets and equipment and the catch of fishes, and said to Peter: "Simon, do you love me more than these things? Are you prepared to give them all up, to abandon all hope of a successful career, to give up a steady job and a reasonable comfort, in order to give yourself for ever to my people and to my work?" This may have been a challenge to Peter to take the final decision to give all his life to the preaching of the gospel and the caring for Christ's folk.

(b) It may be that Jesus looked at the rest of the little group of the disciples, and said to Peter: "Simon, do you love me more than your fellow-disciples do?" It may be that Jesus was looking back to a night when Peter said: "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away" (Matthew 26:33). It may be that he was gently reminding Peter how once he had thought that he alone could be true and how his courage had failed. It is more likely that the second meaning is right, because in his answer Peter does not make comparisons any more; he is content simply to say: "You know that I love you."

(ii) Jesus asked this question three times; and there was a reason for that. It was three times that Peter denied his Lord, and it was three times that his Lord gave him the chance to affirm his love. Jesus, in his gracious forgiveness, gave Peter the chance to wipe out the memory of the threefold denial by a threefold declaration of love.

(iii) We must note what love brought Peter. (a) It brought him a task. "If you love me." Jesus said, "then give your life to shepherding the sheep and the lambs of my flock." We can prove that we love Jesus only by loving others. Love is the greatest privilege in the world, but it brings the greatest responsibility. (b) It brought Peter a cross. Jesus said to him: "When you are young you can choose where you will go; but the day will come when they will stretch out your hands on a cross, and you will be taken on a way you did not choose." The day came when, in Rome, Peter did die for his Lord; he, too, went to the Cross, and he asked to be nailed to it head downwards, for he said that he was not worthy to die as his Lord had died. Love brought Peter a task, and it brought him a cross. Love always involves responsibility, and it always involves sacrifice. We do not really love Christ unless we are prepared to face his task and take up his Cross.

It was not for nothing that John recorded this incident. He recorded it to show Peter as the great shepherd of Christ's people. It may be, indeed it was inevitable, that people would draw comparisons in the early Church. Some would say that John was the great one, for his flights of thought went higher than those of any other man. Some would say that Paul was the great one, for he fared to the ends of the earth for Christ. but this chapter says that Peter, too, had his place. He might not write and think like John; he might not voyage and adventure like Paul; but he had the great honour, and the lovely task, of being the shepherd of the sheep of Christ. And here is where we can follow in the steps of Peter. We may not be able to think like John; we may not be able to go out to the ends of the earth like Paul; but each of us can guard some one else from going astray, and each of us can feed the lambs of Christ with the food of the word of God.

THE WITNESS TO CHRIST (John 21:20-24)

21:20-24 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, the disciple who at their meal reclined on Jesus' breast and said: "Lord, who is it who is to betray you?" When Peter saw this disciple, he said to Jesus: "Lord, what is going to happen to this man?" Jesus said to him: "If I wish him to remain till I come, what has that to do with you? Your job is to follow me." So this report went out to the brethren, that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say to him that he would not die. What he did say was: "If I wish him to remain till I come, what has that got to do with you?" This is the disciple who bears witness to these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his witness is true.

This passage makes it quite clear that John must have lived to a very old age; he must have lived on until the report went round that he was going to go on living until Jesus came again. Now, just as the previous passage assigned to Peter his place in the scheme of things, this one assigns to John his place. It was his function to be pre-eminently the witness to Christ. Again, people in the early Church must have made their comparisons. They must have pointed out how Paul went away to the ends of the earth. They must have pointed out how Peter went here and there shepherding his people. And then they may have wondered what was the function of John who had lived on in Ephesus until he was so old that he was past all activity. Here is the answer: Paul might be the pioneer of Christ, Peter might be the shepherd of Christ, but John was the witness of Christ. He was the man who was able to say: "I saw these things, and I know that they are true."

To this day the final argument for Christianity is Christian experience. To this day the Christian is the man who can say: "I know Jesus Christ, and I know that these things are true."

So, at the end, this gospel takes two of the great figures of the Church, Peter and John. To each Jesus had given his function. It was Peter's to shepherd the sheep of Christ, and in the end to die for him. It was John's to witness to the story of Christ, and to live to a great old age and to come to the end in peace. That did not make them rivals in honour and prestige, nor make the one greater or less than the other; it made them both servants of Christ.

Let a man serve Christ where Christ has set him. As Jesus said to Peter: "Never mind the task that is given to someone else. Your job is to follow me." That is what he still says to each one of us. Our glory is never in comparison with other men; our glory is the service of Christ in whatever capacity he has allotted to us.

THE LIMITLESS CHRIST (John 21:25)

21:25 There are many other things that Jesus did, and if they were written down one by one, I think that not even the world itself would be big enough to hold the written volumes.

In this last chapter the writer of the Fourth Gospel has set before the Church for whom he wrote certain great truths. He has reminded them of the reality of the Resurrection; he has reminded them of the universality of the Church; he has reminded them that Peter and John are not competitors in honour, but that Peter is the great shepherd and John the great witness. Now he comes to the end; and he comes there thinking once again of the splendour of Jesus Christ. Whatever we know of Christ, we have only grasped a fragment of him. Whatever the wonders we have experienced, they are as nothing to the wonders which we may yet experience. Human categories are powerless to describe Christ, and human books are inadequate to hold him. And so John ends with the innumerable triumphs, the inexhaustible power, and the limitless grace of Jesus Christ.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

FURTHER READING

John

C. Kingsley Barrett, The Gospel According to Saint John (G)

J. H. Bernahrd, St. John (ICC G)

E. C. Hoskyns (ed. F. M. Davey), The Fourth Gospel (E)

R. H. Lightfoot, St. John's Gospel: A Commentary (E)

G. H. C. Macgregor, The Gospel of John (MC E)

J. N. Saunders (ed. B. A. Mastin), The Gospel According to Saint John (ACB E)

R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to Saint John (TC E)

B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to Saint John (E)

The Speaker's Commentary (MmC G)

Abbreviations

ACB: A. and C. Black New Testament Commentary

ICC: International Critical Commentary

MC: Moffatt Commentary

MmC: Macmillan Commentary

TC: Tyndale Commentary

E: English Text G: Greek Text

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


Copyright Statement
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on John 21:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/john-21.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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