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Tuesday, November 28th, 2023
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Bible Commentaries
John 21

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

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This chapter has been called a supplement, William Hendriksen. Exposition of the Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House. 1961), II, p. 475. an appendix, W. F. Howard, The Interpreters’ Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952), p. 802. an epilogue, B. F. Westcott, The Gospel according to St. John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), p. 299. or a postscript, Alan Richardson, The Gospel according to John (London: SCM Press. 1959), p. 214. by various scholars, some of whom insist that the Gospel ended with chapter 20; but this student has found no reason for dissociating it from the rest of the Gospel.

John 20:30-31 COULD HAVE BEEN USED by John as a conclusion, but he did not so use them. In 1 John 5:13, John used nearly these same words in what could have been a perfect ending of his epistle at that point; but, instead, he went on for eight more verses. The apostle’s style of writing thus denies any necessity of viewing John 20:30-31 as his conclusion. "There is no manuscript evidence of John 21 being a later edition." Ibid. Therefore, it is part of the genuine Gospel.

Based upon the material presented, this chapter had the following design:

1. It showed that Peter’s denial was forgiven. This might have been supposed from Peter’s prominence on Pentecost, or inferred from Luke 24:34; but this Gospel gave a complete account of his restoration.

2. A tradition had developed in the first century to the effect that Jesus would appear in his second coming before John died, or the equivalent of it, that John would remain alive until he came (John 21:23). The apostle here laid that to rest by relating exactly what was said.

3. He answered the question of why this or that particular event in Jesus’ life had not been recorded, by noting the impossibility of recording all that Christ did.

4. This chapter is also, in a sense, the sending forth of the apostles on their worldwide mission. Christ’s charge delivered specifically to Peter, but inclusive of them all, though different from the great commission (as in Matthew and Mark), was nevertheless similar in import. As Hunter remarked:

A Gospel, as we know it, does not end simply with an appearance, or appearances, of the living Lord. It always includes the commissioning of his disciples for their future work. John 21 is such a commission.

Verse 1

After these things Jesus manifested himself again to his disciples at the sea of Tiberius; and he manifested himself on this wise.

After these things … is a connective but does not indicate any definite length of time.

Jesus manifested himself … It should be noted that Jesus’ appearances were always of his own choosing, and not of his disciples’. His appearances had none of the marks of subjective visions, but were bona fide visitations of the Lord in his post-resurrection appearances.

Verse 2

There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples.

It is idle to speculate on the identity of the two not named or on the fact of exactly seven being present.

The sons of Zedebee … were James and John, the author of this Gospel, their names being omitted because of the reticence this author had for naming himself. It is not surprising that they were in Galilee, for there the Lord had promised to meet them (Matthew 28:7,10).

Verse 3

Simon Peter said unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also come with thee. They went forth and entered into the boat; and that night they took nothing.

The apostles were not ready yet for their worldwide mission. The shock of events had been too great, and the events of this chapter form a part of the process of reorientation which they needed prior to Pentecost. One may not read too much into the fact of their going fishing. Peter did not say that he was again going into the fishing business, but that he was going fishing. Perhaps their attitude was that of one who might say, "Look, I’m going fishing and think this thing over."

Significantly, however, the old ways had lost their charm. It was a singularly frustrating night on the lake. They caught nothing. No doubt John intended that men should see the spiritual import of this. After one has followed the Lord, the old life-style loses all of its power to satisfy.

Verse 4

But when day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach: yet the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.

It was very early, still not full daylight; and the disciples were still a hundred yards offshore, and this was reason enough why they had not at that point recognized the Lord.

Verse 5

Jesus therefore saith unto them, Children, have ye aught to eat? They answered him, No.

Children … This shows the tender affection Jesus had for his disciples. John himself adopted this address to Christians (1 John 2:13,18).

Have ye aught to eat …? Jesus was not asking them for food, but he was rather emphasizing the fact that their return to their old tasks (however momentarily) had resulted in failure. The Lord was not yet through with those men; and Jesus had no intention of permitting them to return to the fishing business, even if they had desired that. The whole sequence of events in this chapter shows conclusively that their long night of failing to catch anything was providential, in the same manner as their astounding catch a little later acting upon the Lord’s instructions.

Verse 6

And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right aide of the boat, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.

One can never cease to be amazed at the type of mind which cannot find anything out of the ordinary in this episode. Hunter said, "There is no need to find anything miraculous or symbolic here. The Lake of Galilee swarmed then, as it still does, with fish. Jesus had evidently noticed a large shoal!" Ibid., p. 194. If, as Hunter says, Jesus "noticed a large shoal of fishes" a hundred yards offshore in the semi-darkness of early morning, and against what light there was (they were on the western shore), it would not have removed the miraculous element from this incident; but it would have made Jesus’ vision, at such a time and distance, of fishes under the surface of the water, to have been one of the most notable miracles the Lord ever performed.

The entire narrative here cannot be explained at all except in a frame of reference including the supernatural power of Jesus. Can it be doubted that Jesus already knew exactly where to find the apostles, that he knew of their fruitless night’s work, or that he had built a fire and prepared food at exactly the place where Peter would swim shore, or that he already knew that they had nothing to eat?

Rationalization of Jesus’ miracles is essentially dishonest. One may have a certain carnal respect for an avowed infidel; but so-called Christian scholars who attempt to rationalize the miracles are not entitled to either credence or respect. Dishonest handling of the sacred text is incapable of producing an honest argument.

Verse 7

That disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his coat about him (for he was naked) and cast himself into the sea.

Again, John’s greater perceptiveness and Peter’s greater impetuosity come to light in this event. John was the thinker; Peter was the man of action. John recognized the Lord here, through the use of his mind; it was still too far off to see Jesus sufficiently to identify him visually. In the pull of that net with its mighty catch, John instantly recognized the Lord; and Peter believed it as soon as John announced it. Those experienced Galilean fishermen knew a miracle when they saw one, even if some of the modern divines have trouble seeing it.

For he was naked … means "had on his undergarment only" (English Revised Version margin).

Cast himself into the sea … This was for the purpose of swimming the intervening distance of a hundred yards to go to Jesus.

Verse 8

But the other disciples came in the little boat (for they were not far from the land, but about two hundred cubits off), dragging the net full of fishes.

Two hundred cubits … is a distance of one hundred yards. That this should have been called "not far," in the light of Peter’s swimming it, affords an insight into the physical vigor of the apostles. The others preserved the catch by remaining with the boat and dragging the net ashore. The circumstances of the net’s not breaking is one of a number of things distinguishing this from another event involving a big catch (Luke 5:1-11).

Verse 9

So when they got out upon the land, they see a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.

Westcott discerned that "The very manner in which the charcoal fire and fish and bread upon it are presented here suggests that they were provided supernaturally." B. F. Westcott, op. cit., p. 301. In a moment, Jesus would instruct them to take care of the catch, not with a view to their helping provide breakfast, however, for he had already done that. Hendriksen stressed that "John 20:13 indicates there was only one bread-cake and only one fish; and the similarity to John 6:11 implies that in both cases we are dealing with a miracle of multiplication." William Hendriksen, op. cit., II, p. 483.

Verse 10

Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fish which ye have now taken. Simon Peter therefore went up, and drew the net to land, full of great fishes, a hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, the net was not rent.

It is hard to have patience with scholars who make this event a Johannine adaptation of Luke’s account of another event (Luke 5:1-11). There are more differences between them than there are similarities.

Christ was on the land.Christ was on the water.
There was one boat.There were two boats.
The catch was pulled ashore.The catch was left on board.
The net held.The net broke.
Six men brought in the catch.Two shiploads of men did it.
The number of fishes is given.The fishes were not counted.
Christ was 100 yards distant.Christ was on board with them.

To meld these two miracles requires the contradiction of both Gospels; and it would be just as correct to make the signing of the Magna Carta and that of the Declaration of Independence the same event.

Simon Peter went up … He "went aboard" (English Revised Version margin), meaning that he went up into the boat and unfastened the net prior to beaching the catch of fishes. Again, Peter took the lead in matters requiring action.

A hundred and fifty and three … Commentators have had a field day with this number, some pointing out that it is a number formed by adding all the cardinal numbers consecutively from one through seventeen, thus making it a perfect number. It seems to this writer that there is no more significance to the number of fishes than there was to the six water-pots at Cana or the 200 cubits that Peter swam to meet the Lord. The big point of all such details lies in their being the kind of specific details that only an eye-witness could have or would have given. There are many examples of such details in John.

Verse 12

Jesus saith unto them, Come and break your fast. And none of the disciples durst inquire of him, Who art thou? knowing it was the Lord.

The catch having been secured, Jesus invited them to breakfast. The impact of that meal must have been dramatic and profound. It recalled so much that had happened. It was suggestive of that miracle recorded by Luke; that charcoal fire must have reminded Peter of that charcoal fire where he warmed himself the night he denied Jesus; their all eating from one fish and a bread-cake could not have failed to remind them of the 5,000 who ate of five small barley loaves and two little fishes out of a lad’s basket. Yes, it was a moment of rich meaning for the disciples, and they discreetly observed a befitting silence in his holy presence.

Verse 13

Jesus cometh and taketh the bread, and giveth them, and the fish likewise.

See under John 20:9 where the similarity with John 6:11 is discussed. There was one significant difference here. The Lord was the waiter, as well as the provider, on this occasion, whereas the apostles were the waiters on the other; but, in both cases, he gave to them.

Verse 14

This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after that he was risen from the dead.

The third time … refers to the third appearance to the apostles, as this was the seventh in the sequence of the ten epiphanies:


To Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18).

To the women (Matthew 28:9,10).

To Cleopas and his companion (Luke 24:13-35).

To Simon Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:15).

To the apostles, Thomas absent (John 20:19-23).

To the apostles, Thomas present (John 20:24-29).

To the apostles at the sea of Tiberius (John 21:1-14).

To above five hundred in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20; 1 Corinthians 15:6).

To James the Lord’s brother (1 Corinthians 15:7).

To the apostles on Olivet (Acts 1:4-11; Luke 24:50,51).

Verse 15

So when they had broken their fast, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.

Simon son of John … This is the same as Matthew’s "Simon Bar-Jonah" (Matthew 16:16,17ff) and had tremendous significance in Peter’s memory, recalling the great Petrine confession which Christ made the dogmatic foundation of Christianity. The very use of "Simon Bar-Jonah" by Jesus here must have flooded Peter’s heart with emotion.

Lovest thou me more than these …? More than what? More than the big catch of fishes? More than the fishing business? More than the other apostles, of whom he had boasted that his love was greater? The words of Jesus are not specific here, and why should men feel the compulsion to be otherwise? Perhaps all of the above meanings, in one degree or another, are implicit in the Master’s words here to his servant who denied him.

Thou knowest that I love thee … The Greek words for "love" here are diverse (English Revised Version margin); and after reading a number of implications alleged from this premise, the most appealing is this, "There seems to be no difference of meaning between the two Greek words used for LOVE in John 20:15-17." Alan Richardson, op. cit., p. 218. Perhaps the English Revised Version (1885) translators held the same view, for they made no distinction in the words as rendered into English. The big point of the whole episode would appear to be the threefold affirmation of Peter’s love, contrasting with his triple denial.

Feed my lambs … is a charge to teach Christ’s disciples. The variation "feed my sheep" means the same thing, the only possible distinction being in the emphasis upon youth in the first charge.

Verse 16

He saith to him again a second time, Simon son of John, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Tend my sheep.

See under preceding verse.

Tend my sheep … There is one charge here, that of taking care of, teaching, and nurturing the spiritual body of Christ.

Verse 17

He saith unto him the third time, Simon son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

Grievous as this was for Peter, it wiped out all guilt of his denials; and the Saviour’s total forgiveness is implicit in the threefold charge to care for the church Jesus came to establish. The external situation associated with this triple confession of love inevitably called to mind the denials. There were three of each; the charcoal fire was at both events; the day was breaking on both occasions; and there had to have been another cockcrow, although the latter is not mentioned.

The Gospel is infinitely richer for this triple confession of Peter’s love of Jesus. It explains why Peter was at his usual place in the lead on Pentecost; and it also makes it impossible to assert (intelligently) that this Gospel was written to downgrade Peter, as some have affirmed. The image of Peter that emerges in John is even higher than that in the synoptics.

Verse 18

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkest whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. Now this he spake signifying by what manner of death he should glorify God. And when he had thus spoken, he saith unto him, Follow me.

There seems to be more than a hint here that Peter’s younger life had been uninhibited. He was a very active man who seems to have done just about as he pleased. Such undisciplined behavior, if that is what was implied, was at an end for Peter. His future responsibilities would require his constant attendance upon spiritual things. Also, there was a prophecy here, already fulfilled when John wrote, of the type of death by which he would glorify God.

To stretch out the hands … was often used by Greek writers and the early Christians to indicate crucifixion. Ibid. In view of John’s here referring these words to Peter’s death, there can be no doubt of their being a prophecy of his crucifixion.

Follow me … Jesus evidently meant this in a spiritual sense; but Peter, great literalist that he was, immediately walked after Jesus as the Lord departed, John following.

Concerning Peter’s death, tradition places it at Rome in the reign of Nero, with the detail that he was crucified head downward after his protest that he was unworthy to be crucified in an upright position like Jesus. As Lanctantius wrote of Nero:

He it was who first persecuted the servants of God. He crucified Peter and slew Paul. St. Peter, as a Jew, could thus be dealt with; St. Paul, as a Roman citizen, was beheaded. Nor did he (Nero) escape with impunity; for God looked on the affliction of his people; and therefore the tyrant, bereaved of his authority, and precipitated from the height of empire, suddenly disappeared, and even the burial place of that noxious wild beast was nowhere to be seen. Lanctantius, The Manner in which the Persecutors Died (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, p. 302.

Verse 20

Peter, turning about seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; who also leaned back on his breast at the supper, and said, Lord, who is it that betrayeth thee?

This verse identifies "the disciple whom Jesus loved" as the apostle John. The circumstance here is that of the Lord walking away, Peter following Jesus, and John following Peter.

Verse 21

Peter therefore seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?

Peter’s natural curiosity led to this question. The Lord had spoken of his becoming old, and of others girding him and stretching out his hands; and it is likely that Peter understood the dark implications of the Master’s words. How naturally, therefore, that he should have wondered if a similar fate awaited John. However, the Lord never responded to questions of mere curiosity.

Verse 22

Jesus saith unto him. If I will that he tarry until I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.

Jesus’ reply seemed to some brethren to be an implication that John would survive until the second coming of the Lord.

Follow me … In this repetition of the command, Peter probably understood that the Lord meant the imperative spiritually.

Verse 23

This saying therefore went forth among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, that he should not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?

Thus, John laid to rest the tradition that had developed to the effect that the Lord would return in John’s lifetime (the propositions being equivalent). At the time he wrote John, the apostle was very old; and it was apparent to him and others that the days of his pilgrimage were drawing to a close; and, in view of the probable event of his death, he did not wish unbelievers to have an excuse for saying that the prophecy of the Lord had failed. He therefore made it clear that no such prophecy had ever been uttered.

Verse 24

This is the disciple that beareth witness of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his witness is true.

This is everything short of an absolute identification of the apostle John as the author of this Gospel. This attestation, here at the end of it, is thought to have been inscribed by the elders of the church in Ephesus; and their unqualified affirmation that the disciple who witnessed the things reported in this Gospel is one and the same man who wrote them down destroys the allegation that some person other than an eye-witness wrote them. The eye-witness and the author are here declared to be the same person; and, by a process of elimination, there is no other person in the first century who could have qualified as an eye-witness who heard the whispers at the last supper, counted the water-pots at Cana, hauled ashore the 153 fish from the sea of Tiberius, and heard the words of Jesus to Mary and to himself from the cross.

Hendriksen’s comment on this verse is significant. He said:

"This is the disciple, etc. …" "This" cannot refer to Jesus, for he was no disciple. It must. indicate either Peter or John. But Peter was no longer bearing witness, being dead when this was written … Neither is it possible to introduce another person here, for "this" clearly means someone just mentioned. Only John is left. That person must therefore be John. Accordingly, the passage must mean: "This disciple, John, who is still bearing witness (the present participle is used) and he is the one who has written (aorist participle) these things." William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 493.

The persons who appended this corroborative testimony did not identify themselves; but the most learned opinions of a thousand years have invariably ascribed them to the elders at Ephesus. As Westcott said, "The words were probably added by the Ephesian elders, to whom the preceding narrative had been given both orally and in writing." B. F. Westcott, op. cit., p. 306. Their testimony affixed at the close of this Gospel is not diminished by the absence of their names; for, whatever their names, they were the ones who certified the Gospel as absolute truth and circulated it among the churches of the first century.

Verse 25

And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that should be written.

I suppose … identifies this verse as a separate addendum to the Gospel, probably penned by John himself prior to its being sent to the churches. This statement, with the last two verses of John 20, are a categorical refutation of all critical positions founded on the failure of one Gospel or another to record what was related or omitted by another.

We have found many disagreements with scholars like Alan Richardson; but, despite this, his final words regarding this Gospel are magnificent. He said:

When in faith we have received John’s testimony, and have learned from him that JESUS IS THE CHRIST THE SON OF GOD, we shall, from the depth of our inmost conviction, add our testimony to what he has written, and say, WE KNOW THAT HIS WITNESS IS TRUE. Alan Richardson, op. cit., p. 220.

What a marvelous testimony of Jesus Christ is the Gospel of John! Standing near the close of the first century of this era, and after a long and vigorous life of preaching and teaching God’s word, the last eye-witness of the ministry of the Lord selected from the incredibly rich storehouse of his blessed memories of Jesus precisely those seven greatest signs of his power and Godhead that he could recall, the same being the great signs he had been preaching for a lifetime; and these he gathered into one final testimony of the divine Christ, launching his Gospel from the platform of a great congregation which attached the corroborative imprimatur of its presbytery. He leveled his witness squarely against the incipient Gnostic heresies beginning, even then, to show themselves in Asia Minor. He designed it so as to refute the false rumors of Peter’s unworthiness, due to his denials, and the equally false rumor that the Lord had promised to return within his lifetime. The person of Jesus Christ as both God and perfect man was the theme throughout. There can be no marvel that Satan is very displeased with the Gospel of John; but, despite all satanic opposition to its teachings, the saints of all ages have received it as it is indeed the truth of God, ever rejoicing in its divine revelation of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on John 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/john-21.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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