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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

John 21

Verses 1-25


1-25. Appendix. The Gospel is brought to a definite close, its contents are reviewed, and its purpose stated in John 20:30, John 20:31. The present chapter is therefore probably an appendix added at a later time, but (since all MSS and versions contain it) before the Gospel had been extensively copied, or had passed into general circulation. There is good reason for supposing that it is by the same author as the Gospel. For (1) the style is identical. For example, there is a fondness for the same connecting particles, and for sentences beginning abruptly without any conjunction at all. The favourite Johannine words are used, such as ’manifest,’ ’glorify,’ ’witness,’ ’love,’ ’disciples’ (in the sense of ’apostles’). Everywhere too is displayed that peculiar and inimitable simplicity which characterises the Johannine writings generally. (2) There are also important correspondences with the narrative of the Fourth Gospel. The Sea of Tiberias and Cana of Galilee are mentioned only in that Gospel and in this appendix. Didymus and Nathanael, as actual characters and under these names, appear only in St. John. Common to this Gospel and this appendix, and to them only, is the mention of ’the disciple whom Jesus loved,’ and of his leaning upon the Master’s breast at supper, and the insistence upon the truth of his testimony: cp. John 19:35. Characteristic also is the peculiar expression ’signifying by what manner of death he should glorify God’: cp. John 12:33; John 18:32. The only really doubtful vv. are the last two (John 21:24-25), which may possibly have been added by the Ephesian elders, who first put the Gospel in circulation after the death of the Apostle, and who wished to testify to its genuineness and trustworthiness. The main object of the appendix is to correct a popular belief that the beloved disciple would not die before our Lord’s Second Advent (John 21:23).

1-14. Manifestation of the risen Lord to seven disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. The Fourth Gospel confirms the synoptic tradition that there were appearances in Galilee as well as in Judæa. The date of this appearance cannot be fixed.

1. Shewed (RV ’manifested’) himself] see on John 2:11.

2. Of Cana] A later writer would not have been likely to possess this additional information. The sons of Zebedee] i.e. James (called ’the Great’), and St. John the Evangelist. Two others] The ’Gospel of Peter’ seems to identify them with Andrew and Levi (Matthew).

3. I go a fishing] The period of waiting had doubtless tried the Apostles severely, and it was more as a distraction, than as a means of livelihood that St. Peter returned to his nets. That night] At night it is easy to catch fish, because then they cannot see the nets. In daylight it is much more difficult. The successful draught (John 21:6) was made in daylight, and is therefore probably to be regarded as miraculous.

4. Knew not] A certain change had passed over our Lord’s body: see on John 20:15.

5. Children] cp. John 13:33. From our Lord, St. John learnt to call his own converts by this affectionate title: see on John 13:33; The exact word is in 1 John 2:13, 1 John 2:18, a similar one in John 13:33, 1 John 2:1, 1 John 2:12, 1 John 2:28; 1 John 3:7, 1 John 3:18; 1 John 4:4; 1 John 5:21.

7. That disciple] As at the visit to the tomb, so here, the beloved disciple is the first to draw the true inference. This undesigned coincidence speaks for genuineness.

8. As it were two hundred cubits] i.e. 300 ft.

9. Coals] i.e. charcoal. Fish] or a fish.

Bread] or a loaf How Jesus prepared this meal is a mystery, but why He did so is plain. He wished, after the Resurrection, as well as before it, to set Himself forth as the bread of life, or the spiritual food of mankind, and He did so, as in John 6, by a symbolical act. There is probably a reference to the Holy Communion, as was perceived already in the 2nd cent. The recently discovered inscription on the tomb of Abercius, bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 a.d.), contains the words, ’Everywhere faith led the way, and set before me for food the fish from the fountain, mighty and stainless, which a pure virgin grasped, and gave this to friends to eat always, having good wine, and giving the mixed cup with bread.’ Here the fish is Christ, the fountain baptism, the pure virgin the Church (see Lightfoot, ’Apost. Fathers,’ pt. 2, vol. 1, p. 480). In the catacombs at Rome also, in the cemetery of St. Lucina, is a fresco representing a fish (i.e. Christ) bearing upon its back a basket full of sacramental bread.

Yet was not the net broken] The earlier draught of fishes with the breaking net symbolised the Church on earth, imperfect in its organisation and methods, and allowing many souls to escape from its meshes. This draught, in which the net is unbroken and every fish is brought safe to shore, symbolises the Church triumphant in heaven, freed at last from all earthly imperfections, and embracing in its membership all genuine servants of God whose salvation is now for ever assured.

14. The third time] i.e. the third appearance to any considerable number of Apostles collectively. The appearances, private or semi-private, to Mary Magdalene, the women, the two disciples, Peter, and James, are not reckoned. The appearances on the mountain in Galilee, and to the five hundred, had apparently not yet taken place.

This being a ’spiritual’ Gospel, the allegorical interpretation of this incident is to be firmly maintained. So interpreted, it constitutes a renewed call by the risen Lord to the Apostles to become ’fishers of men,’ and a renewed promise to be with them in their work. The details also, the unbroken net, the fish and the bread, probably even the number of the fishes, are to be mystically interpreted, but the meaning of the last is uncertain. The other chief Johannine book, the Apocalypse, abounds in the mysticism of numbers.

15-17. Restoration of St. Peter to his apostolic office. By his threefold denial Peter had forfeited his position among the apostles. Hence, before restoring him, Jesus required from him a threefold confession of love. Quite baseless is the papal interpretation that St. Peter is here endowed with supreme ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the other apostles. All that is done is to restore him to his old position.

15. Simon, son of Jonas] RV ’son of John’: see John 1:42. Observe that in this, as in the other Gospels, our Lord does not call him Peter. Luke 22:34 is the only exception. Lovest thou me (agapâs) more than these?] i.e. more than these thy brethren love Me? Once (Matthew 26:33; John 13:37) Peter had boasted of a love and constancy greater than that of others. Now he is more humble. In his reply he will not say that he loves Jesus ’more than these.’ He will not even say that he loves Jesus at all in the full sense of Christian love (agapân, agapç). All he will say is that he loves Jesus with the warmth of personal affection (phileîn, philiâ). Twice Jesus asks him, ’Lovest thou Me?’ (agapân). The third time He adopts Peter’s own word, phileîn. Feed my lambs] lit. ’give food to them,’ i.e. by the ministry of the Word and Sacraments. The ’lambs’ here are probably neither Christian children nor recent converts, but, like the ’sheep’ in John 21:16-17, Christians in general, the name being one of affection: cp. 1 Peter 5:2, 1 Peter 5:3.

16. Feed (RV ’tend’) my sheep] Here the Gk. word indicates authority, so that the meaning is, Exercise discipline and authority over the flock: so Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2; Revelation 2:27; Revelation 7:17, and often in OT.

17. Thou knowest] or, rather, ’perceivest’ (RM).

18-20. Prophecy of Peter’s Martyrdom.

18. Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands (upon the arms of the cross), and another (i.e. the executioner) shall gird thee (viz. with the loin-cloth, the only garment allowed to criminals at their execution) and carry thee whither thou wouldest not (viz. to execution). St. John here assumes the manner of St. Peter’s death to be known to his readers. According to the probably true tradition, St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred at Rome about 68 a.d., the former being crucified, the latter beheaded.

19. Follow me] i.e. by dying the death of crucifixion. ’Follow’ here is metaphorical.

20-23. The misunderstood saying about the beloved disciple.

20. Following] viz. in a literal sense. Our Lord, during His conversation with Peter, had walked to a little distance from the others. Peter, happening to turn round, sees John following: 21. What shall this man do?] i.e. Shall he also die a glorious martyr’s death? Seeing that our Lord rebukes the question, there was probably in it some latent jealousy, or, at least, presumption.

22. Tarry] i.e. remain alive. Till I come] The reference is not to the destruction of Jerusalem, but to the Last Judgment: cp. John 14:3.

23. Should not die] In spite of this appendix, the opinion still persisted. One story was that he was translated like Elijah, another that he still breathed in his grave, a fable which even St. Augustine was inclined to believe.

24, 25. Conclusion. John 21:24 is full of St. John’s own phrases and mannerisms, and, therefore, in spite of the plural ’we know,’ is probably by the Apostle himself. Nor is there any absolutely cogent reason for rejecting John 21:25, which is absent from only one ancient MS.

We know] The apostle associates himself with the members of the Ephesian Church, who knew him well, and were convinced of his truthfulness. Some, however, think that the ’we’ are the Ephesian elders, who published the Gospel, and thus declared it authentic.

25. The author apologises for the incompleteness and fragmentary character of his work.

Additional Note. John at Ephesus

According to the generally received tradition, which dates from at least the former half of the second century, the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee, after the martyrdom of St. Paul, 67 a.d., or more probably after the fall of Jerusalem, 70 a.d., migrated from Jerusalem to Ephesus, and there ruled the Churches of Asia Minor for more than a quarter of a century, and finally died a natural death in the reign of Trajan (about 100 a.d.), having first composed and published the Fourth Gospel, and the First Epistle of John, perhaps also the Second and Third Epistles and the Revelation. As the trustworthiness of this tradition has lately been challenged, it will be convenient to place before the reader a summary of the early evidence.

St. Justin Martyr (150 a.d.) attributes the Revelation to the Apostle John, and since that book is in the form of a pastoral letter to ’the seven churches which are in Asia’ (John 1:4), Justin must have believed in the Asiatic sojourn of the Apostle.

St. Irenæus, who wrote in Gaul 177 a.d., but whose youth was spent in Asia, where he had been a hearer of St. Polycarp, a personal disciple of St. John, says:

’Thus all the elders testify, who were conversant in Asia with John the disciple of the Lord. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan’ (98-117 a.d).

’Afterwards John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, himself published a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.’ ’While I was yet a boy, I saw thee (Florinus) in Lower Asia with Polycarp. I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse, and how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord.’

Polycrates (who as bishop of Ephesus had special opportunities for knowing the truth) in a letter written to Victor, bishop of Rome, about 193 a.d., speaks of ’John who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate. He fell asleep at Ephesus.’

Tertullian, 200 a.d., and Clement of Alexandria, 200 a.d., give similar evidence.

There are two main difficulties, which are held by some to throw a considerable doubt upon the truth of this tradition. (1) The ninth-century Chronicle of Georgius Hamartolos says, ’Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, declares in the second book of the Oracles of the Lord that John was put to death by the Jews.’ Of course if Papias (130 a.d.) did say this, and if the execution of John took place in Palestine, the Ephesian ministry of the Apostle is excluded. But it is significant that the earlier ecclesiastical writers, most of whom, like Irenæus and Eusebius, were diligent students of Papias, seem to know nothing of this supposed Palestinian martyrdom of John, and, on the contrary, represent him as surviving all the other Apostles, and dying a natural death in extreme old age at Ephesus. Probably Georgius has misinterpreted some obscure statement of Papias, whose style is always slovenly, and often ambiguous. (2) Among the personal disciples of Jesus, according to Papias, were two Johns, John the Apostle and John the Presbyter (or Elder). It is suggested by some that the John who settled at Ephesus and was the instructor of Polycarp, was not the Apostle but the Presbyter. This view does not seem very probable. We are not told that the Presbyter had any connexion with Asia, and it hardly seems credible that Irenæus, who was a hearer of Polycarp, can have so completely misunderstood his Master’s references to John, as to suppose that he meant the Apostle when he really meant the Presbyter.

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Bibliographical Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on John 21". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". 1909.