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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

John 21

Introduction

XXI.

[7. The Epilogue to the Gospel. The Link between the Past and the Future (John 21:0).

(1)

THE DRAUGHT OF FISHES (John 21:1-43.21.8).

(2)

THE BREAKFAST. THE THIRD MANIFESTATION OF JESUS TO THE DISCIPLES (John 21:9-43.21.14).

(3)

THE TEST AND THE COMMISSION. ST. PETER AND ST. JOHN (John 21:15-43.21.23).

(4)

THE CLOSE OF THE GOSPEL. CORROBORATIVE WITNESS TO ITS TRUTH:

(a)

By fellow disciples (John 21:24);

(b)

By an amanuensis (John 21:25).]

Verse 1

(1) The impression that St. John would not die belongs to the period when the Second Advent was looked for as within the limits of lifetime. This period ceased with the first generation of Christians, and the mistake would therefore point to the close of the first century as a limit beyond which’ the date of the Gospel cannot be placed.

Verse 1

(1) The impression that St. John would not die belongs to the period when the Second Advent was looked for as within the limits of lifetime. This period ceased with the first generation of Christians, and the mistake would therefore point to the close of the first century as a limit beyond which’ the date of the Gospel cannot be placed.

Verse 2

(2) The mistake having been made, the obvious correction after St. John’s death would have been simply to record that event. The correction of the text would place these words within his lifetime.

Verse 2

(2) The mistake having been made, the obvious correction after St. John’s death would have been simply to record that event. The correction of the text would place these words within his lifetime.

Verse 3

(3) Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing.—The words are the vivid representation by an ear-witness of what actually took place as they re turned to their ordinary work during the interval between the Passover and Pentecost. It does not express either an abandonment of their higher vocation, or an expectation of the presence of the Lord. The picturesque colouring of the whole scene is quite in St. John’s style, as is also the simple co-ordinate arrangement of sentences without connecting particles.

And that night they caught nothing.—Comp. for the fact Luke 5:5; but the words are different. The word here rendered “caught” occurs nowhere in the other Gospels, but is found again in this chapter (John 21:10), and six times in the earlier chapters of the Gospel (John 7:30; John 7:32; John 7:44; John 8:20; John 10:39; John 11:57). It occurs also in Revelation 19:20.

Verse 4

(4) Jesus stood on the shore.—Comp. John 20:19; John 20:26. The words express the sudden appearance without any indication of His coming. He was then standing in the midst, or on the shore, but no one knew whence or how.

The disciples knew not that it was Jesus.—Comp. John 20:14.

Verse 5

(5) Children, have ye any meat?—The word rendered “Children” (or, as the margin has it, Sirs), is used in addressing others only by St. John among the New Testament writers (1 John 2:13; 1 John 2:18). It is not the word used in John 13:33, where we have an expression denoting His affectionate tenderness for the disciples, which would not have been appropriate here, for He does not at once reveal His identity to them. It is a word which, indeed, may express His love for them (comp. John 4:49), but which appears also to have been used as an address to workmen or inferiors, not unlike our own words “boys” or “lads.” They seem to take it in this sense, as though some traveller passing by asked the question because he wished to purchase some of their fish.

The word rendered “meat” occurs here only in the New Testament. It means anything eaten with bread, and was used as equivalent to the fish which was the ordinary relish. (Comp. Note on John 6:9.)

Verse 6

(6) Cast the net on the right side of the ship.—Comp. Note on Luke 5:6. Here the special direction is to cast the net on the right side. We must suppose that the net was cast on the left side, and that they think the speaker who stands on the shore sees some indication of fishes on the other side, for He is still as a stranger to them, and yet they at once obey Him.

They were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.—That is, they were not able to draw it up into the boat. In John 21:8 they are described as dragging it to the shore.

Verse 7

(7) Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter.—Comp. Introduction, p 375. The traits of character which have before met us are exactly preserved here. John, true to the life of contemplation, is first to trace in the present draught of fishes an analogy with the earlier one, and to discern that the Master who spoke then is present now. Peter, true to the life of action, is first to rush into that Master’s presence when he is told that it is the Lord.

He girt his fisher’s coat unto him (for he was naked).—That is, as the words in the original clearly imply, he put on, and girded round his body the garment which workmen customarily used. This seems to have been a kind of linen frock worn over the shirt, and the Talmud has adopted the Greek word here used to express it. The word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, and the rendering “fisher’s coat” probably gives a correct idea of what is meant.

The common usage of the Greek and Hebrew words answering to the English word “naked,” makes it probable that St. Peter was wearing some under-garment, and that reverence for the Lord, into whose presence he is about to go, led him to add to this the outer frock. (Comp. Acts 19:12.)

Verse 8

(8) And the other disciples came in a little ship.—Better. . . . in the boat. The two words “ship” and “boat” (πλοῖον and πλοιάριον) are interchanged here, as in John 6:17 et seq.

For they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits.—That is, about 100 English yards. The shortness of the distance explains how they were able to drag the net in tow. The Greek preposition used with “cubits” (literally, “two hundred cubits off”) is used of distance only by St. John (John 11:18 and Revelation 14:20).

Dragging the net with fishes.—Comp. Note on John 21:6. The Greek is more exactly,. . . . with the (literally, of the) fishesi.e., those with which the net had been filled (John 21:6).

Verse 9

(9) They saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.—In the original the tenses are present, describing the scene as it was impressed on the mind of the writer. They saw a fire of coals and fish lying thereon, and bread, or, perhaps,. . . . and a fish lying thereon, and a loaf.

For “fire of coals” comp. Note on John 18:18.

For the word rendered “fish,” comp. John 21:10; John 21:13, and Notes on John 6:9; John 6:11. In this passage and in John 21:13 only it occurs in the singular, but it seems clear that it may be collective, as our word “fish.”

Verse 10

(10) Bring of the fish which ye have now caught.—Comp. Note on last verse. It is implied that they did so, and thus furnished part of the meal of which they are about to partake.

Verse 11

(11) Simon Peter went up.—The better reading inserts “therefore”: Simon Peter therefore went up—i.e., because of Christ’s command. He went up into the ship now lying on the shore with one end of the net fastened to it, and drew the remainder of the net to the shore.

Full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three.—The greatness and the number are dwelt upon because in any ordinary haul of fish a large proportion would be small and valueless, and be cast into the lake again (Comp. Matthew 13:47 et seq.). These were all “great,” and their size and number led to an exact account being taken of them. This would be talked of among the Apostles and their friends and fellow-craftsmen, and is, with the picturesque exactness which is characteristic of St. John, recorded here.

We have no clue to any mystical interpretation of this number, and it is probably not intended to convey one. The various meanings which men have read into it, such as that it represents one of every kind of fish known to the natural history of the day; or that one hundred represents the Gentile nations, fifty the Jews, and three the Trinity; or that there is a reference to the 153, 600 proselytes of 2 Chronicles 2:17; or that it expresses symbolically the name of Simon Peter, take their place among the eccentricities of exegesis from which even the latest results of criticism are not free. Still, as all the more spiritual interpreters, from St. Augustine downwards, have seen, the differences between this and the earlier miracle (Luke 5:1-42.5.11) are too striking to be unintentional. That represents the visible Church, containing good and bad; the net is cast without special direction as to side; the net was broken and many escaped. This represents God’s elect, foreknown by Him; all are good; the net is brought to shore, and none are lost. (See Notes on the parable of the Draw-net in Matthew 13:47-40.13.50, and comp. especially Trench, Notes on Miracles, §§ 3 and 33.)

Yet was not the net broken.—Comp. Note on Luke 5:6. This is again one of the details which point to an eye-witness as the writer.

Verse 12

(12) Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine.—Comp. Note on John 21:15 and Luke 11:37, which are the only other instances of the verb in the New Testament. The meal referred to was the early morning meal which we call breakfast (John 21:4).

And none of the disciples durst ask him . . .—Comp. John 4:27. They approach Him in reverent silence. Knowing it is the Lord, they yet desire the assurance in His own words, and still they do not dare to ask, “Who art thou?” The Greek word rendered “ask” means to “prove” “inquire.” It is found elsewhere in the New Testament in Matthew 2:8; Matthew 10:11 only. The word rendered “durst,” is also not found again in St. John, but its use in the Gospels is—except in the instance of Nicodemus, “who went in boldly unto Pilate” (Mark 15:43)—confined to the expression of the reverence which dared not question our Lord. (Comp. Matthew 22:46; Mark 12:34; Luke 20:40.) In all these instances it is used with a negative, and with a verb of inquiry, as here.

Verse 13

(13) Jesus then comethi.e., from the place where they had seen Him to the “fire of coals.”

And taketh bread, and giveth them.—Better, . . . the breadi.e., the bread of John 21:9. Again (comp. John 20:22) we are reminded of the words used at the Last Supper. (Comp. Note on Luke 24:30.)

And fish likewise.—Better, and the fish likewisei.e., the fishes of John 21:9-43.21.10.

Verse 14

(14) This is now the third time that Jesus shewed himself to his disciples.—Better, . . . that Jesus was manifested . . .—Comp. Note on John 21:1. The writer is giving his own witness. He passes over, therefore, the appearances to Mary Magdalene and others, and counting only those “to the disciples”—to the Ten on the first Easter day, and to the Eleven on its octave—gives this appearance as the third. (Comp. Note on 1 Corinthians 15:5-46.15.7.)

Verse 15

(15) Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas.—The better text here and in John 21:16-43.21.17, is, Simon, son of John. The contrast of the name by which the Evangelist denotes, and with that by which the Lord addresses Peter, at once strikes us as significant, and the more so because it comes in a context containing several significant verbal contrasts. Our Lord’s words would seem to address him as one who had fallen from the steadfastness of the Rock-man, and had been true rather to his natural than to his apostolic name. (Comp. Note on John 1:42, and Matthew 16:17.)

Lovest thou me more than these?i.e., than these disciples who are present here with thee. It seems unnecessary to add this explanation, but not a few English notes on this verse explain the word “these” of the fishes, or of the boats and nets, as though the question was, “Lovest thou Me more than thy worldly calling? Art thou willing to give up all for Me?” The obvious reference is to Peter’s own comparison of himself with others in the confidence of love which he thought could never fail. (Comp. Matthew 26:33; Mark 14:29.)

The thrice-asked question has been generally understood to have special force in the restoration of him who had thrice denied his Lord, and now thrice declares his love for Him, and is thrice entrusted with a work for Him; and we feel that this interpretation gives a natural meaning to the emphasis of these verses. It may not be fanciful to trace significance, even in the external circumstances under which the question was asked. By the side of the lake after casting his net into the sea had Peter first been called to be a fisher of men (Matthew 4:19). The lake, the very spot on the shore, the nets, the boat, would bring back to his mind in all their fulness the thoughts of the day which had been the turning-point of his life. By the side of the “fire of coals” (see Note on John 18:18, the only other place where the word occurs) he had denied his Lord. As the eye rests upon the “fire of coals” before him, and he is conscious of the presence of the Lord, who knows all things (John 21:17), burning thoughts of penitence and shame may have come to his mind, and these may have been the true preparation for the words which follow.

Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.—Peter uses a less strong expression for love than that which had been used by our Lord. The question seems to ask, “Dost thou in the full determination of the will, in profound reverence and devotion, love Me?” The answer seems to say, “Thou knowest me; I dare not now declare this fixed determination of the will, but in the fulness of personal affection I dare answer, and Thou knowest that even in my denials it was true, ‘I love Thee.’”

He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.—More exactly, little lambs.

Verse 16

(16) He saith to him again the second time.—The question is repeated in exactly the same form, except that our Lord does not continue the comparison “more than these.” He uses the same word for the higher, more intellectual love, and Peter replies by the same declaration of personal attachment, and the same appeal to his Master’s knowledge of him.

Feed my sheep.—Better, be a shepherd of My sheep. The Vatican and Paris MSS. read “little sheep” here, and in the following verse. (See Note there.)

Verse 17

(17) He saith unto him the third time.—Again the question is asked, but this time the Lord uses Peter’s own word, and His question seems to say, “Dost thou, in personal affection and devotion, really love Me?” The third time, to him who had three times denied! and this time the love which Peter knows has ever filled his soul seems to be doubted. The question cuts to the very quick, and in the agony of the heart smarting beneath the wound, he appeals in more emphatic words than before to the all-seeing eye that could read the very inmost secrets of his life, “Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

Feed my sheep.—The better reading is, probably, little sheep. The difference is of one letter only (πρόβατα and προβατία), and a mistake would therefore be easily made by a copyist. The diminutive word occurs nowhere else in Biblical Greek, and is almost certainly, therefore, part of the original text; but whether it was first written here or in John 21:16, or in both, must with our present knowledge be left undetermined. The order of the Received text is “lambs” (John 21:15), “sheep” (John 21:16), “sheep” (John 21:17). The Peshito Syriac must have read “lambs,” “little sheep,” “sheep”; and this is in part supported by the Vulgate, which has “agnos,” “agnos,” “oves,” and more exactly by the Latin of St. Ambrose, who has “agnos,” “oviculas,” “oves.” This would point to a three-fold gradation answering to the three-fold question, and committing to the Apostle’s care the lambs, the little sheep, the sheep of the flock of Christ. Still, it must be admitted that the more probable reading is lambs, little sheep, little sheep, and that the difference of thought is in the difference of the verbs. “Feed My lambs; be a shepherd to the weak ones of the flock; feed these weak ones.” He who loved Christ is to be like Christ, a good shepherd, giving his life for the sheep who are Christ’s. He who had been loved and forgiven, held up that he might not fall, restored after he had fallen, is to be to others what Christ had been to him—feeding men with spiritual truths as they can bear them, gently guiding and caring for those who are as the weak ones of the flock through ignorance, prejudice, waywardness. The chief work of the chief Apostle, and of every true apostle of Christ, is to win back the erring, helpless, sinful sons of men; and the power which fits them for this work is the burning love which quickens all other gifts and graces, and can appeal to the Great Shepherd Himself, “Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” As a remarkable instance of how the Great Shepherd’s words impressed themselves upon the Apostle’s mind, comp. 1 Peter 2:25.

Verse 18

(18) Verily, verily, I say unto thee.—This phrase is peculiar to St. John. (Comp. Note on John 1:51.) The remainder of the verse contains three pairs of sentences answering to each other:—

“Thou wast young,”. . . . “Thou shalt be old;”
“Thou girdedst thyself,”. . . . “Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee;”
“And walkedst whither thou wouldest,” . . . “And carry thee whither thou wouldest not.”

Thou wast young.—Literally, thou wast younger (than thou art now). Peter must have been at this time (comp. Matthew 8:14) in middle age.

Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee.—Do these words refer to the crucifixion of Peter? Tradition, from Tertullian downwards (Scorp. xv.; De Praescr. xxxv.), states that he was crucified, and, interpreting this prophecy by the event, asserts that they do. Tertullian himself so understood them, for he says, “Then is Peter girded by another when he is bound to the cross.”

But on the other hand, (1) the girding (with chains) would precede, not follow, the crucifixion; (2) it would be more natural to speak of another stretching forth his hands if the nailing them to the cross is intended; (3) the last clause, “carry thee whither thou wouldest not,” could not follow the stretching of the hands on the transverse beam of the cross.
It seems impossible therefore to adopt the traditional reference to crucifixion, and we must take the words, “stretch forth thy hands,” as expressing symbolically the personal surrender previous to being girded by another. To what exact form of death the context does not specify. We have thus in the second pair of sentences, as in the first and third, a complete parallelism, the stretching forth of the hands being a part of the girding by another, and the whole being in contrast to “Thou girdedst thyself.”

Verse 19

(19) This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God.—These words are a comment by the writer, and quite in St. John’s style. (Comp. John 2:21; John 6:6; John 7:39; John 12:33.)

“By what death,” or, more exactly, by what manner of death (comp. John 12:33; John 18:32), indicates generally the martyrdom of Peter as distinct from a natural death, without special reference to the crucifixion. (See Note on last verse.)

For the phrase “glorify God,” comp. John 13:31; John 17:1; and see also Philippians 1:20; 1 Peter 4:16. From its occurrence here in connection with St. Peter, it passed into the common language of the Church for the death of martyrs.

Follow me.—It may be, and the next verse makes it probable, that our Lord withdrew from the circle of the disciples, and by some movement or gesture signified to Peter that he should follow Him; but these words must have had for the Apostle a much fuller meaning. By the side of that lake he had first heard the command “Follow Me” (Matthew 4:19); when sent forth on his apostleship, he had been taught that to follow Christ meant to take up the cross (Matthew 10:38); it was his words which drew from Christ the utterance, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:23); to his question at the Last Supper came the answer, “Whither I go, thou canst not follow Me now; but thou shalt follow Me afterwards” (John 13:36); and now the command has come again with the prophecy of martyrdom, and it must have carried to his mind the thought that he was to follow the Lord in suffering and death itself, and through the dark path which He had trodden was to follow Him to the Father’s home.

Verse 20

(20) Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following.—We must suppose that St. Peter had retired with our Lord, and that St. John seeing this had followed at a distance. He had been the companion and friend of St. Peter (comp. Introduction, p. 371). More than any other—and this is made prominent here—he had entered into close communion with the Lord Himself. He was called the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (comp. John 20:2, and Introduction, p. 375); he had leaned on His breast at supper, and, at a sign from Peter, had asked who was the traitor; he may well think that for him too there was some glimpse into the future, some declaration of what his path should be; or in that mingling of act and thought, of sign and thing signified, which run all through these verses, his following may indicate that he too, though he had never dared to say so, was ready to follow wherever the Master went.

Verse 21

(21) Lord, and what shall this man do?—The motive prompting this question was probably that of loving interest in the future of his friend. It may well be that the two friends, in the sadness of the dark days through which they had passed, had talked together of what their Master’s predictions of the future meant, and had wondered what there was in store for themselves. They knew the world was to hate them as it had hated Him, and they never knew what its hatred for Him was. One of them had learnt that he was to follow his Lord in death as in life, and he now sees the other following them as they draw apart from the group, and would fain know the future of his friend as he knew his own.

Verse 22

(22) If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?—The answer must be taken as reproving the spirit which would inquire into another’s life and work, with the effect of weakening the force of its own. Here, as in all the earlier details of St. Peter’s life, his character is emotional, earnest, loving, but wanting in depth, and not without self-confidence. The words “Follow Me,” the meaning of which he has not missed, may well have led him to thoughts and questions of what that path should be, and the truth may well have sunk into the depth of his heart, there to germinate and burst forth in principle and act. But he is at once taken up with other thoughts. He is told to follow, but is ready to lead. He would know and guide his friend’s life rather than his own. To him, and to all, there comes the truth that the Father is the husbandman, and it is He who trains every branch of the vine. There is a spiritual companionship which strengthens and helps all who join in it; there is a spiritual guidance which is not without danger to the true strength of him that is led, nor yet to that of him who leads.

The word rendered “tarry” is that which we have before had for “abide” (see John 12:34, and comp. Philippians 1:25 and 1 Corinthians 15:6). It is here opposed to “Follow Me” (in the martyrdom), and means to abide in life.

The phrase, “If I will that he tarry till I come,” is one of those the meaning of which cannot be ascertained with certainty, and to which, therefore, every variety of meaning has been given. We have already seen that the Coming of the Lord was thought of in more than one sense. (Comp. especially Notes on Matthew 16:28 and Matthew 24:0; and see also in this Gospel, Note on John 14:3.) The interpretation which has found most support is that which takes the “coming of the Lord” to mean the destruction of Jerusalem, which St. John, and perhaps he only of the Apostles, lived to see. But the context seems to exclude this meaning, for the mistake of John 21:23 would surely have been corrected by a reference to the fact that St. John had survived, and wrote the Gospel after, the “coming of the Lord.” The interpretation which the next verse itself suggests is that our Lord made no statement, but expressed a supposition, “If I will,” “If it even be that I will;” and this both gives the exact meaning of the Greek, and corresponds with the remainder of our Lord’s answer. He is directing St. Peter to think of his own future. and not of his friend’s; and He puts a supposition which, even if it were true, would not make that friend’s life a subject for him then to think of. Had our Lord told him that St. John should remain on earth until His coming, in any sense of the word, then He would have given an answer, which He clearly declined to give.

Follow thou me.—The pronoun “thou” is strongly emphatic. “Thy brother’s life is no matter for thy care. Thy work is for thyself to follow Me.”

Verse 23

(23) Then (better, therefore) went this saying abroad among the brethren.—For the word “brethren” comp. Notes on Matthew 23:8 and Acts 9:30. As a general name for the disciples, it is not elsewhere found in the Gospels, but we have the key to it in our Lord’s own words to Mary Magdalene (John 20:17).

Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If. . . .—The mistake of the brethren arose from their not attending to the force of the conditional particle. They took as a statement what had been said as a supposition, and understood it in the then current belief that the Second Advent would come in their own generation. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 15:51-46.15.52; 1 Thessalonians 4:17.)

The mistake and its correction are both interesting in their bearing upon the date of the Gospel, and they furnish that kind of evidence which is perfectly natural as a growth, but which cannot possibly be made.

Verse 24

(24) This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things.—Comp. John 20:30-43.20.31. As we have there the formal close of what seems to have been the original Gospel, we have here the formal close of the epilogue. The words are, however, too wide to be limited to the epilogue, and clearly refer to all that has preceded. They identify the writer with the disciple just mentioned, i.e., the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the form of the sentence implies that he who wrote these things was still living, and bearing witness to their truth. He is still testifying to the things of which he wrote.

And we know that his testimony is true.—Our first and natural thought is that these are not the words of the writer of the Gospel, but the additional witness of persons knowing him and testifying to his writing. It is usual to explain the “we know” by referring to 1 John 5:18-62.5.20; but the plural of a letter ought not to be quoted to explain the plural in an historic document, and it is probable that the natural thought is the true one. But though the words are an addition, they are a contemporaneous addition present in every important MS. and version, and an undoubted part of the original text. We cannot tell who are the persons whose words we here read—Andrew it may be, or Philip, or some of the seventy disciples who had been witnesses of the work of Christ, or some of the Ephesian Church, as Aristion or John the Presbyter, who felt that the Apostle’s personal character gave the stamp of truth to all he said, and add here the conviction that all these words were true. (Comp. Introduction, p. 377.)

Verse 25

(25) And there are also many other things which Jesus did. . . .—The MSS. evidence for this verse is also so conclusive that almost every competent editor inserts it in his text, but it is not found in the famous Sinaitic Codex. The transference from the plural to the singular—“We know” (John 21:24), “I suppose” (in this verse)—has led to the supposition, which is in every way probable, that it is the individual testimony of an amanuensis who, from personal knowledge of the life of Christ, or from knowledge derived from the Apostle John or from others, feels that full beyond all human thought as this Gospel is, it is but a part of the greater fulness. No book could record, no words could tell, what that life was, or what things Jesus did. The disciples saw and believed, and wrote these things that we may believe, and in believing may have life in His name.

The word “Amen” is not found in the better MSS., and in no part of the written text. It is the natural prayer of some copyist, as it is the natural prayer of every devout reader that the writer’s purpose may be fulfilled.
The chief MSS. have a subscription appended to the Gospel. “According to John” (Vatican); “Gospel according to John” (Sinaitic [?], Alexandrine, Paris, Basle); “Gospel according to John is ended;” “Gospel according to Luke begins” (Cambridge).

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on John 21". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/john-21.html. 1905.