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Bible Commentaries
John 21

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Verses 1-2

The Disciples at the Sea of Tiberias

The disciples went to Galilee. The Lord had also told them to go there, for there He would meet them (Matthew 26:32; Matthew 28:7). Yet this is special for this Gospel because the events in this Gospel take place mainly in Judea. This means that they are outside the usual terrain of Judaism. Only later are they instructed not to leave Jerusalem (Acts 1:4). They find themselves near the Sea of Tiberias. There the Lord reveals Himself to them again. John describes the way in which He does this.

Seven disciples have gathered together. The names of three of them are mentioned. Peter is mentioned first, as always. Thomas is also among them this time. Again, his nickname “Didymus” is mentioned (John 11:16; John 20:24). Furthermore, Nathanael is also present. He is from Cana in Galilee, which reminds us of the first sign of the Lord (John 2:1). John and James are the sons of Zebedee. That they are here referred to by this name reminds us of their natural origin. Even though the Lord is risen, that does not change their natural relations. Finally, John mentions the presence of “two others of His disciples,” whose names are not mentioned.

They are all His disciples before His suffering and death and remain so after His resurrection. The men mentioned by name are especially connected with Israel. Peter, John and James are the pillars of support for those who are “of the circumcision,” that is, the believers from among the Jews (Galatians 2:9). Thomas is a picture of the believing remnant of Israel. Nathanael comes from the area of Israel that borders closely on the nations (Matthew 4:15).

This brings us to the goal of the following history. The fishing by the disciples is a picture of what the Lord Jesus will do in the future through His people. He will bring a great multitude out of the nations to faith in Him during the great tribulation (Revelation 7:9), of which the fish these men catch from the sea is a picture.

Verses 3-6

Appearance to the Disciples

The reason for the fishing is a remark by Peter that he is going fishing again. It seems that, now that the Lord is no longer visibly with them, following Him has also become more difficult. There is a lack of clear direction. They are no longer full of the Lord Jesus, and then certain activities they previously abandoned for Him have a chance to creep back in. For us, too, there is a great danger that by becoming impatient in waiting on the Lord, we will again start doing things that we had previously left behind for His sake.

Peter cannot muster the patience to keep waiting for a command from his Master and wants to return to everyday life. He says he is going fishing and returns to the profession he had before he was called by the Lord Jesus. His example is contagious and the others follow him. By his example, Peter takes others down a wrong path. The fact that the Lord turns it all around for the better does not diminish the wrong decision of Peter. The others are likewise responsible for their own decision to follow Peter.

They leave the house and get into the boat, which one of them apparently still had at his disposal. They fish all night, but without any result. Not a single fish is caught. A work is often left without results when something is done for which the Lord has not given orders. When they return to land early in the morning, He is waiting for them on the beach. They do not know, however, that it is the Lord.

He knows what they have been doing. Again He takes the initiative and asks if they have anything to eat. He addresses them with the friendly word “children” which also expresses His closeness to them. This does not mean that He addresses them as ‘His’ children. Nowhere are believers called ‘children’ of the Lord Jesus. Believers are children of God. The Lord addresses them as ‘children in faith’. They still need much teaching to grow in their faith.

Lack of food is always the result of taking initiatives without waiting for His guidance. Therefore, when He asks them if they have anything to eat, their answer must also be “no”. With that, they admit that they have been fishing fruitlessly all night. Then He advises them to cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat. He gives them also the assurance that they will then find what they are looking for. He assures them that this time they will not be without a catch.

Without recognizing that it is the Lord, they do as He says. They do not argue with this Stranger, nor do they ask Him Who He is. There will have been a sound in His voice that gave them confidence, possibly just by addressing them as “children”. His voice made them obey. They will have noticed that He is a special Person. The catch is beyond expectation, it is more than they can bring in.

Verses 7-11

The Disciples Recognize the Lord

The great unexpected catch resulting from the Stranger’s advice first opens John’s eyes to the fact that they are dealing with the Lord. He therefore says to Peter, full of wonder: “It is the Lord!” Peter, impulsive as ever, responds immediately. John is quickest in his understanding. Peter is quickest to act on the insight he has been given by the other. Without first taking a closer look at the Lord to convince himself that it is He, he puts his outer garment on and dives into the water to go to Him.

He relies completely on John’s perception. He knows John as someone who has a close relationship with the Lord and if He says it is Him, there is no need to doubt it. It is wonderful when believers tell us things about the Lord Jesus that we can take for granted because we know their dealings with Him. That also, like Peter here, brings us into direct connection with Him.

After Peter, the other disciples come ashore in the little boat. They drag the net with the fish behind them. The distance is given by John. They do not have to drag far before they reach the Lord. When they come ashore, they see a charcoal fire with fish on it. They also see bread.

The charcoal fire will have reminded Peter of his denial at another charcoal fire (John 18:18). Peter denied the Lord at a charcoal fire. Now the Lord will restore Peter at a charcoal fire that He has lit and is standing by, in the midst of His disciples.

The fish lying on the charcoal fire and the bread make it clear that He cares for them and that He Himself provides what He has asked of His disciples. He asked if they had anything to eat and they had to say they had nothing. He asked not because He needed anything, but so that they would express to Him their need. Earlier in this Gospel He tested His disciples in a different way regarding food and even then He Himself knew what He would do (John 6:5-Joshua :).

He asks His disciples to bring the results of their labor to Him. He wants us to always come to Him with the results of our work that we have been allowed to do, but of which He is the origin. Peter responds immediately to the question. He goes up, which means he goes to the ship and climbs in. Then he loosens the net with the fish and pulls the net onto land

The writer John further notes that the net is full of large fish and it is not torn. Everything corresponds to the perfection of the Person He describes in his Gospel. Everything is counted and everything comes ashore. The Lord works the catch and gives power both to man and to the material to complete the work perfectly, without anything being lost. The net did tear in an earlier fishing (Luke 5:5-Joshua :). There the fishing is connected with man’s responsibility. Here the characteristic is that everything is the work of Christ, based on His resurrection and as a picture looking forward to the millennial realm of peace. Thus it does not rest on human responsibility. After His revelation in glory, when He returns to earth, He will gather a multitude from the sea of nations.

Before He reveals Himself and the multitude of fish is caught, He already has fish (John 21:9). In this we can see a picture of a remnant that He has already prepared on earth. We also see this in Revelation 7, cited above, in the first part of that chapter (Revelation 7:1-Ruth :), which is about the sealed ones from Israel.

There has been much speculation about the number hundred and fifty-three. The number will certainly have a meaning, but the amount of speculation that has been made about it makes it clear that the meaning is not obvious.

Verses 12-14

The Lord Feeds His Disciples

The Lord has a meal ready for them and invites them to have breakfast. He is the Host. The disciples are not sure how to view this situation. The question burns on their lips Who He is, while at the same time they know very well. It is all so different from before His death. They experience confidentiality and yet also distance. He is different, yet the Same.

The Lord takes away all hesitation from them by coming to them and opening the meal. He takes the bread and the fish and gives it to them. In doing so, He expresses His connection with them.

John counted the times that the Lord Jesus, after His resurrection, was manifested to His disciples. This is already the third time. The Lord has appeared many times before, but this is the third time to His disciples. The fact that He reveals Himself to them indicates that there has been a major change in His relationship with them compared to the way He dealt with them before His death. Before His death, He did not manifest Himself to them from time to time. They saw Him constantly, for He was with them.

After His death and resurrection He is no longer physically with them, but He manifests Himself to them regularly before disappearing again. The first manifestation to His disciples we have seen in John 20 (John 20:19). There it is a picture of His manifestation to the church. The second manifestation is also to the disciples, but primarily in reference to Thomas (John 20:26-Joel :). This refers to His manifestation to the believing remnant of Israel in the future. His third manifestation, which we have here, points to His manifestation to the nations who will be gathered to enter the realm of peace.

Verses 15-17

The Restoration of Peter

When they have finished breakfast, the Lord begins the complete restoration of Peter’s soul. The personal relationship between Him and Peter has previously been put in order. Therefore, He first appeared to Peter personally. We are not told what He discussed with Him. It is enough for us to know that everything was put in order between Him and the Lord (Mark 16:7; Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5). That there is nothing more standing between Peter and the Lord we have seen in Peter’s spontaneous action of swimming directly to Him when he hears that He is on the shore (John 21:7). There is no longer any diffidence on his part.

Having restored his personal relationship with the Lord, Peter must now be restored openly in the midst of his brethren. As a result, the gracious work of the Lord Jesus will be deepened in Peter’s heart.

The Lord does not reproach him about his denial, but gets to the root cause: Peter’s self-confidence and feeling better than others. After all, Peter boasted that though all would fall away because of Him, at least he would not (Matthew 26:33). To fully expose that self-confidence, so that Peter will recognize it in himself and condemn it, the Lord asks him three questions. These three questions, of course, correspond to the three times Peter denied Him.

Therefore, in His first question about the love that Peter said he had for Him, the Lord Jesus makes the comparison that Peter drew between himself and the other disciples. In his answer, Peter does not speak a word about loving Him more than the other disciples, even though the Lord asked about it. Peter understood the question well. In his answer, he no longer gives high praise of his love for the Lord. He appeals to His omniscience. As for himself, he knows that he has failed in his love for Him, but he also knows that the Lord knows his heart and that He then sees in his heart anyway that he loves Him.

In his answer, Peter uses a weaker word for love than the Lord used in His question. In His question about Peter’s love, the Lord has used for the word love the Greek word agapao by which Divine love is indicated. He asks Peter if he loves Him with that highest love. Peter answers with the Greek word phileo, a word by which a weaker form of love is indicated. This is the word for love that is used among people and has more the meaning of “attachment”, “affection”.

This response by Peter shows the genuineness of his faith which has now been stripped of its bravado. On the basis of this response, the Lord gives Peter the care of His lambs, the most vulnerable of His flock. Is there any greater proof of trust that a friend could place in me than to entrust to me his most precious possession? That is the trust the Lord gives Peter here. We might have chosen Peter last, given his threefold denial. The gracious answer is that Peter is exactly the man He can trust. The reason is the complete breaking of his self-confidence.

The Lord Jesus will soon be going away from His own, back to His Father. Where can He find a trustworthy, true and loving shepherd who can take over His care for these vulnerable ones? He finds that shepherd in Peter. Does He also find that shepherd in us?

Peter’s care for the lambs consists of tending them. Lambs are not to be herded, but tendered. To tender means to give them food that consists of teaching them the truth at the level they can endure. Peter is entrusted with the care of the Jewish lambs and sheep. He will be able to give food to the lambs by presenting to them the Messiah as He was. He does this in the book of Acts and also in His two letters.

In His second question to Peter, the Lord no longer speaks of the comparison with the other disciples. That matter is settled. He does not return to that. In His second question He asks about Peter’s personal love for Him: You do love Me, don’t you? Here again He uses the word agapao, the word for Divine love. Peter does not dare to adopt this word and responds deeply humbled with the weaker phileo, ‘affection’. As the first time, Peter begins his answer with “yes, Lord” and appeals to His omniscience. He truly loves the Lord, though he acknowledges that not much of it is seen on the outside.

The Lord knows this too and appreciates Peter’s answer with a new commission. Peter is now given His sheep to care for, to shepherd, to protect. Mature believers who already know a bit more of the truth do not need food in the first place, although that too is indispensable, but that they be preserved by what they know of the truth. The danger they face is that the enemy will draw them away from what they know.

When the Lord asks about his love for the third time, Peter becomes sad. This sorrow is not because he feels the Lord is over asking him, but because he is now fully aware of who he has been. The Lord has accomplished His purpose with Peter. That He is not asking too much, but rather is in the process of fully restoring Peter, is evident from the fact that in this third question He uses the same word that Peter has always used. Here He takes over Peter’s word and speaks of ‘affection’. He is saying, as it were: ‘Peter, if you dare not say that you love Me, do you dare say that you just feel affection for Me?’

Peter realizes that he has shown so little of it and that he cannot point to evidence of love for the Lord. He again appeals to His omniscience and in a stronger way than the other two times. He now says that He knows everything, which also means that He knows Him through and through. In response to that humble confession, the Lord entrusts him with the full care of His sheep by now also telling him to tend His sheep.

When Peter, after his humiliating fall, is brought to complete dependence on grace, grace shows how rich and abundant it is. What is most precious and valuable to the Lord, the gift of the Father’s love to Him, He entrusts to Peter: the sheep He has just redeemed. That grace, therefore, does not inspire confidence in ourselves, but in God, on Whose grace we can always rely.

Verses 18-23

You Follow Me

The Lord reminds Peter of what he used to be led by. It refers to the time when he was younger, the period actually up to now. Then he girded himself, that is, he acted in his own strength and set to work. That led him to wrong statements and actions and on wrong paths. However, there will come a time when he will stretch out his hands to let them be guided and governed by the power of the Holy Spirit. If he thus gives his life into the hand of the Spirit, he will be brought to a place to which he does not want to go as far as his old nature is concerned. Then he will be led by the Spirit to death, and with his death he will glorify God.

Everything that the Holy Spirit does is for the glorification of God. This was made perfectly evident in the life of the Lord Jesus, and it is also true in the life of every believer who lets himself be led by the Spirit. We can only entrust ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit if we have learned to surrender our own will. Where the Holy Spirit is in charge, the Lord calls us to follow Him. It points out that we must watch the Lord Jesus closely to see which way He is going.

The Lord now tells Peter to follow Him, something that was not possible before (John 13:36-Haggai :). Peter is also given the opportunity to follow Him in a better way than he did before, which led him to deny the Lord. He then followed Him “at a distance” (Luke 22:54). Now he may follow close behind Him.

Yet Peter’s eye is not yet focused continuously on the Lord. He turns around and sees John. Not that John’s name is mentioned, but the description of the person Peter sees makes it clear that it is John. John describes himself in various ways. Here he again calls himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, which speaks of his deep awareness of the love the Lord has for him.

John also knows the place of intimacy, of being close to Him, which we see in leaning back to His bosom, the place of His heart. He has a confidential relationship with the Lord, which allows him to ask Him questions for himself, as well as for others. This is a wonderful description of the special relationship John has with the Lord Jesus. John kept these characteristics until the end of his life.

Peter is curious to know what will happen to John, and he asks what the Lord has in mind for John. The Lord’s answer makes two things clear. First, that He has a relationship of His own with John. He told Peter about the death with which he would glorify God. For John, He has a different future in mind. Second, that Peter has nothing to do with the Lord’s plans for another, but that he himself must follow Him so that He can carry out His plan with him. Likewise now each servant has his own relationship with his Lord that another has nothing to do with.

What the Lord says about John has a deeper, spiritual meaning. It does not mean that John will continue to live until the coming of the Lord. It is not an allusion to the duration of John’s life, but to the duration of his ministry. John did not personally remain until the coming of the Lord, but he did remain in his ministry. He fulfills that ministry by writing the book of Revelation in which he experiences in the spirit the coming of Christ to earth (Revelation 1:19; Revelation 4:1).

What the Lord has said is misunderstood by the brethren and therefore this misunderstanding is passed on. This is because they are not listening properly. It teaches us that it is important to listen carefully first and check that we have understood what we heard correctly before passing on anything.

Verses 24-25

John’s Testimony Confirmed

At the end, John points to himself as the author of this Gospel. He has testified to the glory of the Lord Jesus and that God has given us eternal life. In this testimony he involves all the apostles. “We”, that is the apostles, are all convinced of these things. “We” confirm John’s testimony. John has described a certain side of the Lord Jesus. He has presented Him as the eternal life.

It is not entirely accurate to speak of ‘a certain side’, for to present Him as the eternal life is to present Him in His whole being. The King or Messiah (Gospel according to Matthew), the Servant (Gospel according to Mark) and the Man (Gospel according to Luke) also appear in this Gospel in a special way. We might therefore call this Gospel the “overarching” Gospel.

The Person of Christ, the Son of God, with all His manifestations is such a comprehensive subject, that it can never be written about exhaustively. However, through the four Gospels that are given to us, we can discover more and more of Christ’s various glories. In them is written all that God wants us to know of the things that the Son of God has done.

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op John 21". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/john-21.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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