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John 21

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The Epilogue - Jesus Appears to His Disciples - the Restoration of Peter (John 21:0 ).

The Gospel appears to come to a perfectly satisfactory conclusion in John 20:30-31, which comes immediately after the confession by Thomas of ‘My Lord and my God’ in John 20:28, which can be seen as the real climax to the Gospel. Indeed John 20:30 even seems to be a parallel statement to John 21:25. Thus chapter 21 gives the appearance of being a postscript to the Gospel. On the other hand there is no obvious break in the narrative and there is no easily discernible difference in style, vocabulary, or grammar. Thus different views are taken on the relationship of chapter 21 to the remainder of the Gospel. These may be stated briefly as:

(1) That it was written by the same author as chapters 1-20 at the same time as chapters 1-20 were written (with the possible exception of John 21:24, see discussion below on that verse).

(2) That it was written by the same author as chapters 1-20 but at a later time, even perhaps much later, towards the end of the author's life, (again with the possible exception of John 21:24).

(3) That it was written by someone other than the author of chapters 1-20 and added to chapters 1-20 at some later time.

But the fact is that if chapter 21 was indeed a later addition to the Fourth Gospel by a different author, it must have been added very early on, because no extant Greek manuscript lacks the last chapter, and there is no serious evidence in the manuscript tradition for it being a later addition. This is a very powerful argument against any suggestion of an ‘addition’ which did not take place very shortly after it first began to circulate, for it means that no manuscript has survived without it..

As far as stylistic and linguistic evidence is concerned, nothing absolutely conclusive can be said. Some find similarities which point to identity of authorship, others find indications of divergence of style, and it is in fact clear overall that style and language in themselves are not sufficient grounds for coming to a final decision.

Thus most scholars make the decision for or against identity of authorship, not on the basis of stylistic or linguistic evidence, but on the basis of its content and logical argument flow. But, given the similarities easily observable, while this might be used to argue as to whether the chapter was written immediately as part of the whole or added later as a postscript, the decision as to whether it denotes a different author must be very subjective given the short length and nature of chapter 21.

What can certainly be said is that the writer, if he was not John himself, was very familiar with John’s Gospel and wrote in full sympathy with his style and method. He does for example not mention either John or James except under the title ‘those of Zebedee’ (but see Matthew 26:37) , he speaks of ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, he calls Peter ‘Simon Peter’ and calls him the ‘son of Joanes’, he calls Thomas ‘Didymus’. If it is not John it is someone trying unnecessarily hard to sound like him.

In our view therefore the reasonable position is to see it as a deliberate postscript by John to the main Gospel so that the main Gospel can end with Thomas’ statement, while at the same time being a postscript added before the actual distribution of the Gospel. Its aim is threefold. Firstly to illustrate the total dependence of the disciples on Jesus for fruitfulness, secondly to indicate the full restoration of Peter and to confirm his first call and thirdly to remove the ideas lying behind certain false rumours about John and the second coming. It is, of course, also a testimony to the resurrection and supports the fact of resurrection appearances in Galilee.

Verse 1

‘After these things Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way.’

‘After these things Jesus --.’ This is a typical loose Johannine connection (see especially John 6:1). For reference to ‘The Sea of Tiberias’, see also John 6:1, the only other reference to the Sea under that name in the Gospels. Both these factors support authorship by John.

‘Jesus revealed Himself again’, following the ‘revealing’ described earlier in chapter 20. The verb indicates a sudden, unexpected and temporary revelation. One importance of this narrative is that it confirms that there were Galilean appearances as mentioned in Matthew and the Marcan ending, and that the disciples spent some time there between the resurrection and the ascension.

Verses 1-14

The Disciples Cannot be Fruitful Without the Power of Jesus (John 21:1-14 ).

Verses 2-3

‘There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus (‘the twin’), and Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee and two other of his disciples. Simon Peter says to them, “I am going fishing.” They say to him, “We are also coming with you.” They went out and boarded the boat, and that night they took nothing.’

The disciples clearly saw this as a waiting period as they were wondering what to do after Jesus had first appeared to them. The seven days of Passover and Unleavened Bread having passed they had left Jerusalem and moved up to Galilee as indeed Jesus had commanded (Matthew 28:10). There Peter decided he would spend a night fishing. This may have been because of a need for food, or it may just have been a desire to get into a boat again after some time away, giving them something to do. He may also have felt that he had to get his hand in at fishing once again because he had forfeited his right to be a fisher of men. That he still felt that his future was doubtful, in view of his denials of Jesus, comes out in the fact that Jesus calls him again to “Follow Me” (John 21:19).

‘That night they took nothing.’ This was not unknown to fishermen on the Sea of Galilee (Luke 5:5). John, however, almost certainly sees it as illustrative of what happens when the power of Jesus is absent. In whatever they do they are dependent on Him. The indication is that Peter and the others have no future in fishing for fish. On the other hand by the power of Jesus they will be able to fish for men successfully.

‘Simon Peter’ is a typically Johannine name for Peter. It occurs once in Matthew, once in Luke (both at times of transition) but twelve times in John 1-20. Thomas may be mentioned because he was prominent in chapter 20 and Nathaniel because he was prominent in chapter 1. Reference to ‘those of Zebedee’ can be interpreted in one of two ways, either as a deliberate attempt to avoid mentioning the names of James and John in line with the reticence of the remainder of the Gospel, supporting the case for the Johannine authorship of this chapter, or as an unexpected reference to them indicating difference of authorship. In view of the detail given of Thomas and Nathaniel the first idea is probably to be supported, otherwise we would have expected their names to be mentioned, especially by a disciple of John. ‘Those of Zebedee’ catches the spirit of anonymity while conveying necessary information. The fact that apart from them there were also two ‘other disciples’ (the usual way John had of referring to himself) explains why the vague reference is given.

Verses 4-5

‘But when day was now breaking Jesus stood on the beach. However the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus therefore says to them, “Friends, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No”.

In the gloom and haze of the early morning the disciples saw a man on the beach, but did not know who it was. We need not be surprised that Jesus was unrecognised. Quite apart from the early mist they were not expecting to see Jesus, certainly not as wandering along the shoreline, and we know that His resurrection body, while similar enough to be recognised once He revealed Himself, was dissimilar enough from His body prior to death to have made others unaware of Who He was for a time.

Then the man asked whether they had caught anything and they had to admit wryly that they had been unsuccessful. We are reminded of the similar situation when Peter, Andrew, James and John were first called (Luke 5:1-11).

‘Day was now breaking.’ We are reminded here of Jesus’ words, ‘work the works of him who sent me while it is day, the night comes when no man can work.’ In the betrayal by Judas (John 13:30) and the death of Jesus the night had come. Is this a deliberate indication that a new day is beginning for all? A typical Johannine double meaning.

‘Friends’ - ‘paidia’, literally ‘children’ but a tender term used of young adults, just as the captain of a team might refer to his men as ‘lads’.

Verse 6

‘And he said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat and you will find something.” They cast therefore and now they were not able to draw the net for the abundance of fish.’

When it was suggested that they cast their nets on the right (starboard) side of the boat they did as requested. Possibly they thought the man might have seen something from the shore that they had missed for he spoke with a kind of authority. Or perhaps it was just that they felt that they may as well have a go as there was nothing to lose. But to their astonishment they not only caught some fish, but pulled the nets up overflowing with fish. This immediately struck a chord as they remember the similar incident some time before when Jesus had done a similar thing (Luke 5:1-11). The incident paralleled that at Peter’s first calling and could therefore be seen by him as an indication that Jesus was still ready to act on his behalf and therefore as a renewal of his call to discipleship following his denial (see later).

The overall lesson from the acted out parable is clear. With Jesus absent the disciples are fruitless. Once, however, they have responded to His word fruitfulness abounds. The previous incident in Luke had resulted in their call to follow Christ and had resulted in the forecast that these men would become ‘fishers of men’. Here is the indication that the time has come and the guarantee that with Jesus’ help they will be abundantly successful.

Verse 7

‘That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore says to Peter, “It is the Lord”.

John was one of those who had witnessed the similar event before and the conviction dawned on him that the man on the shore must be the risen Jesus. Note however his description of Jesus as ‘the Lord’. They had begun to think of Jesus in a new light. The reference to ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ is typically Johannine (compare John 13:23; John 19:26; John 20:2). It is to be seen as the awed statement of a man overwhelmed by the act that Jesus loved him

Verses 7-8

‘So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his coat around him for he was stripped to the waist, and threw himself in the sea, but the other disciples came in the small boat, for they were not far from land, about two hundred cubits off, dragging the net full of fish.’

It would appear that the catch was so large that they could not take it into the small boat so that they had to drag the net behind them as they made for the shore which was no great distance away. Meanwhile Peter felt that he could not wait and plunged into the lake in order to get to Jesus as quickly as possible.

As we have seen we are probably justified in seeing in this incident a deliberate reminder to Peter of his first call to be a disciple and the suggestion that that calling still applies in spite of his previous failure. It is typical of Peter that he could not wait. He flung himself into the sea and swam ashore, after modestly covering himself up. The remaining disciples were left to bring the boat in with the fish. They may not have been as prominent as Peter but they were certainly more practical. All types are needed in fulfilling the purposes of God. The catching of the fish reminds us of Matthew 13:47, ‘the Reign of Heaven is like a net that was cast into the sea and gathered of every kind.’ Once the fish are caught they will need to be sorted and dealt with. Peter will go racing on, very successfully, others will tend and separate the fish.

Verse 9

‘So when they disembarked on the land they see a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.’

Fish being heated on a brazier was a welcome sight after a cold night. The ‘fish and bread’ must have reminded them of the day when Jesus fed the five thousand on fish and bread, and of His words about the bread of life, together with His warnings about approaching death which would result in life (John 6:0). Here was a reminder of covenant renewal.

Verses 10-11

‘Jesus says to them, “Bring of the fish that you have now taken.” Simon Peter therefore went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, one hundred and fifty three, and for all there was so many the net was not torn.’

Jesus did not require the fish that they had taken for their breakfast for He already had some cooking. He rather wanted them to consider the size of their catch so that they would be aware that in partnership with Him they would be able to do wonders in fishing for men.

In view of the fact that Jesus drew attention to them the fish were counted and there were one hundred and fifty three large fish. A splendid catch to small time fishermen as the comment about the net shows. There is little need to try to find explanations for the number elsewhere. None are satisfactory or demonstrable. The words are simply evidence of the testimony of an eyewitness.

‘Peter went up.’ He climbed into the boat so as to release the net so that the fish could be counted.

‘The net was not torn’. It had proved adequate for its task, just as they too will be adequate, with His help, for their future task of winning men for Christ. None of the disciples dared to ask Him, “who are you”, knowing that it was the Lord.

Verse 12

‘Jesus says to them, “come and break your fast.” An none of the disciples dared to enquire of him, “Who are you?”, knowing that it was the Lord.’

The reference to ‘come an break your fast’ may well be a reminder to them of Jesus words about them fasting in the day when He was snatched away from them (Mark 2:20). But now that time was over and they could break their fast, for their sorrow had been turned into joy (John 16:20).

This verse, taken with the fact that others at first had difficulty recognising him (the two on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:16), Mary Magdalene (John 20:14), must suggest that the risen Jesus was not an exact replica of what He had been like in His earthly form just prior to His death. This also helps to explain why He had earlier made them look at the nail prints and the spear wound. He wanted them to be sure of Who He was.

‘None of the disciples dared ask, “Who are you?” ’ While He had previously appeared to them, and they were glad, they had still not got used to the idea of a resurrected person being with them. They knew it was the Lord but they shied off from confirming it. Nor did they want to be rebuked for unbelief. They waited for Him to reveal Himself.

This does bring out that there is now a gap recognisable between Jesus and His disciples. Previously they had been life companions, although as such there had always been special respect given to Him. Now, however, they were aware that He was so much more than they had ever thought and this caused some restraint. From now on, while they would enjoy closeness of fellowship with Him, it would be a fellowship of the Spirit, recognising that He was on the divine side of reality.

Verse 13

‘Jesus comes and takes the bread and gives some to them, and the fish similarly.’

Once again we have a reminder of how He fed the crowds. This fellowship meal must have brought thoughts flooding back. But now the deeper significance of participating in resurrection life must have come home more forcibly. From now on He would feed them continually.

Verse 14

‘This is now the third time that Jesus was revealed to his disciples after he was risen from the dead.’

‘The third time’ refers back to the two appearances in chapter 20. There were other individual appearances, but these were appearances to the disciples as a group (note that again ‘disciples’ indicates the eleven). Three is the number of completeness.

Verse 15

‘He says to him, “Indeed, Lord. You know that I love you.” He says to him, “Feed my lambs”.’

Note how impetuous Peter restrained his impetuosity. He made no claim to have special love. He would no longer compare the greatness of his love with that of others, even when given the opportunity. He would, however, declare that his love was true. Thus had he become fit to feed the lambs.

Verses 15-19

Jesus Restores Peter (John 21:15-19 ).

Jesus had previously ‘appeared to Peter’ privately (1 Corinthians 15:5; Luke 24:34), no doubt in order to assure him that he was forgiven. But this was now a public restoration in front of the others. He was destined to be a leader and it was important that he be seen to bear Jesus’ stamp of approval.

That it was a restoration comes out in three ways.

1). There was a fire of coals similar to that beside which Peter had denied Him (John 18:18).

2). He asked Peter three times whether he loved Him, cancelling out the three denials that Peter had made (John 18:17; John 18:25; John 18:27).

3). The catch of fish confirmed that he would yet be a fisher of men.

Such was Christ’s love and concern for His failing disciple.

Verse 16

‘He says to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Joanes, do you love me?” He says to him, “Indeed, Lord, you know that I love you.” He says to him, “Shepherd my sheep”.’

The same question is repeated by Jesus and the same answer brings confirmation that Peter has (along with the other disciples) been chosen to feed and watch over The Shepherd’s sheep (the verb is different from that in the first and third statements, again in order to prevent monotony).

Verse 17

‘He says to him the third time, “Simon, son of Joanes, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time ‘do you love me?’ and he said to him, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” Jesus says to him, “Feed my sheep.”

‘Simon, son of Joanes.’ Jesus began by addressing Peter as Simon, son of Joanes. In the Gospels Jesus addressed Peter in this way only on the most important occasions, on his call to follow Jesus (John 1:42), on his confession of Jesus as the Son of God (Matthew 16:17), and as he slept in Gethsemane (Mark 14:37). So when Jesus addressed Peter in this way here, Peter would realise that what Jesus was about to say to him was extremely important.

So he who three times had said he did not know Jesus had now had the opportunity to make his three declarations of love. But he did not at this stage recognise Jesus’ purpose and was grieved that Jesus kept asking him. And again he received the command to “Feed my sheep”. Had he thought of the significance of Jesus’ words in the light of chapter 10 he might have been less grieved, for the task he was given, along with the others, was to take the place of the good Shepherd from an earthly point of view. He had responsibility for the sheep. He who had fled the fold was now fully restored, something which must have come home quite clearly to his fellow disciples. Later on in his ministry he in tun will call on othrs to tend the sheep and will then refer to Jesus as the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:2; 1 Peter 5:4).

That this special treatment for Peter was precisely because of the greatness of his failure comes out in that He now confirmed that Peter’s restoration would finally be evidenced by his willingness to die violently for Christ.

Verses 18-19

“In very truth I tell you, when you were young you regularly dressed yourself and walked where you wished, but when you will be old you will stretch out your hands and another will determine your dress and carry you where you do not wish to go.” Now this he spoke signifying by what manner of death he would glorify God.’

Peter had been free and was free now to do what he wished. But he was warned that one day he would be in the hands of the authorities and would be forced to do what they wanted, and their purpose would be to take him to prison and execution. There may be a hint here that that death would be by crucifixion, (some non-Biblical writers did use the term ‘to stretch out the hands’ as indicating crucifixion) but not necessarily so. The stress was on physical helplessness and violent death. Just as he had seen Jesus seized and led off to death, the death Peter had sought to avoid by his denial, so would it be with him.

There is an interesting contrast here with what Jesus had said about Peter denying Him. There too His statement began, ‘in very truth’ (John 13:38). Both situations were inevitable due to the weakness of man and the purposes of God. Satan was allowed to lead Peter astray, but only under the final protection of God (Luke 22:31). In the end he would be restored, having learned the lesson through which he would be able to help others. And in the end his restoration would be finally completed when he experienced readily what his denial had sought to prevent.

Verse 19

“And when he had spoken this he says to him, “Follow me”.’

Jesus now renewed that first so important call of Peter. He called him again to ‘Follow Me’. The care Jesus took over all this demonstrates how deeply what Peter had done had been felt, both by Peter and the rest of the disciples. One they all looked to had collapsed in total failure. So there would always have been a question over whether this had cancelled out his position, and this was felt by him most of all. Now he knew, and they all knew, that his call stood firm. And that next time, with Christ’s strength, he would not fail.

Verse 20

‘Peter, turning round, sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following, he who also leaned back on his breast at the Supper and said ‘Lord, who is it who betrays you?’

John here makes clear that ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ was a real person who did real things, and refers to only one identifiable person. How could he have made it more clear? And that person was a favoured one who was next to Jesus at the table. And he is there with Peter and the rest, one of the seven. It is quite clear that he is an Apostle, and a favoured one at that. Everything points to John even if we had no evidence outside the Gospel.

Verses 20-23

John’s Future Is Not to Be Revealed (John 21:20-23 ).

Verse 21

‘Peter therefore seeing him says to Jesus, “Lord and what shall this man do?” ’

Peter then asked Jesus about John’s future. What caused Peter to do this? The impression given is that he said it on the spur of the moment when his glance happened to fall on John. It may have been his way of ‘softening the blow’ of the preceding words by turning his mind to something else, (the thought could not have been pleasant). Or it may have been because he was impetuously enthused to know what sort of violent death other faithful followers would suffer, that they also may glorify God. But he was firmly told that that had nothing to do with him. What Jesus has told him was for his restoration in his own eyes and the eyes of his fellow-disciples, not just for the sake of knowing the future. That was best to be left in God’s hands.

Verse 22

‘Jesus says to him, “If I will that he tarry until I come, what is that to you? You follow me.”

Jesus told Peter that what would happen to others was of no concern of his. He must concentrate on following Jesus, not be looking at the futures of others. Their lives were under God’s control. There is here the firm indication that Jesus controls the destiny of His own. If Jesus wills that John will stay alive until His return that is Jesus’ business, not Peter’s. He must not get above himself.

Verse 23

‘This saying went forth therefore among the brethren that that disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but ‘if I will that he tarry until I come what is that to you’.’

As a ressult of this an incorrect assumption arose among some Christians (‘the brethren’) that the second coming would occur before John died. This assumption the writer now corrects by pointing out what Jesus actually did say. How important it is that we are not slipshod in interpreting the word of God.

Verse 24

‘This is the disciple who bears witness of these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.’

These words are the equivalent of a witness’s signature. A group of important Christians confirm that the Gospel was written by the beloved disciple, who was still alive and bearing witness, and that they had good reason to know that it was true. This verification may suggest that other less reliable writings had begun to circulate around the turn of the century so that verification had now become important. Thus on completing his book John asked his fellow-elders to subscribe their testimony.

Verse 25

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

The first person ‘I’ suggests that this was then finally appended by the writer himself. It may, however, have been added later, possibly when the four Gospels were put together. The early Codex Sinaiticus originally did not have the verse and then added it later. It stresses what we would do well to remember that much of what Jesus did and taught we will never know. What we can be sure of is that we have a good grounding in it in the Gospels, and it is a testimony to their accuracy that no attempt was made to publish anything that was not fully verified as an important part of the tradition of the disciples used in the witness of the church.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on John 21". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/john-21.html. 2013.
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