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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
John 21

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-25

THE CLOSING VERSES of the previous chapter indicate that the evidence furnished, showing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is now complete. This is therefore taken for granted in the closing chapter, which puts on record dealings with certain of His disciples wholly unrecorded in the other Gospels. It may be considered in two ways: first, as having a figurative or typical meaning; second, as showing His gracious dealings with them in view of their future.

Verse John 21:14 gives us a key to its special significance from the typical viewpoint. We may remember that at the opening of this Gospel the Evangelist calls our attention to certain days, and at the beginning of John 2:1-25 there was a manifestation of the glory of Jesus on the third day, typical of the millennial age. Now here we have before us what is noted as the third manifestation of Jesus as risen from the dead, and again we discover it has a millennial significance.

The first manifestation, as we saw in the last chapter, was on the actual resurrection day, and all recorded in connection with it spoke of the portion of the Church in association with the risen Lord. The second, in the same chapter, gave us the awakening of faith in the remnant of Israel, when at last they look upon Him whom they have pierced. That was set forth in Thomas. Now we come to the third, when the millennial morning will break and the Lord be revealed as the Master of every circumstance and the Supplier of every need. The three days pointed out in John 1:1-51 and John 2:1-25, had in each case the same significance.

The main drift of this Gospel has been the revelation of the Father in the Person of the Son, and the certifying to us that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, so that we may have no doubt as to the revelation but the light of it shine with undimmed radiance into our souls. It is very remarkable, therefore, that it should both open and close with these figurative reminders of dispensational distinctions, though the burden of the Gospel is that which abides eternally above all dispensational distinctions. Differences of dispensation may impose different measures upon the apprehensions of saints, but that which is to be apprehended is eternally the same.

John has given us an account of Peter’s downfall, but has said no word as to his bitter tears immediately after as the result of the Lord’s look, nor of the personal interview with his risen Lord in the latter part of the resurrection day. We open this chapter to find him reverting to his fishing and taking six of the other disciples with him. It was not for this kind of fishing that the Lord had originally called him, and it looks as if, though knowing that the Lord had forgiven him, he was assuming that his commission to service would have to lapse. The risen Shepherd, however, was about to restore his soul fully and lead the feet of all of them into the paths of righteousness.

Their expedition on the lake was a failure. Verse John 21:3 sums it up as “night” and “nothing.” When the morning was come everything was reversed for Jesus was there—net full, great fishes—and no broken net or sinking ship, as in Luke 5:1-39. Nor was there Peter falling down to confess himself a sinful man, though his sad fall had been so recent. Instead he flung himself into the sea to get to Jesus with all possible speed. Again we see how he is prominent when the action of love is in question, just as John displays more prominently the discernment of love.

Arrived on the shore, the disciples found themselves forestalled though their catch had been so great. The Lord had fire and fish and bread ready for them; the provision was all His own. Viewed typically, we may see a figure of disciples going forth and bringing in under the Lord’s direction, a great harvest from the sea of nations, which will mark the opening of the millennial age. It was surely intended, too, as a lesson to Peter and the rest, showing them that their reversion to their ordinary occupation was unnecessary, even if specially blessed by Him. Their food was already prepared by His hand. The disciples knew it was their risen Lord, not by the sight of their eyes, but by His actions, which were unique.

Then began the Lord’s special dealings with Simon Peter. His fall had taken place when he was warming himself at the world’s fire in the company of the servants of the high priest, who was utterly hostile to his Master. He now finds himself by the fire that had been kindled by his Lord, not only warmed but also fed by Him, and in the company of fellow-servants as devoted to his Master as himself. Thrice had Peter been tested and each time with increasing emphasis he had denied his Lord. Thrice on this occasion does the Lord probe Peter’s conscience and heart, each time increasing the severity of the test.

We can more fully appreciate verses John 21:15-17 if we observe that two different words are used for “love.” The first is one which, we are told, is not used for “love” outside the New Testament and Septuagint: the Spirit of God laid hold of it, and consecrated it to express the love of God. The second is one based upon the word for friends, and signifying rather the love of the feelings or of warm affection; or, as it has been put, “it indicates less of insight and more of emotion.” We will quote from Darby’s New Translation where the distinction is carefully observed.

The Lord addressed Peter not by that new name, which He had given him, but by his old name in nature, “Simon son of Jonas,” and asked him, “Lovest thou Me more than these?” This is just what he had claimed for himself in saying, “Although all shall be offended, yet will not I,” as Mark tells us. This must have been a very painful question, for judging by his performance it appeared that he loved Him far less. What could he say?

Only this, “Yea, Lord: Thou knowest that I am attached to Thee.” He used the lower word, showing that he had already come down in his own esteem.

A second time Jesus asked the question, using the same word as before but not instituting any comparison between Peter and the other disciples. It was simply, “Lovest thou Me?” it was as though He had said, “Do you really love Me at all?” This probed the wound in still deeper fashion. Peter was again unable to accept the challenge and adhered to his own word, “Thou knowest that I am attached to Thee.”

The third question was a still deeper thrust, for this time Jesus adopted Peter’s own word and asked, “Art thou attached to Me?” Thus He challenged Peter’s right to go so far as saying he was even attached to Him. This cut him to the quick and probed him to the depth. He realized that he could not claim to love, and that his conduct had belied even a friendly attachment. He therefore cast himself wholly upon his omniscient Lord, saying, “Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I am attached to Thee.” This virtually acknowledged that his attachment was of such faint and microscopic proportions that only Divine omniscience would perceive it. Still it was there! Peter knew it, and he knew his Lord would know it.

In all this Peter was being most graciously yet very pointedly conducted to self-judgment—the judgment of the state that had led to the sin and disaster. It is one thing to confess the sin committed, and another to confess the wrong state that led to it. This is the point which is so instructive and salutary for us. Self-esteem with its twin evil, self-confidence, was the bottom of the mischief, and full restoration before the Lord was not perfected till Peter reached this point. Moreover his sin had taken place with considerable publicity, and the other disciples must have had their confidence in him sadly shaken. How gracious then of the Lord to deal with Peter to his restoration in the presence of a number of the disciples.

And this was not all. Each affirmation by Peter that he really was attached to the Lord in spite of his cowardly denial, was followed by a response which indicated that a very important service was to be entrusted to him. The Lord used three different expressions, which are not entirely clear in our excellent Authorised Version. They were, “Feed My lambs,”

“Shepherd My sheep,” “Feed My sheep.” The shepherding of sheep would involve seeing that they were fed, but it would go beyond that and cover many activities in the way of oversight, leading, protecting.

It is very evident that Peter was entrusted with a pastoral ministry, and the way in which he urges upon others a similar pastoral care, in the opening verses of 1 Peter 5:1-14, is very striking. Therein he warns against the very abuses of such a ministry as have come in like a flood in the history of the church. These abuses reach their greatest development in the imposing religious body that claims their Roman Pontiff as the successor of Peter; and they are just the outgrowth of fallen human nature, for exactly similar things happened in Israel, and are denounced by the Lord through the prophecy of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 34:1-31. Today “Peter’s-pence” means money extracted from the flock for the support of the supposed successor of Peter, instead of anything ministered to the flock. A grim perversion and parody indeed!

The under shepherds who served after Peter’s departure soon forgot that the lambs and sheep belonged to the Lord. The word to Peter was not “Feed your sheep,” but “My sheep,” and that makes all the difference. It is noticeable further that the Lord spoke once of shepherding and twice of feeding. That is where the emphasis lies. Shepherding means a certain amount of authoritative handling and directing, and there are not a few who love wielding authority, even in the church of God. To be a dispenser of spiritual food is another matter and a far deeper one. He who can give spiritual food will not have much difficulty in exercising some measure of spiritual control.

One other thing we might note. When Peter was thus commissioned he was a broken and humbled man. To such an one, when fully restored, the Lord entrusted His lambs and sheep. We may remember the Apostolic injunction, “If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). It is assumed that a spiritual man will be meek and have a wholesome sense of his own liability to fall. Here Peter had fallen and, humbled now and restored, he had reached that tender and meek spirit which marks the spiritual man. To men of that type the Lord entrusts His lambs and sheep.

Having recommissioned Peter and indicated the special character of the service he was to render, the Lord now showed him that what he had boasted he would do in the energy of youth, he should actually do when his natural energy had abated. “I will lay down my life for Thy sake,” had been his words, yet he miserably failed. His desire had been right, though his self-confidence was wrong and had to be rebuked. So his desire should be fulfilled, but in power other than his own. The Lord’s words in verse John 21:18 not only indicated that he should glorify God by a martyr’s death, but also the character of that death. The allusion was to crucifixion. He was to follow the Lord in caring for His sheep and, up to a certain point, in the manner of his death. What amazing grace was this to the disciple who had failed! And what instruction for us! The case of John Mark also furnishes us with an example of how what is begun in the flesh may yet be made perfect by the Spirit: the exact opposite of Galatians 3:3.

For the moment Peter turned his eye from his Master and fixed it upon a fellow-disciple, none other than the writer of this Gospel. John was evidently a younger man but had already been closely linked with Peter on several occasions. It was probably genuine interest and not merely curiosity that made him enquire as to his future. The reply appears to have a twofold bearing.

First, it emphasized the fact that for each disciple—whether Peter or ourselves—our great business is not with our brethren but with our Lord. What the Lord ordained for John was not Peter’s concern, but to follow the Lord for himself. There are not very many today who point to their brother and say, “What shall this man do?” but plenty there are who say, “Look what this man has done!” To be exercised about somebody else’s doings, especially if they are not quite right, is a cheap and easy thing, whereas to be exercised about oneself is a costly business. To each of us, as to Peter, does the Lord say, “Follow thou Me.”

In the second place there was something cryptic or hidden in this saying about John, just as there had been in the saying of verse John 21:18 about Peter. It did not indicate that he should not die and so remain till the second advent, but rather that his ministry should have a special character. The word here, translated, “tarry” is one that occurs in John’s writings as often as in all the rest of the New Testament put together. It is variously translated as “abide,” “continue,” “dwell,” “remain.” Now John’s ministry, as exemplified in his Gospel and Epistles, did specially deal with the abiding things of the revelation of God which nothing can touch or tarnish. In the Revelation we find he was the last of the Apostles to see the Lord in His glorious majesty, and to receive from Him through His angel the fullest unfolding of things to come, which things lead us up to the second advent, and even to the eternal state.

Verse John 21:23 is a warning to us of the danger of drawing inferences from the Word of God, and then elevating those inferences into dogmatic assertions. If a saying had gone forth among the brethren that John might not die, in view of what the Lord had said, it perhaps would not have been worthy of remark. But they said he should not, rather than he might not. Inspired words stand in a class by themselves, and we must be careful how we draw inferences from them.

The last verse of our Gospel is very characteristic. It reminds us that what is recorded of the doings of the Lord on earth is but a tiny fraction of the whole, and this is true if we put all four Gospels together. It is also as true of His words as of His works. This is a fact that helps to explain things that are sometimes quoted as apparent discrepancies. For instance, the Lord must have done and said similar things scores of times during the years of His incessant service in various parts of Judaea and Galilee. And lastly, there is no picturesque exaggeration in what is said about the world and the books. John has traced for us the matchless words and works of the Word become flesh—at least, a selection of them, which though small is ample to convince us that in Him we have the Christ, the Son of God. Though He assumed a finite form the Word who assumed it is infinite. He put therefore the stamp of infinity on all He did and said, and the world and books cannot contain that.

We shall never get to the end of all the things which Jesus did. On this most appropriate note our Gospel ends.

 


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on John 21:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/john-21.html. 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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