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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
John 21

 

 

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Verse 1

John 21:1. After these things Jesus manifested himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias, and he manifested himself thus. The words ‘after these things’ are indefinite, and throw no light upon the length of the interval that elapsed between the last and the present appearance of Jesus. The point to which the Evangelist calls attention is that we have here another ‘manifestation’ of Himself by the Risen Saviour, similar to the two mentioned in the previous chapter (comp. chap. John 21:14). What we have before us, therefore, is not merely the fact that Jesus showed Himself to the disciples, but that He exhibited Himself in a glory which the natural eye could not have discerned (see chap. John 2:11). It was ‘at the sea of Tiberias,’ that is, the sea of Galilee, that the manifestation took place. The earlier Evangelists do not relate it, but they give the message of our Lord to His disciples instructing them to go into Galilee, for there they should see Him (Matthew 28:10; Matthew 28:16; Mark 16:7). John does not tell us of the message, but he relates the meeting. Surely such notices on the part of different historians are supplementary, not discordant.


Verses 1-14

The authenticity and genuineness of the chapter upon which we now enter have been keenly contested; while many, who admit that John is the author of the chapter, see in it not so much an organic part of his original work as a section added at a later date, but before the Gospel had passed beyond the first circle of its readers. The main arguments brought by the defenders of both these views are, (1) That in chap. John 20:30-31, we have what is obviously the close of the Gospel; and (2) That certain expressions of this chapter, particularly those of John 21:24-25, are inconsistent with the idea of a Johan nine authorship. In a commentary such as this we cannot discuss the subject at any length, or avail ourselves of considerations which the English reader can hardly be expected to appreciate. A very few words, therefore, upon the two points above mentioned must suffice.

As to the first of these hypotheses, that chap. 21 was not written by John, we need not say more than that it is opposed to all the evidence possessed by us, whether external or internal. Its defenders, therefore, have been few in number as compared with those who have accepted the chapter as genuine. With the latter we agree, entertaining no doubt that the first twenty-three verses at all events are from the hand of the Apostle: of John 21:24-25 we shall speak when we reach them.

It is more difficult to say whether the chapter is a constituent part of the original plan, or an Appendix added after the Gospel had been finished, and when a longer or shorter period of time had passed. The question is one that must be determined mainly by taking the contents of the chapter into account. When this is done, there seems little reason to doubt that we have here an Epilogue corresponding to the Prologue, and—not less than the latter—properly belonging to the organic structure of the Gospel as a whole. Let us look for a moment at the particular idea which the chapter unfolds. That idea is not merely fresh illustration of the glory of the Redeemer’s post-resurrection life. Were it no more than this, we should at once allow that the chapter is at best an Appendix to the Gospel. It would be impossible to think that, after having written the words of chap. John 20:30-31, the Evangelist should immediately pass to another illustration of the same thought. No doubt the idea of which we speak is involved in the first narrative of the chapter, which is distinctly stated to be a ‘third’ manifestation of Himself by the Risen Lord (John 21:14), and is thus placed, in one respect at least, on the same line as the two preceding manifestations of chap. 20. Yet an attentive consideration of that narrative will show that the great truth which the Evangelist beholds in it is, the joy provided by Jesus for His disciples in connection with the work which they accomplish for the conversion of the world,—that the dominating thought which it presents to him is not merely the glory of the Risen Lord, but the glory of Christian work as it is performed through Him, and its fruits are enjoyed with Him. If this be the idea of the first part of the chapter, we shall find, when we come to the commentary, that its second and third parts, relating to the two Apostles Peter and John, are much more than simple narratives of facts. They lead the thoughts to apostolic work and Christian action, and to waiting for the Second Coming of the Lord. Three leading thoughts are thus presented to us in the chapter, which maybe thus described (1) The mutual joy of the Risen Lord and His disciples in the successful accomplishment of Christ’s work, John 21:1-14; (2) The work of Apostolic and Christian witnessing between the Resurrection of Jesus and His Second Coming, John 21:16-19; (3) The Second Coming itself, John 21:20-23. If now we compare these three thoughts with the leading thoughts of the Prologue, the correspondence will appear close and remarkable. In the Prologue, as well as here, three main topics are dwelt upon: (1) The Word with God, the Son with the Father, in His general manifestations before His Incarnation, John 21:1-5; (2) The witnessing to Him who was to come, which culminated in John, the representative of Old Testament witness, John 21:6-13; The coming of Jesus into the world, John 21:14-18. In other words, we have in the opening and closing parts of the Fourth Gospel—

I. THE PROLOGUE WITH ITS THREE THOUGHTS.

1. The Light to be witnessed to, as it appears in its inner fulness and power. 2. The preparation by witness for that Light 3. The coming of the Light.

II. THE EPILOGUE WITH ITS THREE THOUGHTS.

1. The Redeemer who is to be witnessed to, as He appears in the joy of successful and accomplished work. 2. The preparation of the world for that joy by the work of witnessing. 3. The Second Coming.

The detailed exposition of these thoughts will appear in the commentary. In the meantime we have said enough to justify our regarding chap. 21 as an Epilogue, as an integral part of the organism of the Gospel as we have it,—its Seventh and last great section.

This intimate connection of the chapter with the general plan of the Gospel is the point of real importance, and it is on this that we would lay stress. Whether the Epilogue formed part of the Gospel from the very firsts or was added by the apostle at a later date, is a subordinate question, and one to which different answers will naturally be given. There are peculiarities of language and of structure which seem decidedly to favour the latter supposition. On the other hand, we should certainly expect that, if the Gospel was ever circulated in two forms (with and without the Appendix), the last chapter would be absent from some of our ancient manuscripts, or would at all events be occasionally found separated from the rest. It is possible, indeed, that the Gospel might in its shorter form be confined to a very limited circle of Christians, and be published for general use only when complete. In this form the Appendix theory may perhaps be said to meet the conditions of the case.—The whole structure of the narrative upon which we now enter shows that, to the eye of the Evangelist, it is not only history but parable. As, therefore, it is with a mind alive to the spiritual meaning of the scene that John describes what actually happened, special significance may be looked for in the expressions which he employs.


Verse 2

John 21:2. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cane of Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. It is doubtful whether the seven persons here referred to are arranged, as is often supposed, in two groups, one consisting of three, and the other of four members. There may be significance in the mention of Thomas as now (after chap. 20) completely at one with his brother Apostles, and in the fact that Nathanael (comp. chap. John 1:51) is associated with the miracle.


Verse 3

John 21:3. Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also come with thee. They went forth and entered into the boat, and that night they laid hold on nothing. It is hardly probable that in this the disciples thought of anything but the supply of their temporal wants. To John, however, there is more in their act than this. His word ‘went forth’ leads us at once to feel that he sees in their going the Providential guidance of God (comp. notes on chap. John 18:1; John 18:4). It is not an ordinary event: it will illustrate that Divine scheme for the salvation of men which was accomplished through Him who ‘came forth’ from God. Moreover, just as once before Peter and some of his companions had been called from the work of fishing to the first stage of their apostolate (Luke 5:1-11), so shall he and those with him be called from a similar scene to that higher stage upon which they are now to enter. In Peter’s being the first to make the proposal, we can hardly fail to see the elements of that character which gave him the prominence he afterwards had in the Church of the Redeemer. He is the moving spring of the whole apostolic band; he proposes, and the others say, ‘We also come with thee.’ Yet writers can be found to urge that one great object of the Fourth Gospel is to depreciate Peter in comparison with John, one of this very company! The seven go forth by ‘night’ (the usual time for fishing), but they caught nothing. There is no reason to think that the season was unfavourable; but they were not successful.—The word used for ‘catch’ is worthy of notice. It means to lay hold on, and it does not seem to be elsewhere used in the sense of catching fish.


Verse 4

John 21:4. But when morning was now coming, Jesus stood on the shore; the disciples however knew not that it was Jesus. Night passed away, and the day began to break. Then Jesus stood on the shore, but they did not recognise Him,—it may be that the light was insufficient, it may be that it was not yet His wish that He should be known.


Verse 5

John 21:5. Jesus therefore saith unto them, Children, have ye anything to eat? They answered him, No. It is hardly possible to imagine that the word ‘children’ is here used because Jesus is addressing Himself as ‘a master to his workmen,’ or because He is. Speaking with the dignity of a superior. It is a word of tenderness and affection. At the same time it may perhaps have a deeper meaning, for the word ‘brethren’ of chap. John 20:17, which now expresses the relation of Jesus to His disciples, rather leads directly to the supposition that, in a certain sense, He speaks as One standing on a footing of equality with themselves. There is at least a striking coincidence between the word (‘children’) here used and that used in Hebrews 2:13 (Isaiah 8:18). He who speaks is engaged in the same occupation, takes the same position, is called to the same work as they. The question which He asks is important, especially the word which is rendered in the Authorised Version ‘meat,’ but which we have rendered by ‘to eat.’ For thus we observe the true point of the question,—not, ‘Have you caught fish?’ but, ‘Have you fish to eat?’ The term, however, was commonly used of fish. Here it seems to refer to provision of fish taken by them for eating when they started. It ought to be carefully noted also that, as is shown by the particular form of the question, it is the meal that is before the mind of Jesus: only when we see this do we gain the true point of view from which to contemplate the whole narrative. To the question of Jesus the disciples answer, ‘No.’ They thus acknowledge the fruitlessness of their labours, and their need of further light and guidance.


Verse 6

John 21:6. And he said onto them, Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and no longer had they strength to draw it for the multitude of fishes. Comp. Luke 5:6.


Verse 7

John 21:7. That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. When Simon therefore, even Peter, heard that it was the Lord, he girt hip coat about him (for he was naked) and did cast himself into the sea. That the incident thus related of each of the two apostles is in closest harmony with everything else that we know of them strikes every reader. It need only be further noticed that John himself gives us a token of his desire that we should see in the action of Peter an illustration of that character which appeared in his whole subsequent career. He does not call him simply Simon Peter; but, as in chap. John 18:10, he interposes a word between the two names,—‘Simon, therefore, Peter.’ As soon as Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his coat about him, ‘for he was naked.’ There is no reason to think that the nakedness thus spoken of was absolute. The use of the term is consistent (in Greek as in the language of common life in Scotland to this day) with partial clothing. The girding is probably not to pass unnoticed. It was thus that at John 13:4-5, our Lord prepared Himself for service: His apostle, when preparing for the active service of his Master, must do the same.


Verse 8

John 21:8. But the other disciples came in the little boat (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits off) dragging the net of fishes. While Peter takes the lead, impetuously dashing into the water (comp. Matthew 14:29), his fellow - disciples reach land more slowly. Yet they do not actually land the net: they only drag it to the shore. The landing is reserved for him who had displayed greatest earnestness and activity. All now proceeds directly towards the culminating point of the narrative,—the meal.


Verse 9

John 21:9. When therefore they came out on the land, they see a fire of charcoal placed there, and a fish placed thereon, and a loaf. No intimation is given where the tire of charcoal had been obtained, or how it had been brought there. The thoughts of the Evangelist are so entirely occupied with the meal, that it is a matter of no consequence to him to give explanations upon such points. Upon one fact he desires us to fix our attention—the meal is provided by Jesus, whether miraculously or in some ordinary way he does not ask. It is impossible not to notice the words ‘a fish’ and ‘a loaf,’ not ‘fish’ and ‘bread:’ the contrast with ‘the fishes’ of John 21:10 is obviously designed.


Verse 10

John 21:10. Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fishes which ye have now laid hold on. The meal, therefore, consists of materials provided by the combined action of Jesus and His disciples.


Verse 11

John 21:11. Simon Peter therefore went up, and drew the net to the land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three; and for all there were so many, yet was not the net rent. Again Peter appears in all the prominence of his character and work,—the leader of the apostolic company. The fishes drawn to shore by means of the net were ‘great:’ yet neither by their sire nor by their number was the net rent. No fish was lost. (See further below.)

The comparison of this miracle with that of the draught of fishes in Luke 5:4-7 supplies various points of contrast, at once bringing out and confirming what we have yet to speak of as the inner meaning of the section before us. Of these the most interesting are that the fishes are all great and good, and numbered; in the earlier narrative we have no such statements. In the earlier, too, the net was breaking: here ‘the net was not rent.’ The contrasts all point to the difference between a ministry of trial with a suffering Lord, and a ministry of triumph with a glorified Lord.


Verse 12

John 21:12. Jesus saith unto them, Go me and breakfast. The bringing of the fish from the net to the fire is not recorded. The Evangelist hastens to the chief point in his narrative. Jesus gives the invitation to the meal, and it is accepted.

None of the disciples durst make inquiry of him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord. Awe and reverence prevented their asking Jesus who He was (comp. chap. John 4:27). They did what they were told.


Verse 13

John 21:13. Jesus cometh and taketh the loaf, and giveth them, and the fish likewise. We might have expected to read of the ‘fishes’ rather than the ‘fish,’ for the meal prepared must have included a portion of the ‘fishes’ of John 21:10 as well as the ‘fish’ of John 21:9. Yet such is the importance which the Evangelist attaches to the latter that he speaks of it alone, and makes no farther allusion to the rest.


Verse 14

John 21:14. This is now a third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after that he was raised from the dead. It is the third ‘manifestation,’ although the fourth appearance, of the Risen Lord that has been described. The appearance to Mary Magdalene at chap. John 20:16 is not counted, either because it only embodied the preparatory message as to the state in which Jesus was, or because it was made, not (like the three following) to companies of apostles and disciples, but only to one single disciple. That the present manifestation is stated to be the third does not exclude the other appearances of the Risen Saviour recorded by the earlier Evangelists. It is simply the third in John’s own enumeration, the third in that selection of the different manifestations which he had thought it desirable to make. The repetition of the word ‘manifested’ (comp. John 21:1) is to be noticed as showing that the word is intentionally used. It expresses more than that Jesus showed Himself after His Resurrection. In these manifestations He really revealed Himself out of the entirely new stale which had begun at the Resurrection. Just as when ‘manifested in the flesh’ He was different from what He had been before, and revealed His glory in the garb of weak and suffering humanity, so in His manifestation of Himself at this time He was different from what He had been when clothed with the lowliness which He had assumed for a season. That lowliness has been laid aside: He is still the Man Christ Jesus, but glorified. We see Him now under a new aspect, and at a new point in His history. This consideration will help us to understand the connection of the next two paragraphs of the chapter, and their place in the organism of the Gospel.

Before passing on, however, it is necessary to say a few words upon the inner meaning of this miracle, upon the light in which our Lord Himself intended it to be looked at, and in which it is presented by the Evangelist. Referring our readers to the general remarks made on John 2:11 we observe that here, as there, the miracle must be viewed not only historically but symbolically. The facts are historical, but they have at the same time much more than simple historical force. They are so arranged and grouped by Him who taught by action as well as word, that they bring out one of the great lessons of His kingdom. Nor can we have any doubt in the present instance what that lesson is. We have before us a picture of the wonderful success which was to follow the apostles when, in the strength of their Risen Lord, they went forth to preach salvation to the whole world; as well as a picture of the joy which they shall share with Him, when in this success both He and they ‘shall see of the travail of’ their ‘soul, and shall be satisfied.’ Around these thoughts it will be found that all the particulars of the miracle, in their deeper meaning, easily arrange themselves:—the helplessness of these ‘fishers of men’ when they are without their Lord, their triumphant success whenever they listen to His voice, the invitation given them to come and share in that meal which He has prepared, and whose sacramental character is so strikingly brought out by the mention of the ‘fish’ and the ‘loaf.’ Every particular of the scene is full of spiritual meaning; and, even where we may not be able to satisfy ourselves that we have discovered the meaning, we know that it is there, and can rest in the hope that it will by and by be perceived. Perhaps the most difficult point to interpret in this way is the number of the fishes as given in John 21:11. Of that number we shall say little. It will be hard for students of this Gospel not to believe that it too has a deeper meaning than that of simple numbers. What that meaning is there is little difficulty in determining. The whole course of the narrative shows that 153 represents the fulness of the Church, the complete gathering in of all her members, the net not rent, not one believer lost. It is much more difficult to say whence the number 153 is obtained. Many suggestions have been made, but we shall not discuss them. Not one of them can be said to have as yet gained anything like general acceptance. Until a more satisfactory result is reached, it is better to rest satisfied with the general meaning, of which we have already spoken, and as to which no doubt can be entertained.


Verse 15

John 21:15. When therefore they had breakfasted, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. The question (‘lovest thou’ ) contains the second of the two Greek verbs for loving, of which we have already spoken at chap. John 5:20. This verb is less expressive of emotions of tenderness, of personal feeling and affection, than that verb used by Peter in his reply. The words ‘more than these’ in our Lord’s question can hardly spring from any thing else than the remembrance of the apostle’s hasty assertion before his denial of his Master, ‘Though all men shall be offended because of Thee, yet will I never be offended.’ They were thus especially designed to expose to Peter’s view the pride and self-sufficiency by which his fall had been hastened; and that they effected this object we may infer from the absence of these words in his reply. He will make no mention of others now: one step in his education has been gained. Not only so; it is to be further noticed that the apostle does not use the same word for ‘love’ as had been employed by Jesus. He uses one that speaks of a more familiar and friendly affection, implying less depth of serious thought. The change may be connected with his recollection of his fall; but it is to be mainly traced to the genuine sincerity, the real warmth, of his love for Jesus. Jesus accepts the declaration of his love and recognizes its genuineness, hence the charge now given to the apostle.

He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. This charge will be more fully noticed when we have dealt with the exposition of the following verses.


Verses 15-19

Before speaking of the contents of this paragraph it is necessary to make an effort to discover its place in the organism of the chapter. So far as we have seen, no successful effort has yet been made to accomplish this. The usual explanation is, that before finally departing Jesus desired to throw light upon the history and fate of the two leading apostles, Peter and John. Such an explanation is unsatisfactory. Apart from the fact that it is not the manner of John to claim for himself so prominent a position as is thus implied, it is sufficient to observe that, if such be the object, it is not attained. Light, indeed, is cast on the future history of Peter, but none on that of John, which is rather left in a mysterious vagueness, perplexing instead of instructive to the mind. Others, again, pronounce any effort to discover the connection hopeless, unless we regard John 21:14 as a parenthesis; which cannot be done. In proceeding to the explanation which we shall venture to propose, we simply ask our readers to weigh it calmly, and not to reject it because at first sight it may seem to them improbable.

We have already endeavoured to show that chap. 21 is an Epilogue to the narrative part of the Gospel, and that it has a general correspondence with the Prologue. But if a correspondence exists as to the whole, it is not unnatural to think that it may also be traced in the several parts. This is rendered still more probable by the circumstance that the parts of each are unquestionably three in number; and that, while the one deals with the pre-existent Logos, and the eternity preceding His Incarnation, the other deals with the Logos after His Resurrection, and the Second Coming.

In this latter respect the correspondence between chap. John 1:1-5 and chap. John 21:1-14 is, as we have seen, exceedingly close. But at chap. John 1:6 there is a sudden and unexpected transition to John the Baptist and the witness which he bore to the eternal ‘Light,’ until the Light itself shone forth and needed such witness no more. In precisely the same manner, then, we have here a sudden and unexpected transition to the apostle Peter, and the witness borne by him to the Incarnate Word, until Jesus shall come the second time, and shall need no more to be proclaimed to men.

Such is the general idea which we offer for consideration as to the connection between the first two paragraphs of the present chapter; and when we come to speak of the contents of the next paragraph this idea will receive much confirmation. In the meantime we pass on to observe that if the correctness of the thought be allowed, it cannot fail to exercise in another respect a powerful influence upon our general apprehension of the meaning of the passage before us. For, as the Baptist at chap. John 1:6 is to be regarded as more than an individual,—as representative of the whole Old Testament witness to Jesus,—so with Peter here. He is representative of all Christian witness to Jesus; and the paragraph deals with more than his re-installation into the apostolic office. It is a re-institution, now made by Jesus in His new estate, of the whole duty of Christian witnessing. Jesus has shown that the banquet which in His state of glory He prepares for His disciples is one consisting of the fruits of successful work in His cause; and now, in the person of Peter, His disciples receive from Him their commission for the work in which they are to bear witness to Him,—a work which can only rest on, and be carried out through, love to Himself.


Verse 16

John 21:16. He saith to him again a second time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? The same verb (‘lovest’) which had been used by our Lord in His first question again occurs here, and the question only differs from the first in the gracious omission of the words more than these. Jesus had appreciated the motive which had led peter in his previous reply to avoid all comparison between his own love to Jesus and that of others. He accepts the evidence of humility afforded by His apostle, and in that direction at least will no longer test him.

He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. Peter’s reply is in exactly the same tetras as before; the word ‘I love’ being that which he had previously used, and not that used by Jesus.

He saith unto him, Be shepherd of my sheep. See on next verse.


Verse 17

John 21:17. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? In this third question, apparently a repetition of the first and second, one word (‘lovest’) is changed: for the word which he had used before, Jesus substitutes that less elevated, more familiar word with which Peter had already twice replied, ‘I love Thee.’ It is this that constitutes to the apostle the painful force of the third question. Not only is his own word taken up by Jesus, but that word is one by which he had sought to give utterance to the strength of his affection. And now Jesus says to him, ‘Peter, dost thou really thus love Me as thou sayest? But a little while ago, what was thy denial of thy Friend? Is it otherwise now? I will take thee at thine own word. May I trust thee that, with that love of which thou speakest, thou lovest Me?’

Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou seest that I love thee. Peter’s grief is at once intelligible,—not simply because he had been three times questioned as to his love, but because the third time his own statement, twice made, had been taken up, and he had been asked to consider well whether it was really true, whether he might not be again misjudging himself. But he was not merely grieved, he was also disciplined; his grief was wholesome. Up to this point there seems to have been some faint trace of self in his replies: at all events he had stood before his Lord as if his Lord were peculiarly reading him: he had not wholly forgotten himself. Now, however, all his past weakness and sin rise to his view: can he who has been so guilty have any special value? Surely not: if he is known, he is known only as one of ‘all things;’ with such emptiness of self he will cast himself upon his Lord, and only say, ‘Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou seest that I love Thee.’ The victory of grace is complete, and he receives his final charge.—Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

We have still to say a word or two of the threefold charge which is given in the words, ‘Feed my lambs,’ ‘Be shepherd of my sheep,’ ‘Feed my sheep.’ It is a little doubtful whether we ought to understand by the ‘lambs’ the younger members of the Christian community, or the whole flock in its weakest and most elementary stage of Christian growth: the contrast with ‘sheep’ leads upon the whole to the former view. The charge to the apostle is ‘Feed ‘these lambs: not less than the older members of the flock do they require the shepherd’s most thoughtful as well as his most tender care. After this we have ‘sheep’ twice mentioned (for a slight difference of reading found in some ancient manuscripts does not materially affect the meaning), and the only point we have to consider is the difference between ‘Be shepherd of’ and ‘Feed.’ The structural principles of the Gospel at once tell that there is a climax; and that climax seems to correspond to the gradation exemplified by a pastor as he himself grows in knowledge and experience. At first he is eager to perform all offices for his flock, thinking all equally important; perhaps even most pleased with the rule that has been assigned to him, and in which his own importance most appears. But soon, if he has the spirit of a real shepherd, he learns that to bear rule is comparatively a small thing, and that to ‘feed’ the flock of God, to nourish it on pastures ever fresh, and with waters ever living, is at once his most difficult and his noblest task. Peter is now ready to hear what, in tending his Master’s flock, he is to do and suffer.


Verse 18

John 21:18. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast younger, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and bring thee whither thou wouldest not. Our readers may call to mind, before we proceed to the farther examination of this verse, that ‘girding’ was the preliminary to crucifixion. The words, verily, verily,’ with which the verse begins, mark, as always, the importance and solemnity of the declaration made, and thus prepare us to think that we have more in them than a simple announcement of the death which the apostle was to die. Again, the use of the word. ‘girded’—although not the compound of John 21:7, but the simple verb—reminds us so much of the action of this latter verse, where the metaphorical meaning is obviously prominent in the writer’s mind, as to lead here also to the thought of metaphor. Again, the use of the word ‘walkedst’ (comp. chaps, John 6:66, John 8:12, John 11:9-10, John 12:35), which in its literal signification is not well adapted to express the free activity of youth, suggests a figurative interpretation of the passage. Once more, the mention of the stretching out of the hands before the carrying away is spoken of, is fatal to a merely literal meaning; for such stretching out of the hands cannot be looked on as a necessary preliminary to girding, whereas it would be a natural action on the part of those who willingly submitted to their fate, and who were desirous to help rather than hinder officials in the discharge of their duty. We seem, therefore, compelled to adopt a metaphorical interpretation of the words. When we do so all difficulties disappear.

The allusion to the time when Peter girded himself and walked whither he would, becomes the expression of that self-will by which, before his present entire consecration to the service of Jesus, he had been marked. Now, however, his self-will shall be crucified; the old nature which sought only its own gratification shall be as completely powerless as is the body of one nailed to a cross; he will be so truly a partaker of the sufferings of Christ as to find in this fellowship with his dying Lord the very ground and beginning of his apostolic activity. Then he will ‘stretch out his hands,’ will assume the attitude of one who is giving himself up to another’s guidance, and will resign himself entirely to the disposal of that ‘other,’ to whose will his own has been subdued. Then, too, ‘another’ will gird him,—that is, will gird him in the sense in which the word has just been used, will equip him for his task. Finally, another will ‘bring (not carry)’ him whither he would not; will lead him in paths that he would not himself have chosen,—will guide him to fields of activity in which he shall joyfully submit himself to Him who immediately adds, ‘Follow Me.’ The question may be asked, Who then is the ‘other’ spoken of? The only answer seems to be that it is the ‘other’ of chap. John 5:32,—that is, God (comp. also chap. John 4:38).


Verse 19

John 21:19. But this said he, signifying by what manner of death he should glorify God. It is impossible to deny that in these words the Evangelist refers to ‘death’ in the ordinary sense of the term. If, then, we consider (1) the peculiar expressions used in the last verse; (2) the tradition of the Church (usually regarded as worthy of trust), that Peter died by crucifixion; and (3) the fact that, at the time when the words were written, Peter’s death must have been long past: it is at once to be admitted that the Evangelist applies John 21:18, in the first instance at least, to the actual crucifixion of Peter. But it is not necessary to suppose that all the clauses of the verse refer to the literal crucifixion, or that the meaning of any of them is exhausted by that fact (comp. John 12:32-33). The singular words, ‘he should glorify God,’ confirm the interpretation we have given. There is no evidence that at this early stage of Christian history this expression was used for martyrdom. It cannot therefore be explained in the light of martyrdom alone. We must compare such passages as chaps, John 12:28, John 13:31, John 14:13, John 15:8; John 17:1; John 17:4; and, doing so, we learn that the death of Peter is not viewed simply as the closing act of his career, but as an act in which that second life of his which had been spoken of in John 21:18 reached its culminating point. Thus there is nothing in John 21:19 limiting John 21:18 to that act of crucifixion which the several clauses of the verse compel us to pass.

And when he had said this, he saith unto him, Follow me. To confine the meaning of the words ‘Follow me’ to the literal following of Jesus on the pre sent occasion,—as if all their import were that Jesus had gone forward a few steps, telling Peter to come after Him,—is so much out of keeping with the sense in which similar words are used even in the earlier Gospels, and so much more out of keeping with the style of John, that such an interpretation hardly needs to be refuted. That indeed our Lord did move forward, and that He meant Peter to follow Him, is highly probable,—especially from John 21:20. But this is certainly not the whole meaning. The external following foreshadows an imitation of Christ in His accomplishment of the Father’s will, and His drinking of the cup put into his hands by the Father, until, in the one case as in the other, the cross itself is reached.


Verse 20

John 21:20. Peter turning about seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following, which also leaned back on his breast at the supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee. It is impossible to think that the Evangelist intends us to confine our attention to the literal details given in this verse. The long description by which he indicates himself would be entirely out of place were he brought before us as simply taking a few steps after Jesus and Peter. Besides this, the verb ‘to follow,’ which, as we have seen, was used metaphorically as well as literally in John 21:19, must certainly be understood in the same sense here. John is here not simply the individual: he is the apostle following Peter in apostolic work, and like him, representative (though in a different aspect) of all Christian labourers and witnesses. What the difference of aspect is, is shown by the special manner in which he describes himself. He is not only the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved;’ he is the apostle who ‘leaned back on the breast of Jesus at the supper and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth Thee?’ (chap. John 13:12; John 13:25). In other words, he is the apostle whose mind was nearest to the mind of Jesus, and whom Jesus found most fitted to receive the deeper revelations of His will. John, then, represents an entirely different aspect of Christian witnessing from that represented by Peter. The latter represents the struggle, and the death at the end of it, by which God is glorified. The other represents patient waiting for the glorious revelation of Jesus at His Second Coming.


Verses 20-23

The effort to introduce the passage now before us into organic unity with the rest of the chapter has certainly been attended with as much difficulty and as little success as in the case of the second paragraph. Without dwelling upon the opinions of others we apply the same principle as that applied to the second paragraph, and regard this third paragraph of the Epilogue of the Gospel as the counterpart of the third paragraph of the Prologue (chap. John 1:14-18). That paragraph is occupied with the coming of Him who in the second paragraph had been borne witness to before His Incarnation by Old Testament prophecy. He is indeed expressly spoken of in prophecy as ‘He who is to come;’ and when He comes preparatory witnessing exists no more. Here in like manner Jesus in effect speaks of Himself as the One’ who is to come;’ at all events, twice over the words ‘until I come’ are used (John 21:22-23). The coming is thus shown to be a prominent thought of the passage; and its correspondence with the ‘coming’ of the Prologue must strike every one. The contents of this paragraph, therefore, are not to give us information about the future of John as an individual,—information which they do not give; but they are designed to call our thoughts to the termination of Christian witnessing, which will at length, with all its labours and sufferings, close in the joy of the Second Coming of the Lord. The special interpretation of the verses will confirm this view.


Verse 21-22

John 21:21-22. Peter therefore seeing him Saith to Jesus, Lord, and what of this man? It was a natural question. Although Peter did not know the full meaning of the words just addressed to himself, he felt that they betokened trial, sorrow, perhaps even prison and death. When, therefore, he saw John following Jesus, nothing would more readily occur to him than to ask. And what. Lord, shall be his fate? Yet the answer of Jesus evidently implies that there was something not altogether to be commended in the spirit or in the tone of Peter’s question. We cannot imagine that such an answer would have been given to a question in which affectionate interest was the leading feature. We have indeed no reason to think that the question was dictated by envy, but there was probably impatience of the calm spirit of John, of that calmness which had immediately before contrasted so strikingly with his own impetuosity,—for when he had thrown himself into the sea to hasten to his Master’s feet, John had remained in the boat dragging to the shore the net with fishes. To this spirit accordingly Jesus replies.

Jesus saith unto mm, If I will that he abide till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me. In other words: ‘Thou hast no right to be impatient of the quiet and meditative spirit of thy brother Apostle. True, I have spoken to thee of heavy trials only. But it does not follow that he may not be as faithful as thou art, or that he may not have his own trials, in the work given him to do. Thou art right, I praise thy spirit, only preparing thee for the inevitable consequences. But his spirit is right too. Let it be thy concern’ (‘thou’ is emphatic) ‘to follow Me; and as for him, if I will that he abide till I come, what is that to thee?’ By the ‘coming’ here spoken of can be understood nothing but the Second Coming of the Lord. It is the object of Jesus, as we shall see more fully on John 21:23, to give emphasis to the thought of His Second Coming, that He may thus bring out the truth that then shall be the end of all toil and waiting,—that then His witnesses shall rest from their labours, with their works following them. At the same time we would not venture wholly to exclude the thought of the destruction of Jerusalem. But the relation of that event to the ‘coming of the Lord’ is a topic upon which we cannot enter here.

The point of the contrast then between the words spoken respectively to Peter and John, is not that between a violent death by martyrdom and a peaceful departure; but that between impetuous and struggling apostleship, ending in a violent death, and quiet, thoughtful, meditative waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus, ending in a peaceful transition to the heavenly repose. Neither Peter nor himself is to the Evangelist a mere individual. Each is a type of one aspect of apostolic working.—of Christian witnessing for Jesus to the very end of time. But the struggling witnesses are impatient of such as are meditative, the active of the passive, the warring of the waiting. They do not see that the work of the latter is not less important than their own, and that it touches the very springs of the Church’s life. They undervalue it, because its struggle is not visible enough. They cry, ‘This work, Lord, is it really like our work, work for Thee?’ And Jesus replies, ‘I judge of that. If will that it go on until I come, what is that to you? Your path is clear; follow ye me.’


Verse 23

John 21:23. This word therefore went forth among the brethren, That disciple dieth not. Yet Jesus said not unto him, He dieth not; but, If I will that he abide till I come, what is that to thee? Having reported the answer of Jesus, the Evangelist is constrained to correct a misapprehension of its meaning which had prevailed in the Church. At the same time his giving again the words of Jesus in the same form as before shows the great importance which he attached to them, and leads to the belief that something in them had for him a peculiar charm. If so, the words that attracted him could only be ‘till I come.’ It is the thought of this Second Coming that John finds to be the prominent point in the words of his Master. He beholds in them the assurance that there was an end fixed for all toil and suffering incurred in the task of witnessing for Jesus, when the Redeemer whom he loved will come again and take His disciples to Himself, that where He is there they also may be (chap. John 14:3).


Verse 24

John 21:24. This is the disciple which witnesseth concerning these things, and wrote these things. To what has been said above upon this clause we may add that the use of the present tense, ‘witnesseth,’ seems to point out John as the writer of these words: any other would probably have written ‘witnessed,’ in conformity with the word that follows, ‘wrote.’ The word ‘witnesseth’ is used with great solemnity, and in the sense which It commonly bears (comp. note on chap. John 1:7) in this Gospel. The writer means more than that the things stated by him are true; he is uttering a Divine testimony to their inner reality and value. By his witnessing he claims to be more than a historian: he proclaims himself a prophet of God, commissioned to announce great verities to men.

‘These things’ must be understood to refer not only to the things spoken of in this chapter, but to the Gospel as a whole. The analogous passage in chap. John 20:30, together with John 21:25 of the present chapter, renders this interpretation absolutely necessary.

And we know that his witness is true. As has been already said, it seems to us best to regard these words as an addition made by the elders of Ephesus. They could not fail to notice how different this Gospel was from its predecessors. It might seem to them that hesitation would be felt in receiving it, and they stamp it with their authenticating seal. Or, if such were not their motive, the words may be little more than a kind of involuntary breathing out of their awe and wonder, as again and again they brought the reading of this Gospel to a close.


Verse 24-25

The two verses before us bring the Gospel to a close. Their authenticity has been much disputed; and not a few who accept the rest of the chapter as John’s, refuse to admit that they are the production of his pen. Both external and internal evidence forbid our passing upon them so sweeping a condemnation. John 21:25 is certainly authentic, and the force added to it, when thus viewed in its Johan nine character, will, we trust, appear in the commentary. It is more difficult to speak of John 21:24. To accept the whole of it as our Evangelist’s seems impossible. A passage in his Third Epistle has indeed been appealed to (John 21:12); but there the true reading is, ‘We also bear witness, and thou knowest that our witness is true.’ The difficulty in the verse before us does not lie in the use of the plural pronoun ‘we:’ it is perfectly conceivable that the Evangelist might write ‘we know’ even if referring to himself alone. But it seems to us inconceivable that in one and the same sentence he should write, of himself, ‘This is the disciple which witnesseth.. .’ and ‘We knew that his witness is true.’ We must conclude, therefore, that the last clause of the verse was written by the elders of Ephesus, or other Christians of influence there; and the only question is, whether this clause alone or the whole verse is to be traced to them. If the whole verse be their addition, it must have been intercalated because they wished to explain who the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ was. The word ‘this’ would then refer to him as the writer of the Gospel, who was well known in Ephesus to be no other than the Apostle John: the apostle and the ‘disciple’ are thus identified. On the other hand, the addition made by the Ephesian elders may begin with the words ‘and we know.’ In this case the appended words are to be regarded as the almost involuntary expression of their confidence in and admiration of one whose Gospel differed so much from the earlier Gospels that some may have doubted how it would be received. The first part of the verse will on this view be John’s own statement; and its similarity to chap. John 19:35 is a mark of genuineness. The question at issue is thus reduced within very narrow limits.


Verse 25

John 21:25. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself will not contain the books that would be written. We have already expressed our belief that these are the words of no other than John himself. They seem to contain the Evangelist’s own explanation of that principle of selection which he has followed throughout his work. To have given a complete history of the facts of Christ’s life would have been impossible. He has chosen those only which bore upon his particular aim. It has been usual to describe this verse as a strong hyperbole. But is it not at once more reverent and more true to say that the language here used expresses the infinitude which the apostle beheld in the life of Jesus,—the fathomless depths which he knew his Lord’s every work and every word to contain? And we may ask, as we read these words, What apostle or disciple of Jesus, known to us as belonging to the first age of the Christian Church, could have so spoken but that apostle whom Jesus loved? In no part of his work does he expressly name himself, not is this necessary. He is named by almost every line that he has written, by almost every touch of the pencil with which he has drawn his picture. Let us imitate his example; and, instead of closing with the thought of the servant, close rather with the thought of the Master whose eternal existence was taught us by the first, and whose infinite fulness is now taught us by the last words of this Gospel.

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on John 21:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/john-21.html. 1879-90.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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