SCRIPTURE: JOHN 21:1-19 COMMENTARY
JOHN 20-21. AN EPILOGUE?
Chapter 20 tells the story of the resurrection and Jesus' appearances to Mary and the disciples. In 20:30-31, the Fourth Evangelist stated the purpose of this Gospel and concluded. Commentators generally agree that chapter 21 is an epilogue, although "there is no evidence that the work ever circulated without this chapter" (Bruce, 398).
JOHN 21:1-3. I'M GOING FISHING.
1After these things, Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself this way. 2Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 3Simon Peter said to them, "I'm going fishing."
They told him, "We are also coming with you." They immediately went out, and entered into the boat. That night, they caught nothing.
"After these things" (v. 1a). After the resurrection (20:1-10) and the appearance to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18) and the appearance to the disciples (10:19-23) and to the disciples and Thomas (20:24-31).
"Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias" (v. 1b). The Sea of Tiberius is another name for the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has been in the vicinity of Jerusalem since 7:10, so this transition to Galilee is abrupt.
"Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together" (v. 2). Seven disciples are mentioned (v. 2) without explaining why only seven:
• Simon Peter confessed Jesus as "the holy one of God" (6:69), but is famous for denying Jesus (18:15-18, 25-27). He has been deeply flawed, but becomes a different man after the resurrection. He is the leader of the disciples.
• Thomas is famous for doubting the resurrection (20:25), but when Jesus appears to him Thomas confessed, "My Lord and my God!" (20:28).
• Nathanael is mentioned only in this Gospel, and is best known for doubting that anything good could come out of Nazareth (1:46)––but after meeting Jesus Nathanael confessed, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel" (1:49).
• The sons of Zebedee are mentioned frequently in the Synoptics, but only here in the Gospel of John. Their names are James and John.
• "and two others" (v. 2). One of these is "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (v. 7––see also 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20). This Gospel never names this disciple, and many scholars believe him to be the author of this Gospel.
"Simon Peter said to them, 'I'm going fishing.' They told him, 'We are also coming with you'" (v. 3a). In the Synoptics, Jesus invites Peter and Andrew––both fishermen––to follow him, promising to make them "fishers of men" (halieis anthropon) (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17). Some scholars suggest that, by returning to their fishing boats, these disciples are turning their backs on their responsibility to be halieis anthropon (fishers of men). That, however, reads too much into the text. People have to eat, and fishermen get their food from the sea.
Also, when people do not know what to do, they do what they know––turn to the comfort of familiar activity. Peter is a fisherman, accustomed to the busy, physically demanding life of the sea. We should expect him to grow restless when not working and to welcome the busyness of boat and nets. He and the other disciples take up their nets, row their boats, and look for fish. Very natural!
And yet, there is danger here too. Immersed in what is familiar, people sometimes fail to do other essential tasks. Will that happen to these disciples? Will they return to ministry? Jesus intervenes to insure that they will not be lost permanently to their old ways.
JOHN 21:4-8. IT'S THE LORD!
4But when day had already come, Jesus stood on the beach, yet the disciples didn't know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus therefore said to them, "Children, have you anything to eat?"
They answered him, "No."
6He said to them, "Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some."
They cast it therefore, and now they weren't able to draw it in for the multitude of fish. 7That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It's the Lord!"
So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around him (for he was naked), and threw himself into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the little boat (for they were not far from the land, but about two hundred cubits away), dragging (Greek: surontes––different from the verb in v. 11) the net full of fish.
"But when day had already come, Jesus stood on the beach, yet the disciples didn't know that it was Jesus" (v. 4). We have two resurrection motifs here. Mary Magdalene visited Jesus' tomb early in the morning (20:1), and initially failed to recognize Jesus (20:15). Now these disciples fail to recognize him.
Why do they fail to recognize Jesus? Perhaps distance or poor light prevent them from seeing him clearly. Perhaps Jesus' post-resurrection appearance is different. Perhaps their eyes are clouded so that they do not recognize him. Mary did not recognize Jesus on Easter until he called her name (20:16). On the Emmaus road, the disciples' "eyes were kept from recognizing him" until "he took the bread and gave thanks." When he broke the bread and gave it to them, "their eyes were opened, and they recognized him" (Luke 24:16, 31).
"Children, have you anything to eat?" (v. 5a). A literal translation would be, "Children, you don't have any fish, do you?"
The word children (paidia––not teknon) suggests a familiar relationship. One would not ordinarily call fishermen children without expecting a hostile response.
"Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some" (v. 6a). Some scholars note that Greeks consider the right side to be the lucky side. However, the point of this story is not luck but obedience to Jesus.
"They cast it therefore, and now they weren't able to draw it in for the multitude of fish" (v. 6b). These men obey Jesus even though they have not recognized him. It is not unusual for bystanders to suggest a different "fishing hole" to an unsuccessful fisherman. Sometimes local people know local secrets, so we should not be too surprised that these men follow Jesus' suggestion. The result of their obedience is a catch so great that they cannot haul it in.
"That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It's the Lord!'" (v. 7a). Just as on Easter morning, the beloved disciple is the first to see and believe and Peter is the first to act (see 20:6-8). Characteristically, the beloved disciple demonstrates spiritual discernment, while Peter demonstrates bold, impetuous action (Kostenberger, 591).
Note that they first obeyed and only then were able to see and understand. We should take note. When faith is dim, acting in faith inspires faith.
"So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around him (for he was naked) (Greek: gymnos), and threw himself into the sea" (v. 7b). It seems odd that Peter would clothe himself before jumping into the water. However, the Greek word gymnos means naked or lightly clothed, as for an athletic contest. Peter most likely tucks his fisherman's smock into his belt before jumping into the water (Brown, 1072).
"But the other disciples came in the little boat (for they were not far from the land, but about two hundred cubits away" (v. 8). A cubit is the length of a man's forearm––approximately eighteen inches or half a yard. Two hundred cubits would be about one hundred yards or ninety-one meters.
Hauling a net full of thrashing fish through the shallows is heavy work. One hundred fifty-three large fish would weigh hundreds of pounds. A hundred yards is the length of a football field––quite a distance to drag a heavy weight. Peter will complete the task by himself in verse 11. He must be a physically powerful man.
JOHN 21:9-14. SIMON PETER DREW THE NET TO LAND
9So when they got out on the land, they saw a fire of coals (Greek: anthrakian) there, and fish laid on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish which you have just caught."
11Simon Peter went up, and drew (Greek: heilkusen) the net to land, full of great fish, one hundred fifty-three; and even though there were so many, the net wasn't torn.
12Jesus said to them, "Come and eat breakfast."
None of the disciples dared inquire of him, "Who are you?" knowing that it was the Lord.
13Then Jesus came and took the bread, gave it to them, and the fish likewise. 14This is now the third time that Jesus was revealed to his disciples, after he had risen from the dead.
"So when they got out on the land, they saw a fire of coals (anthrakian) there, and fish laid on it, and bread" (v. 9). The only other time that we find this word anthrakian in the New Testament is when Peter warmed himself over a charcoal fire as he betrayed Jesus (18:18, 25-27). Now Jesus will give him a chance to redeem himself beside another anthrakian.
"Bring some of the fish which you have just caught" (v. 10). Jesus has already prepared fish and bread. Presumably, he needs more fish to feed this group of hungry men.
"So Simon Peter went up, and drew (Greek: heilkusen) the net to land" (v. 11a). What the rest of the disciples were not able to do (v. 6), Peter accomplishes by himself (v. 11). This is a tribute, not only to Peter's physical strength, but also to his leadership role among the disciples.
"full of great fish, one hundred fifty-three" (v. 11b). Christians as early as Augustine have gone to great lengths trying to tease out the meaning of this number. They note that 153 is the sum of the numbers 1 through 17 (1+2+3...+17=153)––and that 17 is the sum of 7 and 10 (7+10=17)––and that 7 is the sum of 3 plus 4 (3+4=7). They then assign meanings to these various numbers: i.e., ten stands for the law (Ten Commandments); seven stands for grace or the sevenfold spirit of God (Revelation 1:4); three stands for the Trinity; four stands for the New Jerusalem, the city built foursquare.
Others resort to gematria, which assigns numerical values to letters of the Hebrew alphabet and attempts to find meaning in words where the letters add up to a particular value––in this case 153.
Jerome said that they caught one each of the 153 kinds of fish in the Sea of Galilee. If that is true, the symbolism would be that these fishermen––whom Jesus called to fish for people (Matthew 4:19)––are to fish for all kinds of people––the church is to exclude no repentant sinner. The Apostle Paul would later put it this way: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
But it is also possible that a disciple simply counted the fish to determine the exact dimensions of the miracle and reported: "Wow! A hundred and fifty-three fish––and big ones too!"
Some scholars suggest that the disciples need to know the number of fish to split the catch equitably, but the size of the miracle is the significance here. Jesus began his ministry with a miracle of abundance at Cana of Galilee (2:1-11). Now he concludes his ministry with another miracle of abundance.
"and even though there were so many, the net wasn't torn" (v. 11c). Most scholars agree that the large catch represents Christians, caught in the gospel net (the church), which remains intact despite the weighty catch. By the time of the writing of this Gospel, the church is growing rapidly and becoming diverse. That is Christ's intent.
"Then Jesus came and took the bread, gave it to them, and the fish likewise" (v. 13). This wording has eucharistic overtones, but there is no mention of blessing or breaking bread, both of which are part of the usual eucharistic formula. This is also reminiscent of the earlier feeding of the five thousand on the shores of this same sea (6:1-15). Jesus is sensitive both to people's physical and spiritual needs. At our best, the church follows Jesus' example by feeding, clothing, housing, and educating people. Our concern for people's physical needs not only relieves human suffering, but also constitutes a powerful spiritual witness.
"This is now the third time that Jesus was revealed to his disciples, after he had risen from the dead" (v. 14). It is actually the fourth appearance. The first was to Mary Magdalene (20:11-17)––the second to the disciples without Thomas (20:19-23)––and the third to Thomas and the disciples (20:26-29). Presumably, the author is not counting the appearance to Mary, because she is not one of the twelve.
JOHN 21:15-17. FEED MY SHEEP
15So when they had eaten their breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love (Greek: agapas) me more than these?"
He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I have affection (Greek: philo) for you."
He said to him, "Feed (Greek: boske) my lambs" (Greek: arnia). 16He said to him again a second time, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love (Greek: agapas) me?"
He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I have affection (Greek: philo) for you."
He said to him, "Tend (Greek: poimaine) my sheep." (Greek: probata) 17He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you have affection (Greek: phileis) for me?"
Peter was grieved because he asked him the third time, "Do you have affection (Greek: phileis) for me?" He said to him, "Lord, you know everything. You know that I have affection (Greek: philo) for you."
Jesus said to him, "Feed (Greek: boske) my sheep" (Greek: probata).
"Simon son of Jonah" (v. 15a). Earlier, Jesus gave Simon a new name––Cephas or Peter (1:42)––but now Jesus calls him by his old name––his name from the days before he became Jesus' disciple.
"do you love (agapas) me more than these?" (v. 15b). Love me more than what? More than Peter loves the other disciples? More than Peter loves boats and fishing? Jesus is almost certainly asking whether Peter loves him more than the other disciples do. Jesus repeats the question three times. Peter denied Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' arrest (18:17, 25, 27), and now Jesus offers him three chances to redeem himself.
"Yes, Lord; you know that I have affection (philo) for you" (v. 15c). Note the shifting between two Greek words for love in verses 15-17. Jesus uses agapas (from agapao) in verses 15-16, and Peter responds with philo or phileis (from phileo) in those verses. Then in verse 17 Jesus uses phileis/phileo and Peter responds with the same word.
The traditional explanation is that agapao is the stronger, more sacrificial kind of love––the kind of love that focuses on the welfare of the beloved. Phileo is a significant but less demanding brotherly love or friendship. Jesus asks twice if Peter loves him with the deeper agapao love, and Peter responds by affirming the less deep phileo love. The third time, Jesus shifts to phileo, using Peter's word––asking if Peter loves him with the less deep phileo love, and Peter is hurt to hear Jesus downgrade his question to match Peter's earlier responses.
Earlier, Peter was quick to make bold claims, saying, "Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you" (13:37), prompting Jesus to warn Peter that he would deny Jesus three times. Peter did that (18:15-18, 25-27). Now a chastened Peter is hesitant to claim more than phileo love––is hurt not to be able to offer agapao love––and is hurt by Jesus' honing in three times on his weakness.
Many scholars downplay this explanation, saying that agapao and phileo are interchangeable in this Gospel––and that, by the relatively late date of the writing of this Gospel, the meanings of agapao and phileo have become less distinctive (Carson, 676-677; Borchert, 335; Kostenberger, 596; Lincoln, 517; Williamson, 297). It is also noteworthy that Jesus would not have spoken Greek to Peter, but Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew––and Aramaic has only one word for love.
However, the interplay of agapao and phileo are so nicely done in verses 15-17 that it seems likely that the author intends the contrast––intends to highlight Peter's failure and diminished confidence.
But the key to this verse is love––love of Jesus. That is the one thing needed for Christian discipleship.
"Feed my lambs…. Tend my sheep…. Feed my sheep" (vv. 14-17). In the Synoptics, Jesus gives Peter an evangelistic role––promising to make him a fisher for men (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17). Now he gives Peter a pastoral role––caring for his lambs/sheep.
"Feed (boske) my lambs (arnia)…. Tend (poimaine) my sheep (probata)…. Feed (boske) my sheep" (probata) (vv. 14-17).
Regarding the shifts between "feed" and "tend," shepherds "feed" sheep, but "tend" implies a broader kind of care––a concern for every aspect of the sheep's health and safety.
Regarding the shifts between "lambs" and "sheep," a lamb is a young sheep, still dependent on its mother for its care and feeding. All sheep are vulnerable, but lambs especially so.
In this last-minute commissioning, Jesus tells Peter what is essential to ministry––love and service to Jesus' lambs/sheep.
JOHN 21:18-19. YOU WILL STRETCH OUT YOUR HANDS
18"Most certainly I tell you, when you were young, you dressed yourself, and walked where you wanted to. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you, and carry you where you don't want to go."
19Now he said this, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. When he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me."
Earlier Peter said, "Lord, why can't I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you" (13:37). Jesus responded by predicting that Peter would deny him three times (13:38). Now Jesus says that Peter will glorify God by his death just as Jesus glorified God by his (v. 19; see also 7:39; 12:16; 13:31-32; 14:13; 17:1-5).
It is likely that Peter was martyred during Nero's persecution of Christians in 65 A.D.––prior to the writing of this Gospel. Legend has it that Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to emulate his Lord, but evidence for this is weak.
"Most certainly I tell you, when you were young, you dressed yourself, and walked where you wanted to. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you, and carry you where you don't want to go" (v. 18). The saying about the belt probably has its roots in a proverb about youth going where they will and old people having to go where others lead them. However, in this context, it suggests crucifixion. "Stretch out your hands" would be consistent with the Roman practice of requiring the victim to carry the cross-piece (the horizontal section) of the cross to the crucifixion site. The victim would carry the cross-piece over his shoulders with his arms tied to the cross-piece on either side.
"and another will dress you, and carry you where you don't want to go" (v. 18c). They will lead Peter to the site of his crucifixion.
"Now he said this, signifying by what kind of death he (Peter) would glorify God" (v. 19a). This wording is very similar to that which this Gospel uses to describe Jesus' death (12:33; 18:32).
Jesus concludes by saying, "Follow me" (v. 19b). In the Synoptics, Jesus extended this invitation to Peter at their first meeting (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17), but in the Gospel of John, Jesus extended it only to Philip at that time (1:43). Only in this last chapter does Jesus invite Peter to follow him.
In this Gospel, this invitation operates at two levels (as do so many things in this Gospel). On the one hand, it constitutes Jesus' vote of confidence in Peter's newfound maturity. On the other hand, it is an invitation to Peter to follow Jesus in the manner of his death.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.