John 21 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Jesus Appears Again to His Disciples

This chapter puzzles scholars. Why are the disciples fishing back in Galilee after having been commissioned by Jesus and having received the Spirit? Why don't they recognize him after having seen him more than once at this point? Why is this called the third appearance of Jesus when there were already three appearances in chapter 20? If the Gospel has prepared the disciples for the time of Jesus' absence and has come to a climax with a blessing on those who have believed without having seen, what place is there for these further stories about Jesus' presence? Such questions, among others (cf. Brown 1970:1077-82; Moloney 1998:545-47, 562-65), lead most scholars to conclude this chapter was added later, either by the same author or by one or more of his disciples.

This interpretation may be correct, but there are factors that suggest chapter 21 was the intended conclusion and not an epilogue. To judge from the other Gospels, the telling of the life of Jesus normally concluded not just with faith in the risen Lord but "with a confident statement that this mission to the world, undertaken at His command and under His authority, will be the means by which many are saved" (Hoskyns 1940b:656). Of course, John may have his own way of ending a Gospel, as he has had his own way of telling it throughout. If he concluded with chapter 20, perhaps later disciples felt an ending such as chapter 21 was needed. But that John himself included chapter 21 is suggested by a second factor: there are several examples elsewhere in Johannine literature of summary conclusions occurring before the actual end of the material (12:36-37; 1 Jn 5:13; Rev 22:5; cf. Talbert 1992:258). So John's own practice earlier in this Gospel, as well as elsewhere (depending on one's views of the authorship of John, 1 John and Revelation), actually suggests the conclusion in 20:30-31 is not itself the end of the account. But what about the discrepancies noted above? We will see that these can provide insight into the story itself, rather than clues as to how this story came to us.Jesus Appears to His Disciples While They Are Fishing (21:1-14) After his appearances in Jerusalem that established the faith of the disciples, Jesus now appears in Galilee to a portion of the disciples. The seven disciples mentioned (v. 2) may be symbolic of the entire group, though John does not draw attention to the number. More important is the simple fact that they are together. Jesus had formed the nucleus of the new community during his ministry and had further established it at the cross and in the breathing of the Spirit. Now he reminds them of his lordship and their dependency upon him in the fulfillment of the commission he has given them (20:21-23). He does this by focusing on two of the leaders among the disciples, Peter and the Beloved Disciple.

John does not tell us why the disciples are back in Galilee, but in fact Jesus had told them to return there, where he would meet them (Mk 14:28; 16:7). They seem to have been sitting around, unsure of what to do, until Peter decides to go fishing and the others come along (v. 3). Peter is taking the lead, but what sort of lead is it? Some see this act as "aimless activity undertaken in desperation" (Brown 1970:1096) or even apostasy, that is, abandoning the Lord and returning to their former life (Hoskyns 1940b:660). Others think they went fishing simply because they needed to eat (Beasley-Murray 1987:399). The latter is probably true enough, but there is also a sense that Peter and the others, while not necessarily aimless and certainly not apostate, are doing what is right in their own eyes. The stories in this chapter reveal Jesus' bringing his disciples, especially Peter, more completely under his lordship. The disciples do not know what to do, so they do that which is necessary, and in taking this initiative they put themselves in a place where Christ meets them. Here is the simple truth, attested to by the saints, that when we are uncertain what to do we should simply do our duty and God will guide.

That night they catch nothing (v. 3), a graphic portrayal of barrenness. They have done what they thought was the right thing but experience utter failure. This prepares them to learn one of the central lessons of discipleship--apart from Jesus they can do nothing (15:5). Jesus has taught this lesson before, for "never in the Gospels do the disciples catch a fish without Jesus' help" (Brown 1970:1071)! But they need the lesson repeated, as we often do as well.

The turning point comes early in the morning, perhaps symbolizing the dawning of spiritual light. Jesus is described again as simply standing there, without a description of his arrival on the spot (v. 4; cf. 20:14, 19, 26). Also as earlier, they are not able to recognize him at first. Although some scholars take this as evidence that this chapter does not fit well after chapter 20, in fact this ignorance fits with the theme running throughout these chapters that there was something different about Jesus' body. John stresses in these descriptions both the continuity and discontinuity of Jesus' body.

Jesus takes the initiative and calls to them: Friends, haven't you any fish? (v. 5). The question is put in a form that expects a negative answer. This may be the common way of asking a hunter or fisherman whether they have had success (Brown 1970:1070), but in this case the one asking already knows the answer. The word translated friends (paidiai) is more literally "children" or even "little children." Many follow J. H. Moulton's suggestion (1908:170 n. 1), based on modern Greek, that this is an expression similar to the British "lads." While this usage would fit here, neither Liddell, Scott and Jones (1940), nor Bauer, Gingrich and Danker (1979) nor Oepke (1967b:638) site evidence for such a use in classical or Hellenistic Greek. In 1 John the word is used "as an affectionate address of the spiritual father to those committed to him" (Oepke 1967b:638; see 1 Jn 2:14, 18 and some manuscripts of 2:12; 3:7). This usage, unique to John, is probably the sense here in John 21 also (Oepke 1967b:638). Thus, this greeting was unusual and so would have sounded strange to the disciples, all the more so because they did not know who was calling them.

The disciples admit they have failed at fishing (v. 5), and Jesus tells them, Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some (v. 6). They could hear this as the idle suggestion of a bystander. But he does not say, "Try over there and you might find some." He doesn't offer a suggestion; he gives a promise that in fact they will find fish where he directs them to cast. When they obey they cannot even get the net into the boat because there are so many fish enclosed in it (v. 6). Such abundance echoes the enormous provision of wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1-11) and of bread and fish at the feeding of the five thousand (6:1-13). Most commentators see these fish as symbolic of the missionary work of the disciples, similar to Jesus' original call, "Come, follow me . . . and I will make you fishers of men" (Mt 4:19 par. Mk 1:17; not given by John). Such symbolism may be included, but the primary point seems to be Jesus' lordship and the need to be obedient to him for any labor to be fruitful.

Earlier, Mary recognized Jesus when he called her name, and the disciples recognized him through his wounds. Now he is recognized through the abundance that comes through obedience to his word. It is the Beloved Disciple who is able to discern the identity of the stranger on the shore (v. 7). It is typical of the Beloved Disciple that he was not mentioned explicitly in the list of those present (v. 2) and also that he is the one able to recognize the Lord. If Peter had been the one to recognize Jesus, one suspects he would have thrown himself into the sea straight away. But when the Beloved Disciple receives this insight he bears witness to it. He speaks specifically to Peter, thus continuing the motif throughout the resurrection narratives of the close relationship between these two disciples.

Peter trusts the witness of the Beloved Disciple, and so he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water (v. 7). This translation probably gives the wrong impression, since it suggests Peter was working with his undergarment on and added his outer garment before swimming to shore. This would be a good way to drown or at least slow oneself down. Perhaps, instead, he tied up the garment he was wearing so it would not hinder his swimming (Brown 1970:1072). The text, however, says that he was naked (en gar gymnos, paraphrased in the NIV), and this seems to have been typical for such work (Nun 1997:20-21). Most likely, then, he had been working naked and had put on a loincloth before swimming to shore (Nun 1997:23, 37). The other disciples follow in the boat, towing the catch (v. 8).

Peter's departure from the boat is mentioned, but his arrival on the shore is not. Some scholars think this omission is a sign that two stories have been joined together (cf. Schnackenburg 1982:345-47), but the story is coherent as it stands. The landing is told from the point of view of the Beloved Disciple and the other five disciples. There is no description of Peter talking with Jesus. The impression is thus given that his attempt to get to Jesus first did not do him much good. What the disciples notice is a charcoal fire with bread and fish already prepared (v. 9). The Lord has breakfast ready for them, another sign of his grace and provision, like the catch they have just taken. There is no indication of where Jesus got the bread and fish; the appearance of the food is as mysterious as his own.

The first one to speak is Jesus, and he tells them to bring some of the fish they have caught (v. 10). For the second time in this story Jesus gives them a command. Although Jesus addresses all the disciples (enenkate, bring, plural), it is Peter who brings the catch ashore, apparently by himself (v. 11). Peter's zeal to come to Jesus is now matched by his zeal to obey him.

A great many suggestions have been made over the years for the significance of the number 153 (cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:401-4), some suggestions more edifying than others. The emphasis in the story, however, is simply on how many fish there were and the fact that the net did not break. On the simplest level, these details speak of the abundance that the gracious God provides and how he also enables the abundance to be received. If more specific symbolism is present, perhaps the fish represent a large influx of converts from various nations and the unbroken net represents the unity of the church (for example, Brown 1970:1097).

At the feeding of the five thousand they had brought the bread and fish to Jesus, and he multiplied them (6:9-11). In this scene he already has food and invites them to add to it from their catch. Peter hauls up the fish, but there is no description of what is done with them. Rather, Jesus speaks yet another command--an invitation to have breakfast (v. 12). Throughout this encounter with Jesus the disciples have not said anything. The scene is one of great awe, with none of them daring to ask him, Who are you? (v. 12). There was something different about him, yet they were able to recognize him. The Lord Jesus is the focus of this story.

After inviting them to come and eat, he himself comes to the fire. He took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish (v. 13). This description echoes his action at the feeding of the five thousand (6:11) and provides the climax of this story. It answers their unasked questions--he is recognized in this breaking of the bread (cf. Lk 24:30-31). The master who commands them also serves them, continuing a theme found during the ministry (for example, 13:5, 13).

John concludes the story by saying, This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead (v. 14). Scholars see this note, like a similar note earlier (4:54), as evidence of poorly aligned sources, since this is in fact the fourth appearance recounted by John. But this conclusion misses the point because John is counting appearances to the disciples as a group, which would not include Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene. Jesus now appears to another partial gathering of the group, an appearance that reveals the same key characteristics as were manifested throughout the ministry, namely his lordship, his servanthood, his character as gracious giver of abundance and his love. He has met his disciples at a point of failure and revealed himself as the awesome Lord of creation who cares for them.The fact that he provides a meal indicates that "lordship includes fellowship" (Osborne 1984:179). Such fellowship with Jesus at a meal reminds one of the many times he shared such fellowship during his ministry, especially at the Last Supper and also the theme of the new community he has now established (see comments on 9:1--10:42 and 19:25-27). This association, as well as the tie in with the feeding of the five thousand, brings echoes of the Eucharist (cf. Brown 1970:1098-1100). This meal itself is not a Eucharist, but it embodies a central aspect of what Eucharist itself is about--communion with the risen Lord in the midst of his people.

John's note in verse 14 indicates that the focus of the story to this point is on Jesus and his appearance. It also signals a transition. This story has focused on Jesus' love and lordship, but Peter and the Beloved Disciple have also been featured. Now we will see Jesus' love and lordship in action in their lives specifically.Jesus Forms Peter as a Leader and as a Disciple (21:15-23) Jesus' inviting his disciples to share a meal signals his love and fellowship with them. But he has unfinished business with Peter, the one who denied him in a special way. After breakfast Jesus speaks to Peter. Throughout this story Peter has been referred to as Simon Peter (vv. 2-3, 7b, 11) or simply as Peter (v. 7a), the name Jesus had given him (1:42; cf. Mk 3:16 par. Lk 6:14). But now Jesus calls him by his former name, Simon son of John (v. 15), "as if he were no longer (or not yet!) a disciple" (Michaels 1989:359).

In the first part of this chapter Jesus began with a question that revealed the disciples' poverty (v. 5), and then he gave a series of commands (vv. 6, 10, 12). So also now he questions Peter and then gives a command, and he does so three times. His question is extremely searching, indeed, it is the ultimate question in life: do you truly love me more than these? (v. 15). What does these refer to? If it is the net and boat, then this question gets at the central point of discipleship and reveals a person's heart. What do we love the most? Have we abandoned all to follow Jesus? Every time we are faced with a temptation this question is raised. Every time we become preoccupied with even the good things God gives us this question is raised.

But, while all of this is true, it is probably not the specific point here. By these Jesus probably means "these other disciples." According to the other Gospels, Peter had boasted that though all the others fall away, he would not (Mt 26:33 par. Mk 14:29; cf. Lk 22:33; Jn 13:37). John does not record this boast, but Peter's actions in swimming to shore and hauling up the net by himself reveal the same attitude. Jesus' question, therefore, goes even deeper than the issue of false attachments. He gets at the root of all sin, namely, pride.

Peter replies, Yes, Lord, . . . you know that I love you (v. 15). He does not claim to love Jesus more than the others do, which suggests he has benefited from having reflected on his shameful denials of the Lord. This response is typical of true discipleship, for it is humble and focuses on the Lord's own knowledge. According to the NIV it is also a humble response in that Peter does not claim to truly love Jesus, but only to love him. Behind this translation there are two verbs for love, truly love (agapao) and love (phileo). In the past it was common to find a great distinction between these two words, but in recent years the idea that they are close synonyms has come to prevail (for example, Carson 1991:676-77). The older idea that agapao is divine love and phileo a lower, human love does indeed go too far. For both verbs are used of the love of the Father for the Son (3:35; 5:20), and agapao can be used of false love, for example, the love of this world (2 Tim 4:10). So a simple distinction between the verbs is not justified, but this does not mean there is no distinction at all. For in this passage there is a pattern, with Jesus asking Peter twice whether he loves him (agapao) and each time Peter responding that, yes, he does love him (phileo). Then the third time Jesus switches to using Peter's word. Such a pattern suggests there is a distinction here (McKay 1985; H. C. G. Moule 1898:176), and since agapao is used more often in John for God's love than is phileo, "it was likely that agapao would be chosen for the higher meaning" (McKay 1985:322). The present context itself supports this view, for otherwise Peter would be claiming "the higher meaning" from the outset, which would not fit with his more chastened perspective. So the NIV seems justified in distinguishing these two terms in the present context.

Peter was not boastful when Jesus gave him the opportunity to be (v. 15), but by the third time Jesus asks whether he loves him, Peter is hurt, that is, deeply grieved (elypethe, v. 17). Jesus' asking three times recalls the three denials, and Peter's pride is cut to the quick. Here we see the Great Physician performing painful but necessary surgery. The light is shining in the darkness of Peter's heart, bringing life. For this is what John of the Ladder (c. A.D. 570-649) refers to as "joy-producing sorrow" (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, chap. 7), the repentance that enables one to experience the Lord's love and salvation. Without such brokenness we are full of self and unable to hear and receive the guidance of the Chief Shepherd.

In response to this searing third question, Peter says, Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you (v. 17). Two different words for "know" are used here, although these are not distinguished in the NIV. But as with the two words for "love," these words are in a pattern. Each time Peter has responded you know (sy oidas, vv. 15-17), but now he adds you know [sy ginoskeis] that I love you. The pattern here suggests that there is a distinction between oida and ginosko, with the latter perhaps meaning "you must be able to see" (McKay 1981:304). This shift of vocabulary, along with the reference to all things, reflects a view of the Lord that is more exalted and suggests that Peter's humility is deeper. "Do you see how he has become better and more sober, no longer self-willed or contradicting?" (Chrysostom In John 88.1). Peter is dying to self and finding his confidence only in the Lord. It is the Lord who knows (cf. 1:42, 47-48; 2:25). Despite the appearances, Peter does love Jesus.

After each profession of love Jesus gives a similar command, using different words. First he is to feed [boske] lambs (arnia, v. 15); then he is to shepherd [poimaine] sheep (probata, v. 16). The third command includes a word from both of the previous commands (v. 17, boske/probata), thereby tying the three commands together. While attempts have been made to find significant differences in these words, none are convincing (Brown 1970:1104-6; McKay 1985:332). Rather, this pattern suggests we have a comprehensive image of shepherding, a very familiar figure of speech for leadership over God's people. God himself was known as the shepherd of Israel (Gen 49:24; Ps 80:1; Is 40:11), and under him the leaders of his people were known as shepherds (2 Sam 5:2; Jer 23:4; Ezek 34). This motif continues in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:1-4). Jesus himself is the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:1-18), and now he commissions Peter to care for the flock that belongs to Jesus, for they are my lambs . . . my sheep. The community has already been established, and now Peter is given authority, though of a particular kind.

The key qualification for this task, as this chapter indicates, is a love for Jesus that is characterized by humility, dependence and obedience. Peter already had a devotion to Jesus, but he was still full of self will and was thrusting himself to the front. Such a proud attitude of heart would spell disaster for the community, as had already been evident in Israel's history right up to the opponents who had just had Jesus crucified and as has sadly been just as evident in the history of the church. But Peter himself learned his lesson, as is clear from his first letter. When he addresses the elders of the communities he does so as a "fellow elder" and encourages them to "be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers . . . not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away" (1 Pet 5:1-4). Here is authority exercised in humility and conscious of the Chief Shepherd. Such are marks of a true shepherd.

Jesus had predicted Peter's denials after Peter had said he was willing to die with him (13:37-38). Jesus told him, "Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later" (13:36). Here now is the call to follow. After Peter professes his obedient love, Jesus spells out the cost of that love. He contrasts Peter's youth, his life up to this point, with what is coming. He has been able to go wherever he wanted, but when he is old, Jesus tells him, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go (v. 18). Here is an explicit contrast between Peter's life of self will and his coming under the will of another. He has just submitted to Jesus and his will, and now Jesus says such submission is going to include being taken where he does not want to go.

John says this obscure saying is an indication of the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God (v. 19). The translation of the NIV (v. 18) could be a picture of death from natural causes after increasing senility. But according to tradition, Peter was crucified head down during the Neronian persecution in the midsixties A.D. (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.25.5; 3.1.2-3). So John, late in the first century, knows that Peter's hands were stretched out and tied to a cross. The word dress (zonnymi) is a play on words. It is used for getting dressed, but it specifically means to gird, that is, fasten a belt or rope around one's clothes. While this word is not used for the binding of prisoners (cf. 18:12, 24; Acts 21:11-13), this could be the significance of this image. More likely, however, it refers here to the binding of a person's arms to the crossbeam as they are led to crucifixion (Beasley-Murray 1987:408-9).

The Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep, and this shepherd will have to do likewise, though his death will not, of course, take away the sins of the world. He has submitted his will to God, and his death, like Jesus' death, will be in accordance with God's will and thereby glorify him (Moloney 1998:556). Furthermore, in the death of Jesus the glory of God is revealed since God is love and love is the laying down of one's life (1 Jn 4:8; 3:16). So now Jesus predicts that Peter also will glorify God by his death (v. 19).

Having spelled out his will for Peter, Jesus calls him to follow him (v. 19). Peter had answered such a call at the outset of the ministry, but now he understands much more about who Jesus is and what following him entails. He has also received a commission from the Lord for leadership in the community. So this is a call to recommit himself. Just as this Gospel shows that faith must be exercised in the face of each new revelation, so one's commitment to Jesus must be renewed as one learns more of Christ and his call.

Jesus has been teaching Peter many lessons in this encounter on the beach, but in what follows it is clear that Peter has more to learn. Peter has had his attention fixed on Jesus ever since the Beloved Disciple told him the person on the beach was Jesus, but now he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the Beloved Disciple, who is following (v. 20). Apparently Jesus and Peter have had this conversation while walking along the beach. The NIV says the Beloved Disciple was following them, but the word them is not in the text. The NIV thus obscures the connection, for right after Jesus commands Peter to follow him we hear of one who is following. The Beloved Disciple is identified as the one who leaned against Jesus and asked who would betray him (v. 20; 13:25). This note recalls that first explicit reference to the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel and the setting in which Jesus demonstrated his love and servanthood, key characteristics about which he has just been speaking to Peter. It also recalls the insight Jesus granted to the Beloved Disciple. Peter now tries to assume this same role and asks for insight regarding his friend (v. 21).

In response Jesus speaks strong words to Peter. Peter's old habit of lapsing into error right after experiencing truth is still present (cf. Mt 16:16, 22-23 par. Mk 8:29, 33). He is sure of the Lord's knowledge (cf. v. 17), but he has not learned what submission to his will entails (vv. 18-19). Jesus repeats his call: If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me (v. 22). Jesus is indeed Lord, and his will shall be accomplished in the Beloved Disciple's life, but that is none of Peter's business. Peter can trust Jesus with the life of his friend.

Jesus' statement about the Beloved Disciple, like that about Peter (v. 18), is rather obscure. It includes a clear reference to Jesus' personal return, but what does it mean for the Beloved Disciple to remain (menein)? The NIV interprets it to mean remain alive, and certainly this is how the later disciples, the brothers (v. 23), took it. But since it is the word used for indwelling Christ, as in the image of the vine and the branches (15:4-7), a spiritual sense could be involved. John distinguishes carefully between what Jesus actually said and how it was interpreted (v. 23). Such lack of attention to the precise words of God has been a source of difficulty ever since the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:16-17; 3:1-5, 13). This misunderstanding highlights the need for the instruction of the Paraclete (14:26).

It is usually assumed that this correction (v. 23) implies that the Beloved Disciple has in fact died or is very near death. Such may be the case, but the text does not say as much. The Beloved Disciple could still be in the prime of life, and here he is simply trying to squelch an error he knows to be floating around among the disciples. Jesus' will is the crucial factor, whatever remain might mean.

A number of scholars think there is a rivalry between the Beloved Disciple and Peter, but this final chapter shows them to be friends of one another and to both have special roles in the community. Peter will be a shepherd, and the Beloved Disciple is able to discern the Lord and receive insight into his life and thought. Accordingly, the conclusion will focus on the Beloved Disciple as witness.

Next commentary:
Later Disciples Bear Witness to the Beloved Disciple's Witness

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