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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Jesus Appears to His Disciples While They Are Fishing (21:1-14)
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.

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