Jesus’ Appearance to the Disciples in Galilee, 1-14

21:1 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. Now this is how he did so. 21:2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael (who was from Cana in Galilee), the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples of his were together. 21:3 Simon Peter told them, “I am going fishing.” “We will go with you,” they replied. They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Although many commentators regard ch 21 as a later addition (by another hand) there are some good reasons for considering it to be an original and integral part of of the Gospel.  See Carson’s commentary for a review of the discussion.

The Sea of Tiberias – Another name for the Sea of Galilee, John 6:1.

It is clear from v7 that one of these six was the ‘beloved disciple’.  This was not Peter (who sat next to the ‘beloved disciple’ at the Passover Eve meal).  We can also discount Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana and the two unnamed disciples as being too insignificant to have set next to Jesus at the meal (Jn 13:23).  Of the two Zebedee brothers, we know that James was killed in the early 40s (Acts 12:2).  Since it is clear that the Gospel was written later than the 40s, we conclude from the process of elimination that the ‘beloved disciple’ was John the son of Zebedee.  (See Paul Barnett, in In Defense of the Bible, p227)

“I’m going out to fish” – It was maintained by a few of the older commentators that this indicated an intention on Peter’s part to go back to his fishing business permanently.  But this is unlikely.

They caught nothing

‘They caught nothing.’  F.F. Bruce tells of a Christian brother, a fisherman, who explains it thus: ‘They should have known better than to expect anything.  We are told that they had with them the two sons of Zebedee.  These were the men whom Jesus called the “sons of thunder”, and it is a fact well known to all fishermen that when there is any thunder in the atmosphere, the fish bury their heads in the sea-bed, and it is impossible to catch any.’ (In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past, p11)

21:4 When it was already very early morning, Jesus stood on the beach, but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 21:5 So Jesus said to them, “Children, you don’t have any fish, do you?” They replied, “No.” 21:6 He told them, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they threw the net, and were not able to pull it in because of the large number of fish.

There is deep symbolism here.  Without Jesus, even the things that we think we are good at will prove ultimately fruitless.

21:7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” So Simon Peter, when he heard that it was the Lord, tucked in his outer garment (for he had nothing on underneath it), and plunged into the sea. 21:8 Meanwhile the other disciples came with the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from land, only about a hundred yards.

A wonderful eyewitness touch: he got dressed and then jumped into the water.  Did he put on his ‘outer garment’ through a sense of shame and guilt?  It is vaguely reminiscent of a rather similar earlier occasion, when Peter had recognised the moral distance between himself and Jesus: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

21:9 When they got out on the beach, they saw a charcoal fire ready with a fish placed on it, and bread. 21:10 Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you have just now caught.” 21:11 So Simon Peter went aboard and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three, but although there were so many, the net was not torn. 21:12 “Come, have breakfast,” Jesus said. But none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 21:13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 21:14 This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
A significant number?

Simon Peter went aboard and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three, but although there were so many, the net was not torn.

Many weird and wonderful attempts have been made to find special meaning in the number of fish in the net.

  1. Jerome, for example, reported that ancient writers believed that there were 153 different species of fish in the net, thus symbolising all the nations of the world.
  2. Augustine, noting that 153 is a ‘triangular’ number (the sum of the numbers from 17 downwards), then pointed out that 10 refers to the number of commandments, and 7 to the sevenfold Spirit of God.  The elect then (according to Augustine) are saved by grace and by keeping the commandments.
  3. According to Cyril, 100 = the large number of Gentiles who were to be saved; 50 = the smaller number of Jewish people to be saved; and 3 = the Trinity, by whom they are all saved.
  4. The medieval scholar Rupert of Deutz suggested that the number represents the fullness of the church: 100 represents the married, 50 the widows, and 3 the virgins.
  5. A modern scholar has taken a similar line, linking this number with the feeding of 5,000 in John 6 (5 loaves of bread were taken and 12 baskets left over, 5 + 12 = 17).
  6. Others give a numerical value to each letter, coming up with phrases such as “the church of love,” or “the children of God.”
  7. Another interpretation reverses the usual numerical order, so that, in English Z would equal 1 and so on. On this basis, 153 would symbolise an abbreviation of Ichthus, which was an early Christian code for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.
  8. Of course, the number 153 might have been recorded simply because that was the number of fish in the net!  This is the view of Hendriksen and Morris, among others.  (As a variation on this, it has been suggested that the exact number was given in order to emphasise the truthfulness of the account, since fishermen are prone to exaggerate!)

Barclay (DSB) discusses a number of these interpretations.

Ian Paul, lists a number of the options mentioned above (and a few others besides).  He outlines three principles for dealing with such numerological conundrums in the Bible:

  1. Any claim must fit the data of the text itself.
  2. The reading must have been a possible one for the original author and readers.
  3. Any ‘deeper’ meaning must cohere with the ‘surface’ meaning of the text.  To this extent, they are similar to parables.

There are (Ian Paul notes) three large numbers mentioned in the NT – this one, the 276 people saved from shipwreck in Acts 27:37, and the 666 of Rev 13:18.  Curiously, each of these is a ‘triangular number’.  If for the present number of 153 the base number of 17 is significant, then it might indeed represent the whole of the known world.  On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) a list of 17 regions is listed.

According to James B. Jordan:

In Ezekiel 47, we see baptismal waters flowing from the overturned Bronze Sea of the Temple, flowing out to the boundaries of the Land. Remember that Jesus claims to be the source of such living waters. In Ezekiel 47:9, we are told that “very many fish” will live in the (formerly) Dead Sea as a result of these living waters. In verse 10 we read, “And it will come about that fishermen will stand beside it; from En-Gedi to En-Eglaim there will be a place for spreading of nets. Their fish will be according to their kinds, like the fish of the Great [Mediterranean] Sea, very many.”

The Dead Sea is the boundary of the new land after the exile, and a place of contact with gentiles. The fishes are clearly gentile nations. The fact that the sea is formerly dead and now is brought to life surely indicates the influence of Restoration Israel over the nations before Christ, and points to the greater influence of the Kingdom after Pentecost.

Now, it is well known that Hebrew letters are also numbers: the first nine letters being 1-9, the next nine being 10-90, and the last five being 100-400. “Coding” words with numbers is called gematria. If we subtract the “En” from En-Gedi and En-Eglaim, since “en” means “spring,” then the following emerges:

Gedi = 17 (ג = 3; ד = 4; י = 10)

Eglaim = 153 (ע = 70; ג = 3; ל = 30; י = 10; מ = 40)

Again, this seems too close to the mark to be a coincidence. Once again, we have the number 17 (Gedi, mentioned first) and its relative 153 (Eglaim, mentioned second) connecting to the evangelization of the gentiles, symbolized by fishing.

Conclusion: The number 153 represents the totality of the nations of the world, which will be drawn in the New Creation.

Ian Paul (who cites the above from Jordan) favours both a ‘surface’, literal meaning, and also a ‘deeper’ symbolic meaning.  He concludes:

First, we just need to recognise that these texts are, in some important ways, strange to us, so we do need to enter into the world of the text with a sense of disciplined imagination.

Secondly, there is a good case, supported in multiple ways, for seeing the 153 as having both real and symbolic significance. I don’t see any reason to doubt that someone counted the number (fishermen would be in the habit of doing so, surely?) but like many other things in this gospel, the reality also has symbolic significance.

Thirdly, the connections with the number 17 at Pentecost, and the parallels in this episode with the commissioning of the disciples in the similar experience in Luke 5, do suggest that the symbolic significance has to do with gospel ministry which will draw on people from all over the world. This is a ‘hidden’ meaning which simply says the same thing as the narrative in Luke 5, though in a distinct way and using distinct language and symbolism.

Fourthly, this does make the meaning of the narrative strongly focussed on the theme of restoration and renewing commissioning, a theme that is reinforced in Jesus’ threefold restoration of Peter in the next pericope. The disciples are once again, beyond their failure and fear, being called to proclaim the good news about Jesus to all the world.

Although there were so many, the net was not torn – Could it be (as McGrew suggests, in Hidden in Plain View) that John remembered a previous, very similar miracle, where the net was torn (even though he does not record that earlier miracle: it is found in Lk 5:5-7)?

“Come and have breakfast” – ‘How loving of Jesus to feed Peter before He dealt with his spiritual needs. He gave Peter opportunity to dry off, get warm, satisfy his hunger, and enjoy personal fellowship. This is a good example for us to follow as we care for God’s people. Certainly the spiritual is more important than the physical, but caring for the physical can prepare the way for spiritual ministry. Our Lord does not so emphasize “the soul” that He neglects the body.’ (Wiersbe)

Peter’s Restoration, 15-19

21:15 Then when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these do?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus told him, “Feed my lambs.”

This passage, as Morris says, must be understood in relation to Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus.  ‘Just as he had a short time ago in the presence of the enemy denied all connection with the Lord, so now i n the presence of his friends he affirms three times over that he loves his Lord.’

Morris adds that Peter would have been under something of a cloud with his fellow-disciples since his denial.  What happens now restores him, in their eyes as well as his, to a position of leadership (but he is never accorded absolute primacy) amongst the first believers.

Comparing the Gospel accounts with that of Paul in 1 Cor 15, it would seem that this was fourth time that the risen Lord had appeared to Peter.  We can only guess at why he left it until this occasion to deal with Peter’s restoration.  But Jesus may have left it until Peter was back on his own home territory; indeed, it was in this locality that Jesus had originally called Peter to leave his fishing nets and follow him.

When they had finished eating – The significance of this is that, just as Peter had boasted of his reliability in the presence of the other disciples, Jn 13:8,37f, so now is his restoration. This is despite any private forgiveness that Jesus had extended to Peter when he revealed himself as risen to Peter alone, Lk 24:34; 1 Cor 15:5. Nevertheless, although Peter’s restoration took place in the presence of the other disicples, it also took place in the context of a friendly, sociable gathering – at the end of a meal.  Later, it is clear that Jesus and Peter were walking together along the beach, with the beloved disciple not far behind, v20f.

The threefold challenge to Peter is probably modelled on his threefold denial of the Lord.  It is noticeable, however, that Jesus does not explicitly mention that denial.  Some of our faults are too obvious to us to need mentioning.

“Do you truly love me?” – In the first two of our Lord’s questions, agapao is used. In the third, phileo is employed. In each of his answers, Peter uses phileo. Some commentators (e.g Hendriksen) think that the variation is significant: agapao being, in their eyes, a higher form of love than phileo.  However, in the NT these words are often used interchangeably, and it is probably wrong to attach any special meaning to their varied use here.  In John’s Gospel, the two words are used interchangeably in expressions such as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, ‘the Father loves the Son’, and ‘Jesus loved Lazarus’.  Compare, also, Jn 3:35 with Jn 5:20.  John is especially prone to introducing slight variations in repetitions without.  Within the present passage, John uses three other pairs: bosko and poimaino (‘feed’ and ‘take care of’ the sheep); arnia and probata (‘lambs’ and ‘sheep’); and oida and ginosko (‘you know’, v17): as Carson drily remarks, ‘These have not stirred homiletical imaginations; it is difficult to see why the first pair should.’

Kruse: ‘Agapaō and phileō are used synonymously in the Fourth Gospel. For example, both agapaō and phileō are used of the Father’s love for the Son (10:17; 15:9; 17:23, 24, 26/5:20), Jesus’ love for Lazarus (11:5/11:3, 36), the disciple whom Jesus loved (13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20/20:2), and the Father’s love for the disciples (14:23/16:27).’

What is beyond doubt is the centrality of love for Christ in this interaction.  As Ryle says, the question is a simple but searching one.  Simple, because even a child can understand love.  But also searching: we much know much, and talk much, and do much, and give much, and endure much, and yet if we lack love for Christ, our Christian profession is empty and lifeless.  ‘Do we love Christ?  That is the great question.  Without this there is no vitality about our Christianity.  We are no better than painted wax figures, lifeless stuffed beasts in a museum, sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.  There is no life where there is no love.’

“More than these” – who, or what, are ‘these’? Jesus probably means, “Do you love more more than these disciples do?” Peter has always boasted of his preeminence amongst the disciples, insisting that he would lay down his own life for his Master, Jn 13:37; Mt 26:33; Mk 14:29. But it was he who publicly disowned Jesus.

Indeed, McGrew can suggest that an undesigned coincidence is apparent here, in that it is Matthew’s Gospel which most explicitly records Peter as boasting that “If they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away!”

‘It may be that Christ is asking Peter whether, in the light of what has since happened, he still things that his love for Christ exceeds that of all the others.’ (Morris)

‘Whatever potential for future service he had therefore depended not only on forgiveness from Jesus, but also on reinstatement amongst the disciples.’ (Carson)

“Yes, Lord…you know that I love you” – This is a positive affirmation, but involves no bold claims such as Peter had made previously (Kruse).

“Feed my lambs” means, according to Kruse, ‘to provide spiritual nourishment for new believers’.

‘Peter had not wanted a crucified Lord.  But Jesus was crucified.  How did Peter’s devotion stand in the light of this?  Was he ready to love Christ as he was, and not as Peter wished him to be?’ (Morris)

‘Love to Christ is the mainspring of work for Christ. There is little done for His cause on earth from sense of duty, or from knowledge of what is right and proper. The heart must be interested before the hands will move and continue moving. Excitement may galvanize the Christian’s hands into a fitful and spasmodic activity. But there will be no patient continuance in well-doing, no unwearied labor in missionary work at home or abroad, without love. The nurse in a hospital may do her duty properly and well, may give the sick man his medicine at the right time, may feed him, minister to him and attend to all his wants. But there is a vast difference between that nurse and a wife tending the sick-bed of a beloved husband, or a mother watching over a dying child. The one acts from a sense of duty; the other from affection and love. The one does her duty because she is paid for it; the other is what she is because of her heart. It is just the same in the matter of the service of Christ. The great workers of the church, the men who have led forlorn hopes in the mission-field, and turned the world upside down, have all been eminently lovers of Christ.’ (Ryle, Holiness)

21:16 Jesus said a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus told him, “Shepherd my sheep.”

“Take care of my sheep” – implies, says Kruse, ‘pastoral care of believers generally’.  But many commentators think that the differences between “feed my lambs” and “take care of my sheep” are merely stylistic.

21:17 Jesus said a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” and said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep.”

Peter was hurt – not because Jesus used a different word for ‘love’, but because Jesus asked him the third time.

‘We need not doubt that our Lord, like a skilful physician, stirred up this grief intentionally.  He intended to prick the Apostle’s conscience, and to teach him a solemn lesson.  If it was grievous to the disciple to be questioned, how much more grievous must if have been to the Master to be thrice denied!’ (Ryle)

“Lord, you know all things” – This statement has, of course, important implications for Christology (cf. Jn 2:25; 16:30).  Morris: ‘In the context it means at least that Jesus fully understood what went on the hearts of men, and specifically in Peter’s heart.’

There is no self-righteous boasting now, just an appeal to the Lord’s knowledge.

“Feed my sheep” – Cf. the parallel in Jn 10:27.  That Peter went on to do so is attested in, for example, 1 Pet 5:1-4. But be it noted, in the context of some Roman Catholic exegesis, that ‘these verses deal with Peter’s reinstatement to service, not with his elevation to primacy.’ (Carson)

‘The charge to Peter was “Feed my sheep;” not “Try experiments on my rats,” or even “Teach my performing dogs new tricks.” (C.S. Lewis)

‘Jesus may have given Peter three opportunities to re-express his love for him and recommission him three times as well because of his threefold denial, Jn 18:15-17, 25-27.  The record of Peter’s reinstatement stands as an encouragement for all who might crack under pressure and deny their Lord.  This is not the same as cold-blooded apostasy, and is not regarded as such by the Lord.’ (Kruse)

‘Similar terminology is used in 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:28f to urge elders to shepherd God’s flock, suggesting that Jesus’ commission to Peter to feed his sheep here in 20:15-17 was not understood to be restricted to Peter in an exclusive way.  More recent Roman Catholic scholars rightly point out that it is inappropriate to import questions of the Petrine office in Roman Christianity into the exegesis of this text.’ (Kruse)

‘It is worth noting that the one thing about which Jesus questions Peter prior to commissioning him to tend the flock is love.  This is the basic qualification for Christian service.  Other qualities may be desirable but love is completely indispensable, cf. 1 Cor 13:1-3.’ (Morris)

21:18 “I tell you the solemn truth, when you were young, you tied your clothes around you and went wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will tie you up and bring you where you do not want to go.” 21:19 (Now Jesus said this to indicate clearly by what kind of death Peter was going to glorify God.) After he said this, Jesus told Peter, “Follow me.”

“You dressed yourself and went where you wanted” – Peter had done that this very morning, v7.

Whatever else this enigmatic saying might mean, it certainly suggests a loss of independence in old age.

“You will stretch out your hands” – This is understood by many to be an allusion to death by crucifixion. According to 1 Clement 5-6 Peter was martyred in a time of persecution. The Acts of Peter, an apocryphal work of the second century A.D., and also Eusebius say he was executed by crucifixion with his head downward. Peter’s grave is thought to be in Rome. Eusebius quotes Gaius, a second century presbyter of Rome, who said that one could still see in his day the grave marker of Peter in the Vatican. Excavations in the Vatican have found several graves from the first century. Over one ancient grave had been scratched “Peter is within.”

The kind of death by which Peter would glorify God – Cf. Jn 12:23.  Peter himself would come to see and to teach that following Jesus to the point of death is a means of bringing glory to God, 1 Pet 4:14-16.  Carson points out that Peter would have gone on to serve hims Master for three decades with this sombre prediction hanging over him.

Peter would have died – probably in Rome, under Nero – by the time the Fourth Gospel was written. Accounts of Peter asking to be crucified upside down, because he felt unworthy to die in the same way as his Master, are probably unreliable.

When a Christian has come to terms with his own death, then he is ready, as Peter was not ready, to follow Christ wherever he leads, and to do whatever he bids.  And death, when it comes, will not be a tragedy, but a means of crowning a God-glorifying life with further glory to God.

“Follow me” – In the immediate context, this is probably an invitation to walk along the beach (see v20).  But, in broader context, Peter would indeed take up his cross and follow Jesus.  And it was with the words, of course, that Peter’s relationship with Jesus started, Jn 1:43. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Let’s start all over again.” What wonderful grace that so completely restores a person after such a fall!

Peter and the Disciple Jesus Loved, 20-23

21:20 Peter turned around and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. (This was the disciple who had leaned back against Jesus’ chest at the meal and asked, “Lord, who is the one who is going to betray you?”) 21:21 So when Peter saw him, he asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” 21:22 Jesus replied, “If I want him to live until I come back, what concern is that of yours? You follow me!” 21:23 So the saying circulated among the brothers and sisters that this disciple was not going to die. But Jesus did not say to him that he was not going to die, but rather, “If I want him to live until I come back, what concern is that of yours?”

The reference back to Jn 13:24f reminds us of the intimate friendship that existed between Jesus and that disciple; it is in the knowledge of that intimacy that Peter asks his question.

Jesus has just revealed the nature of Peter’s death; but he declines to do the same with regard to the beloved disciple.  In such ways God treats his people differently, and we may not assume that if a ‘word of knowledge’, for example, is given to one person something similar will be granted to another.  We should be content with the knowledge we have been given, and not be curious to know more than has been revealed.

‘It is worth noting that in the Fourth Gospel the hope of the second coming of Jesus is still assumed, despite the emphasis on the present experience of eternal life and the coming of the Counsellor (cf. also 1 Jn 2:28; 3:2).’ (Kruse)

Because of this rumour, the death of the beloved disciple would have caused a crisis of faith among ‘the brothers’.  This verse is inserted to deal with that crisis.

A Final Note, 24

21:24 This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

This is the disciple – this identified the beloved disciple as the Evangelist.

These things – refers to the entire content of the Fourth Gospel.  ‘What is implied here is that the basic testimony preserved in the Fourth Gospel came from the beloved disciple, and that he was also responsible for writing it down.’ (Kruse)

We know that Jesus lived. He was a man in history, as well as a man for all times. Tacitus, perhaps the greatest Roman historian born in the first century, speaks of Jesus. Josephus, a Jewish historian born A.D. 37, tells of the crucifixion of Jesus. A contemporary Bible scholar said that “the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica uses 20,000 words in describing this person, Jesus. His description took more space than was given to Aristotle, Cicero, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed or Napoleon Bonaparte.”

‘Human words can be true or false. They are testable, (Ge 42:16,20) especially in the legal sense of eyewitness testimony. (Deut 19:15-19) Keeping one’s word was highly esteemed (Ps 15:4) and an obligation in making vows and oaths; (Nu 30:2 Jud 11:30,36) but breaking one’s word, especially of promises made to the Lord, was a serious offense holding grave consequences for the offender. (cf. Deut 23:21-23 Ec 5:1-7) In view of these Old Testament considerations, for a Gospel writer to profess that his testimony is true, reliable, is a weighty claim (John 21:24; cf. Zec 8:16-17). In effect, he asserts that its contents are true in the legal, investigative sense and as on oath before God because of its claims about God.’ (cf. John 3:33 7:28 8:26) (EDBT)

We know that his testimony is true – The ‘we’ may have been (a) the elders in the church at Ephesus, (b) the readers; (c) a circle of eyewitnesses, or (d) the author himself.

This passage has tied up some loose ends regarding Peter and the beloved disciple (whom we take to be John).  Peter’s pastoral ministry has been strongly affirmed.  But what also comes through is John’s written ministry.  Through long reflection on his intimate relationship with Jesus, he has been enabled to leave us with a book of incomparable beauty and value.

21:25 There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

Jesus did many other things – A realisation of this will help us to understand why there is little overlap between John and the Synoptics. We can assume that John was written either to supplement the first three Gospels, or was written independently of them.

In all, only about 50 days of Jesus’ ministry are touched upon in all the combined gospels. Jesus’ minimum term of ministry equaled three years, or 1080 days (360 days per year). That means 4.6 percent of the days that Jesus was actively ministering are actually recorded in the gospels. Imagine all of the teaching, the conversations, and the ministry that we never heard about. No wonder John wrote, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written”.-Ken Boa, Talk Thru the New Testament, p.14. (Statistics corrected)

It may well be that John is alluding here to the cosmic work of Christ as referred to in the Prologue.  If so, then this verse is not a forgiveable exaggeration, but a literal truth.  ‘The Jesus to whom he bears witness is not only the obedient Son and the risen Lord, he is the incarnate Word, the one through whom the universe was created.  If all his deeds were described, the world would be a very small and inadequate library indeed.’ (Carson)

Carson adds: ‘It is as if John has identified himself, v24, but is not content to focus on himself, not even on his veracity.  He must close by saying his own work is only a minute part of all the honours due to the Son.’