John (Part 72): Epilogue (ch 21)
In John 20:30-31, John seems to be concluding his thoughts and therefore this Gospel. He speaks of many other signs that Jesus performed but that he hasn’t written about because he believes what has been written would be sufficient for people to “believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing…have life in His name.” But then, almost directly contrary to what he has just said, we have another sign written about—a supernatural appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee. How could, or why would, John put in a statement of conclusion and then pick right back up with more discussion?
One clue may be the closing of that next chapter. Verse 24 mentions “the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.” We understand that person to be the Apostle John. The verse goes on to say, “We know that his testimony is true.” Who is the we? John did have his own disciples who spent time with him and learned his stories about Jesus. Apparently, John intended for his Gospel to be complete with the previous chapter. But apparently before that Gospel was delivered among the churches, John died. While someone dying is the normal course of things, John’s dying was a shock to the first century church. A report had spread out among the early Christians that John—the last surviving disciple of the Twelve—would not die until Jesus returned. It was almost as if the credibility of their message—the gospel itself—hung in the balance. John was dead, and Jesus had not returned. Was their faith in vain?
The report that had circulated about Christ’s return before John died was rooted in the story recorded for us in chapter 21. The author(s) of this last chapter appear to have added this chapter to clear up the confusion about John’s death and the associated timing of Jesus’s return. Thus, we have John’s intended ending to his Gospel in 20:30-31, then the clarification chapter 21, and the final ending to the whole Gospel in 21:24-25.
While this last chapter may not have been intended by John, it appears that it was intended by God. Our oldest manuscripts of the complete Gospel are never without this last chapter. And the content, no doubt, was also based on the testimony of John, whose own disciples heard it and recorded it here.
The chapter’s scene is in Galilee near the Sea of Galilee. No doubt it was Capernaum where Peter, Andrew, James, and John had fished for a living. They are waiting here for Jesus, based on his word directly to them (Mt 26:32) and the message from the women (Mt 28:10). Seven of the disciples are there. After waiting all day (perhaps many days) for Jesus, Peter declares that he is going fishing. This was not an abandonment of Jesus or an anticipated life of service. It was just something to do as they waited.
To understand the events of this chapter well, we must recognize the struggle of mind and heart that Peter must have been experiencing at this time. Remember that only a few days before, Peter had denied Jesus. He had promised Jesus that even if all the other disciples left him, he would not desert Jesus (Mt 26:33). But in the courtyard on the night of the arrest, Peter warmed himself at the fire while denying he ever knew Jesus. In fact, we learn in Mark that Peter’s third and final denial was with a curse and an oath, vehemently arguing he had nothing to do with him (Mk 14:71). And Luke tells us that it was precisely at this time, as the curse leaves his lips and the scowl is still set on his face that Peter looks up and sees Jesus looking back at him. And Peter remembers the Lord’s words. And Peter leaves from there to go out and weep bitterly (Lk 22:60-62). Imagine then Peter’s breaking heart after the crucifixion, knowing that the very last words that Jesus heard him utter before he died was that curse of denial.
Peter did love the Lord. The look from Jesus at the moment has got to have been burned in his mind and had to have torn at his heart for those immediate days and nights that Jesus lay in the tomb. When Jesus arose, Peter rejoiced along with the others (Jn 20:20). But the matter had not been talked through. The shame and regret probably lingered albeit silently, hanging as a cloud over Peter’s head. Imagine yourself as Peter. You are happy to see and understand the resurrection. But still that look from Jesus is there in mind. Still your words of denial burden your soul. You’ve not yet been able to take Jesus aside and cry out how sorry you are for those hateful words.
And so Peter was waiting with the rest for him to come to Galilee. Waiting, doing not much of anything, not being able to think of hardly anything except those last words he spoke in anger that Jesus heard. And so to shake off the thoughts—to occupy himself with something, anything—he decided to go fishing.
The fact that they fished all night was not odd. Fisherman often went out at night. But this night they caught nothing. As they were about a hundred yards from shore and as night was just thinking about turning to day, a man on shore called out to them, “Children, you don’t have any fish, do you?” They answered no. The man then told them to cast their net on the right side of the boat.
Now, after casting all night and catching nothing—this being done by professional fishermen—how eager would you expect them to respond to some unidentified man yelling out to them from the shore? You would think that they’d have every reason to ignore this man. But there memories were probably touched here. We can read in Luke 5, when some of these disciples first met Jesus, he was in their fishing boat teaching the crowds on shore. Afterwards, he told the disciples to put out into deeper water to catch some fish. Peter, condescendingly, told Jesus they would do it, but essentially they did not expect any result because they had been fishing all night long and had caught nothing. But, of course, when they did follow Jesus’s instructions, they had a great catch.
That incident must have been in their minds on this occasion. They do not offer a word of disagreement, but immediately follow the instruction. And the catch they have is so great that it starts to tear the nets. Immediately (because they had probably already been thinking it), John says, “It is the Lord!” (21:7). Peter dives into the water, swimming immediately to Jesus.
It is interesting that the unrest that has been in Peter’s heart doesn’t immediately come rushing forth. He finds Jesus on the shore with a fire cooking some fish. When the boat makes it to shore, Jesus says to bring some fish over to add to what he has.
The lesson here is, first, that even though Jesus is not in the boat with them (as he was before), his influence would make an impact on their activity. This certainly speaks to their future ministry. Jesus had been with them in the 3 and a half years previous to this, and they had been blessed. But in the upper room Jesus had promised them that even though he was going away, his Spirit would still lead and guide them.
The next lesson is the same one realized with Thomas in the previous chapter. Jesus is cooking fish. He tells them to bring some of their fish. The joint engagement for the breakfast is exactly the enterprise Jesus is looking for from the disciples to further the gospel. Yes, it is Jesus who initiates, causes, and undergirds everything. But the disciples were to contribute of their own wills and strength and activity.
It is interesting that John mentions that after the disciples have all come to land and see Jesus up close, that “none of the disciples dared ask Him, ‘Who are You?’ because they knew it was the Lord” (21:12). Why does John mention this? We would assume that, of course, they wouldn't ask, “Who are you?” because they were right there—they could see who he was. But if it were so obvious, why does John mention it at all? It may be that they didn’t entirely recognize him by sight. Consider every other post-resurrection appearance by Jesus. He was not recognized by Mary Magdalene in John 20:15 until after a revelation for her. The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize him until after a revelation during prayer. Even the disciples appeared not to recognize him in the upper room in Luke 24:37-43 until he insisted that he was Jesus by pointing, not to his face, but to the wounds in his hands and feet. Perhaps the resurrected body of Jesus—so divorced from the sinful influence of the material world—shone so perfectly that recognition by physical features was difficult. And so may we expect it to be with us in our glorified state—not that we will have difficulty recognizing each other, because God’s revelation will be there to support that, but rather that we too will look different when the influences of sin have been erased even from these earthen vessels.
After breakfast, Jesus gets to an important point of discussion. He asks Peter if Peter loves him. Now, I’m sure most people, if they have been Christians for any length of time, have heard many sermons discussing this conversation. We may all know that Jesus asks using the word agapao for love—a supposedly high, divine-like, greater love. Peter answers that he does love Jesus, but uses the Greek phileo—a supposedly brotherly, fondness. After a couple repetitions, Jesus, the third time, asks Peter using phileo, which Peter again agrees to. Is this, as some have suggested, a lower love that Jesus ends up being satisfied with? I think not.
The first point to realize is that, around this early morning campfire, they weren’t speaking Greek. They were speaking Aramaic. The Aramaic Gospels that we do have all use the same word for love in all three questions and answers in this scene. So why does John choose to differentiate when translating the scene into Greek?
I think the answer is connected to what the real implications of those two Greek words are. Agapao is not simply a higher, divine form of love. We read in Matthew 5:46, Luke 11:43, John 3:19 and 12:43 of this word applies to love that is wrong and thrown about by ungodly people. The word, we find in its biblical and non-biblical usage, means a calculated, discerning choosing to love—loving based on a reasonable, thoughtful approach.
Likewise, phileo is not just some lower form of love. We find it used in Revelation 3:19 to describe the love of Jesus for his own. Jesus uses this word to describe the love of the Father for the Son in John 5:20. And Paul denounces anyone who does not love the Lord in this way in 1 Corinthians 16:22. The word is a passionate, emotional word. It is a falling-in-love type of love rather than the more reasoned approach of agapao. Thus, when Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agapao me?” Peter responds with a love translated by John as phileo, meaning passionately, “Yes, Lord, I love you with all my heart!”
When Jesus changes to phileo the third time, he uses the passion in this third question that complements the passion of Peter’s third denial. And suddenly Peter realizes the point of the questioning. Jesus is offering Peter opportunity to deny his denial. It brings grief to Peter to recall the circumstance and the need for this. But he replies again, and sincerely, that yes, he loves Jesus with all his heart. Peter is absolved. Jesus has forgiven. Peter’s heart is at peace.
Jesus then tells Peter to follow him. This seems to have dual purpose. Jesus means for Peter to follow him in feeding his sheep, but apparently Jesus has gotten up and Peter is also literally following him. Jesus tells Peter that he will follow him even to death, as he will die for his love of God.
Peter turns to see John. And in what can be nothing more than curiosity, he asks what John’s outcome will be. But Jesus tells Peter to focus on his own commitment to Christ. This, however, causes the problem of the report that goes out with people misunderstanding and thinking that John would not die. That misunderstanding is cleared up by the message in this chapter.
And so the Gospel ends. Jesus is the Christ. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to God but by him!