John Week 11

Epilogue and Restoration: Joyous New Life (John 21:1–25)

By By Laura C.S. Holmes, PhD

Seattle Pacific University Assistant Professor of New Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: John 21:1–25


Key Prologue Terms: revelation, children of God, life, testimony, belief

Post-Resurrection Joy

Great Catch © 2014 John August Swanson
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In C. S. Lewis’s novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, readers meet the famous lion Aslan. Aslan is the incarnation of Jesus Christ, imagined in a world called Narnia. Like Jesus, Aslan dies in the place of a traitor (Barabbas in John’s gospel; Edmund in Narnia), though both deaths have far-reaching consequences. And like Jesus, Aslan’s supporters feel that his death marks the end of their promise of hope. However, as with Jesus, Aslan’s death is not an end, but a new beginning, as he returns to life and is ultimately victorious over the powers that had bound him in death.

It is interesting to compare Aslan’s resurrection story and appearances to those of Jesus in the Gospel of John. One commonality is that they both appear to women first. Susan and Lucy, two of the children in Narnia, witness Aslan’s death and resurrection. While Mary Magdalene does not witness Jesus’ actual resurrection, she does witness the resurrected Jesus first. However, the children in Narnia frolic and play with Aslan. In this way, Lewis portrays the sheer joy that both the children and Aslan himself have after the resurrection.

While John says that the disciples have rejoiced because they have seen Jesus (20:20), we have not seen them displaying much of that joy beyond Thomas’ confession (20:28). There certainly has not been the playfulness that Aslan enjoys with the children in Narnia. However, things change in John 21. In Jesus’ third resurrection appearance, we find some unusual details.

First, it seems that this part of the gospel is an epilogue: the gospel could have justifiably ended at John 20, and no one would notice anything lacking. Second, the story of Jesus’ appearance to the fishing disciples has a few odd characteristics: Peter is described as though he were fishing naked, and then proceeds to put clothes back on to jump in the water (21:7); Jesus tells the disciples to bring in the fish they have caught for breakfast, but there are already fish cooking on the fire (21:9–10); finally, when the fish are hauled in we learn the most usual detail of the story, that there were 153 fish in the net (21:11).

All of these details are to convey the kind of lightheartedness, the pure joy, that we can experience with the resurrected Jesus, similar to that of Aslan playing with the children in Narnia. Jesus’ resurrection is an occasion for joy, and the story of his appearance on the beach should remind us of this.

Epilogue: Where’s the Ending?

The Gospel of John joins other canonical gospels (especially Mark) in having an unusual ending. John 20 could serve as an entirely appropriate ending to the gospel if we did not have John 21. John 20 concludes with two resurrection appearances in Jerusalem; Jesus commissions the disciples to go out, empowered by the Spirit, for forgiveness and repentance; and the evangelist explains the purpose of the gospel, for faith and life.

Nevertheless, there are no ancient manuscript copies of the Gospel of John that exclude John 21. It does serve as a kind of afterthought or epilogue in some sense, but it fits well with many of the themes of the Gospel of John itself. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, John 21 serves not only as the epilogue of the Gospel of John but also as the conclusion of all four gospels with its placement in the canon. In this way, John’s final chapter sums up points about Jesus’ identity and how disciples should follow him within the gospel tradition as a whole, and prepares the reader for the book of Acts.

Fishing in Galilee

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Christ at the Sea of Galilee
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John 21 is the only time in the gospel that John provides his readers with a list of disciples, all of whom (except Thomas) are from Galilee. [Author’s Note 1] While it may seem strange for the disciples to have just met Jesus twice in Jerusalem, and then to decide to go fishing (21:3), John is making a statement about Jesus’ presence here. Jesus is present in their everyday lives just as much as in the magnificent events of his resurrection.

Jesus speaks to the disciples from the lakeside, but they do not know it is he, a delayed recognition that is typical of resurrection stories. By following Jesus’ directions they are able to recoup a night’s empty catch with a net full of fish. It seems that this net full of fish — life where there was no life before — allows the disciple Jesus loved to see that it is Jesus on the lakeshore, and he proclaims, “It is the Lord!” (21:7; cf. 20:18, 20, 28).

Simon Peter’s actions after this proclamation may strike modern readers as a bit odd. The NRSV claims Peter “put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea” (21:7). To put it plainly, why was Peter fishing naked? And if he were, why would he put on clothing and then jump into the sea? It may help to know that the phrase “he was naked” likely means that Peter was not wearing any outer garments. He still would have worn the first century equivalent of an undershirt and shorts: a loincloth and a work tunic. Whether he grabbed his outer garment because he did not want to leave it in the boat, wanted to be more appropriately attired, or was making an allusion to Jesus “putting on” his outer garment after he finished washing the disciples’ feet (cf. 13:12), we certainly get the sense of Peter’s eagerness to see Jesus. [Author’s Note 2] This absentminded joy reminds readers of the footrace in John 20:2–4. As Peter will be a main character for the rest of John 21, it seems logical to focus on him.

Peter: Forgiveness and Commissioning

John’s gospel is the only canonical gospel that concludes with a conversation between Jesus and Peter. In other accounts he may be explicitly singled out (e.g., Mark 16:6–7), but John’s narrative seems appropriately positioned to demonstrate how Peter is forgiven and restored. Even though Peter plays a less prominent role in the Gospel of John, he is still responsible for confessing Jesus’ identity early on in the narrative (Jesus is “the Holy One of God” who has “the words of eternal life;” 6:68–69). Furthermore, his position is quite prominent in the narrative of the early Church, as chronicled in the next book of the canon, Acts. In its canonical context, Jesus’ conversation with Peter prepares the reader for these coming events.

The story itself recalls Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus (18:15–27). Previously Peter had denied that he knew Jesus while Jesus was confessing his own identity (18:19–24). Now Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Each time Peter replies that he does love Jesus, and Jesus then replies that Peter should care for Jesus’ sheep. Peter is “hurt” by the end of the conversation (21:17), likely because he feels that Jesus has made his point, but also because he knows the third time echoes the disgrace of his denial. Yet Jesus’ words to Peter remain the same: “follow me” (21:19). Jesus does not shame Peter for his actions, but clarifies and restores Peter’s love and commission.

This passage speaks a great deal about love, which is one of the gospel’s key terms (cf. John 13, 15). There are two words for love used in this dialogue:

  • Jesus: “Do you love (agapan) me?”
    • Peter: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (philein) you.”
  • Jesus: “Do you love (agapan) me?”
    • Peter: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (philein) you.”
  • Jesus “Do you love (philein) me?”
    • Peter: “Lord, […] you know that I love (philein) you.”

In some contexts in Greek literature agapan and philein are categorized as different types of love, with agapan referring to a godly, unconditional love and philein referring to a friendly kind of love. Nevertheless, the Gospel of John has used these terms virtually interchangeably. [Author’s Note 3] In other words, when Jesus asks Peter if he loves (agapan) him, he’s not asking Peter to do something he theoretically knows Peter can’t do — love like God loves — before ultimately settling on a philein kind of love, a compromise, due to Peter’s humanity or failure. Rather, in every question Jesus is asking Peter whether he loves Jesus as God loves Jesus, and Jesus does not doubt that such love is possible, even for Peter. Each time Jesus is asking Peter if he knows him, believes him, and is willing to follow him, thereby showing his love in action by caring for Jesus’ followers. Is he willing to be a good shepherd like the Good Shepherd he loves? To this Peter says yes, even though his “yes” will lead to his death (21:19).

Peter: Follow Me

Peter also is featured in the final scene of John’s gospel, as is the disciple Jesus loved. This concluding episode reminds readers of the first story in which we met the beloved disciple, namely when Jesus was prophesying his own death with the beloved disciple reclining against him (13:25; cf. 1:18). Despite Jesus’ commands to Peter to be concerned about feeding Jesus’ sheep and following Jesus, Peter voices one last concern about his fellow disciple.

Jesus denies Peter the satisfaction of an answer, and simply repeats his earlier command: “Follow me” (21:22). The gospel carefully clarifies, however, that such an evasive answer by Jesus did not mean that the beloved disciple was to live forever, or even was to live until Jesus’ return (21:22–23). This passage contributes to the church tradition that claims that the beloved disciple lived a long life. At the same time, it also indicates that the beloved disciple had died by the time the gospel was in its final written form.

Such affirmation is echoed in the final verses of the gospel. In these verses we see that the beloved disciple’s primary function, witnessing to Jesus — both declaring who he is (“It is the Lord!” 21:7) and testifying to others — culminates in the testimony of the Gospel of John itself. Nevertheless, given that the final version of the gospel seems to know of the death of the beloved disciple, we can assume that his testimony provided key information for the gospel accounts, but that he did not live to see the final version of the gospel completed (21:24). [Author’s Note 4]

Concluding the Gospel as well as the Gospels

With the final mention of the beloved disciple’s testimony, the Gospel of John concludes by summarizing that “there are also many other things that Jesus did” (21:25), reminding readers that neither John nor the gospel tradition as a whole is meant to be an exhaustive record of Jesus’ life. Furthermore, a constant video stream of Jesus’ life, even if it had been available in the first century, would not actually benefit the church. The purpose of the gospels, like the purpose of Scripture as a whole, is to shape us into people who look more and more like Jesus, having joyous new life in his name. We are now the beloved disciples, providing living testimony that John’s gospel is true.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14). “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Prologue “threads,” composed of key prologue terms, are woven throughout the Gospel of John. Think back through our Lectio study. In what ways has this gospel shown that the Word (Jesus) is God? What God-like attributes does Jesus have in this final chapter?
  2. What instances of post-resurrection joy have you personally experienced?
  3. What does it mean to have life “in his name” (John 1:12), especially based on this final chapter of John’s gospel?
  4. What information about Jesus or about being Jesus’ disciple does John 21 give us so that we are ready to turn to Acts and read the story of God’s work in the early church?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

John 21 narrates the third resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples (21:14; this is the fourth resurrection appearance described in the Gospel of John counting his appearance to Mary Magdalene). This appearance, unlike the first two, is in Galilee. In this way, John merges resurrection traditions from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus appears in Galilee, while in Luke, he appears in Jerusalem. As the conclusion to the gospel tradition, Jesus now returns to Galilee, where he began.

Jesus has definitely been in Galilee in the Gospel of John. The signs at Cana (wedding and healing) and the feeding of the 5,000 are all in Galilee. Furthermore, the feeding of the 5,000 is on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias (6:1; 21:1), also known as the Sea of Galilee. Nevertheless, the disciples are not portrayed as fishermen in John until this passage. In fact, the only time they are portrayed in a boat is when Jesus walks on water (6:16–21). In this way, John 21 presumes knowledge of the disciples beyond the Gospel of John.


Author’s Note 2

Moreover, as we mentioned above, Peter’s rapid movements in clothing himself and jumping overboard are almost the stuff of comedy. Further, the fact that Jesus is already cooking fish for the disciples, not needing their catch, adds to the comic overtones of the scene. At the same time, though it is not necessary, Jesus seeks their contribution to breakfast, just as he had done with the young boy’s five loaves and two fish that fed the 5,000 (6:9). Jesus’ blessing over the bread and fish also echoes that story (21:13; cf. 6:11). The idea that the disciples perceive his identity while eating is reminiscent of Luke’s story of Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:31) and the later church’s knowledge of experiencing Jesus in the bread and cup of communion.

The significance of the 153 fish is anyone’s best guess. Historical readers of John have claimed, variously, that 153 was the total number of known species of fish, foreshadowing a Church with believers from all nations (Jerome, In Ezechielem 47:6-12), or that 153 is numerologically significant, being the total sum of integers from 1 to 17 (Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 122.8; Letter 55.17.31). This is also important because 17 is the sum of two symbolic numbers, 10 and 7 (Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 122.8; Letter 55.17.31.), both indicating completeness and perfection (Gospel according to John XIII-XXI, Anchor Bible 29A (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1970), pp. 1074-1075). If it is not symbolic, perhaps it is a comedic detail that encourages the reader’s sense of joy in the absurdity-yet-not-absurdity of breakfasting with the resurrected Jesus. It also may be a reflection of the super-abundance now available through this new life. It reminds us of the first miracle in John’s gospel, where Jesus produces an incredible amount of fine wine out of water (2:6–11). This abundant life was present in Jesus, continues after Jesus’ resurrection, and looks forward to the ultimate celebration with Jesus again.


Author’s Note 3

Agapan occurs in 3:16 (“God so loved the world”); 3:19 (“people loved darkness rather than light”); 3:35, 10:17 (“the Father loves the Son”); 13:1 (Jesus loves his own to the end); 13:34 (“love one another”); cf. 14:15; 15:12; 17:26, among many others.

Philein occurs in 5:20 (“the Father loves the Son”); 11:3 (Jesus loves Lazarus, while 11:5 says that Jesus loves Lazarus, Mary, and Martha using agapan); 16:27 (“the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me”), among other instances.


Author’s Note 4

John 21:24 says, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” The phrase “has written them” rarely in the ancient world means “put his own pen to parchment.” Rather, “has written them” often indicates dictation to a professional scribe, or even to one who “has collected the tradition.” The early church favored oral tradition over written tradition, for many reasons. The beloved disciple can be held accountable for such oral tradition, but, in part due to the context of 21:20–25, not for the whole gospel as we know it. This gospel was written on parchment by the “we” to whom the beloved disciple testified, who knows “that his testimony is true” (21:24).


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