Interpretation 21


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  Copyright © 2001 Jeanie C. Crain
Last modified: March, 2002

     The Intervarsity Commentary summarizes John 21, pointing out the highly structured resurrection appearances, a series of encounters leading to faith, a concluding statement of purpose, symbolism speaking of the community labor and leadership, ending with testimony to Beloved Disciple's witness in this Gospel and the greatness of Jesus' deeds.

John's account of the resurrection appearances is highly structured. The first part (chap. 20) describes a series of encounters in which the disciples are brought to faith in the risen Lord. The chapter concludes with a statement of purpose that summarizes the whole Gospel (vv. 30-31). The second part (chap. 21) uses the symbolism of fish and fishing to speak of the community's fruitful labor and the symbolism of sheep and shepherding to speak of the community's leadership. The Gospel ends with a testimony to the reliability of the Beloved Disciple's witness in this Gospel and a reflection on the greatness of Jesus' deeds (vv. 24-25).

     John repeats himself in chapter twenty-one: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if everyone of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (25).  Recall John 20.30: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” John had one sole purpose: to testify to his slowly evolving but sure belief that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, the expected Messiah establishing God’s kingdom on earth in the present and future. That kingdom was directed to humankind, not narrowly to either Jew or Gentile. He says, in full conviction, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know his testimony is true” (24). How do we know John’s testimony is true?  Who can doubt the testimony of a sincere and devout person? John is mistaken? He has believed what he wanted to believe? He needed a God and created one? He leaves his readers simply with the declaration that he did not have to write any of the words he chose to write, but the words he has written, he has written that others may come to believe that Jesus is God. Those who read John most closely, with a believing heart, will know  he has spoken truth! The only other choice is the choice of Pilate: to ask what is truth when standing before truth!

     John concludes his Gospel with an account of Jesus’ coming to the disciples on the Sea of Tiberias and feeding them with the 153 fish and bread available.  This story provides an example of Jesus’ feeding his disciples as a prelude to his request of Peter to feed his sheep.

1 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you." They went out and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, "Children, have you any fish?" They answered him, "No." 6 He said to them, "Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. 9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord.

The lesson here may be simply that Jesus provides sufficiently the need of his disciples.

            If the reader recalls, Simon Peter, though boasting his faithfulness, betrayed Jesus three times. For a full account of Peter’s statement that he is going fishing and of Jesus’ request of him to feed his sheep, I provide an extensive passage from the Net Bible:

In light of Peter's statement in 21:3, "I am going fishing," some have understood Peter to have renounced his commission in light of his denials of Jesus. Jesus, as he restores Peter and forgives him for his denials, is asking Peter if he really loves his previous vocation more than he loves Jesus. Three things may be said in evaluation of this view: (a) it is not at all necessary to understand Peter's statement in 21:3 as a renouncement of his discipleship, as this view of the meaning of touvtwn would imply; (b) it would probably be more likely that the verb would be repeated in such a construction (see 7:31 for an example where the verb is repeated); and (c) as R. E. Brown has observed (John [AB], 2:1103) by Johannine standards the choice being offered to Peter between material things and the risen Jesus would seem rather ridiculous, especially after the disciples had realized whom it was they were dealing with (the Lord, see v. 12). (2) touvtwn refers to the other disciples, meaning "Do you love me more than you love these other disciples?" The same objection mentioned as (c) under (1) would apply here: could the author, in light of the realization of who Jesus is which has come to the disciples after the resurrection, and which he has just mentioned in 21:12, seriously present Peter as being offered a choice between the other disciples and the risen Jesus? This leaves option (3), that touvtwn refers to the other disciples, meaning "Do you love me more than these other disciples do?" It seems likely that there is some irony here: Peter had boasted in 13:37, "I will lay down my life for you," and the synoptics present Peter as boasting even more explicitly of his loyalty to Jesus ("Even if they all fall away, I will not," Matt 26:33; Mark 14:29). Thus the semantic force of what Jesus asks Peter here amounts to something like "Now, after you have denied me three times, as I told you you would, can you still affirm that you love me more than these other disciples do?" The addition of the auxiliary verb "do" in the translation is used to suggest to the English reader the third interpretation, which is the preferred one.

John uniquely records a conversation between Peter and John about following Jesus and what obedience would mean for their lives:

18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." 19 (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, "Follow me." 20 Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?" 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about this man?" 22 Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!" 23 The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?"24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. 19       But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Verse eighteen foresees Peter’s following Jesus into death:

(21:19) This is a parenthetical note by the author. The phrase by what kind of death Peter was going to glorify God almost certainly indicates martyrdom (cf. 1 Pet 4:16), and it may not predict anything more than that. But the parallelism of this phrase to similar phrases in John 12:33 and 18:32 which describe Jesus' own death by crucifixion have led many to suggest that the picture Jesus is portraying for Peter looks not just at martyrdom but at death by crucifixion. This seems to be confirmed by the phrase you will stretch out your hands in the preceding verse. There is some evidence that the early church understood this and similar phrases (one of them in Isa 65:2) to refer to crucifixion (for a detailed discussion of the evidence see L. Morris, John [NICNT], 876, n. 52). Some have objected that if this phrase does indeed refer to crucifixion, the order within v. 18 is wrong, because the stretching out of the hands in crucifixion precedes the binding and leading where one does not wish to go. R. E. Brown (John [AB], 2:1108) sees this as a deliberate reversal of the normal order (hysteron proteron ) intended to emphasize the stretching out of the hands. Another possible explanation for the unusual order is the Roman practice in crucifixions of tying the condemned prisoner's arms to the crossbeam (patibulum) and forcing him to carry it to the place of execution (W. Bauer as cited by O. Cullmann in Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr, 88).

If, in fact, the above interpretation is valid, what follows makes sense. Peter turns, sees John, and remembers his having asked on that final supper who it was that would betray Jesus. Alfred Edersheim offers another perspective, one that point to John’s mission as being quite something else from that of Peter:

 Yes, and Peter did love the Lord Jesus. He had loved Him when he said it, only to confident in the strength of his feelings, that he would follow the Master even unto death. And Jesus saw it all, yea, and how this love of the ardent temperament which had once made him rove at wild liberty, would give place to patient work of love, and be crowed with that martyrdom which, when the beloved disciple wrote, was already matter of the past. And the very manner of death by which he was to glorify God was indicated in the words of Jesus.

 But what did it mean? The saying went aboard among the brethren that John was not to die, but to tarry till Jesus came again to reign, when death would be swallowed up in victory. But Jesus had not so said, only: 'If I will that he tarry while I am coming.' What that 'Coming' was, Jesus had not said, and John knew not. So, then, there are things, and connected with His Coming, on which Jesushas left the evil, only to be lifted by His own Hand, which He means us not to know at present, and which we should be content to leave as He has left them.

     What John meant in the dialogue between Simon Peter and John has been variously interpreted over the ages:

·        Chapter twenty-one is John’s finale.

·        Did John write chapter twenty-one? Did he dictate it? Was it a later addition?

·        What do the fish represent?

·        Who is given leadership of the church?

Catholic Bible Study.

What can be said fairly certainly is that the fishing expedition without Jesus was unsuccessful; with Jesus, the catch is more than sufficient. Why did John use 153 as the number of fish caught?  Answers range  from representing every species of fish (Jerome), to they were counted because they had to be shared (Barclay), to it’s a great mystery (Augustine). It also would not be in contradiction to John that the catch represents nations or universality.  That the net is not broken could reflect back to Jesus’ statement that of those given to him, none has been lost. This is the linking back technique John has used consistently.

     John’s testimony demands the arduous task of remaining in the world and committing himself to recording who Jesus was, what he came to the world for, and to record the Word that was in the beginning with God and was God.  His task is focused:

24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. 19       But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

John selectively told not the entire set of stories surrounding Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but those stories revealing Jesus’ own self-disclosure:

64sn (21:25) The author concludes the Gospel with a note concerning his selectivity of material. He makes it plain that he has not attempted to write an exhaustive account of the words and works of Jesus, for if one attempted to do so, "the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written ." This is clearly hyperbole, and as such bears some similarity to the conclusion of the Book of Ecclesiastes (12:9-12). As it turns out, the statement seems more true of the Fourth Gospel itself, which is the subject of an ever-lengthening bibliography. The statement in v. 25 serves as a final reminder that knowledge of Jesus, no matter how well-attested it may be, is still partial. Everything that Jesus did during his three and one-half years of earthly ministry is not known. This supports the major theme of the Fourth Gospel: Jesus is repeatedly identified as God, and

though he may be truly known on the basis of his self-disclosure, he can never be known exhaustively. There is far more to know about Jesus than could ever be written down, or even known. On this appropriate note the Gospel of John ends .

Net Bible

     John  speaks consistently to the existence of both a spiritual and a physical creation; this theology, I have called John’s two realms, but the reader misses much of John’s meaning if the physical and spiritual are viewed as dichotomous.  The Net Bible explains a complex relationship between the original creation and re-creation:

1 sn (1:1) In the beginning. The search for the basic "stuff" out of which things are made was the earliest one in Greek philosophy. It was attended by the related question of "What is the process by which the secondary things came out of the primary one (or ones)?," or in Aristotelian terminology, "What is the `beginning' (same Greek word as beginning , John 1:1) and what is the origin of the things that are made?" In the New Testament the word usually has a temporal sense, but even BAGD 112 s.v. 2 lists the second major category of meaning as "the first cause." For John, the words "In the beginning" are most likely a conscious allusion to the opening words of Genesis--"In the beginning." Other concepts which occur prominently in Gen 1 are also found in John's prologue: "life" (1:4) "light" (1:4) and "darkness" (1:5). Gen 1 describes the first (physical) creation; John 1 describes the new (spiritual) creation. But this is not to play off a false dichotomy between "physical" and "spiritual"; the first creation was both physical and spiritual. The new creation is really a re-creation, of the spiritual (first) but also the physical. (In spite of the common understanding of John's `spiritual' emphasis, the "physical" recreation should not be overlooked; this occurs in John 2 with the changing of water into wine, in John 11 with the resurrection of Lazarus, and the emphasis of John 20-21 on the aftermath of Jesus' own resurrection.)

If Jesus is the founder of Christianity, John is the first great theologian of Christianity. Since Paul is normally credited with the founding of Christianity, it may be useful for the reader to review what Paul records as “Sayings” of Jesus:

  From the Five Gospels Parallel

Internal bold is mine.

Rom 14.14

I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean.

1 Cor 2.8

None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,"

1 Cor 7.10

8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. 10 ¶ To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband) --and that the husband should not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.

1 Cor 9.14

13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. 15 ¶ But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have any one deprive me of my ground for boasting.

1 Cor 11.24

23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

1Thess 4.14-17

14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; 17 then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.

Acts 20.35

34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me. 35 In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" 36 ¶ And when he had spoken thus, he knelt down and prayed with them all.


            John, certainly, differs from the synoptic Gospels, but the canonical Gospels should be used when one wants to understand the man, Jesus of Nazareth, and the claim that he was God incarnate. Hall Harris, Ph.D., has provided commentary on John that summarized some of these differences:

·        John supplements the synoptics, whether this is intentional act or not.

·        John includes much new material as well as omits much material found in the synoptics.

·        John describes Jesus’ ministry as extending over three or four years.

·         John engages high Christology with the affirmation of Jesus as fully deity.

·         John, as literary artist, is reflective and distanced from the actual events observed.

·         John presents discourses and uses much symbolism and double meaning; he uses misunderstood statements as a literary technique.

·         John provides not so much an actual account as an interpretive account of the words of Jesus.

·         John emphasizes eternal life as present reality, and judgment is realized in a person’s response to Jesus.

·         John stylistically differs from the Synoptics—more coordinate clauses, simpler language, and not much difference between the interpretive words of the Evangelist and the words Jesus speaks.


Professor R.T. France argues the four canonical are indispensable as historical sources for leading readers to an understanding of Jesus; he concludes, after a study of objections:

If the argument sketched out above is valid, any responsible reconstruction of Christian origins must find its starting-point in the first- century gospel records, not in the hints of an alternative view of Jesus contained in second-century literature from the Gnostic wing of Christianity, nor in the attempt to assimilate Jesus to non-Christian parallels in the history of religions. The four canonical gospels will not answer all the questions we would like to ask about the founder of Christianity; but, sensitively interpreted, they do give us a rounded portrait of a Jesus who is sufficiently integrated into what we know of first-century Jewish culture to carry historical conviction, but at the same time sufficiently remarkable and distinctive to account for the growth of a new and potentially world-wide religious movement out of his life and teaching.