John 21:1-25

The final chapter of the Gospel of St John

At the last magazine meeting we were discussing what articles we could include that have an Easter flavour and Robert suggested this last chapter in John’s gospel, so here are some thoughts and comments about that chapter. After reading the passage to remind my self what happened, it did make me think about the dawn Easter service I attended at Nottingham Castle quite a few years ago where we all shared communion together in the Castle grounds.

The end of chapter 20 of John appears to conclude the gospel and so many scholars think that Chapter 21 was added at a later date, possibly by a different person. I do not want to spend this article discussing that but as I read the chapter I felt the language and style was similar to that of the rest of John and I felt that it must have been written by him.

Bruce Milne in his commentary points out that in the story Jesus appears to the disciples at the sea of Galilee, and that some scholars question why the disciples were back there when Jesus had died and risen and sent them on their new task beginning in Jerusalem. It is commonly interpreted that the disciples were being disobedient. In defence of the disciples, Milne points out that the synoptic writers tell of Jesus instructing his disciples to return to Galilee “where you will see me” (Matt 28:7; Mark 16:7). Also it may be that they returned to familiar surroundings for therapeutic reasons after all the traumatic events at Jerusalem.

The disciples decided to go fishing at night which was a good time to fish in the Sea of Galilee - however they were unsuccessful and caught nothing. As they returned to the shore in the early morning a stranger called to them from the shore. It was Jesus but they didn’t recognise him. Experienced fishermen often relied on someone on the shore telling them to cast either to the left or the right, because from the shore it was often easier to see the fish than from the boat. The disciples did as Jesus suggested and at once made an astonishing haul. Peter and John react in a similar way to how they did at the news of the empty tomb in the previous chapter. John said “It is the Lord” and Peter immediately sprang into action, jumped into the water and ran to Jesus. (cf. 20:6 where Peter runs into the empty tomb).

Coming ashore the disciples see that Jesus has prepared a cooked breakfast for them. Jesus invites them to bring some of the fish they have just caught - 153! Although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus invites them to breakfast - none of the disciples dared ask “who are you?”. They knew it was the Lord (vl2).

Some scholars note some similarities between this story and the miraculous catch of fish, again at Jesus’ instigation, in Luke 5:11. In Luke it is after this incident that they left everything and followed Jesus, whereas in John Jesus is sending the disciples out into the world to spread the Gospel. Whether this is the same story or not, in Luke’s passage after the great trawl of fish, the disciples are invited to follow Jesus and Peter falls at Jesus’ knees saying “depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). In John’s passage after the trawl of fish, Peter immediately runs to Jesus.

There are different interpretations on the meaning of the figure of 153 fish. In Milne’s commentary he says the disciples were expecting their mission to be centred in Israel. This is hinted in Acts (Acts l-6). Milne feels the number of fish demonstrates that the mission will be much larger than at first expected. John may have mentioned 153 because to a fisherman, the size of the catch was important. Jerome interpreted it symbolically by saying there are 153 species of fish in the sea. Cyril of Alexandria said that 153 is made up of 100 which represents the fullness of the Gentiles because the number 100 is the fullest number - i.e. the shepherd’s full flock is 100 (Matt 18:12) and the seed’s full fertility is 100 fold. He says the 50 stands for the remnant of Israel who will be gathered in and the 3 stands for the Trinity. Augustine’s explanation is that 10 is the number of the law because there are 10 commandments. 7 is the number of grace, for the gifts are sevenfold. 7+10 = 17 and 153 is the sum of all the figures l+ 2+ 3+ 4........up to 17. Therefore he says that 153 stands for all those who either by law or by grace have been moved to come to Jesus Christ. In Barclay’s commentary he says it means the universality of the Church - there is no exclusiveness and even if everyone comes in, the church is big enough to hold them all.

This passage also illustrates our communion with Jesus and the graciousness of that communion. These are ordinary men who Jesus has invited to have breakfast with him (Milne). Milne goes on to say that the meal also symbolises the glory of the Coming Kingdom when people will come “from East & West & North & South and will take their places at the feast in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 13:20).

In verses 15-17 at breakfast, in front of the others, Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him. It is done in public to reinstate Peter after his denials before the crucifixion. It is significant that they are sitting near a charcoal fire on the beach. At the time of the denial Peter, along with the servants and officers, warmed themselves at a charcoal fire (John 18:18). As Peter discovered and as Paul was to find later (cf. I Tim 1:12 -16), no matter how desperate our failure, God will forgive and renew us for serving Jesus (Milne).

Peter is now directed to his work: “Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep” (15-17). Following Jesus and loving Jesus means also loving Jesus’ people.

In verses 18-19 Jesus prepares Peter for his eventual martyrdom. He will serve into old age and then die on a cross - there is fairly reliable tradition that Peter died by crucifixion, probably in Rome under Emperor Nero. Milne in his commentary says that the road of discipleship is the road of the cross: “Whoever serves me must follow me” (John 12:25 -26 & Mark 8:34-35). Peter then asks Jesus what will happen to John and Jesus rebukes Peter over this and says “What is that to you?” (21:22). Milne says this tells us that there are many others following Jesus who are as deeply loved - their calling and gifts may be different but our focus must not be on them but on Jesus himself.

The Gospel then concludes with John saying that Jesus did many other things but it can’t all be written down because the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

“For as John’s last words underline, there is no limit to the greatness of Jesus Christ… He is infinite and no conceivable library in earth or heaven can adequately or fully tell the story of Jesus Christ (v25). So in eternity our exploration will go on in ways at present beyond our imagining as we discover more and yet more of “the unsearchable riches” of Christ.” (Milne)

The stars shine over the earth,
The stars shine over the sea,
The stars look up to the mighty God,
The stars look down on me;
The stars will live for a million years,
For a million years and a day!
But Christ and I shall live and love
When the stars have passed away.”

Cathryn Vindelis

Biblography: The Message of John - Bruce Milne
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 25th March 2000