Breakfast with Jesus
Perspecitves on John 21
Written by Martin Ellgar 2007
Much has been written about John 21 in an endeavour to retell its message to a new audience and to justify its place in the Gospel according to John. Scholars vary in opinion as to the authorship of the Gospel of John as they do with John 21. The chapter at hand is clearly an add-on to an already neatly finished Gospel where Jesus blesses and commissions his disciples (John 20: 21-23). Tradition has named John, the Beloved Disciple of Jesus to be the Gospel writer and some further identify him as John the son of Zebedee. Some scholars say that John was already dead at the time of writing John 21. Instead, they suggest an elder in the Johannine community was the author of John 21. If that is the case, then the context in which John 21 was written must be kept in mind as it helps to make sense of the message and purpose of the chapter.
The following commentary of John 21 takes the perspective that John was dead and its author was an elder in the Johannine community. Then, imagine yourself in the context of when chapter 21 was written. John has just died. Furthermore, Simon Peter another pillar of the early Christian church was already dead. The community was bereft of their church leaders in Peter and John who had continued to give the community cohesion, purpose, leadership, and inspiration in the name of Jesus. The death of John was even more punishing for some. They had believed that John wouldn’t die before the return of Jesus Christ (John 21: 23). Things didn’t go the way they had believed, and as a result the community faced confusion and struggled with various feelings of loss, bewilderment, betrayal, and anger. The elder who became the author of John 21 strove to bring about through his writing new leadership, and renewed hope for the community. The stories used in John 21 were probably sourced from the Johannine community and used to illustrate the elder’s message. These stories would have been well known in the community, stories that John had told as a witness to the Lord, Jesus Christ. The elder has used them in part to point back to earlier events in the life of Jesus to help remind the reader of their identity, what responsibilities they have, and how they can continue to have life today. He had constructed John 21 in the style and tradition of John using symbolism and dual meanings throughout the chapter and weaving it into the fabric of the Gospel of John.
John 21 was written with the Johannine community in mind, but also speaks to all Christian communities and indeed anyone today who may have lost a prominent leader and friend from within their midst. Every Christian congregation needs to be in touch with Jesus who is the Good Shepherd. He cares for his own, and not only that, he inspires and leads his disciples into action in order that they too will feed and tend to his flock. The Good Shepherd is Jesus Christ the one who gives life. At times a Christian congregation may be without of a leader, but the Word of God as in the Gospel of John is still there and continues to inspire, lead, and give life. The endeavour of the narrator through John 21 is exactly that, to point us to the Gospel of John for continued inspiration, leadership, and life from the resurrected Lord, Jesus the Son of God.
John 21 (NIV)
Jesus and the Miraculous Catch of Fish
1 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
The first thing that strikes the reader is the name of the sea. Instead of being called the Sea of Galilee, it was now being called Tiberias (see commentary John 6:1). The name that had been so familiar to the community where many had fished and lived was transposed. Although the body of water hadn’t changed and continued to provide food for all, it bears a new Roman name, Tiberias. The chapter begins with an image of loss, but in reality a superficial loss when one considers that the body of water remains and continues to give life. Likewise, the ascended Jesus Christ is no longer with us in the flesh but is still with us in Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is still with us and continues to feed and provide salvation to all people.
A group of disciples go out fishing. The first time the reader would remember such a grouping of disciples was when Jesus first gathered his disciples (John 1: 35-51). The disciples collectively represent the Christian church. They are also known as the bride of Christ. On an individual scale, any Christian is a disciple of Christ as they are also the bride of Christ. They are in a partnership of life together and also involved in the giving of life to others.
Simon Peter leads the disciples into action and they go out fishing. Peter has been a recognised leader of the disciples from the beginning. At times, he has represented the body of the disciples in both thought and deed. For example, in one story Peter denied allegiance to Jesus three times at the time of his arrest (John 18: 25-27). The names and the whereabouts of the other disciples who had also fled from Jesus at the time of his arrest were not mentioned. Peter was a recognised leader and therefore became responsible for the sins of the other disciples who had also abandoned Jesus. Such leadership and sacrifice is particularly seen in Jesus who took upon himself the sins of the world and made it possible for all people to escape without a mention. Since the three times denial of Jesus, Simon Peter continued to be a leader amongst the disciples and was held in high esteem amongst the Christian communities. Jesus forgave Simon Peter as he did all the disciples and all of us through his saving act on the cross. The forgiveness is real. It can be seen clearly as Jesus continued to work with Simon Peter and all the disciples as he met them fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus continued to work with the disciples as if there had been no denial, he never mentioned it again, and that is a sure sign of forgiveness.
”I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” This verse depicts a sombre mood as if Jesus was no longer with them. The disciples had to face changes in their life as do all people, especially when someone near and dear dies. From such changes come agonizing questions about self identity and the immediate future. Two such questions amongst others are: “What are we to do?” and “How can we continue?” The narrator endeavours to answer those questions in John 21 by directing the reader to the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.
That night the fishermen caught nothing. The disappointment of not catching any fish for the many hours of labour would certainly have added to the current mood of disappointment and dissatisfaction with themselves and with life. The disciples fishing trip clearly illustrates that a life without Jesus in charge can lead to a life of disappointment and frustration.
4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. 5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
There may have been a number of reasons why the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus standing on the shore. There may have been a veil of early morning mist over the water, or perhaps the morning sun was blinding them as it was rising behind Jesus, or perhaps they simply had tired and bleary eyes from their nights work, and so could not recognize that it was Jesus standing before them. For whatever reason physical or spiritual the disciples failed to recognise the resurrected Lord in his form.
Perhaps the narrator was using this illustration to reflect the same problem in the Christian community. That is, a failure to recognise the resurrected Lord in their midst. It is still a problem within today’s Christian communities. The disciples had experienced the death of their Lord, and as a result of his death failed to recognise the spirit of the newly resurrected Jesus, that is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit manifested in their midst.
Jesus called out to them in a greeting that was not familiar to them. This only further added to the mystery of the person standing on the beach. In part the narrator may have used the ‘stranger on the beach’ as a means to illustrate for the reader the power and activity of the Holy Spirit in our daily life. The Holy Spirit can unexpectedly manifest itself in ways and in people to give us the presence of Jesus. One of the aims of the narrator was to make the reader aware of the activity of the resurrected Lord through the Holy Spirit in the community.
The question that Jesus asked, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” was fashioned to solicit a “no” answer. The resurrected Jesus is all knowing as is the Holy Spirit, since they are God, one with God. Jesus knew they had no fish. Whether or not the disciples knew it at the time, God continued to work in their lives as he also does in our life today.
The disciples had been fishing all night, and yet they listened to the voice of a ‘stranger’ and cast the net on the other side of the boat. They had listened to the voice of the resurrected Lord Jesus. That voice inspired and empowered them to act. To their surprise they caught so many fish that they were unable to haul in the net. The Word of God inspired and empowered the disciples to act in a direction that they themselves may have considered fruitless. Through the Word of God a miracle happened. As a result, the disciples caught a net full of fish which had eluded them all through the night.
At the time of writing the Gospel of John the Holy Spirit had already been given on the day of Pentecost. Therefore, John included the giving of the Holy Spirit in the concluding verses of his Gospel (John 20: 22) to reassure the disciples that the resurrected Lord Jesus would be with them in their mission. The Johannine community would have been familiar with the story of Pentecost with its very public manifestation of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. But perhaps they were not so familiar with its manifestations in their own community and during their time of grief and need.
7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.
John and Peter had a special relationship with each other. They are noted in the Gospel of John conversing and interacting with each other. At one time, Peter asked the Beloved Disciple to find out from Jesus whom he meant would betray him (John 13: 23-24). At another time, they ran together to the empty tomb of Jesus (John 20: 3), and they fished together (vs.7). Besides a relationship of friendship, they had a working relationship amongst the disciples. Both in their own way were leaders amongst them. Neither one was sufficient on their own.
Peter was known to lead the disciples into action, but what role did John have as a leader amongst the disciples? It was John who first believed when he saw the empty tomb (John 20: 8). It was John who first recognized that the person on the beach was Jesus (vs.7). John is the one who can see the work of God at hand. He is the one who can readily see the work of the Holy Spirit reaching out in their daily life. From the words of John, Peter was inspired and took action as a leader. John said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”, and so Peter leapt into the water and then the other disciples followed him in the boat to Jesus.
The Johannine community was suffering from the loss of their leader in John who had inspired them with eye witness stories about Jesus. The problem they faced was who would replace him to give purpose and mission within the Christian community? The two separate sets of gifts for leadership seen in John and Peter are inseparable in any Christian community. Without inspiration from God there’s no action to ‘haul’ people closer to Jesus as if in a fishermen’s net.
9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”
11 Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.
Peter and John were partners in leadership amongst the disciples, and now the narrator illustrates the partnership that the disciples had with the resurrected Lord. The resurrected Lord continued to care for his disciples, that is, his Church, his bride. Through listening to the word of Jesus and following his directions, the disciples caught a very large quantity of fish. The narrator further emphasises the message of partnership and collaboration as seen between word and action when Jesus asked them to bring ashore some of the fish they had just caught. The word of Jesus inspired Simon Peter to drag the huge catch of fish to shore. Although it is not stated that the other disciples helped Simon Peter, since he was a leader of action amongst them, one would assume he had some help.
The miracle catch occurred when the disciples listened to the voice of Jesus. They caught 153 large fish and by stating that the net was not torn further emphasises that the catch of fish was a miracle given by Jesus. The numbers of fish and the untorn net also have important symbolic meaning. Some scholars suggest that the number 153 was believed at the time of Jesus to be the known variety of fish in the sea. That the net was not torn now suggests that all the variety of fish in the sea did not escape the net that the disciples had cast out. In partnership with his disciples, Jesus and his Church had hauled in all the variety of fish in the sea, and not one escaped. What does this mean?
The gift of the fish and that not one escaped echoes a promise that Jesus made earlier in his ministry where he said, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” (John 6: 39), (see commentary John 6). All the variety of fish represents all the nations of the world, all the people. Therefore, the Church in partnership with Jesus ‘hauls’, in all the people of the world for the purpose of salvation. The narrator has illustrated through this story the purpose, mission, and responsibility for the Johannine community as indeed for the whole Christian church today. Without the partnership with Jesus, without his word and inspiration the disciples would have had an empty boat, or in today’s terms an empty church.
12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.” When the disciples arrived there were already fish cooking and bread available. Like an earlier scene on the Lake of Galilee where Jesus fed the five thousand people, Jesus also had a miraculous supply of fish and bread to feed all the people (see commentary John 6). At that time, he was feeding the hungry people that God had given him into his care, and now he was feeding his own disciples who also needed care.
There’s more to the breakfast than Jesus just providing fish and bread for the well being of his disciples. Once more, Jesus, the Lord and teacher was serving his disciples. The breakfast points back to another meal Jesus had with his disciples. During that unforgettable evening meal, Jesus rolled up his sleeves, tied a towel around his waist and washed the feet of his disciples (John 13: 5). After Jesus had finished washing their feet he said to them, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13: 15). Both examples of Jesus serving his disciples teach that all his disciples should commit themselves to humble service irrespective of their status in the community. Jesus sets the example for all Christians to follow in caring for each other no matter how dirty and humiliating the experience. Jesus served with love which made any ordinary burden into a joyous service.
The disciples came for breakfast and none of them dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. There was no doubt in their minds that it was the resurrected Lord. It was not always the case. At one time, Thomas refused to believe the reports of the resurrected Lord unless he could touch him and see the evidence for himself (John 20: 24-29). The disciples on the shore had no need to see the physical evidence, that is, the scars in the hands of Jesus to know that it was the Lord. They had just experienced a very large catch of fish that could only have come from the resurrected Lord in their midst. Jesus’ concluding remarks to Thomas were, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20: 29). The paradox of seeing is that Jesus calls us to see beyond the physical evidence and related human knowledge to see his presence behind the event. John was particularly good at seeing the resurrected Lord in the events of his daily life. In both cases the old cliché stands true, “seeing is believing.” Jesus challenges all Christians to see the presence of the resurrected Lord in their daily life and to be blessed through it.
This was now the third time Jesus had appeared to the group of disciples. The narrator has bracketed the fishing story and the story of Jesus serving breakfast as a unit of work. Those brackets are verse one and fourteen. They are brackets because they contain the same thought, that is, Jesus appeared again to his disciples. Like mathematical brackets, everything inside them is a unit of work to be dealt with first. Furthermore, the following verse, “When they had finished eating,” (v. 15a) clearly marks the beginning of the next section.
The third time and the number three are very symbolic throughout the Bible. Its symbolism depended in part to its context of use. The number three generally held the idea of ‘completeness’, representing a beginning, middle, and an end. Often it represented a conclusion to a series of events. With that in mind, Jesus had then finished meeting and dealing with all his disciples after he was raised from the dead. The words, “the third time,” conclude one section, but also numerically link to the next where Jesus questions Simon Peter three times.
Peter walks with Jesus and the Disciples follow
.15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
After breakfast, Jesus began the new business for the day. It appears that Jesus took Peter for a walk along the shore and the disciples followed (vs.20). During the walk, Jesus asked Simon Peter whether he loved him more than these. Considering the context of Jesus walking with his disciples on the shore, then the word ‘these’ probably refers to the disciples that followed.
At the root of the question, Jesus wants to deal with the issue of humility in regards to leadership. Peter showed himself to be a leader amongst the disciples. As with any position of leadership there are temptations that can destroy the credibility and effectiveness of that leader. Power and glory are renowned temptations that drive distance and create division between those that lead and follow. An outward appearance of a leader in trouble is when they lord it over others. When a person has a focus on the various temptations of leadership then the spirit of humility which Jesus had demonstrated throughout his life is cast out. Jesus requires leaders to set a good example so that others will freely follow. Jesus was in effect asking Simon Peter whether he was ready to be a true leader, a leader with a spirit of humility ready to serve others. By asking Simon Peter, Jesus is also asking all leaders the same question of leadership and humility.
Jesus is concerned that all who follow him continue to serve with humility as he himself has done. Jesus in all humility descended his heavenly throne to serve and restore his creation to life. He came to feed the hungry, heal the sick, to teach about the kingdom of heaven, and above all to give life and hope to all people. A study of John 6 reveals that the new meaning of holiness, as portrayed by Jesus equates to a life of humble service to others (see commentary John 6: 53-59).
The complete humility of spirit in Simon Peter is seen in his three times reply to Jesus. Twice Jesus asks Simon Peter whether he truly loves him. Jesus uses one of the Greek words for love, ‘agapao’. This type of love sees actions of complete selfless giving without failure, perhaps even to the point of exchanging one’s life for another. It is a love that is freely given rather than given out of compulsion or obligation. But Peter responds with another word for love, ‘phileo’. This other type of love sees actions that are associated with friendship, actions to help each other without asking or expecting them to be a martyr. Peter’s reply reveals his humility. He knew quite well that he could not with certainty meet those actions of love when questioned by Jesus. Peter was aware of his own human limitations and failings. (And yet ironically, tradition has it that, Peter died on the cross in the service of Jesus. His death showed that through the strength of the Holy Spirit, Peter exceeded his own human expectations.)
Peter was walking next to Jesus on the shore but this time there was no longer a boasting Peter who had once said he would lay down his life for him (John 13: 37). Instead, there was a humble Peter who remembered his three times public denial of Jesus (John 18: 15-27). Peter was aware of his own limitations and failings before Jesus and responded accordingly. A rough translation of Peter’s sentiment could go something like this, “Yes, Jesus I love you as a dear friend, and I will do what I can to help you.” Peter’s acknowledgement of his own limitations and failings is also representative of the limitations and failings of all disciples in the Christian church everywhere. For all those who walk with Jesus, especially in a position of leadership are called to walk in a spirit of humility knowing that they too are prone to failure. Where there is such humility as seen with Simon Peter then others will freely follow on the path of Jesus (vs. 20).
In the third address of Jesus to Simon Peter, Jesus changes the verb ‘agapao’ to ‘phileo’. By doing so, Jesus has accepted Simon Peter’s limitations and failings; he has accepted his humanity with all its short comings. Since Simon Peter’s humanity can be seen as representative of all disciples then Jesus has accepted the limitations and failings of all disciples. Simon Peter walks with Jesus as a friend whereas Jesus walks with Peter with the love and commitment of ‘agapao’. Jesus has already shown his love for all people by giving his life freely on the cross so that all may have life through him. Because of Jesus’ love he will continue to give of himself freely to fulfil the task where Peter, the disciples, and the Christian church fall short in their mission. There is no longer the need or obligation to be a ‘martyr’ for the sake of Jesus. Jesus does not call his disciples to go beyond what they can endure since that would deny the very purpose and work of Jesus. The work of Jesus is to give life.
The structure of Peter’s reply to Jesus, in part suggests that Peter is somewhat surprised that Jesus should even ask him whether or not he loved him. It is also a confession of faith acknowledging Jesus as Lord. Peter says, “You know that I love you,” again he says, “You know all things.” Peter confesses that Jesus knows everything about him. He confesses that Jesus has seen his actions of love towards him and towards others. The final use of the verb ‘know’ (ginosko) in Peter’s confession suggests that Jesus has seen inside the ‘heart’ of Peter and knows his intimate desires. There is nothing that escapes Jesus in the knowledge of Peter, and so it is that nothing escapes Jesus in the knowledge of all his disciples.
The narrator said that Peter was hurt, because Jesus had asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” The three times questioning of Simon Peter was interrupted by the ‘tears’ of Peter. Peter felt hurt. The NIV has translated the Greek word ‘lypeo’ as hurt, but could better be served as ‘grieve’ which has an association with the context of death and is relevant to the context of chapter 21. On the third time that Jesus had asked him, “Do you love me?” Peter realized its full implications. He realised that it was a divine call to follow Jesus, and that could in part lead to persecution, suffering, and even death to those that followed Jesus. Peter grieved for the disciples that followed. The narrator‘s purpose for including Peter’s grief in the text could have been in part a reflection and a pastoral concern addressing the persecution, suffering, and death that had fallen upon the Johannine community.
Three times Jesus addressed Simon Peter as, “Simon son of John.” He addressed Simon Peter not in the name commonly used amongst his friends and those at the fish market. Jesus addressed him by his birth name, the name that told of his origin. Likewise, Jesus is also known as the Son of God which tells us the official name of Jesus, the name that points to his origins and to his Father. The birth name is used on official and formal occasions. Jesus was calling Simon Peter and in doing so was also calling all whom Simon Peter represented; the disciples. The call concerns a matter dealing with the Kingdom of Heaven.
The call presented three times equates to a divine call, a complete official call from God. At another time of divine calling, Peter had received a vision from God. Three times the vision came in which he was called to go and encourage the Christians of Jewish origins to accept into fellowship the faithful Gentiles (Acts 10: 9-48), (see commentary John 6: 64-71).
The divine call to all disciples including Simon Peter is to feed and to take care of Jesus’ sheep. Who are the sheep of Jesus? The answer is simply; all people (see commentary John 6: 2, 10, 11). The task is enormous for the Christian church but not impossible when Jesus walks alongside in partnership. As seen in the above fishing story, Jesus provides the leadership and the miracle. Whenever Jesus is portrayed as the Good Shepherd, the narrator expects the reader at least to recall Psalm 23. The Psalm clearly shows the nature and role of the Good Shepherd and points to Jesus’ life and ministry on earth. Psalm 23: 2 says, “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides quiet waters, he restores my soul.” In the divine call to follow Jesus, he is offering to share in partnership the mantle of the Good Shepherd.
Within the mantle of partnership, Jesus has already given his life for the sheep. Therefore, there is no requirement or obligation for any disciple to give their life for the sheep. Again, there is no requirement to please God through personal sacrifices according to the Law of Moses, because Jesus has already fulfilled all those requirements for all people through his life and death on the cross. Jesus simply asks the disciples through a partnership to feed and take care of his sheep so that they may have life. In the partnership there are different roles, as seen with the earlier example of partnership in the above fishing story. There, Jesus directed the disciples where to cast the net and they hauled in the net full of fish.
18 Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!
Earlier, Simon Peter grieved for the disciples that were to come realizing that the Church may suffer at times in the process of feeding and taking care of the sheep of Jesus. The narrator continues and points to the death of Peter as an unfortunate outcome of his faithful service. It was a death foreseen by Jesus. Peter had exceeded his own expectations of love towards Jesus. The love he gave was ‘agapao’, and Jesus saw it in his heart. It is said that Peter was crucified on the cross only explains the means of death, but not the “kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.” The words of Jesus, “Feed my sheep” and “Follow me” are like brackets. In essence, they enclose Peter’s life as being a faithful servant from beginning to end. Within those brackets is the revelation of Peter’s death. His death was a result of faithful service in feeding and taking care of the sheep of Jesus. It was his life of humble service as a follower of Jesus that alone gave glory to God. There is no death that would be pleasing or give glory to God. God is about giving life. The very thing that gives glory to God is the giving of one’s self for the welfare of others in the name of Jesus. Simply, what good is a dead shepherd? It leaves the sheep unprotected for the waiting pack of wolves.
The text also resonates with a note of warning to deter followers of Jesus from thinking that death gives glory to God. During the time of the Johannine community there was persecution against the followers of Jesus. In their midst, there would have been some brash disciples who felt it necessary to challenge their persecutors in ways that would not have been pleasing to Jesus, and that could have led to death. An earlier example of disregard for life was clearly demonstrated when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. There, a disciple drew out his sward and cut off the ear of a soldier. Jesus interceded and put a stop to the violence and healed the soldier’s ear (Matthew 26: 47-56).
20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
The theme of death continues. Peter turned and saw John following and out of concern for him, he asks Jesus about John’s welfare. The narrator has deliberately placed a thorn between the two verses. Between vs. 20 and vs. 21 he has included a text that sounds like a “kiss of death” upon the cheek of John. The narrator makes a concerted effort to prick the reader into recalling an event at Jesus’ last Passover. The reader is familiar with the Passover scene and the question that John asks Jesus, “Lord, who is going to betray you?” The reader is also familiar with the outcome knowing that it was Judas who betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Yet, the narrator has arranged the text so that Peter’s question to the Lord on seeing John, “Lord, what about him?” has placed suspicion upon John as a traitor. The reader cannot escape the thought that perhaps John had somehow betrayed the resurrected Lord.
John was a leader in the Christian community who had inspired the people through his eye witness accounts of Jesus. In his community he was seen as an important authority on the word of God. Like Simon Peter, he too wore the burden of the sins of the community, because he was a leader amongst them, a leader dealing with the word of God. Therefore, it is quite possible that the Christian community found themselves in some way betraying the resurrected Lord when dealing wrongly with the word of God.
The theme of betrayal has been mentioned once before in the Gospel of John (John 6: 71). The text comes prior to the actual betrayal by Judas at Jesus’ last Passover. It was an event where many of Jesus’ disciples left him because they could not accept his message. The writer alludes to the disciples rejecting the words of Jesus as akin to betrayal (see commentary John 6: 60-71).
22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
Jesus answered Peter’s question. His reply forms brackets in the structure of the text and therefore brings into focus the content between them. The content is the rumour. The rumour became an outcome of a misunderstanding or misusing the words of Jesus. And the narrator has made it akin to betraying Jesus. The rumour betrayed both Jesus and the Christian community.
The rumour became a problem when John died and there was no imminent sign of Jesus returning. This would have led to confusion and distress within the community. Not only had they lost a beloved leader and friend but troublesome questions arose: “Where is Jesus?” “Why had he not kept his promise to come?” “Was it all a lie?” The rumour had diminished the value of Jesus and his work, and therefore it was a betrayal to all.
Perhaps, in part the meaning of Jesus’ reply may go something like this, “Irrespective of what I do and what happens, follow me.” Jesus is calling all those who follow him to “think big”, not to contain Jesus or limit him to human ways. Jesus is free to work miracles or not according to his purpose. It is only when people attempt to contain the resurrected Lord by using his words to fit their own purpose that they betray Jesus. In an earlier story there was a similar intent to contain Jesus. Briefly, Jesus had just finished feeding the five thousand and the crowd wanted to seize him and make him king over them for their own purposes. Instead, Jesus fled from them to continue his work elsewhere (see commentary John 6: 14-15).
Repeating Jesus’ reply emphasises another point. In the context that the Holy Spirit had already been given and was amongst them, then the words of Jesus, “until I return” can definitely relate to the Holy Spirit. In a sense the return and presence of the resurrected Lord constitutes the presence of the Holy Spirit. Chapter 21:1 began with a change of name; the Sea of Galilee became the Sea of Tiberias as mentioned earlier. It is still the same body of water providing life to all who live from it. And so it is with the Holy Spirit, it is the resurrected Lord amongst us who continues to give life to all.
24 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
25 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.
The ending of chapter 21 builds on the ending of the Gospel ‘proper’ where the writer says, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.” (John 20: 30). The concluding verse twenty five sounds like an unbelievable claim. Its place is to recall the extensive work of the resurrected Lord through the Holy Spirit in the world. It recalls the daily work of Jesus in the lives of those that follow him and to those who are his sheep. It also looks forward to the continued work of the resurrected Lord through the Holy Spirit, giving life to all who listen and adhere to the words of Jesus.
The resurrected Lord Jesus comes to his disciples, to his church through the Holy Spirit. He cares for them as a Good Shepherd giving life to all who hear his word. In their midst the Holy Spirit raises up leaders who inspires others through the Word of God, and leaders who take action which others follow. The Holy Spirit is the one and the same in both types of leadership. The leaders display partnership and co-operation in fulfilling the work of God. And the work of God is salvation for all people.
Jesus calls leaders from within the group of disciples, who are humble in spirit like himself. People who are humble in spirit are seen getting ‘dirty’ caring and helping others. Those are the people that Jesus calls to be leaders amongst his disciples. Then others will follow.
Finally, the author of chapter 21 points to the Gospel of John as the true word of God. He points to it as the true source for inspiration, hope, and salvation. When all have passed away, the Word of God remains. Through the Word of God, the Holy Spirit in partnership with the disciples will inspire and lead them into action for the salvation of all people. When Christian leaders rightly adhere to the Word of God then there is life, and the ‘net is full of fish’.