John 21:1-25

When back at his home in Galilee, Peter remarked to some of the other apostles about his intent to go fishing. They decided to go with him, pursuing their customary occupation on the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Sea of Tiberias). With Peter, six others got into the boat. They were Thomas (Didymus [the “Twin”]), Nathanael from Cana, the sons of Zebedee (James and John), and two others. Likely Peter’s brother Andrew was one of the two unnamed apostles, and the other one may have been Nathanael’s close companion Philip. (Compare John 1:43-45.) During the entire night spent in fishing, they caught nothing. (21:1-3)

Early in the morning, Jesus appeared on the shore, but the apostles did not recognize him. He called out to them, “Boys [literally, children], do you have anything to eat?” “No,” came back the reply. Jesus directed them to cast their net on the right side of the boat to make a catch. When they did so, the net filled with so many fish that they were unable to haul it up. At that, John (the disciple for whom Jesus had great affection) said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” Hearing this, Peter, who had been naked (probably to be prepared to jump from the boat if it became necessary to attend to a net in the water), put on his garment, plunged into the lake, and swam a distance of about 200 cubits or approximately 300 feet (c. 90 meters). The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net filled with fish. (21:4-8)

Jesus had made preparations for them to eat. Already fish and bread were lying on a charcoal fire, and Jesus asked for some fish from the catch to be brought to him. Peter boarded the boat and hauled the net to the shore. Although it contained 153 large fish, the net did not tear. When the food was ready to eat, Jesus invited the disciples to have breakfast and handed them bread and fish. (21:9-13)

They could not bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” This was because they recognized him to be Jesus. It would seem, therefore, that the recognition was not based on his physical features but on the revelation of his miraculous knowledge. Just as the clothing he wore would not have been identical to the garments the Roman soldiers then possessed, his resurrection body was different. Like the angels, he could appear and then vanish from sight. All the recorded instances of his post-resurrection appearances proved to be comparatively brief. Their main purpose, during the course of 40 days, served to convince the disciples that he was indeed alive. If he could have been readily recognized at all times, his presenting them with “many proofs” would not have been necessary. (Acts 1:3) People do not need “many proofs” to recognize a close friend who may have been away for a short time but whom they, on the basis of unsubstantiated reports, had presumed to be dead. (21:12)

Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance at the Sea of Galilee was the third of the ones where most of the apostles saw him. The first time all the apostles, with the exception of Thomas, were present. On the second occasion, all the apostles saw him. (20:24, 26; 21:14)

After the apostles had finished eating breakfast, Jesus directed his words to Peter, saying, “Simon [son of] John [Jonah, according to the reading of other manuscripts], do you love [agapáo] me more than these?” Confident that Jesus knew the answer, Peter responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love [philéo] you.” (21:15)

In the question that Jesus is represented as asking, the Greek pronoun for “these” can be either masculine (referring to the other disciples) or neuter (everything related to fish and fishing). A number of translations render the question with explicit application to the disciples. “Do you love me more than these others?” (Phillips, REB) “Do you love me more than the others do?” (CEV) This would appear to be the preferable understanding. It would be more in line with Peter’s eagerness in getting to the shore as quickly as possible and his previous affirmation during the observance of the Passover that he would not be stumbled even though all the others might be and that he would be willing to die with Jesus. (Mark 14:29-31)

Indicating how Peter could express his love for him, Jesus said, “Feed my lambs [arníon].” As an apostle, one whom Jesus had personally instructed, Peter was in position to care for the spiritual interests of fellow disciples. These disciples were the sheep who belonged to Jesus and for whom he had surrendered his life. (21:15)

Again Jesus asked him, “Simon [son of] John [Jonah, according to other manuscripts], do you love [agapáo] me?” As he had expressed himself the first time, Peter reaffirmed his love, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love [philéo] you.” Jesus then repeated the admonition, “Tend my sheep [próbaton or probátion (little sheep) in other manuscripts].” (21:16)

When Jesus, for a third time, asked Peter, “Simon [son] of John [Jonah, according to other manuscripts], do you love [philéo] me?” he felt hurt. Hearing the question for the third time may have led to his recalling with sadness that he had disowned Jesus three times. Nevertheless, Peter did not waver in expressing his love for him. “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love [philéo] you.” Jesus then repeated, “Feed my sheep [próbaton or probátion (little sheep) in other manuscripts].” This assignment to serve as a caring shepherd for the sheep reflected Jesus’ confidence in Peter and may well have served to lift from him any lingering burdening effect his previous three denials may have had. (21:17)

Jesus is twice represented as using a form of the Greek term agapáo (love) and once philéo (love). Peter, in his response, is represented as saying philéo. Of the two terms, agapáo is often broader in scope, with philéo being a love that is frequently more closely associated with close friendship and affection. As in the case of the English word “love,” the context determines the nature of the kind of love or affection the verbs agapáo and philéo may be understood to convey. It appears preferable not to attempt to draw too sharp a distinction between the two terms, seeking instead to ascertain the significance from the context. Moreover, Jesus would not have communicated with his disciples in the Greek language. (21:15-17)

At this point, Jesus looked to the end of Peter’s faithful service. In his younger years, Peter had been a man of action. Girding himself to undertake his activity and walking where he chose to go. Upon getting old, he would stretch out his hands and someone else would gird him and take him to a place where he would not want to go. Jesus thus indicated that Peter, in his declining years, would be forcibly taken to the place of execution. Dying as a martyr on account of remaining faithful to God, he would “glorify” or bring honor to him. According to Eusebius (c. 263 to c. 339 CE), Peter was crucified during the reign of Nero. (21:18, 19)

Jesus concluded his words to Peter with the admonition, “Follow me.” It appears that the interchange between Jesus and Peter took place a short distance from where the other disciples were and while the two of them were walking. Seemingly, Peter became aware that another disciple was following them, and he turned around. It was John, the disciple whom Jesus loved and who had asked him during the Passover meal concerning who the betrayer would be. Seeing John, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, but what about him?” Jesus directed his attention away from John. If it were to be Jesus’ will for John to be alive at his return, this should have no bearing on Peter’s course. As Jesus said to him, “What [is] that to you? You, follow me.” (21:19-22)

Whereas Jesus loved all of the apostles, his relationship to John appears to have been remarkably close. Therefore, the expression the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is an appropriate identifier. The close relationship seems to have come into existence because of John’s exceptional attentiveness and responsiveness to Jesus’ teaching. An outstanding example of John’s attentiveness and responsiveness was his believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead when he saw the empty tomb and the linen wrappings inside. (13:1; 20:8; 21:20)

Jesus’ words about John gave rise to the view among the brothers or in the community of believers that he would not die but would still be living when Jesus returned. This misunderstanding is corrected in the account by reiterating what Jesus actually said. He did not say to Peter that John would not die. Jesus expressed the thought about John conditionally, “If it is my will for him to remain until I come, what [is] that to you?” (21:23)

John 21:24 reveals the source of the entire account. It is one of the apostles, the one about whom Peter asked. The internal evidence identifies this one as John (one of Zebedee’s sons [21:2]), the “disciple who testifies about these things and who wrote these things.” The change to the second person plural in the next sentence of verse 24 may be an indication that he did not write this particular affirmation, “We know that his testimony is true.”

The editorial comments found in John 21:25 could also have been written regarding the three other accounts. Jesus did much more that the disciples witnessed but which were not mentioned. The narrations included sufficient essentials to provide a solid foundation for believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and to have a sure basis for faith in him and the forgiveness of sins his sacrificial death made possible. Using hyperbole to stress the large amount of information that could have been committed to writing, John concluded, “There are also many other things Jesus did, which, if ever they were recorded, I imagine the world could not contain the scrolls [that would be] written.” (21:25)

Although the preserved records are comparatively brief, millions, throughout the centuries, have come to believe that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. On the basis of the written accounts about his exemplary life, deeds, and teaching, they have come to live rich and rewarding lives. Although later believers, unlike the apostles and many other first-century disciples, have never seen Jesus, they love him. Through him, they have come to know his Father, resulting in their enjoyment of the real life, a life of an enduring relationship with both the Father and the Son. Accordingly, because of their faith, they have come to have life “in [Christ’s] name” or on the basis of who he is, the only one through whom a relationship with his Father is possible.

At the same time, just as the personal presence of Jesus in the first century created division among the Jewish people, with some responding to him in faith and others becoming violently opposed, the preserved records about him have had the same effect. There are those who try to discredit them with the same passion as those who fanatically cried out for Jesus to be crucified. Others have a distorted view of God’s Son and, based on what they have been taught, do not allow themselves to be led to the Father through him. They are much like the Jews in the first century who failed to recognize him for who he was, the one who could fully reveal his Father to them. They did not think of Jesus as God’s unique Son but concluded that he was Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets raised from the dead, or possibly even John the Baptist restored to life. Few were those who, like Peter, declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16) Today, too, many tend to express themselves more in line with derived views about Jesus acquired from their particular religious environment, and not with a personal conviction that reflects the language of the preserved accounts regarding him.