The Gospel According To John chapter 21


“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you be saying that there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ cannot have been raised either, and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without substance, and so is your faith.  What is more, we have proved to be false witnesses to God, for testifying against God that he raised Christ to life when he did not raise him-if it is true that the dead are not raised.  For, if the dead are not raised, neither is Christ; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is pointless and you have not, after all, been released from your sins. In addition, those who have fallen asleep in Christ are utterly lost.  If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most pitiable.  In fact, however, Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep.  As it was by one man that death came, so through one man has come the resurrection of the dead.”
1 Corinthians 15:12-21


” He had shown himself alive to them after his Passion by many demonstrations: for forty days he had continued to appear to them and tell them about the kingdom of God.”
Acts 1:3

“And he said to them, ‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Gospel to all creation.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.'” 
Mark 16:17

“Hence he commands that the teaching of the Apostles should be religiously accepted and piously kept as if it were his own: ‘He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me’ [Luke 10:16].  Wherefore the Apostles are ambassadors of Christ as he is the ambassador of the Father.”
–Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum

Sequence of events up to this point:

  • And suddenly there was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven came and rolled away the stone and sat on it.  His face was like lightning, his robe white as snow.  The guards were so shaken by dear of him that hey were like dead men. Matthew 28:1-4
  • It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb.  She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb and came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. John 20:1-2
  • So Peter set out with the other disciple to go to the tomb.[…] Till this moment they had still not understood the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  The disciples then went back home. But Mary was standing outside near the tomb, weeping.  John 20:3, 9-11
  • Having risen in the morning on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary of Magdala from whom he had cast out seven devils.  She then went to those who had been his companions, and who were mourning and in tears, and told them.  But they did not believe her when they heard her say that he was alive and that she had seen him. Mark 16:9-10
  • The other women who had joined Mary at the tomb had seen an angel but now they are greeted by Jesus Himself: And suddenly, coming to meet them, was Jesus.  ‘Greetings,’ he said.  And the women came up to him and, clasping his feet, they did him homage.  Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; there they will see me.’ Matthew 28:9-10.
  • Jesus appears to Simon-Peter [Luke 24:34; 1Corinthians 15:5]
  • After this he showed himself under another form to two of them as they were on their way into the country. Mark16:11
  • They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem.  There they found the eleven assembled together with their companions. Luke 24:33
  • In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews.  Jesus came and stood among them. John 20:19
  • Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. John 20:24
  • Lastly, he showed himself to the eleven themselves while they were at table. Mark 16:14

During the forty days between His Resurrection and His Ascension Jesus appeared to His disciples and the Apostles many times.  St Paul reports that He even appeared to more than 500 disciples at the same time [1 Corinthians 15:6].

“Meanwhile the eleven disciples set out for Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had arranged to meet them.  When they saw him they fell down before him, though some hesitated. Jesus came up and spoke to them.  He said. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptizing them in the name of the father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.  And look, I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” Matthew 28:16-20 [please note that this encounter with Jesus may come after the meeting and breakfast with Jesus on the Sea of Tiberius in John chapter 21].

Please read John 21:1-8
Verses 1-2
“Later on, Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples.  It was by the Sea of Tiberias, and it happened like this: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathaniel from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee and two more of his disciples were together.”

Most modern Biblical scholars believe the fourth Gospel was intended to end with 20:21 and that chapter 21 was added later, perhaps by another author. However, chapter 21 is quoted by many early Church fathers like the Roman priest/ apologist Tertullian and it is included in the commentary on the Gospel of John by the great early-mid 3rdcentury Biblical scholar and theologian Origen without any question of its authenticity. No copy of this Gospel has ever been found without the addition of chapter 21.

A number of arguments can be made in support of the continuity of this chapter with the rest of the Fourth Gospel:

  • Since St. John begins his Gospel with a Prologue, it follows that he should end his Gospel with an Epilogue. The Prologue set the stage and the Epilogue closes the curtain on the events of the fourth Gospel.
  • The encounter with Jesus in the Galilee supports Matthew and Mark’s accounts in which Jesus instructed the Apostles to meet with Him in the Galilee after His resurrection.
  • Chapter 21 completes Peter’s reconciliation with Jesus and his re-commissioning as the Vicar of Christ. Without this addition Peter is left in disgrace and his position of authority over the Apostles in question.
  • Some scholars date John’s Gospel before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.  With St. Peter’s martyrdom occurring sometime between 64 and 67AD, Peter’s death may have been the reason John included this material concerning Peter’s affirmation of his love for Christ, the re-commissioning of Peter as the leader of Jesus’ flock and the prophecy of Peter’s death.
  • The Epilogue also completes the Gospel narrative by showing a triumphant Jesus who clarifies the mission of the Church, and brings the call of Peter and the disciples full circle back to the Galilee.
  • The Epilogue also gives some final clues to the identity of “the beloved disciple.”

Question: Only John’s Gospel mentions the lake called the Sea of Tiberias.  Where is the Sea of Tiberias?  What are its other names?

Answer: The Sea of Tiberias, known as the Sea of Galilee [Matthew 4:18; 15:29; Mark 1:16; 7

:31; John 6:1] and also as the Lake of Gennesaret [Matthew 14:34; Mark 6:53; Luke 5:1] or Chinneroth as it is referred to in the Old Testament, is located in the north of Israel.  This lake area, called the Galilee, was one of the great population centers in New Testament Palestine.  The natural resources of the area in ancient times supported a large population and a number of industries.  Modern scholars have estimated that the 9 major cities on the Sea of Galilee had a population of about 15,000 each.   Circa 20AD, about 7-8 years before Jesus began His ministry, Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, built a new administrative capital on the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Herod Antipas dedicated his new city in honor of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar calling the city Tiberias.  Herod Antipas not only named his new city for the emperor but also renamed the lake in the emperor’s honor.

Since the lake was only renamed several years before Jesus’ ministry began it is not unusual that the other Gospels to refer to it by the older Aramaic and Hebrew names.  This older designation, some scholars believe helps to identify the date when the Synoptic Gospels were written.  These scholars place the date of the Synoptic Gospels to within a decade of Jesus’ resurrection.  In John’s case, writing 30 years after Jesus’ Ascension to a mostly Greco-Roman Christian church in Asia Minor, it is reasonable that he would use the Roman name for the lake.

Question: This is the third time John has mentioned “Tiberias” in his Gospel.  What were the other two occasions and what happened in those accounts?  Hint: see 6:1-15 and 6:23ff.

Answer: In chapter 6:1-15 of John’s Gospel Jesus feeds the crowd of 5,000 men, not counting women and children, and the Apostles who assist in feeding the crowds collect 12 large baskets of fragment[klasmata in the singular] of the bread. It is a truly amazing sign of His divinity and the super abundance of His blessings.  This sign precedes the second mention of Tiberias which comes just before His famous “Bread of Life Discourse” where Jesus explains the future gift of Himself, body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist.  In chapter 21 Jesus makes breakfast for the 7 Apostles using fish and bread.  The nouns “fish” and the “bread” are singular –just as the bread scraps in the John 6: 13 are in the singular.

John mentions “Tiberias” three times.  Three is one of the “perfect” numbers in Sacred Scripture.  In the Old Covenant it signified completeness and importance, especially theological importance.  A series of three also unites and expands the meaning of the three repeats and the significance of the passage in context with each other.

Question: What connection could John be drawing between the events in John 6:1-15 and following, in 6: 23 and following, and the events that follow in 21:1?  What is similar about the passages and what is theologically significant?  Read 6:1-15; 6:23-33, & 47-51; and 21: 13, 15-17

Answer:  All three episodes involve the subject of eating.  In the first event Jesus abundantly feeds the crowds of people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes to nurture their physical bodies.  In the second event He speaks of God feeding the children of Israel on their journey to the Promise Land and promises a much greater miracle in feeding those who desire eternal life by giving them “bread from heaven” in His very flesh [sarx] and blood [haima]. Now in this episode in chapter 21 Jesus feeds the 7 Apostles bread and fish and afterward commands Peter to feed both the “lambs” and the “sheep” in verses 15 and 17.  The theological connection is unity of the Church [symbolized by the “one” bread], the gift of the most holy Eucharist and the Church’s command to spiritually nurture God’s New Covenant people on their journey to the Promised Land [heaven] with the very body and blood of the Savior.

John gives us another clue to this connection between these 3 different events in the number of Apostles who are present in chapter 21.

Question: How many Apostles does John record are present? What is the significance of this symbolic number?  How many are identified by name or by family and how many go unnamed?   What is significant about the way John has listed the Apostles?  Refer back to the events in John 6:5-10.

Answer: The total number of Apostles present is 7.  He names 5 [Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, and the sons of Zebedee [who are John and James] and leaves 2 unnamed. In the feeding of the 5,000, which prefigured the superabundance of the most holy Eucharist, Jesus used 5loaves and 2 fishes.  Five is the number of grace and two the number of God the Son: 5 plus 2 = 7.  In chapter 21 John gives another grouping of 5 and 2 to yield 7.  Seven is the number of full, completion, spiritual perfection, and it is the number of God the Holy Spirit.  All of these numbers are repeated in chapter 21 as well as the food, loaves and fishes [see 21:13].

“Nathaniel from the Galilee”

Question: When did we last hear about Nathaniel?

Answer: The only other time Nathaniel is mentioned in the New Testament is by John in 1:45-51 when Philip brought him to Jesus and Nathaniel’s initial unbelief was overcome by a demonstration of Jesus’ superhuman knowledge causing Nathaniel to proclaim Jesus the Messiah.  Some scholars believe that Nathaniel was not one of the 12 Apostles but was instead one of the 70 disciples.  Other scholars point to this unique gathering of Apostles and suggest that Nathaniel is listed by his surname as Bartholomew in the Gospel accounts and in Acts [Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13].  Bartholomew is from the Aramaic bar talmai, or “son of Tolmi, a patronymic.

“the sons of Zebedee” This is the only time in John’s Gospel that he will refer to his family; it is fitting that he does so now–at the very end of his account.  By the time John wrote his Gospel his brother James had been martyred about 20 years [beheaded in 42AD by Herod Agrippa.  See Acts 12:2].

Question: Can you guess who the two unnamed disciples might be? The remaining Apostles are Matthew the Levite, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Jude son of James, Andrew the brother of Simon Peter, and Philip from Bathsaida.

Answer: We cannot know for certain, but I suggest Nathaniel’s friend Philip and Peter’s brother Andrew.

#1: Philip: Philip and Thomas are mentioned more often in John’s Gospel than any of the other Gospels.  Philip comes from Peter and Andrew’s hometown of Bathsaida [John 1:44].  It was Philip who brought Nathaniel to Jesus.

#2: Andrew: Andrew is not only Peter’s brother but is also a part owner in the fishing company owned by Peter and the sons of Zebedee.  John also records that it was Andrew who brought Simon-Peter to Jesus telling his brother “We have found the Messiah..” [John 1:41-42]

Another clue may be that only these 7 Apostles figure prominently in John’s Gospel.  In his Gospel John has not named any of the other choices, and in the list of the Apostles in Acts 1:14 these 7 are all listed first: Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew [Nathaniel] and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Jude son of James.”

Verses 3-4 “Simon Peter said, ‘I’m going fishing.’  They replied, ‘We’ll come with you.’  They went out and got into the boat but caught nothing that night.  When it was already light, there stood Jesus on the shore, though the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. “

Some scholars interpret this action by Peter and the others as an indication that these men were abandoning the path they had taken 3 years earlier and were returning to their old way of life, apparently unaware of what Jesus’ commission meant when He spoke to them in the Upper Room in 20:21.  Yet they must have known, not only because the miracle of the Resurrection but through Jesus’ spiritual gifts to them.

Question: What 3 spiritual gifts had Jesus given the Apostles on Resurrection Sunday in the Upper Room?

Answer: The gifts of the effusing of His spirit, the gift of His power and authority to forgive or bind sin, and the opening of their minds and hearts to the prophetic passages of the Old Testament.  This is what called them to obedience and faith to travel to the Galilee to meet with Him at the very place where He first called them.

Perhaps they went fishing because they had been waiting all day for Jesus and even though it was now night they were all too anxious to sleep.  If this was the case it makes sense that Peter, always a man of action, might decide to be proactive while they continued to wait on the Lord by fishing, just as they had fished that last night before Jesus called them to be “fishers of men” [Luke 5:5].  Or perhaps this episode is meant to show that they still had a choice: to take up their old way of life or to choose to follow Jesus.

The information that they still owned their own fishing boats also points to the fact that these may have been men who were not formally educated in the Law of the Old Covenant, but they were by no means poor.  They had been absent from the fishing business for 3 years and yet they still have their fishing business to come back to if they so desired.

John includes the information that it is night when they go fishing.  This is an accurate historical detail. Night fishing is still a custom of fisherman on the Sea of Galilee today.  At night the fish are attracted to the phosphorus glow of the algae on the water’s surface, and fish caught at night are fresher for sale in the morning.

Verses 5-6 ” ‘Jesus called out to them, ‘Haven’t you caught anything friends?’*

  And when they answered, ‘No’, he said, ‘Throw the net out to starboard and you’ll find something.’  So they threw the net out and could not haul it in because of the quantity of fish.”

[*the literal translation of this word in the Greek is paidia.  It is more literally translated “boys” or “lads”, a friendly, casual greeting].

Verses 7-8  “The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’  At these words ‘It is the Lord,’ Simon Peter tied his outer garment round him (for he had nothing on) and jumped into the water.  The other disciples came on in the boat, towing the net with the fish; they were only about a hundred yards* from land.” [*literally 200 cubits]

Some scholars point out that it is John who first sees Jesus because, being the more “spiritual” disciple, he is looking with the eyes of faith.  Another possibility is that the much younger man simply had better eyesight than his older companions, or he was at a vantage point where he had a better view of the Savior standing on the shore.

It was the custom to remove one’s outer long garment and to wear only a breechcloth when fishing.  Gentiles usually fished naked.  The Jews were particular about public nakedness and so it is unlikely that the men were fishing without any clothing at all but were probably wearing their loincloths.  That Peter dressed before jumping into the water out of modesty and reverence for his Master.  He tucks or ties his outer garment so that he will have the freedom to swim.

Question: Why doesn’t John jump into the water and swim to Jesus?

Answer: Perhaps John is acknowledging Peter’s precedence as he did in 21:15-17.

Question: Verse 6 speaks of a huge quantity of big fish.  Why does John include this information?  What does the huge quantity of big fish symbolize?

Answer: The huge quantity of fish in verses 7-8 is symbolic of the abundance of God’s blessings to the Church and prefigures the abundant harvest of souls these “fishers of men” will bring into the Church, symbolized by Peter’s boat.

Question: What other episodes in John’s Gospel recalls the promise of the super abundance of blessings in the New Covenant?

Answer: It also recalls the generosity of Jesus at the wedding at Cana in 2:6; the miracle of the loaves and fishes in chapter 6; the promised spiritual blessings of the “Living Water” in 4:14 and 7:37; the life which the Good Shepherd promises to give in 10:10; and the blessings the Holy Spirit which is promised to pour out on the New Covenant in the Last Supper discourses in chapters 14-17.

Question: Why doesn’t Peter wait in the boat until they sail into the shore?

Answer: Some scholars point to what they consider to be Peter’s previous acts of impulsive behavior.  But Peter had been waiting all day and all night for Jesus’ arrival.  His actions speak of a man who is overcome with joy over a reunion he had been awaiting with great anticipation. This is not the action of a man who had planned to return to his former way of life but a man who is so overjoyed to see his Lord and his God that he cannot bear to be separated from Him one moment longer!

Please read verses 9-17
Verses 9-11
“As soon as they came ashore they saw that there was some bread* there and a charcoal fire with fish* cooking on it. Jesus said, ‘Bring some of the fish you have just caught.’  Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net ashore, full of big fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them; and in spite of there being so many the net was not broken.    [*in the singular]

Question: Does this episode remind you of a similar encounter some of these men had with Jesus recorded in Luke 5:1-11.

Answer: Each of the other Gospels records the story of the call of Peter, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John.  John does not record this event in his Gospel but he clearly expects us to be familiar with that event and now connects those stories to this last encounter with Christ. There are more parallels between this event in John and Jesus’ call of the fisherman in Luke 5 than in the other Gospels. Please read Luke 5:1-11.

Question: After reading the story in Luke’s Gospel what similarities do you see with this episode?


John 21:1-8 Luke 5:1-11
  Lake of Gennesaret [Sea of Galilee]   Sea of Tiberius [Sea of Galilee]
  7 disciples fish all night   The men had been fishing  all night (vs 5)
  When it was light Jesus was  standing on the shore watching the boat   It is morning.  Jesus  passes two boats by the water’s edge; fisherman mending their nets
  Jesus calls to the  fisherman in Simon-Peter’s boat and asks if they have caught anything.  They  answer ‘no’.   Jesus gets into  Simon-Peter’s boat and asks him to put the boat out into deeper water. Jesus  teaches the crowds from the boat
  Jesus tells them to throw  the net out to starboard and tells them they will find something. (vs 6)   Jesus tells Simon to put  out into deep water and put out the nets
  They threw out the nets and  could not haul it in because of the quantity of fish.(vs 6)   Simon tells Jesus they have  fished all night without success but they will do as He requests
  In spite of there being so  many the net was not broken (vs11)   They net such a huge number  of fish that their nets began to tear
  Simon Peter went aboard and  dragged the net ashore, full of big fish, 153 of them (vs11)   The other boat [with James  and John] comes to help and the filled both boats to sinking point.
  Simon Peter swims out to  Jesus (vs 7)   Simon-Peter falls to his  knees saying “Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man.”
  Jesus re-commissions Peter  a second time in vs 15-17   Jesus says to Simon, ‘Do  not be afraid; form now on it is people you will be catching.’
  Peter professes his love  for Jesus vs 17 and commands him in vs 19 “Follow me.”   Then, bringing the boats  back to land they left everything and followed him.

It is significant that this time the net does not break!  It is Jesus Christ who is in charge of the catch!

The Father’s of the Church saw Peter’s boat as symbolic of the universal Church.  She may be tossed on stormy seas but it is Jesus’ will that she should prevail and bring in an abundant harvest of souls.  Did you know that the main body of a Catholic Church is called a “nave”?  This word is Latin for “boat”.

Question: What is the symbolic significance of Peter hauling ashore the net full of this specific number of fish?

Answer: Biblical scholars have spilt pages and pages of ink on this very question.  Most scholars recognize that the fish are symbolic of the souls harvested by the Church for Christ.  St. Jerome notes that Greek Zoologists had determined that there were 153 different kinds of fish in the Sea of Galilee, which he felt were symbolic of all the different tribes of the earth being brought back into God’s Covenant family.  A parallel to this theory is found in Matthew 13:47 where Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a dragnet which when thrown into the sea gathers fish “of every kind” indicating the universality of the Christian mission

Scholars, ancient and modern, have also tired to find some connection to the gematria of this number 153. Gematria is the symbolic relationship between letters and their corresponding numbers and the numerical value of words or sentences.  John does use gematria in Revelation chapter 13:18 in the 666 of the Beast, therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume gematria may be employed here with this specific number. St. Gregory the Great, St Jerome, St. Augustan, Sir Isaac Newton, and many others have tried to solve the riddle of 153 using gematria.  One of the better suggestions using gematria is that the phrase “sons of God” in Greek is 3212 which is 3x7x153.   This suggestion links Jerome’s theory that the number of fish in the Sea of Tiberius is the ideal number of the “tribes of man”, 153 times the Trinity [3] and spiritual perfection [7].   Other scholars also determined that the number of the Church = 12 squared added to the number of Trinity =3 squared equaled 153.  St. Augustan in his commentary on St John’s Gospel tried a mathematical approach and suggested that there might be a connection to the sum of all numbers from 1 to 17.  St. Augustan suggested that 17 is symbolic combination of the number 10, signifying the Old Law, and 7, the spiritual perfection of the New Law, since 7 is the number of the Holy Spirit [i.e. 7 gifts of the Spirit]. St. Augustan determined that all the numbers 1-17 added together yields 153.  Other scholars using a mathematical approach noticed that 153 dots can be arranged into an equilateral triangle with 17 dots on each side to yield a numerical symbol for perfection using the number 17, a number that is made up of the two numbers symbolic in Jewish thought for completion or perfection of order [10] and fullness and perfection [7].   In ancient times triangular numbers was a passion of both Greek mathematicians and Biblical scholars.

My suggestion is that perhaps the number isn’t meant to be added or divided but is meant to be interpreted, as it would have been written as 100 and 50 and 3.  100= super abundance of perfection of order [10 x 10]; 50 = grace times perfection of order [5 x 10], and 3 the Most Holy Trinity who binds the Church in perfection of grace. However it is meant to be determined [St. Augustan finally gave up and declared this number “a great mystery”], this number is in someway associated with the perfection of the number of souls being harvested into the Church through the work of her ordained priesthood, the successors to the Apostles.

Some scholars feel the use of “fish” and “bread” in the singular in verse 9 is significant.  Here is another connection to the other feeding miracle in the feeding of the 5,000 when the fish and bread were miraculously multiplied.  Does John want to illustrate the theme of unity at a sacred meal by referring to one fish and one loaf?  Is it possible that Jesus miraculously multiplied the one fish and the one loaf to feed the 8 of them just as He will multiply His flesh and blood through His ordained priesthood to feed the souls of all future believers who come to Him in the Most Holy Eucharist?  In the symbolism of numbers in Scripture 8 is the number of salvation, redemption and regeneration.

John 21:12-14: Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, ‘Who are you?’  They knew quite well it was the Lord.  Jesus then stepped forward, took the bread and gave it to them, and the same with the fish. This was the third time that Jesus revealed himself to the disciples after rising from the dead.

John could be mentioning this third revelation as a symbolic number.  If he means it is literally the third meeting then this event precedes the meeting on the mountain in the Galilee as recorded in Matthew 28:16-20

This is at least the second time [see 20:19], if not the third time, that Jesus has provided evidence to the disciples that He is not a ghost by eating with them.  In Acts 10:41 St. Peter mentions eating with Jesus:“Yet on the third day God raised him to life and allowed him to be seen, not by the whole people but only by certain witnesses that God had chosen beforehand.  Now we are those witnesses–we have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead..” Act 10:40-41.

John 21:15-17: When they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do*? He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you.’  Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’  A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me? He replied, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you.’  Jesus said to him, ‘Look after [shepherd] my sheep.’  Then he said to him a third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’  Peter was hurt that he asked him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’  and said, ‘Lord, you know everything” you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ [*the words “others do” are not in the Greek text].

It is not clear what Jesus means when He asks Peter “do you love me more than these?” There are three possible interpretations:

  1. Does Peter love Jesus more than the other Apostles?  or
  2. Is Jesus is gesturing to the boat with the catch of fish and is Jesus asking Peter if he loves Him more than Peter’s old way of life?
  3. The third possibility is preferred by the New Jerusalem translation scholars who include the words “others do”, interpreting Jesus’ question to be: is Peter’s love for Jesus greater than the other Apostle’s love for Jesus?

However, all of the interpretations agree that Peter is being asked by Jesus to declare his ultimate loyalty.  Perhaps Peter was remembering Jesus’ testing of the strength of his loyalty when he, in writing to the ordained ministers of the Church in 1Peter 5:1-4 urges them to “give a shepherd’s care to the flock of God that is entrusted to you; watch over it, not simply as a duty but gladly, as God wants..[..].  Do not lord it over the groups, which is in your charge, but be an example for the flock. [..].”

Note that Jesus calls Peter the “son of John”–  Ben Yehohanan in the Hebrew.  The Hebrew name Yehohanan means ‘Yahweh’s mercy’. Jesus calls Peter the son of a man named John three times in this passage [vs. 15-17], but this is actually the 4th time Peter is identified as the “son of John” in this Gospel.  When Jesus was first was introduced to Simon in John 1:42 Jesus addressed him as “Simon, son of John”.

But in Matthew 16:17 Jesus refers to Simon-Peter as the “son of Jonah”.  Ben Yonah in Hebrew means ‘son-of-dove’. This is not a discrepancy.  In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is using a symbolic reference to the 8thcentury Galilean prophet Jonah.  Five times previous to the reference in Matthew 16 Jesus has compared His impending death and resurrection to the prophet Jonah’s 3-day entombment in the great fish.  If you recall the story of Jonah you will remember that Yahweh sent the prophet Jonah to the capitol city [Nineveh] of the world superpower [Assyria] to tell the people of Nineveh to repent and turn to Yahweh.  Jesus will send His prophet Peter, ‘son of the dove’ – the Holy Spirit – to the capitol city [Rome] of the world superpower [the Roman Empire] and from Rome Peter will bring the Gospel to the world, calling all the families of the nations to repentance and to come to salvation in Christ Jesus!  [Peter will become the first Christian Bishop of Rome circa 42AD].

Question: Where are Jesus and Peter sitting during this very moving exchange? See verse 9?

Answer: Around a charcoal fire.

Question: What was the only other time that this Gospel mentions Peter near a charcoal fire?  What is the significance? See John 18:18

Answer: After Jesus’ arrest Peter denied Jesus three times as he was standing near a charcoal fire.  Now he has the opportunity to undo that wrong by expressing his love and devotion to Jesus three times. This is the only other time a charcoal fire is mentioned in the New Testament.

This triple profession of love by Peter forgives the triple denial and invests Peter as the chief Shepherd of the Good Shepherd’s flock. A triple repetition oath is a common Semitic practice and recalls Abraham’s triple covenant formula with Yahweh in Genesis 23:3-20.  The dialogue of Peter’s triple repetition investiture uses several Greek synonyms.  Two different nouns are used for sheep, two different verbs are used for “feed” or “tend”, and 2 different verbs for “know”, and “love.”

  • The words used for love are apape [agapas], a self-sacrificing, spiritual love, the kind of love God has for humanity and the kind of love Jesus has commanded us to have for each other; and phileo [philo/phileis], which is the love of family or friends.
  • The two nouns used for sheep are arnion, translated as “lamb” and probaton [probata] sheep.  Arnion is only used this one time in the New Testament with the exception of the Book of Revelation where it is used 30 times.  Some scholars translate this word as “little lamb”.  It is a word not often used in Greek texts.  Otherwise the word for lamb used in John is amnos in 1:28 and 36, and in the Gospels and other books of the New Testament the noun aren is used for lamb and probaton [probata] for sheep.
  • The verb boskein [boske] is used both literally and figuratively for feeding animals [providing nourishment], while the verb poimainein [poimaine] includes shepherding duties toward the flock such as guiding, guarding, and ruling, whether literally or figuratively.  A quote from the Jewish historian Philo employs both verbs “Those who feed [boskein] supply nourishment…but those who tend [poimainein] have the power of rulers and governors.” Philo, Quod Deterius Potiori Insidiari Soleat,viii #25.
  • The other verbs are oida [odias] and ginoskein [ginoskeis], =”to know.  The word ginoskein is often used in the Greek in the context of covenant knowledge = intimate knowledge of God in the covenant relationship.

Exchange #1 verse 15

Jesus:Simon, son of John, do you love [agapas] me  more than these?”
Simon-Peter: “Yes Lord, you know [oidas] I love [philo]  you.”
Jesus: “Feed [boske] my lambs [arnion].”

Exchange #2 verse 16

Jesus: “Simon son of John, do you love [agapas] me?”
Simon-Peter:  “Yes, Lord, you know [oidas] I love  [philo] you.”
Jesus:Look after/ shepherd [poimaine]  my  sheep [probata]”

Exchange #3 verse 17

Jesus: “Simon son of John, do you love [phileis]  me?”  Peter was hurt that he asked him a third time, ‘Do you love [phileis]  me?’ and he said
Simon-Peter:  ‘Lord you know [oidas] everything, you  know [ginoskeis] that I love [philo] you.”
Jesus: “Feed [boske] my sheep [probata].”

Question: What is significant in the use of the two verbs for feed or nourish and to guide or rule as well as the use of the two nouns for lambs and sheep?

Answer: These two verbs, boskein and poimainein,to nourish and to rule, combine with the two words for lamb and sheep to express the fullness of the pastoral duty assigned to Peter as Vicar of Christ’s Church as he guides and feeds the lambs = the laity, and feeds and rules the sheep who rule over the lambs = the ministerial priesthood.

Some scholars interpret the lambs as the spiritually immature and the sheep as the spiritually mature members of the congregation but it seems to me that this interpretation does not fully take into account the important difference in meaning between the verbs for “feed” and “rule”. Philo’s quote is an important clue to the use of these two verbs.  Philo who was a first century Jewish scholar and contemporary of St. John, also writing in Greek wrote: “Those who feed [boskein] supply nourishment…but those who tend [poimainein] have the power of rulers and governors.” Philo, Quod Deterius Potiori Insidiari Soleat, viii #25.

Question: In the first two exchanges Jesus uses the verb form apage, signifying the kind of self-sacrificing love with which He calls Peter to love His Church, but Peter responds each time with the word philo, meaning brotherly love or love of family.  What might Peter’s response indicate?

Answer: Some scholars contend that the use of the two the verbs for “love” means nothing significant but John never uses double words or double meaning words without some hidden significance. It is possible that the difference in meaning between these two verbs for “love” signifies that Jesus is calling Peter to a higher form of love and Peter is not yet ready to commit himself to that kind of self-sacrificing love.

Question:  Will Peter grow spiritually mature enough to commit himself to that kind of agape = self-sacrificing love that Jesus encourages him to give?

Answer: Yes, the Book of Acts records Peter’s fearless preaching and witness before the same Jewish court that condemned Jesus as well as other actions that testify to the strength and force of his commitment to the New Covenant Church.  Peter’s letters to the Church in I and II Peter also demonstrate that Peter more than rose to the level of self-sacrificing love and fulfilled Jesus’ calling.

Please read John 21:18-25:Jesus to St. Peter: ‘In all truth I tell you, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.’  In these words he indicated the kind of death by which Peter would give glory to God.  After this he said, ‘Follow me.'”

Some scholars believe the fourth Gospel was written several decades after Peter’s death, but other scholars, including the Navarre theologians and Dr. Scott Hahn, believe John’s Gospel was completed before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and therefore was written within a year or two of Peter’s death.  Perhaps in writing this passage Peter’s martyrdom was still a painful reminder of this prophetic warning John witnessed some 37, or so, years earlier.

Question: The first time Jesus called to Peter to “follow me” was after the huge catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee three years earlier.  Now He uses the same words again but this time there is a double meaning to the command “Follow me”; what is the significance and what is the irony of this double meaning?

Answer: Peter will indeed “follow” Jesus and spread the Gospel message across the known world, but he will also follow Jesus, not only in imitation of His life but also His death.

Peter, the first Pope [Papa] of the Universal [Catholic] Church will demonstrate his agape love for Jesus when he is crucified upside-down in Rome circa 67AD because he said he was unworthy to be crucified in the same position as his Lord [scholars debate the exact date most accept that it was sometime between 64 and 67AD].

John 21:20-23: Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them-the one who had leant back close to his chest at the supper and had said to him, ‘Lord, who is it that will betray you?’  Seeing him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘What about him, Lord?  Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to stay behind till I come, what does it matter to you?  You are to follow me.’  The rumor then went out among the brothers that this disciple would not die.  Yet Jesus had not said to Peter, ‘He will not die,’ but, ‘If I want him to stay behind till I come.’

Question: Of what does this amusing exchange remind you?

Answer: It reminds me of when my children think a sibling isn’t doing her share or the burden of work or the blessings of the profit isn’t divided evenly.  The Apostles are so human…they are ordinary men with human faults and frailties that God used in extraordinary ways.

These two disciples, Peter and John, have been compared and contrasted in chapters 20 and 21.  They have formed a bond through this experience that will link them throughout Acts [see 3:1, 3, 11; 4:13; 8:14] as they shepherd the New Covenant Church.  In this passage Jesus had decreed the fate of both men: one to suffer and die and the other to suffer and live.

The information that the “beloved disciple” lived a long time also helps to identify John as the “beloved disciple.”  All John’s brother disciples were martyred for their Savior.  Only John died a natural death.  St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, a disciple of John’s disciple Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, reports that John lived into the reign of the Emperor Domitian who died in 96AD.

John 21:24-25: This disciple is the one who vouches for these things and has written them down, and we know that his testimony is true.  There was much else that Jesus did; if it were written down in detail, I do no suppose the world itself would hold all the books that would be written.

The disciple of Jesus who wrote this fourth Gospel testifies that he is an eyewitness to the events he has recorded.  He is pledging his honor that what he has recorded is true.  Some scholars believe the “we” in verse 24 indicates that this conclusion was written by a group of John’s disciples who copied John’s Gospel for the Churches of Christendom. But there is another possible explanation for the “we” in verse 24.  In 1740 a Biblical scholar named L.A. Muratori published an ancient fragment of Church history which has since been variously ascribed to Hegesippus, the 2ndcentury Church historian, to Clement of Alexandria, Melito of Sardes, Polycrates of Ephesus or Hippolytus.  Melito, Polycrates, and Hippolytus were all bishops of churches that were under St. John’s control and lived a generation removed from John’s time; in other words, they were disciples of John’s disciples.  The fragment records some interesting information about the writing of the Forth Gospel:

“The fourth Gospel is by John, one of the disciples.  When his fellow disciples and bishops were urging him, he said, ‘Fast with me for the three days beginning today, and whatever will have been revealed to us, let us recount it with each other.’  On that very night it was revealed to the Apostle Andrew that all the things they had recalled to mind, John should write them all in his own name.  And therefore while various points are taught in the different books of the Gospels, there is no difference to the faith of believers; for in all of them all things are spoken under the one guiding Spirit, whether concerning the nativity, the passion, the resurrection, conversation with His disciples, or His two advents, the first of which was in the humiliation of rejection and is already past, and the second in the glory of royal power, which is yet to be. It is no wonder, then, that John constantly returns to these things even in his Epistles, saying of himself, ‘What we have seen with our eyes and have heard with our ears and what our hands have touched, these things have we written to you.’*  And thus he professes that he is not only the eye-witness but also the hearer, and moreover, also the writer of all the marvels of the Lord as they happened.” Muratorian Fragament AD155?, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. I
[*quoting 1 John 1:1]

According to the information recorded in this fragment it is possible that the “we” of verse 24 could be the surviving disciples and the Bishops of the Churches in Asia Minor who urged John to write his remembrances of Jesus and His ministry and who verified his eye-witness testimony.

John began his Gospel with eternity and the pre-existence of Christ, and he ends with Jesus’ promise that He will return to earth again [verse 22]: “What if I want him to stay behind till I come..”  It is the promise that we repeat in the Nicene Creed “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” 

John’s Gospel closes with this last encounter with Christ on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias.  During the last 40 days Jesus spent on earth with His disciple He continued to teach them and to prepare them for the paths He had called them to follow on their faith journeys. He did not promise them that they would not face turmoil, suffering, and death, just as He does not promise us that belief in Him will exempt us from suffering and struggle in our lives, but He did give them, and us, the assurance of His deep abiding love and the promise of the peace that comes from faith in Him.  It is only through Him that we will experience peace in a world filled with violence and injustice, and we can have faith in His promise that if we obediently persevere to complete our faith journeys that we will be united with Him for all eternity.  Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus!

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