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An epilogue of eternal consequence.
How John 21 shows us the glorious folly of the cross.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
In a manner of speaking, the last two verses of chapter 20 rightly serve as the “proper” conclusion to St. John’s Gospel. “Now Jesus,” he concludes, “did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31). With these words, John perfectly and succinctly encapsulates what he has been endeavoring to prove throughout the preceding nineteen chapters — namely, that Jesus Christ is Yahweh come in the flesh to take away the sins of the world. In many ways, with two verses, that argument has been sufficiently proven.
Be that as it may, we’ve yet to unearth a version of John’s Gospel that doesn’t also include the ensuing chapter 21. Those verses are always there, which means, as I take it, that while John 21 might “feel” like an appendix, of sorts, it is most assuredly not an afterthought. Authors will, on occasion, include additional material they wrote in an appendix at the end of the main body of their work. These sections often constitute ideas that couldn’t be made to fit anywhere else or passages that, while important, were too clunky to insert earlier. For example: after J. R. R. Tolkien spends 1,000-odd pages pages telling his tale of the One Ring, there is appended to the end over 100 pages of appendices that delve further into the mythos and history of Middle Earth. To some “Tolkien-ites,” even those passages are “can’t miss reading”; to others, however, these extra pages seem excessive or even anticlimactic.
You’d be mistaken, though, if you were inclined to understand John 21 in the same vein. This chapter is decidedly not an extraneous collection of ideas that was tacked on to the end of an already completed Gospel. Rather, this chapter is an indispensable postscript in which we are shown in brief but potent ways all that Jesus had already done and, furthermore, all that his apostles were about to do for the sake of the name and kingdom of God.
The apostle begins by giving us a summary of what’s about to occur. “After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way” (John 21:1). As John reveals later on, this scene constitutes the “third time” the resurrected Lord revealed himself to his apostles (John 21:14). (Note: By “third,” it is meant “third recorded in this Gospel,” with the other two appearances being recorded in the chapter prior [John 20:19–23, 26–29]. According to Thomas Constable, Christ’s revelation in John 21 would amount to roughly the seventh or eighth post-resurrection appearance [see Constable’s notes on ver. 14].) This appearance, however, is slightly different than the others, not only because it is so detailed, with fourteen verses dedicated to it, but also because it shows us so much of our Lord’s power and so much of his heart.
A group of seven of the original Twelve had made their way to the Sea of Tiberias, which was merely the Roman moniker for the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1), around which much of Jesus’s ministry had been conducted. Following Peter’s suggestion, they decide to take their boat out onto the water to go fishing (John 21:2–3). Even though it has been proposed by some in the past, it is presumptuous to reprimand Peter for his decision. Some posit that his inclination to go fishing is akin to disobedience on his part — as if he’s already defaulting on Jesus’s recent commission (John 20:21–22). However, there’s no scriptural indication that Peter is retreating from that charge. Rather, he is waiting for further instruction in light of the resurrection, just as everyone else is. Instead of twiddling his thumbs, he spends that time waiting with his brothers the best way he knows how: fishing.
As it happens, though, their night was very unproductive. “They went out and got into the boat,” John recalls, “but that night they caught nothing” (John 21:3). They labor all night, reaping nothing for all their toil. Soon, the sun begins to rise, signaling the morning. That’s when they hear a voice shouting at them from the shoreline. “Children, do you have any fish?” the figure inquires. To which they glumly replied, “No.” Only being about a hundred yards out, they could just make out the man’s words, asking them the obvious. If they had caught something, more than likely they would’ve already been ashore sorting through their catch. The fact that they were still on the water betrays the fact that they did not have anything to show for a whole night of casting.
After the man on the beach hears the apostles’ negative reply, he proceeds to give them instructions from the shore. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (John 21:6). By every conceivable measure, this is an utterly foolish piece of advice. After fishing all night long port side, what would it matter if they suddenly switched to the starboard side? Would a few feet really make any difference? Remarkably, the apostles listen to the anonymous bystander’s advice, perhaps an indication that they were already at their wits’ end and were willing to try anything if it meant a catch.
Much to their surprise, those few feet between port and starboard made a world of difference, as their net quickly balloons with a catch of fish so massive “they were not able to haul it in” (John 21:6). And as they struggled to grip the swollen net, a light goes off in John’s head. “That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” (John 21:7). That man on the shore was not a nobody. It was none other than the resurrected Lord himself. Up to that point, the apostle hadn’t been able to discern that it was Jesus standing on the beach (John 21:4). Perhaps the early morning fog had distorted their view, or perhaps their distance from the shore prevented them from getting a clear view, or perhaps Jesus had prevented them from seeing him. John doesn’t specify that part.
Nonetheless, while John might’ve been the first one to realize that the mysterious figure was Jesus, leave it to Peter to be the first one to act on that information. (Similar to how in John 20, even though “the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first,” it was Peter who actually “went into the tomb” first [John 20:4–6].) “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea” (John 21:7). He couldn’t wait a moment longer. Each second that passed was too long since Peter the Denier last saw his Reconciler. The image of that fisherman turned apostle swimming to the shoreline is an affecting one. Peter was possessed by such an urgency to see Jesus that he disregarded his compatriots and the catch-of-a-lifetime at the drop of a hat. Those things paled in comparison to being in the Savior’s presence.
Eventually, the rest of the apostles make it to shore — no thanks to Peter — with the net of fish still dragging behind them (John 21:8). When they exited their little skiff, they soon found out that Jesus had been on that beach for a while. A fire was already burning, with breakfast being prepped over the coals (John 21:9). The awkward silence is finally broken when the Lord tells Peter and the gang to go bring in their haul. That’s when John exercises more of that sterling recall as he reports both the exact number of fish and the fact that their net wasn’t tattered one bit in the process (John 21:10–11). This, of course, suggests that the apostle was likely reminiscing about the other time he’d witnessed a similar sequence of events with his very eyes (cf. Luke 5:1–11).
After the catch was brought ashore, Jesus welcomed them to “come and have breakfast” with him (John 21:12). And while it all surely felt familiar, with the Twelve sharing countless breakfasts together, there was something altogether different about this occasion. The apostles sat on the sand in speechless wonder as they found themselves in proximity to the glorified Lord, risen in the flesh, who was still adamant about serving them. “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them,” John remembers fondly, “and so with the fish” (John 21:13).
This is one of those scenes where there’s more for you and me to glean by what is not said than through what is said. That is, the actions of this text speak far louder than the words. The obvious parallel is the incident in Luke 5, which, of course, recounts Jesus’s initial call of those same fishermen to follow him and start “catching men” (Luke 5:10). What’s evident, I think, is that Jesus has a similar purpose in mind in John 21 as he had in Luke 5. The miraculous catch and subsequent meal in St. John’s postscript is a foretaste of all that these self-same anglers turned evangelists would soon accomplish in what we know as the Acts of the Apostles. After all, it was these same men who would soon haul in the greatest catch in the history of the world: the church.
In a similar way, the “catch of the church,” if you’ll allow the phrase, wouldn’t be a feat that would hang from the rung of their tireless toil. The great haul Christ had prepared for them wasn’t to come through their effort or eloquence, but because the Word of the Father would be with them, and in them, and would speak through them. Little did those apostles know that as they followed the then-unknown figure’s advice, they were, likewise, demonstrating to us what it looks like to put our faith in Christ alone. Jesus’s advice to switch sides appears to human wisdom as nothing but foolishness. Again, those few feet between port and starboard should not have made that much of a difference. But the difference nearly turned the apostles’ boat upside-down — which, as it happens, is precisely what they were about to do themselves (Acts 17:6).
That morning, a group of unassuming apostles were given a graphic illustration of how the Lord would use them to turn the world right-side up through the upside-down logic of grace. It would be an accomplishment that would follow on the heels of their belief and trust in the foolishness of the gospel of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18–31). To the world, it wouldn’t make a lick of sense to start preaching and proselytizing folks with the message that the tried and convicted traitor and blasphemer was none other than the long-sought-after Messiah of Israelite lore. Surely that was a bad joke. But as each one of them lost their life for the sake of that message, the wisdom, grace, and glory of Christ was exemplified. And the result? The Bride of Christ was born.
Like those apostles, we, too, have been called to be “fishers of men.” We, too, have been invited to share in the delicacies of the Word of Christ already prepared for us. The Lord’s blessings don’t come because we work ourselves to death. Rather, they are enjoyed when we resolve to obey and proclaim the good news of God’s “foolish wisdom,” a.k.a. the cross. You see, the cross, we might say, is a meal in which everything has already been taken care of, and to which every sinner is freely welcomed. Come, let’s have some breakfast.