My Notes on John 21:1-14 for Easter Friday
Posted by Dim Bulb on April 10, 2012
I had to post this much more quickly-and, therefore, much more carelessly- than I had hoped. Much was left undeveloped, but I hope it supplies the reader with some food for thought and further study.
I’m commenting on the text of John 21:1-19 as translated in the RSV. A notice of copyright can be found at the end of this post.
21:1 After this Jesus revealed (φανερόω=phaneroō) himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he revealed himself in this way.
Jesus revealed himself. Father Rudolph Schnackenburg notes that “The whole verse makes the effect of the announcement of a theme” (The Gospel According To St John, vol. 3, pg 352). That theme hearkens back to the beginning of the Gospel (1:19-51). St John the Baptist came that the unknown one who stood among the people (1:26) “might be revealed (phaneroo) to Israel” (1:31). This purpose was shown as beginning to be fulfilled when Jesus revealed himself to Nathaniel “a true Israelite” (1:47). Nathaniel, who appears only at the beginning and end of this Gospel, was promised that he would see “greater things” (1:50). What that meant now becomes clear: The Passion, Death, Resurrection of Jesus and the mission of the Church.
To the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius. Recalls the events of a previous Passover, when Jesus multiplied bread and fish on the shore of Tiberius, before crossing to Capernuam to deliver his discourse on the Bread of Life.
21:2 Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together.
Simon Peter… Nathaniel. In the Gospel’s first episode, already referred to (1:19-51), both St Peter and St Nathaniel figure prominently. Here, Nathaniel is simply mentioned, but Peter will receive a great deal of attention. In the first episode our Lord had said to Peter (originally named Simon): “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas,” which, as the Evangelist notes, means Peter (1:42).
The sons of Zebedee. Meaning James and John, mentioned for the first time in the fourth Gospel, though most scholars believe that John is the Beloved disciple who wrote this work.
And two other of his disciples. If John, the son of Zebedee is not the same as the beloved disciple then one of these unnamed disciples is, for the beloved disciple is mentioned as present (21:20). In the beginning of the Gospel we are first introduced to two unnamed disciples, one of whom is later identified (Andrew, see 1:35-40).
21:3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing.
In the Synoptic tradition fishing was an image of the Church’s mission (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11). As we will see, it has a similar application here.
I am going fishing. The Greek is υπαγω (hupago=going) fishing. I would suggest that the word hupago (going) needs to be interpreted in light of an earlier event (13:36-38) and of what takes place later. Peter’s will to go where he wished-to death with Jesus-is ineffectual and fruitless without grace (see note on vss 18-19).
They caught nothing. The Greek word translated as caught is πιάζω (piazo), a word always used elsewhere in John for the unfulfilled attempt to apprehend (“arrest”) Jesus (7:30, 32, 44; 8:20; 10:39, 11:57). Jesus’ enemies were only able to fulfill their desires when Jesus allowed it, so too, the Church’s mission can only bear fruit because of the presence, will and work of the Risen Lord.
21:4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
The reference to Jesus standing on the shore and the disciples not knowing that it was him calls to mind the Baptist’s words on the bank of the Jordan River to the Jewish leader which I referenced above on 21:1. On the banks of the Jordan the lack of knowledge was the result of a lack of divine enlightenment, is the disciples inability to recognize the Lord here the result of a lack of daylight? (day was breaking). This is an interpretation some make, but I find it suspect. If the Evangelist had wanted to convey that idea he certainly could have done it much more clearly, and without difficulty. I think John’s intention here will become more clear as we look at verses 7-9.
21:5 Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any fish?” They answered him, “No.”
The beginning of the verse reads more properly in Greek: Jesus therefore (οὖν) said to them. Notice that our Lord’s question is motivated by the fact that they don’t know who he is.
children. The Greek paidion (παιδίον) was used in 4:49 and 16:21, the phrase generally denotes men in a state of service or work, i.e., servants in a house.
Have you any fish? The question is so formulated in Greek as to show that a negative response is expected. Similar formulations occurred in the interrogation of the Baptist by the Jewish authorities sent from Jerusalem (1:21), and in Pilate’s question to Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews?” (18:33).
Fish. Literally, the Greek term means “anything to go with bread,” but the phrase was often used to denote fish, especially around the region of the Sea of Galilee (here called Tiberias). The Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture states that the Greek “substantive, which means something-to-eat-with-bread, is in the circumstances a polite synonym of ‘fish’. The unwillingness with which fishermen admit that they have caught nothing is probably reflected in the curt ‘No’ that came over the water.”
I think there is more to the event than just this, but I will have to explain it later.
21:6 He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish.
There are a number of word plays in this verse which I think indicate that the fishing episode is meant to be understood as symbolic of the Church’s mission. In 20:24-29 the visible presence of the Risen Christ was necessary to convince St Thomas that Jesus was in fact risen. On that occasion St Thomas said “Unless I place (Greek-balo) my finger (daktylon) in the mark of the nails, and place (balo) my hand in his side,I will not believe” (20:25). In 20:27 our Lord bids St Thomas to do just that: “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger (daktulos) here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place (ballo) it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Here, the Risen Lord’s presence is necessary for a fruitful fishing expedition: “Cast (balete) the net (diktyon) on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”
Cast the net on the right side of the boat. Much ink has been spilled as to why the right side of the boat is emphasized, I would suggest the following: The term “right’ (dexios)is derived from the word dechomai, the middle voice of a primary verb meaning “to receive.” The term “side” (meros) means section or allotment, and it is the word used by Jesus when he said to Peter “If I do not wash you, you have no part (meros) in me.” The right side indicates the grace side, the place where the allotted portion is found. This is in contrast to the portion the soldiers allotted to themselves after they crucified Jesus: “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took (lambano, to lay hold of) his garments and made four parts (meros), one for each soldier” (19:23).
And you will find some. As has already been indicated earlier in these notes, there are a number of parallels between John 20:19-21:25 and 1:19-51. In the earlier passage the future mission of the disciples was foreshadowed: “He (Andrew) first found his brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’” (1:41). “Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote’” (1:45). I see all of this as foreshadowing the Church’s mission of finding fish (i.e., gathering disciples to Jesus). Father Francis Moloney states that Andrew and Philip are lying when they say they have found the Messiah/ him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. But I think in the context and intent of John’s Gospel seeing them as lying is incomplete. Yes, they are lying; Andrew didn’t find the Messiah, the Baptist pointed him out. And Philip didn’t find the one written of in the Law and Prophets, rather, he was found by that one. But there is more at work here. Neither could, at this early stage, have known what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah, or the one predicted in the Scripture (see for example 2:22; 12:16).
So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul (ελκυσαι) it in, for the quantity of fish. The word “haul” here is a key word in St John’s Gospel. It is derived from the Greek ἑλκύω (helkuo) “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw (helkyein) all men to myself” (12:32). “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws (helkysai) him” (6:44). The word will reappear in verse 11 (see note there).
21:7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea.
21:8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
21:9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread.
21:10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 21:11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
21:12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.
7. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” The RSV translation is misleading here, since it does not employ the conjunctive “therefore” (Greek-οὖν). The beloved disciple’s recognition is based upon the catch of fish, this is in contrast to Peter who reacts on the basis of what he has heard (exhibiting his faith): “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord…(he) sprang into the sea.”
Peter’s response also stands in contrast to the rest of the disciples, who are said to recognize Jesus only after seeing the fire with fish and bread upon it (verse 9), and, apparently, after witnessing St Peter haul the net to Jesus.
he (Peter) put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea. The phrase “put on his clothes” reads in Greek, “He girded or bound himself tightly (διαζώννυμι) with his outer garment.” διαζώννυμι is used only here and in 13:4-5, where it refers to Jesus girding himself with a towel to wash the disciples feet. Recall that St Peter figured prominently in that episode, being told that he would have no portion (meros) in Jesus unless he was washed. (see note at 21:6 above). The footwashing was a symbol foreshadowing the Lord’s death and a call to the disciples to imitate it. Father Raymond Brown writes: “In demeaning himself to wash the disciples’ feet, Jesus is acting out beforehand his humiliation in death, even as Mary acted out beforehand the anointing of his body for burial (xii 1-8). the footwashing is an action of service for others, symbolic of the service he will render in laying down his life for others; that is why Jesus can claim that the footwashing is necessary if the disciples are to share in his heritage (8) and that it will render the disciples clean (10).” [Brown, The Gospel According To John. Vol. 2, pg. 562].
Sprang into the sea. The Greek for “sprang” is ballo, used for the casting of the net in verse 6. I see Peter’s girding of himself, along with his casting himself into the sea, as a symbol of his death, the ultimate act of witnessing (Greek martyria, giving us the word martyr).
8. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish. Once again emphasizing the abundant catch. Note that the six disciples (minus Peter who was swimming) are unable to haul the net, they must drag it σύρω (suro). This futility regarding the net will have its reversal.
9. When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread. The charcoal fire recalls the circumstances of Peter’s denial of our Lord: “Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves; Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself” (18:18). The bread and fish recalls the multiplication of the loaves and fish, along with the subsequent discourse in John chapter 6. On that occasion Peter had made a confession of faith: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).
The Gospel of John presents us with two different Peters; the one is a purely human, impetuous failure, the other is a grace filled success, even in spite of himself (see note on verses 18-19 below).
10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”
An odd request given the fact that Jesus already has fish prepared (vs 9). But the fish he asks for is not for eating, rather, it is a symbol of his disciples, brought to him by the mission of the Church he has empowered as Risen Lord.
11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish.
Notice that the Lord had commanded the seven disciples as a whole, but it is Peter alone who goes aboard the ship and hauls (heilkysen) the net full of fish ashore. The mission of the Church and its success is somehow focused upon Peter (see Luke 22:31-32).
A hundred and fifty-three of them (i.e., fish); and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
The net was not torn. The Greek word torn is σχίζω (schizo), whence our word ‘schism.” the word is used in 19:24 for the fact that the seamless tunic of Christ was not torn. Both verses are usually taken as indicating the unity of the Church.
Concerning this, Peter F. Ellis writes: “This remark is similar in symbolism to the remark made about Jesus’ tunic without seam which the soldiers did not tear (19:23-24). It is symbolic of the unity of the flock of the good shepherd (cf. 10:16), a theme that will be taken up in another way when Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (21:15-17). It should be noted that John forges a clear conceptual parallel here between the haul of fish, representing the success of the apostolic fishers of souls, and the words of Jesus in 12:32 , “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” In 21:11, the verb for ‘hauled’ is heilkysen, from helkyein; in 12:32, the verb ‘draw’ is helkyso. The concept and the verb helkyein in 21:11 thus parallels the concept and the verb in 12:32.” (Ellis, The Genius Of John, pg. 301).
for this reason I think that we should not see the un-torn net as (primarily) a symbol of the unity of the Church but, rather, as a symbol of the unity of the Church’s mission from which that unity comes and is maintained.
12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.
13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.
14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
The Eucharistic overtones here and in verse 9 calls to mind Peter’s confession of faith in John 6:68-69~”Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Of course, even at that point Peter was getting ahead of himself regarding what he and the rest of the disciples actually believed and knew, much like Andrew and Philip in chapter 1. Their incomplete faith/knowledge of who Jesus is has only now come to an end.
The Eucharistic overtones also recalls the story of the disciples of Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35.