John 21:1-14, The Expansion of the Lord’s Life

[May 8, 2011] Last Sunday we saw that the resurrected Jesus has become the indwelling Spirit for His believers. When He breathed into the disciples the Holy Spirit, He breathed Himself into them. He now dwells in them. (The Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct “Persons” in the Trinity but Each Person completely dwells in the Other, inclusive of the human nature assumed by the Son.)

This was manifested in the gathering of the disciples, and we saw in particular that He—the resurrected Jesus—is available to us through the testimony of the Scriptures. We saw, hopefully, how “These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in His name” is equivalent to “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” This too is on account of the glorification or transformation He underwent when He passed through death into resurrection. His human body became divinized, and was taken up into the divine nature to become (through coinherence) the Holy Spirit. (It is still, of course, the human body of the Son, with which the Son ascended into heaven. The word “become” does not mean distinction is lost. Just as when God “became” flesh in John 1:14, God remained God, and flesh remained flesh, though the flesh is the flesh of God, the flesh of the Person of God the Son.).

John 20:30-31 does not end the Gospel according to John. Rather, verse 30 corresponds to “Because you have seen Me, you have believed” and verse 31 corresponds to “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” The availability of the resurrected Jesus through the written Word has to do with the giving of the Holy Spirit in 20:22.

That, however, did not bring the Gospel according to John to a finish. Chapter 21 seems to many readers like an added appendix. We are taken back to Galilee and the attention strangely shifts to Peter as opposed to Jesus. The gospel had seemed complete without this addendum. But the end corresponds to the beginning, even the rather strange numerical facts that pertain to it. Richard Bauckham points out that both 20:30-31 and 21:24-25, which frame the twenty-first chapter, consist of 43 words. The prologue of the gospel, John 1:1-18, consists of 496 syllables and 21:1-23 consists of 496 words. See Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), page 277.

The attention on Peter corresponds to the shift from the Son to the Holy Spirit, from Jesus alone to His multiplication in the church, which is what the Gospel according to John is all about.

At Face Value (John 21:1-14)

Taken at face value, Jesus has already ascended to the Father (20:17) and now trains His believers to recognize His continuing presence by manifesting Himself to them. He is always with us through the Holy Spirit. His “manifesting Himself” was His teaching the first disciples that this is so. His human nature has been divinized by resurrection so that while it is still human it also has the properties of divinity: His human nature is not only eternal but it is also omnipresent. (By speaking specifically of His human nature, I do not mean that “it” exists apart from His divine Person—the person has a nature, the nature is simply an abstraction apart from the person).

The disciples go back to “business as usual” to support themselves but they are unable. They are unable to catch any fish. Meanwhile Jesus has fish and has cooked them up for breakfast. He teaches them that they must follow His leading. Without it they cannot provide for themselves (even though before they could). But He can provide for them. This shows the way of the Lord’s work in the future.

We would be negligent if we did not look further into this story. Throughout the Gospel according to John events always carry a weight of meaning, much of it symbolic.

Looking Deeper

The story of the fishermen on the lake is reminiscent of the earlier scenes in Matthew, Luke and Mark in which Jesus tells the disciples (Peter) that they will be “fishers of human beings” (as opposed to fish: Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17) or be “catching men alive” (anthrōpous esē zōgrōn: Luke 5:10). Luke 5 also has a similar story of a miraculous catch of fish, though there, significantly, the nets broke (in John 21:6 the singular net did not break). In John 21 we have left Jerusalem but we are still in the atmosphere of the resurrection. Only, we are back in Galilee, back with the fishing boat. The story seems to speak of a new beginning (“as soon as the morning broke,” 21:4).

John evokes the scene at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the other gospels. He does not have this beginning in his. This evocation of the other gospels (and this is not the first time) assumes that the readers and auditors of his gospel are familiar with the others. He does not need to tell us that the story is about fishing for people, that the boat symbolizes the church through the ages, and that the net is gathering people into the church—which is the work of the church (see Matthew 13:47; also Acts 13:2 and elsewhere). It corresponds to the commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel (28:19-20). Characteristic of John’s gospel, this meaning is embodied in the story rather than spelled out. 

This work takes place in Jesus’ resurrection. The breaking of dawn in verse 4 reminds us of Mary of Magdala at the tomb. They are working, yet in working they cannot gather any fish. It is the presence and word of Jesus that makes the difference, not their labor. It is Jesus Himself—who was lifted up on the cross—who will draw the fish (12:32). Paul says, “I labored more abundantly than all of them, yet not I but the grace of God which is in me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). We labor, but we also rest in our labor, for it is Jesus Himself, His revelation—as the dawning of light on the first day of creation (2 Corinthians 4:6)—who does the work (John 5:17). This reminds us of the disciples laboring on the sea in chapter 6—not fishing but laboring against the wind, but then too without Jesus—Jesus came to them revealing Himself as “I AM,” and their labor was over. “It is the God who spoke out of darkness that light should shine who has shone in our hearts for the shining forth of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (Darby).

The difference here from chapter 6 is that Jesus is on shore and awaits their arrival. It is His command and the realization that “It is the Lord” that they have when they are in the boat. That Jesus is on the shore speaks of the further shore of time, where Jesus awaits us in the Kingdom (Matthew 13 again). His rule in the church is the Kingdom now, though the Kingdom has not yet come.

As so often in John’s gospel, we have the image of water again in the Sea of Tiberias. In the beginning it was the Jordan River, then the water at the wedding in Cana, the water of new birth in 3:5, the “much water” of 3:23, the well of Jacob and the living water of which Jesus spoke in 4, then the pool of Bethesda in 5, the sea-journey in 6, the rivers of living water in 7:38, and on to the foot-washing in 13 and the water that poured from His side in 19. In 21:7 Peter threw himself into the sea in his urgency to get to Jesus, Peter who at first refused to let Jesus wash his feet, and later denied Him. Is it possible that Peter’s throwing himself into the sea is meant to evoke Christian baptism, which is always alluded to indirectly in the Gospel according to John? Baptism—while having to do with the church in so far as it has to do with our being in Christ by grace—is also related to the Kingdom of God (in John 3:5 and in Matthew), with our response to His call and our obedience to Him.

    Similarly, when the disciples come onto the land Jesus has prepared a meal for them, and “Jesus came and took the loaf and gave (didōmi) it to them and the fish likewise,” just as in 6:11 “Jesus then took the loaves, and when He had given thanks, He distributed (dia-didōmi) to those who were reclining; likewise also of the fish.” Both of these passages seem to indirectly evoke the church’s meal (the Lord’s Supper). The bread speaks of His human nature, calling us back to the meal offerings of the Old Testament. The fish speak of His death, and stand in for the cup. When we eat the Lord’s Supper, we are participating “beforehand” in the coming Kingdom.

Baptism initiates our entry into the Kingdom but the Lord’s Supper is our enjoyment of it.

We are told that Peter hauled the net to the land. The word for “haul” is helkō, the same word Jesus used in 12:32 when He said He would “draw” all to Himself. According to Jerome, zoologists of the day recognized a total of 153 species of fish (see Brown, Anchor Bible, page 1074). In Matthew 13:47-48 Jesus says “the kingdom of the heavens is like a net cast into the sea and gathering from every species, which when it was filled, they brought onto the shore.” The 153 fish represent all the kinds of people in the world.

The Sea of Galilee, here significantly called the Sea of Tiberius (the Roman emperor), often symbolizes the Gentile nations, and the boat symbolizes the church or the apostolate in the midst of the nations. So it is here. The sea is the world of the Gentiles. Peter is the apostle (more on this next week) and represents the work of the church in gathering the harvest from the fields (John 4:34-38).

The fish also calls to mind the fish in Ezekiel’s vision in chapter 47:10. “The fishermen will stand beside the sea from En-gedi even to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets. The fish shall be according to their kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea, very many.” Interestingly, the word “gedi” (as in En-gedi) is the 153rd word in chapter 47, and the numeric value of gedi is 17 and of eglaim 153: 153 is the triangle of 17. Furthermore, the numerical value in Hebrew of the word for “sacrifice” (zebach) is 17 and “children of God” (ben Elohim) is 153. See Baukham, pages 178-180. The water in Ezekiel 47 flows out from the altar—the place of sacrifice—in the middle of the new Temple, while the “children of God” is at the center of the Prologue’s chiastic structure.

Following Baukham here, the water flows from under the right “shoulder” (literally) of the Temple, reminding us of the water that flowed from the pierced side of Jesus, speaking of the flow of the divine life (together with His blood, see 19:34). This also reminds us of John 7:38, and may even be part of the Scriptures referred to, where Jesus said, “He who believes into Me, as the Scripture said, out of His innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.” (See also Zechariah 14:8 and Psalm 78:16).

The waters that flow out of the Temple from the altar in Ezekiel 47 heal the waters of the stagnant Arabah before it flows into the Dead Sea and on to the Gulf of Aqabah. “When it flows into the sea, the water of the sea is healed. And every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes shall live, and there will be very many fish, when this water comes there. And the water of the sea shall be healed, and everything shall live wherever the river comes” (47:8-9). “And on the banks on both sides of the river will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail; but they will bring forth new fruit every month, because the water for them flows out of the sanctuary. And their fruit shall be for food, and their leaves for healing” (47:12). The water flowing from the side of Jesus is the waters of the new creation flowing into the whole of creation.

The water flowing from the side of Jesus is like the four rivers (like the four gospels) that flow from the Garden of Eden into the sea. Jesus rises from the tomb in the garden and gives life to the whole world, to all who believe into Him. Those who believe into Him, who receive this healing water, are the fish caught in Peter’s net. They are gathered for the Kingdom of God and brought to Jesus.

They are gathered—the work of the church (the apostolate)—and we see Peter plunge himself into the sea, alluding to baptism, and coming to the shore to share a meal with Jesus, alluding to the Lord’s Supper. Underneath all this is the presence of the risen Jesus, invisible for us but manifested in the story, whose command from the shore fills the net with fish (see John 17:2), and whose life—the divine and eternal life flowing from His death on the cross—heals and gives life to the entire creation. The life of God (eternal life) is released into the creation by the death and resurrection of Jesus and begins its work of transforming the whole creation by calling believers into the church. When Jesus breathes into the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” this was just the beginning of the flow of that mighty river.

So chapter 20 of John’s gospel is the beginning of the Lord’s multiplication of Himself in His disciples; chapter 21 brings us into the expansion of His life into the world. Not only does it speak of all the time since that first Easter, it also speaks of the harvest when He comes again. The Lord’s coming again is also hardly spoken of directly in the Gospel according to John (though see 21:22 and 5:28-29). The day will come when the harvest of eternal life will be drawn in and we will be with the Lord forever as we are with Him now as symbolized in the Lord’s Supper. (The Lord’s Supper is an effective symbol—effectuating or actualizing the reality that it symbolizes—not a mere memorial that serves only as a reference to something other than itself. Nevertheless, the fellowship of the Supper remains a mystery. It is real spiritually, but we are blind to the reality of it. If our eyes were opened, how blessed we would be!)

Nevertheless, though there is an allusion to this gathering for the Kingdom, the chapter still situates us in the present time. Our feast with the Lord takes place now, even if in this now we are participating in the feast on the further shore. For the divine life in which we are participating is eternal, not limited to the “future” but breaking in and intersecting with us at to the present moment.

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