Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter (5 May 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 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.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to 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 because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that 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 said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me” (John 21:1-19 – NRSV).
This particular account of the Risen Lord meeting the disciples is unique to John.
John’s Gospel seems to end with 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”. Like John 7:53-8:11 – the woman caught in adultery – chapter 21 is probably an addition to the original text, though scholars are not in agreement about this. A footnote in the Jerusalem Bible simply says of chapter 21: “Added either by the evangelist or by one of his disciples”. Francis Moloney writes: “John 21 .... had its origins independent of John 20” (Francis J Moloney SDB, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 552). On the other hand, D A Carson says that chapter 21 is “part of the original Gospel” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 670).
Peter, who has been a central figure in the ministry of Jesus, has suffered a dramatic break through his three denials at the time Jesus was on trial. John has continued his presence throughout. In this incident, there is a reconciliation: “However fragile, Peter has been close to Jesus throughout the ministry (cf. 1:40–42; 6:67–69; 13:6–10, 36–38; 18:15), a closeness dramatically destroyed by the disciple’s threefold denial and the subsequent events of the crucifixion of Jesus. The royal lifting up of Jesus on the cross, the foundation of a new family of God and the gift of the Spirit (19:17–37), have been marked by the presence of the Beloved Disciple (cf. 19:25–27) and the absence of Simon Peter. The denials must be overcome, and an element in the rhythmic repetition of the same question is the hint of an accusation: ‘you once denied me ... are you sure of your relationship to me now?’ Peter’s embarrassed but honest responses lead to the risen Lord’s acceptance of Peter’s protestations of love and the establishment of a new relationship: Jesus appoints Peter as the one who shepherds his sheep” (Francis J Moloney SDB, op cit, 555).
Peter – and all those who serve God’s people – is to act as a “shepherd”, like Jesus: “Discussions of the Petrine office in the Roman tradition of Christianity are out of place in an exegesis of this passage (cf. note). The person charged with that pastoral office, and all Christian pastors, like Peter, are challenged to repeat the relationship Jesus had with his flock. Peter’s love for Jesus (vv. 15c, 16b, 17b) must be shown in his preparedness to make his own the words of Jesus, the Good Shepherd (vv. 15d, 16c, 17c): ‘I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly’ (10:10); ‘I know my own and my own know me’ (10:14); ‘I lay down my life for my sheep’ (10:15; cf. 10:11, 17, 18); ‘I have other sheep that are not of this fold ... there shall be one flock, one shepherd’ (10:16)” (Ibid).
Jesus showed himself: The Greek word translated as “showed” is ephanerōsen. This “showing” or “revealing” is a common theme in John’s Gospel. John the Baptist declares that he came that Jesus might be revealed to Israel (1:31); in the first sign, at the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus reveals his glory (2:11), and throughout his ministry, most especially in the cross – where he is exalted – Jesus reveals his Father’s name (17:6). Francis Moloney writes: “The verb phaneroō has never been used in John 20 (or elsewhere in the NT) to speak of resurrection appearances, and its use is extremely rare in the synoptic tradition (only at Mark 4:22 and in the longer ending to Mark [16:12, 14]). However, it has been used significantly in the Fourth Gospel to speak of the revelation that takes place in Jesus (cf. 1:31; 2:11; 3:21; 7:4; 9:3; 17:6). This form of introduction is foreign to the rest of the Gospel, but a significant verb from the earlier story is used to indicate that what is about to be reported is something more than a physical appearance. ‘The whole verse makes the effect of the announcement of a theme’ (Schnackenburg, Gospel 3:352).” (Francis Moloney, op cit, 548.)
the Sea of Tiberias: Generally called the Sea of Galilee. In the Christian Scriptures, this name is used only by John. “The disciples have left Jerusalem and returned to Galilee, probably not with the main groups of journeying pilgrims but in small groups of two or three, several days after the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread”. (D A Carson, op cit, 668.)
Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing”: Scholars have various opinions as to what this means: “complete apostasy” and “the fulfillment of 16:32” (“The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone”) (E. C. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel, edited by F. N. Davey, Faber and Faber, 1954, 552); Raymond Brown describes it rather as “aimless activity undertaken in desperation” (R. E. Brown, The Gospel according to John: Introduction, Translation and Notes, 2 vols., Geoffrey Chapman/Doubleday, 1966–71, Vol 2, 1096); another commentator suggests that there is no evidence that Peter was abandoning the commission he had received in order to return to fishing, and meanwhile ‘it was better for him to employ his time usefully than remain idle’ (F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Pickering and Inglis, 1983, 399). D A Carson observes: “The truth is probably between the two, but a good deal closer to the latter. There is no evidence that Peter and the others had gone to Galilee in order to fish. The most reasonable assumption is that they went in obedience to the Lord’s command (Mk. 14:28; 16:7 par.). Moreover by this time Peter himself had seen the risen Lord (Lk. 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5), a point confirmed by the fact that Peter so quickly threw himself into the water and swam for shore as soon as the identity of the man of the shore was pointed out. This does not read like the action of someone who is running away” (Op cit, 669).
This account by John also reminds us that the conviction that Jesus is Lord and Messiah was gradual in coming. It took some days, perhaps weeks – after the three years spent with Jesus on mission – for the disciples to get to the point that St Paul describes in his Letter to the Philippians of being “taken hold of by Christ” (3:12) and in his Letter to the Galatians where he says “I live now not I but Christ lives in me” (2:19). Again, Carson’s observation concerning the encounter with the risen Lord as described in John 21:1-19 is helpful: “It is impossible to imagine any of this taking place in Acts, after Pentecost. There is a certain eagerness for the risen Jesus, still strangely halting as the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is still sinking in. But most emphatically this is not the portrait of believers who have received the promised Paraclete. There is neither the joy nor the assurance, not to mention the sense of mission and the spirit of unity, that characterize the church when freshly endowed with the promised Spirit” (Op cit, 669-670).
that night they caught nothing: It seems reasonable to suggest that John’s use of the word “night” is significant here – see his other uses in 3:2 & 19–21, 13:30 and 20:1. Night suggests a world that has not yet received the light that Jesus brings. In that world the disciples are unable to carry through on their mission – “they caught nothing”. See for example the parable of the vine – “cut off from me you can do nothing” (15:6). Verse 4 – immediately following the statement that “thy caught nothing” – states: “Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach”. The night has ended!
the disciples did not know that it was Jesus etc: In the light of the “revealing” there is the “knowing”. The “knowing” is more like a dawning than a thunderclap. Further on we will see another key theme emerge through Jesus’ questions to Peter: “loving”. It is important that we do not let our well-worn “knowledge” of the story prevent us reading it with a mind open to surprise and personal address.
Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’: “The word paidia (NIV ‘Friends’, frequently ‘children’) can be used much like British ‘lads’ or American ‘boys’ or ‘guys’ .... (So) ‘Lads, haven’t you caught anything?’” (Carson, op cit, 670). However, Moloney does not agree: “A number of commentators render paidia as ‘lads’ .... but this does not do justice to the subsequent authoritative relationship that Jesus has with the disciples or to the echo of the way in which the letter writer of 1 John addresses his subjects” (Moloney, op cit, 552). Moloney does not offer an alternative rendering.
So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore etc: This is one of the statements – particularly the part that gives the exact number of fish! – that invites all sorts of speculations, when the simple truth is, we do not know the significance of the number 153. Carson elaborates: “Large quantities of ink have gone into explaining why there should be 153 fish. At the purely historical level, it is unsurprising that someone counted them, either as part of dividing them up amongst the fishermen in preparation for sale, or because one of the men was so dumbfounded by the size of the catch that he said something like this: ‘Can you believe it? I wonder how many there are?’
“But such pedestrian considerations have not satisfied those who are certain there is profound significance in the number. Throughout the history of the church, the most popular solution is that advanced by Jerome, who in his commentary on Ezekiel 47 ties this miracle with the prophetic vision of the stream of living water that flows from the temple to the Dead Sea, which begins to teem with life. Jerome cites the naturalist Oppian who, he claims, avers that there are 153 different species of fish. Thus this catch of fish, effected by the risen Lord’s command, becomes an acted parable of the fruitful mission of the church that draws (helkyō; the same verb is behind ‘dragged’) all human beings without distinction (12:32). The trouble with this explanation is that Oppian’s list, no matter how it is counted, does not yield 153; the most likely number is 157. Scholars debate whether Jerome was simply mistaken in the number, misascribed the right number to some other naturalist whose work is now lost, or simply ‘cooked the books’. So far as our evidence goes, however, this is no solution.
“Another proposal based on Ezekiel 47 has been put forward more recently. Describing the effect of the stream from the temple, Ezekiel writes: ‘There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets’ (47:9–10). Now each Hebrew and Greek letter stands for a number, so every Greek or Hebrew word has a numerical value. Based on this discipline, called ‘gematria’, J. A. Emerton has noted that in Hebrew ‘En’ is the word for ‘spring’, while ‘Gedi’ yields the number 17 and ‘Eglaim’ the number 153. Indeed, the two numbers are related: 153 is the triangular number of 17 (i.e. 1+2+3+ ... +17=153; for the reason why it is called ‘triangular’ cf. Hoskyns, p. 553). Thus the number represents the places where, in the time of the fulfillment of messianic hopes, gospel fishermen are to spread their nets. Of course, this ‘solution’ supposes that the readers understand Hebrew. That is extremely unlikely in a book where elementary Hebrew words have to be transliterated (e.g. 1:37, 41). P. R. Ackroyd, noting this point, has derived 153 by adding the Greek numbers for ‘Gedi’ and ‘Eglaim’, but to do so he has had to find variant spellings in different manuscripts.
“That 153 is the triangular number of 17 did not escape the church Fathers. Augustine noted it, and observed that 17=10+7, the 10 representing the ten commandments and the 7 the sevenfold Spirit of God (Rev. 1:4). Others break 7 down into 3+4, the number of the Trinity and the number of the new Jerusalem, the city built foursquare. Others have observed that 153= (3x50) +3, the double 3 pointing to the Trinity. Another scholar observes that in the feeding of the five thousand there were originally five little loaves of bread, from which twelve baskets of scraps were taken up, and 5+12=17—i.e. there is a link between that (allegedly) eucharistic feast and this one. Other solutions based on gematria have presented themselves: that 153 is the number for the words ‘the church of love’ in Hebrew, or of ‘the children of God’, or of Pisgah (thus making an allusion to the death of Moses, Dt. 34:1), or of the Hebrew for ‘Cana G’ (representing ‘Cana in Galilee’, and thereby tying this miracle to the first two).
“Many other suggestions have been put forward, none very convincing. Whatever internal difficulty each might have, as a group most of them do not relate to this passage very well. They tend to offer, at best, an allusion to an admittedly Johannine theme, but nothing that flows naturally out of John 21:11. If the Evangelist has some symbolism in mind connected with the number 153, he has hidden it well.
“Even so, there may be symbolism in the sheer quantity, if not the number itself, since the Evangelist draws attention to it: but even with so many the net was not torn. It is hard not to see an allusion to Luke 5:1–11, where the nets were torn. This may suggest that the gospel net will never break, that there is no limit to the number of converts it catches (Bruce, pp. 401–402). If such symbolism is operating, it may owe something to Jesus himself, who elsewhere promised to make his disciples ‘fishers of men’ (Mk. 1:17)” (D A Carson, op cit, 672-673).
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”: Significantly all four Gospels record Peter’s three denials – see John 18:15-27, Mark 14:54 & 66-72, Matthew 26:58 & 69-75 and Luke 22:54-62. This suggests that the first Christians confronted and dealt with sinfulness in their midst very quickly. Can we also assume that the three questions Jesus puts to Peter – “Do you love me?” – refer back to the three denials? Carson writes: “as Peter had boasted of his reliability in the presence of his fellow disciples (13:8, 37–38; cf. 18:10–11), so this restoration to public ministry is effected in a similarly public environment—regardless of whatever private forgiveness and reconciliation there may have been between Jesus and Peter when Jesus revealed himself after his resurrection to this one apostle, alone (1 Cor. 15:5; Lk. 24:34). Later in the pericope we are probably to think of Peter walking down the beach with Jesus, the beloved disciple not far behind, certainly within earshot (vv. 20–21).
“The public nature of Peter’s reinstatement is suggested by Jesus’ initial question, Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these? By itself, more than these (toutōn, genitive of comparison) could be interpreted in three ways: (1) ‘Do you love me more than you love these disciples?’ But this question does not cohere with any theme in the book. (2) ‘Do you love me more than you love this fishing gear?’ That is possible; the boat and the nets have been mentioned, and doubtless other gear was lying around. But in John 1 Peter is not called from his fishing, and the fishing of 21:3 has fewer negative overtones than some suppose. In any case all seven disciples went fishing: why then focus on Peter? (3) ‘Do you love me more than these other disciples do?’ (which of course assumes they are still present). This makes sense. Peter has always been able to advance the strongest personal boast. On the night Jesus was betrayed, while others were growing quiet, Peter could insist, ‘I will lay down my life for you [not “We” and “our”!] (13:37). It was Peter who slashed at Malchus (18:10). Cf. Matthew 26:33. But physical courage was not enough that night, and it was Peter also, spirit willing but flesh weak, who publicly disowned the Lord. Whatever potential for future service he had therefore depended not only on forgiveness from Jesus, but also on reinstatement amongst the disciples”. (D A Carson, op cit, 675-676)
Some authors draw attention to the fact the John uses two different verbs for love here. In Jesus’ first two questions, the word is agapaō – a word commonly used in the Christian Scriptures to refer to the love of God – and in Peter’s replies the word is phileō – the word friendship. In Jesus’ third question, he uses the word phileō. Peter, in responding the third time uses again the word phileō. It is tempting to see some particular significance in this. Most scholars warn against this. Carson gives seven reasons why we should not attach any particular significance to this change of language:
“(1) We have already seen that the two verbs are used interchangeably in this Gospel. The expression ‘beloved disciple’, more literally ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, can be based on either verb (cf. notes on 20:2). The Father loves the Son—and both verbs serve (3:35; 5:20). Jesus loved Lazarus—and again both verbs serve (11:5, 36).
“(2) No reliable distinction can be based on the LXX. For instance, Jacob’s preferential love for Joseph is expressed with both verbs (Gn. 37:3, 4). When Amnon incestuously rapes his sister Tamar, both verbs can be used to refer to his ‘love’ (2 Sam. 13). Despite one verb for ‘love’ in the Hebrew text of Proverbs 8:17, the LXX uses both agapaō and phileō.
“(3) Convincing evidence has been advanced that the verb agapaō was coming into prominence throughout Greek literature from about the fourth century BC onward, as one of the standard verbs for ‘to love’. One of the reasons for this change is that phileō has taken on the additional meaning ‘to kiss’, in some contexts. In other words, agapaō does not come into play because it is a peculiarly sacred word.
“(4) Even in the New Testament, agapaō is not always distinguished by a good object: Demas regrettably ‘loved’ the present age (2 Tim. 4:10).
“(5) Nor does it help to argue, with Hendriksen (2. 494–500), that because the total range of meaning of each verb is not the same as that of the other (e.g. agapaō never means ‘to kiss’), therefore there is necessarily some distinction to be made here. But this conclusion is invalid. All agree that synonyms enjoy differences of association, nuance and emotional colouring within their total semantic range. ‘But within any one individual passage these differences do not amount to a distinction of real theological reference: they do not specify a difference in the kind of love referred to.’
“(6) Amongst those who insist a distinction between the two verbs is to be maintained in each verse, there is no agreement. Thus, Trench insists agapaō is philanthropic and altruistic, but without emotional attachment, and therefore much too cold for Peter’s affection. That is why the apostle prefers phileō. By contrast, for Westcott (2. 367) agapaō denotes the higher love that will in time come to be known as the distinctively Christian love, while Peter cannot bring himself to profess more than ‘the feeling of natural love’, phileō. Bruce (p. 405) wisely comments: ‘When two such distinguished Greek scholars (both, moreover, tending to argue from the standards of classical Greek) see the significance of the synonyms so differently, we may wonder if indeed we are intended to see such distinct significance.’
“(7) By now it has become clear that the Evangelist constantly uses minor variations for stylistic reasons of his own (cf. Morris, SFG, pp. 293–319). This is confirmed by the present passage. In addition to the two words for ‘love’, John resorts to three other pairs: boskō and poimainō (‘feed’ and ‘take care of’ the sheep), arnia and probata (‘lambs’ and ‘sheep’), and oida and ginōskō (both rendered ‘you know’ in v. 17). These have not stirred homiletical imaginations; it is difficult to see why the first pair should” (D A Carson, op cit, 676-677).
We could also note the three different words used for “fish” in our text – prosphagion in 21:5 (Jesus asks whether they have any fish), icthus 21:6 & 8 (referring to the quantity of fish they have netted) and opsarion 21:9 (referring to the fish Jesus is cooking).
In John’s Gospel, light is a powerful metaphor. The Greek noun phōs – meaning “light” – is used at least 25 times in reference to Jesus. At the very beginning of the Gospel we are told: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:3-5). John the Baptist testifies to “the light”: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (1:6-9). Jesus says of himself: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12).
In view of the foregoing, we can feel the heaviness of this statement: “So, after receiving the piece of bread, (Judas) immediately went out. And it was night” (John 13:30). This heaviness is also found in today’s Gospel – John 21:1-19. Peter announces that he is going fishing. This sounds very much like he is trying to come to terms with the dreadful failure of Friday, when all their dreams collapsed. “That night they caught nothing”. Without Jesus the light has gone from their lives. As happened with the man born blind – see John 9:1-41 – they are enabled by Jesus to see. And as with the man born blind, the disciples – notably their leader, Peter – must allow themselves to be enlightened and led by Jesus.
Peter now sees more – much more – than the Risen Lord. He sees himself and his world in a new light. This is helped by Jesus’ threefold question: “Peter, do you love me?” Peter is drawn up from the swamp of shame and self-loathing that his betrayal had brought about. He knows he is forgiven. He experiences the mercy of God as never before. Peter also sees that his future is not in fishing: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (21:18). The most obvious interpretation of these words is given by John in parentheses: “(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God)”. We might also assume that, in the light of the three questions, Peter heard in Jesus’ words the revelation so dear to the People of God: “Peter, I have called you by name, you are mine (Isaiah 43:1). Follow me”.
Might there by something in this experience of Peter that the Church can identify with at this time? Something, perhaps, that each of us can identify with?