Back to the lake, back to fishing: a late resurrection story (John 21; Easter 3C)

The Gospel of John seems to come to a clear cut end with a summary and conclusion at the end of chapter 20: “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” (John 20:30–31).

The addition of another chapter, featuring the scene beside the Sea of Tiberias in which Simon Peter figures prominently (21:7, 11), and the subsequent focus on Peter as Jesus affirms and commissions him (21:15-17), are curious. My view is that, together, they provide a later “corrective” to the Johannine focus on the Beloved Disciple, over and above Simon Peter. We have already noted this as being a distinctive perspective within this Gospel. See https://johntsquires.com/2022/04/28/the-third-time-that-jesus-appeared-to-the-disciples-john-21-easter-3c/

That is one reason for viewing this scene as a later addition to the Gospel, which has already come to a clear and definitive conclusion (20:30-31). Why was this chapter added?

In Mark’s earliest narrative, Peter is one of four disciples called at the start of Jesus’ activities in Galilee (Mark 1:16-20). Luke transforms this call narrative so that it both focusses almost exclusively on Peter, and also highlights his calling to a special vocation (Luke 5:1-11). This account briefly notes the presence of two other disciples (“James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon”, 5:10), and omits any mention of Peter’s brother Andrew, in maintaining a clear focus on Peter as the counterfoil to Jesus in what takes place.

John’s Gospel includes a story that is remarkably similar to this Lukan call narrative, but locates it at the very end of the narrative, rather than in the earlier stages of the story. The many similarities within the story include: the location, by the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:1) or beside the lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1); Simon Peter as a key character (John 21:3, 7, 11, 15–17; Luke 5:3–8, 10); a lack of fish after a night of fishing (John 21:3; Luke 5:5); an appearance of Jesus (John 21:4; Luke 5:3); a command to try again to catch fish, to cast the net to the other side (John 21:6) or to “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4); a miraculous catch of many fish (John 21:6–8; Luke 5:6); and a confession of faith in Jesus as “the Lord” (John 21:7, 12; Luke 5:8).

Whereas for Luke, it is Peter who makes the confession of faith in Jesus (Luke 5:8), in John’s narrative it is “the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” (John 21:7). This is reminiscent of the way that John reshapes the high christological confession of Peter, “you are the Messiah” (Mark 8:30), so that this high claim is spoken by Martha, sister of Lazarus: “yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27). If the author of the book of signs knew the Synoptic traditions, he has apparently intentionally removed these confessional statements from Peter’s mouth.

The scene on the sea in Luke ends with the command, “from now on you will be catching people” (5:10), maintaining the earlier Markan report of the words of Jesus, “follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). By contrast, the Johannine scene is extended with a potent vignette; the invitation to follow is delayed until the end of this extended scene (John 21:19).

In the extended vignette in John’s version, a threefold “rehabilitation” of Peter takes place (John 21:15–17). Three times, Jesus asks a question of Peter, to which he responds in the affirmative; each time, Jesus issues a command to Peter: “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep”.

This triple sequence of question—affirmation—command is often linked to the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter found in all three Synoptics (Mark 14:68, 70, 71; Matt 26:70, 72, 74; Luke 22:57, 58, 60) and also John (18:15, 25, 27). Indeed, the Synoptic accounts explicitly note that Jesus says to Peter, “you will deny me three times” (Mark 14:72; Matt 26:75; Luke 22:61), and each narrative indicates that this has fulfilled a prediction made by Jesus (Mark 14:30; Matt 26:34; Luke 22:34).

This precise prediction is missing from the Johannine narrative; nor does this version make anything of there being three denials. This account simply ends, “again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed” (John 18:27). There is nothing explicit in the account of John 21:15–17 to suggest that it is explicitly looking back to “three denials” by Peter and seeking to redeem him with the threefold question—response—command of the Johannine account.

If the source of chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is other than the context in which the body of the Gospel (chapters 1–20) was formed, then it could well be that the insertion of this short scene does intend to refer back, not to the way that the book of signs portrays the denial of Jesus by Peter, but to the Synoptic account with its explicit noting of the “three times”. The “primacy of Peter” is laid over the narrative which has accorded that place to the Beloved Disciple.

Nevertheless, it is striking, I think, that after this interaction between Peter and Jesus, we are offered commentary on the way in which Peter would die (21:18) and a final invitation, “follow me” (21:19). “Follow me” is what Jesus says to various people during his active public ministry: Peter and Andrew (Mark 1:17), Levi the tax collector (Mark 2:14), an unnamed rich man (Mark 10:21), an unnamed traveller on the road (Luke 9:59), and, in the initial scenes in John’s book of signs, to Philip (John 1:43). Indeed, in John’s account, Jesus explicitly tells Peter, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward” (13:36–37).

Immediately after this comes the prediction of his betrayal by Peter (13:38). Peter is unable to follow Jesus at any point in the story that follows—he denies him (18:15–18, 25–27) and then disappears from the story until he is drawn back into the narrative by Mary (20:2). His “redemption” is not complete until the explicit invitation from Jesus, “follow me”, beside the Sea of Tiberias (21:19). John has reworked and reshaped traditions that we can see in one form in the Synoptic tradition; his reshaping serves his own agenda in terms of the leadership of the Beloved Disciple.

It is that disciple who has the last word in this Gospel, with the curious interaction about his own death (21:20–23) and then the ultimate concluding claim by the author: “this is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). The claim provides a neat segue into the claims made by the author of the letter we know as 1 John: “we declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).

And the final, final word (John 21:25) hearkens back to the initial claims about God acting in and through Jesus as Word (1:1); concerning the full extent of what God does in and through Jesus, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). The all-knowing author has knowledge beyond even what the present Gospel conveys.

Images drawn from the past, looking to the future, as a message for the present (Revelation; Easter, Year C)

During the season of Easter this year, we are following a short sequence of readings from the book of Revelation. The first such reading (Rev 1:4–8) was last Sunday, setting out the writer and the audience, as well as the key focus of the book: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5).

The book begins with a striking opening phrase—in Greek, it reads apokalypsis Iesou Christou (1:1). The first word in this phrase can be translated in two ways, resulting in the two most common titles for the book—“Revelation” or “Apocalypse”.

The word revelation is related to a Latin word which means to disclose or make known; the word apocalypse is the Greek term which means to uncover or expose. This word sums up the distinctive nature of the book right at the start—this is an exposé of the highest degree!

The content of this exposé is declared to be “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:2, 9). The book ends with a reminder that Jesus sent his angel to John with “this testimony for the churches” (22:16). All of this is being done in a context of some urgency: “the time is near” (1:3), for Jesus is coming soon (1:7; 22:7, 12, 20; see also 2:16; 3:11; 22:6).

The book was written to be read aloud (1:3; 22:18); it seems to invite the people listening to the story to envisage what is being described by using their own imaginations. This is already evident in the way that the dramatic tone builds in the opening sections of the work. First, in the section of the book set for last Sunday, there is a hymn in praise of Jesus, reminiscent of poetic sections in other New Testament books as well as in Hebrew Scripture (1:5–8).

Next comes a description of the author and the process of creating the book (1:9–11). This was apparently initiated by “a loud voice like a trumpet” (1:10) —a voice which belonged to a distinguished figure with an ominous presence (1:12–16), whose appearance caused the writer to “fall at his feet as though dead” (1:17). The scene is thoroughly biblical, in keeping with the pattern of portentous announcements in Hebrew Scripture as well as in the early chapters of some Gospels. This will be the first of a number of visions, in which startling creatures declare unnerving messages in vividly dramatic ways.

The Revelation of John was not the first book of this kind ever written; in fact, Jewish writers had been producing literature like this for some centuries, recounting visions of the heavenly realm and reporting teachings which have been passed on by ancient figures from the heavens. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are sections of the prophetic works which have the same kind of tone, as prophets report the visions they have seen and the oracles they have heard from the Lord.

Indeed, within other parts of the New Testament, there are indications of similar interests and ways of viewing the world—a view that is often characterized as “apocalyptic”. The figure of John the Baptist can best be appreciated as an apocalyptic figure, declaring that the Messiah has come and the kingdom is at hand (Mark 1:7–8; Matt 3:2).

Jesus continued the apocalyptic message of John by announcing that the kingdom of God was near (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) or, indeed, present (Luke 17:20). Many of the parables of Jesus and not a few of his teachings reflect an apocalyptic view of reality (for instance, Mark 13:14–37; Matt 24:45–25:46, Luke 17:20–37).

The letters of Paul contain clear pointers to the way that Paul viewed the world through an apocalyptic lens, in which the return of Jesus would take place soon and the kingdom of God would be ushered in (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 1 Cor 7:29– 31, 15:20–28; Rom 8:18–25). The view that “the last days” were to come was also held by other writers (Heb 1:2; James 5:3; 2 Tim 2 Pet 3:1–5; Jude 17–19).

The apocalyptic worldview had been developing in Israel for some centuries. From their origins, prophets had delivered oracles in the name of the Lord; over time, they also began to incorporate accounts of visions in their messages (Isa 6; Jer 24; Ezek 1, 2–3, 8–11, 37, 40–44; Dan 2:19; Joel 2:28–32; Amos 7–9; Obad 1; Hab 2; Zech 1–8).

In the later stages of the prophetic movement in Israel, this form of communication becomes dominant. The last half of two prophetic books (Daniel 7–12; Zech 9–14) contain interrelated sequences of visions in which contemporary events, and perhaps also future events, appear to be depicted in symbolic form.

This trend continues on in a number of books written through the second and first centuries BCE, many of which still survive today. In this period we find various works which use heavenly messengers to reveal insights about mysteries and provide predictions about the future.

Most widely-known are 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch; in addition, a number of works in the Dead Sea Scrolls are apocalyptic in nature. All these works contain literary features typical of apocalyptic works, as well as certain theological elements relating to the end of the ages.

As we read the book of Revelation, we can identify certain literary features which are quite characteristic of apocalyptic literature. The authority of the author is a key concern (1:9–10; 22:8–9) and the declaration is made that what is now being revealed is a mysterious secret (1:20; 10:7; 17:5, 7). This revelation comes direct from God through his authorized messenger (1:1–2, 11– 20; 22:8–10).

The warning not to change the text (22:18–19) is characteristic of apocalyptic, as is the regular reminder of the author’s expectation that the present era is coming to an end (2:26; 21:1, 4) and his description of a vision of the beginning of a new era (1:1; 7:9–17; 11:19; 21:1–22:7; 22:12, 20). The role of angels and visions reflects typical apocalyptic features.

Also typical of apocalyptic are the many coded depictions which are conveyed in numbers: four (4:6–8; 5:6, 14; 6:1–8; 7:1–3, 11; 9:14; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4; 21:16); ten (2:10; 12:3, 18; 17:3, 12–16); twelve (12:1; 21:12–14, 21; 22:2); twenty-four (4:4, 10; 11:16; 19:4); 144,000 (7:4–8; 14:1–4); and the intriguing 666 (13:18).

Of course, the number seven, which recurs in numerous places throughout the book, is very significant: there are seven letters, 1:11; seven golden lampstands, 1:12, 20; seven stars, 1:16, 20; 2:1; seven angels, 1:20; 3:1; 15:7; seven spirits, 1:4; 3:1; seven seals, 5:1; seven horns and eyes, 5:6; seven trumpets, 8:2; seven thunders, 10:3–4; seven diadems, 12:3; seven plagues, 15:1, 6; seven golden bowls, 15:7; 16:1; and seven heads, 17:3, 9–10.

Finally, there is the crucial appearance of Babylon as a coded symbol of Rome (17:5, 18). This is a code used also in Jewish apocalyptic works.

The reader (or listener) of this work is invited into a world of unfettered imagination, with evocative imagery, enticing language, and disturbing rhetoric. The book appears to be describing the events that will take place in the immediate future; these chapters set the scene set for what will later be revealed as a colossal, cosmic battle between good and evil.

However, the style of the work is never straightforward and the message is never declared in direct propositional form. Many of the scenes contain words, images, and ideas which are already familiar from the Hebrew Scriptures— although they appear to be arranged in inventive new ways. Making sense of this book requires an act of creative imagination alongside a process of careful exploration, investigation, and interpretation.

The visions that are included in this spectacularly dramatic book evoke biblical language and imagery in various ways, as the author envisages the future by drawing from the scriptures of the past and reworking the images and ideas found within them as a message for the present.

“Worthy is the lamb that was slaughtered”: a paradoxical vision (Rev 5; Easter 3C)