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.

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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