The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for the Third Sunday of Easter in Year C is John 21.1–19. Unlike the reading for Easter Sunday, where we may read John 20 every year, and Easter 2, where we must read about ‘Doubting’ Thomas each year, we only read this in Year C—but it is an extremely well-known passage, though very long to preach on in one go.
As we have found in previous weeks, the narrative has both the hallmarks of eye-witness observation, but also the ‘double meaning’ of symbolic resonance, and in reading and preaching on this we need to pay attention to both. In addition, it includes two very well-worn subjects of debate, the question of the 153 fish and Jesus’ threefold question and answer with Peter about love, both of which I have written about separately—go to the posts for more detail on each.
It is striking that, where this gospel sometimes counts the passing days with some precision (as it has in fact just done in John 20.26), this episode begins with the most general possible time marker, ‘after this’ (Μετὰ ταῦτα, curiously the repeated phrase that marks successive visions in the Book of Revelation). This, combined with the sense of a summary ‘ending’ statement in John 20.30–31, has generated quite a tradition of believing (amongst critical scholarship) that chapter 21 is a secondary appendix added to a work that finished at chapter 20. But most commentators now point out that there is zero manuscript evidence for this, and that the style, vocabulary and content of chapter 21 match completely all that has gone before. But what the double ending does do is to create a sense of this chapter describing an ‘in between’ time, when Jesus has been raised, but the post-Pentecost work has not really begun. This might point to a confirmation of the ‘Johannine Pentecost’ when Jesus breathes on the disciples in John 20.22 as pointing to a future promise which has yet to be fulfilled.
It is also striking that Jesus is described here not merely as ‘appearing’ to his disciples or even happening to be around so that they see him, but of ‘revealing’ himself (though using φανερόω rather than ἀποκαλύπτω). The gospel writing is here couching this realistic account in theological terms; Jesus’ resurrection person has continuity with his previous existence, but he is not mundanely resuscitated. His appearances are deliberate, and are offering to create growing understanding rather than mere observation.
Galilee is described as the ‘Sea of Tiberius’, as it has been before (John 6.1) suggesting important themes of rule and occupation. Seven disciples are listed, suggesting some kind of completeness about this group, though they only partly overlap with the Twelve, who are not ever actually introduced and do not feature much in this gospel, in sharp contrast to the Synoptics. This is the only time in this gospel that the ‘sons of Zebedee’ and Simon Peter are mentioned together, which would be odd if John of Zebedee were the author of this gospel. The mention of Nathanael forms an inclusio his appearance in chapter 1. Tantalisingly, two of the seven are not named, but it transpires (in John 21.7) that one of them is the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’.
Simon Peter’s decision to go fishing appears to be one that simply fills a void; he has nothing better to do. That the others go with him is a sign of solidarity. The failure of their efforts, the command of Jesus to do something different, and the dramatic result all remind us of Luke 5, once more as though the writer of this gospel assumes that we have read the others—or simply that we know the things that have happened. I find arguments that there was a single event which has been ‘reworked’ in two different ways by the two gospel writers implausible; there are points of contact, so that the one reminds us of the other, but plenty of differences too. Why should this not happen twice? Why attribute creativity and care to the gospel writers rather than to Jesus?
Day is just breaking, as it was in John 20.1; though Jesus himself is present, the light has not yet dawned. Jesus’ location ‘on the shore’ contributes to the ‘liminality’ of this episode as being in an ‘in-between’ place. His address to them as ‘children’ is kindly rather than condescending, and though the disciples are referred to in this way in Luke 10.21, it is the only time Jesus addresses them in this way. Their response is terse. But everything changes with the miraculous haul of fish. Simon Peter has been γυμνός for work, from which we get ‘gymnast’, since the competitors were naked—but the term can simply mean stripped to undergarments. (It provides an explanation for the meaning of Jesus coming into the boat ‘just as he was’ in Mark 4.36, that is, without stripping off prepared for the work of sailing or fishing.) He is as impetuous as ever; I remember watching the re-enactment of this episode at the Wintershall Life of Christ, and it was truly dramatic!
There is a very suggestive interaction between the work of Jesus and the work of the disciples in the preparation of breakfast. On the one hand, Jesus has already provided all they need; the mention of both fish and bread reminds us of John 6 and the feeding of the 5,000, though there is not even a hint of ‘eucharistic action’ here. On the other hand, he invites them to contribute what they have caught. And yet the work they have done was entirely dependent on obedience to the call of Jesus and entirely the result of his miraculous provision. But they still had to do the work, and their work still made a contribution to their own provision.
And so we come to the 153 fish. There have been many bizarre and speculative interpretations of this number, which I list in the earlier post exploring the meaning of this number. I also note that we cannot simply dismiss all these; we need to be aware that we are reading a text from a different time and culture, where these symbolic things mattered—though it is quite natural for any commercial fisherman to count the catch!
There are not very many large numbers mentioned in the New Testament: this is one; Luke mentions that there are 276 people who are saved from the shipwreck in Acts 27.37; and the number of beast in Rev 13.18 is 666. It is striking mathematically that all three of these are ‘triangular’ numbers, as several of our theories note, which is a much more important thing in a world where you primarily count using physical objects, rather than in our world where numbers are more like abstract concepts. In fact, the word in the New Testament for ‘to calculate’ (psephizo) derives from the word for ‘pebble’ (psephos).
If 153 as the triangle of 17 is important, then perhaps we need to think about the significance of 17 itself. Commentators struggle to make much sense of the list of regions whose residents were at Pentecost in Acts 2.9–11; Ben Witherington in his socio-rhetorical commentary (pp 136 to 137) notes the anomalies, and the failure of things like astrological theories to make any sense of the list. But, taking the ‘Jews and proselytes’ from Rome as two groups, we have a list of 17, and perhaps Luke here is simply communicating that people hear the message from all over the known world. (Luke is clearly interested in numerology himself; the late Martin Menken pointed out that Peter’s Pentecost speech consisted of two halves of 444 syllables each, the total 888 being the gematria value of Jesus’ name in Greek. And Joel Green draws on Menken’s work to note that, in stories like the raising of the widow of Nain’s son, the word for ‘compassion’ comes at the numerical centre of the narrative.)
The connection with the nations of the world is also suggested by a connection with Ezekiel 47, which is the context for Jerome’s reflection which assumed there were 153 kinds of fish in total in the world.
In Ezekiel 47, we see baptismal waters ﬂowing from the overturned Bronze Sea of the Temple, ﬂowing out to the boundaries of the Land. Remember that Jesus claims to be the source of such living waters. In Ezekiel 47:9, we are told that “very many ﬁsh” will live in the (formerly) Dead Sea as a result of these living waters. In verse 10 we read, “And it will come about that ﬁshermen will stand beside it; from En-Gedi to En-Eglaim there will be a place for spreading of nets. Their ﬁsh will be acording to their kinds, like the ﬁsh of the Great [Mediterranean] Sea, very many.”
The Dead Sea is the boundary of the new land after the exile, and a place of contact with gentiles. The ﬁshes are clearly gentile nations. The fact that the sea is formerly dead and now is brought to life surely indicates the inﬂuence of Restoration Israel over the nations before Christ, and points to the greater inﬂuence of the Kingdom after Pentecost.
Now, it is well known that Hebrew letters are also numbers: the ﬁrst nine letters being 1-9, the next nine being 10-90, and the last ﬁve being 100-400. “Coding” words with numbers is called gematria. If we substract the “En” from En-Gedi and En-Eglaim, since “en” means “spring,” then the following emerges:
Gedi = 17 (ג = 3; ד = 4; י = 10)
Eglaim = 153 (ע = 70; ג = 3; ל = 30; י = 10; מ = 40)
Again, this seems too close to the mark to be a coincidence. Once again, we have the number 17 (Gedi, mentioned ﬁrst) and its relative 153 (Eglaim, mentioned second) connecting to the evangelization of the gentiles, symbolized by ﬁshing.
Conclusion: The number 153 represents the totality of the nations of the world, which will be drawn in the New Creation.
This connection is also made by Richard Bauckham, in what is perhaps the most comprehensive study of this issue in print, in the final chapter of his The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. (It is worth noting the other connections with Ezekiel in both the Fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation.) Bauckham further connects the numerology here with the opening chapters of the gospel, thus arguing that this ‘second’ concluding chapter was always part of the whole work, contrary to the dominant view in the previous generation that chapter 21 was a later addition. (Mark Stibbe also makes the case for unity on the basis of literary features of the text.)
So there is a good case, supported in multiple ways, for seeing the 153 as having both real and symbolic significance. The connections with the number 17 at Pentecost, and the parallels in this episode with the commissioning of the disciples in the similar experience in Luke 5, do suggest that the symbolic significance has to do with gospel ministry which will draw on people from all over the world. This is a ‘hidden’ meaning which simply says the same thing as the narrative in Luke 5, though in a distinct way and using distinct language and symbolism.
If I am right here, then this does make the meaning of the narrative strongly focussed on the theme of restoration and renewing commissioning, which immediately links to the final part of the narrative with the interrogation of Simon Peter.
It is quite common to hear this episode expounded by noting the different words for ‘love’ that are used here. But there are several serious problems with this way of reading John 21. The first is that, if there was a significant difference between the two terms, why would Jesus make the progression that he does, from the ‘higher’ form of love to the ‘lower’? Surely he should start asking Peter about the most undemanding form of love, and then progress to that which will sustain him through the trials that Jesus says he is to face? And the use of these two synonyms also needs to be put in the context of Jesus’ synonyms for ‘feed’ and ‘my sheep’. The order is as follows:
|Jesus’ question||Peter’s answer||Command||Object|
I am not aware of any commentator who makes much of the synonyms for ‘feed my sheep’ as a progression, so why should we think that the changes of synonyms for ‘love’ is important? Moreover, Peter does not respond to Jesus’ question ‘Do you agapao me?’ with ‘No, Lord, but I do phileo you’—he responds ‘Yes!’ And he is grieved in verse 17 not because Jesus has changed the verb he uses, but (as John tells us quite explicitly) because Jesus asked him ‘a third time’, a phrase John repeats for emphasis. Is this because Peter naturally feels that he has given an adequate answer already? Or is it because he is now wincing inside at the threefold question that he was asked in the courtyard by the fire, and this third question of Jesus is both a painful reminder of that failure, and the excruciating process of healing that wound, just as we wince in pain as someone pulls a splinter or thorn from our hand that has embedded itself in the skin? The act is painful, but without it healing cannot come. (Bultmann is just about alone in all the commentators in history who does not see the parallel here.)
Vineyard scholarJohn uses the agape word-group (in various forms) about 37 times (including Jn. 3:16, 3:19, 3:35, 8:42, 10:17, 11:5, 12:43, 13:1, 13:1, 13:23, 13:34, 14:15, 14:21, 14:23, 14:24, 14:28, 14:31, 15:9, 15:12, 15:17, 17:23, 17:24, 17:26, 19:26, 21:7, 21:15, 21:16, 21:20), and this includes the saying that people loved (agape love) the darkness rather than light in Jn. 3:19 and that the Pharisees loved (agape love) the approval of men more than the praise of God in Jn. 12:43. On the other hand, John uses phileo (in various forms) about 13 times (Jn. 5:20, 11:3, 11:36, 12:25, 15:19, 16:27, 20:2, 21:15, 21:16, 21:17), and this includes the Father loving (phileo-love) the Son in Jn. 5:20, Lazarus, whom Jesus loved (phileo-love) in Jn. 11:13 and 11:36, God’s love in John 16.27, and the disciple whom Jesus loved (phileo love) in Jn. 20:2. John’s actual uses does not sustain the common differentiation between the two terms in his gospel—whatever usage elsewhere might look like.
So is there any significance to the structure and variation in Jesus’ three-fold questioning of Peter? It seems to me that the central point here is the restoration of Peter, and it is characteristic of John to make connections backwards (known as ‘analepsis’, ‘looking again’) and forwards (‘prolepsis’, ‘looking ahead’) throughout his gospel; the reference to ‘feeding my sheep’ takes us back to Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd in John 10—and John has already made a connection between this teaching and Peter’s betrayal by using the same word (aule) for both the sheep-pen of the good shepherd (John 10.1, 16) and the courtyard of the failed disciple (John 18.15). The theme of restoration is in fact one that has already occurred, especially if we see the great catch of fish earlier in the chapter as a conscious repeat of the episode in Luke 5 which began the ministry of Peter and the others; here is another new beginning, but one in the light of Jesus’ resurrection life.