John 21 - The epilogue

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

John’s Gospel originally ended at the end of chapter 20. The verses 20:30-31 have been the final words of the original Gospel. Chapter 21, now under discussion, is clearly an epilogue that has been added a little later. Its writer has wanted to add to the Gospel a few more stories which come from the same tradition.

In all the stories now unfolding before us, the beloved disciple of Jesus holds a major role. This time it is only the content of the text that leads us to the notion that we are dealing with a later addition. Chapter 21 is included in all manuscripts. The significance of this fact is evident to the specialists in the manuscript tradition: the addition has definitely been written before the copying of John’s Gospel to the wider public was started. Hence it is very old and, in this respect, part of the Gospel.

The apostles as fishermen 21:1-14

Because the last chapter has been added to the Gospel only later, it is difficult to place the story that we are now discussing in the narrative of John’s Gospel. The best place for it might be the time when everything was still unclear and the disciples were not fully sure of Jesus’s resurrection. In that case the fact that the disciples went out fishing means that they denied the commission they had once received.

Jesus was in the tomb, and they could no longer walk with him. A logical consequence of this line of thought was to get a new profession in place of the apostle’s office. Naturally the first option was fishing, as it had earlier been their profession. John’s story includes many references to the story which, in the Gospel of Luke, is found before Jesus’s Passion (Luke 5:1-11). The whole story, as well as the fascinating moments on the shore, signify a return to discipleship.

Apparently the figure 153 is in some way symbolic and may somehow refer to the fact that the work of Christ will touch all nations. However, none of the suggested explanations are very convincing. The disciples, who a while ago were wavering, became again fishers of men after this occasion.

Jesus and Peter 21:15-19

The story about the encounter of Jesus and Peter the Denyer is very engaging and psychologically brilliant. Even though other people are present, they all have minor roles now. The two friends look each other deep in the eye. Peter’s denial is dealt with, but so is the rest of his life. Peter denied three times, and Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” After the last question Peter breaks down. His relationship with the Lord is now restored.

The three questions include a threefold commission for Peter to be a shepherd. We bear in mind Jesus’s words about the good shepherd (chapter 10) and the Old Testament scriptures behind it (Ezekiel 34, in particular). Bad shepherds only take care of themselves and leave the flock untended. When the Lord begins to shepherd his own, the situation changes. The risen Lord shepherds his flock by means of people. A particularly important responsibility is given to Peter who is the leader of the disciples in all four Gospels. The shepherd’s ministry, especially with the special responsibility given to Peter, was impossible to do without loving Jesus. So Jesus commissions Peter again, after his threefold denial.

This commissioning involves a mystery which can be understood only much later. What do the words about dressing (or binding / girding) and walking mean? The customary piece of clothing was a long outer garment. When setting off for a walk, the wearer bound it with a belt so that it would not hamper movement. A young man would put on a belt by himself in no time at all. An old man would stretch out his arms and let someone else bind his belt. It is this gesture, the stretching out of arms, that is the key to the mystery. We know that Peter was martyred. Very likely he was crucified in Rome in the 60s. He had to spread out his arms when he was nailed to the cross-beam, and then he walked before the executioner to the place of execution. What was the better option – to be without Christ and safe, or to be with Christ and suffer terrible agony? Peter knew the answer, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

The beloved disciple 21:20-25

Behind the two friends walks “the beloved disciple”. Peter makes the mistake of asking about what is to become of him but receives a firm answer, ”You follow me!” Concerning this issue, Peter is as much an outsider as the others were a moment ago. Jesus’s plans for another person are no concern of anybody else’s. The impending martyrdom had been indicated only to Peter, and not publicly. The destiny of “the beloved disciple” remains a mystery to Peter.

The Gospel of John gives the impression that Jesus’s public work lasted several years. During this time he was constantly teaching, he had a strong influence on thousands of people, and he performed many great miracles. To describe even one of his days would have required more papyrus than our present-day Gospel of John.

The last words in John’s Gospel clearly demonstrate the way he dealt with his material: the book cannot hold everything, and there is no need to tell everything. He has included only some things in his work, some miracles and teachings, but he has discussed them thoroughly and in detail.

Thus it is that the fourth Gospel, resounding with the traditional knowledge preserved by the beloved disciple, speaks particularly clearly about the most important thing: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Light of the blind, and the Life of the dead. “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”