1 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 3 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.
4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. – John 21:1-4 ESV
This concluding chapter of John’s gospel has bothered biblical scholars for centuries. Many have viewed chapter 21 as out of place and incongruent with the rest of the book. It does seem rather odd that John provides a conclusion to his gospel with the two closing verses of chapter 20, only to recount yet another appearance by Jesus to His disciples. This has led some to suggest that this chapter was added later, either by John or one of his disciples.
But just because the final chapter appears somewhat out of sync with the rest of the narrative it does not prove its inauthenticity. John’s entire gospel is unique in its style and content. He chose not follow the pattern established by the Synoptic gospels, but instead, charted a distincinctly different course in his effort to reveal the deity and humanity of Jesus. And he summarized his efforts by telling his audience:
…these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name. – John 20:30-31 ESV
For 20 chapters, John provided evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. And his purpose in doing so was that his readers would continue to believe the Gospel message concerning Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection.
But long before John began his defense of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and the Savior of the world, he opened his gospel with a prologue, in which he introduced Jesus as the Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. – John 1:1-2 ESV
With these opening verses, John meant to clearly establish the deity of Jesus. He was the creator-God, the eternal one who existed from the beginning with God the Father and was instrumental in creation of all life, including mankind. But John added that the eternal Word chose to manifest Himself in human form.
…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14 ESV
The Word became flesh. God became a man. That is the theme of John’s entire gospel: Jesus the God-man. And he supports that theme for 21 chapters, including the final chapter of the book.
It is important to note that John concluded his prologue with the statement:
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. – John 1:18 ESV
With His incarnation, Jesus made the invisible God visible (Colossians 1:15). The purely spiritual Son of God took on the physical body of a man so that humanity might perceive deity “in the flesh.” And for over three years, Jesus lived side-by-side with the very ones He had created. He lived with them and as one of them. He ate, drank, walked, talked, slept, cried, grew hungry, loved, and exhibited godliness as no man had ever done before. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the divine purpose behind the incarnation of Jesus.
He [God] sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT
And with the opening verses of chapter 21, John reveals the resurrected Son of God making one more appearance to His disciples. He had accomplished His Father’s will and sacrificed His life on the cross as payment for the sins of mankind. And three days later God raised His Son from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit. The dead human body of Jesus was miraculously restored to life and rejoined with His spirit. And He made repeated appearances to His doubting and fearful disciples, assuring them that He had risen from the dead just as He said He would.
It helps if we understand chapter 21 to be the epilogue to John’s gospel. With it, he provides a fitting bookend that completes his narrative. In verse one, John states, “After this….” This is most likely a reference to the content found in chapter 20, but it also includes all that John has recorded in the rest of his gospel. It is a summarizing statement.
After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. – John 21:1 ESV
The Greek word that is translated as “revealed” is phaneroō and it is used throughout John’s gospel. It means “to make manifest, to show one’s self, to reveal, or make known.” John used it repeatedly to refer to Jesus revealing His deity and glory.
This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested [phaneroō] his glory. And his disciples believed in him. – John 2:11 ESV
“I have manifested [phaneroō] your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” – John 17:6 ESV
Now, in the final chapter, John uses the same word to describe Jesus revealing or manifesting Himself to His disciples one last time. What is significant is that Jesus is the Word made flesh but His flesh has been resurrected. While it looks the same and still bears the holes made by the nails and the scar created by the spear that pierced His side, it has been dramatically altered. In His resurrected state, Jesus was able to pass through walls and enter locked rooms. His body had been glorified and made fit for eternity. And the apostle Paul assures us that, one day, we will have a glorified body just like Jesus had.
For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 NLT
Our earthly bodies are not made for eternity. They are temporary dwelling places that have limited shelf lives. They are susceptible to sickness and disease. They are designed to wear out, grow old, and, eventually, to stop working. But in one of his later letters, John provides us with the good news that a day is coming when we will be like Jesus. We too will be given glorified bodies that are designed to last for eternity.
Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT
But in chapter 21, John recounts the scene when Jesus, the resurrected, glorified Son of God, revealed Himself to seven of His disciples, who were still stuck in their temporal, earth-bound bodies. The Word of God, who was in the beginning with God and was God, was going to manifest His glory one more time. He was going to reveal Himself in a practical and personal way that was meant to reinforce for His disciples the ongoing reality of His identity as the God-man. Nothing had changed. He was still God in the flesh. Fully deity and fully humanity.
And this scene is burned into the mind of John because he was one of the disciples who witnessed it. He was accompanied by his brother James, as well as Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and two other unnamed disciples. Influenced by the ever-impulsive Peter, they had decided to spend the day fishing. One might ask what they were doing in Galilee. According to the angel who spoke to the women at the tomb, that was exactly where they were supposed to go.
“But go, tell his disciples, even Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” –Mark 16:7 NLT
But while they waited for Jesus to show up, they decided to occupy their time with some fishing. This doesn’t indicate that they were giving up on their new vocation as ambassadors of the gospel, but that they were simply bored. Most of them had been professional fishermen when Jesus had called them, and they were doing what came naturally – fishing.
This is reminiscent of another scene recorded by Matthew. It too involved the Word made flesh, the Sea of Galilee, and a few men who were occupied with fishing.
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” – Matthew 4:18-19 ESV
More than three years later, John describes Jesus walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as Peter and his companions fish. But John adds the not-so-subtle insight: “They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing” (John 21:3 ESV). Despite their combined years of fishing experience, they were totally unsuccessful. And it seems likely that John had in mind the words that Jesus had earlier spoken to His disciples.
“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.
“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:4-5 NLT
Jesus was alive. He had been resurrected and had even revealed Himself to them. But now they found themselves alone and operating on their own initiative and according to their own agenda. And their efforts proved fruitless. They had spent the entire night casting for fish but had come up empty handed.
And then John adds the one line that dramatically alters the entire scenario.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. – John 21:4 ESV
As the rays of the sun began to penetrate the darkness of the night, the Light of the world (John 8:12) appeared on the scene and would soon illuminate the hearts and minds of the distracted and unsuccessful disciples.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.