The mission of the Church: Jesus and the Fishermen (21:1–14)

The life and ministry of Jesus is present in and empowering the life and ministry of the Church, whose mission is to participate in the ongoing mission of God to the world; it is in the Church where the presence and purpose of God are made manifest.

  1. Fishermen without fish (21:1–3);
  2. Disciples without Jesus (21:4–6);
  3. “It is the Lord” (21:7–8);
  4. Jesus’ third appearance to the disciples (21:9–14).

The majority of scholarship on the Gospel of John considers this chapter 21 to be a later addition to the Gospel. But there is no evidence that this Gospel ever circulated without this chapter. No existing copy of the Gospel ever ends at 20:31.

Some claim that there is no connection between this chapter and the rest of the Gospel. It is not correct either.

First, chapter 21 provides a necessary end to the story of the two disciples, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, who from chapter 13 on have played very clearly visible roles in the Gospel.

Second, chapter 21 provides a necessary conclusion to the character spoken to directly by the narrator: the reader. A major function of chapter 21 is that it expresses a strong and continuing interest in the disciples of the second generation and even all future believers. Jesus prayed for all future believers in chapter 17, and in chapter 21 the Gospel also extends itself to the future believers, the readers to whom it was written to minister.

Chapter 21 also provides for the reader a final explanation of the story and a necessary ‘legal statement’ that certifies the trustworthiness of its eyewitness testimony - its author.

The Gospel ends with a narrative epilogue (21:1–23) framed by a conclusion divided into two carefully designed stages, with 20:30–31 functioning as the first stage and 21:24–25 functioning as the second stage.

The two-stage conclusion serves to separate the narrative in chapter 21 from the main narrative of the Gospel (1–20), thus indicating its status as an epilogue. And so, it indicates that this epilogue was always intended as part of the final Gospel.

As this Gospel started with the Prologue (1:1–18), so it also ends with the Epilogue. Between these two, the Gospel frames its message and invitation to the reader. It begins with exhortation to “follow” Jesus (1:37–43) and ends with a nearly identical exhortation (21:19–22), though now with full access to the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit.

The epilogue brings a clear message: (1) nothing is possible without Jesus, (2) love for Jesus and following Jesus is discipleship and the nature of “shepherding”, (3) the loss of life is a real possibility, and (4) the significant role of the disciples.

Thus, the Gospel ends where it started, with the mission of God to the world. At the end of the Gospel, however, it is no longer merely the mission of the Son who was sent by the Father, but now also the mission of the Church who is sent by the Son (20:21).


“After these things” directs the reader to read this pericope as a continuation of what precedes it. Combined with the adverb “again”, this opening statement serves to “bind” the following story to those of 20:19–23 and 20:24–29.

If the reader thought that John 20:30–31 was the Gospel’s conclusion and not simply its purpose statement, this verse “must make him change his mind”.

This another appearance - third one (21:14) - occurs not in a locked room in Jerusalem, but on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. The first two took place at the gathering of the earliest Church (20:26), this one takes place in the world in the mission field.

But this appearance has different purpose than the first two, namely to establish the fact of Christ’s resurrection, his presence. This appearance establishes the continuation of his presence, how the risen Lord will reveal himself to and be present with his disciples, the Church, in all future times.


The Evangelist introduces the characters to whom Jesus would reveal himself. The seven characters are described as his "disciples’. The number seven should be taken as symbolic - a perfect or complete number (cf. Rev 1:20). In this Gospel this number is in itself a thematic number - seven signs, seven days of the week. But, the reader has to count the number of the disciples himself.

Since 21:7 mentions the presence of the Beloved Disciple, so he must be among the seven disciples.


It is usually suggested that with this statement Simon Peter is abandoning the mission, as going back to their former way of life. The text alone does not demand such interpretation. Instead the text intends to depict a real life circumstance into which the newly assigned apostolic mission can now be contextualised.

The Evangelist is not interested in “why” Peter went fishing - as we are nowadays - but he is concerned with the outcome of fishing describing how the fishing went.

“Fishing” should be understood as a metaphor for the apostolic mission of “catching people” (cf. Luke 5:10). And it is not their decision to fish but their inability to fish that Jesus will address (21:5–6).

The Evangelist explains their lack of success because it is directly related to the plot of the Gospel.

The term “night” is significant in this Gospel. Since the term always has negative connotations in the Gospel it is likely being used in a similar way here.

The fishing was commonly done at night (cf. Luke 5:5) but with their lack of success the term creates the “impression” that there is more going on here than fishermen’s luck.

The disciples of Jesus are still grasping with the reality of the resurrection and their participation in the life of God through Christ. Something (or someone) is still missing!


The appearance of Jesus is being introduced to the plot of the story.

Notice that in every appearance to his disciples, Jesus is described with the verb “stood” (20:14,19,26) as if he just appeared before them.

Although the disciples went out to fish at “night” (21:3), Jesus appears before them on the shore “as it was becoming morning”. We have here the contrast “night” and “dawn”. As the sun appears over the horizon, Jesus appears on the shore.

But, the disciples did not recognise him. It could be to the fact that it was still too dark or there is again some intended deeper meaning to this fact.

But, the reader already realises that the problem is that their inability of catching fish is related to the absence of Jesus.


Like in previous appearances to the disciples, it is Jesus who speaks first.

The little “children” (cf. 1:12; 1 John 2:14, 18, 2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21).

Fittingly, Jesus reaches out to his disciples with a title that can only now be bestowed upon them after his death and resurrection. It is only because of the Spirit they have received that they can now receive the name “children” (1:12).

Jesus’ question about the food expects negative answer and such answer is given.

The term “fish” that Jesus is using here generally refers to fish to eat. Thus, while they were unable to provide a meal for themselves, Jesus himself will provide the fish to eat (21:9).


Jesus commands and they obey and the catch is great - they cannot even haul it or lift it. Thus, it was not the absence of fish, but the absence of Jesus that was the problem. And Jesus’ command “you will find some” speaks more of people than of fish.

The magnitude of fish is not intended for a meal (21:9) but to symbolise the effective power of the Risen One to fulfil the missionary mandate that he has given to his disciples.

In that moment the disciples responded to the “voice” of Good Shepherd (10:16).


The resolution of the pericope (21:7–8) begins with a recognition scene similar to the scenes in chapter 20; an exchange between the two primary disciples in the Gospel, Peter and the Beloved Disciple takes place.

The Beloved Disciples recognises that the person standing on the shore is the Lord. Thus, again he functions as an ideal witness of Jesus.

This is the third of four comparison-like depictions of Peter and the Beloved Disciple (13:22–25; 20:3–9; 21:7; 21:20–23). Here, the collaboration is presented. Although the Beloved Disciples is first to recognise Jesus, it is Peter who is the first to respond - and in a radical manner.

If the Beloved Disciple exhibits an awareness of Jesus, Peter exhibits a desire for his presence - leaving the other disciples to tend the fish and himself swimming toward Jesus.

And if putting on his outer garment - which the labor of fishing required him to remove - indicates taking with himself his belongings, then it suggests that he is ready to follow Jesus. At least, this action displays for the reader the kind of response one should have to the Lord.

We can also see here a reference to 13:4,5.


Peter had to swim and the disciples had to drag the net full of fish for about 100 meters.


The conclusion and interpretation of the pericope (21:9–14) is filled by symbolic details that direct the reader to grasp the ministerial presence of Christ and the nature of the apostolic mission.

While the disciples were busy catching fish, Jesus had prepared on the shore for them a charcoal of fire with fish already being grilled upon it and some bread. Jesus prepared a meal.

At the first appearance of the “charcoal fire” in the Gospel, Peter was warming himself at the fire prepared by the enemies of his Lord (18:18). Now, however, he is warming himself at a fire prepared by the Lord.

An unsuccessful night’s work draws to its end, and the disciples are only beginning to realise the reality of Jesus’ words “apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5).

It is important that this charcoal fire is the context in which the Gospel will end (21:15–25).


Jesus never intended to prepare this meal on his own, so he commands them to bring some of the fish they just caught. This meal required a shared responsibility. It is when the disciples bring the fish they have caught that the meal receives its full significance.

The catching of fish and the preparation of the meal is intended to portray the nature of the disciples’ involvement and participation in the mission of God.

At this moment the resurrected Lord is teaching his disciples how to “share in his resurrection power” and “continue his work on earth”.

The ministry of Jesus is framed in this Gospel by meals he prepared: in 2:1–11 Jesus produces the wine for a wedding feast, and here Jesus provides the fish and bread for his disciples.

While the first meal set the context for the work he would do for his disciples, the last meal would set the context for the work his disciples would do through him for others ( cf. Jesus’ forthcoming command to Peter in 21:15, 17 “Feed my lambs/sheep”).


Peter, again is the first to respond to Jesus. He “went up” into the boat, that is he “climbed aboard” and “dragged the net” onto the shore, apparently on his own.

Yet, it is not the strength of Peter that is emphasised here - was he a physically strong man that could do such thing? - but the strength of the net. Some indicate that the net depicts the unity of the Church in spite of the number and the variety of its members.

There are five primary option offered to explain the depiction of the 153 fish.

  1. Historical description. No symbolism was intended and that was the exact amount of fish they caught.

  2. Natural symbolism. St. Jerome based on his day science of zoology indicated that there were 153 different kind of fish in the world and that the catch is a symbol of the fulness of the Church that gathers all people of the world.

  3. Biblical symbolism. The reference is made to 153,000 workers assigned to building Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 5:15–16 and thus by connection to the building of the Church. Some ancient also calculated (Dead Sea Scrolls) that the flood in Genesis occurred for a total of 153 days (from its start to the grounding on the mountain) and in this case it would be connected with baptism typology (1 Peter 3:20–21).

  4. Mathematical symbolism that supposed to display theological truth. 153 is the sum of the natural numbers from 1 to 17. St. Augustine saw it as symbolising the Ten Commandments plus the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

  5. Gematria - the most technical option. The solution is found in the numerical values assigned to letters in Greek (and sometimes Hebrew). Example. In 20:30–31 the key words are “sign”, “believe”, “Christ”, and “life”, - each occurring for the last time in those verses. If the occurrence of each of the words are counted in the Gospel the result is as follows: “sign” (17x), “believe” (98x), “Christ” (19x), and “life” (36x). The sum of the last three of these numbers is 153; but that number 17, the number of the first word (“sign”), its sum from 1 to 17 is also 153. Thus, the number of the fish would sum up the entire message of the Gospel.

Which one is the correct one? Nobody actually knows.

But, perhaps the statement that “the net did not break” points to Luke 5:6 were the nets were breaking. Whether the net symbolises the Gospel or the Church, the point is that it can accommodate huge number. And the fact that it was Peter who hauled it ashore himself may indicate his leading role in the Church.


After the fish were “dragged” by Peter onto the shore, Jesus invites them to a meal. “Come and eat” are the last words of Jesus spoken to the disciples as a group (cf. 1:39). But the disciples say nothing. The entire focus of the scene is the mysterious and overwhelming nature of Christ’s presence and the disciples together with him.

Apparently the disciples wanted to ask him “who are you?, but did not dare to do it. The verb ”ask" indicates that they wanted to cross-examine Jesus. But, they remain silent (cf. 16:23).

The reason given is they already “knew” he was the Lord. Why then ask? And why did they want to ask? Asking for confirmation, for a sign - like Thomas in 20:25? Thus, their silence should be seen as positive, an indication that they learn a lesson from the experience of Thomas - no sign was needed anymore. Their confession that he was “the Lord”, unlike Thomas in 20:28, is silent - in the form of prayer only the Lord could hear.


The Gospel has made it clear that the true meal Jesus provides is his body and blood (cf. 6:22–71).

This meal should be seen in relation to the feeding of the large crowd and the bread of life dialogue in chapter 6 and therefore as a depiction of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist - bread and fish were the early symbols of the Eucharist.

This meal with the resurrected Lord therefore is the meal set apart by the Lord for his disciples and therefore for the Church. It is important to notice that Jesus is not described as eating at this meal but serving. This is his meal but it is from him for them (the disciples - the Church).

Thus, when the Church gathers together, the Lord is present with them (see 14:18–20), serving them by his very own person and work.


The pericope explains that it was the third appearance of the risen Jesus to his disciples. The “third time” suggests that there is full certainty as to the fact of the resurrection. But, this appearance primarily intends to establish the continuation of Jesus’ presence and how the Lord is revealed and present with his disciples, the Church.

The era of the new creation has been inaugurated, from the moment Jesus was raised form the dead.

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