Here are my notes for John 21:8-17. This account includes the restoration of the Apostle Peter. After denying the Lord three times, the Lord Jesus has restored his friend to ministry in a public and profound way.
21:8-14 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.  When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.  Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”  So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.  Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.  Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.  This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
One can really sense the authority and majesty of Jesus in the fact that no one “dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’”
What’s in a Number?
It is always interesting when Scripture uses such a specific number to describe something. In this case, the disciples caught 153 fish. Why would John remark on that specifically? Well, I think that we can easily say that it was worth noting how many fish simply because it’s a lot of fish! Not that the number itself is significant, but rather that the exact number tells us something of how impressive the catch actually was.
Now, there are other (MANY other) interpretations that range from the bizarre to the more plausible. Hendriksen notes about 7 of them just as a sampling, but even a cursory search of the internet seems to reveal a plethora of others.
Some of the ideas are (quoting Hendriksen):
- The fish were not counted until the shore had been reached, in order to teach us that the exact number of the elect remains unknown until they have reached the shore of heaven.
- The ancients counted one hundred fifty-three varieties of fish!
- There is here a veiled reference to Matt. 13:47, 48, and an indication that all kinds of people are going to be saved.
- The number one hundred fifty-three represents 100 for the Gentiles, 50 for the Jews, and 3 for the Trinity.
My friend Uri, an expert in Israeli history and culture, told me that he likes the idea that the number represents the different varieties of fish because it points to the universality of the gospel and the diversity of the church. He says, “In Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis he lists all the known fish species at the time. Behold 153. The significance is the universality of the church. 153 fish, all the species/nations of the world can fit into the net and the net is not broken.”
The Abundance of the Miracle
In every miracle that our Lord has performed there is one consistent theme – what He does He does in abundance!
He made more wine at Cana than was necessary, He made more fish in Luke 5 than the disciples could take in, He made more bread and fish for the 5000 than the crowd needed, and He healed hundreds – if not thousands of men and women. Note also that when He healed people, he didn’t just give them an aspirin. They would have been happy for their suffering to be relieved I’d wager. But He completely healed them. What God does He does in such a way as to indicated that He is God, AND that He is good!
The Lord who remarked that a good father gives his children a fish and not a snake, gives fish in abundance. In everyway and on every level that you have provided for your children, the Father and His Son have far outstripped you. They have lavished grace and peace and in the life to come riches beyond measure.
And just as Jesus bid the disciples to come and eat breakfast with him, so he calls to us, his children, to dine with him. His call to believers is this:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.  The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:20-21)
Seeing A Larger Picture with Ryle
J.C. Ryle has examined this passage and, surveying all the commentators up till his time, has provided some thoughts on the possible broader allegorical meaning of the matter. He is quick to say, however, that we must have caution in adding more to the thing than that which is already there. But still, there are some observations that may hearten us and enrich the passage as a whole. Here is what he says:
Other expositors, of a more figurative and imaginative turn of mind, go into heights and depths where I cannot pretend to follow them. I shall content myself with pointing out the more obvious spiritual lessons which I think the passage was probably meant to convey.
(a) I think that Christ’s remarkable appearance to the disciples, when they were in the act of fishing, was meant to remind them and the whole Church of the primary duty of ministers. They were doing work which was strikingly emblematic of their calling. They were to be “fishers of men.”
(b) I think the lack of success in catching fish, which the disciples had until the Lord appeared, was meant to teach that without Christ’s presence and blessing ministers can do nothing.
(c) I think the marvelous success that attended the cast of the net, when Christ gave the command, was meant to teach that when Christ is pleased to give success to ministers, nothing can prevent souls being brought into the Gospel net, converted and saved.
(d) I think the drawing of the net to shore at last was meant to remind the disciples and all ministers of what will happen when the Lord comes again. The work of the Church will be completed, and the reckoning of results will take place.
(e) I think the dinner prepared and provided for the disciples, when the net was drawn to the shore, was meant to remind ministers that there will be the great “marriage supper of the Lamb” at last, when Christ Himself shall welcome His faithful servants and ministers, and “come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37).
(f) I think, besides this, that the respective positions of the disciples and Christ, when they first saw Him, may possibly be intended to represent the respective positions of Christ and His people during this dispensation. They were on the water of the sea. He was looking at them from the land. Just so Christ is in heaven looking at us, and we are voyaging over the troublous waters of this world.
(g) Finally, I think that our Lord’s sudden appearing on shore, when the morning broke, may possibly represent our Lord’s second advent. “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” When the morning dawns, Christ will appear.
With these conjectures I leave the passage. They may not commend themselves to some readers. I only say that they appear to me to deserve consideration and reflection.
Certainly they do deserve consideration! I think that perhaps letter (f) is a little far fetched, and letters (d) and (e) are very similar. But he is correct that from what I have read at least, letters (a), (b) and (c) are universal in their appearance in the minds of many commentators, and definitely appeared in my mind as I studied the passage.
These are great ideas to reflect upon in the coming days, and a marvelous reminder of the richness of Scripture. It is passages like this which kept Spurgeon busy for hours at a time! Certainly they should also keep us busy in our meditation.
21:15-17 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
The Restoration of Peter
Setting the Scene
I have been to this very spot where Jesus is said to have called these men to shore for breakfast. I have sung ‘How Great Thou Art’ at full tilt with other men and women in the small chapel that sits firmly ensconced upon that shore. This is a beautiful place!
What makes it beautiful is multi-dimensional. Not only is it a feast for the eyes, and ears with the flowering trees and waves breaking upon the shore, but it is a spiritual feast – even an emotional and mental feast for anyone who has ever been restored by the Lord Jesus. And that group includes me.
In this segment of verses we read how Peter and the Lord, while sitting amongst the other disciples, had what must have been their first bit of extended conversation since the night of Jesus’ death. Jesus had appeared to them prior, but apparently had not spent a lot of time in one-on-one discussion, or extended teaching of them yet (as in Acts 1:3).
Therefore the last time that Peter and conversed with the Lord in any substantive manner was during the Farewell Discourses when, as we recall, Peter had proudly declared that he’d follow Jesus even unto death. Jesus’ reply to Peter’s declaration was to prophecy that in just a few short hours Peter was deny Him not once, but three times.
Peter learned that fateful evening that though the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak. Peter not only denied Jesus, he did so in public. Therefore, as D.A. Carson summarizes, “Whatever potential for future service he (Peter) had therefore depended not only on forgiveness from Jesus, but also on reinstatement amongst the disciples.”
I Agape your Phileo and Raise you an Agape
Now Jesus, the great Shepherd of His flock, begins his interactions with Peter by asking him if he “loves” him “more than these.” In this context Jesus likely means “these” as the disciples. He is daring Peter to once again assert his supremacy. And in doing so, His words cut to Peter’s heart and remind him that though he claims to be the most loyal and dutiful disciples, he has a recent failure of such magnitude that with each passing word from the lips of Jesus, Peter must have been smarting all the more.
Peter responds in the affirmative, and with each affirmative reply, Jesus charges Peter to “Feed the lambs”, “tend my sheep”, and feed my sheep.”
Much has, perhaps rightly, been made of how when Jesus asked Peter whether he “loved” him, he was using the word “agape” whereas Peter was responding with “phileo” for his description of love.
There are four expressions of love in the Greek language, as the wonderful web resource Gotquestions.org has stated:
The Bible speaks of two types of love: phileo and agape. Both are Greek terms and appear at different points throughout Scripture. The Greek language also had terms for two other types of love, eros and storge, which do not expressly appear in the Bible.
Many scholars have argued about the differences between phileo and agape. The usual summary is that Agape is more a love of choice – a sacrificial love. It is a matter of the will. Whereas Phileo is a love of affection and is based somewhat on emotion.
GotQuestions.org sums up this popular teaching in this way:
Since phileo love involves feelings of warmth and affection toward another person, we do not have phileo love toward our enemies. However, God commands us to have agape love toward everyone. This includes those whose personalities clash with ours, those who hurt us and treat us badly, and even those who are hostile toward our faith (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44). In time, as we follow God’s example of agape love for our enemies, we may even begin to experience phileo love for some of them as we start to see them through God’s eyes.
But I don’t know that it’s correct to say that Peter didn’t truly love Christ, but rather Christ was setting the kind of example Peter must follow. He may have been proclaiming to Peter the kind of love – sacrificial love, love of difficult choices, noble love – that He had for His sheep. Now Peter needed to have that same love for the sheep.
That being said, D.A. Carson and F.F. Bruce both lay a very good case out for why its very hard to draw any particular conclusion simply from the use of different nouns – especially in this Gospel when John has been using agape and phileo interchangeably up until now.
I find this extremely important when figuring out questions of interpretation. We need to look at the context of the book and how the author has used words in the past. And while we need to take a sample of the common vernacular as well, I would think that the authorial usage takes slight precedent over cultural commonality if there are multiple examples to draw from, and indeed there are in this book.
Additionally, there is some evidence that agape was also coming into more common use at the time to mean simply “to love” (per Carson).
This is another example of how sometimes popular tradition gets it wrong – or at least assumes perhaps a little more than we ought to assume. Once our inquiries and speculation have been done, if we don’t have a preponderance of evidence before us that leaves us certain of our views, we must humbly step away from proclaiming our views to be “doctrine.”
Soon I will be studying through Revelation with our Sunday School class, and I find a similar example of illogical hermeneutics applied to the millennium in that book. So much is made of whether the millennium is a literal 1,000 years when up until that 20th chapter in Revelation no other number (save perhaps the 7 churches?) was used in a literal fashion. But it is popular tradition now to assume this be the case. Ought we not to ask how John has written of such things in other parts of his book?
I raise this only as a caution that we approach Scripture with humility – especially those with learning and education. For those without education are less apt to project their assumptions onto Scripture and are often open to correction. However it is the learned man or woman who confidently asserts opinion where angels dare not tread. Let us with humility interpret the Word of God.
The Friendship of Jesus
One of the most difficult things to do is confront a brother who has sinned and is in need to rebuke and restoration. We are commanded by Paul to “speak the truth in love.”
What touches my heart so much about this passage in John is the tenderness of Jesus. His tripartite restoration of this impetuous man mirrored the three-fold denial which Peter had so shamefully displayed just days before.
The realization that here in one man is Peter’s God and friend, his Savior, and His Lord, this must have been overwhelming. It is overwhelming to me. It is why one of my favorite verses in Scripture is Exodus 33:11. The passage goes like this:
When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent. (Exodus 33:9-11)
If you have found yourself covered in shame, if you have wronged your Lord, take comfort – we all have wronged our Lord. We have all sinned against God. But the blessing of this passage is the reminder that even the greatest leaders can fall, and even the greatest falls can be restored. We have a Savior, aye, this is true – but more than that, we have a friend.
Joseph Scriven’s great hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.
The Mission Given to Peter
I’ve briefly touched on this earlier, but we must examine briefly again the mission that is given to the Apostle Peter. Jesus has specifically given him a mission. That mission is to feed the sheep, to tend the flock and so forth. He must watch over the new church of Christ, and must also feed them.
Carson quotes Barrett and quips, “The ministry ‘is described in verbs, not nouns: Tend, feed, not Be a pastor, hold the office of pastor. And the sheep are Christ’s sheep, not Peter’s. Not, Tend your flock, but Tend my sheep.’
What does it mean to feed the flock? Well, if the “flock” is the church then we must necessarily believe the “feeding” and “tending” are also metaphorical devices. The church feeds off of the Word of God.
This is made plain even as far back as Moses’ interactions with the Israelites when he told them:
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
Jesus himself quoted this verse to rebuke Satan during His temptation in the wilderness before the beginning of His ministry.
In fact, He later called Himself the bread from heaven, which is simply another way of saying that He is the Word of God incarnate. The bread and the word are one in the same, the Lord Jesus Christ.
And indeed Peter understood this. For later he would go on to say:
Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2-3)
Peter understood that He was being tasked with the spiritual nutrition of the church. Ironically, and scornfully, those who claim direct papal descent from this man are the ones starving the church of its food. The Catholic church (so-called) does not encourage the reading of Scripture, in fact it is the greatest rationer of spiritual nutrition in all the world. Which is why it is with great irony that they are the ones who claim this passage (along with Matthew 16:13-20) as one which sets down the primacy of Peter because not only does it do nothing of the sort, but even if it did, they do not follow the instructions to him who was supposedly made primal.
Carson rightly says, “Thus there is nothing intrinsic to the language of John 21:15-17 that suggests a distinctive authority for Peter. All Christian leadership entails a certain tension between authority and meek, exemplary service, patterned finally on Jesus himself. In the context of the Fourth Gospel, these verses deal with Peter’s reinstatement to service, not his elevation to primacy.”
Yes while most everyone else in the world is either trying purposefully to spread the word of God, or trying hard to stop the spread of this word, the Catholic hierarchy is content to slow drip the Word to a body that is thirsty and dying of starvation.
Now our response must be carefully assessed. For we cannot read this and judge ourselves content to move on before we settle some things in our mind. Let us settle at least these few things:
- The Word of God is that which feeds the church and it must be spread throughout the whole world.
- The Word is what changes lives, and therefore must not be adulterated or watered down by our own ideas.
- We must give great time and energy to studying and spending time in the Word of God.
- We must teach others the Word of God – this is the feeding of the lambs.
- Jesus told Peter to tend the lambs, which is to say that our leaders must be watchful for the safety of the church, keeping an eye out for wolves and for sheep who have gone astray.
It is a great and precious thing to be both restored and given a task. That is what Peter experienced, and that is what Paul says we each experience – we are not only saved, but we are saved for a purpose:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Let us take this restoration as a reminder of the open arms of Christ, and the charge he gives us upon restoration. He has saved us – and not to mope about in introspection for our entire lives, but to love others in service to our Lord. In this we look to Him the author and finisher of our faith, and our true Friend and Brother.