The Art of John 21
I love John 21, the last chapter in John’s gospel. And I love it because it’s weird and there’s a lot of things to figure out. So let’s review what John 21 is about. After Jesus’ resurrection seven of his disciples go fishing during the night. They’re unfruitful in the work, not catching any fish, but in the morning, a man calls out to them from the land and gives them instructions how to fish better and then their catch is enormous.
Realizing that the man who gave them the instructions is Jesus, Peter puts on his clothes and jumps into the water to swim to him. The disciples then have a meal with Jesus. After the meal Jesus gives Peter work to do, feeding and ruling over animals, sheep. The final episode in the scene is on a path, following Jesus. So that’s John 21.
And there are many things that are puzzling about this story. First, the existence of the story itself is puzzling. This is because it seemed like the book of John should have ended at the end of the previous scene. I mean, listen to the last verses of John 20:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
That sounds like a grand conclusion. But John adds a whole nother scene, why?
Another thing that’s puzzling is why this long section about fishing? Or why does Peter put on his clothes to jump in the water, why seven disciples, why don’t they recognize Jesus, why is there 153 fish, and so on. Much like chapter 32 in Moby Dick, where Ishmael catalogs whale species to the boredom of readers throughout history, it’s there for a reason, the author means for it to feel out of place because that encourages the readers to engage with the story more deeply.
Now most of the time when you don’t understand something in the Bible, it is because you haven’t understood something that has come before. And to understand what John is doing with this last scene, we have to review some of the story of John’s gospel.
John opens his Gospel with the strongest allusion to the first chapter of the Bible, “In the beginning…” And this is because in John’s Gospel, Jesus is bringing in a new creation. There are allusions to Genesis 1-3 all throughout John. For instance, John opens his gospel with seven days.
And much like John’s other book, Revelation, where you have seven seals that give way to seven bowls, seven following or opening up to seven more, these first seven days climax with the first of seven signs or miracles in John’s gospel.
And these seven signs allude to the seven days of the creation week, by these acts Jesus is making a new creation.
But if you remember back to the beginning of the Bible, Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden and an angel with a firey sword was set outside to protect the garden from intruders. So in order to get back into the garden to be with God and to start over, someone needs to go through that firey sword.
And that’s what Jesus does. He dies, and actually John gives more attention to Jesus’ clothes then to the actual crucifixion partly because Jesus is disrobing, becoming naked like Adam, a new Adam.
Well, Jesus dies and wakes up, and John tells us he wakes up in a garden. Indeed, Mary even thinks Jesus is the gardener and that’s because he is, a new Adam, tending his new garden.
Jesus will then breathe on the disciples, imparting the Holy Spirit, just like God did to Adam in Genesis 2. That is, Jesus has recreated the world, re-entered the garden, and is now re-creating humanity.
Now here is where our chapter, the last chapter in John, chapter 21 comes in. If you remember, in Genesis 2, God creates Adam outside the garden, breathing life into him, and then puts him in the garden, the new place. In John, Jesus has breathed on the disciples, and in chapter 21, he will bring them into the new creation.
But this is not just about the disciples. John tells us that there are seven disciples, in John 21:2 John says, “Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples”, and he does this is because they are representative of humanity, seven disciples to represent the full new humanity
So John 21 begins like the old world began in Genesis 1, it is dark and watery and their work is fruitless. Remember Genesis 1:2 before the six days of creating the world, darkness was over the water. It is disordered, just like the disordered, fruitless work of the disciples fishing.
The next thing that happens in the creation week is God creating light. In John 21, we are told that day breaks, light.
And when the light is turned on, Jesus’ words will bring order, life, and fruitful work to the disciples, they can now fish properly.
In one of the most beautiful and playful images of baptism, Peter flings himself into the water and swims to land where Jesus is, the new world. Peter undergoes that pre-creational, disordered, plunge into the water and arrives in a new land.
Now you may be thinking, that seems a bit of a stretch. But one of the themes of John’s gospel is the depth, enchantment of mundane things. You see Jesus is constantly trying to teach people but they only see literal things and not the deeper things that they signify.
For instance, Jesus says destroy this temple but the people didn’t know he was talking about his body, they thought he was talking about the physical temple. Jesus tells Nicodemus to be born again and he thinks he’s talking about physical birth. With the woman at the well Jesus will tell the disciples that he has food that they don’t know about and they think he’s talking about physical food.
This is because the Gospel of John is about Jesus revealing God, hidden within Jesus’ flesh. So just as we must learn to see how Jesus is more than a physical man, John and Jesus literarily teach us that by showing that the physical things that happen unveil depths, and are almost always saying more than the obvious physical realities.
The temple is not just the temple, birth is not just birth, food is not just food, AND, if we have learned what John has been trying to teach us by the last scene in the Gospel, fishing is no just fishing, night is not just night, and water is not just water.
So this new humanity represented by the seven disciples is ushered into the new creation, the new day that Jesus has brought. And if it is a new creation like the old, they will need work to do. It is not surprising that the main topic of discussion between them and Jesus is their work.
More specifically, how to handle fish and sheep, water and land animals. Remember, Adam’s job was to ruler over animals and that is what Jesus is instructing the disciples to do. But here, it is escalated, or clarified, because the fish and the sheep represent people.
So in this culminating scene Jesus brings the 7-fold new humanity into the new world, feasts with them, and gives them work to do.