John 21 part 2: Evangelism and the Messianic Banquet

Fri, 30/04/2021 - 11:04 -- James Oakley
Tabgha, Sea of Galilee

On Tuesday, I posted some thoughts on why John records the miraculous catch of fish in John 21.

Since writing that, I've continued to think, to read and to discuss with others. In the course of that, two other themes have come up with some frequency, so this follow-up post is to consider what part those themes play in John 21:1-14. Those themes are evangelism and the messianic banquet. Earlier in the week, I did know that commentators and preachers link both these themes with this passage. In both cases, there are genuine reasons not to make a superficial link, so I discounted these two themes. However, as I've studied further, I've concluded I was too quick to discount them altogether.


In the synoptic gospels, Jesus calls the first disciples to leave their fishing business and follow him. We are told clearly that Simon and Andrew, and James and John, were all fishermen. In Luke 5, the incident includes a miraculous catch of fish. The John 21 account differs from Luke 5: Jesus is in the boat with them, and the nets nearly tear. I've not checked, but no doubt some wit has proposed (a bit like cleansing the temple) that Jesus only caught fish miraculously on one occasion, and that either John or Luke has reported it in the wrong place. Let's just assume, instead, that Jesus is more than capable of repeating a miracle with variations (just as he fed 5000 people, then later fed 4000). The call to the disciples is to follow Jesus: From now on, they will fish for people. The call is one to evangelise.

The question is: Is this same theme in play in John 21?

We need to distinguish two questions. 1. Would this theme have been in play in the minds of the disciples as the events of John 21 unfolded? Answer: You bet! They'd have a serious sense of déjà vu when they hauled in those fish, which would have reminded them of Jesus' call to fish for people.

However that is a separate question to: 2. Is this theme in play in John's mind as he records this event? I've commented before on this blog how we have to let each gospel writer tell us each story for their own purposes. Each writer has their own editorial intention, and includes the stories they do, in the order they do, to make the point they do. Harmonies of the 4 gospels serve a useful purpose, but they can also obscure each gospel writer's message. The same story could be included in different gospels to make a different point. When we teach the parable of the sower from Mark 4, it will necessarily be a completely different sermon from one on Matthew 13.

So, just because the event of the miraculous catch of fish in John 21 has echoes of the event in Luke 5, it does not necessarily follow that John wishes his readers to be making that connection. We have to work that out from the text before us, not from the a priori link that our brains make.

Not so fast

I'm not convinced that, because Jesus calls his disciples to fish for people, John intends us to hear this story as echoing that call.

This is John, not Luke. If John had wanted to make that link, he could have included the story as told in Luke 5. There are different theories of the dating of John's gospel. Personally, I think all 4 gospels were written before A.D. 70; other theories date John later. So, either way, most agree John was the last gospel to be written. Assuming he knew of the existence of the other gospels, it's striking that in the story of the calling of the first disciples he never tells us that they were fishermen and does not mention the catch of fish.

If you're looking within the pages of John's gospel, you will not find any prior connection between fishing and evangelism.

And yet …

The link is already there in the Old Testament. John has made extensive use of Old Testament background (sheep, shepherds, vines, wine, bread from heaven, crossing a body of water, born of water and spirit, reunification of Israel and Samaria, and so on).

Ezekiel's vision of a new temple and a new land (Ezekiel 40-48) includes a river flowing from the temple eastwards. It makes the Dead Sea fertile:

“Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds – like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea.” (Ezekiel 47:9-10)

What's that got to do with evangelism? Well, there is consistent symbolism in the Old Testament where the land (and clean land animals) represent the Jewish nation, and the sea (and sea creatures) represent the Gentile world. The sea can be a chaotic and unruly place (for example, Psalm 65:7; Isaiah 5:30), but God tames the ocean. The picture in Ezekiel 47 is of blessing flowing from the new temple to make the sea, the Gentile world, a place where life is found. The Dead Sea was both too salty to sustain life and the eastern boundary of the nation of Israel at that point. The picture of fishermen catching along the shores of the Dead Sea is a vivid way of portraying God's life spreading to the Gentile world too.

So we don't need John to be drawing on Luke 5 in order to make this point. All he has to do is draw on the Old Testament background, indeed the same background that is behind Jesus' call in Luke 5 for the disciples to fish for people.

If we were to ask why John does not mention the disciples leaving their nets, or of a net-breaking catch of fish at that point, we would need to ask that when we're studying John 1. Analysing John 1 is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that John has his own editorial intentions in John 1 as well, and observing that he omits certain details from the call of the first disciples may help us discern that purpose. However, given he doesn't need to include the disciples' former work as fishermen to set up John 21 (the Old Testament sets it up for him), we need not conclude Gentile mission is not in play in John 21 just because John doesn't set it up in chapter 1.

153 Fish

Much ink has been spilled on the fact that the number of fish caught was 153. Explanations range from the pedestrian observation that no fisherman would be able to resist counting such a huge haul (surely true), to more elaborate symbolic readings (one or more of which may also be true).

Ian Paul has helpfully surveyed the main material on this. In his post, he linked to an article by Jim Jordan that I had read before and forgotten about. Jim's work reminded me of the themes of land and sea / cattle and fish, which helped me think in the direction I have above.

In terms of the significance of the number, the most fruitful options all seem to start with the observation that 153 is the triangular number of 17 (1 + 2 + 3 + … + 17). Most people reading this blog post would not have seen 153 and immediately thought, "Aha! A triangular number!", but in that culture numbers were less abstract and more about counting physical objects so patterns like that may well have been more familiar. An account saying they'd caught 17 fish would not have made the number stand out. Triangular numbers occur less freuqently, so 153 was a way of drawing attention to the number 17.

However, there are then any number of things you can do with 17, or 10 and 7. My suspicion is that most symbolic readings of the number 153 end up being chosen because they reinforce what the interpreter already thinks the passage is about (or what they'd like it to be about). There are enough diverse options that we'd be wise to start with the other details of the passage, rather than letting our chosen view of 153 shape how we read the plainer details.

However, for me, the 153 was the grit that makes the oyster. It was one tiny detail in the passage that I couldn't explain. I've written before about the need to work out whether stubborn details are boulders or pebbles. Scratching away at that did not lead to a moment of epiphany where the number 153 suddenly unlocked the whole passage. But it did lead me to things others had written on this passage that did then prove helpful.

Messianic Banquet

There are many strands to the Messianic hope in the Old Testament. One picture is of the inauguration of a banquet of the richest of meat and the finest of wine (Isaiah 25:6). Many of Jesus' parables (in the synoptic gospels) pick up on this theme. "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepaerd a wedding banquet for his son" (Matthew 22:2).

Some of this theme is already present in John's gospel. Amos ends with a description of the coming days when "new wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills" (Amos 9:13), and Jesus' first sign (John 2:1-12) is the miraculous production of the finest wine to show that he has come to bring in those promised days. So it is fitting that John's gospel ends with another food production miracle. As Jesus dies, rises and ascends, we are left looking forward to the feast that will come at the end of the age. It is fitting for John's gospel to close with Jesus enjoying food with his disciples.

Not so fast

In Tuesday's post, I made the case that John 21 is principally about commissioning the 11 disciples. He specifically commissions Peter (explicitly) and John (implicitly) in John 21:15-25.

Against that backdrop, the miracle in John 21:1-14 makes the point that the disciples must be fed by and with Jesus before they can feed others. It is important to observe that John 21:1-14 comes before John 21:15-25.

Given this, the miraculous catch of fish is more a backwards look to John 6, and our need to feed on Jesus. It's a backwards look to John 15:5 with its reminder that without Jesus they can do nothing. It's that, rather than a forwards-looking pointer to the Messianic banquet.

And yet …

Once we concede that the first theme, evangelism, is in play in these verses, the picture changes.

The commission of the disciples is no longer confined to John 21:15-25. The miraculous catch of fish is also part of their call to take the gospel to the nations. They are commissioned in sign (John 21:1-12) and in word (John 21:15-25). In between those two commissionings, Jesus feeds them breakfast.

So Jesus' provision of a meal does come before their commission in John 21:15-25, but it also comes after his commission in John 21:1-12.

Which means there's a case to be made for saying this breakfast looks both backwards and forwards, meaning we can retain the structural observations above (the first and last signs in John's gospel are both feeding miracles).

Jesus wishes to commission the disciples. Before he can do so, they need Jesus to feed them. They need to feed on Jesus before they can take him to the world. That figurative feeding on Jesus, by faith, itself anticipates the future day when all of God's people with feast with him on a renewed earth, the day when tired fisherman will be sustained and renewed with food that God himself will provide.

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