On to Galilee
When the first women came to the empty tomb, they met an angel sitting on the entrance stone. "Go quickly," he said, "and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going before you into Galilee, there you will see Him" (Matthew 28:7). A couple of Jesus’ reasons for eventually sending the apostles to Galilee come to mind. An obvious reason would be that these disciples were in danger of arrest in Judea, and that Galilee would be a much safer haven. An additional possibility is that the apostles were all from Galilee, and this would give them a little time with their families and friends before they began carrying out the great commission, beginning from Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. And a third consideration would be that the travel time to and from Galilee would help the apostles keep a better focus by being occupied during the forty days of waiting from the time of the resurrection until the coming of the Holy Spirit. It was, it is to be remembered, on a mountain in Galilee that Matthew’s rendition of the Commission was given. The apostle John references an event in Galilee, at the Sea (which he styled "Tiberias," since it had already renamed with its Roman designation), opening with these words: "After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples as the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way" (John 21:1).
- Seven gone fishin’ - Old haunts tend to bring back old habits. At least four of the apostles were fishermen from the Sea of Galilee, and the allure of the net was powerful. "There were together," remarked John, "Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymas, and Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee [James and John], and two others of His disciples" (John 21:2). The other four? Maybe they were visiting family members. "Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will come with you.’ " (John 21:3). It was not surprising, then, as they were waiting for further instruction, that they should want to be somewhat productive and go back to fishing.
- Netting in the night - Apparently they did their fishing at night, possibly because they could hang a lamp on the boat and the fish, if any, would be attracted to the light and could be caught easier in the net. "They went out," asserted the apostle, "and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing" (John 2:3). This was reminiscent of another time. After the future apostles had first met the Lord near where the John the Immerser was plunging people in the Jordan, they returned to their homes in Galilee. When Jesus came to recruit them for full time discipleship, He came to the Sea of Galilee, requested the use of the boat to teach the multitudes on the beach, and then told Peter to "put out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch." Peter’s response illustrates the parallel: "Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but at Your bidding I will let down the nets" (Luke 5:4,5). They did their netting in the night.
- Figure on the beach - In His resurrection body, Jesus could and would show up anywhere. This time, He was going to be a sufficient distance from the disciples so that His features would not be recognizable. "But when day was now breaking," John recalled, "Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus" (John 21:4).
Up to this point, Jesus had to appear very recognizable to the apostles to convince them that He was indeed risen from the dead. He had set the stage, however, for the next upgrade in their comprehension of His being the revelation of God, paralleling His earlier call to the fishermen disciples on Galilee’s shore to accomplish His purpose.
"Jesus Christ," said the writer of Hebrews, "is the same yesterday and today, yes, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). One of the major reasons Jesus came to earth was to reveal the character of God, to expose to the view of man the nature of the invisible God. The goal of God, then, was to have men come to an understanding of His unchanging character, to come to an understanding of His love, mercy, and wrath. Of the therefore unchangeable Son it was written that although the Creation would be discarded like an old worn-out garment, "You are the same, and Your years will not come to an end" (Hebrews 1:12). Thus if the Lord could get the apostles now to recognize His unchanging character without being able to visually distinguish Him, they would be prepared for His leaving earth, while His character would still be recognized through the events which His hand would orchestrate.
- Original call - When Jesus first called Peter, James, John, and Andrew, they were fishing — unsuccessfully — all night. At Jesus’ instruction, they put down the net and brought up a huge catch of fish, to the amazement of all. "But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’ " (Luke 5:8). But Jesus appealed to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19). And they followed.
- Similar situation - Following His resurrection, in a similar situation, Jesus stood on the beach, about 100 yards away, unrecognizable at that distance and in the dawning light. "Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you do not have any fish, do you?’ They answered Him, ‘No.’ " (John 21:5). Memories had to begin to flicker in the disciples’ minds. "And He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find a catch.’ They cast therefore, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish" (John 21:6).
- Dawning recognition - The character of Jesus is unchanging; how He had conducted Himself before was how He would conduct Himself again. The apostle John recognized the characteristics of the actions of the One on the beach. He recorded, "That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’ " What a shock that was!
- Peter’s response - Peter must have remembered his falling down in front of Jesus at the initial call; how could he not! "And so when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea" (John 21:7). The indication is that Peter was somehow ashamed of himself, and maybe had flashbacks of that previous time where he had to confess to the Lord that he was a sinful man.
- Finishing the job - The Lord found them some fish. It would not be smart to waste the Lord’s effort, so they went on to finish up the job. "But the other disciples came in the little boat," commented the apostle, "for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish" (John 21:8).
It was the character of the Lord that confronted the disciples on their fishing excursion. It was this confrontation that caused John to recognize Him, and what caused Peter to clothe himself and jump overboard. Jesus intelligently accomplished His purpose in a comparatively natural way, and the apostles were in the process of being prepared for the exhibition of His character following His ascension to glory. Therein would the ascended Christ be "the exact representation" of the Father’s nature, and the complete communication of His character.
The Lord’s Provision
God created the original plants and animals out of nothing. The Lord fed millions of people for forty years in the wilderness with quail from the air and manna from the dew of the ground. Jesus fed, successively, five thousand men and four thousand men from a few loaves of bread and a small number of fish. The point should be clear: the Lord can provide! While He was approaching the Garden of Gethsemane, He tried to impress this point upon the minds of the apostles, even as the soldiers under the guidance of Judas were preparing to arrest Him. "When I sent you out without purse and bag and sandals," He queried, "you did not lack anything, did you" (Luke 22:35). How did He know where the fish were when He first called Peter and John? How did He know there would be exactly the right coin in the first fish that Peter would catch at a later point, enough to pay both Peter and Jesus’ temple tax? And how, in His resurrected body, did He know that if they threw the net over the right side of the boat, that they would find a catch? Yes, the Lord can provide.
- Arrival - The six separate apostles dragged the net to the edge of the shore, Peter having already jumped overboard. The fish, therefore, were still in the net, and not quite hauled up on the beach. The disciples in the boat disembarked, and noted something very interesting. "And so when they got out upon the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid, and fish placed on it, and bread" (John 21:9). Where did the fish come from? Where did the bread come from? Where did the charcoal fire come from? Where did He come from? He can provide!
- Participation - The character of the Lord continued to show through. He is willing and capable of providing, but He expects willing and intelligent participation in the process. "Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.’ " (John 21:10). Interesting… He could have provided all the fish necessary and had them all cooking on the fire. But, no! The Lord provided that some of the fish would be still in the Sea, and that their labor would be a necessary part of the morning meal. "Simon Peter went up [being the one still wet from having thrown himself into the sea], and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn" (John 21:11).
- Breakfast together - Jesus and the apostles undoubtedly had eaten many breakfasts together before, but not like this one. Here He was standing there in a resurrected body, exhibiting the same character He had always demonstrated, and now ready to eat with them. "Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ None of the disciples ventured to question Him, ‘Who are You?’ knowing that it was the Lord" (John 21:12). It must have been a quiet and thoughtful time for each of these seven, caught fishing again in the waters of the Galilee. "Jesus came and took the bread, and gave them, and the fish likewise" (John 21:13). The resurrected Jesus was no apparition; He ate the bread and the fish with them!
The apostle, in recording this event along the Sea of Galilee, undercut the developing Gnostics, many of whom were maintaining that Jesus never had a body, much less a resurrected body. The Lord not only can make provision for physical welfare, but also anticipated the need for documentation concerning His bodily resurrection from the dead; He makes doctrinal provision also! "This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples [that is, the majority of the eleven, having appeared twice earlier in the shut-up room], after He was raised from the dead" (John 21:14). Case closed.
Tending the Sheep
"I am going fishing," Peter had said. There is nothing wrong with going fishing, per se, but, in Peter’s case, there was a hidden danger. Peter — indeed all the apostles — had been called to become fishers of men. But fishing for men is much more difficult that netting fish, and Peter was dangerously heading back to his former lifestyle, choosing the easy way rather than the right way. Each of the seven, conscious of this application to their own lives, ate a silent breakfast, quietly challenged by the presence of the Lord as they stood around the early morning fire.
The Lord, however, is not idle, nor does He sleep. Knowing the great possibility of His plan of reaching the world through these key seven being scuttled, He acted positively, working specifically on the apostle Peter.
- First query - Knowing when to broach a subject is as important as knowing how. The Lord also showed us the good example in this situation, waiting until the men were done eating. "So when they had finished breakfast," reported John the eyewitness, "Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?’ " (John 21:15). It is important to remember that this conversation took place in the Aramaic dialect spoken by Jews such as Jesus and Peter at the time. When John used the verb form of the Greek agape to translate the word brought into English as "love," he was actually emphasizing, by translating the Aramaic conversation, a specialized meaning of the word as had come to be defined by its usage in the early church — a word meaning a conscience decision to love others just as Christ loved others. Peter is going to respond, and John will translate Peter’s response as phileo, a word meaning a little bit more "affection because of association." Peter is not to be upbraided for a poor response to Jesus; it was not a poor response, and the context will bear that out. The thrust of the question was whether Peter wanted to return to his former lifestyle of fishing, or whether he wanted to continue to follow Jesus. "He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love You.’ " Having gotten a positive response out of Peter, then the Lord challenged him with the work: "Tend My lambs."
- Second query - Peter denied the Lord three times, and, correspondingly, he gets positive direction from the Lord three times. Here is the second: "He said to him again a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me?’ " Again, a positive response, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." Once again, the challenge for the work ahead, "Shepherd My sheep" (John 21:16).
- Third query - Now for the third question. "He said to him a third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me?’ " That the distinction in John’s translation of love is not so great as some might make it is evident in that this is regarded as the third time Jesus asked Peter the same question, although John here translated the word as a derivative of phileo. "Peter was grieved," was the inspired commentary, "because He said to him the third time, ‘Do you love Me?’ And he said to Him, ‘Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend My sheep.’ " (John 21:17).
Christians, and children of Christians (who are some of the most important to make disciples of), are regarded as sheep and lambs. Later in life, Peter would call himself one who shepherded the sheep, and would term Jesus as "the Chief Shepherd" (I Peter 5:1-4). Tending and shepherding the sheep of God is obviously a critical factor in the forward movement of the church of God; the sheep need much guarding and guiding to be protected from the dogs, the wolves, and the roaring lion.
How Peter Would Die
Jesus knew ahead of time how He personally would die. It had been prophesied in the Old Testament that He would suffer, and die by crucifixion. And, as a prophet Himself, He received revelation concerning His expiration, repeatedly informing the apostles that He would go to Jerusalem, suffer many things from the hands of men, and then be killed. "Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day," said He, a bit enigmatically at one point during His earthly sojourn, "for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem" (Luke 13:33). But His prophetic ministry did not cease with His death on the cross. Following His bodily resurrection, He continued, Luke informed us, "speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). Jesus, following His resurrection from the dead, could and did prophesy while still on earth.
- Message to Peter - Jesus had emphasized to Peter his responsibility in the upcoming church. "Tend My lambs," He said. "Shepherd My sheep," followed. "Tend My sheep," was the final of the three comments. What would it cost Peter to care for the sheep, saving them from the ranks of the lost to start with, and continuing to guide them in the early days of the church? "Truly, truly, I say to you," were the words of emphasis, "when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go" (John 21:18). Jesus knew up front that He was going to die; it seems that part of the apostles’ training was to know ahead of time that hardships were coming upon them, in a mini-imitation of what Jesus had to go through. One of the things the Lord told Ananias about the apostle Paul, for example, was similar in nature: "I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake" (Acts 9:16). So Peter was told the time would come when someone would bring him where he did not wish to go.
- The explanation - Jesus’ statement to Peter was a somewhat puzzling. So the apostle John added an explanation for his readers: "Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God" (John 21:19). Secular history records some of the last days of Simon Peter: "Maliciously condemned, Peter was cast into the horrible, fetid prison of the Mamertine. There, for nine months, in absolute darkness, he endured monstrous torture manacled to a post … Light never entered and it was never cleaned" (The Search for the Twelve Apostles, McBirnie, p. 65). "Peter, the Rock, as he predicted, met his death at Rome by the hands of the murderous Romans, who crucified him, according to their fiendish manner. He refused to die in the same position as our Lord, declaring he was unworthy. Peter demanded to be crucified in the reverse position, with his head hanging downward. Ironically enough, this wish was gratified by the taunting Romans in Nero’s circus A.D. 67" (ibid., pp. 66,67).
It is somewhat difficult to wade through the legendary and relic-driven traditions concerning the apostle Peter. But the story of the upside-down crucifixion of certainly fits with the words of Jesus concerning Peter’s death, his being girded and carried where he did not wish to go, with outstretched hands. When John wrote his gospel account, as near as can be determined, Peter was dead some twenty years. Thus the early Christians knew the story of his death, and would have their faith strengthened in knowing that Jesus had anticipated that type of death for Peter. Many others passed on to their reward, apparently, in the same prison as Peter. "It is said that the number of Christians that perished within this diabolic cell is beyond computation—such is the glory of Rome." Only a faith that is worth dying for is a faith worth living for!
Peter and John were tightly bound to one another as apostles. Before being called by Jesus, they were business partners, and they were first disciples of John the Immerser together. Later, if Jesus separated three disciples from the others for special instruction or participation, those set aside were Peter, James, and John. It was John who made it possible for Peter to get into the courtyard of the high priest during Jesus’ Jewish trial, and it was Peter and John together who healed the crippled man at the Beautiful Gate of the temple in Acts three. It is not surprising, then, that John’s accounting of the life of Jesus on earth would close with the Lord’s interaction with these two men.
- "Follow Me" - Jesus had just indicated to Peter that, when he was older, he would stretch out his hands and die a death, being carried where he did not wish to go. "And when He had spoken this," John remembered, "He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ " (John 21:19). Jesus was not asking Peter to go where Jesus had not already gone ahead of him. Earlier, on the night in which He was betrayed, the Lord had explained to him, "Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later" (John 13:36). The significance of Jesus words thus stands out, "Follow Me!"
- What about the other guy - It is a general human tendency for people, when faced with what seems to be an unpleasant challenge, to ask if others are going to get similar treatment. Simon Peter, contemplating being carried where he did not wish to go, tried to direct the conversation over to that which concerned the welfare of the apostle John. "Peter, turning around," John recalled, "saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who leaned back on His breast at the supper, and said, ‘Lord, who is the one who betrays You?’ " (John 21:20). The apostle John was careful not to name himself by name, but by specifying that he was the disciple who was still alive and who was the one who was reclining at table next to Jesus, it would have been clear to all the early Christians that the reference could only be to John. "Peter therefore seeing him said to Jesus, ‘Lord, and what about this man?’ " (John 21:21). Sure enough; Peter’s human side came through, and he wanted to know what was going to happen to "the other guy"!
- Personal responsibility - While each adult can influence others, there is only one person that he can really do anything about: himself! The Lord always places that responsibility on the individual. There is no one that anyone can blame for the sin he has committed; it is not society’s fault, or that he grew up "on the wrong side of the tracks." Likewise, there is only one person who can respond to the gospel — the individual who sinned. Correspondingly, the Lord was not about to let Peter shift the conversation away from himself and begin discussing John’s future. "Jesus said to him [Peter], ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!’ " (John 21:22).
"If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me," Jesus had said. To follow Jesus means to leave the world behind, and to follow the upward call of God. If a person chooses earth, it will cost him heaven; if he chooses heaven, it will cost him earth, just as Jesus gave up His earthly life for heavenly reward. "And where I am, there shall My servant also be; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him" (John 12:26). There is great reward in following Jesus, through suffering persecution, and earthly martyrdom, if necessary. The words of the Lord to Peter ring true for all disciples: If He wants someone else to remain until He comes again, what difference does that make for the disciple? "You follow Me!"
The Longevity of John
There is a Great Hand which moves in the affairs of men. This Hand determines where each person is born, and at what time. This Hand is involved in the decisions of each life, and ultimately determines when each person dies. Thus it was that James was the first of the apostles to pass, being "put to death with a sword" at the hand of Herod Agrippa I in 44 AD (Acts 12:2). Peter, however, was preserved at that time, his death being set for some twenty years later in an upside-down crucifixion. The Great Hand was determining how and when each of these would die.
None of the above negates the free wills of any of the individuals involved. Herod Agrippa I was choosing to put James to death, tried to put Peter to death, and then tried to push himself off as a god on the crowds, having the "rent-a-mob" of the day cry out, "The voice of a god and not of a man!" (Acts 12:22). He was eaten by worms as a result of his free will choices.
Secular history is pretty sketchy in regard to the lives and deaths of the apostles, the scriptures themselves being silent for the most part. As near as we can tell, most of them were dead by the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, some scattered as far as India. But the apostle John was the exception, living another 30 years or so, long enough to write his gospel account, his letters, and the Revelation.
The language of John’s record of Jesus’ life on earth shows that his account was written after the other three accounts, the "synoptic gospels." The apostle explained the meaning of the words "Rabbi" and "Messiah." He mentioned that the Sea of Tiberias was formerly called Galilee, and he used Roman time for the hours of the day rather than the Jewish accounting. These and other signals indicate that John was writing in the 90 AD time frame, and thus he was an old man, having lived long after the other apostles had passed to their reward. Rumors, scripture indicated, spread that John would not die.
The Lord had told Peter that the time would come when they would carry him where he did not wish to go. Peter then directed his attention toward the apostle John, saying, "Lord, and what about this man?" Jesus’ response was that if He wanted John to remain until His second coming, that was none of Peter’s business; Peter was to follow the Lord. "This saying," John noted, "therefore went out among the brethren that that disciple [John] would not die; yet Jesus did not say that he would not die, but only, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?’ " (John 21:23). John knew that he would die, and used this section of the his accounting of Jesus to discount the spreading rumor, clarifying the statement of Jesus that apparently others of his day were aware of.
Why was it so necessary for John to live long after the other apostles had gone on? The gifts of the Holy Spirit, extant during the early years of the church, passed on only by the laying on of hands of the apostles, would die out with the death of the apostles. In conjunction with the passing of the gifts, the New Testament writings would be completed. The existence of one apostle, then, would be necessary to tie up those loose ends, complete the 27 books of the New Testament, and close out the written revelation from God. His eyewitness account of physically handling Jesus during His earthly sojourn and following His resurrection from the dead, as well as his accounting of the blood shed on the cross, were critical elements in countering the developing Gnostic heresies. Thus, by the Hand of God, John lived until his mission was completed somewhere around 96 AD.
That Which Is Written
Societies without written documentation for their histories end up being awash in the swaying surf of legend and tradition. Unable to document their activities, and unable to communicate their expertise in written form, they remain primitive and subject to their superstitions. The great God, then, wishing to preserve His people Israel, and to establish an accurate record of their history in anticipation of the coming Messiah, selected Moses, "educated in all the learning of the Egyptians," as well as a prophet, to record the beginnings of mankind and the development of Israel as a nation. From that point on the writings continued to accumulate, establishing a basis and a people from which God’s plan to save the Gentiles of the earth could be executed. As the centerpiece of this great movement, Jesus would be the One about whom the records would focus, and His life too would be recorded so that all might study, examine, and heed the message connected with His teaching.
- The witness of John - The Gnostics of John’s day were saying that Jesus never had a body, that He was an apparition, that His body was not like ours. But none of the Gnostics were eyewitnesses. The witness of John, backed by the miracles he could perform as an apostle, established the truthfulness of his account, and trashed the high sounding words of those in opposition. "This is the disciple who bears witness of these things," was his closing, " and wrote these things; and we know his witness is true" (John 21:24). John watched the blood pour from Jesus’s side during His crucifixion, emphasizing his eyewitness account. John watched Thomas place his finger in the nail holes of Jesus’ resurrected body, and watched him put his hand into the Lord’s side. John wrote and bore witness, that all succeeding generations might read, examine, and then believe.
- Superabundance of events - John and the other writers were not scrambling for crumbs of information, or scraping the bottom of the barrel for something to write. The life of Jesus was so power-packed and event-filled that the challenge was to narrow the scope of what was written. "And there are also many other things which Jesus did," was John’s accounting, "which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books which were written" (John 21:25). The apostle engaged in a little hyperbole to emphasize his point; there was too much to write. That John selected material that was so different from the other gospel accounts is an indication of the amount of events and teaching in the earthly life of the Lord. That he used chapters thirteen through twenty-one to record the last twenty-four hours of His life and some of the appearances of the Christ following His bodily resurrection also demonstrated just how much the apostle had to sort through for him and the Holy Spirit to make their final determination on what would be recorded.
John’s presentation of the life of Jesus is conclusive for anyone with an honest heart. Jesus came from glory to be the Lamb of God, to take away the sins of the world. He was bodily resurrected, and in the process of His appearances to the selected witnesses, He was clearly established to be God. He turned water to wine, healed on the Sabbath, taught in the Temple, and raised the dead. The Christ orchestrated events so that His entrance into Jerusalem received maximum exposure, and His crucifixion and subsequent resurrection took place on schedule. He focused especially on the coming Holy Spirit, pointing out that from the innermost being of every true believer — Jew or Gentile — those rivers of living water would flow. The Gnostic heresies of John’s day were obliterated in the accounting of the life of Christ in the flesh, and the truths of Jesus were clearly delineated. "These have been written," is the reminder, "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name."