As we have just finished our two-part sermon series on John 21, “Life’s a Beach,” I wanted to tie up a couple of loose ends in John 21. The scholarly consensus is that this chapter was added later as an epilogue to John 1-20, which is possibly why John 20:30-31 seems to serve as a tidy ending to the original book.
But maybe that’s wrong. Gail O’Day, among others, believes that the “signs” referred to in John 20:30-31 are not all the miracles recorded in John’s gospel but events pertaining to Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances (i.e., vv. 30-31 are a conclusion to chapter 20 only, not to the entire gospel).1
If this is true, then vv. 30-31 shouldn’t be read as John’s “original ending.” The original ending is the actual ending, John 21:25, which also sounds like a fitting conclusion: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
Evidence for this minority view is the fact that no early manuscript of John’s gospel that we possess omits chapter 21. How much later, therefore, could chapter 21 have been added?
O’Day believes that John 21, far from being a tacked-on ending, is an integral part of the gospel.2 The author, using highly symbolic language, communicates something important about the nature and mission of the Church. That seems reasonable to me.
It’s hard not to believe that there’s more going on here than fishing and barbecues. One clue, as I indicated in my first sermon, is John 21:6b, “So they cast [the net], and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.” Jesus uses the word haul, in Greek, in two other places in John’s gospel, both times translated as “draw.” (Except for Peter’s “drawing” his sword in John 18:10, these are the only other places the word occurs):
“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” (John 6:44)
Remember Jesus’ original invitation to his first disciples, who were fishermen? “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” I believe that this miraculous catch of fish in John 21 is a symbolic enactment of Jesus’ commission to these disciples—and to the Church in general. It’s about evangelism. We are to be about God’s mission of drawing people into a saving relationship with God through Christ. We will only be successful in this mission if we follow Jesus’ direction through the Spirit.
It’s possible that John 21—at least the curious verses about the “beloved disciple” in vv. 20-25—was also written in part to clear up a mistaken rumor about the beloved disciple (who may or may not have been John). The rumor was that just as Jesus foretold Peter’s future martyrdom (see vv. 18-19), Jesus also indicated that the beloved disciple would not die (see vv. 22-23). If the beloved disciple had recently died at the time the gospel was composed, this could have created a problem: Was Jesus wrong about this disciple’s not dying?
Even more importantly, vv. 20-25 suggest that being a martyr for Jesus isn’t necessarily the only or most important way to live out one’s calling as a disciple. Was the beloved disciple less faithful to Jesus—or was his contribution less important—because, unlike Peter and so many other apostles, he didn’t literally lay down his life for his faith? By no means! His calling was to bear witness to God’s love through his testimony of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (“and we know that his testimony is true”).
In today’s world, the vast majority of Christians do not face martyrdom for their faith (although many outside of the West do!). But as Paul suggests throughout his letters, all of us baptized Christians have been given unique gifts that God can use in one way or another to fulfill God’s mission of love in this world. Let’s be faithful in using our individual gifts for God’s kingdom. Let’s be faithful, as was the beloved disciple, to our particular calling.
1. Gail O’Day’s commentary on John is excellent. It’s in our church library. See Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 850-852.
2. Ibid. 854-855.