Chapter 9: The Epilogue
As John begins his Gospel with a prologue, so he ends it with an epilogue. The prologue, as we have seen, gives the reason for our Lord's advent and lays bare the doctrine of the incarnation. From it we know in advance of the narrative that follows who it is with whom we deal and the purpose of his coming. The epilogue gives the result of his coming and portrays his continuing work with his followers after his earthly sojourn in the flesh is over.
It serves, therefore, as a means of transition from the earthly career of Jesus to the beginning of the church and affirms his living presence among those who believe on him. The church, through her members, becomes the corporate successor to the person of Jesus. The church is his collective body which he guides and protects through his living spirit, always present within the church. As he saved humankind and blessed people wherever he found them, so will his disciples. Though not any more in the flesh, the risen Christ is present always to guide and strengthen them.
My caption for the epilogue is "The Living Christ."
It is significant that the disciples went back to Galilee. They had left Jerusalem. Their contact with the risen Lord was an inspiring memory. They were where most subsequent lay persons will be -- hard at work at their trades. Peter said, "I go a fishing" (21:3), and he invited those on the shore with him to accompany him by fishing with him. Seven of the disciples were there. They got into the boat and put out to sea. But they didn't catch anything.
In the early morning when it was too dark to see, a stranger called to them from the shore. "Have you got any fish?" he asked. The phrasing in the Greek implies a negative answer. It is like our saying to a sick person, "You are not well, are you?" or "You don't have the money for the hospital bill, do you?" So what Jesus really said was, "You did not catch anything, did you?" When he got the answer he expected, he told the little group to cast the net on the right side of the boat.
When they did, they got such a load of fish in the net that they could hardly haul it in. So the beloved disciple said to Peter, "That man must be the Lord."
Peter, who was stripped for working in the water, put on his fisherman's coat and started toward the Lord. They had caught 153 fish. Jerome believed that number significant, for that number represented all the varieties of fish in the whole of creation. Since the disciples are commissioned to fish for souls, symbolically the number stands for all the people in the world. The mission of the church is universal.
Jesus prepared breakfast for the lot. Once more, they had a fellowship meal together. This meal is reminiscent of the feeding of the five thousand around that same sea at the beginning of their association with Jesus.
As the others were doing various things, Jesus had a private conversation with Peter. He asked Peter if he loved him. Though Jesus uses the strong new gospel word for love agape, Peter in replying uses the more general weaker word phileo. At least this is the case for the first two questions. Both times Jesus asked, "Peter, do you love me?" He got back from Peter, "Yes, Lord, I have a friendly affection for you, I care for you." I guess Peter realized that in the light of his recent denial, he would not be sincere in saying more. The stronger word which he would like to use implies too much. It implies undying commitment. When Jesus got this weaker response twice from Peter, he, in the third question, uses the weaker word himself, as if to imply, "Peter, are you really sure you can go even this far and honestly say that you entertain a friendly feeling toward me and actually care for me?" Then it was, Peter said, "Lord, you know everything. You know my real feelings toward you." Peter used the word agape.
The three times Peter denied Jesus have now been replaced by three affirmations. And the commission every time is "Feed my sheep." In the Christian community, love invariably expresses itself in service. Love for the living Christ is shown by care for people in need. Christ can work and help them only through those who love him.
Yes, Jesus told Peter what his destiny was, that is, what his future would be. He was now in middle life. When he is old, he will be led where he does not want to go. Peter will end up in pagan Rome. Others will stretch out his arms for him. Jerome said, as do all the ancient exegetes and doctors of the church, that this means that Peter will be stretched out on a cross. Often exemplary discipleship eventuates in martyrdom.
When Peter looked around and saw that young disciple whom Jesus loved, he asked, "Well, what about him? How will he fare?"
Jesus did not say, as many misunderstand him to say, "This young man will live until I come again." All he said was, "What business of yours is it if I should decide for this man to stay alive on earth until I come?" His question is just that, a question, no more. It is intended as a rebuke.
Discipleship is individual and personal. It is adapted to the character and personality of the one who is called. It is not alike for everybody. Jesus taught with a gentle rebuke, "You do your work, Peter, you carry out your assignment. Do not worry about anybody else. What I do with this young man is none of your business."
John closes this epilogue, and with it his Gospel, by testifying that the beloved disciple, the very young man about whom Peter inquired, is the author of the Fourth Gospel. John affirms that his testimony is true. He knows it is true, because he has been an eyewitness to what he describes. Without penning his own name, it is obvious that he means the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, the disciple who leaned his head on the Master's breast at the Last Supper.
John is a consummate artist. His Gospel is almost perfect in design and arrangement. His prologue is one of the greatest pieces of theological literature ever penned. And his epilogue is the torch of responsibility and hope that Jesus himself passed on to his first disciples and through them to his followers in all ages. These resurrection appearances assign followers their responsibility and assure them of Jesus Christ's living and abiding presence that will afford them the power for its fulfillment.
Questions For Reflection And Study
1. The disciples apparently went back to their old occupations after Jesus' death and resurrection. Why do you suppose they disbanded the group?
2. Jesus gave Peter an opportunity to cancel out each of his denials, asking him three times, "Do you love me?" How has God allowed you to cancel out some of your failures? Have you experienced the feeling of being forgiven for them?
3. What do you do to "feed God's sheep"?
4. If you were to write a gospel, telling God's good news, what acts of God that you have personally witnessed would you include to teach others about God's nature and activity?