When is the last time you experienced real failure? Maybe you set out to do something you are really good at, actually. You had no doubt in your mind that you would succeed, you had every reason to believe you would do well, but you did terribly instead. This has certainly happened to me, when I felt confident I had everything I needed, I knew all the necessary knowledge, honed the skills, came with the talent, only to discover that none of what I had applied to the task at hand.
That is kind of where we find the disciples at the beginning of this final chapter. John had written a gripping story of a gentle hero, a man of love, light, joy, and life, who faced increasing hostility until the dramatic climax when his enemies succeeded in crucifying him. All seemed utterly lost until the unexpected twist of the plot, and there is a glorious resurrection.
But now what?
Is that the end of the story, or the beginning of the story?
John chapter 21 is an epilogue, but also a prologue. The scene comes between the accounts of Jesus’ life on earth, and the continuing saga of Jesus’ life within every believer as the gospel swept through the known world, as described in the Book of Acts.
This final chapter reveals what happened before Luke’s description of Jesus’ forty-day intensive ministry after he rose from the dead.
Who Wrote this Epilogue
Though the textual evidence within John’s gospel, and in the Book of Acts, strongly points to the Apostle John as the author, probably at least one other person was involved, the person who wrote this last chapter!
Its final sentences seek to dispel the growing legend that John would not die until Jesus returned. The legend had apparently gained traction the longer the Apostle John outlived all the other original disciples. Nevertheless, at an advanced old age, John did die. Chapter 21 explains how that could be.
Meet Me in Galilee
Both the angelic beings and Jesus himself had given a message to the women to convey to the rest of Jesus’s followers—and specifically his disciples—to go to Galilee, where Jesus would meet them.
Jesus had already, in fact, met twice with his core eleven disciples, at the beginning and again at the end of Passover week, when all those of Jewish faith who could possibly make the trip were staying in Jerusalem and the surrounding area.
Now in chapter 21, we find the disciples had traveled the sixty-eight miles north of Jerusalem, which probably took them about a week to make. Galilee was actually home to seven of the disciples, five had originally come from Bethsaida where their families lived and kept their boats. (Peter, once married, had moved to Capernaum, possibly the homestead of his wife whose mother still lived.) So, it must have made sense, while they waited, to do something familiar and productive.
After these things, Jesus himself again became apparent to the disciples upon the Sea of Tiberius, and he became apparent in this way:
They were being together, Simon Peter and Thomas the one who is called Twin and Nathanael the one from Cana of Galilee and those of Zebedee and two others of his disciples.
Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”
They all said to him, “Then we are coming with you.”
They went and got into the boat . . .John 21:1-3
They were in a strange in-between place. On the one hand, Jesus had been training them for three years to become fishers of men. The evening of his resurrection, Jesus had prayed for them to receive his Spirit, and to go and tell others that he had been raised from the dead.
But Pentecost was nearly two months away. Jesus’ instructions were for them to go to Galilee, where the main part of Jesus’ ministry had taken place, and he would meet them there—maybe for further instruction, maybe for something else, it appears they really had no idea what.
At Loose Ends
If you count, you can see only seven of the eleven disciples were together. Maybe the other four were in Galilee, somewhere else, but they were not all together. The group described probably included the two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, as well as the other two named disciples, Thomas (who was all in at this point) and Nathanael. Maybe it was Nathanael’s close friend Philip who made the seventh, since he also came from Bethsaida, along with the Zebedee brothers and Peter and Andrew.
The nonlocal disciples—Matthew (or Levi), Jude (or Thaddeus), Simon the Zealot, and James the Younger, may have found somewhere else to stay. You know how it is when you go with friends or family to their old stomping grounds, where they grew up. No matter how tight the relationship is, all of a sudden you are not part of the in-crowd. You do not know all the inside jokes and stories, you do not know where everything is, the unspoken customs and knowledge, all the things that go without being said.
So, it seems, the twelve, who were now the eleven since Judas the Iscariot had died, were unraveling even more, and were becoming the seven.
Everything that had been happening after the resurrection seems to have been unexpected to the disciples. Remember, this is still early in the forty days of the Lord Jesus appearing to them, showing them that he really was Jesus, and he really was physically alive. His body was now profoundly changed into an immortal body, with other properties than the kind of mortal bodies you and I are used to. The Lord was not always immediately recognizable to them. Thomas had only recently been convinced of this whole thing.
So they were in a funny in-between place, and they were not experiencing success.
. . . but on that night they caught not even one [fish].John 21:3
Failure is a pretty demoralizing experience, and these men were failing at the one thing they thought they did know, which was fishing.
It brings to mind those times when I have felt like a failure. Sometimes, that has been when I was going through a change, when I was not really who I used to be anymore, but I also was not yet fully who I was becoming, and I did not know what to do with who I was and what I had in the moment.
Rites of passage can feel that way, becoming a teen, becoming an adult. Graduations from school, becoming married or a parent. Becoming a professional or establishing one’s own household. Perhaps retiring, or relinquishing one’s home, or past, or a significant relationship. Acquiring a new responsibility of some kind, or being released from one.
Rites of passage mark a transition, an in-between, where we have moved from what was and entered into what will be, but as prepared as we might think we are, we are not yet good at living the new iteration.
Yet even if failure is a painful experience, there is one very good aspect to it: God now has our full attention, and we are ready to be taught about something we thought we knew.
How Jesus Appeared to Them
There is an echo of this story when Jesus had fed the five thousand, then put the disciples in their boat while Jesus went up a mountain to pray. These seasoned sailors had strained at their oars, and Jesus had let them for a long while, before he walked out on the water to teach them something of his deity, his power, and his presence to enable and protect them.
Dawn was just beginning to burnish the sky, when Jesus appeared on the shore of the Tiberian Sea (also called Lake Galilee, or the Sea of Galilee). Jesus could have simply appeared in their boat when he arrived, as he had in the locked room a week before. But instead Jesus had stayed on shore, built a fire, and began to broil some bread and fish, while the weary and disappointed men pulled in their empty nets after a long and disheartening night.
Jesus planned to use this experience of failure.
[Jesus on the shore | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]