Cambridge Bible Plummer
3. Simon Peter] As so often, he takes the lead. In the interval of waiting for definite instructions the disciples have returned to their usual employment. Once more we have precise and vivid details, as of an eye-witness.
We also go] Rather, we also come.
went forth] From the town or village, probably Capernaum or Bethsaida.
into a ship] Better, into the ships. ‘Immediately’ must be omitted on decisive evidence.
that night] Better, in that night. ‘That’ perhaps indicates that failure was exceptional; or it may mean ‘that memorable night’ (comp. Joh_19:31; Joh_20:19). Night was the best time for fishing (Luk_5:5).
they caught nothing] Failure at first is the common lot of Christ’s fishers. His Presence again causing success after failure might bring home to them the lesson that apart from Him they could do nothing (Joh_15:5).
The word here used for ‘catch’ does not occur in the Synoptists, but besides Joh_21:10 is found six times in this Gospel (Joh_7:30; Joh_7:32; Joh_7:44, Joh_8:20, Joh_10:39, Joh_11:57), and once in Revelation (Joh_19:20) . Elsewhere only Act_3:7; Act_12:4; 2Co_11:32.
When the day was now breaking, Jesus stood onf3 the beach. If the εἰς be the true reading, it would imply that he stood forth, as having come from some unperceived region. If the ἐπὶ remain, the idea is that the morning light, as it was breaking over them through the curtain of dense mist which hung before sunrise on the eastern hills, discovered Jesus standing upon the beach. There is obvious reference, in the manner of his approach, to that “standing” in the midst of them, with which they had become familiar (see Joh_20:14, Joh_20:19, Joh_20:26). Howbeit (μέντοι suggests something unusual, Joh_4:27; Joh_12:42) the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. He is not walking on the waters as of old, but standing on the solid ground. Just as Mary of Magdala, and as the disciples on the way to Emmaus, and as even the disciples themselves on the Easter night, were in doubt, at first, who and what this manifestation might mean, so now the chosen seven fail to understand that which was before their very eyes. The morning mist and shadows adding to the obscurity produced by some hundred yards of distance, together with wearied and toilsome effort and a sleepless night, may suggest some explanation of the marvel; but the mystery is baffling. Two or three remarks may be made.
(1) These various appearances seem at first to confuse their perceptions by reason of the ordinary human characteristics that accompanied them. Mary for a moment mistook him for the owner or worker in the garden; the “two disciples” imagined that he was “a stranger in Jerusalem;” and these disciples think him, for the moment, to have been a stray wanderer by the lake-side. Their presupposition concerning the reappearance of their risen Lord would probably have involved some strange and awe-striking fulguration of his power; but the true “spiritual body” does, when it pleases, take on forms far more familiar.
(2) The slowness of the process by which the apostles became finally convinced, against their prejudices and sense-bound views, that he had risen into a new form of living, and into new conditions of existence.
Jesus therefore saith unto them. They failed to recognize his first appearance, so he permits them to hear the voice which had often poured such music into their ears. Children; not τεκνία, the phrase used in Joh_13:33, but παιδία, “young people,” “lads”—a term of less intimate familiarity, though the apostle himself used it in 1Jn_2:13, 1Jn_2:18 (in 1Jn_2:1 and 1Jn_2:12 τρεκνία is used, apparently in interchange with it). The μή τι suggests a negative answer. Προσφάγιον is that which is eaten with bread, and is commonly ὄψον or ὀψάριον, something roasted for the purpose of eating with bread. Since fish was very frequently used for the purpose, the word was often used for “fish” itself (LXX., Num_11:22; Joh_6:1-71.9, 11. Other equivalent words are found in Attic Greek, προσφάγημα, προσόψημα). Children (lads, young men yonder), you have nothing, I suppose, to eat? They answered him, No. In all this scene the risen Lord showed himself interested and co-operating with them in their daily toil, as engaged in the same work with them. Their listless manner showed that they had toiled in vain, and, perhaps with tone or gesture of unwillingness to confess their failure, they replied in the negative. Then he said to them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship; the side opposite to that on which they were dragging it along. Moreover, the “right hand,” the “right eye,” the “right ear,” the “right side,” are proverbially the more useful, fruitful, or honorable. The imagery is preserved throughout Scripture. And ye shall find. Therefore they cast it. And in order to do this they would probably have had to haul a considerable portion of it into the boat for the necessary transference from left to right. They at once obeyed the summons, remembering what they had previously found to have been their experience (Luk_5:1-39.), and no longer were they able, or had they strength, to draw it into the boat. Ἐλκύσαι, is here quite a different process from the σύροντες of 1Jn_2:8, which describes the hauling, tugging, of the net to shore. The difficulty arose from (or, because of) the multitude of the fishes. The miracle here is a simple indication of the higher knowledge which the Lord possessed. This huge shoal may, humanly speaking, have been perceived in its approach; so that the event is more impressive in its analogical force than in its supernatural machinery. It suggests the surprising results that would accompany their labor when they should under the Lord’s own injunction and inspiration, become veritable fishers of men. The parabolic teaching of this miracle is unusually obvious.
6.Cast the net on the right side of the ship. Christ does not command with authority and power as Master and Lord, but gives advice like one of the people; and the disciples, being at a loss what to do, readily obey him, though they did not know who he was. If, before the first casting of the net, any thing of this sort had been said to them, they would not have so quickly obeyed. I mention this, that no one may wonder that they were so submissive, for they had already been worn out by long and useless toil. Yet it was no small proof of patience and perseverance, that, though they had labored unsuccessfully during the whole night, they continue their toil after the return of daylight. And, indeed, if we wish to allow an opportunity for the blessing of God to descend on us, we ought constantly to expect it; for nothing can be more unreasonable than to withdraw the hand immediately from labor, if it do not give promise of success.
That Simon Peter Was Naked, is a proof that the disciples had labored in earnest; and yet they do not hesitate to cast the net again to make another trial, that they may not neglect any opportunity. Their obedience to the command of Christ cannot be ascribed to faith; for they hear him speak as a person who was unknown to them. Now, if we dislike our calling, because the labor which we undertake appears to be unproductive, yet, when the Lord exhorts us to steadiness and perseverance, we ought to take courage; in the end we shall obtain a happy result, but it will be at the proper time.
And now they were not able to draw it Christ here exhibited two proofs of his Divine power. The first consisted in their taking so large a draught of fishes; and the second was, when, by his concealed power, he preserved the net whole, which otherwise must unavoidably have been broken in pieces. Other circumstances are mentioned, namely, that the disciples find burning coals on the shore, that fishes are laid on them, and that bread is also prepared. As to the number of the fishes, we ought not to look for any deep mystery in it. Augustine enters into ingenious reasonings about the statement of the number, and says that it denotes the Law and the Gospel; but if we examine the matter carefully, we shall find that this is childish trifling.
Cambridge Bible Plummer
7. Therefore that disciple] The characteristics of the two Apostles are again most delicately yet clearly given (comp. Joh_20:2-9). S. John is the first to apprehend; S. Peter the first to act .
Now when Simon Peter heard] Simon Peter therefore having heard.
fisher’s coat] The Greek word (ependutes) occurs here only. It was his upper garment, which he gathered round him “with instinctive reverence for the presence of his Master” (Westcott). ‘Naked’ need not mean more than ‘stripped’ of the upper garment. “No one but an eye-witness would have thought of the touch in Joh_21:7, which exactly inverts the natural action of one about to swim, and yet is quite accounted for by the circumstances.” S. p. 267.
cast himself] with his habitual impulsiveness.
THESE: To whom (or what) does “these” (τούτων, toutōn) refer? Three possibilities are suggested: (1) τούτων should be understood as neuter, “these things,” referring to the boats, nets, and fishing gear nearby. In light of Peter’s statement in Joh_21:3, “I am going fishing,” some have understood Peter to have renounced his commission in light of his denials of Jesus. Jesus, as he restores Peter and forgives him for his denials, is asking Peter if he really loves his previous vocation more than he loves Jesus. Three things may be said in evaluation of this view: (a) it is not at all necessary to understand Peter’s statement in Joh_21:3 as a renouncement of his discipleship, as this view of the meaning of τούτων would imply; (b) it would probably be more likely that the verb would be repeated in such a construction (see Joh_7:31 for an example where the verb is repeated); and (c) as R. E. Brown has observed (John [AB], 2:1103) by Johannine standards the choice being offered to Peter between material things and the risen Jesus would seem rather ridiculous, especially after the disciples had realized whom it was they were dealing with (the Lord, see Joh_21:12). (2) τούτων refers to the other disciples, meaning “Do you love me more than you love these other disciples?” The same objection mentioned as (c) under (1) would apply here: Could the author, in light of the realization of who Jesus is which has come to the disciples after the resurrection, and which he has just mentioned in Joh_21:12, seriously present Peter as being offered a choice between the other disciples and the risen Jesus? This leaves option (3), that τούτων refers to the other disciples, meaning “Do you love me more than these other disciples do?” It seems likely that there is some irony here: Peter had boasted in Joh_13:37, “I will lay down my life for you,” and the synoptics present Peter as boasting even more explicitly of his loyalty to Jesus (“Even if they all fall away, I will not,” Mat_26:33; Mar_14:29). Thus the semantic force of what Jesus asks Peter here amounts to something like “Now, after you have denied me three times, as I told you you would, can you still affirm that you love me more than these other disciples do?” The addition of the auxiliary verb “do” in the translation is used to suggest to the English reader the third interpretation, which is the preferred one.
LOVE: Is there a significant difference in meaning between the two words for love used in the passage, ἀγαπάω and φιλέω (agapaō and phileō)? Aside from Origen, who saw a distinction in the meaning of the two words, most of the Greek Fathers like Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria, saw no real difference of meaning. Neither did Augustine nor the translators of the Itala (Old Latin). This was also the view of the Reformation Greek scholars Erasmus and Grotius. The suggestion that a distinction in meaning should be seen comes primarily from a number of British scholars of the 19th century, especially Trench, Westcott, and Plummer. It has been picked up by others such as Spicq, Lenski, and Hendriksen. But most modern scholars decline to see a real difference in the meaning of the two words in this context, among them Bernard, Moffatt, Bonsirven, Bultmann, Barrett, Brown, Morris, Haenchen, and Beasley-Murray. There are three significant reasons for seeing no real difference in the meaning of ἀγαπάω and φιλέω in these verses: (1) the author has a habit of introducing slight stylistic variations in repeated material without any significant difference in meaning (compare, for example, Joh_3:3 with Lev_3:5, and Joh_7:34 with Num_13:33). An examination of the uses of ἀγαπάω and φιλέω in the Fourth Gospel seems to indicate a general interchangeability between the two. Both terms are used of God’s love for man (Joh_3:16; Joh_16:27); of the Father’s love for the Son (Son_3:35; Son_5:20); of Jesus’ love for men (Joh_11:5; Joh_11:3); of the love of men for men (Joh_13:34; Joh_15:19); and of the love of men for Jesus (Joh_8:42; Joh_16:27). (2) If (as seems probable) the original conversation took place in Aramaic (or possibly Hebrew), there would not have been any difference expressed because both Aramaic and Hebrew have only one basic word for love. In the Septuagint (LXX) both ἀγαπάω and φιλέω are used to translate the same Hebrew word for love, although ἀγαπάω is more frequent. It is significant that in the Syriac version of the NT only one verb is used to translate Joh_21:15-17 (Syriac is very similar linguistically to Palestinian Aramaic). (3) Peter’s answers to the questions asked with ἀγαπάω are ‘yes’ even though he answers using the verb φιλέω. If he is being asked to love Jesus on a higher or more spiritual level his answers give no indication of this, and one would be forced to say (in order to maintain a consistent distinction between the two verbs) that Jesus finally concedes defeat and accepts only the lower form of love which is all that Peter is capable of offering. Thus it seems best to regard the interchange between ἀγαπάω and φιλέω in these verses as a minor stylistic variation of the author, consistent with his use of minor variations in repeated material elsewhere, and not indicative of any real difference in meaning. Thus no attempt has been made to distinguish between the two Greek words in the translation.
Simon, son of Jonas
Compare Christ’s first address to Peter, Joh_1:43. He never addresses him by the name of Peter, while that name is commonly used, either alone or with Simon, in the narrative of the Gospels, and in the Greek form Peter, not the Aramaic Cephas, which, on the other hand, is always employed by Paul. For Jonas read as Rev., John.
Lovest (ἀγαπα ͂ς)
Jesus uses the more dignified, really the nobler, but, as it seems to Peter, in the ardor of his affection, the colder word for love. See on Joh_5:20.
More than these
More than these disciples love me. Compare Joh_13:37; Mat_26:33. The question conveys a gentle rebuke for his former extravagant professions.
I love (φιλῶ)
Peter substitutes the warmer, more affectionate word, and omits all comparison with his fellow-disciples.
See on 1Pe_5:2.
Lambs (ἀρνι ́α)
Diminutive: little lambs. Godet remarks: “There is a remarkable resemblance between the present situation and that of the two scenes in the previous life of Peter with which it is related. He had been called to the ministry by Jesus after a miraculous draught of fishes; it is after a similar draught that the ministry is restored to him. He had lost his office by a denial beside a fire of coal; it is beside a fire of coal that he recovers it.”
Cambridge Bible Plummer
16. lovest thou me?] Jesus drops the ‘more than these,’ which the humbled Apostle had shrunk from answering, but retains His own word for ‘love.’ S. Peter answers exactly as before.
Feed my sheep] Better, Tend, or shepherd, My sheep. The word rendered ‘feed’ in Joh_21:15; Joh_21:17 (boskein) means ‘supply with food.’ Comp. Mat_8:30; Mat_8:33; Mar_5:11; Mar_5:14; Luk_8:32; Luk_8:34; Luk_15:15 (the only other passages where the word occurs in N.T.) of the feeding of the herd of swine. The word used here (poimainein) means rather ‘be shepherd to.’ It is used literally Luk_17:7; 1Co_9:7; and figuratively Mat_2:6; Act_20:28; 1Pe_5:2. Comp. Judges 12; Rev_2:27; Rev_7:17; Rev_12:5; Rev_19:15. Tending implies more of guidance and government than feeding does. The lambs, which can go no distance, scarcely require guidance, their chief need is food. The sheep require both.
Pop Comm Bible Schaff
Joh_21:16. He saith to him again a second time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? The same verb (‘lovest’) which had been used by our Lord in His first question again occurs here, and the question only differs from the first in the gracious omission of the words more than these. Jesus had appreciated the motive which had led peter in his previous reply to avoid all comparison between his own love to Jesus and that of others. He accepts the evidence of humility afforded by His apostle, and in that direction at least will no longer test him.
He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that Ilove thee. Peter’s reply is in exactly the same tetras as before; the word ‘I love’ being that which he had previously used, and not that used by Jesus.
He saith unto him, Be shepherd of my sheep. See on next verse.
Cambridge Bible Plummer
17. the third time] He had denied thrice, and must thrice affirm his love. This time Jesus makes a further concession: He not only ceases to urge the ‘more than these,’ but He adopts S. Peter’s own word, philein. The Apostle had rejected Christ’s standard and taken one of his own, about which he could be more sure; and Christ now questions the Apostle’s own standard. This is why ‘Peter was grieved’ so much; not merely at the threefold question recalling his threefold denial, not merely at his devotion being questioned more than once, but that the humble form of love which he had professed, and that without boastful comparison with others, and without rash promises about the future, should seem to be doubted by his Lord.
thou knowest all things; thou knowest] Once more we have two words for ‘know’ in the original and only one in the A. V. (Comp. Joh_7:27, Joh_8:55, Joh_13:7, Joh_14:7.) The first ‘knowest’ (oidas) refers to Christ’s supernatural intuition, as in Joh_21:15-16 : the second ‘knowest’ (ginôskeis) to His experience and discernment; Thou recognisest, perceivest, seest, that I love Thee. See on Joh_2:24-25.
Feed my sheep] It is doubtful whether we have or have not precisely the same word for ‘sheep’ here as in Joh_21:16. The Greek word here according to the best authorities is undoubtedly a diminutive (probatia, not probata); in Joh_21:16 the evidence is pretty evenly balanced between probatia and probata (‘little sheep’ and ‘sheep’). One is tempted to adopt S. Ambrose’s order in Joh_21:15-17—‘lambs,’ ‘little sheep,’ ‘sheep’ (agnos, oviculas, oves), which seems also to have been the reading of the old Syriac: but the balance of evidence is against it. But without counting the possible difference between ‘little sheep’ and ‘sheep,’ there are three important distinctions obliterated in the A. V.,—the two words rendered ‘love,’ the two rendered ‘feed,’ and the two rendered ‘know.’
S. Peter seems to recall this charge in his First Epistle (Joh_5:2-3), a passage which in the plainest terms condemns the policy of those who on the strength of this charge have claimed to rule as his successors over the whole of Christ’s flock.
Pop Comm Bible Schaff
Joh_21:17.He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? In this third question, apparently a repetition of the first and second, one word (‘lovest’) is changed: for the word which he had used before, Jesus substitutes that less elevated, more familiar word with which Peter had already twice replied, ‘I love Thee.’ It is this that constitutes to the apostle the painful force of the third question. Not only is his own word taken up by Jesus, but that word is one by which he had sought to give utterance to the strength of his affection. And now Jesus says to him, ‘Peter, dost thou really thus love Me as thou sayest? But a little while ago, what was thy denial of thy Friend? Is it otherwise now? I will take thee at thine ownword. May I trust thee that, with that loveof which thou speakest, thou lovest Me?’
Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou seest that I love thee. Peter’s grief is at once intelligible,—not simply because he had been three times questioned as tohis love, but because the third time his own statement, twice made, had been taken up, and he had been asked to consider well whether it was really true, whether he might not be again misjudging himself. But he was not merely grieved, he was also disciplined; his grief was wholesome. Up tothis point there seems to have been some faint trace of self in his replies: at all events he had stood before his Lord as if his Lord were peculiarly reading him: he had not wholly forgotten himself. Now, however, all his past weakness and sin rise to his view: can he who has been so guilty have any special value? Surely not: if he is known, he is known only as one of ‘all things;’ with such emptiness of self he will cast himself upon his Lord, and only say, ‘Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou seest that I love Thee.’ The victory of grace is complete, and he receives his final charge.—Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
We have still to say a word or two of the threefold charge which is given in the words, ‘Feed my lambs,’ ‘Be shepherd of my sheep,’ ‘Feed my sheep.’ It is a little doubtful whether we ought to understand by the ‘lambs’ the younger members of the Christian community, or the whole flock in its weakest and most elementary stage of Christian growth: the contrast with ‘sheep’ leads upon the whole to the former view. The charge to the apostle is ‘Feed ‘these lambs: not less than the older members of the flock do they require the shepherd’s most thoughtful as well as his most tender care. After this we have ‘sheep’ twice mentioned (for a slight difference of reading found in some ancient manuscripts does not materially affect the meaning), and the only point we have to consider is the difference between ‘Be shepherd of’ and ‘Feed.’ The structural principles of the Gospel at once tell that there is a climax; and that climax seems to correspond to the gradation exemplified by a pastor as he himself grows in knowledge and experience. At first he is eager to perform all offices for his flock, thinking all equally important; perhaps even most pleased with the rule that has been assigned to him, and in which his own importance most appears. But soon, if he has the spirit of a real shepherd, he learns that to bear rule is comparatively a small thing, and that to ‘feed’ the flock of God, to nourish it on pastures ever fresh, and with waters ever living, is at once his most difficult and his noblest task. Peter is now ready to hear what, in tending his Master’s flock, he is to do and suffer.
Having turned himself round, instead of keeping every glance for his Lord, Peter seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following (ἀκολουθοῦντα), obeying the command without offering one suggestion. The writer adds, by way of further identification, he who also leaned back at the supper, upon his breast, and said, Who is he that betrayeth thee? (see notes on Joh_13:23). The note is here introduced to show the close connection of Peter and the beloved disciple. It was Simon Peter who had beckoned at the supper to the beloved disciple to ask this very question.
Pop Comm Bible Schaff
Joh_21:20.Peter turning about seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following, which also leaned back on his breast at the supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee. It is impossible to think that the Evangelist intends us to confine our attention to the literal details given in this verse. The long description by which he indicates himself would be entirely out of place were he brought before us as simply taking a few steps after Jesus and Peter. Besides this, the verb ‘to follow,’ which, as we have seen, was used metaphorically as well as literally in Joh_21:19, must certainly be understood in the same sense here. John is here not simply the individual: he is the apostle following Peter in apostolic work, and like him, representative (though in a different aspect) of all Christian labourers and witnesses. What the difference of aspect is, is shown bythe special manner in which he describes himself. He is not only the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved;’ he is the apostle who ‘leaned back on the breast of Jesus at the supper and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth Thee?’ (chap. Joh_13:12; Joh_13:25). In other words, he is the apostle whose mind was nearestto the mind of Jesus, and whom Jesus found most fitted to receive the deeper revelations of His will. John, then, represents an entirely different aspect of Christian witnessing from that represented by Peter. The latter represents the struggle, and the death at the end of it, by which God is glorified. The other represents patient waiting for the glorious revelation of Jesus at His Second Coming.
Cambridge Bible Plummer
21. Peter seeing him] Peter therefore seeing him. Once more we see the intimacy between these two Apostles. When S. Peter is told to follow, S. John does so also unbidden; and S. Peter having received his own commission asks about that of his friend. Comp. Joh_18:15, Joh_20:1 .
and what shall this man do?] Literally, but this man, what? Not so much ‘what shall he do?’ as ‘what about him?’ What is the lot in store for him. The question indicates the natural wish to know the future of a friend, all the more natural after having been told something about his own future. Hence the ‘therefore’ at the beginning of the verse. As usual, S. Peter acts on the first impulse.
Pop Comm Bible Schaff
Joh_21:21-22.Peter therefore seeing him Saith to Jesus, Lord, and what of this man? Itwas a natural question. Although Peter did not know the full meaning of the words just addressed to himself, he felt that they betokened trial, sorrow, perhaps even prison and death. When, therefore, he saw John following Jesus, nothing would more readily occur to him than to ask. And what. Lord, shall be his fate? Yet the answer of Jesus evidently implies that there was something not altogether to be commended in the spirit or in the tone of Peter’s question. We cannot imagine that such an answer would have been given to a question in which affectionate interest was the leading feature. We have indeed no reason to think that the question was dictated by envy, but there was probably impatience of the calm spirit of John, of that calmness which had immediately before contrasted so strikingly with his own impetuosity,—for when he had thrown himself into the sea to hasten to his Master’s feet, John had remained in the boat dragging to the shore the net with fishes. To this spirit accordingly Jesus replies.
Jesus saith unto mm, If I will that he abide till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me. In other words: ‘Thou hast no right to be impatient of the quiet and meditative spirit of thy brother Apostle. True, I have spoken to thee of heavy trials only. But it does not follow that he may not be as faithful as thou art, or that he may not have his own trials, in the work given him to do. Thou art right, I praise thy spirit, only preparing thee for the inevitable consequences. But his spirit is right too. Let it be thy concern’ (‘thou’ is emphatic) ‘to follow Me; and as for him, if I will that he abide till I come, what is that to thee?’ By the ‘coming’ here spoken of can be understood nothing but the Second Coming of the Lord. It is the object of Jesus, as we shall see more fully on Joh_21:23, to give emphasis to the thought of His Second Coming, that He may thus bring out the truth that then shall be the end of all toil and waiting,—that then His witnesses shall rest from their labours, with their works following them. At the same time we would not venture wholly to exclude the thought of the destruction of Jerusalem. But the relation of that event to the ‘coming of the Lord’ is a topic upon which we cannot enter here.
The point of the contrast then between the words spoken respectively to Peter and John, is not that between a violent death by martyrdom and a peaceful departure; but that between impetuous and struggling apostleship, ending in a violent death, and quiet, thoughtful, meditative waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus, ending in a peaceful transition to the heavenly repose. Neither Peter nor himself is to the Evangelist a mere individual. Each is a type of one aspect of apostolic working.—of Christian witnessing for Jesus to the very end of time. But the struggling witnesses are impatient of such as are meditative, the active of the passive, the warring of the waiting. They do not see that the work of the latter is not less important than their own, and that it touches the very springs of the Church’s life. They undervalue it, because its struggle is not visible enough. They cry, ‘This work, Lord, is it really like our work, work for Thee?’ And Jesus replies, ‘I judge of that. If will that it go on until I come, what is that to you? Your path is clear; follow ye me.’
23.Then this saying went forth. The Evangelist relates that, from misunderstanding Christ’s words, an error arose among the disciples, that John would never die. He means those who were present at that conversation, that is, the Apostles; not that the name brethren belongs to them alone, but that they were the first-fruits, as it were, of that holy union. It is also possible, that, besides the eleven, he refers to others who were at that time in company with them; and by the expression, went forth, he means that this error was spread in all directions; yet probably it was not of long duration, but subsisted among them, until, being enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they formed purer and more correct views of the kingdom of Christ, having laid aside carnal and foolish imaginations.
What John relates about the Apostles happens every day, and we ought not to wonder at it; for if Christ’s disciples, who belonged to his family and were intimately acquainted with him, were so egregiously mistaken, how much more are they liable to fall into mistakes, who have not been so familiarly instructed in the school of Christ? But let us also observe whence this fault arises. The teaching of Christ is useful, and for edification; that is, it is plain; but we obscure the light by our wicked inventions, which we bring to it from our own views. Christ had not intended to pronounce any thing certain or definite about John, but only to affirm that he had full power to decide about his life and death; so that the doctrine is simple and useful in itself, but the disciples imagine and contrive more than had been told them. Accordingly, in order that we may be safe from this danger, let us learn to be wise and to think soberly. But such is the wantonness of the human understanding, that it rushes with all its force into foolishness. The consequence was, that this very error, against which the Evangelist had expressly warned them to be on their guard, continued notwithstanding to gain currency in the world; for a fable has been contrived, that he ordered a ditch to be digged for him, and went down into it, and that next day it was found empty. We see, therefore, that we shall never cease to err, unless we unreservedly receive what the Lord hath taught us, and reject all inventions of men.
Cambridge Bible Plummer
23. Then went this saying] This saying therefore went.
abroad among] Literally, forth unto: comp. Mat_9:26; Mar_1:28; Rom_10:8.
the brethren] This phrase, common in the Acts (Joh_9:30, Joh_11:1; Joh_11:29, Joh_15:1; Joh_15:3; Joh_15:22-23, &c.), is not used elsewhere in the Gospels for believers generally; but we see the way prepared for it in the Lord’s words to the disciples (Mat_23:8), to S. Peter (Luk_22:32), and to Mary Magdalene (Joh_20:17).
should not die] Literally, doth not die; so also ‘shall not die’ in the next clause. The mistake points to a time when Christians generally expected that the Second Advent would take place in their own time; and the correction of the mistake points to a time when the Apostle was still living. If this chapter was added by another hand after the Apostle’s death it would have been natural to mention his death, as the simplest and most complete answer to the misunderstanding. The cautious character of the answer given, merely pointing out the hypothetical form of Christ’s language, without pretending to explain it, shews that the question had not yet been solved in fact. Thus we are once more forced back within the limits of the first century for the date of this Gospel.