The 21st and final chapter of John’s gospel has long been viewed as an epilogue (John 21:1-25). It follows what would be a natural conclusion to the book (John 20:30-31) and features vocabulary unique to the rest of the gospel.
Perhaps longing for a sense of normalcy after the death of their master, seven of Jesus’ disciples decide return to their previous job and fish the sea of Tiberias (John 21:2-3). This body of water is more famously known as the Sea of Galilee. After a fruitless night, at daybreak, the disciples unknowingly encounter the risen Jesus who redirects their nets and produces a miraculous catch of fish (John 21:4-6).
After the Beloved Disciple pronounces the bystander to be Jesus, Peter dons an outer garment and projects himself into the sea (John 21:7).
Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” 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, NASB)Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) observes:
Again, Peter and the beloved disciple appear together. In characteristic fashion, the beloved disciple displays spiritual discernment, while Peter exhibits decisive action (D.A. Carson [b. 1946] 1991: 671; cf. Herman N. Ridderbos [1909-2007] 1997: 660). (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 591)While completing this demonstrative act, Peter swims to shore. Robert Kysar (b. 1934) determines:
One explanation proposes that Peter merely waded to shore. The distance would allow that possibility (John 21:8), although the depth of water might not. (Kysar, John (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 314)An oft overlooked detail in Peter’s dramatic deboarding is that before taking the plunge, he either adjusts or puts on clothing. Counterintuitively, the disciple actually clothes himself in preparation for jumping into water. This also begs the question as to whether Peter was fishing while nude.
Herman Ridderbos (1909-2007) considers:
The nakedness here is interpreted in a number of ways. Some think it means that he has been wearing only an inner garment and now for his meeting with Jesus puts on a more appropriate outer garment; others, that he has been completely unclothed and now puts on the outer garment. Still others think that all he does is to tuck up and tie in with a cincture the garment he wore over his otherwise naked body (διεζώσατο), so as to have freedom of movement in the water. (Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, 661)There is a possibility that Peter has been fishing au naturel. Most translations read that the apostle had been “naked” (ASV, KJV, NRSV) or “stripped” (ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NLT, RSV). Some renderings add that the clothing was discarded “for work” (ESV, MSG, NASB, NLT, RSV) while others note simply that he removed it (CEV, NIV, NKJV). Peter certainly was not expecting company!
The Baur-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker lexicon lists the primary definition of the Greek gymnós as “naked, stripped, bare.” Secondary connotations, however, demonstrate a wider scope of meaning ranging from “without an outer garment” to simply being “poorly dressed”.
Since outer garments in the first century hung looser than their contemporary counterparts, Greeks performing manual labor would naturally discard their outer clothing while engaging in strenuous activities to gain ease of movement. Mendel Nun (1918-2010), whose life was spent fishing the Sea of Galilee, reports that cast-net fishermen typically worked naked there (“What Was Simon Peter Wearing When He Plunged into the Sea?”, Jerusalem Perspective, 1997).
Rodney A. Whitacre (b. 1949) interprets:
The text...says that he was naked (ēn gar gymnos)...and this seems to have been typical for such work (Mendel Nun [1918-2010] 1997:20-21). Most likely, then, he had been working naked and had put on a loincloth before swimming to shore (Nun 1997:23, 37). (Whitacre, John (IVP New Testament Commentary), 492)Colin G. Kruse (b. 1938) adds:
Ancient art and literature indicate that cast-net fisherman worked naked, and it is likely that Peter, being naked, wrapped not a full ‘outer garment’ but a simple loincloth around him to show respect for Jesus before jumping into the water to make his way to the shore to meet him. (Kruse, John (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 389)Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) counters:
While one could read John 21:7 as claiming that Peter was working completely naked (a frequent use of γυμνός and one not unexpected from work), this might not fit as well what we know about Palestinian Judaism or about the sort of conservative Diaspora Jewish communities from which most early Christians came. Further, he had been laboring during the night (John 21:3), and it was now daybreak (John 21:4), so the air may have been cooler than during the day. The term “naked” also applied to having little clothing or being less than fully clothed; it could apply even to being without armor or shield...Normally one would not simply don a garment before hurling into water; then, as today, people recognized that it was much easier to swim naked! (Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1229)Before jumping into the sea, Peter puts on an ependýtes. This piece of apparel is translated “outer garment” (ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV), “clothes” (CEV, MSG, NRSV, RSV), “coat” (ASV), “fisher’s coat” (KJV) or “tunic” (NLT).
Leon Morris (1914-2006) defines:
The word is ἐπενδύτης, here only in the New Testament. It denotes an outer garment, without being specific. (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 762)Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) researches:
The Greek underlying “for he had taken it off” means literally “for he was naked,” but that may merely mean that Peter wore only his undergarment...probably the short tunic of the Greek workman (Michael Avi-Yonah [1904-1974] 1964: 155). He tucked in his outer garment in order to be able to swim (rather than wade—the shoreline drops off rather rapidly at most parts of the lake) ashore more easily and to be properly dressed for greeting Jesus. (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 591)Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998) resolves:
The idea...would be that Peter was working in a loin cloth (total nudity would offend against Jewish sensibilities and would not fit the picture of his working throughout the cool night), but for the sake of modesty and reverence he put on his outer garment before he swam to land to meet Jesus...It seems incredible that someone should put on a garment before jumping into the water and thus impede swimming. Recognizing this difficulty, Alfred Loisy [1857-1940], p. 518, finds here another instance of the redactor’s awkwardness. Yet Marie-Joseph Lagrange [1855-1938] and Stanley B. Marrow [1931-2012] suggest a more plausible meaning for the Greek, a meaning that removes much of the difficulty. The verb diazōnnyai, which means “to tie (clothes) around oneself,” is found in the New Testament only in John (Luke uses the Septuagint form perizōnnynai). It can mean to put on clothes, but more properly it means to tuck them up and tie them in with a cincture so that one can have freedom of movement to do something. In John 13:4-5 the verb is used for Jesus’ tying a towel around himself that he might use it while he washed the disciples feet...Thus we get a more logical picture: clad only in his fisherman’s smock, Peter tucks it into his cincture so that he can swim more easily and dives into the water. (Brown, The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI (The Anchor Bible), 1072)Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) supports:
A more plausible translation of the verb “to dress” (Greek diazonymmi) actually refers to wrapping or tucking clothes around oneself (as one would with a robe or toga). In John 13:4 Jesus wraps (Greek diazonymmi) a towel around himself or footwashing. Here Peter is wearing a worker’s smock (Greek epedytes) on the boat, but he wants to swim to shore to meet the Lord. Because he is naked (Greek gymnos) under the smock, when he hears that Jesus is on the shore, he tucks or wraps his smock into his belt to give him a tight fit and leaps into the water. (Burge, John (The NIV Application Commentary), 583)If the text is in fact indicating that Peter is mitigating impediments to swimming, this leaves one major problem: Why is the apostle getting dressed to throw himself into the sea!?!?
James L. Resseguie (b. 1945) contemplates:
Clothing, or lack of clothing, certainly expresses a point of view in any culture. Jesus, for example, takes his outer robe off and ties a towel around himself in John 13: the master taking on the role of the slave. Jesus takes off his clothing; Peter puts his clothing on. Jesus takes on the role of a slave and lays down his life just as he laid down his outer garment. Peter denies his role as follower and therefore takes up clothing rather than laying garments down. (Resseguie, The Strange Gospel: Narrative Design and Point of View in John, 99)A linguistic connection may indicate further symbolism. Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) detects:
Peter’s response is striking: “Hearing that it was the Lord, (he) girded his apron about him, for he was stripped down, and threw (ballō, “throw/put”) himself into the sea.” ...As with some other texts which are superficially perplexing, the answer seems to lie in theological symbolism, in this case one which is a variation on the death-related symbolism of Jesus taking off clothes and girding himself in order to put (ballō) water in a basin and wash the disciples’ feet—a washing which would mean that they were clean all over (John 13:4-11). Peter’s passage through the sea reflects the death-related washing and it is also an introduction to the impending theme of Peter’s own death (John 21:18-19). The “girding” implies preparing or bracing himself for the ordeal. “Stripped down” or “naked” is evocative of losing everything, of dying. And “threw himself into the sea” suggests the actual taking of the plunge, the going down into death in order to be with the Lord. (Brodie, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 584-85)Others have associated Peter’s dressing at the sight of Jesus with shame, the same reaction that Adam and Eve have when they realize that they are naked before God (Genesis 2:25). Mark W.G. Stibbe (b. 1960) construes:
The fact that Peter puts his clothes on before jumping into the water reveals the profound shame in his life. If Peter had no shame, then, like Jesus in John 13:2-5, he would be able to stand naked before others. However, unlike Adam and Eve before the fall, Peter is unable to be naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:25). The shame of the denials has caused a deep loss of innocence in Peter as a disciple. (Stibbe, John (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 211)Timothy Wiarda (b. 1951) opposes:
A few interpreters argue that Peter’s motivation is shame at the memory of his denials, e.g. D.H. Gee, ‘Why did Peter Spring into the Sea?’, JTS 40 (1989) 481-89; Mark W.G. Stibbe [b. 1960], John (Sheffield: JSOT, 1993) 211. The wording of John 21:8 makes it clear, however, that Peter went quickly toward Jesus...the others...are coming behind Peter. That Peter put on his outer garment is natural, a matter of respect before approaching Jesus rather that an indication of shame at past failure. (Wiarda, Peter in the Gospels: Pattern, Personality and Relationship, 111)If there is shame involved, Peter’s love for Jesus is clearly stronger in John’s final chapter.
Citing Talmud Berakoth 2.20 which regulates “where men are naked, neither greeting, nor reading, nor prayer is in order”, C. K. Barrett (1917-2011) posits that Peter behaves as he does as greeting was a religious act and thus could not be performed while nude (Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John, 580-81).
Leon Morris (1914-2006) summarizes:
C.K. Barrett [1917-2011] draws attention to the Jewish idea that since offering a greeting was a religious act it could not be performed unless one was clothed. Thus greetings were not given in baths, since all were naked. If the point is relevant, as seems likely, Peter wanted to be sufficiently clad when he reached the shore to give the usual religious greeting. (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 762)Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) agrees, writing that Peter dresses himself to be in “a seemly manner” (Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 708).
In changing attire, Peter is both reducing his odds of drowning and making himself presentable to Jesus based upon the conventions of his day. Peter’s change in dress is symptomatic of a change in roles, once again moving from fisherman to disciple, or in Jesus’ terminology “fisher-of-man” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; Luke 5:10).
Why does John include this detail that is unnecessary to the advancement of the story; would it not have been sufficient to simply relay that Peter leapt from the boat and swam to Jesus? Do you think that Peter could have been fishing naked; would this insult your sensibilities if he was? If the apostle was nude, could this be a sign of rebellion against his Jewish heritage? Do you dress differently when fulfilling different roles? How do you present yourself to Jesus? Do you own “church clothes”? Why?
Many have commented that this exuberant act is characteristic of Peter, an impetuous soul who often “thinks with his feet”. Bruce B. Barton (b. 1943) pronounces:
Peter’s impulsive nature came through...Peter had always been the one to act, speak, react—whether in climbing out of the boat to walk on the water to Jesus (Matthew 14:28-31), offering to build shelters on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:5-6), refusing to let Jesus wash his feet (John 13:8-9), striking out with a sword at those who had come to arrest Jesus (John 18:10), or denying his Lord (John 18:26-27). Here he jumped into the lake to swim to Jesus. (Barton, John (Life Application Bible Commentary), 404)Gail R. O’Day (b.1954) and Susan E. Hylen (b. 1968) portray:
The description of John 21:7 seems to point to the impetuous nature of Peter’s response. He dresses himself hurriedly only to jump into water (see John 13:9, 18:10, 20:6). The other disciples, with more dignity, bring the boat (and the fish) to the nearby shore. (O’Day and Hylen, John (Westminster Bible Companion), 201)R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) characterizes:
He wanted to give the Lord a respectful greeting, so he threw on his outer garment and performed a cannonball. (People like Peter never dive!) (Hughes, John: That You May Believe (Preaching the Word), 465)Though Peter is certainly impulsive, often acting first and thinking later, his dressing before jumping conveys just the opposite sentiment. Covering himself shows premeditation, albeit brief premeditation. It emphasizes that, for once, Peter has considered what he is doing. And this is perhaps indicative of a change in him. Plunging into the sea is a decision, not merely an instinct.
The jettison comes at a high cost. Beauford H. Bryant (1923-1997) and Mark S. Krause (b. 1955) assess:
Peter, the career fisherman, is so startled by Jesus’ presence that he forgets what is undoubtedly one of the greatest catches of fish he has ever seen. He cinches up his clothes and dives into the water in order to swim to the Lord. This would be something like a real estate agent hopping in her car and driving away the minute before closing the sale on a million dollar house. (Bryant and Krause, John (The College Press NIV Commentary), 407)Peter sheds his fishing garments because he is not meant to be a fisherman, but a shepherd (John 21:15-17).
At the time of this incident, Peter is estranged from Jesus having denied his Lord three times (John 18:15-17, 25-26). It is not surprising that Peter is eager to reconnect. When he sees an opportunity for redemption, he literally jumps at the chance.
Andrew T. Lincoln (b. 1944) notes:
Peter reacts to the Beloved Disciple’s recognition. Peter plunged into the sea while the boat was only one hundred yards from shore, suggesting his eagerness and impatience to get to Jesus. He may have been outrun to the tomb [John 20:4], but he is determined to be the first to get to shore. (Lincoln, The Gospel according to Saint John (Black’s New Testament Commentary), 512)In stark contrast to a similar miraculous catch of fish in the same sea when he first became a disciple (Luke 5:8), Peter now wants to be near the Lord. And as he had done initially, Peter leaves everything in order to do so.
Herman Ridderbos (1909-2007) depicts:
Peter reacts immediately...He tucks in his outer garment—the only thing he had on—and plunges into the sea, leaving behind his companions, the boat, and the sea in order to be the first to reach Jesus. (Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, 660-61)Ernst Haenchen (1894-1975) deduces:
The author apparently wants to show how much the observation of the beloved disciple affected Peter and how ardently Peter longed to be with Jesus. (Haenchen, John 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 7-21 (Hermeneia: a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible), 223)
Peter’s action is indicative of his desire to bridge the gap between himself and his Lord. James L. Resseguie (b. 1945) surmises:
Peter wants to collapse the distance between himself and Jesus by swimming ashore. Aware of the separation caused by his threefold denial of Jesus, the lapsed disciple presumed that he could single-handedly reverse the distance. Yet it is Jesus who must collapse the distance by restoring Peter (cf. John 21:15-17). (Resseguie, The Strange Gospel: Narrative Design and Point of View in John, 99)In clothing himself and vaulting into the sea (John 21:7), Peter makes a conscious, intentional, admittedly unorthodox decision to do anything humanly possible to reconnect with Jesus. In this moment, Peter sets an example for all disciples who follow.
Does Peter act correctly? What would have happened if all seven disciples had abandoned ship? How quickly would you jump at a chance to meet Jesus? How eager are you to bridge the gap between yourself and Christ? Have you become who you are meant to be in Christ or are you a shepherd wearing fishing garb?
“Progress is not possible without...deviating from the norm.” - Frank Zappa (1940-1993)