As I was reading the last chapter of John a few months ago, God began to show me how poetically the gospel of John ends. The details weave together perfectly to give the reader a beautiful crescendo of faith.
John tells us that faith/belief is the reason that he wrote his gospel: “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:30-31). John’s theme is faith; and in his last chapter, John drives this point home with one final story about Peter’s ultimate belief.
The last chapter reaches back to earlier episodes of unbelief and uses details from those stories to show how Peter’s attitudes have changed. In certain ways the last chapter book-ends the gospel; by reaching all the way back to details from the first chapter(s), John shows how Peter’s faith has come full circle. You can read the last story of John’s gospel here. Once you have, let’s have a closer look at this chapter, and pay special attention to the setting.
Notice that Peter is the main focus of this chapter. He is the first disciple mentioned in the story, and he is the one who suggests that they go fishing. Peter is the one who jumps in the water and swims to Jesus, and he is the one who Jesus spends most of the chapter talking to. Peter is our focus.
The first time that Peter met Jesus in chapter one, someone had to bring Peter to Jesus. This time he jumps out of the boat and swims to him on his own. When Andrew first introduced Peter to Jesus, Andrew called Jesus “the Messiah.” Now Peter swims when John says, “It is the Lord.” When Jesus meets Peter the first time, he calls him “Simon the son of Jona” (1:42); Jesus will make it a point to call Peter by this name again in the last chapter (21:15-17).
One of the disciples that Peter is with here is Nathanael. The only other time that John’s gospel mentions Nathanael is in the first chapter of the book (1:45-49). Nathanael’s presence at the very start and very end of the book should catch our attention. In the first chapter of the book, Philip finds Nathanael and tells him that Jesus is the messiah. But Nathanael is hesitant: “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” But when Nathanael comes to Jesus and speaks with him, Nathanael confesses “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the king of Israel” (1:45-51).
Nathanael as a character is emblematic of someone who doubts, but then experiences Christ and believes. This is who he is at the beginning of the book; at the end of the book, his presence once again signals that we are going to witness a transition from unbelief to faith.
We should also notice that Nathanael is described as being from “Cana in Galilee”. Galilee is mentioned in chapter 1; Jesus met Philip—the man who introduced Nathanael to Jesus—in Galilee (1:43ff). But Cana in Galilee should particularly stand out to us. We have seen Cana before, once more from the beginning of the gospel: this is where Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding (2:1ff).
Cana is where Jesus performed his first miracle; and Cana gets mentioned again right as he is about to perform his last miracle. Cana is where Jesus showed/ἐφανέρωσεν his glory (2:11); and Cana gets mentioned again when Jesus showed/ἐφανέρωσεν himself (21:1) to his disciples. Cana bespeaks of supernatural belief: this is where his disciples first “believed on him” (2:11), and this is where Peter will finally believe as well.
And Nathanael from Cana is not the only disciple with Peter. Thomas is also there. What greater example is there of unbelief that changed into faith? Thomas is the one who said, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (20:25). But when he saw Jesus, he said, “My Lord and my God” (20:28)! Like Nathanael, Thomas is another personification of unbelief that came to believe.
But the people with people are not the only factor we should notice. Look at where they are. They are at the sea of Tiberias, also known as the sea of Galilee. The last time that they were at Galilee is in John 6. It was on a mountain not far from here that Jesus sat down and fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. When the Peter and the disciples finally make it to land in John 21, Jesus has loaves and fish cooking on the fire for them. But the sea of Tiberias has an even more personal connection to Peter.
The last time that Peter plunged into the water of Tiberias, it was right after momentarily walking on the water before sinking because of unbelief (Matt14:28ff). Peter got out of the boat only to doubt and sink. This time he gets out of the boat in pure belief and swims to the Lord.
When Peter gets to land, there is a fire. Peter had denied the Lord three times at a fire (John 18:18). I don’t think it is any accident that Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times Peter confesses his love for the Lord. Each time the Lord asks, he calls Peter “Simon son of Jonas,” just as he did the first time they met. In this ultimate climax of Peter’s belief, it is as if Jesus is giving Peter a fresh start after his denial.
Every element of this last chapter reaches back to an earlier story, an earlier example of tested faith and unbelief. Jesus converges all of these symbols in this last moment of John’s gospel to bring Peter to his final moment of belief. And the beautiful thing is, if God will bring all of these elements together to help Peter believe, he will bring everything together in your life to help you believe as well.