Eschatology in John chapter 21

This passage from the Gospel of John struck me as filled with eschatological meaning. On the literal or direct level of meaning, it is certainly an accurate description of actual events after the Resurrection of Jesus, prior to His Ascension. But on the spiritual or indirect level of meaning, it speaks of the future of the Church, especially during the tribulation.

{21:3} Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “And we are going with you.” And they went and climbed into the ship. And in that night, they caught nothing.
{21:4} But when morning arrived, Jesus stood on the shore. Yet the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
{21:5} Then Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any food?” They answered him, “No.”
{21:6} He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the ship, and you will find some.” Therefore, they cast it out, and then they were not able to draw it in, because of the multitude of fish.

The disciples fished all night and caught nothing. Night symbolizes the difficult years of the tribulation, when the world is dominated by all manner of sins, and the true faith is ridiculed and rejected. The more sinful the world, the more difficult it is to obtain the conversion of sinners.

When Jesus arrives, the light dawns. This symbolizes Jesus, as the light of the world, and the only true path of salvation. When Jesus returns, at the end of the tribulation, the Church will suddenly have great success in converting sinners. A great multitude of sinners will convert, even those whose sins were exceedingly grave.

{21:11} Simon Peter climbed up and drew in the net to land: full of large fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.

The size of the fish symbolizes the number save: large fish means a large number saved. The number of fish indicates one of the ways that they are saved: 153 fish representing the number of Hail Marys in the traditional pattern of the Rosary. The net was not torn, indicating that the Church will remain indefectible, whether it is the darkest night or the brightest dawn.

{21:15} Then, when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
{21:16} He said to him again: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
{21:17} He said to him a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was very grieved that he had asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” And so he said to him: “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my sheep.

The three times that Jesus asked Peter to feed His sheep represents three period of time: the first part of the tribulation, the inter-tribulation period, and the second part of the tribulation. The Church feeds the faithful during the difficult years of the first part of the tribulation. But next there is a brief time of peace and holiness (at the start of the inter-tribulation period) when the Church has great success in preaching the Gospel. That time will see many new converts, many tender lambs, who will need the guidance of the Church. So the second time, Jesus says “lambs”, rather than “sheep”.

Then the worst sufferings for the Church in the world occurs during the second part of the tribulation. But the Church remains faithful to Christ, feeding His flock during a time of great sufferings. Peter was very grieved at the third time, because the Church will be greatly grieved during this third period of time. And the perseverance in love of Peter represents the perseverance in love of the Church on earth, throughout all three time periods.

{21:18} Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked wherever you wanted. But when you are older, you will extend your hands, and another shall gird you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
{21:19} Now he said this to signify by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

These words also apply to the future of the Church. When the Church was young, She largely did as She pleased in the world. She established churches in every nation. She did endure persecutions from time to time in certain places. But the limitations on the Church have not been excessive — until the tribulation. Then the Church will suffer more than ever before. And when the Church is older, in the second part of the tribulation, the entire world (every government and all cultures) will oppose Her. Christianity will be a ridiculed and outlawed religion. Christians will be taken away to prison or to death. The Church will be, in a sense, held captive by this worldwide hatred of Christianity: “Then they will hand you over to tribulation, and they will kill you. And you will be hated by all nations for the sake of my name.” (Mt 24:9).

{21:20} Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, the one who also had leaned on his chest at supper and said, “Lord, who is it who shall betray you?”

Many Christians will fall away from the true faith, during the first and second parts of the tribulation. The Eucharist will be at the center of some of these controversies among Catholic Christians.

{21:21} Therefore, when Peter had seen him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, but what about this one?”
{21:22} Jesus said to him: “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow me.”
{21:23} Therefore, the saying went out among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you?”

John represents a certain part of the Church on earth, which is spared from the worst sufferings of the second part of the tribulation. “And the two wings of a great eagle were given to the woman, so that she might fly away, into the desert, to her place, where she is being nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.” (Rev 12:14). The other eleven Apostles, Matthias replacing Judas, died as martyrs, but John was spared. This was a great foreshadowing of the future of the Church, when a portion of the Church will be spared from the extreme persecution of the second part of the tribulation, in some part of the world.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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