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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 122

Tractate 122 (John 20:30-21:11)

1. After telling us of the incident in connection with which the disciple Thomas had offered to his touch the places of the wounds in Christ's body, and saw what he would not believe, and believed, the evangelist John interposes these words, and says: And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life through His name. This paragraph indicates, as it were, the end of the book; but there is afterwards related how the Lord manifested Himself at the sea of Tiberias, and in the draught of fishes made special reference to the mystery of the Church, as regards its future character, in the final resurrection of the dead. I think, therefore, it is fitted to give special prominence thereto, that there has been thus interposed, as it were, an end of the book, and that there should be also a kind of preface to the narrative that was to follow, in order in some measure to give it a position of greater eminence. The narrative itself begins in this way: After these things Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and on this wise showed He (Himself). There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of His disciples. Simon Peter says unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with you.

2. The inquiry is usually made in connection with this fishing of the disciples, why Peter and the sons of Zebedee returned to what they were before being called by the Lord; for they were fishers when He said to them, Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men. Matthew 4:19 And they put such reality into their following of Him then, that they left all in order to cleave to Him as their Master: so much so, that when the rich man went away from Him in sorrow, because of His saying to him, Go sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come follow me, Peter said unto Him, Lo, we have forsaken all, and followed You. Why is it then that now, by the abandonment as it were of their apostleship, they become what they were, and seek again what they had forsaken, as if forgetful of the words they had once listened to, No man, putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of heaven? Luke 9:62 Had they done so when Jesus was lying in the grave, before He rose from the dead—which of course they could not have done, as the day whereon He was crucified kept them all in closest attention till His burial, which took place before evening; while the next day was the Sabbath, when it was unlawful for those who observed the ancestral custom to work at all; and on the third day the Lord rose again, and re called them to the hope which they had not yet begun to entertain regarding Him—yet had they then done so, we might suppose it had been done under the influence of that despair which had taken possession of their minds. But now, after His restoration to them alive from the tomb, after the most evident truth of His revivified flesh offered to their eyes and hands, not only to be seen, but also to be touched and handled; after inspecting the very marks of the wounds, even to the confession of the Apostle Thomas, who had previously declared that he would not otherwise believe; after the reception by His breathing on them of the Holy Spirit, and after the words poured from His lips into their ears, As the Father has sent me, even so send I you: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever ye retain, they are retained: they suddenly become again what they had been, fishers, not of men, but of fishes.

3. We have therefore to give those who are disturbed by this the answer, that they were not prohibited from seeking necessary sustenance by their manual craft, when lawful in itself, and warranted so long as they preserved their apostleship intact, if at any time they had no other means of gaining a livelihood. Unless any one have the boldness to imagine or to affirm, that the Apostle Paul attained not to the perfection of those who left all and followed Christ, seeing that, in order not to become a burden to any of those to whom he preached the gospel, he worked with his own hands for his support: 2 Thessalonians 3:8 wherein we find rather the fulfillment of his own words, I labored more abundantly than they all; and to which he added, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me: 1 Corinthians 15:10 to make it manifest that this also was to be imputed to the grace of God, that both with mind and body he was able to labor so much more abundantly than they all, that he neither ceased from preaching the gospel, nor drew, like them, his present support out of the gospel; while he was sowing it much more widely and fruitfully through multitudes of nations where the name of Christ had never previously been proclaimed. Whereby he showed that living, that is, deriving their subsistence, by the gospel, was not imposed on the apostles as a necessity, but conferred on them as a power. And of this power the same apostle makes mention when he says: If we have sown to you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we reap your carnal things? If others are partakers of this power among you, are not we rather? But, he adds, we have not used this power. And a little afterwards he says: They who serve the altar are partakers with the altar: even so has the Lord ordained, that they who preach the gospel should live of the gospel; but I have used none of these things. It is clear enough, therefore, that it was not enjoined on the apostles, but put in their power, not to find their living otherwise than by the gospel, and of those to whom by preaching the gospel they sowed spiritual things, to reap their carnal things; that is, to take their bodily support, and, as the soldiers of Christ, to receive the wages due to them, as from the inhabitants of provinces subject to Christ. Hence that same illustrious soldier had said a little before, in reference to this matter, Who goes a warfare any time at his own charges? Which he nevertheless did himself; for he labored more abundantly than they all. If, then, the blessed Paul— that he might not use with them the power which he certainly possessed along with the other preachers of the gospel, but went a warfare at his own charges, that the Gentiles, who were utterly averse to the name of Christ, might not take offense at his teaching, as something offered them for a money equivalent—in a way very different from that in which he had been educated, learned an altogether new art, that while the teacher supports himself with his own hands, none of his hearers might be burdened; how much rather did the blessed Peter, who had beforetimes been a fisherman, do what he was already acquainted with, if at that present time he found no other means of gaining a livelihood?

4. But some one will reply, And why did he not find them, when the Lord had promised, saying, Seek first the kingdom and righteousness of God, and all these things shall be added unto you? Matthew 6:33 Precisely also in this very way did the Lord fulfill His promise. For who else placed there the fishes that were to be caught, but He, who, we are bound to believe, threw them into the penury that compelled them to go a fishing, for no other reason than that He wished to show them the miracle He had prepared, that so He might both feed the preachers of His gospel, and at the same time enhance that gospel itself, by the great mystery which He was about to impress on their minds by the number of the fishes? And on this subject we also ought now to be telling you what He Himself has set before us.

5. Simon Peter, therefore, says, I go a fishing. Those who were with him say unto him, We also go with you. And they went forth, and entered into a ship; and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore; but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus says unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered Him, No. He says unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and you shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved says unto Peter, It is the Lord. When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his coat unto him, for he was naked, and did cast himself into the sea. And the other disciples came in a little ship (for they were not far from the land, but as it were two hundred cubits), dragging the net with fishes. As soon then as they had come to land, they saw a fire of coals laid, and a fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus says unto them, Bring of the fish which you have now caught. Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.

6. This is a great mystery in the great Gospel of John; and to commend it the more forcibly to our attention, the last chapter has been made its place of record. Accordingly, inasmuch as there were seven disciples taking part in that fishing, Peter, and Thomas, and Nathaneal, and the two sons of Zebedee, and two others whose names are withheld, they point, by their septenary number, to the end of time. For there is a revolution of all time in seven days. To this also pertains the statement, that when the morning had come, Jesus stood on the shore; for the shore likewise is the limit of the sea, and signifies therefore the end of the world. The same end of the world is shown also by the act of Peter, in drawing the net to land, that is, to the shore. Which the Lord has Himself elucidated, when in a certain other place He drew His similitude from a fishing net let down into the sea: And they drew it, He said, to the shore. And in explanation of what that shore was, He added, So will it be in the end of the world. Matthew 13:48-49

7. That, however, is a parable in word, not one embodied in outward action; and just as in the passage before us the Lord indicated by an outward action the kind of character the Church would have in the end of the world, so in the same way, by that other fishing, He indicated its present character. In doing the one at the commencement of His preaching and this latter after His resurrection, He showed thereby in the former case that the capture of fishes signified the good and bad presently existing in the Church; but in the latter, the good only, whom it will contain everlastingly, when the resurrection of the dead shall have been completed in the end of this world. Furthermore, on that previous occasion Jesus stood not, as here, on the shore, when He gave orders for the taking of the fish, but entered into one of the ships, which was Simon's, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land; and He sat down therein, and taught the crowds. And when He had left speaking, He said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. There also they put the fishes that were caught into the ship, and did not, as here, draw the net to the shore. By these signs, and any others that may be found, on the former occasion the Church was prefigured as it exists in this world, and on the other, as it shall be in the end of the world: the one accordingly took place before, and the other subsequently to the resurrection of the Lord; because there we were signified by Christ as called, and here as raised from the dead. On that occasion the nets are not let down on the right side, that the good alone might not be signified, nor on the left, lest the application should be limited to the bad; but without any reference to either side, He says, Let down your nets for a draught, that we may understand the good and bad as mingled together: while on this He says, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, to signify those who stood on the right hand, the good alone. There the net was broken on account of the schisms that were meant to be signified; but here, as then there will be no more schisms in that supreme peace of the saints, the evangelist was entitled to say, And for all they were so great, that is, so large, yet was not the net broken; as if with reference to the previous time when it was broken, and a commendation of the good that was here in comparison with the evil that preceded. There the multitude of fishes caught was so great, that the two vessels were filled and began to sink, Luke 5:3-7 that is, were weighed down to the point of sinking; for they did not actually sink, but were in extreme jeopardy. For whence exist in the Church the great evils under which we groan, save from the impossibility of withstanding the enormous multitude that, almost to the entire subversion of discipline, gain an entrance, with their morals so utterly at variance with the pathway of the saints? Here, however, they cast the net on the right side, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes. What is meant by the words, Now they were not able to draw it, but this, that those who belong to the resurrection of life, that is to say, to the right hand, and depart this life within the nets of the Christian name, will be made manifest only on the shore, in other words, when they shall rise from the dead at the end of the world? Accordingly, they were not able to draw the nets so as to discharge into the vessel the fishes they had caught, as was done with all of those wherewith the net was broken, and the boats laden to sinking. But the Church possesses those right-hand ones after the close of this life in the sleep of peace, lying hid as it were in the deep, till the net reach the shore whither it is being drawn, as it were two hundred cubits. And as on that first occasion it was done by two vessels, with reference to the circumcision and the uncircumcision; so in this place, by the two hundred cubits, I am of opinion that there is symbolized, with reference to the elect of both classes, the circumcision and the uncircumcision, as it were two separate hundreds; because the number that passes to the right hand is represented summarily by hundreds. And last of all, in that former fishing the number of fishes is not expressed, as if the words were there acted on that were uttered by the prophet, I have declared and spoken; they are multiplied beyond number: while here there are none beyond calculation, but the definite number of a hundred and fifty and three; and of the reason of this number we must now, with the Lord's help, give some account.

8. For if we determine on the number that should indicate the law, what else can it be but ten? For we have absolute certainty that the Decalogue of the law, that is, those ten well-known precepts, were first written by the finger of God on two tables of stone. Deuteronomy 9:10 But the law, when it is not aided by grace, makes transgressors, and is only in the letter, on account of which the apostle specially declared, The letter kills, but the spirit gives life. 2 Corinthians 3:6 Let the spirit then be added to the letter, lest the letter kill him whom the spirit makes not alive, and let us work out the precepts of the law, not in our own strength, but by the grace of the Saviour. But when grace is added to the law, that is, the spirit to the letter, there is, in a kind of way, added to ten the number of seven. For this number, namely seven, is testified by the documents of holy writ given us for perusal, to signify the Holy Spirit. For example, sanctity or sanctification properly pertains to the Holy Spirit, whence, as the Father is a spirit, and the Son a spirit, because God is a spirit, so the Father is holy and the Son holy, yet the Spirit of both is called peculiarly by the name of the Holy Spirit. Where, then, was there the first distinct mention of sanctification in the law but on the seventh day? For God sanctified not the first day, when He made the light; nor the second, when He made the firmament; nor the third, when He separated the sea from the land, and the land brought forth grass and timber; nor the fourth, wherein the stars were created; nor the fifth, wherein were created the animals that live in the waters or fly in the air; nor the sixth, when the terrestrial living soul and man himself were created; but He sanctified the seventh day, wherein He rested from all His works. The Holy Spirit, therefore, is aptly represented by the septenary number. The prophet Isaiah likewise says, The Spirit of God shall rest on Him; and thereafter calls our attention to that Spirit in His septenary work or grace, by saying, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and piety; and He shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of God. Isaiah 11:2-3 And what of the Revelation? Are they not there called the seven Spirits of God, Revelation 3:1 while there is only one and the same Spirit dividing to every one severally as He will? 1 Corinthians 12:11 But the septenary operation of the one Spirit was so called by the Spirit Himself, whose own presence in the writer led to their being spoken of as the seven Spirits. Accordingly, when to the number of ten, representing the law, we add the Holy Spirit as represented by seven, we have seventeen; and when this number is used for the adding together of every several number it contains, from 1 up to itself, the sum amounts to one hundred and fifty-three. For if you add 2 to 1, you have 3 of course; if to these you add 3 and 4, the whole makes 10; and then if you add all the numbers that follow up to 17, the whole amounts to the foresaid number; that is, if to 10, which you had reached by adding all together from 1 to 4, you add 5, you have 15; to these add 6, and the result is 21; then add 7, and you have 28; to this add 8, and 9, and 10, and you get 55; to this add 11 and 12, and 13, and you have 91; and to this again add 14, 15, and 16, and it comes to 136; and then add to this the remaining number of which we have been speaking, namely, 17, and it will make up the number of fishes. But it is not on that account merely a hundred and fifty-three saints that are meant as hereafter to rise from the dead unto life eternal, but thousands of saints who have shared in the grace of the Spirit, by which grace harmony is established with the law of God, as with an adversary; so that through the life-giving Spirit the letter no longer kills, but what is commanded by the letter is fulfilled by the help of the Spirit, and if there is any deficiency it is pardoned. All therefore who are sharers in such grace are symbolized by this number, that is, are symbolically represented. This number has, besides, three times over, the number of fifty, and three in addition, with reference to the mystery of the Trinity; while, again, the number of fifty is made up by multiplying 7 by 7, with the addition of 1, for 7 times 7 make 49. And the 1 is added to show that there is one who is expressed by seven on account of His sevenfold operation; and we know that it was on the fiftieth day after our Lord's ascension that the Holy Spirit was sent, for whom the disciples were commanded to wait according to the promise.

9. It was not, then, without a purpose that these fishes were described as so many in number, and so large in size, that is, as both an hundred and fifty-three, and large. For so it is written, And He drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three. For when the Lord said, I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill, because about to give the Spirit, through whom the law might be fulfilled, and to add thereby, as it were, seven to ten; after interposing a few other words He proceeded, Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. The latter, therefore, may possibly belong to the number of great fishes. But he that is the least, who undoes in deed what he teaches in word, may be in such a church as is signified by that first capture of fishes, which contains both good and bad, for it also is called the kingdom of heaven, as He says, The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was cast into the sea, and gathered of ever kind; Matthew 13:47 where He wishes the good as well as the bad to be understood, and of whom He declares that they are yet to be separated on the shore, to wit, at the end of the world. And lastly, to show that those least ones are reprobates who teach by word of mouth the good which they undo by their evil lives, and that they will not be even the least, as it were, in the life that is eternal, but will have no place there at all; after saying, He shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, He immediately added, For I say unto you, That unless your righteousness shall exceed [the righteousness] of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20 Such, doubtless— these scribes and Pharisees— are those who sit in Moses' seat, and of whom He says, Do ye what they say, but do not what they do; for they say, and do not. Matthew 23:2-3 They teach in sermons what they undo by their morals. It therefore follows that he who is least in the kingdom of heaven, as the Church now exists, shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven, as the Church shall be hereafter; for by teaching what he himself is in the habit of breaking, he can have no place in the company of those who do what they teach, and therefore will not be in the number of great fishes, seeing it is he who shall do and teach that shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. And because he will be great here, therefore shall he be there, where he that is least shall not be. Yea, so great will they certainly be there, that he who is less there is greater than the greatest here. Matthew 11:11 And yet those who are great here, that is, who do the good that they teach in that kingdom of heaven into which the net gathers good and bad, shall be greater still in that eternal state of the heavenly kingdom,— those, I mean, who are indicated by the fishes here as belonging to the right hand and to the resurrection of life. We have still to discourse, as God shall grant us ability, on the meal that the Lord took with those seven disciples, and on the words He spoke after the meal, as well as on the close of the Gospel itself; but these are topics that cannot be included in the present lecture.

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Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701122.htm>.

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