Jesus Forms Peter as a Leader and as a Disciple (21:15-23) - IVP New Testament Commentary Series (2023)

Jesus' inviting his disciples to share a meal signals his love and fellowship with them. But he has unfinished business with Peter, the one who denied him in a special way. After breakfast Jesus speaks to Peter. Throughout this story Peter has been referred to as Simon Peter (vv. 2-3, 7b, 11) or simply as Peter (v. 7a), the name Jesus had given him (1:42; cf. Mk 3:16 par. Lk 6:14). But now Jesus calls him by his former name, Simon son of John (v. 15), "as if he were no longer (or not yet!) a disciple" (Michaels 1989:359).

In the first part of this chapter Jesus began with a question that revealed the disciples' poverty (v. 5), and then he gave a series of commands (vv. 6, 10, 12). So also now he questions Peter and then gives a command, and he does so three times. His question is extremely searching, indeed, it is the ultimate question in life: do you truly love me more than these? (v. 15). What does these refer to? If it is the net and boat, then this question gets at the central point of discipleship and reveals a person's heart. What do we love the most? Have we abandoned all to follow Jesus? Every time we are faced with a temptation this question is raised. Every time we become preoccupied with even the good things God gives us this question is raised.

But, while all of this is true, it is probably not the specific point here. By these Jesus probably means "these other disciples." According to the other Gospels, Peter had boasted that though all the others fall away, he would not (Mt 26:33 par. Mk 14:29; cf. Lk 22:33; Jn 13:37). John does not record this boast, but Peter's actions in swimming to shore and hauling up the net by himself reveal the same attitude. Jesus' question, therefore, goes even deeper than the issue of false attachments. He gets at the root of all sin, namely, pride.

Peter replies, Yes, Lord, . . . you know that I love you (v. 15). He does not claim to love Jesus more than the others do, which suggests he has benefited from having reflected on his shameful denials of the Lord. This response is typical of true discipleship, for it is humble and focuses on the Lord's own knowledge. According to the NIV it is also a humble response in that Peter does not claim to truly love Jesus, but only to love him. Behind this translation there are two verbs for love, truly love (agapao) and love (phileo). In the past it was common to find a great distinction between these two words, but in recent years the idea that they are close synonyms has come to prevail (for example, Carson 1991:676-77). The older idea that agapao is divine love and phileo a lower, human love does indeed go too far. For both verbs are used of the love of the Father for the Son (3:35; 5:20), and agapao can be used of false love, for example, the love of this world (2 Tim 4:10). So a simple distinction between the verbs is not justified, but this does not mean there is no distinction at all. For in this passage there is a pattern, with Jesus asking Peter twice whether he loves him (agapao) and each time Peter responding that, yes, he does love him (phileo). Then the third time Jesus switches to using Peter's word. Such a pattern suggests there is a distinction here (McKay 1985; H. C. G. Moule 1898:176), and since agapao is used more often in John for God's love than is phileo, "it was likely that agapao would be chosen for the higher meaning" (McKay 1985:322). The present context itself supports this view, for otherwise Peter would be claiming "the higher meaning" from the outset, which would not fit with his more chastened perspective. So the NIV seems justified in distinguishing these two terms in the present context.

Peter was not boastful when Jesus gave him the opportunity to be (v. 15), but by the third time Jesus asks whether he loves him, Peter is hurt, that is, deeply grieved (elypethe, v. 17). Jesus' asking three times recalls the three denials, and Peter's pride is cut to the quick. Here we see the Great Physician performing painful but necessary surgery. The light is shining in the darkness of Peter's heart, bringing life. For this is what John of the Ladder (c. A.D. 570-649) refers to as "joy-producing sorrow" (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, chap. 7), the repentance that enables one to experience the Lord's love and salvation. Without such brokenness we are full of self and unable to hear and receive the guidance of the Chief Shepherd.

In response to this searing third question, Peter says, Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you (v. 17). Two different words for "know" are used here, although these are not distinguished in the NIV. But as with the two words for "love," these words are in a pattern. Each time Peter has responded you know (sy oidas, vv. 15-17), but now he adds you know [sy ginoskeis] that I love you. The pattern here suggests that there is a distinction between oida and ginosko, with the latter perhaps meaning "you must be able to see" (McKay 1981:304). This shift of vocabulary, along with the reference to all things, reflects a view of the Lord that is more exalted and suggests that Peter's humility is deeper. "Do you see how he has become better and more sober, no longer self-willed or contradicting?" (Chrysostom In John 88.1). Peter is dying to self and finding his confidence only in the Lord. It is the Lord who knows (cf. 1:42, 47-48; 2:25). Despite the appearances, Peter does love Jesus.

After each profession of love Jesus gives a similar command, using different words. First he is to feed [boske] lambs (arnia, v. 15); then he is to shepherd [poimaine] sheep (probata, v. 16). The third command includes a word from both of the previous commands (v. 17, boske/probata), thereby tying the three commands together. While attempts have been made to find significant differences in these words, none are convincing (Brown 1970:1104-6; McKay 1985:332). Rather, this pattern suggests we have a comprehensive image of shepherding, a very familiar figure of speech for leadership over God's people. God himself was known as the shepherd of Israel (Gen 49:24; Ps 80:1; Is 40:11), and under him the leaders of his people were known as shepherds (2 Sam 5:2; Jer 23:4; Ezek 34). This motif continues in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:1-4). Jesus himself is the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:1-18), and now he commissions Peter to care for the flock that belongs to Jesus, for they are my lambs . . . my sheep. The community has already been established, and now Peter is given authority, though of a particular kind.

The key qualification for this task, as this chapter indicates, is a love for Jesus that is characterized by humility, dependence and obedience. Peter already had a devotion to Jesus, but he was still full of self will and was thrusting himself to the front. Such a proud attitude of heart would spell disaster for the community, as had already been evident in Israel's history right up to the opponents who had just had Jesus crucified and as has sadly been just as evident in the history of the church. But Peter himself learned his lesson, as is clear from his first letter. When he addresses the elders of the communities he does so as a "fellow elder" and encourages them to "be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers . . . not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away" (1 Pet 5:1-4). Here is authority exercised in humility and conscious of the Chief Shepherd. Such are marks of a true shepherd.

Jesus had predicted Peter's denials after Peter had said he was willing to die with him (13:37-38). Jesus told him, "Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later" (13:36). Here now is the call to follow. After Peter professes his obedient love, Jesus spells out the cost of that love. He contrasts Peter's youth, his life up to this point, with what is coming. He has been able to go wherever he wanted, but when he is old, Jesus tells him, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go (v. 18). Here is an explicit contrast between Peter's life of self will and his coming under the will of another. He has just submitted to Jesus and his will, and now Jesus says such submission is going to include being taken where he does not want to go.

John says this obscure saying is an indication of the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God (v. 19). The translation of the NIV (v. 18) could be a picture of death from natural causes after increasing senility. But according to tradition, Peter was crucified head down during the Neronian persecution in the midsixties A.D. (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.25.5; 3.1.2-3). So John, late in the first century, knows that Peter's hands were stretched out and tied to a cross. The word dress (zonnymi) is a play on words. It is used for getting dressed, but it specifically means to gird, that is, fasten a belt or rope around one's clothes. While this word is not used for the binding of prisoners (cf. 18:12, 24; Acts 21:11-13), this could be the significance of this image. More likely, however, it refers here to the binding of a person's arms to the crossbeam as they are led to crucifixion (Beasley-Murray 1987:408-9).

The Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep, and this shepherd will have to do likewise, though his death will not, of course, take away the sins of the world. He has submitted his will to God, and his death, like Jesus' death, will be in accordance with God's will and thereby glorify him (Moloney 1998:556). Furthermore, in the death of Jesus the glory of God is revealed since God is love and love is the laying down of one's life (1 Jn 4:8; 3:16). So now Jesus predicts that Peter also will glorify God by his death (v. 19).

Having spelled out his will for Peter, Jesus calls him to follow him (v. 19). Peter had answered such a call at the outset of the ministry, but now he understands much more about who Jesus is and what following him entails. He has also received a commission from the Lord for leadership in the community. So this is a call to recommit himself. Just as this Gospel shows that faith must be exercised in the face of each new revelation, so one's commitment to Jesus must be renewed as one learns more of Christ and his call.

Jesus has been teaching Peter many lessons in this encounter on the beach, but in what follows it is clear that Peter has more to learn. Peter has had his attention fixed on Jesus ever since the Beloved Disciple told him the person on the beach was Jesus, but now he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the Beloved Disciple, who is following (v. 20). Apparently Jesus and Peter have had this conversation while walking along the beach. The NIV says the Beloved Disciple was following them, but the word them is not in the text. The NIV thus obscures the connection, for right after Jesus commands Peter to follow him we hear of one who is following. The Beloved Disciple is identified as the one who leaned against Jesus and asked who would betray him (v. 20; 13:25). This note recalls that first explicit reference to the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel and the setting in which Jesus demonstrated his love and servanthood, key characteristics about which he has just been speaking to Peter. It also recalls the insight Jesus granted to the Beloved Disciple. Peter now tries to assume this same role and asks for insight regarding his friend (v. 21).

In response Jesus speaks strong words to Peter. Peter's old habit of lapsing into error right after experiencing truth is still present (cf. Mt 16:16, 22-23 par. Mk 8:29, 33). He is sure of the Lord's knowledge (cf. v. 17), but he has not learned what submission to his will entails (vv. 18-19). Jesus repeats his call: If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me (v. 22). Jesus is indeed Lord, and his will shall be accomplished in the Beloved Disciple's life, but that is none of Peter's business. Peter can trust Jesus with the life of his friend.

Jesus' statement about the Beloved Disciple, like that about Peter (v. 18), is rather obscure. It includes a clear reference to Jesus' personal return, but what does it mean for the Beloved Disciple to remain (menein)? The NIV interprets it to mean remain alive, and certainly this is how the later disciples, the brothers (v. 23), took it. But since it is the word used for indwelling Christ, as in the image of the vine and the branches (15:4-7), a spiritual sense could be involved. John distinguishes carefully between what Jesus actually said and how it was interpreted (v. 23). Such lack of attention to the precise words of God has been a source of difficulty ever since the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:16-17; 3:1-5, 13). This misunderstanding highlights the need for the instruction of the Paraclete (14:26).

It is usually assumed that this correction (v. 23) implies that the Beloved Disciple has in fact died or is very near death. Such may be the case, but the text does not say as much. The Beloved Disciple could still be in the prime of life, and here he is simply trying to squelch an error he knows to be floating around among the disciples. Jesus' will is the crucial factor, whatever remain might mean.

A number of scholars think there is a rivalry between the Beloved Disciple and Peter, but this final chapter shows them to be friends of one another and to both have special roles in the community. Peter will be a shepherd, and the Beloved Disciple is able to discern the Lord and receive insight into his life and thought. Accordingly, the conclusion will focus on the Beloved Disciple as witness.

IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

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