Mosaic of eagle representing St John the Evangelist

Notes on John 21 15-25

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, April 15 is John 21:15-25, the continuation and conclusion of John’s account of the Jesus’ third resurrection appearance, which is also the conclusion of John’s gospel. Here are my notes on the text (which are longer than usual, for some reason, so, apologies as needed):

Background and Contexts: Historically, as we saw last week, we think John’s gospel is the last to be written, from around the end of the first century. It is strikingly different in various ways from the other three “synoptic” gospels – different style, different episodes included, different chronological organization and memory, etc. People have thought the Johannine literature emanates from a distinctive community of early Christians, maybe centered in Ephesus/Asia Minor, with a distinctive form of piety. So, then, could this text – with its concluding reflections on Simon Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved” and their relationship to one another – have something to do with the relationship between this Johannine community and the larger church? We can keep that in mind, along with the corollary “what would that mean for a reader today?” This reading gets a little push from my study Bibles, which all raise the possibility that this chapter might be a “later addition” to the gospel, written by followers of the disciple-author, presumably working with the author, or using material from that source.

In literary context, this is the concluding conclusion to the gospel of John. It follows immediately on, and is really part of, the story of Jesus’ third and final resurrection appearance to the disciples, which began with seven of the disciples, 5 named, going fishing – on Simon Peter’s initiative. We could expect this conclusion to pull together any last loose ends, and maybe to provide an orientation for what to do as a consequence of having read the whole text.

In particular, Jesus’ exchange with Peter seems to respond to and echo Peter’s denial of Jesus in chapter 18 (15-18, 25-27), which Jesus had predicted earlier (13:36-38). Jesus had also predicted his own betrayal (13:21-30), and that episode involved an exchange between Simon Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” In fact, Simon Peter seems to rely a lot on “the disciple whom Jesus loved” for intel (13:24-26; maybe 18:15-16 – that episode, moreover, is what gives Peter the opportunity to deny Jesus in the first place; definitely 21:7; and maybe we should include in here 20:2-10). In any event, these two disciples have played significant, and related, roles in the gospel up until now. So these final verses might serve the function of clarifying these two disciples’ relationship a bit more.

Christ's charge to Peter by Raphael
“Feed my sheep,” according to Raphael, who can’t count

Closer Reading: The text starts out on the beach, after breakfast (around a “charcoal fire” – compare 18:18) of loaves and fish with Jesus, whom all seven of the disciples “know” is “the Lord.” Jesus initiates a dialogue with “Simon, [son] of John” that seems to have two parts: a litany-like series of three questions, three answers, and three instructions (vv15-17), and then Jesus’ prediction of Simon Peter’s future, with a final instruction (“follow me,” vv18-19). There follows an exchange between Simon Peter and Jesus begun by Simon Peter, on the subject of the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (vv20-23), which seems to occur as the disciples are in motion. Finally, the last two verses identify the author, attest to the text’s truth, and offer their concluding praise of Jesus (vv24-25) – a kind of final looking back, and perhaps also forward. In all of this, the only named characters are Simon Peter (whom Jesus addresses as Simon, [son] of John), Jesus, and the disciple whom Jesus loved. However, we have no reason to believe that the other disciples who were present in vv2-14 have disappeared, so presumably they are an audience for the dialogue that follows.

The question-and-answer session between Jesus and Simon Peter (vv15-17) consists of Jesus’ three questions, Peter’s three answers, and Jesus’ three instructions (or maybe one instruction three times), with a little note on Peter’s emotional state in v17. Jesus says, “Simon, son of John, (in Greek, literally, “of John”), do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter says, “yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus says “feed my lambs” or “tend my sheep” or “feed my sheep.” I have heard my share of sermons on the significance of Jesus using the Greek verb agapaō in the first two questions and the Greek verb phileō in the third question. This has been explained as Jesus holding Peter to a high standard of love – agape love, the kind of unconditional, self-giving love God has for humanity, for instance – and Peter declining to claim such a high standard – especially in light of his earlier denial – and responding with a different kind of love, philios, “I love you like a brother, man” kind of love, and finally Jesus reaching down for that same, less demanding kind of love in the third question, and Peter feeling sad about that because, maybe, it signifies that Jesus knows everything, or because it signifies that Jesus is making a concession to Peter’s self-abasement …

But Peter probably already knew that Jesus knew everything. After all, Jesus had predicted this whole event. And Peter repeats to Jesus, “Lord, you know …” and finally says “Lord, you know everything” (v17). If we are supposed to pay attention to the specific verbs, the contrast between agape and philios might be leading us in the direction of not getting our hubris up, as Peter did back in chapter 13, and recognizing our limitations. Jesus still tells Peter to “feed my sheep” when they’ve established that philios is all Peter is willing to claim.

Tintoretto's Christ at the Sea of Galilee
Tintoretto CAN count, and Simon Peter is looking quite saintly already

However, all the commentators I’ve read have pulled back from making much of these different verbs, saying that the differences are about literary style, variety, and not theology. Same with the difference between “feeding” and “tending,” the difference between “lambs” and “sheep,” and presumably also the difference between “know” (eidon) and “know” (ginoskō) in Peter’s declaration in v17, another one we might be tempted to read something into, because these two words for “knowing” have some pretty different connotations, with the second kind of knowing being more immediate, inner knowledge, the kind that gave rise to the “gnosticism” of the “gnostics.” Maybe it’s the commentators’ response to all those sermons. (“Hey, preachers, let’s not get carried away, just because you took a semester of Greek in seminary, ok?”)

There is an ambiguity in the whole exchange that can’t be resolved, that we just have to either decide, or recognize that we can’t decide. When Jesus says “more than these,” there’s not enough context to know whether “these” means the fish, the fishing boat, and everything that goes with the life of being a fisherman, or whether “these” means the other disciples. And if it means the other disciples, we still can’t tell whether “more than” means “so, do you love me more than you love these other guys?” or “so, do you love me more than these other guys do?” Simon Peter might not have been entirely sure, either. And since we readers of today might need to ask all of those questions of ourselves – how much do we love Jesus? More than we love our stuff? More than we love our friends? More than our friends love Jesus? – maybe it’s just as well that we can’t decide the matter for sure. Maybe part of the reason there are three questions in this litany is that there are three possible things the question can mean, so three questions cover all the bases. It’s more common, though, to notice that Peter is given three opportunities to declare his love for Jesus, which corresponds to the three times he denied even knowing Jesus back in chapter 18. At the end of this exchange he’s been publicly restored – as well as commissioned, with a change of job description, from fisherman to shepherd.

In v19, “the kind of death by which he would glorify God” seems to refer back to the “stretch out your hands” in v18, a reference to crucifixion. But it seems more significant to me that Jesus emphasizes the contrast between Peter’s going wherever he wants (like, possibly, “fishing”) and going where he does not wish, and that it’s at this point that Jesus says “follow me.” We might also ask what it means that a death glorifies God? Jesus’ death is depicted in John’s gospel as glorifying God, and it seems to do that because Jesus does everything God tells him to do. That is probably relevant here; presumably, Peter’s death will glorify God, because Peter will (now, when he is “older” – more mature) be faithful, even when it’s less than enjoyable. “Follow me” here, then, seems to imply what we would today call “informed consent” – Peter knows what he’s agreeing to. Maybe, so do we.

V20 is peculiar. Why not use the disciple’s name? It would be simpler. And why identify him with a long reference to the story back in chapter 13 – reminding us of his involvement with that part of the story? It might even remind us that Peter had asked this disciple to ask Jesus who was going to betray him – and why would the author want us to think about that right now? (Could there even be some residual guilt lingering because of that whole confused and confusing episode? If the disciple Jesus loved knew so much, why didn’t he do something about it …?) This disciple is following Peter, and Jesus, and perhaps the others. Peter had to “turn” even to notice this – maybe we don’t need to make too much out of this, but maybe it’s ok to point out that this means Peter had to take his eyes off Jesus and start paying attention to others. Whether that was wise or foolish is hard to say. After all, he’s supposed to be feeding the sheep, now, so he does need to pay attention to people other than himself.

But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down …

Jesus basically says it’s none of Peter’s business. But the way he says it gives rise to a rumor, which now has to be quashed. Why say it like that? Is this another reference to death, a contrasting reference? (“You, Peter, will die as I said, and what’s it to you if this one doesn’t die for a millennium or two?”) “You follow me.” It seems important that both of these disciples are following Jesus at this point. The disciple Jesus loves is even following Peter who is following Jesus. Whether this has something to do with first century church politics – maybe it does – for readers today it might more be a reminder that different people, with different relationships to Jesus, and to the church (assuming Peter represents “the Church,” which he might), count as “following” Jesus, and that other disciples’ relationship to Jesus is less the issue than our own activity of “following.”

It might be that the rumor had to be quashed for the sake of credibility. If Jesus had actually said “he won’t die,” and then he did die, it might have been more difficult to say “we know that his testimony is true” (v24). Otherwise, why spend two verses on rumor control?

And then there is v25 – one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible. John breaks the “wall” between text and reader more than once (for instance, look at v19), and does it here again. Maybe v25 gestures back to the prologue, to “all things were made by him” (1:3). But it certainly seems to point forward to the reader, and to the reader’s future – what did Jesus do in your experience? What is Jesus going to do in your experience?

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[Added 04.19.2023: questions on the text from 04.2018; notes from 04.2023; questions from 04.2023]

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