painting of family group

Reflecting on John 21 15-19

Our class’s text for this week is John 21:15-19, the exchange between Jesus and Peter following the breakfast on the beach we looked at last week. So – we’re thinking about a story in which the risen Jesus has appeared to and interacted with [some of] his disciples, and now has this evidently profound, meaningful, compressed conversation with Peter. The conversation features interrogation, a kind of “if-then” structure, instructions or commands (however we want to describe those imperatives), and a prediction – the narrator tells us, a prediction about Peter’s death. That is: this is a brief, but weighty, exchange.

We’re accustomed to reading it in the context of Peter’s triple denial of Jesus back in John 18, which also takes place around a charcoal fire. So, it seems, this scene pointedly reverses that earlier, cringe-worthy, one.

One big question about this text, for me, is: what exactly is Jesus telling Peter to do? Do we think? “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” Seriously – we think it means something. We probably do not think it is an instruction for Peter to leave off his occupation as fisherman and turn to animal husbandry. But I think we are sometimes content to remain pretty vague about what we think Jesus DOES mean in this instruction. If we tried to be more specific, what would we come up with? [Is Jesus telling Peter to go become the first Pope, for instance? This is not an idle question.]

Because, then, do we think Jesus is also hereby instructing any other disciples, other Christians, any of us, some of us, today? And again, if so, what do we think “feeding” and “tending” specifically includes, and who or what is meant by “lambs” and “sheep”? That is: what does this mean we’re actually supposed to DO? Specifically? [And by specific I mean: Does sending birthday cards count? Or volunteering in a soup kitchen? Or … ?]

In case that doesn’t give us enough to chew on, here are a couple of other questions we might want to think about, or discuss in class [along with some notes on the text here and here]:

We could read this exchange in light of John 14:15 – “If you-all love me, you-all will keep my commandments.” What difference would it make in the way we understand this text if we did that? That is – does it change anything in the way we understand what Jesus is saying to Peter?

[More personal] What about, to us? Thoughts, feelings about that? Why?

In v19, the narrator tells us that Jesus indicates “the kind of death by which he [Peter] would glorify God.” What does it mean for death, or a death, to glorify God? How does, or can, a person’s death glorify God, do we think?

Do we think this dying a death that glorifies God was restricted to Jesus and the early disciples, or do we think people’s deaths, or some people’s deaths, can still glorify God? How? All kinds of deaths, or only some? Which ones? Why those, and not others?

What difference does it make for us how we answer these questions? That is – do these seem like questions we need to ask ourselves? Why?

[Honestly, maybe only because we (some of us at Corydon) are reading that book by Rob Moll, The Art of Dying: Living Fully Into the Life to Come, and because I feel that I’m a good deal closer to death than I used to be, it strikes me that we regular people of today do need to attend to these particular questions at some point … ]

impressionistic view of family members around a table lit by an oil lamp

Image: “A Family Around a Table,” Julius Paulsen (1919), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

7 responses to “Reflecting on John 21 15-19”

  1. Way off topic for today’s post, but I was looking at Joseph in Egypt a few days ago. In Genesis 40:7, Joseph asks the cupbearer and baker why their faces are cast down.

    Reminds me of Cain in chapter 4.

    My Hebrew is a hunt-n-peck search through strongs (very limited), and I wonder if this has come across your radar before and if you care to weigh in on it now. I expect you can shoot better off the cuff than I can in a week’s worth of research.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, well, my Hebrew is not what it used to be, but … looks like really different expressions, except that both involve the face. Genesis 4:5, Cain is “hot”/angry, and his face “falls.” We are probably meant to think of him frowning or scowling. Genesis 40:7, Pharaoh’s officers’ faces are “bad” (maybe, in the context, worried or distressed or troubled). So, from a vocabulary or idiom standpoint … just, two different things.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanx for the language input. That, of course, carries a lot of the weight, but do you get a sense of a worthwhile connection despite the lack of Hebrew word roots and so forth? Is this just a coincidence? Is it a mystery? Or do you think there’s some rich theological connection?

        I doubt you are still thinking about Genesis 4, but ever since you studied it, I keep thinking about it. The primordial history, I suspect, connects with various passages all through the OT and NT in illuminating ways the church has not been good at teaching. So, when I saw Joseph say that, it triggered a reaction for me. But I have not yet discovered any great meaning in it.

        Sorry, to distract your present post…


        Liked by 1 person

      • PS… Both passages are in the same book. Same writer. They nearly bookend the whole thing.

        BUT… I am also noting that both the cupbearer and baker, whose faces are downcast in v. 7, have their heads lifted up in three days, one to be set free, the other to die.

        I’m betting the language is significant to those dream interpretations. No?

        BTW, I see Jesus in the cup and in the baker’s oven. Bread and wine. Joseph, the brother “killed” by his brothers (vis-a-vis Cain and Able?) is interpreting a Jesus shaped dream, it seems to me.

        I’m getting mystical, I reckon, but I am not at any conclusions yet. Just trying to see into the mist.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Idk, AX … I think the contexts are really different; Cain in Genesis 4 is responding to a fairly immediate response by God to a ritual action; the officials are responding to dreams. You might want to say they are also responding to communications from God, of course. But notice that both of the dreams seem to be equally disturbing, even though their meanings are different (it turns out, once Joseph explains them). So, I think the translator has presented you with an artifact of translation in this case. (dk which version you’re using … NRSV has “his countenance fell” in Gen 4:5 and “your faces downcast” in Gen 40:7).

        You and I probably come at the text with some different assumptions. I would not, for instance, identify these two parts of the text as having “the same author.” The same editor, maybe. Except insofar as we think of God as the author of the Bible. If we do. Again, I’d probably be more like to use the word “editor.” 🙂

        Reading Jesus in the Hebrew Bible is a whole other issue. Christians do it all the time. Not on my blog so much, though. But for you I’ll make an exception …


      • PS to you, I’ll probably need you to say more about what you’re thinking about that primordial history connection … I realize that sermon really struck a chord, I’m pretty curious as to what you’re seeing there, I’m guessing something more than I realized I was saying!


      • This is my second time trying to respond. My poor computer crashes unexpectedly and frequently. So, bear with my frustration, please. It’s not you.


        If I didn’t say it, you probably wouldnt notice.

        Anyway, back to the bunny trail I had you chasing with me.

        I’ve long had a BACK BURNER interest in the first 11 chapters. Not my main focus, but one I devote time and thought to now and again. Some years ago, I came to see my faith heritage and church circles tend to treat Genesis 1-11 as little more than an arbitrary answer to Darwin and the Big Bang Theory. There’s a few other bits too, such as this is how we understand why the French speak French, the Germans speak German, the Americans speak English and the Mexicans speak Spanish.


        It doesn’t help things when your general theological worldview discounts creation as fodder for the OTHER BIG BANG (whether that be the Rapture or some other version of Judgment Day).

        But obviously these texts are different, even unto themselves.

        I know modern scholarship divides these writings among editors and authors of various times, and while I have SOME interest in chasing those things, I also have a strong suspicion about those kinds of “foundations.” I’m enough post-modern to distrust that too.

        So, why was it originally written (or edited) this way? Darwin didn’t come along for another several thousand years. What did these texts mean to the earliest Hebrew readers? To the earliest Christians? And in light of those things to me too? How does the story of Jesus play on THIS stage?

        Thanx largely (well almost completely) to N.T. Wright, I zero in on God’s image and image bearing. So when, in chapter 4, God addresses Cain’s fallen countenance, I think, Why does that matter? And I am quick to run to image bearing theology for answers.

        When I see a similar question arise in chapter 40, well… of course I am enough appreciative of modern scholarship to start with questions of language and root words etc.

        But I have already seen other places and other ways SOME of these primordial stories echo in later texts and as they bounce sparks off one another they seem to give much more satisfying answers to the questions I bring to the Primordial Texts. They even change my questions sometimes, but still in a more satisfying way.

        I just wondered if you might not have some help for me close at hand. I am not asking you to go down my rabbit holes with me, but just in case you were equipped with a pointer for me, I would ask. Don’t want to miss out for not asking.

        However, I don’t wish to bog you down with my pet projects either.

        Thanx so much for giving me your attention… your help. I appreciate you.


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