John 21:15-25

Future Ministries

John 21:15-17     Jesus and Peter – Peter’s Love, Jesus’ Commission

Flowing from the community’s need for ministries and structures for leadership, there was a second problem that needed to be addressed – the mindset of those in the community charged with that ministry of responsibility. 

The Ministry of Responsibility

15 After they had had their meal, Jesus said to Peter,
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these do?”
He said to him, “Yes. Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
16 He said to him again a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
17 He said to him a third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed
that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?”
and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything;
you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Responsibility arises from within vocation, and vocation is a factor of love.

The three-fold question seemed to balance Peter’s triple denial of his Lord. The sin of Peter provided the context for what would follow.

Jesus addressed Peter as Simon son of John. The address served to indicate Peter in his human weakness – still anchored in the on-going process of redemption.

Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. A problem arises from the fact that the text used two different Greek words for the three instances of love. Technically, one form more generally conveys the sense of friendship and intimate love; the other the sense of unconditional love and practical service. 

Some commentators have believed that the words were to be translated strictly. In that case, Jesus’ first two questions inquired of Peter whether his love for Jesus was a total and unconditional love, to which Peter, now less confident of himself and his own faithfulness, could simply promise his warm and intimate friendship. He knew that his love was still a work in progress. Jesus’ third question accepted Peter where he was, and simply asked for that genuine intimacy. With all three answers Peter was constant in his promise of friendship-love. 

Other commentators, however, see no consistency in the Gospel’s usage of the words, and believe that it would be unjustified to draw conclusions from the differences. The questions are to be taken as essentially asking the same thing.

After each response of Peter, Jesus commissioned him with responsibility for the lambs and sheep of Jesus’ flock. Again there is uncertainty about the implications of the terms. Most commentators see no hidden meanings intended, and the commission, therefore, was simply meant to cover the breadth of the flock’s membership. They are also of the opinion that nothing special is to be made of the different Greek words used for feed.

Earlier in the narrative, Jesus had insisted that he was the shepherd of the flock, the good shepherd [10:11]. With Jesus’ imminent withdrawal to the Father, the role of shepherd was now entrusted especially to Peter.

What did feeding entail? Jesus had identified himself as the bread of life [6.35], and the narrative had identified the Spirit as the font of living water [7.38-39]. Peter’s role was obviously to lead the community to ever deeper faith and trust in Jesus, and to open them ever more to the constant promptings of his Spirit.

How did this commission translate to the community of the Beloved Disciple, which had no recognised connection to the later ministry of Peter? And why was it added to the earlier version of the Gospel?

As in the previous incident, the point of this episode may have been to emphasise the importance of the exercise of responsible leadership in the community, distinct from, and in addition to, the indispensable role of discernment. As the community would grow in size, it would seem increasingly important that there be clearly recognised and accepted structures of responsibility and leadership.

Facing the Community’s Problems – 2

A second important lesson can be learnt from a closer look at the incident.

Peter, and all the disciples, had been commissioned to continue the mission of Jesus to save the world from its endemic sin [20:23]. Sin and forgiveness are always sensitive issues.

Peter knew that he had denied his Lord. He had sinned. Probably his guilt burned deeply within him. Characteristically, shame and guilt can have a paralysing effect. Jesus’ threefold questioning gave Peter the opportunity, not so much to assure Jesus of his love, but to assure himself of the undoubted existence of love present in his own heart. He had sinned, but he had also loved. Like every human person, he was not consistent. Sin did not sum up who he was; nor did love. He did both. He was still in process: both sinner and lover, at the same time.

Jesus wanted Peter to know this. It was only after Peter had been confronted with his own sinfulness and love, and had come to own both, that it was safe to entrust him to his mission to other sinners. 

  • With no sense of his own sin, he would be tempted to adopt a stance of superiority towards sinners, and of the harshness so often accompanying it.
  • With no sense of his own love, he would not only be paralysed, but would be unaware of the love often present also in the hearts of sinners.
  • With no sense of Jesus’ trust in him, sinner and lover, and of Jesus’ total forgiveness, he would have no message of hope to share with other sinners.

The community of the Beloved Disciple had already experienced the bitter pain of division. It was important that the community’s mutual love, respect and patience be strengthened and deepened. There was sin in the community; there was also love. There would always be the on-going need for self-knowledge, self-acceptance and sensitivity towards others.

John 21:18-19     Jesus and Peter – Follow Me

There was a further problem that needed to be faced. It was a problem that faces every disciple and every faith community.

18 Mark my words, when you were young,
you girded yourself
and went around wherever you wished;
when you get old,
you will stretch out your hands
and another will gird you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”
19 He said this indicating the kind of death
by which he would glorify God.  
When he said this, he said to him,
“Follow me.”

Peter had been martyred probably about thirty years before the fourth Gospel took its final shape. The strong tradition was that he had been martyred by crucifixion in Rome. In that case, according to the tradition, his hands had literally been stretched out, like the hands of his crucified Lord.

The Journey to Dispossession

Peter had been made to face a death that he did not choose. He had confronted his powerlessness to determine his own fate. He had been taken where you do not want to go. Despite the suffering, Jesus’ invitation had been clear: Follow me. Peter had done so in a quite literal way – as had other disciples scattered around the Empire. Peter’s love had grown over time from friendship-love to total, unconditional and self-sacrificing love. He could, at last, honestly answer Jesus’ question: Do you love me? [verses 15,16] with a whole-hearted affirmative.

Whatever had been the experience of the community up to this stage, it knew it was powerless to avoid the reach of Roman persecution for ever. Disciples needed to face the possibility of martyrdom.

Facing the Community’s Problems – 3

Two further lessons from the incident come to mind.

The Individual Trajectory. The life of every human person can have two quite distinct stages of growth. In the first period of people’s lives, their task is to develop a strong sense of their identity. They need to establish the control of their wills over their unruly desires and fears. They need to “gird yourself and go” where they determine. Essentially, their task is to strengthen their ego. It is the stage when disciples choose to do great things for God – the things that they determine.

What happens, usually, is that they come to realise that they do not succeed consistently to do great things for God. Sin retains its mastery. Indeed, if their self-knowledge develops, they become increasingly aware of the pervasive influence of their pride, of which their ego is the instrument. They become restless, confronted by their firmly entrenched and resistant sinfulness. They face their powerlessness. Their temptation is to lose hope, to lose the dream, to give up and to settle for mediocrity.

Wonderfully, their experience of breakdown, “catching nothing all night”, can lead to the experience of breakthrough. Their only source of hope shifts from themselves and the control exercised by their own wills, and settles hesitantly on God. They find themselves being led to a place where at first they “do not want to go”. Their only hope is for forgiveness, undeserved and unconditional. And it is precisely that forgiveness which they see God offering. Indeed, they come to see clearly the heart of Jesus, and the heart of God, for the first time. They knew the words before; now they learn to trust the reality. Patiently, they wait for God to take the heart of stone from their body and put there a heart of flesh instead [Ezekiel 36:26]. They accept the love and forgiveness of God, and quietly learn to notice the transformation that God gradually brings about in them – no longer the fruit of their wills, but the empowerment of God. They let their egos “fall into the ground and die” [12:24]. They learn to “follow”. No longer do they seek, in their brash self-confidence, to do good things for God, but they allow God to draw them into the good things that God is already doing for the world.

Community Challenge. Christian communities rarely reach their potential. They confront the power of sin. They face the sinfulness of their own members; and, in their mission, they confront the sin of the world. They are taken into situations “where they do not want to go”. It is the kind of experience facing different areas of the world-Church today.

In such situations, the task of leadership becomes difficult. This was also, undoubtedly, the situation facing the community of the Beloved Disciple; early fervour giving way to later apparent breakdown, faith either failing or no longer developing.

The incident by the Sea of Tiberias reminded them of Jesus’ insistence: “Follow me”. What matters is not to control situations, but to remain faithful and hope-filled in whatever the experience. Leaders can only lead. Their role is not to control, but to feed and shepherd the flock. Their powerlessness is irrelevant.

John 21:20-23     Peter and the Beloved Disciple – Follow Me

20 Peter turned round
and saw the disciple Jesus loved following him,
the one who had leaned on his chest at the meal
and had said, “Lord, who is it who is betraying you?”

It is uncertain whether the text intended to contrast Peter’s turning (after being called to follow) with the Disciple’s unassuming following of Jesus.

21 Seeing him then, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”
22 Jesus said to him, “If I want him to stay until I come,
what is that to you?
You follow me.

The relevance of this final incident to possible problems arising in the community is not so obvious. It does, however, have its message for discipleship.

Attaining Serenity

The final task of human and Christian maturity is to arrive at a place of interior serenity – to find release from the restless desires learnt from others, which give rise, in their turn, to constant and instinctive comparison, envy, competitiveness, rivalry, struggle and even veiled or overt violence.

Peter’s question: “What about him?” seems to have been an instance of that human tendency to comparison and rivalry. Jesus’ response to Peter was an invitation (and an empowerment?) to move beyond “looking over the shoulder” at the other, and to keep focussed simply on following Jesus: “Follow me”. 

In fact, the faithful following of Jesus leads to the release of the true self, the self created in the image of God and christened at baptism. The deep human desires of the true self are the desires, too, of Jesus. As disciples draw ever closer to Jesus in love, they come to acquire his vision and desires. Life becomes no longer a constant competition with others but a serenely powerful commitment to love, justice, compassion and forgiveness.

Jesus’ final words recorded in the Gospel are his invitation to Peter: Follow me. If Peter had asked, “Where, Lord?”, the response of Jesus may well have been: Come and see. The Gospel ended as it had begun [1:38]. From the point of view of the Beloved Disciple, Christian life is always the disciple’s response to Jesus’ invitation: Come and see!

The invitation that Jesus makes to every disciple calls for a deliberate and determined response. The disciple’s task is to refuse to be distracted by the experience of others and to remain ever faithful to the personal call of Jesus.

23 This word got around among the brothers
that that disciple would not die.
But Jesus had not said that he would not die,
just ‘If I want him to stay until I come, what is that to you?’

According to a strong tradition, the Beloved Disciple continued to live for a long time after Peter had been martyred. His long life suggested to some that he would not die before the return of Jesus, and that Jesus had indicated such. The actual death of the Disciple, or its obvious likelihood, was a challenge for some. The account of the incident served to clarify the situation.


Conclusion to the Final Edition of the Gospel

John 21:24-25     Eye-Witness Testimony

24 It is this disciple who gives witness to everything
and has written them down.
We know that his witness is true.

The text clearly distinguished the Beloved Disciple, the original one who testified to the message narrated in the Gospel and who was responsible for its original shape [20:30-31], from the “we” who know that his testimony is true.

What the unidentified we had done was to arrange and to add to the original Gospel other passages, probably written by the Disciple on other occasions. Among these additions most commentators would list: 

  • the passage in the Bread of Life Discourse that dealt expressly with the flesh and blood of Jesus [6:51-56];
  • the passage on Jesus as the true Vine [15:1-17], in the Last Supper Discourse;
  • one of the Last Supper Discourses [either 13:31-14:31 or 15:18-16:33];
  • the post-resurrection incidents by the Sea of Tiberias [21:1-23].

In addition, most commentators agree that the incident of the “Woman caught in adultery” belonged neither to the original version of the Gospel, nor even to its final edited version, but was inserted (very early) by later copyists.

25 There are lots of other things that Jesus did,
which, it they were themselves written down one by one,
I suspect that the world would not contain
the books that would have to be written.

The final comment reflects a common form of conclusion regularly found in the literature of the era.