The Rehabilitation of Peter—John 21:15-25

Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 47

by Reta Halteman Finger

Sea of Galilee from the Cliffs of Arbol. Photo by Reta Finger
Sea of Galilee from the Cliffs of Arbol. Photo by Reta Finger

In John 21:15-25, two loose ends must be tied up before the story of Jesus can be brought to a close. Even so, the final epilogue adds a hyperbole—there is so much more to say about him that “the world itself could not contain all the books” that could be written about him! (v25). (I’d like a couple more scrolls—how about you?)

The first loose end is what to do about Peter. By the time this Gospel is written in the 90s CE, Peter has been dead for several decades. But he had become one of the major leaders of the church, eventually getting as far as Rome, where, according to tradition, he was martyred by crucifixion. Up until now, this Gospel has portrayed Peter as a poor second to the Beloved Disciple, and also as one who has grievously betrayed his loyalty to Jesus at a critical time.

On the night Jesus was arrested, Peter and the B.D. had gone to the courtyard of the high priest, where they waited to find out what would happen (18:15). As they warm themselves in the courtyard, Peter is asked three times whether he is a disciple of the accused (18:17, 25-27). The third time, one of the high priest’s slaves who had been part of the arresting mob asks, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” But the more penetrating the question, the more forcefully Peter lies. All three of the Synoptic Gospels report that, after hearing the rooster crow, Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (Mt 26:75; Mk 14:72; Lk 22:62). But John’s Gospel omits any repentance on Peter’s part, so he must now come to terms with his betrayal.

The After-Breakfast Inquisition

Taking Peter aside, Jesus asks a question that is at once gentle and penetrating: “Simon son of John, do you love me (agapaō) more than these [other disciples love me]?” Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileō) you. “Feed my sheep,” says Jesus. The same question and answers are repeated again. The third time that Jesus asks, Peter feels hurt. “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love (phileō) you.” Again the answer, “feed my sheep.”

What does the author intend by using two different words for “love” in John 21:15-17? Agape is the all-encompassing love from God that enables disciples to be kind and accepting toward everyone, whether or not they are lovable. Philos is the warm affection friends have for each other. Perhaps Peter loves Jesus as a friend but is not yet able to embrace the necessary agape needed to be a church leader of many different kinds of people. He needs to be told three times to feed all of Jesus’s sheep! Only then can he truly repent of having three times denied his relationship to Jesus.

Jerome Neyrey notes that, as a fisherman, Peter’s role has been one of recruiting outsiders into the Jesus-community. But now he is asked to be a shepherd, responsible for the care and feeding of insiders (New Cambridge Bible Commentary, p. 338). Jesus has defined the role of the noble shepherd in John 10 as one who becomes the door of the sheepfold and lays down his life for the sheep (see Lessons 24 and 25). Peter’s status is now transformed, and in 21:18-19 Jesus predicts what kind of death Peter will eventually die as he figuratively stands at the door of the sheepfold in Rome. He ends the conversation with, “Follow me.”

The final loose end

As Peter and Jesus walk together, Peter notices the Beloved Disciple following behind.

Sign outside of the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter. Photo by Reta Finger
Sign outside of the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter. Photo by Reta Finger

“What about him?” Peter asks, in essence, “Will he die just like I will?”  In one of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy asks Aslan the Lion what will happen to another character in the narrative. Aslan replies, “I only tell you your own story.”  Jesus says the same thing to Peter: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”

This brief exchange is included to quash the rumor that the Beloved Disciple would not die. But it also implies that he is Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from death in chapter 11. Because he had died once, the rumor circulated in the Johannine communities that he would not die again.

Who wrote this Gospel?

I am inclined to believe most or all of the material in this Gospel arose from the original community around Martha, Mary, and Lazarus living in Bethany. They are the only friends that the text specifically says Jesus loved (11:5), and they live only two miles from Jerusalem, where much of the action in this Gospel takes place. However, these memories must have been passed on orally for some years before a later disciple with immense literary skills wrote them down, since everyone from the first generation would have been dead by the late 90s. But do not disparage such memories, for in such oral cultures stories are normally handed down word for word and carefully memorized.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion

1.  What do you think about the authorship of John’s Gospel?

2.  Can you think of times when you have betrayed Jesus and need to seek restoration?

3.  Do you ever find yourself comparing yourself to someone else and concerned about how God may be working in that person’s life instead of concentrating on “your own story”?

4.  If you’ve lost track of the big picture through these many lessons on John’s Gospel, now return to Lesson One, which lays out the plot and structure of the entire Gospel. Then reflect on, or discuss with each other, what this particular narrative about Jesus has meant to you.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.