John 21:15–19: Jesus and Peter
In the previous passage Jesus appeared to some of his disciples, including Peter, and ate a breakfast of bread and fish with them. In this passage he pulls Peter aside for a private conversation. It consists of Jesus asking three questions, which Peter answers—or, if you wish, it consists of Jesus asking one question three different ways. Each time, Jesus gives Peter an instruction after his answer.
|15||“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”||“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”||“Feed my lambs.”|
|16||“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”||“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”||“Tend my sheep.”|
|17||“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”||“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”||“Feed my sheep.”|
The third time Jesus poses the question, we’re told that Peter is “grieved” that Jesus asked him for a third time.
After this, Jesus gives Peter a prophecy:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (verses 18–19)
Most commentaries/preachers I’ve heard talking about this passage have said that “stretch out your hands” is a reference to being crucified.
One of the first things most people note about this passage is the fact that Peter had denied Jesus three times, and Jesus is now asking Peter to reaffirm his love for Him three times. Many also see Jesus’ words at the end of this passage, “Follow me,” as sort of “reinstating” Peter as an Apostle. If that’s true (I might be stretching a point), I’m not sure that it was necessary, in a sense; all of the Apostles fell away from Jesus, not just Peter—but psychologically it might have been necessary for Peter’s sake. Again, maybe I’m stretching that point too far.
I was wondering about the Greek words used for “love” in this passage; I’m sure I’ve heard preachers talking about how there are different specific Greek words being used by Jesus in each iteration (all translated to the English word “love”), and/or different words used by Peter. The notes in the ESV Study Bible don’t see it that way, though; while Peter uses one word for “love” each time (Gk. phileō), and Jesus uses a different word (Gk. agapaō) the first two times before switching to Peter’s word phileō the third time, they’re not pushing for any significance to that fact:
… most modern commentators are not persuaded that there is any clearly intended difference of meaning here because the two words are often used interchangeably in similar contexts and because John frequently uses different words where little discernible difference in meaning can be determined, perhaps for stylistic reasons.
Of course, I’d have similar questions about Jesus’ instructions to Peter:
- Feed my lambs
- Tend my sheep
- Feed my sheep
Is there a difference between lambs and sheep, or between feeding and tending? Technically there is: a lamb is a young sheep, and tending implies more than just simply feeding. But the way the instructions are given, I don’t see a progression here. I think this is a similar case where different, interchangeable words are being used for stylistic reasons, but Jesus is really just asking Peter the same question three times, getting the same answer three times, and then giving the same instruction three times.