By Peter Amsterdam
September 13, 2022
Previously, the Gospel of John told of some of the disciples going fishing in the Sea of Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee. After a night’s fishing, they caught nothing. Jesus, who was on the shore, instructed them to cast their net on the other side of the boat, which resulted in them hauling in 153 fish. When the disciples came to the shore, Jesus gave them both bread and fish to eat. At this point in the Gospel of John, the focus shifts to the apostle Peter, and also mentions “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the 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.”1
Jesus addressed Peter three times in a formal manner, calling him Simon, son of John. By asking the question three times, Jesus emphasized its importance. The first time, He asked, Do you love me more than these? “More than these” isn’t defined. Jesus could have been referring to the fish; or, more likely, He may have been asking Peter, “Do you love me more than these other men love me?” or “Do you love me more than you love these men?” Peter could have responded with “Yes, I love you more than the other disciples do,” or with, “No, I don’t love you more than the other disciples do.” However, rather than make comparisons, each time Peter wisely and simply responded that he loved Jesus.
When Jesus instructed Peter to tend my sheep, the verb used has a broader meaning. It is understood to mean “exercise the office of shepherd.” Peter was being commissioned to engage in pastoral duties.2 The third time Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him, Peter was grieved. It saddened him that Jesus would ask him three times if he loved Him. Rather than replying the same way he had the first two times, he pointed to Jesus’ knowledge of all things, that He knew what went on in people’s hearts and therefore He knew that Peter loved Him.
This incident shows that Peter was restored to his position of leadership. Before Jesus’ death, Peter denied the Lord three times;3 now, he affirmed his love for Jesus three times. This resulted in Jesus commissioning Peter three times to care for His sheep. In spite of Peter’s past mistakes, Jesus was restoring Peter to a place of trust.
“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.”4
After commissioning Peter to tend my sheep, Jesus followed up with a prophecy, preceded by truly, truly I say to you. Jesus referred to Peter’s earlier life, before he followed Jesus, and contrasted his past with his present. When he was younger, he dressed himself and went wherever he wanted to. However, when he would get older, it would not be the same. The explanation generally given by commentators is that this prophecy referred to Peter’s death, through which Peter would glorify God. While the words are quite general, it is understood that the “stretching forth of the hands” referred to Peter’s crucifixion. Jesus reminded Peter that in the past, when he was young, he had the freedom to come and go as he wished; but in the future, when he was old, he would no longer be free to do so. It is generally understood that Peter was crucified upside down on a cross with his hands outstretched.
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”5
After Peter’s position had been restored, he turned and saw the beloved disciple, who is generally accepted to be the apostle John, walking behind them. John is described as the disciple who had asked Jesus who was going to betray Him. Peter, in his usual forthright style, asked about the future of this disciple. Jesus didn’t answer Peter’s question; probably because John’s future was none of Peter’s business. Rather, Jesus repeated His earlier command, follow me.
So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”6
The Gospel writer deals with an error that had spread amongst believers, that the apostle John wouldn’t die, but would rather live until Jesus returned again. The Gospel writer wanted to correct that misinterpretation, as Jesus did not say “He will not die.” Rather He asked what difference it would make to Peter if John were to remain alive until Jesus’ return.
This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.7
The disciple “whom Jesus loved” is now identified as the writer of this Gospel. He is the disciple who bears witness to what has happened, and who has written these things down, which points to the apostle John. We’re not told who the “we” are who “know that the testimony is true.” One author says: The “we” is to be taken with full seriousness; there exists an apostolic church whose very existence is a confirmation and affirmation of the apostle’s witness.8
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.9
This Gospel ends with a reminder that the author has only presented a selection of the many things that Jesus said and did. He has not told us all that he knew about what Jesus said and did. He tells us that if everything about Jesus were to be written down, the whole world couldn’t contain all the books which would be written. John reminds us that though we have been told much about what Jesus did and said, there are limitations to our knowledge. There is much more that Jesus did in His lifetime than what is presented here. Nevertheless, the information we are given in this Gospel is more than adequate, as stated earlier in this Gospel: These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.10
This brings us to the end of the Gospel of John.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 John 21:15–17.
2 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 771.
3 John 18:15–27. See also Matthew 26:33–35, 73–75. Luke 22:54–62. Mark 14:69–72.
4 John 21:18–19.
5 John 21:20–22.
6 John 21:23.
7 John 21:24.
8 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 777.
9 John 21:25.
10 John 20:31.