15 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.” 16 He then 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.” 17 He said to him the 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.
This encounter of Peter with his risen Lord is filled with beautiful material. Jesus offers Peter a public opportunity to profess repentance through love, surely a striking example of what it is that reestablishes our relationship with the Lord after sin. The One who Peter denied at the charcoal fire, restores Peter at another charcoal fire. The threefold denial is forgiven by this threefold profession of love.
This encounter is also a recommissioning of Simon Peter. It begins, When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” The name “Simon, son of John,” used in all three verses, provides an important link with Peter’s first appearance in the Fourth Gospel. The risen Jesus’ use of this name repeats the words he spoke when he first met Peter (“You are Simon son of John,” 1:42) and once more portrays Jesus as the good shepherd who knows the name of his sheep (cf. 20:16). But what is being asked of Simon Peter?
Jesus could have been asking whether Peter loved him (1) more than the other disciples who were present did; after all Peter had boasted during the Last Supper that he (more than the others) was willing to lay his life down for Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was asking if Peter loved him (2) more than he loved those other disciples or (3) more than the large catch of fish, the boats and fishing gear. The second is unlikely because there is no mention elsewhere of Peter’s love for the other disciples. The third is possible if one thinks that Peter’s decision to go fishing (21:3) represented a turning away from Jesus to go back to his old trade. If this is unlikely, then the first option is to be preferred, remembering that Peter had been the most forward in asserting his dedication to Jesus (13:37–38; cf. Matt. 26:33). The first option is the most likely.
In answer to Jesus’ question, Peter said, Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Peter’s response was positive, but involved no bold claims like those he had made previously. He simply said that his Lord knew the truth about his love for him. In response to Peter’s affirmation of love for him, Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ His commission to Peter was to feed (boske) his ‘lambs’ (arnia), meaning he was to provide spiritual nourishment for new believers.
This verse (v.15) establishes the basic pattern that is repeated with minimal variation in vv. 16–17: Jesus’ question of Peter’s love for him; Peter’s affirmation of his love; Jesus’ charge to feed/care for his sheep. Two different verbs for “to love” are used in vv. 15–17: agapaō, vv. 15a, 16a and phileō, vv. 15b, 16b, 17. These verbs are used as synonyms throughout the Gospel, with no difference in meaning. For example, both verbs are used to speak of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (ēgapa, 13:23; ephilei, 20:2); God’s love of Jesus (agapa, 10:17; philei, 5:20); God’s love for the disciples (agapēsei, 14:23; philei, 16:27); and the disciples’ love of Jesus (agapa, 14:23; pephilēkate, 16:27). There is no reason, therefore, to ascribe gradations of meaning to their usage here (as do many commentaries).
There seems to be no real difference between Jesus’ three commands: “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” to which is added the composite “Feed my sheep.” The language continues the shepherd theme of John 10. The function of Yahweh-shepherd in Ezek 34 passes to Jesus-shepherd in John 10 to Peter-shepherd in John 21. It is important to note how Peter’s shepherd role is tied to love (vv. 15–17) and to a willingness (like the good shepherd of 10:11–18) to lay down his life (vv. 18–19). Note, too, how Peter’s laying down his life glorified God, as did that of Jesus. Love, love to the limit, selfless, life-giving love manifests (glorifies) God because that is God’s nature. An act of selfless, life-giving love is God’s name published before the world.
Brain Stoffregen notes that Jesus said in 10:11: “I am the good shepherd [poimen]. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Although Jesus never refers to Peter as a shepherd [poimen], he does tell him “to shepherd” [poimaino] his sheep.” Like the “good shepherd” of ch. 10, Jesus indicates that Peter will die. In the upper room, Jesus had this conversation with Peter: “Simon Peter said to [Jesus], “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward. Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” (13:36-38). Jesus tells Peter at the end of our text, “Follow me.” What Jesus tells Peter he cannot do earlier, he now tells him to do. Following Jesus — for Peter — means death. Peter’s response, “Yes, I love you,” involves the commitment of his entire life.”
18 Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
This enigmatic statement contrasts Peter’s experience during his youth, when he dressed himself and went wherever he pleased, with what was to happen to him when he grew old. His independence would be stripped away. He would be forced to stretch out his hands and others would ‘clothe’ him and lead him to a place he would not wish to go. Stretching out the hands is an allusion to the way those to be crucified were forced to stretch out their arms and bear the cross beam to the place of execution (cf. Barnabas 12:4; Justin, I Apology, 35). The evangelist leaves us in no doubt about the intention of this saying: Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Peter is known to have suffered a violent death (1 Clement 5:4) by crucifixion (Tertullian, Scorpiace xv.3), and 21:18–19 is the earliest testimony to his martyrdom by this means. Jesus’ next words to Peter were most apt: Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’ Peter was to take up his cross literally and follow Jesus.
When this chapter was written, Peter’s death was already an accomplished fact. Like his Lord (note the “You follow me” of v. 22), he had already stretched out his hands (v. 18) to die on Vatican hill. The tying fast (v. 18) would be the fastening to the cross, always accomplished in part by ropes.
At 13:37, Peter expressed his willingness to lay down his life for Jesus, a boast that Jesus rejected (13:38). Verses 18–19 show that now Peter is able to do what he could not do before: lay down his life in love.
21:15-17 love: In these three verses there is a remarkable variety of synonyms: two different Greek verbs for love; two verbs for feed/tend; two nouns for sheep; two verbs for know. Regarding the two different words used for “love” in Jesus’ questions and Peter’s answers.
Jesus: agapas me (“Do you love me?”)
Peter: philo se (“I love you.”)
Jesus: agapas me (“Do you love me?”)
Peter: philo se (“I love you.”)
Jesus: phileis me (“Do you love me?”)
Peter: philo se (“I love you.”)
While there can be differences in meanings of these two words, they can also be synonymous. O’Day (John, The New Interpreters Bible, p. 860) indicates how these words are used as synonyms throughout the gospel with no difference in meaning: “For example, both verbs are used to speak of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (agapao, 13:23; phileo, 20:2); God’s love of Jesus (agapao, 10:17; phileo, 5:20); God’s love for the disciples (agapao, 14:23; phileo, 16:27); and the disciples’ love of Jesus (agapao, 14:23; phileo, 16:27). There is no reason, therefore, to ascribe gradations of meaning to their usage here. The Evangelist’s propensity for synonyms is also evident in the variation “lambs” / “sheep” and “feed” / “tend.” “
In addition, Raymond Brown (John, Anchor Bible Series, p.1102) notes that Peter answers the first two questions with an unequivocal “Yes” — or nai which can be translated, “Yes, indeed” or “Most certainly.” He notes that if a great difference in meaning was intended between agapao and phileo, Peter’s answers would have been, “No, but I am your friend.”
21:15-23 The thrice repeated question and answer is commonly interpreted as symbolically undoing the thrice repeated denial of Jesus. One interpretation of Peter’s “hurt” after the third question, is that it reminded him of his three denials. This section constitutes Peter’s rehabilitation and emphasizes his role in the church.
The threefold confession of Peter is meant to counteract his earlier threefold denial (John 18:17, 25, 27). The First Vatican Council cited these verses in defining that Jesus after his resurrection gave Peter the jurisdiction of supreme shepherd and ruler over the whole flock.
Jesus’ threefold command to Peter to tend his lambs and to shepherd his sheep (21:15–17) has ample precedents in the OT, which is pervaded by a yearning for shepherds who are devoted to God, to caring for his sheep, and to carrying out his will (Ezek. 34; Jer. 3:15; cf. Isa. 44:28; see commentary at chap. 10 above). The term “tend” (boskō) regularly occurs in the LXX for feeding sheep (e.g., Gen. 29:7; 37:12); the metaphorical sense is found already in Ezek. 34:2.
21:15 more than these: probably “more than these disciples do” rather than “more than you love them” or “more than you love these things [fishing, etc.].”
21:18 when you were younger…: Originally probably a proverb about old age, now used as a figurative reference to the crucifixion of Peter.
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in Anchor Bible series, ed. William Albright and David Noel Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966)
- A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar Commentaries Series), (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991) 673
- Francis Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina series ed. Daniel Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998)
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
- K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007)
- Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Volume 4, General Editor: Leon Morris (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2003)
- Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in vol. 9 of the New Interpreter’s Bible; ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004) 854-62
- Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at crossmarks.com/brian/
Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm