John 21:15-25, The Lord’s Life Active in the Church

[May 15, 2011] We come now to the end of the Gospel according to John. The gospel began with the coming of God—the Word of God—into the world, incarnate in Jesus Christ, presenting Himself to the world as God’s own life, eternal life. As Jesus went through the process of death and resurrection, He was “opened up,” so that the divine life in Him could be given to all who believe into Him, so that He could come to abide in them as the Holy Spirit in their spirit, the divine life in their human life. As the divine became human, without compromising His divinity, so now the process begins of the human becoming divine, without compromising our humanity but rather healing, completing and fulfilling it, not by losing our personhood but by entering into the marriage of our personhood with the Personhood of the Son.

This life in us while deeply personal—not in the soulical sense of “personality” but in the spiritual sense of personhood, or  hypostatically—is also communal, corporate, or shared. It necessarily involves a community of others, the Lord’s flock, or the church. The life is social and expresses itself socially. While the gospel and epistles of John do not use the word “church,” Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to the gathered community on what was to become the day of its gathering, the first day of the week. The church is the Lord’s bride, though this nuptial relationship as well as the gift of the Holy Spirit, of the living water (and so on), is experienced individually as well as corporately (communally).

We should not be surprised if the Gospel according to John ends on this theme of the church as the place into which the Lord’s life flowed (recalling the imagery of Ezekiel 47). Nor should we be surprised that we move from the deeply interior experience of life, both in the individual and in the community, to its exterior expression in both the individual and the community. The individual is always connected to and in relation to the community, just as the exterior is always the exterior of the interior. That is what we see here in the final contrast between Peter and John. The gospel presents to us how it will be—in the final words of Jesus—“until I come” (21:22).

The Meal, the Fire and the Fish

Though the disciples—professional fishermen—had labored all night with nets and caught no fish, until Jesus blessed them with a miraculous catch, Jesus had fish—that He caught?—and had already cooked them for the disciples’ breakfast when they arrived. The meal of fish and bread reminded us of the church’s Lord’s Supper, which this gospel constantly alludes to but never mentions explicitly (the focus is always on its relevance rather than its performance).

It might have reminded the disciples of that last night with Jesus before His death when they ate together in the upper room. There Peter had said, “I will lay down my life—my soul—for You,” and Jesus told him, “Will you lay down your life—your soul—for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, A rooster shall by no means crow until you deny Me three times” (John 13:37-38). In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ prediction was preceded by Peter’s boast, “If all will be stumbled because of You, I will never be stumbled” (Matthew 26:33; see Mark 14:29).

The fire might have also reminded Peter of the fire of coals in the high priest’s courtyard where the slaves and attendants were warming themselves. Peter joined them and was warming himself by the fire when he denied Jesus three times. He stumbled only hours after he had declared himself a rock incapable of stumbling.

The fish on the fire would have also reminded Peter, after having labored all night without catching a thing, that Jesus can well provide, and that apart from God’s grace we can do nothing. When it comes to the things of God, especially, we cannot rely on ourselves.

Finally, while bread may speak of the meal offering, the offering up of human nature to God, the fish on the fire might speak to us of the animal sacrifices, the shedding of blood (the soul) in the sacrifice of life. There is a hint of irony in this, for it subtly suggests that the fisherman needs to become a fish.

The Appellation

With this in the background, Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?”

By Jesus’ use of the appellation Simon we are brought back to the beginning of the gospel where “looking at him, Jesus said, ‘You are Simon, the son of Jonah/John; you shall be called … Peter’” (which means a rock or stone). Simon son of Jonah/John calls us back to who Peter was before Jesus met him. The new name alluded to who Peter was to become in Jesus’ hands.

Simon can either be the son of Jonah or the son of John depending on the Greek text. (The earlier manuscripts have John but the Byzantine has Jonah, which might have been assimilated from Matthew 16:17—or perhaps not. The later Byzantine manuscripts may sometimes have preserved earlier texts. Scholars have to judge case by case.)

Jonah recalls the prophet who in his obstinacy fled from God and having thus “failed,” became the one who brought the message of salvation to the Gentiles. Peter and Jonah are typologically similar. Jonah was thrown overboard and coughed up on land; Peter jumped overboard and came to Jesus on the land, both images typologically evoking Christian baptism but also speaking of passing through death. Both Jonah and Peter had to pass through the waters of death before they fulfilled their calling.

John, however, recalls the name of the beloved disciple and author of the gospel. It is not, of course, that Peter was the son of that John, for John was a common name. Rather, just as the role of John the Baptist as a witness to Jesus in the beginning of the gospel indicated the role of the author of the gospel (as witness), so Peter as representative of the exterior life of the Christian and the church is the “son of” the beloved disciple who represents the interior life of the Christian and the church. And the outer witness by martyrdom is the “son of” the witness by the word. But more on this later.

By calling Peter Simon, Jesus speaks to who Peter is in himself, apart from the transformation (yet to happen) wrought by the Holy Spirit. It takes us back, in a way, to the beginning.

Thrice Questioned, Thrice Commissioned

 “Do you love me more than these?” The “these” to whom Jesus refers probably are the other disciples, and thus Jesus recalls Peter’s boast that he was better than they (“Even if all will be stumbled, I will not!”), that he loved Jesus more than the other disciples. It might also allude to how Peter had jumped out of the boat to come to Jesus, leaving the others behind. “Do you love me more than these others do?”

The word Jesus uses for “love” of course is agapeō. This is the love that is selfless in the sense that it has nothing to gain. It is God’s condescending love for us and parent’s love for their children. It is also the unconditional love that we ought to have for God and for one another. We love the other for their own sake, not for what they can do for me. It is not without expectation or requirement, however, for God expects our love in return, as parents also expect their children’s love, and apostles expect the love of their charge. This kind of love, however, is not swayed by the failure in the condition of the other, and thus, in this sense, it is unconditional.

Eros is another word for love in the Greek language (there are several). Eros is our longing for the other because the other deeply satisfies and fills us and makes our incompleteness whole. It describes the love between a man and a woman but it also describes our love of God, and our love for Christ. We ought not to think that eros is an inherently flawed kind of love. It is flawed under the condition of sin, when we do not honor the other as a person, when we use another or become narcissistically or emotionally dependent on them. Eros need not be that way, though, or the Song of Solomon has no place in our Bibles.

Peter responds to Jesus (here I use John Nelson Darby’s translation), “Yes, Lord, You know that I am attached to You.” Other translations have Peter simply repeat the word “love” but this is misleading, for he uses a different word than the word Jesus used. He uses the word phileō, which is the intimate love of friendship, esteem, and affection, or attachment (not in the strict Buddhist sense, however). Phil-adelphia is the city of sibling-love. Philia is a love that is mutually fulfilling, and thus stands between agapē and eros. Clearly, it is not as high or noble or demanding as the word Jesus used.

Why did Peter use a different word, one that was—well—so human? After his failure, Peter no longer trusted himself. He knew he loved Jesus in this philia sense, which was real, but he could not deny his soul—his life—for Jesus’ sake. His love for Jesus was—as it should be—soulical; that is, it was emotional. He loved deeply Jesus because Jesus fulfilled him—Jesus meant so much to him—but he could not renounce himself for Jesus’ sake, as if Jesus mattered more than himself (or the self that he identified with). The self that we identify with is our soul; and that we are not willing to let go of for Jesus’ sake. We are not willing to die for Him. The soul cannot be fulfilled by itself; when we identify with our soul, then the soul needs to die to itself, for this identification is an illusion; it is false.

Peter’s response to Jesus was an honest admission of where he was. He could no longer say that he loved Jesus unconditionally. To love Jesus with agapē is a gift that must come from God; it is the result of grace; and as such it is never a possession of our own; it is always something that comes to us; it is given, not in the past but in the present. Peter, by admitting only to philia, has come to self-knowledge.

As a result, Jesus says, “Feed My lambs.” These are little lambs, and they refer to new believers. To feed them is to nourish them. In the Gospel according to John, our nourishment is Jesus Himself as life, as bread and fish, in His divinity and humanity, in His incarnation, living, death, resurrection and ascension. “It is the Spirit who gives life … the words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63). “He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for He gives the Spirit not by measure” (3:34). The lambs need to be fed with the milk of the word. “These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in His name” (20:31). Not only is Peter to catch fish, to bring people to believe in Jesus through the word of the Gospel, and to haul them in, but Peter is to feed the lambs who do come to believe with words that convey Jesus as life to them.

Jesus apparently thinks that Peter is now qualified to do this because of his new knowledge of himself.

Jesus asks him again, “Simon, son of John/Jonah, do you love Me?” Again Jesus uses the word agapeō. Peter responds in the same way. He is unwilling to use the word agapeō to describe his own love of Jesus. He knows himself now and therefore can no longer trust himself.

On this basis, Jesus says, “Shepherd My sheep.” Jesus is the Shepherd of His sheep (John 10), and yet He tells Peter to shepherd His sheep. The sheep refer to the believers in Jesus, including Gentiles believers. To shepherd sheep they need to be in a flock. This refers to the church (Acts 20:28). By being fed with the milk of the word, the lambs are built up into God’s house (1 Peter 2:2-5). To shepherd the sheep is to care for them, to protect and guide them. Indeed, and this may be an important point, shepherds oversee (episkopeō) the church. “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among whom the Holy Spirit has placed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He obtained through His own blood [or the blood of His own]” (Acts 20:28). While Paul is speaking in this passage to the elders of the church of Ephesus—elders are overseers and shepherds of the local church—Jesus is speaking to Peter in terms of his apostolate. In Acts 1:20 the apostolate of the Twelve is referred to as an overseership (episcopē). Peter is one sent (an apostle) not only to catch fish and not only to feed the lambs but also to shepherd the flock.

Here may be an allusion to a shift taking place at the time when the Gospel according to John was written. John’s gospel was written about 90 AD. That means it was written twenty years after the destruction of the Temple and some twenty-five years after the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. For two decades the church was scandalized by the fact that the Lord had not returned and by the loss of its leadership. During this time the Docetist heresy arose and other speculative models of Christianity (think of the proto-Gnostic teachings). John’s writings call the churches and the believers back to the center. His writings recapitulate the Gospel by recalling to us its inner essence.

After the first century, apostles started to be called bishops (episkopoi). The second century bishops were not the successors of local elders, as if they were elders sitting at the head of a group of elders (an evolution which one might naturally surmise, since in the New Testament the local elders are called episkopoi). No, they were the successors of the apostles.

Jesus is giving His own role as Shepherd of the sheep to Peter. Jesus continues to shepherd His sheep but He does so through the Holy Spirit whom He has given to the believers. Peter can only shepherd the sheep by relying completely on the Holy Spirit—for it would be Jesus shepherding His own sheep through Peter—and Peter can only rely on the Holy Spirit if he no longer relies on himself. This requires not only a revelation of Jesus Christ but, through that revelation, knowledge of one’s self. Self knowledge comes through seeing ourselves, having our souls bared, in His light. Self-knowledge comes from the exposure in His light of our delusions, falseness, contradictoriness, and failures. We do not let go of self-trust until we see this. Only when we have, can we shepherd Christ’s sheep.

The Holy Spirit in every believer gives us the urge to shepherd one another. We are not only sheep—and therefore receive shepherding—but by the Holy Spirit we are called to mutually shepherd one another.

Jesus asks Peter the third time not “Do you love (agapeō) Me?” but instead He says, “Simon, son of John/Jonah, are you attached to Me?” using the word phileo. This crushes Peter—“Peter was grieved that He said to him the third time, ‘Are you attached to Me?’”—because it means that Jesus even questions whether Peter feels philia towards Him. Do we love Jesus from our souls? What exactly is our affection for Jesus? What do we mean when we say we are attached to Him? Is our soul reliable at all? What if He and I do not even have th mutual esteem of philia?

Peter responds to Jesus, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I am attached to You.” Jesus can question whether we have even this much love for Him—for He wants us to question ourselves—but Peter says that Jesus knows the truth. In fact, Peter is attached to Jesus. He may not have agapē but he has philia, as unreliable and undependable as it is. In his weakness he denied Jesus, but he would not be capable of betraying Him. Ultimately Peter relies not even on his self-knowledge but rather on the fact that Jesus knows him. Jesus knows his weakness; Jesus knows how unreliable and undependable he is. Jesus knows us too.

This is important to notice. In the first two rounds, Peter shows that he has come to know himself. In this third round, in which Peter—who had denied Jesus three times—denies himself for the third time, Peter lets go of this self-knowledge. He says, “You know all things.” He will not rely on himself (his fortitude, etc.), but he will not rely on his self-knowledge either. His reliance is completely on Jesus.

Jesus responds by saying, “Feed My sheep.” Not only must the sheep be shepherded, they must also be fed. Not only must there be milk for the lambs, there must be solid food for the sheep. Peter was to feed the sheep through teaching, and he and the others were to leave their teaching in writings to serve as Scripture for the churches, to feed the sheep. With these Scriptures, those who followed Peter were also to feed the sheep.

The Shepherd Must Be a Lamb

Jesus was satisfied with Peter’s response for He went on to say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, When you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” John tells us that He said this, “signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.” In other words, Peter’s path would go from freedom to bondage and death. Before, Peter could not give up his soul; but he will in the future. He will die a martyr, testifying to Jesus Christ. Before he knew himself, he failed; but knowing himself the life of Christ in him will succeed and he will be conformed to the Lord in his death. The Lord was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem by a Roman governor. Peter will go to Rome and there be crucified by a Roman emperor.

“When [Jesus] had said this, He said to [Peter], “Follow Me.” This refers to the kind of death he would die. He was to follow Jesus in His death. Take up your cross and follow Me to the gallows. The one whom Jesus told to shepherd His sheep must become a sacrificial lamb, like his Master.

These two words, “Follow Me,” also speak of following Jesus more generally. In other words, knowledge of one’s self and one’s weakness and instability and unreliability and undependability and fearfulness is not an excuse. If you know this about yourself, then follow Me. For, only if we have this knowledge of ourselves can we really follow Him. Until we stop relying on ourselves, our following Him will never be dependable, and deep. Instead it will be superficial. When Jesus tells Peter and us to follow Him, He is telling us to hate our soul in this world so that we may keep it unto eternal life, for he who loves his soul loses it (12:25-26). It is only by taking this path that we, as grains of wheat, can fall into the ground and die and thereby bear much fruit (12:24). To thus die daily is the way of fruitfulness in this world.

What About This Man?”

Peter turns around and, seeing the disciple John, the one whom Jesus loved, asks, “What about this man?” Jesus’ response is, “What is that to you? You follow Me.” Jesus is telling him not to be distracted by others. Others may not have to pay the price that he must. Not with reference to John but rather to our own situation, others may also fail Jesus, deny Him, or distort His teaching and the teaching of the revelation of Christ given to the church; we must not let that distract us. We do not measure our following of Jesus on the basis of others, nor can we let them discourage us. Our eye should be on Jesus alone.

The telling words are that Peter, who was looking at Jesus, “turned around” to see another. Peter walked on water until he saw the wind and the waves. Peter later will be distracted and confused by the expectations of others (see Galatians 2). He needs to keep His eye on Jesus rather than on what others are doing. This easily applies to us. Sometimes it seems as if the church is no longer interested in Jesus. All it cares about is tribalism and morality on the right and civil culture and social justice on the left. The revelation of Jesus Christ is not important to the church any more, or so it would seem. Jesus once said, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). But Jesus says to us, “What is that to you? You follow Me.”

The Apostolate and the Churches

The end of the gospel juxtaposes Peter and John for a reason. Peter represents more than himself and so does John. Peter is more than a disciple, and he is more than one of the Twelve; he is an apostle, like Paul (though the noun is not used by John; the verb is used many times, usually with reference to Jesus). John on the other hand is not an apostle but a disciple. Later on he will be called “John the Elder” (see 2 and 3 John, verse 1). He is an elder as one who went back to the beginning of the Christian movement. In 90 AD he was one of the last surviving witnesses of Jesus. The term elder is also used of those who shepherd the local church. Apostles have a trans-local ministry but elders have a local ministry. John, in other words, represents the local disciples, the believers themselves, whereas Peter represents leadership in the universal church. That is one distinction. Peter represents the trans-local apostolate, John the disciples of the local churches.

The apostles were not only to evangelize (catch fish) and plant churches (haul in the nets)—in their respective regions through an itinerant ministry. As churches became established in the different regions, the apostles were also to shepherd (episcopeō: oversee) and feed (teach) these churches. This was a development, as I said, that took place in the churches at the end of the first century. Ignatius speaks of being an episkopos of Syria, not just Antioch (which is what he would say if he were an elder). Polycarp is a teacher of all Asia, not just Smyrna. Both men fulfilled the role of apostles rather than the local role of elder. In the New Testament we already see regions developing: Judea, Syria, Cilicia and Galatia, the Aegean, Rome. Later we would see regions with centers in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, Bagdad and so forth. But by the fourth century the relation between the apostolate and the local churches had become far more hierarchical, which is something we find administratively in the New Testament only to the extent that apostles (and their coworkers) appointed the local elders. Otherwise, the local churches were administratively independent. The apostles did have spiritual authority with respect to the local churches, but this was informal—through teaching, if it was welcome—not something enforceable. The “Constantinian” shift towards hierarchy and power (which within a very short time led to actual violence) was unfortunate and led to the awful situation of cultural Christianity today.

The shift in the apostolate to which the late New Testament bears witness—not its later distortion—was meant to cover the whole age of the church until Jesus comes again.

The Exterior and Interior of the Church

Peter represents more than the apostolate, however. In relation to John, he represents the active, institutional, public, exterior face of the church. The Peter is the one who struggles to loves Jesus. He stupidly takes out a sword to defend Jesus. He not only denies Jesus but he also professes Him (see John 6:68-69). He is the fisherman who fishes for people. Though he stumbles, he is a rock. He fails often, but he also stands up. He is called to ministry: to feed and shepherd the sheep. He takes the lead (20:3-8), but he is also the martyr, the public witness (21:18-19).

John on the other hand is the silent witness who is beloved by Jesus. He is always faithful; he stands with the women at the cross. He takes Jesus’ mother into his home. He sees inwardly (as the women do) when Peter does not (or at least it takes him longer), and is the first to believe when he sees the empty tomb. Peter follows Jesus even unto death, but John abides, abiding in Jesus. He is the contemplative.

The church has both an interior and an exterior. The roles of apostolate and local churches may be divided, but the distinction between interior and exterior cannot be. The interior needs to express itself outwardly. The center needs to find its epicenter. The meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper needs to be embodied with actual water and bread and wine. The inner witness needs to also become public. The interior life of the church, created by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, needs to become actual local churches. Romans 3-8 needs to become Romans 12-16.

The Gospel according to John moves from the inner center of the divine life in eternity to its incarnation in Jesus to the expansion of the Lord’s life in others to that which is expressed by the ministry of Peter. The outward face of the church however does not push the inner away or minimize it. “John” abides until the Lord comes. John—who represents that which grace effects in us apart from our own efforts—does not change. John represents the spirituality of the church.

Peter, who only comes to his own at the end of the Gospel according to John, represents the face of the church that constantly changes. Outwardly the church fails often. Outwardly the church misunderstands. Outwardly the church badly misrepresents Jesus. But inwardly, that which abides does not change.

The Exterior and Interior Life of the Christian

What is true of the church is also true of believers individually. Inwardly we are like John but outwardly we are like Peter. Inwardly we are beloved by Christ. Christ abides in us and sometimes we abide in Him. We may have a small measure of light. We believe, even though our faith is racked by the fear and worry about our circumstances and the confusion of our thoughts. Outwardly however, our love of Christ struggles through our fear of others and our lack of understanding. We are bold but in the wrong ways (we take up the sword to defend Jesus). On the other hand, outwardly the center may find its epicenter and we might actually love Jesus, we might profess Him when all others renounce Him, we might bear fruit and shepherd one another, we might follow Him to the cross.

The Gospel according to John throughout has been concerned with the inner life, the life that—once communicated to us—abides, but now at the end we see this inner life reflected imperfectly in the outer life of the sheep and shepherd, of following Jesus and going to the cross with Him. Yet in all that, we are reminded in the end that the inner life is about abiding. “If I want him to abide until I come …”

The storm at the center of the gospel (John 6:16-21) may rage. The storm may be in our outer circumstances, in persecution or the bombardment of culture, in the seeming apostasy of the church, or in our daily troubles and hardships, or as we see with Peter, it may be the storm of our own souls. The wind may blow and the sea may churn, but Jesus—if we would open our eyes to see—is with us as the still point, the eternal “I AM” that is unaffected by time. He abides eternally, and He does so in us, and we can abide in Him. “And immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” The Gospel according to John is unique in how it shows this to us. Jesus as the flowing out of the Godhead in time takes us back to the singularity of God’s heart in eternity.

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