B. PETER RESTORED (21:15–19)
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
This passage must be taken in conjunction with Peter’s threefold denial of his Lord. Just as he had a short time ago in the presence of the enemy denied all connection with the Lord, so now in the presence of his friends he affirms three times over that he loves his Lord. There can be no doubt but that Peter was under a cloud with his fellow disciples after the denial. This triple affirmation, accompanied as it was by a triple commission from Jesus, must have had the effect of giving an almost “official” sanction to his restoration to his rightful place of leadership. Yet this should not be pressed too hard. Peter is accorded no absolute primacy, and in particular nothing in this passage indicates that his position was in way superior to that of John. Throughout this chapter John is regarded as especially close to his Lord.
15 The meal concluded, 35 Jesus addressed a question to Peter. There is an air of solemnity about John’s use of the full name, Simon Peter, and then of his reporting that Jesus used the expanded form, Simon son of John (cf. 1:42). 36 The question is a significant one, and it is accordingly prefixed by a serious form of address. Jesus asks, “Do you truly love me more than these?” This last term is not defined, and the question might mean, “Do you love me more than these men love me?” or “Do you love me more than you love these men?” or “Do you love me more than you love these things?” Against the first way of taking the words is the difficulty of thinking that Jesus would invite one of his followers to compare the strength of his love with that of other disciples. Yet we must remember that Peter had explicitly professed a devotion to Jesus that exceeded that of the others in the apostolic band (Matt. 26:33; Mark 14:29; cf. John 13:37; 15:12–13). It may be that Jesus is asking Peter whether, in the light of what has since happened, he still thinks that his love for Christ exceeds that of all the others. 37 Not many have taken the words to signify “Do you love me more than you love these men?” But this is possible. 38 Peter had three times denied Jesus, so that his devotion to him must be held to be suspect. But he had remained with his fellows and had gone fishing with them. Where did his supreme affection lie? With his companions with whom he resorted, or with Jesus whom he denied? In the third case we should take the words to refer to the fishing equipment and all that it stood for. 39 This symbolized an entire way of life. Taken this way, the question challenges Peter as to his whole future. Was this to be spent in the pursuit of fishing and the like? Or did he love Christ nmore than that? It is perhaps against this interpretation that in his reply Peter drops the comparison. There would be no point in this if it were his fishing that was in mind, but very much if people were involved. Perhaps there is most to be said for the first way of looking at the question. We are sometimes inclined to think that a question about Peter’s love was superfluous. But this is not the case. His actions had shown that Peter had not wanted a crucified Lord. But Jesus was crucified. How did Peter’s devotion stand in the light of this? Was he ready to love Jesus as he was, and not as Peter wished him to be? That was an important question. Peter must face it and answer it.
His reply is an ungrudging affirmative. “Yes, Lord,” is his own assent, and he goes on: “you know that I love you.” “You” is emphatic, as the disciple appeals to the sure knowledge possessed by the Master. His own actions have not been such as to reveal his love, and he is not in a position to point to them. But he can and does appeal to Christ’s full understanding of the situation. A problem is posed by the use of different words for “love.” Peter uses the same verb throughout, but Jesus uses a different verb in his first two questions. In the third, however, Jesus uses Peter’s word. 40 Not a few commentators hold that the change of word is significant. 41 Some maintain that the word Jesus uses in the first two questions denotes a higher kind of love, while Peter’s word points to a lower form of love, perhaps no more than a liking. 42 If it is seen in this way, Jesus questions Peter as to whether he has a profound love for him, and Peter, not daring to claim so much, replies that he is fond of Jesus. Then in his third question Jesus descends to Peter’s level. Other commentators, however, reverse the meaning of the two words. They see Jesus as inquiring whether Peter has a rather cool affection for him and Peter as replying that he has more than that, he has a warm love. Then in the last question our Lord rises to Peter’s word. 43
The unfortunate thing about these two interpretations is, of course, that they cancel each other out. A priori, one would have thought that a variation in vocabulary like this would be significant. But against it are certain difficulties. First, there is the difficulty just noted, that the precise difference is not easy to to discern so that competent commentators take opposite sides. Second, there is John’s habit of introducing slight variations in all sorts of places without real difference of meaning (see on 3:5). 44 There is no reason, on the grounds of Johannine usage, for seeing a difference in meaning between the two verbs. This point is rendered all the more significant in that the original conversation would have been in Aramaic, so that the choice of word in Greek would be John’s rather than that of the original participants in the conversation. Third, Peter’s “Yes, Lord” does not look like a correction. As Bernard asks, “Why should he say ‘Yes,’ if he means ‘No’?” Peter seems concerned that his love is called in question, not about the precise quality of love that he displays. He is accepting Jesus’ word, not declining it. It is simplest to find here a further example of John’s love of variation in triple repetitions. Peter and Jesus will be referring to essentially the same thing. 45
There is a slightly more complicated variation in the triple commission given to Peter. 46 NIV reflects the variation in the Greek where both noun and verb are changed in the second charge, while on the third occasion the verb is that from the first charge and the noun that from the second charge. Some have drawn from this an indication that Peter is charged to do more things than one and to do them both to the lambs and the sheep. 47 But most people take the variation as no more than stylistic. 48 Peter is being commissioned to tend the flock of Christ. The absence of any good reason for seeing differences of meaning here strengthens the case for seeing none in connection with the words for love.
16 Jesus’ question is repeated without the “more than these.” Attention is concentrated on the question of love and the comparison drops out. Peter’s reply is exactly as before. Again there is the agreement with Jesus’ word, again the emphatic “you,” and again the appeal to Jesus’ own knowledge that Peter does indeed love his Lord. As noted in the previous verse, the commission varies. The verb used here has a somewhat broader meaning. It means “Exercise the office of shepherd” over against simply “Feed.” There is doubt whether we should read “sheep” or “lambs” (see n. 00), but either way there is a commission to Peter to engage in pastoral duties.
17 This third time Jesus changes to Peter’s word for love, though no attention is drawn to this. Peter was very sad, 49 but it was because he was asked the question three times, 50 not because of a change of meaning. This appears to be further evidence that there is no real difference in meaning between the words for love. Had there been, Peter would have been asked two different questions, not the one question three times over. His sorrow at the threefold question impelled him to a somewhat fuller reply. But, though his reply is fuller, it lacks the “Yes, Lord” of the two previous replies. Peter does not venture on his own affirmative this time, but relies on the Lord’s intimate knowledge of all things, and specifically his knowledge of his servant. “Lord, you know all things,” he said, a statement with important implications for Christology (cf. 2:25; 16:30). In the context it means at least that Jesus fully understood what went on in people’s hearts, and specifically in Peter’s heart. Incidentally we have another example of variation in vocabulary in that Peter’s word for “know” is different from that in his previous replies. 51 But again, there is no real difference in meaning. Jesus’ final commission, as we saw, combines the verb from the first form with the noun from the second form. 52
There can be little doubt but that the whole scene is meant to show us Peter as completely restored to his position of leadership. Three times he had denied his Lord. Now he has three times affirmed his love for him, and three times he has been commissioned to care for the flock. This must have had the effect of a demonstration that, whatever had been the mistakes of the past, Jesus was restoring Peter to a place of trust. It is further worth noting that the one thing about which Jesus questioned Peter prior to commissioning him to tend the flock was love. This is the basic qualification for Christian service. Other qualities may be desirable, but love is completely indispensable (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1–3).
18–19 The commission is followed by a prophecy introduced by the solemn “I tell you the truth” (see on 1:51). Jesus refers to Peter’s past state 53 rather than his present position, perhaps to contrast his first state with his last. Two things are singled out, the fastening of the belt (NIV, “dressed yourself”) and the going where he willed. In youth Peter had done both of these things. In old age he will do neither. He will be restrained, and no longer master of his movements. 54 John proceeds to an explanation of these rather enigmatic words. They refer to the death by which Peter will glorify God (for death as a glorifying of God cf. 12:23, etc.; 15:8 may also be relevant). The words are very general, but there is evidence that the stretching forth of the hands was held in the early church to refer to crucifixion. 55 If this understanding of the expression goes back to the time of Christ, then we have a prophecy of the exact mode of Peter’s death. But unless we can be sure of this we cannot be certain of more than that the words point to martyrdom in some form. Against it is the word order, for “carrying” (NIV, “lead”) would necessarily precede crucifixion (though the order may be determined not by the sense, but by parallelism with the first part of the verse). 56 This prophecy is followed by a call to Peter to follow Christ. There is possibly significance in the use of the present tense; “keep on following” will be the force of it. Peter had followed Christ, but not continuously in the past. For the future he was to follow steadfastly in the ways of the Lord.
35 οὖν here appears to be no more than resumptive (see on 1:21).
36 Although Jesus gave Simon the name Peter there is only one subsequent occasion recorded when he addressed him by it (Luke 22:34). His habit is to call him Simon. The Synoptists usually refer to him as Peter, but John often uses Simon Peter (he has the name Peter 34 times, and it is combined with Simon 17 times). The Received Text here reads Σίμων Ἰωνᾶ (with A Θ f1 f13, but Σίμων Ἰωάννου is to be preferred with (א) BDW lat co.
38 See, for example, BDF, 185(1).
39 This is accepted by C. B. Williams, Rieu, and others.
41 Perhaps the best case for seeing a distinction of meaning is that made by Hendriksen in his special note (II, pp. 494–500), but he fails to notice that it is John’s habit to introduce slight variations in repetitions. This makes his argument less cogent. We may well agree that, while the two verbs are of very similar meaning, there is yet a distinction on occasion. But it does not follow that a writer who elsewhere shows himself prone to slight variations, including the use of synonyms, without appreciable difference of meaning (see on 3:5), does intend a difference of meaning in this passage. It is this that does not appear to have been made out. A. Marshall says that he has never met an explanation of the difference between the two terms that satisfies all the requirements. He adds to his note the interesting point that in the formation of compounds φιλ- is always used to express love, never ἀγαπ- (BT, 6 , p. 48). If there were a real difference it would seem necessary for ἀγαπ- to be used on occasion.
42 Among those who see ἀγαπάω as denoting a higher kind of love are Westcott, Lenski, Plummer, and Temple. The last-mentioned affirms that no two words are ever exactly synonymous. He points out that in the list given by Bernard, which is intended to show that the words have much the same meaning, we always have φιλέω or ἀγαπάω alone. When the two occur together a distinction must, he thinks, be intended; but his case is weakened by the fact that he does not refer to John’s habit of introducing minor verbal changes. This view is seen also in some translations, e.g., NIV, Cassirer, Twentieth Century, LB. Goodspeed renders ἀγαπᾷς με; by “Are you devoted to me?” and φιλῶ σε by “I love you,” while Schonfield reverses the translations. We may take Hendriksen’s summary as typical of the views of those who see ἀγαπάω as denoting a superior type of love: “we believe that ἀγαπάω in this story (and generally throughout the Gospels, though with varying degree of distinctness in meaning) indicates love, deep-seated, thorough-going, intelligent and purposeful, a love in which the entire personality (not only the emotions, but also the mind and the will) plays a prominent part, which is based on esteem for the object loved or else on reasons which lie wholly outside of this object; while φιλέω indicates (or at least tends in the direction of) spontaneous natural affection, in which the emotions play a more prominent role than either the intellect or the will.”
43 Perhaps the typical representative of this point of view is Trench, who comments on ἀγαπᾷς με; “At this moment, when all the pulses in the heart of the now penitent Apostle are beating with a passionate affection towards his Lord, this word on that Lord’s lips sounds far too cold; to very imperfectly express the warmth of his affection toward Him. The question in any form would have been grievous enough (ver. 17); the language in which it is clothed makes it more grievous still. He therefore in his answer substitutes for the ἀγαπᾷς of Christ the word of a more personal love, φιλῶ σε (ver. 15). And this he does not on the first occasion only, but again upon a second. And now at length he has triumphed; for when his Lord puts the question to him a third time, it is not ἀγαπᾷς any more, but φιλεῖς” (Synonyms, pp. 42–43). C. B. Williams translates ἀγαπᾷς με; by “are you really devoted to me?” and φιλῶ σε by “I tenderly love you.” MacGregor takes this kind of distinction as that most likely to be drawn. He understands ἀγαπάω to mean “the esteem existing between benefactor and recipient,” and φιλέω as “the personal affection existing between members of the same family.” He cites Strachan as one who takes this view (but Strachan in his commentary denies a distinction in this passage while admitting that one may be drawn in classical Greek). It is possible that the Vulgate should be included here with its use of diligo to render ἀγαπάω and amo for φιλέω. MiM refuses to grade the verbs as higher and lower, but nevertheless regards ἀγαπάω as “less expressive of emotions of tenderness, of personal feeling and affection, than that verb used by Peter in his reply.” Barclay says, “agapan … is a word which maybe has more of the head than the heart in it,” while “philein is the word of the warmest and most tender affection” (The Revelation of John, I [Edinburgh, 1960], p. 183). See also Schnackenburg, II, p. 462, n. 40.
45 This is the position taken up by most modern commentators—e.g., Barrett, Bernard. Many recent translations, such as NRSV, Rieu, Moffatt, REB, GNB, do not distinguish between the two verbs. Moffatt examines the Johannine use of the two terms and decides that there is no significant difference (Love in the New Testament [London, 1932], pp. 46–47). He concludes, “The use of φιλέω and ἀγαπάω in this dialogue is therefore no more than a literary variation, and to read anything recondite into it is to be subtle where simplicity is the mark of the writer’s thought and expression.” Barrett reminds us that the Beloved Disciple is several times called ὃν ἠγάπα and once ὃν ἐφίλει (20:2) and proceeds, “it is highly improbable that there were two ‘beloved disciples’, one loved in a rather better way than the other.” Bernard has a thorough analysis of the use of the two verbs and finds no difference. He points out also that the patristic commentators—Syriac, Greek, and Latin alike (except possibly for Ambrose)—do not treat the variation of words here as significant. He also reminds us that the Syriac and Old Latin translations make no distinction (though the Vulgate does). Curiously Marsh argues that here ἀγαπάω is “the strong word for love” and φιλέω “a weaker one.” But he does not notice John’s habit of variation, nor that many of those who draw a distinction between the two words see φιλέω as the strong word. His case cannot be held to be convincing.
46 Here Jesus says Βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου. There are intricate textual problems about the next two verses but we should probably read in v. 16 Ποίμαινε τὰ προβάτιά μου, and in v. 17 Βόσκε τὰ προβάτιά μου.
47 There are textual variants. Thus for ἀρνία here C* D it read πρόβατα. In v. 16 προβάτια is read by B C pc and should probably be accepted, and πρόβατα by א A D W Θ f13.
50 The text runs, ὅτι εἶπεν αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον, Φιλεῖς με; This should surely be taken to mean that the same question had been asked three times, rather than that the verb on the third occasion was Φιλεῖς. This is supported by the use of δεύτερον in v. 16.
51 Peter has twice said σὺ οἶδας. Now he retains this verb in his πάντα σὺ οἶδας, but then he says, σὺ γινώσκεις ὅτι φιλῶ σε. For οἶδα and γινώσκω see on 2:24.
52 This latter point is not certain. προβάτια is read by A B C Wc pc, but there is also strong support for πρόβατα, namely א D W* Θ f1 f13 pl. Some scholars hold that a threefold variation is intended, but it appears that on this occasion twofold is more probable. The substitution of πρόβατα by scribes is intelligible, but that of προβάτια is not so easily explained.
54 The singular ἄλλος invites comment. For any form of martyrdom we would expect a plural, for several persecutors would be involved. It may be that Christ himself or God is intended, the point then being that Peter would fulfill the divine will in his martyrdom. But this may be over-subtle. Perhaps nothing more is meant than a personification of the persecuting authorities.
55 Barrett draws attention to the interpretation of ἐξεπέτασα τὰς χεῖρας μου (Isa. 65:2) as foreshadowing the crucifixion by Barnabas (12:4), Justin (1 Apol. 35), Irenaeus (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 79), and Cyprian (Test. 2.20). There are similar interpretations of Moses’ outstretched hands (Exod. 17:12), and Barrett finds one use of ἐκτείνω with reference to crucifixion in Epictetus (BAGD cites Josephus, Ant. 19.94, but this is dubious, to say the least). Trench cites some passages in Christian writers, the Epictetus passage and also one from Seneca (Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord [London, 1895], p. 503). Haenchen has a series of quotations from classical writers to the same effect. If these references be accepted as demonstrating the point, confirmation will perhaps be seen in the use of ζώννυμι, for the crucified were sometimes fastened to their crosses with ropes. Tertullian tells us that Peter was crucified in Rome under Nero, and he sees in crucifixion the fulfillment of the words about being girded by another (Scorp. 15). Eusebius reports that at his own request Peter was crucified head downward (HE 3.1.2), but most scholars find little reason for accepting this.
56 Cullmann, however, cites W. Bauer that the order is correct, for “the criminal had to carry the cross to the place of execution with arms spread out and chained to it” (Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr [London, 1962], p. 88, n. 87).