Updated: Nov 18, 2022
Spiritually speaking, John 21:15-32 is a milestone moment in the life of the Apostle Peter. It is a time of spiritual reflection, introspection, and redirection. Every Christian has times like this at some point on their spiritual journey. In this text, Jesus is not evaluating whether or not Peter’s a disciple, because he is clearly a disciple of Christ by this point, but Jesus wants Peter himself to evaluate his current condition as a disciple. This is similar to when you’re in a doctor’s office for a physical evaluation. The medical professionals will probably check your blood pressure, listen to your heartbeat, and check your pulse. They will listen to you breathe, and they may use a tongue depressor to look at the back of your throat. It is very likely that they will look into your eyes and your ears. If they are being thorough, they will probably look at your fingernails, and possibly check your reflexes. As they evaluate your physical condition, they will ask you questions. “Are you experiencing any pain?“ “What is your diet and exercise routine?” Their questions will provoke you to thought. While they are gathering information about your physical condition, their questions will prompt you to self-reflection, self-evaluation. You may feel guilty about a lack of exercise or guilt about food indulgences. Jesus didn’t need to ask Peter questions for Jesus’ sake, but for Peter’s. Obviously, Jesus knew the answers to His own questions, but His questions prompted self-reflection and introspection for Peter.
This dialogue recorded in John 21 is Peter’s discipleship evaluation. For the sake of context, at this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus has already died and is resurrected. (John 19-20) However, this is before the ascension of Christ which makes John 21, one of the “infallible proof” encounters. Further, by way of context, at this point in John’s Gospel, Peter has already denied knowing Christ. (John 18:15-18; 18:25-27). Peter has already warmed his hands by the fire with the heathen. Peter has already heard the rooster crow. By this point, Peter has already wept bitterly. And interestingly, by John 21:15 Peter has already seen the empty tomb and has seen Jesus three times after His resurrection, including when Jesus provided heavenly fishing secrets and enabled Peter and the other disciples to catch 153 fish in their small net (John 21:1-14). After all that, one would think Peter’s faith would be strong; yet here Peter sits feeling ashamed and defeated. You might say, “he’s floundering.” (Fish joke.) But seriously, it’s as if Jesus says, “Peter, we need to talk.“ Peter knows it’s time for a heart evaluation. In these verses, we will consider Jesus’ opening address, the questions and answers, and the perspective realignment.
1. The Opening Address (vs 15) Jesus opens this dialogue with Peter by addressing him as, “Simon, son of Jona.” I suggest that this opening address got Peter‘s attention spiritually and physically. Spiritually speaking, this is the way Jesus referred to Peter on the day he met Jesus as recorded in John 1. On the day that Andrew, Peter‘s brother, introduced him to Jesus, the Bible indicates that Jesus “beheld“ Peter. Jesus made direct eye contact with Peter and said, “Thou art Simon the son of Jona…” (John 1:42) I suggest that once Jesus addressed Peter in that way in John 21, so many moments in Peter’s spiritual life, since John 1, came flooding back to his memory. Moments of failure, maybe regret, and even moments of success that happened during the time period of John 1 to John 21 were instantly on the forefront of Peter‘s mind. The “Simon, son of Jona” addresses in John 1 and then again in John 21 serve as spiritual book-ends for Peter’s life as recorded in the Gospel of John. Everything that took place since Jesus called Peter to be His disciple was probably overwhelming his soul. The details of his spiritual journey all comes flooding back when Jesus says, “Simon son of Jona.” Not only does this opening address have spiritual significance, but also consider the physical significance. When Jesus says, “… son of Jona…” it’s a reference to Peter’s physical birth father. In that day, a person’s lineage was well documented. Contrastingly, in today’s society, very little is known about most people’s ancestry, including mine. If someone were to say my biological father‘s name to me, they would definitely have my attention. My biological dad left my life when I was two years old, then my stepdad legally adopted me and changed my name at that time. Then when I was 15 my stepdad left my life, and the Lord provided a foster father for me. Because of my twice broken home environment, very few people, even those who know me closely, know the name of my biological father. If someone were to address me as his son, they would definitely have my full attention. Even though a person’s lineage was more commonly known in Peter’s day, still, for Jesus to speak the name of Peter‘s birth-father is to potentially invoke some measure of reflection on Peter’s entire life, from the day of his birth, all the way up to the present moment in John 21. To address Peter as “Simon, son of Jona” is to grab his attention both spiritually, and physically. The opening address is significant: now consider the famous questions and answers.
2. The Questions and Answers (vs 15-17) It’s been said that, “A question stirs the conscience, but an accusation hardens the will.” In this instance, Jesus asks questions and no doubt, it stirs Peter‘s conscience. As a result, I believe Peter‘s heart is racing. Certainly his belly is full from the fish dinner (John 21:1-14), but I think his mind is overwhelmed with defeat, and he is just answering minimally, possibly so he doesn’t say something else that he will later regret. Peter answers Jesus’ questions genuinely, even if his answers are self-incriminating. Peter is being genuine, but he is also concise. This is a different attitude for Peter than you read throughout the gospels. Here, in this Q&A, Peter is very sober minded. This famous “Do you love me” dialogue is well covered ground in today’s preaching and Bible studies; however, a major aspect of this passage is often overlooked. It is often pointed out that there are two Greek words for “love” mentioned in this passage. Jesus asked Peter “Do you love me“ in an “agape” sense. But Peter responds (and I paraphrase), “Yes, I ‘love’ you with a ‘phileo’ type of love.” That is to say, “Peter, do you love me with the highest form of love?” Peter replies, “I love you with a brotherly love, and lesser type of love.” Again, Peter is being genuine even if his answer isn’t impressive. This is essentially the way it goes in the first two rounds of questions and answers. (John 21:15-16) In this moment, Peter is not over-selling his level of devotion to Jesus, as he had done previously. (Matthew 26:33; Mark 14:29; Luke 22:33) In this heart evaluation, Peter is answering honestly and humbly. What is often overlooked is that in verse 17, when Jesus says “…lovest thou me?”, He is not asking Peter about “agape” love, as He was in the previous two questions. The love in verse 17 is “phileo.” Now, Jesus drops down to Peter’s love level and says, “Peter, do you ‘phileo’ me?” This is when Peter is grieved! (vs 17) This is when Peter says to Jesus, “thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love (phileo) thee.” (vs 17) After all, Peter had just professed that lower love level twice. An aspect that is rarely pointed out is that nowhere in this question and answer does Peter pledge “agape” love. If you’ve read the Book of Acts, you know Peter shows forth that kind of high love level later in his life, but Peter does not verbalize it here. And, as a matter of fact, Jesus does not push for that in this moment. Jesus essentially firms up the “phileo” love, the lower love level, and then commands Peter to “Feed my lambs/sheep.” That’s how the famous “Do you love me” dialogue ends. In this exchange, there are no dramatic pledges of dedication from Peter. No vows of high-level commitment or consecration from Peter. It feels somewhat anti-climactic. Instead, this discipleship evaluation showcases raw humility, sincere introspection, and verbalized transparency. Next, Jesus offers Peter a perspective realignment.
3. The Perspective Realignment (vs 18-22) Very few things realign a person‘s perspective as well as thoughts about death. Jesus brings up the brevity of life and specifically, He prophesies concerning the details of Peter’s death. (vs 18-19) “When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself…” In other words, “when you were young, you were able to dress yourself.” And, when Peter was young, he “walkedst whither thou wouldest…” In other words, he was self-determined. “But when thou shalt be old,… another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” In other words, when you are old, someone else will dress you, and take you somewhere you do not want to go. In verse 19, John clarifies that this prophecy signifies Peter’s death. Ultimately, Peter would be taken prisoner, bound, and crucified. Jesus’ startling prophecy about Peter‘s death would be fulfilled entirely. As this perspective realignment continues to unfold, you might say Peter had a Psalm 90 moment with Jesus. In summary, Psalm 90 is about death. It’s about living life with death in view. When the Psalmist says, “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom,” Moses, the Psalmist, is praying that God would enable him to live out his life with death in mind.
Here, in this discipleship evaluation, Jesus is reminding Peter that his days are numbered. This prophecy has the potential to foster significant amounts of sobriety in Peter’s heart, and it certainly did that. The fact is, life is short. The older a person gets, the more a person realizes that truth. It’s one thing to read about the brevity of life; it’s another thing to feel like you’re experiencing it. One of the godly ladies in our church said to me, “What matters is not the length of our lives but the depth.” She said, “God has already determined the length, it is up to us to determine the depth.” Serious reflection on the brevity of life often produces a sincere pursuit of meaningful depth in this fleeting life. When a person is reminded of their appointment with death, it changes things. And, if Jesus tarries in His coming, none of us will be late for that appointment. Consider Luke 12:13-21 in which the Bible records the account of the “Prosperous Farmer.” The farmer had much but, “God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee.” (vs. 20) The problem was not that the farmer was successful, but that he was successful in a way that left God out of the equation. The prosperous farmer wanted benefits now and paid no attention to the then. If you live life with death in view, it changes things. 1 Timothy 6:6-8 explains that “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” In John 21:18, Jesus wants Peter to live his life with death in view: however, in spite of that startling reminder from Jesus, Peter has a question. (I paraphrase) “What’s going to happen to John?” (See John 21:20-21) Instead of having that single minded focus on obeying and following Christ, Peter takes a sideways glance and asks about one of his peers. In this moment, Peter is showing that in spite of Jesus’ attempt at perspective realignment, Peter is still thinking carnally. Maybe competitively or enviously but certainly carnally. Jesus goes at Peter again with a perspective realignment when He says “what is that to thee? follow thou me.” In other words, “John’s business is none of your business. Peter, we are not focusing on John’s situation, we are focusing on your situation so, “Follow thou me.” (vs 22) And, that’s it. That’s how the perspective realignment ends. Much like the “Do you love me” question and answer, the perspective realignment is anti-climactic . John 21 does not record anywhere Peter saying, “Thank you for this reminder about the brevity of life, now I’m going to do right, now I’m going to follow well.” At no point in John 21 does Peter say “Okay, I agape you.” But clearly Peter did possess that love level when you read about him in the Book of Acts. Similarly, at no point in John 21 does Peter verbally agree to follow Christ, but he clearly does as you see in the Book of Acts. Instead, John 21 leaves us with just Peter’s declaration of phileo love, the prophecy of Peter‘s death and then John the writer saying Jesus did “many other things” but “the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” Yet, when you read the book of Acts, Peter is amazing. In the Book of Acts, Peter gets it. He’s courageous. He’s focused. He’s bold. He’s Spirit-filled. So, what made the difference in this discipleship evaluation? Clearly something clicked for Peter, spiritually speaking, so what was it? Conclusion: I suggest that not only was this opening address, questions and answers, and perspective realignment ringing loudly in Peter’s heart, but also, so were the words from a previous conversation between Peter and Jesus. Remember the passage we studied previously in Mark 8? Remember the words, “deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me“? That’s what did it for Peter! That’s what was ringing loudly in Peter‘s mind, because each of those elements are clearly found in the John 21:15-22 dialogue. What Jesus communicated to Peter privately after their fish dinner in John 21 was essentially the same thing that He communicated publicly in Mark 8:34. If you read through John 21:15-22 with Mark 8:34 in mind, you will see each of those elements. Jesus instructs Peter to deny himself when he tells him to, “feed my lambs/sheep.” He tells Peter to deny himself by “feeding the flock of God.” (Consider 1 Peter 5:2) Jesus prepares Peter to, “take up his cross” as he prophesies about Peter‘s death by crucifixion. (John 21:18-19) Peter will literally, “take up his cross.“ Jesus explains to Peter, “Even though this is how you will die, while you are living, FOLLOW ME.” And, no matter what happens to other people around you Peter, “FOLLOW THOU ME!” At some point, between John 21 and Acts 1, Peter understands that true discipleship is to deny yourself, take up his cross, and follow Christ. Clearly, this discipleship evaluation was exactly what Peter needed because Peter was among those first century Christians who, “turned the world upside down” for the cause of Christ. By the way, a medical doctor’s evaluation has each of these elements; an opening address, a question and answer time, and a perspective realignment. Sometimes we leave the doctor’s office and repeat our bad habits. Sometimes the doctor’s words fall on deaf ears. This discipleship evaluation changed everything for the Apostle Peter. What will it do for you? I promise you the Holy Spirit is saying the same thing to you. “Deny yourself, take up His cross and follow Christ.” This could be, like it was for Peter, a spiritual milestone moment in your life. This could be a time of much needed reflection and realignment. True Discipleship is, “Deny yourself, take up His cross, and follow Christ.” And, all of this is volitional. On a daily basis, die to self, and take up His cross. We get to choose if we will obey the doctor’s orders at the health evaluation, and we choose to obey the divine Doctor in the spiritual evaluation. It is your daily choice to follow Christ. It’s up to us to “keep our heart” in the “love of God.” (Proverbs 4:23; Jude 1:21) What’s your choice? I assure you, He is worthy!
The above article was written by James C. Johnson. He is the Pastor of NorthStone Baptist Church in Pensacola. To offer him your feedback, find him on twitter, @JamesJohnsonSFL or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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