15 After breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Master, you know I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He then asked a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Master, you know I love you.” Jesus said, “Shepherd my sheep.” 17 Then he said it a third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was upset that he asked for the third time, “Do you love me?” so he answered, “Master, you know everything there is to know. You’ve got to know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
The Johannine writer presents this conversation between Jesus and Peter as a direct parallel to Peter’s denial of Jesus in John 18:15-27. A number of details are common to both accounts :
1. Both scenes took place beside a charcoal fire. It was while warming himself over a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest that Peter denied Jesus (John 18:18). Now, standing beside a charcoal fire, Jesus asks Peter to affirm his “so called” love for the Christ.
2. Both accounts refer to Peter as “Simon Peter.” When the Johannine writer uses Peter’s birth name (Simon), and the name that Jesus assigned to Simon when he became a disciple of Jesus (Peter) in John 1:42, the writer is juxtaposing the two natures of Simon Peter. Simon is the man that used to be a fisherman. However, Peter is the man Jesus called into being—Peter, the rock.
3. Both scenes involve a three-fold pattern of conversation. Verse 15 institutes the basic pattern, with verses 16-17 then duplicating the form. Three times Jesus inquires about the veracity of Peter’s love for Him, and three times Peter denied Jesus when others inquired about his relationship to Jesus after the arrest. Further, as Jesus and Peter converse the writer uses two different words to describe love: “agape,” the love that is a decision one makes to commit oneself wholly to another for his benefit, and “phileo,” which is affection, the brotherly love we naturally feel. Each time Jesus asks Peter to affirm his love, Peter responds with “phileo” on all 3 occasions. Jesus uses agape twice and then finally descends to employing Peter’s word, phileo, in His query.
4. Both incidents refer to Peter’s personal assessment of his own fidelity. Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” By comparing the two accounts, we see that Jesus implies, “Do you love me more than these men love me?” Before he denied Jesus, in John 13:37, Peter infers that he loved Jesus much more than the other disciples. Clearly, Peter regarded himself as more faithful and committed than the others, whom he expected would desert the Lord in a time of danger. Thus, Jesus addresses Peter’s previous statement when he says, “Do you love me more than these?”
Peter is clearly upset that Jesus repeats the same question a third time. However, his pained disposition is likely an acknowledgement of his past mistakes and his new commitment to love and loyalty. Now that Peter has acknowledged his denial of Jesus, he is able to move past his failures to embrace the assignment at hand. Further, Peter no longer compares himself to others or his faithfulness to the faithfulness of others. Wisely humbled by the reality of his own unfaithfulness, and a commitment truly love Jesus wholeheartedly, Peter responds, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
Now that Simon’s love is reaffirmed, Jesus then says to Peter, “Feed my lambs”; “Shepherd my sheep”; “Feed my sheep.” Jesus’ charge underscores the essence of these verses—the veracity of Peter’s love for Jesus is directly related to his willingness to put that love into practice by shepherding Jesus flock.
Simon’s charge becomes a prototype for pastoral care embodying expectations for all of Jesus’ disciples:
• Peter—and by extension the Church—must care for Jesus’ flock. Jesus is clear that he alone is the Good Shepherd. By using the personal pronoun “my” to indicate possession and ownership of the lambs/sheep, Jesus clarifies that Peter’s job is to care for His disciples. The lambs/sheep belong to Jesus. He gained them by loving sacrifice at the cross.
• Peter—and by extension the Church—must guard Jesus’ flock. When Jesus says, “shepherd my sheep,” the word shepherd means to watch over them or guard them. In Peter’s first letter, he says to the elders to whom he is writing, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, watching out for them (I Peter 5:2).” Try to discern where they are, apprehend the coming dangers, warn and guard them. That is the work of a shepherd.
• Peter—and by extension the Church—must teach Jesus’ flock. Above all, Jesus wants His sheep to thrive beyond “the catch” to become mature disciples. The mechanism of feeding is the teaching of the Word of God.
As Jesus charges Peter, it is clear that Jesus charges all disciples; we must love enough to shepherd, and shepherd in love. As Jesus shared in the farewell discourse of John 13:34-35, “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
18-19I’m telling you the very truth now: When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.” He said this to hint at the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. And then he commanded, “Follow me.”
In verses 18-19, Jesus predicts Peter’s martyrdom using a brief parable. (See John 3:29; 4:36, and 8:35 for similar short parables.) For Peter, Jesus’ command, “follow me,” will involve more than shepherding and preaching the Gospel. Eventually, Peter will endure great pain, suffering, humiliation and death by crucifixion. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus loved (agape) humanity so much that he was willing to lay down his life. As a shepherd in the pattern of Jesus, Peter will die because of his love for Jesus. According to tradition, Nero imprisoned and crucified Peter in Rome during Nero’s great persecution of Christians in 64 C.E. Regardless of the nature of Peter’s death, Jesus is saying that preaching, teaching and shepherding calls for enormous sacrifice.
20-21 Turning his head, Peter noticed the disciple Jesus loved following right behind. When Peter noticed him, he asked Jesus, “Master, what’s going to happen to him?”22-23 Jesus said, “If I want him to live until I come again, what’s that to you? You—follow me.” That is how the rumor got out among the brothers that this disciple wouldn’t die. But that is not what Jesus said. He simply said, “If I want him to live until I come again, what’s that to you?”
In these verses, the writer of John switches from foretelling Peter’s ultimate demise to a discussion concerning the death of the beloved disciple. Peter asks Jesus what will happen to the beloved disciple. While many interpret this exchange as an indication of a rivalry within the early church, I take a different stance. Instead, it appears that the Johannine writer is preserving how important the beloved disciple is for the surviving Johannine community. Apparently there was a circulating legend that said this individual would not die. However, upon the death of the beloved disciple, this writer sees the importance of directly addressing the rumors about the disciple and clarifying Jesus’ supposed statements.
24 This is the same disciple who was eyewitness to all these things and wrote them down. And we all know that his eyewitness account is reliable and accurate.25 There are so many other things Jesus did. If they were all written down, each of them, one by one, I can’t imagine a world big enough to hold such a library of books.
In verses 24-25, the Johannine writer illumines the importance of the beloved disciple’s ministry and witness concerning Jesus. According to Gail O’Day, “while Peter’s ministry is marked by his death, the beloved disciple’s is marked by this Gospel.” Because the beloved disciple lives on by communicating the Gospel of John, his ministry will never die. Further, the Johannine writer interjects into the Gospel commentary to draw a clear line of distinction between the beloved disciple’s observations as an eyewitness, and his function as the one who penned the Gospel of John. Ultimately, the Johannine writer is but one of many who will pen and interpret various accounts of Jesus’ ministry.