The ministers of the Church: Peter’s reinstatement and the Beloved Disciple’s testimony (21:15–25)

The Christian life is directed by a love for Christ and displayed by an obedient following of Christ. A true disciple of Jesus Christ believes in his person and work, participate in his life, and strives for his glory.

  1. The love and sheep of Jesus (21:15–19);
  2. “You follow me!” (21:20–23);
  3. The origin of the Gospel (21:24–25).


On the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus had prepared a symbol-laden meal for his disciples with fish, bread, and a charcoal fire. When the meal ended, Jesus addressed Peter with a question about the object of his love.

Perhaps, Jesus took walk with Peter and the Beloved Disciples followed them behind (cf. 21:20).

The last time Peter was asked a question about Jesus in the presence of a charcoal fire, he denied Jesus three times (see 18:18). Now, around this charcoal fire Peter is again asked a question about Jesus three times. But this time the questions comes from Jesus who before was accused and not from those who accused Jesus. The questions Jesus asks do not seek to take life but to restore it, for the person asking the question has already paid the price with his own life.

Jesus addresses Peter in a formal way (cf. 1:42). The whole point of this conversation is the reinstatement of Peter. But it also make the reader understand that the discipleship and ministry of Peter - and the Church thereafter - is not based on courage (chapter 18 which failed Peter) or competence (chapter 21 - they did not catch anything) - but on Christ.

“Love” is a major motif in the Gospel (3:16; 13:34–35). Thus, the question Jesus asks Peter is a question about: will the love of God that was first given to the world be appropriately returned to him? And just as the love of God for the world was most clearly expressed by the death of Jesus on the cross, will the love of a disciple for God be similarly expressed?

“More than these?” What or who are “these?” The fishing activity? Doubtful. The other disciples? Perhaps. But, does it mean “do you love me more than they love me?” Or “do you love me more than you love them?”

But, in this case a love for Christ takes precedence over the love of one another (13:34–35; 15:12, 17).

The threefold denial of Peter revealed whom he loved (or feared) more; now Peter has another chance to compare his love for Jesus with his love others (for himself).

In his answer Peter appeals to the knowledge that Jesus has about Peter. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep - better than the sheep know themselves.

The challenging question is about two different words for “love” used in this text (21:15–17) - “ἀγαπᾷς” and “φιλῶ”. Today most of the scholar claim that there is no intended difference in using the two terms so close to each other. They indicate that both terms are used to describe the Father’s love for the Son in 3:35 agapao and in 5:20 phileo. Moreover, they point out that also two different words are used for the flock (τὰ ἀρνία in 21:15 and τὰ πρόβατά in 21:16) and two different words for “know” (οἶδας οἶδας and γινώσκεις in 21:17). Thus, it would be just a stylistic difference.

But, things are not so obvious. Since the verbs are side by side, the Evangelist probably intended a distinction. After all Peter always uses the same term for “love” but Jesus twice uses a different term for “love” and only the third time uses the term that Peter used. Why? Why the third time Jesus changed from agapao to phileo? And it was Jesus (the Son of God) who ‘accommodated’ himself to human being (Peter). God bridged the gap again.

Perhaps, we shall never know why but to claim that it is just a stylistic devise is not convincing.

“Feed my lambs”. Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer is not in the form of a correction but a commission. Peter is commissioned to serve as a shepherd in Jesus’ absence in view of Jesus’ imminent departure.

Again we find here alternatives: “Feed my lambs” (21:15); “shepherd my sheep” (21:16) and “feed my sheep” (21:17). In this case the alternation may reflect the variety of sheep and the range of shepherding required. Peter is called to perform his duty in a manner distinct from the “hired worker” in 10:12–13.

This command fulfils Peter’s professed love for Christ (21:15–17) and the new commandment given to the Church for mutual love (13:34–35), which was given by Jesus just before Jesus announced the betrayal of Peter (13:38).


Without waiting for Peter to respond to his commission Jesus repeats the question he already asked once. But the comparison is omitted - no more “more than these”. Now the focus is entirely on love for Jesus.

By numbering this next questions of Jesus as “second”, as well as the “third” one, the Evangelist highlights the unitary purpose of 21:15–17 and their parallel to the previous threefold denial by Peter. The repetition is a statement of its own - loving Jesus and pastoring the Church are interrelated.


The noticeable difference from the previous two exchanges are: (1) the absence of “yes”, which was present in both 21:15–16. (2) The Evangelist provides Peter’s internal response to this final question of Jesus.

The word “sorrowful” can denote distress, offence, irritation, insult or sadness, sorrow, and grief (cf. 16:20). The form of a verb - past tense - probably indicates the entrance into a state.

Both differences would indicate that this third question made Peter aware about his own failure which he probably would like to forget as quick as possible. But Jesus’ questions did not aim at reminding him of his failure but at healing him - it was an act of forgiveness and reinstatement to his position as a shepherd of the Shepherd.


After the threefold exchange, Jesus presents Peter with a prophecy in the form of a comparative “illustration” in which a “younger” Peter has the freedom to move and live freely but an “old” Peter will lose his ability to do that. Jesus is predicting Peter’s martyrdom.


Jesus explains what will happen to Peter, the Evangelist explains ‘why’ to the reader.

Evidence from the tradition reports that Peter died by crucifixion but upside down. By such death, Peter glorified God.

Jesus concludes the illustration with a command: “follow me”. Thus we can say that the Gospel begins and ends with the same command (cf. 1:43).

But coming at the end of the Gospel and directly after the prophecy of Peter’s violent end, this command is made more potent and necessary. Moreover, similar to the command “feed/shepherd my lambs/sheep” in 21:15–16 this command becomes a second commission. Just as Peter’s ministry is to look similar to the ministry of the Christ, Peter’s life is also expected to look like the life of Christ, a life that ended with a sacrificial death.


The “turning” of Peter seems to indicate that he still misunderstands his calling and the Christian life. Peter had just been commanded to follow Jesus. Why, then, is he not focused solely on Jesus?

Peter is comparing himself with the Beloved Disciple, whom he saw “following”.

This one is the fourth of the comparison scenes between Peter and the Beloved Disciple (13:22–25; 20:3–9; 21:7; 21:20–23).


Peter asked about the assignment of the Beloved Disciple. He knows his assignment and the way he will glorify God. Now he would like to know what kind of assignment the Lord has assigned to the Beloved Disciple.


Jesus responds to Peter with a counter question that serves as a rebuke. The question is rhetorical and hypothetical as the narrator explains in 21:23. It functions to make a separation between what Jesus “wants” for Peter and what he wants for the Beloved Disciple. The emphasis here is on Jesus’ authority, power, and will.

Peter is told that the life assigned to the Beloved Disciple is none of his business. And then, He restates his “follow me” commandment with the significant addition of an emphatic pronoun: “YOU follow me”. He is called to a single-minded following of Jesus.

“Until I come”. Jesus speaks as if he had already departed.

These are the last words of Jesus in the Gospel of John, and they echo his very first (1:38, 39, and particularly 1:43).

From start to finish, the Gospel has invited the reader to follow Jesus Christ by believing in his person and work and thus receiving life in his name (20:30–31). But following Jesus is not one-size-fits-all.

Using Peter and the Beloved Disciple as “representative characters” the Gospel declares that the various lives assigned to the disciples of Jesus Christ are equally grounded in the one called the Life (1:4; cf. Eph 4:4–7).


Apparently Jesus’ statement to Peter stirred other disciples in the earliest Church to make assumptions about the life of the Beloved Disciple.

Here we have an explanation of Heb 11:34, 37. Some glorify Jesus by martyrdom, while others by long life service.


The third section of the pericope (21:24–25) concludes the epilogue and the Gospel as a whole.

The one who answers Peter’s question in 21:21 is the Evangelist, revealing that he is the Beloved Disciple. Thus, the person and the ministry of the Beloved Disciple are now explained, both of which are directly related to the production of the Gospel itself.

This verse provides three insights into the identity and function of the Beloved Disciple.

(1) The Beloved Disciple is established as the authoritative witness of the Gospel. He is an eyewitness of the things written in this book. From this statement we can be almost certain that the anonymous disciples of John the Baptist who with Andrew followed Jesus was him (1:40).

The placement of the Beloved Disciple at both the very beginning and the very end of the Gospel makes it clear that this disciple fulfilled the requirements of apostolic testimony.

(2) The Beloved Disciple is established as the author of the Gospel.

(3) The Beloved Disciple is established as the model disciple of the Gospel - someone who receives, believes and is affected by the testimony of the Gospel. The aim of the author is to make the reader a disciple. The reader models the Beloved Disciple by receiving his testimony.

The first stage of the conclusion explained that the author of the Gospel desires for the reader to believe and have life in Jesus Christ (20:30–31). Just as the Beloved Disciple “saw and believed” (20:8), the reader of the Gospel “reads and believes”.

The “we” can be taken as referring to the group of John’s disciples or as the plural of authoritative testimony. In this first case, the “we” would embrace all the disciples of Jesus who believed the testimony of the Beloved Disciples and were convinced by the Holy Spirit that it is indeed true. In the second case, the “we” present at the beginning of the Gospel (1:14) and at the end of it adds force to his testimony and forms a kind of frame within which the entire message of the Gospel is included.

In Depth: Peter and the Beloved Disciple

From 1:40 and explicitly beginning in chapter 13, the story of Peter and the Beloved Disciple shows how each become qualified for different kind of discipleship.

Peter is portrayed as the disciples most eager to follow and serve Jesus (13:6–9, 36–37; 18:10–11, 15). He is the one who proclaims the true identity of Jesus (6:69) and he is assigned to shepherd Jesus’ sheep. At the same time, Peter often misunderstands Jesus and most of all denied him.

On the other hand, the Beloved Disciple enjoys a special intimacy with Jesus, beginning in 1:35–40 with his early acquaintance with Jesus (cf. 13:23–26; 19:26–27). He is present at key points in the story of Jesus, particularly at Jesus’ death as an eyewitness (19:35; see also 1:35; 18:15–16; 19:31–37; 20:3–10). His appearances in the narrative are marked by observational detail (cf. 20:5) and he has spiritual insights into the fuller meaning of the events and their significance (20:8).

Thus, the Gospel portrays the Beloved Disciple as qualified to be the ideal witness to Jesus, the account of his life and ministry, and the meaning of his person and work.

In Depth: The anonymity of the Beloved Disciple

The scholars suggest that the Gospel uses anonymity to mark out the Beloved Disciple, who is the author, from the other disciples in the narrative in which he appears with them. His anonymity makes him different in ‘kind’. It gives the reader the sense that this disciple is in a different category from the others. On the one hand, he is a character within the narrative, one the other hand he becomes a witness in the fullest sense.


If 21:24 is in reference to the author (the Beloved Disciple) then 21:25 is in reference to the text (the Gospel of John).

The Beloved Disciple speaks for the first time in the first person. He concludes with praise of the subject matter of the Gospel - namely Jesus Christ.

By referring to what could be written but was not, the author magnifies Jesus as worthy of endless description and gives greater emphasis to what was written.

The Jesus to whom he bears witness is the incarnate Word, the one through whom “the world” was made. There is not enough space in the world to contain the “words” needed to make known the fullness of THE Word.

This final verse makes clear that this Gospel was never intended to say it all, something the Church clearly recognised with its appropriate reception of four Gospels.

Yet, there is only one Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to John, has intended to make it known. Let the reader believe its message and the Church receive its life.

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