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Peter Is All of Us -- Jesus' call to "Follow Me" in John 21:15-23

You are responsible for *your* walk with Christ.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 21:15-23

In the epilogue to John's Gospel, Peter becomes a new kind of stand-in for us -- what happens if we fail Jesus? what about if terrible things happen to us? what about all of the other people who claim to be following Jesus? Jesus' challenge to Peter becomes the challenge to every Christian: no matter what, you follow Me, and I am with you.

Jesus answered, “what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” (21:22)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

I Thought It Was Over

The New York Times just ran a mind-blowing article about a man who had been paralyzed in a motorcycle accident 10 years ago; doctors gave him implants that bypassed the severed nerves and connected his brain with his lower body, and they used AI to "interpret" his thought patterns allowing his brain to control his movements. The man (Gert-Jan Oskam) said he had to change the way he "thought" about moving his legs, but now he can walk naturally with the help of a cane.

I'm still reeling from the implications of what I read (and here's a link to a gift version of that article, if you want to read it). But let's cut to the chase -- a man who thought he would never walk again is walking again. He had to change the way he thought about things, and he did. Just wow.

My idea for a topic is based on "I thought I would never _____ again". Either we've been there, or we know someone who has been there. Maybe they had surgery that allowed them a fuller range of motion in their arm, or that allowed them to eat a certain kind of food, or maybe they worked with a therapist to overcome a fear or a block.

I'm fascinated by two related ideas: what drove/sustained them through the rehab to get to the place where them could _____ again? and, what was it like the first time they did?

In this week's passage, Jesus "rehabilitates" Peter. Peter had completely blown it, and I wouldn't be surprised if he doubted his future in ministry.

But Jesus had other ideas. We might call this a "redemption arc". If Peter can be redeemed and rehabbed, then we can too.

"What about Him!?"

I like to think that when we grow out of school age, we grow out of this, but let me not kid myself. When we were kids, we really liked to make sure that blame and punishment got spread around. If one kid got punished for doing something, he wanted everyone else who might have been remotely involved to get equal punishment.

What does that look like in adults? (Let's just say that it's common in workplaces, and it seems to be getting worse where the fallout from remote work grows.)

Peter is going to show a little of this in this week's passage, and Jesus is going nip that right in the bud. You don't worry about anyone else -- you worry about you.

Who's Your Rival?

"Rival" might be a loose term here. When I was growing up, I had "rivals". They were almost always my friends, but we compared ourselves against each other, we went after the same awards and parts and scholarships. I would be happy for them if they got something I wanted, but I would also be a bit envious. For me, that's toned down a lot in my middle age, but I know from friends that it really depends on where you live and what you do. Some industries are a real breeding ground for rivalries.

So, who was your rival? Do you still have rivalries today? What were you rivals over? What effect did it have on you?

We learn in this week's passage that Peter and John definitely had a rivalry. Considering how young they likely were when they started with Jesus (late teens, early twenties), that only makes sense. Competitiveness seems to be a part of our nature. (I give you: cheese rolling and pumpkin kayaking.)

It didn't get in the way of their future ministry, so I appreciate knowing that my competitive tendencies don't have to shipwreck my Christian life.


Where We Are in John

John's Epilogue

As I said last week, chapter 20 is the proper end to John's narrative. Thomas became the stand-in for all of us when Jesus challenged him to "stop being an unbeliever and be a believer". Will we take all of the evidence John the author gave us and believe in Jesus Christ?

But John the author also observed the first two generations of the Christian church. He observed rivalry, bickering, and jealousy (all of the things Paul preached against in his letters). So he also wanted to give his readers a direction -- after you have become a Christian, then what? We have all of Paul's letters to demonstrate how complex and challenging the Christian life can be, but I propose that John the author accomplishes an incredible summary of Christian discipleship in a single chapter:

  • when you stray from the path, get back on the path

  • if your path looks like it's headed for danger, stay on the path

  • whatever happens to other people, you stay on the path

  • Jesus is behind you, beside you, ahead of you, and with you

Paul's letters are invaluable in explaining what this looks like in specific circumstances, but I'm astounded in how practical John's epilogue is.

Aside: This Epilogue *Is* Authentic

As you might imagine, some skeptics have tried to argue that this epilogue is a later addition by an unnamed scribe. The quick answer to that is that no one has ever found a copy of John's Gospel that ended with 20:31. But the bigger argument is that the change in topic (to Peter and John) is still in keeping with John's style and purpose. Epilogues were common in literature of the day -- a chance for the reader to learn "how it turned out". And John the author would know the extent of the questions floating around the early church, something he knew he would want to address in his Gospel, but not in a way that would disrupt the story of Jesus.

Back to the text.

The setting for this final event is a later appearance by Jesus to the disciples (His "third appearance").

  • 21:1 -- the disciples have returned to the Sea of Tiberias. This is another name for the Sea of Galilee. This is, not coincidentally, the same place where Jesus called the disciples in the first place.

  • 21:2 -- John the author identifies Peter and himself, plus 5 others. The fact that there are 7 disciples present is not coincidental. (Some have suggested that Nathanael was not officially one of the "Twelve", which wouldn't change anything.)

  • 21:3 -- Peter goes fishing. Many have suggested that Peter was abandoning his charge to be an apostle, but John the author doesn't suggest anything of the sort. It was just something they were doing while waiting for whatever was coming next. But a key detail is that they "caught nothing" -- symbolic of John's point that they would always need to rely on Jesus' power.

  • 21:4 -- they've been fishing all night. The key detail is "it was becoming morning" -- Jesus' presence is always like the dawning of a new day.

  • 21:5 -- Jesus knows their situation better than they do. Jesus uses a word for "fish" that's extremely rare and apparently emphasizes human cooking. Once again, the disciples needed Jesus to "provide food" for them (symbolically).

  • 21:6 -- no need to conclude anything about "right" vs. "left" -- John's point is that discipleship means obeying Jesus. But this is also supposed to make us think about Peter's and John's call to become Jesus' disciples in the first place (see Luke 5), which ends with the beautiful line,

"From now on, you will be catching people."
  • 21:7 -- John gets it and realizes that it's Jesus. Peter then hurls himself into the sea. This is supposed to make us think about how they responded to news of the resurrection in chapter 20.

  • 21:8 -- the other disciples follow, not far behind, with Jesus' ordered catch.

  • 21:9 -- the charcoal fire is supposed to make us think about another fire Peter had warmed himself by during the worst night of Peter's life. The interesting detail is that Jesus had already prepared some fish for them to eat.

  • 21:10 -- Jesus invites them to add their fish to the meal.

John's description suggests that this took place before The Great Commission. My guess is that Jesus was preparing Peter for what that commission would mean to him.

This Week's Big Idea: 153

I know that this reference precedes our passage this week, but it's one of those verses that has created a lot of speculation and conspiracy. Let me address this here, and I will cover the "true" big ideas for this chapter in our study below.

One of the early church leaders, Jerome, said that there were 153 species of fish, and this was God's way of saying that the gospel was for everyone. Well, we're up to 33,000 species of fish and counting (and the Greeks had identified plenty more than 153), so that interpretation, while cool, is out.

After that, we're off to the races.

  1. You can apparently calculate 153,000 workers in building Solomon's temple.

  2. You can apparently calculate that the ark was afloat for 153 days.

  3. 153 = (50x3)+ 3, which is a great Trinitarian number. (?)

  4. 153 = 17+ 16+ 15+ 14+ 13+ 12+ 11+ 10+ 9+ 8+ 7+ 6+ 5+ 4+ 3+ 2+ 1, making 153 a "triangular number". 17 = 10 (commandments) + 7 (gifts of the Spirit). And a partridge in a pear tree.

  5. The word "believe" occurs 98x in the Gospel, "Christ" 19x, and "life" 36x. And wouldn't you know that that adds up to 153.

  6. And more bizarre ones than that.

I really like that 4th one if I had any idea what to do with it. There are plenty of scholars who think that this detail was added just for the realism, but anyone who knows what John reported about the number 666 (Rev 13:18) knows that he sees meaning in numbers. So, I think we can say that it means something, but we aren't sure what it is.


Part 1: When You Fall (John 21:15-17)

15 When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs,” he told him. 16 A second time he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love you.” “Shepherd my sheep,” he told him. 17 He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved that he asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said.

Most dramatizations have this conversation taking place sitting around a fire with the other disciples listening in. Awkward! Glance ahead to 21:20 -- most likely, Jesus and the disciples are now walking on the beach together, and Jesus has pulled Peter aside. (This is a great image, btw, as this poster shows; the artist's name is Helen Thomas Robson.)

Now we get into one of the more gut-wrenching exchanges in human history. Let's start with this: Jesus didn't shy away from the hard conversations that needed to be had. This was going to be rough, but it had to happen for Peter's sake. How many times have we failed to say the tough words, only for things to become irreparable in time?

So, you've heard this explained before. Jesus asks Peter three times to affirm Him in contrast to the three times Peter denied Him. Peter doesn't catch this, and it hurts him (that wound is still raw).

Jesus also addresses Peter the same way John recorded their first introduction:

When Jesus saw him, he said, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas.” (1:42)

This is effectively a "rebooting" of their relationship. And it's also a beautiful reminder to us that our relationship with Jesus is never based on our "performance" but always on His grace.

What's the most famous verse in John's Gospel? Here Jesus makes it clear that our response to God's love is to love Him back.

"Do you love Me more than these?" More than these who? Your leader guide points out two common answers: (1) more than the other disciples loved Jesus (which was definitely not what Jesus was saying), (2) more than fishing.

[Aside: I am so tempted to throw you down a rabbit hole -- if (2) is correct, then it should immediately follow if we can say the same, that we love Jesus more than X, Y, or Z in our lives. But I don't think that's what Jesus was saying.]

Here's a third option: "Do you love Me more than you love the disciples?" This pairs with the unspoken parallel from the night of the trial: "Do you fear Me more than you fear the Romans?" Peter has repeatedly demonstrated a tendency to take his eyes off of Jesus and focus on the world (i.e., Matt 14), and he'll do that again in just a few verses. To Peter's credit, he knows the right answer, and he doesn't hesitate to give it.

The most debated part of this exchange is the fact that when Peter replies, he uses a different form of "love" (phileo, brotherly love, rather than agape, sacrificial love, which is the word Jesus used). For the first 1900 years of biblical scholarship, every Christian scholar saw no problem with this change of wording; even the early Greek-speakers thought this choice was stylistic, not theological. But John the author has been very careful to use precise words in his Gospel, so we have to assume that it means something. Perhaps it is Peter's recognition that he can't love Jesus quite the same way that he knows Jesus loves him.

But that's clearly not John's point -- John's point is what Jesus says in response: the command to "feed My sheep". This points us back to Jesus "the Good Shepherd" (which we studied in John 10). Note that we're still Jesus' sheep. And Jesus has not "hired" Peter to be a shepherd (remember what Jesus said about the hired shepherd); rather, Jesus has appointed Peter to serve in the role of shepherd (we like to call this a "undershepherd") in the same way that Jesus was a shepherd.

Now, let's compare the three questions and commands:

  1. "Simon, son of John, do you love Me?" / "Feed My lambs"

  2. "Simon, son of John, do you love Me?" / "Shepherd My sheep"

  3. "Simon, son of John, do you love Me?" / "Feed My sheep"

There's some kind of distinction intended by the slight variation in word choice, but there's really no agreement on what exactly that is. "Lambs" seems to focus on our need for special care. "Feed" and "shepherd" seem to indicate the full range of jobs of a shepherd -- protecting and providing. I don't think the nuance is John's point, though. Rather, John seems to be focused on Peter's answer:

  1. "Yes, Lord, You know that I love You"

  2. "Yes, Lord, You know that I love You"

  3. "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You"

Like Jesus, Peter doesn't change his words from 1 to 2. (I might be reading too much into this, but that's exactly how Peter's first and second denials worked.)

At the third question, Peter begins to be sorrowful. It's evident that Peter doesn't realize what Jesus is doing; he's just upset that Jesus seems to keep harping on it. "Can't you just let it go?" No, this isn't the sort of thing that you just "let go". Peter is about to become the leader of the most important human endeavor in history. No unresolved doubt.

John the author thought every believer should know how Jesus restored Peter. Unfortunately, some branches of Christianity took this to mean that Peter's "successors" were to be in complete change of the church. But we can read this as an "epilogue to sin". As a Christian, we are all going to fail and fall and disappoint. But that's not the end of our story -- Jesus still has another chapter for us.

Above, I clumsily summarized Jesus' words about the Christian life. This first one is:

  • when you stray from the path, get back on the path

What's been your experience with sin and redemption?


Part 2: When You Fear (John 21:18-19)

18 “Truly I tell you, when you were younger, you would tie your belt and walk wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will tie you and carry you where you don’t want to go.” 19 He said this to indicate by what kind of death Peter would glorify God. After saying this, he told him, “Follow me.”

Jesus doesn't dwell on the nicey-nice. There's no time for that. Peter will indeed remain true to Jesus -- true to his death.

You've probably heard the oral tradition that Peter was crucified upside-down (because he was not worthy of upside-up), captured in this famous painting by Caravaggio. There's no reason not to believe it, but that detail wouldn't change the truth of this passage.

"Stretch out your hands" in this context referred to crucifixion in the ancient world. I wonder if there might have a been a little relief from Peter in this moment -- being told that he would indeed be willing to die for Jesus, as he had boasted so many times.

But here's what I find the most worth focusing on: Jesus' immediate call to "follow Me". If we didn't understand the stakes, we do now. "Peter, leading My movement will result in your horrible death. But it's what I'm asking you to do." And Jesus is in a unique position to ask that of Peter -- it's nothing that He hadn't done Himself. When Jesus says "follow Me", He's not just saying "do what I ask you" -- He's telling Peter to emulate His life and death. Nobody else in history could say that.

Most of the application to our lives today is probably better reflected in the following verses about John. But you could spend a little time on the question "How would you write your own redemption arc?" At funerals, I have heard preachers ask, "What would you want your obituary to say?" Peter said that he would be willing to die for Jesus, but when push came to shove, he not only denied and abandoned Jesus, but he hid in fear. Here, Jesus reveals that not only will Peter go on to become a foundational leader in Jesus' church, but Peter will one day give his life in Jesus' service. That is as textbook a redemption arc as it gets.

If you know how you want your obituary to read, what are you doing to make it true of your life?

Here's the way that I summarized this point:

  • if your path looks like it's headed for danger, stay on the path


Part 3: What about Him? (John 21:20-23)

20 So Peter turned around and saw the disciple Jesus loved following them, the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and asked, “Lord, who is the one that’s going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”
22 “If I want him to remain until I come,” Jesus answered, “what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” 23 So this rumor spread to the brothers and sisters that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not tell him that he would not die, but, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”

This might be my favorite passage in the whole Gospel (thinking on a human level). It's a healthy reminder that Peter isn't quite there yet.

There are two other key uses of this verb ("turned") in John's Gospel:

  • When Jesus turned and noticed them following him, he asked them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” (1:38)

  • From that moment many of his disciples turned back and no longer accompanied him. (6:66)

The verb refers to a change in focus and direction. When Jesus does it, new lives are brought into His orbit. But when others do it, they are turning away from Jesus. And sure enough, that's what Peter is doing. He's just received this powerful call to "Follow Me", and what's the very next thing Peter does? He turns and looks at someone else.

But not just any "someone else". It's the "beloved disciple". (Incidentally, this is how we know that John the author is "the disciple Jesus loved".) John has hinted at a bit of a rivalry between the two of them (which, again, only makes sense considering that they were young men who were business partners). Consider:

  • 23 One of his disciples, the one Jesus loved, was reclining close beside Jesus. 24 Simon Peter motioned to him to find out who it was he was talking about. 25 So he leaned back against Jesus and asked him, “Lord, who is it?” (13:23-25)

  • 3 At that, Peter and the other disciple went out, heading for the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and got to the tomb first. (20:3-4)

  • 7 The disciple, the one Jesus loved, said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tied his outer clothing around him (for he had taken it off) and plunged into the sea. (21:7)

[Aside: Is this healthy? Are they okay? The answer is, of course, yes. John understood that he played a different role in church history than Peter did. Peter was the strong leader. A bit brash and presumptuous. John was the ultimate witness. He was close to Jesus and Jesus' mother. There was a necessary place for both of them in the story of the early church. John could give context to the "cult of Peter" that had likely already sprung up. But he could also give himself the credibility he thought he needed to publish such an incredible document as this Gospel. All John is doing is explaining the way things were. He and Peter (two of Jesus' inner circle) had a bit of a rivalry, but God used it for God's purposes.]

Some of the earliest commentators tried to spin Peter's question positively -- as if Peter were genuinely interested in John's future martyrdom plans. They did so trying to protect Peter's reputation. That reputation is secure today; we don't need to do that. This is Peter making sure that John isn't going to get off easy. Childish, but I'm sure we can relate!

Jesus' response is perfectly hypothetical. Emphasis on the perfect. It really didn't matter what Jesus said about John (although if you want to challenge each other to come up with the snarkiest response, I'm here for it -- "If I want to give him a billion dollars and make him the king of Asia, what is that to you?") because it's not about John. Peter needed to be focused on Peter's walk with Christ. Jesus doesn't just tell Peter to "Follow Me"; he adds the pronoun "you". This is as emphatic as the Greek language can get. "You follow Me."

This makes me think of the Parable of the Vineyard Workers in Matthew 20.

11 When they received it, they began to complain to the landowner: 12 ‘These last men put in one hour, and you made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day’s work and the burning heat.’ 13 “He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? 14 Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I’m generous?’ 16 “So the last will be first, and the first last.

The future belongs to God, and on the other side of our death lies an eternity in God's glorious presence. Who are we to look around and judge the "fairness" of what God is doing in someone else's life?

Interestingly, these are the final words of Jesus in John's Gospel.

“What is that to you? You follow me.”

Now, let's think about Jesus' first words that John recorded in this Gospel:

“What are you looking for?” “Come and see.” “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas.” “Follow me.”

See anything familiar? John's epilogue is an amazing literary complement to his prologue. And it makes it clear exactly what John wanted the readers to take away.

John has added one more character to his "lesson":

  • Thomas was our stand-in for "will you believe in Jesus?"

  • Peter has become our stand-in for "how will you follow Jesus?"

And technically, he has added himself as well:

  • John has become our stand-in for "how will you be a witness for Jesus?"

John then puts to bed a rumor about his own immortality (which must have tickled him). But he also uses the line to make a very important point: some of Jesus' followers will die a martyr's death; some of Jesus' followers will live a very long life. Both groups of followers have an important place in God's plan, and it's not for us to look "enviously" at people we think are in the other group.

That's the final step in this discipleship picture:

  • whatever happens to other people, you stay on the path

Our eyes are to be fixed on Jesus, who is leading us on His path. But Jesus is also walking beside us, encouraging and admonishing us. And Jesus is behind us, keeping watch over us and protecting us from the evil one.

What an amazing picture of the Christian life.

So, in one chapter, John the author has gone from the incredible story of Jesus to an illustration of what he wants it to mean in our life today. Brilliant.

This is our last lesson in John's Gospel. What are your big takeaways? What did you learn that you will use to make your walk with Jesus closer?


Closing Thoughts: Why the Anonymity?

Why didn't John the author just come out and identify himself? Why all this "beloved disciple" stuff? Doesn't that sound a little presumptuous?

In modern American sensibility, yes, that's a bit presumptuous. But in that day, it was normal. A lot of authors, particularly historians, remained anonymous so that they could inhabit the role of the "impartial observer". But John was actually there, so he also needed to establish his credibility as an eyewitness. Hence, the character of the "disciple Jesus loved". He was not using this title to imply that Jesus loved him more than the other disciples but rather to help himself see himself as an actor in this drama. But John did believe that he had a unique relationship with Jesus, and that's what made him uniquely qualified to be so bold as to write this Gospel. He also needed to establish that.

And I think he did.

In other words, this Gospel is not just John's eyewitness summary of Jesus' life and ministry -- it's also his personal testimony.


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