Do we have a renewal or a rebooting of Peter’s call to discipleship here in John 21? No, it would seem that in the Johannine account, the narrative in John 21 is the first time that Peter is actually called to follow Jesus as a disciple. Sean Kim argues this point in his 2017 article in Neotestamentica.
Kim observes that the Synoptic authors put Peter’s call upfront in their accounts. In addition, the Johannine author would have had opportunities to describes such a call, for example, after Peter’s confession in John 6 or when Peter said he would die for Jesus. Instead, the Johannine author waits until the very last chapter to describe this call. “What theological idea does the Evangelist communicate,” Kim asks, “by the distinctively Johannine literary arrangement of positioning this call after Peter’s denial and Jesus’ manifestation?” (pages 41-42).
Kim observes that nearly all call stories in scripture come early in the description the main character’s life and mission. This is true in both testaments. In addition, the distinctive vocabulary of call which is applied to other disciples in the Johannine account, is not applied to Peter until chapter 21. The only “call-like” feature that the Johannine author includes early in the account is the name chapter from Simon to Cephas in John 1:42 (page 45). Even that event is narrated with a future tense verb and not in the present tense.
And even in chapter 21, Jesus does not refer to Simon Peter by that full name but rather as “Simon of John.” In the Synoptic accounts, Kim argues, Jesus gives Peter the nickname in response to something Peter says and does. In the Johannine account, the nickname comes entirely from Jesus’ own consideration and imagination. In this way, “the Evangelist implies that Simon’s future life as Cephas will be wholly founded on Jesus himself,” Kim argues, “his will, plan, initiative, guidance, and work for him” (page 46).
Kim wants to show that Peter’s call as a disciple is not rooted in anything native to Peter. Rather, the initiative and the power rest entirely with Jesus. This will be the reason why Peter’s call story comes at the end of the gospel account rather than at the beginning. “It is not that the Evangelist intends to denigrate Peter’s status or to portray him pejoratively,” Kim argues. “It is an intentional design to communicate something that he regards as theologically important” (page 46).
Peter disappears between John 1:42 and John 6:68-69. Peter’s confession in John 6 is one of the high moments of the gospel. It contains major themes from the Johannine account – words and eternal life. Yet, there is no affirmation of this confession, as we would find, for example, in the Matthean account. Peter, according to Kim, needs more time in the discipleship crucible before he is ready for his great calling (page 47).
Peter makes his next major appearance in John 13, where he misreads the significance of Jesus’ foot-washing action. The Johannine author makes it clear in chapter thirteen and throughout the Farewell discourse that this behavior is a demonstration of love. It is also clear that Peter does not yet understand what this demonstration means for him as a follower of Jesus. “Despite seeing Peter’s veneration for him, however,” Kim writes, “Jesus did not give him an apostolic mission at this time” (page 48).
Instead, in verses 36-38, Jesus makes it clear that Peter will not (yet) be able to follow Jesus on his path of suffering service. Kim notes that the first time the Greek verb for “to follow” is applied to Peter in the Johannine account, it is used to state Peter’s inability to follow at that time. Jesus predicts Peter’s denial in all four canonical gospels. “Yet only John’s gospel uses akoleutheo in connection with the denial,” Kim observes. That connection is emphasized in John 13:36-38, where the verb is used three times – all in ways to show what Peter cannot (yet) do (pages 48-49).
The “yet” becomes explicit in this paragraph. In verse 36, Jesus tells Peter that Peter is not about to follow him “now” but will be able to follow Jesus “later” or “in the end.” Yet, Kim argues, this is not just a matter of timing or process. Instead, Peter will discover that he has no capacity within himself to follow Jesus at all, much less to his death. It is significant, therefore, that this is the moment in the Johannine account when Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him (verse 38).
The Greek word for “follow” appears again in John 18. In verse 15, the text notes that Peter did in fact “follow” Jesus to the courtyard outside of the place where Jesus was tried. But this following results precisely in Peter’s threefold and therefore complete denial that he was one of Jesus’ followers. “Peter proved that he was unable to follow Jesus by means of his own loyalty and love for Jesus,” Kim argues, “contrary to his claim that he would lay down his life for his friend (13:37; 15:13). The Evangelist employs akoluetheo,” Kim concludes, “precisely to confirm Peter’s inability to follow Jesus” (page 50).
Now we come to the actual call of Peter in John 21. Peter is called to be a good shepherd of the ones Jesus loves. Kim wants to make the case “that Jesus revealed himself in John 21 in order to give Peter the akoleuthei moi command and to commission him with shepherding Jesus’ sheep in and by Jesus’ love for him, not his own love and loyalty” (page 51). In other words, the Johannine author wants us to see that discipleship comes from Jesus, not from us.
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Bryan Stevenson writes in Just Mercy (page 17). Kim’s argument regarding Peter in the Johannine account brings Stevenson’s line to mind for me. In fact, coming to terms wit those “worst things” (see the previous post) is a real gateway to a life of humble following, depending upon Jesus rather than upon myself. “The ultimate reason why Jesus leads Peter to confess his love is to draw him into Jesus’ love for him,” Kim writes, “into the web of divine love that exists between Jesus and the Father, as a participant therein” (page 58).
Why does Peter’s call story come at the end of the Johannine account and not at the beginning? Kim offers some conclusions. “I have argued here that the reason for this relocation was to communicate the implied theological message that Peter’s own loyalty and love, which were based on his own self-confidence,” Kim writes, “were insufficient as a foundation for following in Jesus’ footsteps and doing his mission. Only when Peter was fully embraced by Jesus’ love, so that he relied solely on Jesus,” Kim continues, “was he able to follow Jesus and tend his sheep. Peter’s work (and his ability to do the work),” Kim declares, “was ultimately enabled by Jesus’ unconditional love for him” (page 61).
Peter’s personal loyalty, gifts, strengths, and determination did not qualify him to serve as one of Jesus’ disciples. In fact, the unjustified self-confidence and hubris which arose from those elements served to be the greatest stumbling block in Peter’s efforts to be a faithful disciple. Instead, Kim writes, “from a Johannine perspective, Peter’s life illustrates that the journey of following Jesus is fragile and faulty when based on one’s own self-confidence and sense of loyalty” (page 61). It isn’t until John 21:17 that Peter begins to depend fully on what Jesus knows rather than on what Peter knows.
I’m not sure the Johannine author is particularly critical of Peter. Instead, I think that Simon Peter is another example of the various ways in which people come to know that the Messiah is Jesus, the Son of God. Peter is not Mary or Thomas (or Judas!). Nor is he a template or model for all the disciples who come after him. His story is like many disciple stories but not the definition of all disciple stories. We can learn something from his story but not everything.
“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards,” writes Soren Kierkegaard. “But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood,” Kierkegaard continues, “exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”
It was not that Peter was particularly slow or resistant or disloyal. This was Peter’s journey to faithful discipleship. If he had taken another, he would have been a different disciple. Sometimes we might wonder if we would choose a different past, were one available. I have thought about that often, and I know that the answer is “No.” With all of the twists and turns, all of the pain and perversity, all the joys and sorrows, my journey has brought me to who I am and where I am. Another journey would produce another me.
For Peter, the challenge was to accept his journey and to accept Jesus as the source and center of that journey. That’s the call to discipleship.
References and Resources
Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.
Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.
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