Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Three)

“Peter is not simply restored to his role as disciple,” Karoline Lewis writes in her commentary, “but he will have to imagine discipleship in an entirely different way” (p. 256). That different dimension of discipleship comes in the form of loving those Jesus loves in the way that Jesus loves them. That call to discipleship is extended once again to us who are continuing to believe in Jesus by means of the witness contained in the Johannine gospel (see John 20:30-31).

A casual reading of the Greek text reveals that Jesus and Peter use two different Greek words for “love” in their conversation in John 21:15-17. Those two words are agapao and phileo. David Shepherd reviews the scholarly consensus on this difference in vocabulary and then assesses whether this difference is a difference that makes a difference. I’ll try to summarize his argument and conclusions to help us discern in detail the nature of the difference, if any.

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Shepherd notes that the scholarly consensus these days is that the variation in verbs is a matter of stylistic preference rather than theological substance. “The mortar of this consensus,” Shepherd writes, “is the insistence that any attempts to draw a dependable semantic distinction between agapao and phileo are doomed to failure whether in Greek literature generally, the Septuagint, the NT, or John’s Gospel itself” (pages 777-778).

Shepherd agrees that while it is impossible from a semantic perspective to differentiate between the two terms for “love” in the text, he wants to argue that the difference makes a difference from a narrative-critical perspective. In particular, he wants us to pay attention to the connections between the dialogue in John 21 and the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 13-17. The purpose of this analysis is not merely to score scholarly points but rather to come to a deeper understanding of what Jesus asks of post-resurrection disciples and of how we might miss that point.

Part of the current scholarly consensus is that John 21 was composed by the author of the first twenty chapters or by an immediate successor to that author. The connections catalogued by scholars between John 1-20 and chapter 21 establish “beyond any reasonable doubt that if John 21 was not written by the author of the remainder of the gospel, it was the work of one who consciously or unconsciously wished it to appear as if it were” (page 780). This conclusion is clearly reflected in the connections between John 21:18-23 and the conversation in the Farewell Discourse.

Shepherd notes that Jesus puts the commandment to love one another in John 13:31-38 in the middle of his discussion of discipleship and his own death. Jesus calls his followers to do for one another as Jesus had done for them (John 13:15b). That call is then echoed in John 13:34b in the command that the disciples would love one another as Jesus had loved them. The word for “love” in this section of the gospel account is several forms of agapao. This love is undoubtedly, Shepherd argues, “a love that lays down its life and in so doing marks out those who call themselves Jesus’ disciples” (page 781).

This emphasis on self-giving love as the heart of discipleship is reflected in the structure of the Farewell Discourse itself. The center and high point of the Discourse is in John 15:12-17. It is no accident that later in the chapter, Peter declares that he will indeed lay down his life for Jesus (John 15:37). Shepherd suggests that Peter demonstrates an understanding of the self-sacrificing character of this love. Therefore, “Peter’s eventual denial will stem from a failure of resolve rather than a faulty understanding” (page 783).

We can see this worked out in the narrative, Shepherd continues, especially the scene in the garden in John 18. The fact that Peter attacks the servant of the high priest runs counter to the self-sacrificing love which Jesus commanded just a few hours beforehand. Jesus gives himself up in the garden in order to secure the safety of his friends (see John 18:8). While Peter may have initiated the attack in order to sacrifice himself for Jesus, taking the life of another for Jesus’ sake was not what self-sacrificing love should look like. Therefore, Jesus rebukes Peter’s actions in John 18:11.

“In John, Peter is condemned not for his violence per se,” Shepherd argues, “Instead, the narrative in John implies that Peter is rebuked both for failing to understand the necessity of Jesus’ self-sacrifice and for failing to remember that Peter will not follow Jesus now” but will follow him later (see John 13:36, Shepherd, page 784). In the wake of this failure to understand, Peter goes after Jesus to the courtyard of the High Priest, but he does not “follow” Jesus as a disciple.

Shepherd notes that John 18:27 refers us as readers back to Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial in John 13:38. This verse, then, “invites the reader to the conclusion that Peter has failed, first in the garden and then in the courtyard, to grasp fully or express faithfully the particular kind of agape that Jesus demands of his disciples in his last significant conversation with Peter and the others before his passion” (page 786).

This understanding in the Johannine account that agape is love that lays down its life can help us to understand, according to Shepherd, the variation in the usage in John 21:15-17. In John 21:15, Jesus asks whether Peter “will finally be willing to do as he had promised and follow him in expressing this love (13:31-38)” (page 788).

Peter replies by using a form of the verb phileo. Shepherd argues that the Johannine author is not interested in the specific differences, if any, between the two verbs. “Rather, the point is quite simply that whatever sort of love is indicated by phileo,” Shepherd writes, “it is demonstrably not the sort of love for which Jesus is asking – nor the sort for which he had explicitly asked on the night he was betrayed” (page 788).

Peter’s response, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” therefore indicates precisely (in terms of the Johannine account) that Peter doesn’t yet “get it.” The Johannine talent for irony is thus on full display here. The fact that Peter loves Jesus to the point of self-sacrifice is precisely what Jesus does not know about him in that moment. “Peter’s ‘yes’ thus reflects his failure to draw the necessary distinction,” Shepherd writes, “between the agape that has been requested and the philia that he has offered” (page 789).

If Peter does, in fact, understand what Jesus means, then he will know what this looks like. It looks like the ministry of the Good Shepherd, as described in John 10. The Good Shepherd is the one who lays down his life for the sheep. That’s what “feeding” the sheep and lambs looks like for Peter. Since we get a snippet of that text next week, the preacher may choose to flesh out that connection more a week from Sunday. But since the lection from John 10 for a week from Sunday does not directly address the self-sacrificing mission of the Good Shepherd, there is good reason to address it here and lay some groundwork for next week.

The clear reference to John 10 and the Good Shepherd continues in the second question and response. Peter continues to use phileo rather than agape. The third question adopts Peter’s vocabulary. Does Jesus surrender to Peter’s resistance? Does Jesus challenge Peter to love even a little bit if not self-sacrificially? Scholars have suggested these options.

Shepherd suggests a different rationale. “Given that Peter has repeatedly failed to hear what Jesus is saying (agapao),” he argues, “Jesus now invites Peter to hear what Peter himself has been saying (phileo) in the hope that the apostle will finally grasp the difference between the two” (page 791). Shepherd concludes that Peter doesn’t pick up on the distinction even when Jesus makes the point this way. Of course, the real question is whether we as the readers/listeners will catch the distinction (the fact that English doesn’t have two different words for “love” here makes that apprehension nearly impossible without the current sort of extended explanation).

Even though Peter continues to miss the point in verses 15-17, verses 18-20 make it clear that Peter will “get it” in the end. Peter will follow Jesus, whether he chooses to or not. The alternation of verbs in this section of chapter twenty-one “is best understood as a crucial part of Jesus’ effort,” Shepherd concludes, “to remind Peter of the kind of love (agape) that Jesus had demanded of him on the night he was betrayed (chs. 13-17) and that Peter subsequently failed to grasp (ch. 18)” (page 792).

Shepherd notes that we are listeners/readers are left to wonder whether Peter will get it at some point. However, I suspect that the Johannine author’s real agenda is to lead us to wonder whether we will get it at some point, whether we will full embrace our discipleship and what that means for us in specific situations. And if we get it in ways that Peter does not, will we have the will to live out that understanding of love for one another in our actions? Ok, now I’m uncomfortable…

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.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

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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