Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

255. "Follow Me" (John 21:19-23)

The ensuing dialogue with Jesus is one which has baffled the wit of generations of translators. Without an array of explanatory footnotes, it has been found impossible to render the various phrases in such a way as to bring out adequately the nuances of meaning implied in the terms which John preserves.

It needs to be recognized that the New Testament Greek employs two different words for love:

The normal NT word, by far the commoner of the two, has been defined in the following way: "The Greek word for love in the New Testament (agapao)does notsignify any sort of emotion, but a deliberate disposition of the will — something which is within everyone's control if he chooses to have it so. We can put God indisputably first; and we can care impartially for the interests of those we like and those we don't like" (Gore in "The Philosophy of the Good Life").
The other word (philos, phileo): is more akin to the modern use of the word: affection (a more emotional word), and would cover the warm affection existing between close friends or the devotion of a mother to her children.

The distinction is illustrated by John 1 1:3,5. "He (Lazarus) whom thou lovestb is sick;" but "Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus." Jesus had a natural fondness for Lazarus, and for Martha and Mary, too, doubtless; but to have continued into verse 5 the use of the word used in verse 3 would have been to invite misunderstanding.

It is somewhat surprising to note that some modern scholars have advanced me suggestion that John uses the terms interchangeably. But a really wholesome view of the divine character of these records will hardly allow of such a haphazard approach, especially in the light of verse 1 7: "Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest*3 thou me?" i.e. he was grieved because Jesus changed from the use of one word to the other.

Similarly, the passage under consideration employs two words for ''know:"

To know familiarly or instinctively; for example, to know one's next door neighbours or to know that two and two make four.
To get to know, to perceive, or to learn.

The variations in phrase can now be set out thus:
verse 15:
"Lovest (a) thou me more than these?"

"Thou knowest (c) that I love (b) thee."

"Feed my lambs."
verse 16:
"Lovest (a) thou me more than these?"

"Thou knowest (c) that I love (b) thee."

"Shepherd my little sheep."
verse 17:
"Lovest (b) thou me?"

"Thou knowest (c) all things. Thou knowest (d) that I love (b) thee."

"Feed my sheep."

When Jesus asked (twice) if Peter's will were disposed to love him, Peter could not in honesty assert more than a natural impulsive affection (b) for Jesus, and of this affection Jesus was already aware.

But when Jesus adopted Peter's own phrase and asked: "Peter, have you an affection (b) for me?", then Peter was grieved, for he felt that his Master was now questioning that about which there could be no question. Hence the indignant reproachful response: "Lord, by innate power thou knowest (c) all things (ch. 16:30); thou canst perceive (d) even now (witness the eagerness with which I came to thee just now) that I have an affection (b) for thee." Was Jesus suggesting that, in the years to come, when Peter was no longer a fisherman in Galilee but instead a shepherd of the ecclesias of Christ, there would be times of difficulty and discouragement, when his natural love for Jesus would be insufficient to carry him through except it were strongly reinforced by another love (a) (agape) which commanded his will more effectively?

The interpretation of the triple commission given to Peter is anything but easy. The "lambs, little sheep and sheep" may, possibly be "children, young men, and elders" to whom John sends exhortation elsewhere (1 John 2:12- 14). Or, the reference may be to individuals, ecclesias and the church as 3 whole. Or, again, preachers of the gospel (Luke 10:3) and Jews and Gentiles in Christ may perhaps be covered by these terms, It is difficult to say. There can be little doubt that with these variations of phrase, Jesus was making deliberate reference to Isaiah 40:1 1: "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom (cp. Jn. 21:20), and shall gently lead those that are with young."

Peter and Rome

Apologists of the Roman Church are in no doubt whatever as to the meaning of the words, "Shepherd my flock." Here, they maintain, is the plainest of all demonstrations of the supremacy of the popes. In saying: "Shepherd my flock" Jesus was, so they aver, committing unto Peter full authority over the church; Peter was the first bishop of Rome; he transmitted that authority to his successors; there has been an unbroken line of succession to the office of bishop of Rome. Hence the pope is the supreme spiritual authority today. Q.E.D.!

Alas for Rome's pretensions! The argument breaks down at the very beginning and at every stage thereafter. Full and complete authority in the church was not committed unto Peter alone (see, for example, Matthew 18:18, Galatians 2:9). Nor is it demonstrable that Peter was ever bishop of Rome. Nor can it be shown that there was a man-to-man transmission of spiritual primacy; on the contrary, both Peter and Paul addressed the like exhortation to others utterly unconnected with Rome (1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:28). And lastly, the chequered history of popes of Rome utterly fails to exhibit an unbroken succession. At every point the claims of Rome are bogus.

"Peter, lovest thou me?". The question which had moved Peter to indignation Jesus now answered for himself: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, when thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not."

The concluding words here are a prophecy of Peter's martyrdom for Christ, "the death by which he should glorify God." Now, since "greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his Friend," from this prophecy it follows, as the night the day, that Peter did love his Lord. The answer to Jesus' interrogation was in his own "Verily, verily." He had used the same emphatic form of words when foretelling his own betrayal by Judas. Henceforth Peter's faithful martyrdom was as certain as that fell act had been. Like his Master, Peter knew for certain, years before it happened, that he must one day end his life on a cross. "Let a man take up his cross and follow me," Jesus had said. For Peter this was to be literally true.

The mode of foretelling this crucifixion of Peter (the fact of it is attested by strong tradition of the early church) is somewhat unusual. The reference is possibly to the method sometimes followed of binding the victim to the cross that his impaling to it might be more easily and thoroughly completed. "Bind the sacrifice with cords, even to the horns of the altar."

A young Peter

Why is it that the Peter of the ministry of Jesus is almost always pictured as a man approaching middle-age, when everything that is written about him suggests the impetuosity of youth — these words strikingly so? 'When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself and walkedst whither thou wouldest." The allusion is to recent, not distant, past. Peter had girt his fisher's coat about him and had gone fishing; Peter had also girt his fisher's coat about him to reach Jesus on the shore. So it was Peter, a young man, who had done these things. However, the time would come when, as an old man, he would suffer the constraint that led to martyrdom.

Such a time seemed to be imminent only a few years later. It was Passover, and Herod was currying favour with the mob by persecuting the Christians. James, the son of Zebedee, he had beheaded already. Peter was the next on the list. There in prison Peter doubtless felt that now was the time for his Lord's prophecy to be fulfilled; evidently he was to die at Passover like his Master. Yet had not Jesus said: "When thou shalt be old...?" That night the angel came to the sleeping prisoner, roused him and said: "Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals." Thus in one short phrase, a deliberate contrast with "another shall gird thee," it was intimated to him that the time was not yet come when another would gird him and lead him forth to a God-glorifying death. One minute more, and Peter was a free man.

The time did come, years later, in the persecution by Nero, when Peter died precisely as Jesus said; with evident allusion to the prophecy he wrote (only a very short while before his martyrdom): "Yea, I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance; knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me' (2 Peter 1:13-14).

An unfinished story

A careful reading of the rest of John 21 reveals the astonishing fact, easily overlooked, that John ends his gospel with a story that is only half-told. A summary of verses 19-23 will make this evident:

The purpose of the Lord's instruction to Peter to follow him to a place apart from the rest is left unexplained, and what eventually happened or was said is not mentioned at all.

It follows, therefore, that the entire purpose of the writer had been already fully achieved when he got as far as he did. What was that purpose? Probably it was to set forth symbolically the ultimate fate of the two leading disciples. The crucifixion of Peter had already been intimated (v.18) and was now re-affirmed in the command, "Follow me." These words, with their allusion to John 13:36,37, had symbolic significance also: "Whither I go thou canst not follow me now, but thou shalt follow me afterwards ... Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake."

John also, the disciple whom Jesus loved, evinced a desire to follow Jesus and thus provoked Peter's curiosity (and possibly his pique): "Lord, and what shall this man do?" — as who should say: "If my love for you is to end in death for you, what of this one whom you love most of all? Is he to die in like fashion?"

In reply, by intimating that he wished John to stay behind until his return from this special errand that he had with Peter, Jesus uttered what was taken thenceforward to be a symbolic prophecy of his beloved disciple's future — he was to "tarry till I come."

Now since verses 18, 19 are manifestly symbolic prophecies of what was to befall Peter, it is surely reasonable to regard verse 22 concerning John in the same light. In some sense the early brethren were surely right in the conclusion they came to. It is noteworthy, too, that in issuing no disclaimer, John does not insist that his Lord's words were to be taken only literally and not symbolically also. Instead he issued a caveat by emphasizing the conditional form which the words of Jesus took: "If I will that he tarry till I come..."

What is the explanation of the enigma? An attempt to resolve this problem has been made in "Revelation: a Biblical approach." HAW, p.259ff

NOTES: John 21:19-23

By what death ... glorify God; 12:33.

Follow me; 1:43; 13:36; Mt. 16:24; 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 19:21.

All these emphasize not a literal following, but spiritual loyalty, and imitation.
Turning about; allusion to Lk. 22:32 Gk.(61)?

The disciple ... following, without being told. John was spiritually ahead of Peter; v.7; 20:8.

Previous Index Next