John 21:15-19 – Love and Suffering

In this very familiar text, I want us to see two things.

  • The first is that the text is apparently not about what we usually think it is about.
  • And the second is that this text, in its cultural context, serves as an apologetic for the apostolic life of suffering and death.

 

 

1) TO “AGAPAO” OR TO “PHILEO” IS NOT THE QUESTION

 

I want to start off by quoting Kostenberger, Carson and Beasley-Murray concerning the use of the word “love” in this text.

“The fact that there are two different verbs for “love” used in the present passage has led some to believe that ἀγαπάω (agapaō) and φιλέω (phileō) are distinct in meaning, but this is doubtful for at least two reasons” – Kostenberger.

 

“Commonly it is argued that agapaō is the stronger form of ‘to love’, but so powerfully has Peter had his old self-confidence expunged from him that the most he will claim is the weaker form—even when Jesus draws attention to the point, using the weaker form himself when he asks the question for the third time. This accounts for the distinction the niv maintains between ‘truly love’ and ‘love’. This will not do, for at least the following reasons…” – D.A.Carson.

  • “We have seen the improbability of the variety of terms having any major significance…” – Beasley-Murray.

 

The reasons Kostenberger and Carson give are as follows:

  • (1) John uses the two terms interchangeably throughout his Gospel.
  • (2) The LXX uses the two terms interchangeably.
  • (3) In the NT agapao is “not always distinguished by a good object” – D.A. Carson.
    • In 2 Timothy 4:10, Demas agapao the present age.
  • (4) In their semantic ranges, “they do not specify a different kind of love” – D.A. Carson.
  • (5) John’s writing style consists of using “minor variations for stylistic reasons” – D.A. Carson.
    • Bosko vs. Poimaino (feed/take care of)
    • Arnia vs. Probata (lambs/sheep)
    • Oida vs. Ginosko (you know)

 

If they are right, then every sermon I have heard on this text has been off the mark.

  • Which, given the preparation of most preachers, is not surprising.
    • When you teach application instead of text, anybody can go off course.
  • However, this insight from Kostenberger and Carson raises a new question.
  • What is this passage about?

 

To get at this, we need to keep the following context in mind:

“The question of Jesus is conditioned by the relationship that had existed between Jesus and Peter during the ministry of Jesus and the peculiar rupture of it at the trial of Jesus…” – Beasley-Murray.

 

In other words, Peter had been the bold, brash and “out front” disciple of Jesus.

  • But at Jesus’ Trial he retreated.
  • He “forfeited all right” to be a disciple of Jesus – Beasley-Murray.
  • John 13:38 (ESV) — 38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.
  • Three times Peter publicly denied, in front of John even, that he was a disciple of Jesus.
  • He refused to “lay down” his life for Jesus at that time whether literally or metaphorically.

 

So it should come as no surprise that to reestablish Peter’s role (for Peter’s sake) as the lead disciple, Jesus would ask Peter if he loves Jesus more than the other disciples three times.

  • Jesus is restoring Peter each time He asks the question.

 

And Peter’s love of Jesus will be borne out by a number of things.

 

(1) “Peter’s love for his Lord is to be made manifest in his care for the Lord’s flock” – Beasley-Murray.

  • And by his lifelong service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Jesus’ call to Peter was to:
    • Feed my lambs” (vs. 15)
    • Tend my sheep” (vs. 16)
    • Feed my sheep” (vs. 17)
  • And after revealing these things to Peter, Jesus caps if off with:
    • Follow me” (vs. 19)

 

And Jesus’ call to Peter to care for His sheep alludes back to the OT.

  • Jeremiah 3:15 (ESV) — 15 “ ‘And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
  • Jeremiah 23:4 (ESV) — 4 I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.

 

Did this call on Peter stick?

  • 1 Peter 5:1–4 (ESV) — 1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
  • He definitely got it!

 

(2) And, in contrast to Jesus’ words in John 13:38, Jesus affirms that Peter’s restored, post-resurrection love for Jesus will this time lead Peter to give His life for Christ – literally and metaphorically.

  • when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (vs. 18).
  • This language, “stretch out your hands” refers to crucifixion.
  • John affirms this with his commentary in verse 19.
  • And this text also reminds us of these words to Peter.
  • John 13:36 (ESV) — 36 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.”

 

 

2) APOLOGETIC FOR APOSTOLIC SUFFERING

 

Peter’s obedient walk to Jesus’ call on his life was going to mean at least two things:

  • His life is not his own (vs. 18)
    • His life is Jesus’.
    • He is to serve Jesus the rest of his days.
    • This service involves suffering.
  • And as we just said, He will die as a result (vs. 19)
    • Something we know he thought about.
    • 2 Peter 1:14 (ESV) — 14 since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.

 

In 1 Peter, Peter demonstrates how connected service of Christ is with suffering.

  • 1 Peter 3:14–17 (ESV) — 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
  • This verse, the apologists’ mantra, is asking us to give a defense of our faith.
  • But in context, a defense is needed for a particular reason.
  • And the reason is that followers of Jesus are suffering.

 

Paul makes the same characterization about a life spent serving Christ and His church.

  • 2 Corinthians 1:3–7 (ESV) — 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

 

Paul even alludes to this in Ephesians:

  • Ephesians 3:11–13 (ESV) — 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

 

And like Peter, Paul understood that a defense of the faith was needed because of this suffering.

  • In other words, Paul had to explain why his life was full of suffering and not “blessing”.

 

N.T. Wright sums up Paul’s defense of Christian suffering as follows:

“They [some at Corinth] want him to produce letters of recommendation or accreditation; they are ashamed of his suffering (if he really was an emissary of the true god, surely he should not be subject to such indignities?)” – N.T. Wright.

 

This is incredibly important.

  • How can those who claim to be doing the work of this Jesus – God and Messiah – possibly “be subject to such indignities” and be right about Jesus’ identity and their Gospel claims?

 

And this leads us back to our John text.

  • How does our text help answer the above question?
  • Or at least provide a foundation on which to answer the above question.

 

To get at this requires us to understand one aspect of an aNE (ancient Near East) worldview.

  • When they, including the Jews, wrote about events they were trying to answer some principal questions.
  • For most of the aNE this question was, “‘Why should you believe that this king is a good and successful king who enjoys the support and favor of the gods and should continue to receive that support and favor?’” – John Walton.
  • For the Jews, because of their concept of Yahweh’s covenant with them, the question was a little different.

“Israelite historians, in contrast, appear to be asking, ‘Why should you believe that Israel has been chosen by Yahweh as his covenant people and that he is sovereign over all history and nations?’” – John Walton.

 

So, with the claims of certain Jews that Jesus was the Messiah and that He ushered in a new covenant, the question now is rephrased a bit.

  • “Why should you believe that the Church and her apostles have been chosen by Yahweh through Jesus as His covenant people, and that Jesus is ‘sovereign over all history and nations’?”

 

Additionally, because “events are presented as God’s expression of his attributes” (John Walton) the outcomes of events are seen as evidence for the claims being made to answer these questions.

  • In other words, the Jews “considered God the cause of every effect and as actively shaping events” – John Walton.
  • Jews didn’t record history to tell us what happened, but to show what God was doing.
  • “Yahweh is the driving force of history” and He is the reason history unfolds – John Walton.

 

And even further, “God took it upon himself not only to act, but to provide an interpretation of his acts through the prophets or Levites, communicating why they were done and what purposes they served” – John Walton.

  • In light of the claims of Jesus, the disciples/apostles were now fulfilling the role that had been the domain of the prophets.
  • They were the ones telling Jews what God had done in history through Jesus and why.
  • They were the ones that were revealing how Jesus was part of the “driving force of history”.
  • They were the ones that were explaining how the ministry they engaged in was an expression of God’s attributes.
  • They were the ones answering the principal question – “Why should you believe that the Church and her apostles have been chosen by Yahweh through Jesus as His covenant people, and that Jesus is ‘sovereign over all history and nations’?”

 

And it was in answering these questions that their immense persecution, suffering and death posed obstacles to being seen as legitimate – as having answered the principal question.

  • If, as we just saw, outcomes were the work of God.
  • And the apostles were making these truth claims about Jesus as Messiah and God.
  • There is a serious disconnect between what is happening to them and the picture it paints of this Jesus’ fellow ability to control history and outcomes.
  • What kind of God is your God if He claims to be the Messiah and to be ushering in the age to come when all his followers are being severely persecuted and are dying?
    • Not to mention He Himself died a humiliating death on a cross.

 

Profound success and blessings should be the order of the day given such claims.

  • After all, a king certainly couldn’t claim he was serving at the pleasure of a god if his reign was full of failures.
  • And if people couldn’t recognize that historical outcomes were in his favor.

 

So how does our text answer the questions we raised?

  • It shows us that Peter’s work as a “feeder”, “tenderer” and “follower” and the suffering and death these led to were the designs of God.
  • It shows us that the suffering and death outcomes were at the command of God.
  • This Jesus, who these guys were claiming to be God, was “ordainer” of these things.
  • These things had a specific purpose in serving the Gospel, and they were not signs of failure or disfavor with God.

 

These things are made even clearer with Jesus’ words to Ananias about Paul.

  • Acts 9:15–16 (ESV) — 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

 

So it should come as no surprise that Christianity, and Paul specifically, treat suffering and persecution in a way the world finds offensive.

  • It is seen as yet another way we participate in our union with Christ.
  • It is seen, strangely, as a show of Jesus’ power.
  • Romans 6:1–6 (ESV) — 1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
  • 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (ESV) — 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.