OF ALL THE RESURRECTION APPEARANCES of Jesus, doubtless the one that probed Peter most deeply is the one reported in John 21.
It starts off with seven disciples going fishing, catching nothing overnight, and then pulling in a vast catch at Jesus’ command. It continues with a breakfast over coals on the beach (John 21:1-14). There follows the memorable exchange that reinstates Peter after his ignominious disowning of his master.
(1) In the interchange between Jesus and Peter (John 21:15-17), the interplay of two different Greek words for “love” has convinced many commentators that there is something profoundly weighty about the distinction (though the distinction itself is variously explained). For various reasons, I remain unpersuaded. John loves to use synonyms, with very little distinction in meaning. The terms vary for feed/take care/feed, and for lambs/sheep/sheep, just as they varied for “love.” In John 3:35, the Father “loves” the Son, and one of the two verbs is used; in John 5:20, the Father “loves” the Son, and the other of the two verbs is used—and there is no distinction in meaning whatsoever. Both verbs can have good or bad connotations; everything is determined by context. If we are to probe the significance of this exchange between Jesus and Peter, we shall have to depend on something other than the interchange of the two Greek verbs. So drop the “truly” in John 21:15 and 16 (which is the NIV’s way of trying to maintain a distinction between the two verbs).
(2) “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15, italics added). Does “these” refer to “these other disciples” or to “these fish”? In Matthew 26:33, Peter boasts that he will never fall away, even if all the other disciples do. That boast is not reported in John’s gospel, even though John records Peter’s awful denials. Alternatively, since the men have just been fishing, perhaps “these” refers to the fish. But if so, why pick only on Peter, and not on all seven disciples? On balance, I suspect this passage is reminding Peter of his fateful boast, and this is one of the passages that provides a kind of interlocking of accounts between John and the Synoptic Gospels. Is Peter still prepared to assert his moral superiority over the other disciples?
(3) Three times Jesus runs through the same question; three times he elicits a response; three times he commissions Peter. As the denial was threefold (John 18:15-18, 25-27), so also are these steps of restoration. Peter is “hurt” by the procedure (John 21:17); the next verses show he still retains streaks of immaturity (see vol. 1, meditation for March 31). But while Jesus here gladly restores a broken disciple who has disowned him, he makes him face his sin, declare his love, and receive a commission.