Commentary on John 21:1-19
My commentary on last week’s passage explained how the resurrection appearances in John 20 served to build trust between Jesus and his disciples after his crucifixion. But chapter 20 leaves us hanging … Did the disciples trust Jesus enough to leave the locked house and “go out” wielding the Holy Spirit as he commissioned them to (20:21-23)? Well, sort of…
Peter announces that he will, indeed, go out: to fish! The other disciples declare they will go with him and, “They went out…” (21:3). We discussed last week the inherent risk in leaving the house, and how Jesus nurtured the disciples’ trust so they could take this action. But fishing?
Peter: From inept fisherman to consummate shepherd//trusted leader
The nascent Jesus-following community is in crisis and in need of a leader after Jesus’ death. Peter has been ambiguously portrayed throughout John’s gospel—a potential leader rather than Jesus’ heir apparent (6:66-69; 13:6-11, 22-25; 18:15-27; 20:2-10). This may reflect questions the community harbored regarding Peter’s fitness to be their leader. Peter’s reputation is in shambles after denying Jesus three times. How could the disciples be expected to trust Peter to lead them, especially since Peter had pledged to follow Jesus to his death, even promising to die for Jesus’ sake (13:36-38)?
John 21 addresses Peter’s trustworthiness, and three key components of trustworthiness (ability, integrity, and benevolence) can help us see how Peter is appraised.1
- Ability, best judged by personally witnessing the skill: Is Peter capable of leading the community?
- Integrity, conventionally judged via a reputation built by testimonies, user reviews, etc.: Will Peter actually do what he promises?
- Benevolence, the most difficult to judge, is developed relationally over time: Will Peter act for the benefit of the community above his own?
The gospel passage itself narrows the questions about Peter into even more specificity:
Ability: Does Peter possess the ability to hear and follow Jesus’ directions?
Why a fishing story to talk about leadership? Given that Peter is known to be a fisherman (Mark 1:16; Matt 4:18), you would think his fishing ability could be taken for granted. But our passage highlights the failure of Peter’s ability to fish. In doing so it serves as a foil to demonstrate a more highly valued ability: hearing and following Jesus’ instructions. This ability was first identified in the Good Shepherd discourse (John 10:1-5): The sheep hear and know the shepherd’s voice and follow him. In chapter 21, Peter and the disciples hear and obey Jesus in verse 6; Peter acts in concert with the other disciples and does not direct them otherwise.
Later, when Jesus instructs them to bring some of their fish, it is Peter that does so (21:10-11). Then, after Jesus’ trifold commission to Peter, the final scene of the gospel depicts Peter following Jesus, with the “disciple whom Jesus loved” following them (21:19-20). Amid the risks of persecution and death (15:18-19; 16:33; 21:18-19), hearing and obeying Jesus was the primary and indispensable ability that would mark a capable leader of the threatened community.2
Integrity: Will Peter follow Jesus and fulfill his promise to “lay down his life” for Jesus?
In hearing John’s gospel, the community hears from Jesus himself that Peter will, indeed, fulfill this promise. Verse 18 delivers the very poignant foretelling of Peter’s debilitation and death. Verse 19 makes it clear that this is, indeed, the “laying down” of Peter’s life that Peter had earlier professed (13:37). Acknowledging that this will not be much easier than the first time Peter was in such a situation, Jesus describes it as “where you do not wish to go”. The profound fulfillment of such an extravagant promise indicates that Peter will fulfill all the smaller (less consequential, but still important) obligations that will arise during his leadership. The only way for the community to know this is via Jesus’ intimate foretelling of Peter’s death; in this way, Jesus is “vouching” for Peter’s integrity.
Benevolence: Will Peter do this for Jesus’ sake and, by extension, the benefit of the Jesus-following community?
Benevolence is essential to trustworthiness: someone may be able and willing to do something, and actually do it, but knowing why reveals interests and values; benevolence reflects an alignment of interests and values.
Because John sees love (love of Jesus, leading to love of others) as the root of profound risk-taking benevolence (15:8-13), our final question could be put this way: Does Peter love Jesus enough to lead the community? Hence, the three love interrogations from Jesus: motive matters! Will Peter act out of self-interest, or love of Jesus and other? This component is so important that Jesus interrogates the depth of Peter’s love (21:15-17) before he “vouches” for him via his prophecy (21:18-19). Out of love for Jesus, Peter’s self-interests will be overcome, and he will “go where he does not wish to go” in suffering death for the life of the community.
Doing the work
At a time when the trustworthiness of churches and their ministries is no longer a given, the resurrection narratives provide a warrant, even a mandate, for self-appraisal. Trustworthiness is the indispensable base upon which organizational trust is built, and the effectiveness of our ministries is at stake. How do we rebuild trust in our churches? This requires judging the trustworthiness of others, but also cultivating our own trustworthiness.
For a practical tutorial on these skills see Charles Feltman’s The Thin Book of Trust (Thin Book, 2021), and notice the Johannine ethos (15:10-11) echoed in his opening quote from Walter Anderson: “We’re never so vulnerable than when we trust someone – but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy.”3 Following the risen Jesus is a trust-based act of vulnerability (rather than self-preservation) that, paradoxically, emboldens us to “go out” with joy and renewed vocation.
- Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis, and F. David Schoorman, “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust,” The Academy of Management Review 20, no. 3 (1995): 717-724. Online: https://doi.org/10.2307/258792.
- See 1, 2, and 3 John, written amid conflict and schism: “Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God…” (2 John 1:9); also 1 John 1:1; 2:3, 7, 24-25; 4:6; 2 John 5-6.
- https://brenebrown.com/podcast/trust-building-maintaining-and-restoring-it/ Accessed 20 January 2022