Q. My question is, what does John 21:15-24 mean? I do not understand this passage. What is it Jesus is saying here in the passage?
A. Let’s read through this whole passage together, and then I’ll give my notes at the end.
John 21:15-24 says:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
The key to understanding this conversation lies in the two Greek words translated as love, and for the life if me, I don’t understand why English Language Bibles don’t have foot notes to explain it.
In the first two questions, verses 15 and 16, Jesus used the Greek word “agapeo” for love, which means to be totally given over to the object of one’s love, putting the other’s well being above one’s own. It’s the highest form of love that can be expressed in the Greek language. In both cases Peter responded with a different Greek word, “fileo”. It’s a lower level of love, the love one has for a brother.
Finally in verse 17, Jesus dropped down the love scale to use the same word Peter had used, “fileo.” Peter was hurt because Jesus had made the imperfection of his love obvious, but at the same time the Lord had called it sufficient for his reinstatement as the leader of the Apostles. We should take heart in this because “fileo” is the Greek word most of us would have to use if we were being honest in describing our feelings for the Lord.
Jesus went on to prophesy about Peter’s crucifixion. When Peter asked what would happen to John, Jesus in effect told him not to be concerned about anyone but himself. (John never referred to himself by name in his gospel, always calling himself “the disciple Jesus loved”.)
As it happened, John was the only disciple to life a full life and die a natural death, but only after much suffering for the gospel. And in a sense John did live until the Lord’s return, because the Lord came to visit John on the Isle of Patmos where he gave him the Book of Revelation, over 60 years after the crucifixion.