John 21:20-21 – What About the Beloved Disciple?

At some point Peter and Jesus have walked away from the group, with the Beloved Disciple following along behind. Perhaps this is a subtle point, but it appears as though once again the Beloved Disciple is doing what he is suppose to (following Jesus) while Peter is still asking questions! This is one of five separate times after the resurrection when the Beloved Disciple understands something about Jesus before Peter (at the tomb in 20:4-7, on the boat in 21:7).

Why does Peter ask about John? Sometimes this is taken as a self-serving question, perhaps betraying some rivalry between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. But Peter is talking to the resurrected Jesus, who has just forgiven him and restored him as the shepherd of his flock. What would motivate Peter to jealousy at this point?

The question may be about the Beloved Disciple’s faithfulness. If I am right reading Peter’s restoration in the light of his recent defection from Jesus, then perhaps Peter is asking if other disciples will also be restored, including the Beloved Disciple. (The question could then be unpacked as saying “is the beloved Disciple restored too?”)

Some writers have suggested that Peter is still interested in rooting out potential traitors. If Judas betrayed Jesus, perhaps the Beloved Disciple is also a traitor! In the light of Jesus’ rebuke, it is common to read Peter’s question as a reflection of jealousy.

Rather than jealousy, Peter may have been concerned that the younger John would have to suffer and die

Jesus’ response seems a bit rude, almost as if he is saying, “that is none of your business!” The best way to understand this line is to realize that there is a great deal that Jesus cannot tell his disciples. He refuses to tell them the time of his return, for example. In fact, he basically says that it is none of their business when that happens, so they better be busy with the commission which they have already been given (Acts 1:6-8).  Rather than rude, then, Jesus is reminding Peter that his sole concern ought to be for following Jesus alone, his Peter’s case by shepherding the flock Jesus is leaving behind.

The word order of the Greek New Testament helps make this clear: “You. Me. Follow.” Jesus emphatically places Peter first in the sentence, highlighting the fact that Peter’s sole concern ought to be following Jesus, not what other disciples are doing (or not doing).

This sort of response ought to be on our mind when we observe what other Christians are doing (or not) in their service of God. It seems that congregations tend to judge their pastors by sermons they here on the radio or online. It is not fair to compare how our pastor does ministry to the way any other pastor does ministry, especially former pastors. Does anyone like to be compared to an older sibling? “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” What pastor wants to be compared to a former pastor of a church?

While there is room for constructive criticism, we ought to set up one style of ministry as “the only way to do things” and belittle another style. We are called to “follow Jesus,” which ought to occupy our hearts and minds to the point we do not have time to criticize others for “not being me.”