John 21: Peter’s Great Reversal

Twice in John’s gospel, events play out in the shadow of a charcoal fire (ἀνθρακιά). The first in John 18:18 fulfills Jesus’ word in John 13:38.

Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

In John 18:17-27, John records that Peter did exactly what Jesus said. He denied knowing Jesus three times.

John 21 is also set by a charcoal fire. Here, Peter affirms his love for Jesus three times in response to Jesus’ prompting, “Do you love me?” In his three-fold invitation to Peter, Jesus offered Peter the opportunity for a “do over.” In offering Peter a second chance to get things right, Jesus not only demonstrated his forgiveness, he demonstrated his renewed trust in Peter as well. Beside the charcoal fire, Jesus and Peter are reconciled.

A couple of things complicate this picture. First, John 21 is something of an appendix to the gospel. It appears as if the gospel comes to its natural conclusion at the of chapter 20.

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

It’s not clear whether the original author decided to add an additional story, or whether another member of the community added a story had only been passed down orally. In either case, John 21 clearly mirrors Peter’s denial in John 18.

Without chapter 21, however, the reader would not have been left with the impression that Peter’s relationship with Jesus needed patching up. When Jesus appeared to his disciples in John 20:19-23, he announced to them, “Peace be with you.” He sent them into the world, bestowed the Holy Spirit on them and gave them authority to forgive sins. The disciples received Jesus’ appearance with joy, not guilt or shame. Peter is not identified by name in the passage, but there’s nothing here that would indicate that Jesus and Peter were estranged. Thomas, not Peter, was the outlier.

Peter’s affirmations in John 21 clearly parallel his denials in John 18. The parallels don’t end there, however. After Peter affirmed his allegiance to Jesus, Jesus made a new and opposite prediction about Peter.

Very truly I tell you, 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. (John 21:18-19)

This passage mirrors Jesus’ prediction in John 13:38. Jesus initially predicted that Peter would be unwilling to lay down his life. In John 21:18-19, Jesus changed his characterization. The man who cowered before a servant girl will stand firm before those with the power to imprison him. The one who denied even knowing Jesus out of fear will remain faithful to the point of death.

The great reversal revealed in John 21, then, is more related to Peter’s mettle and faithfulness than to his “personal relationship” with Jesus. The resurrection not only changed the nature of Jesus’ life in this world; it changed – or is changing – Peter as well. The coward will become courageous.

All of this makes me wonder, then, what role did Peter play in John’s community?