All roads eventually end. For some, it’s a dead end (no fun for the driver), but most provide us with an option of some kind—we can go left or right. The best roads though, merge onto other roads and we never have to stop.
That’s the way we should think of John 21, as well as the concluding chapters of the synoptic gospels. They merge into the book of Acts more than they end. This is most clearly seen in Luke 24/Acts 1. Since both were written by the same person, they bear the relationship of volume 1 and volume 2 All you have to do is read Luke 24/Acts 1 and you’ll quickly see how Luke merges into Acts. John does the same thing. What he tells us in chapter 21 really sets the scene for what we see in Acts (especially Acts 2 where Peter steps forward).
John 21 clearly functions as an epilogue. In chapter 20, John has shown us the empty tomb, the followers of Jesus’ embracing His resurrection and how the miraculous signs he has recorded figure into his overarching purpose for writing (v. 30-31). From a narrative point of view, all the major themes have been fully developed and issues resolved.
That’s not to say John’s epilogue is without substance or importance, because it’s not. It provides further information about Peter and John. As we noted, the material about Peter serves as a bridge to the events of Pentecost. But it’s not central to John’s stated purpose on 20:30-31—it’s supplementary.
But what a story!
Peter is asked if he loves Jesus “more than these” (v. 15). His answer (“You know that I love you”) is instructive. He is no longer willing to place his love and loyalty for Jesus above that of the other disciples (Matthew 26:33). He has also seems to have moved past the immediate pain of his denial of Jesus. He knows Jesus knows he loves Him. This conversation is repeated with only a few variances in v. 16.
However, when Jesus asks Peter a third time if he loves Him, we’re told, “Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time” (v. 17). It’s possible Peter had the presence of mind to associate Jesus asking three times with his three denials. It’s also possible from Peter’s point of view, asking twice was emphasizing (i.e., like Jesus saying “Truly, truly), but asking a third time was calling into question the truthfulness of his answer and whatever else was true—he loved Jesus!
But there’s more. I think what Jesus was doing (because as Peter recognized, Jesus knew Peter loved Him), was linking Peter’s love for him with nurturing and guiding the other disciples and the larger Christian community (see Luke 22:31-32). Because of the rawness of his wounds, Peter doesn’t seem to initially be able to make this connection but if you read 1 Peter, it is filled with pastoral language (shepherd, sheep, flock, etc.). It seems clear that over time he got the message.
There’s something here for us as well. In His commissioning of Peter, we see that the power of Jesus’ love was greater than the pain of Peter’s failure. There’s no doubt as to the pain Peter brought on himself (Matthew 26:75). It’s a pain we’ve known ourselves in whatever ways we’ve denied Jesus. The good news is that while Peter may have wavered, Jesus’ purpose for him never did and the power of Jesus’ love lifted him out of the abyss of failure.
It can do the same thing for us today.