I lost my faith a year or so after I left university and became an atheist. For three years, I was as firm an atheist as Richard Dawkins himself. But I returned to my childhood faith after three years and it was a combination of factors that brought me back to the faith. One of them was Leon Morris' excellent commentary on St John's Gospel in that wonderful Commentary series called the New International Commentary of the New Testament (the General Editor is none other than the great FF Bruce).
I taught Sunday School in my church when I returned to the faith and although I was orthodox in my teaching I myself had secret doubts that plagued me throughout my service in the Sunday School ministry. It was then that I studied Koine Greek which was a great asset since the New Testament was written in that language. I thought of studying Hebrew but I gave up before I even began. For some reason, Hebrew frightened me. It looked too difficult and since I was too lazy to put in the requisite effort, I gave Hebrew a miss.
One day, as a part of my Greek study, I was doing a translation of a chapter from the New Testament from Greek to English. My head was busily getting into the correct declensions and conjugations and I wasn't even paying much attention to the full purport of the passage when suddenly, something hit me hard. It was like a blow to my face and as I continued translating the verses, my vision began to fail and I found that tears had blurred the page before me. I had to stop and look away, so ashamed was I to even admit to myself that I had shed tears. It was then that I remembered what my vicar told me a long time ago.
This is the passage in Greek:
οτε ουν ηριστησαν λεγει τω σιμωνι πετρω ο ιησους σιμων ιωαννου αγαπας με πλεον τουτων λεγει αυτω ναι κυριε συ οιδας οτι φιλω σε λεγει αυτω βοσκε τα αρνια μου
λεγει αυτω παλιν δευτερον σιμων ιωαννου αγαπας με λεγει αυτω ναι κυριε συ οιδας οτι φιλω σε λεγει αυτω ποιμαινε τα προβατια μου
λεγει αυτω το τριτον σιμων ιωαννου φιλεις με ελυπηθη ο πετρος οτι ειπεν αυτω το τριτον φιλεις με και ειπεν αυτω κυριε παντα συ οιδας συ γινωσκεις οτι φιλω σε λεγει αυτω ιησους βοσκε τα προβατια μου
αμην αμην λεγω σοι οτε ης νεωτερος εζωννυες σεαυτον και περιεπατεις οπου ηθελες οταν δε γηρασης εκτενεις τας χειρας σου και αλλος ζωσει σε και οισει οπου ου θελεις
τουτο δε ειπεν σημαινων ποιω θανατω δοξασει τον θεον και τουτο ειπων λεγει αυτω ακολουθει μοι
επιστραφεις ο πετρος βλεπει τον μαθητην ον ηγαπα ο ιησους ακολουθουντα ος και ανεπεσεν εν τω δειπνω επι το στηθος αυτου και ειπεν κυριε τις εστιν ο παραδιδους σε
τουτον ουν ιδων ο πετρος λεγει τω ιησου κυριε ουτος δε τι
λεγει αυτω ο ιησους εαν αυτον θελω μενειν εως ερχομαι τι προς σε συ μοι ακολουθει
Since to most of us, this is all Greek to us, I will quote from the NIV this same passage which is John 21:15-22:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you 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 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. 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. 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.’
When a student translates the passage into English, he encounters several problems. The main problem is there are words in Greek that are not available in English. What's interesting is all our English translations are inadequate when they try to translate Jesus' question to Peter, "αγαπας με" as "do you love me". And they translate Peter's reply "φιλω σε" as "I love you".
The context of this passage is this - Peter has just denied Jesus three times just before Jesus was crucified. Earlier, Jesus has declared to his disciples that those who deny him "will I deny before my Father in heaven". In other words, Jesus will deny those who deny him. This passage takes place after Jesus' resurrection and it's usually seen by scholars as a reinstatement of St Peter in his apostolic position when Jesus says "Feed my lambs" and "Shepherd my sheep".
When Jesus says "αγαπας με", he is asking if Peter has αγαπη for him which is the highest form of love imaginable; it's a love that is sacrificial, a love one is prepared to die for. But honest Peter who has just denied Christ three times is not prepared to be so bold as to claim to possess such a love and he merely replies that he has φιλíα for Jesus. That's a love between friends.
Christ asks him a second time "αγαπας με" to which Peter replies in exactly the same way.
Then comes the touching part. Jesus descends from his demanding question to the simple question "φιλεις με" which is best translated, "Do you have φιλíα (friendly love) for me?"
Naturally, it's easy to see why this passage had such a profound meaning for me. Peter may have denied Christ three times when faced with extreme danger to himself. I, on the other hand, denied Christ for three years.
Of course my head tells me that this passage was concocted by the writer of the Gospel. Peter would have spoken in Aramaic to Jesus and the linguistic niceties that Greek has are not found in Aramaic. The conversation could not have taken place in that manner. This is the same reason why that particular part of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus could not have taken place in John 3 - see what I wrote in an earlier post: The ανωθεν problem
But I want Jesus to have this conversation with Peter, so let's put all doubt to sleep and pretend they were speaking in Greek.
Jesus then goes on to prophesy that Peter would die a martyr's death. Tradition has it that he was crucified upside down. Peter then sees John passing by and he jealously asks if John will be similarly martyred. Jesus basically tells Peter it's none of his business what happens to John. And then comes the part which is a huge problem for me and my faith.
You see, in the next verse, we read in the Gospel, "Because of this, the rumour spread among the believers 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?' "
I'll explain why this verse is a huge problem for me. In all three Synoptic Gospels (these are Mark, Matthew and Luke), there are many problem verses that show quite indisputably that Jesus promises to return in glory on a cloud with the angels (his Second Coming) within the lifetime of the early disciples, the people who listened to Jesus in the first century. When Christians in the church in Thessalonica started to die, the rest of the Christians were terrified because Jesus had not yet returned and what was going to happen to those who had died? St Paul, in writing 1 Thess had to address this problem. In his epistle, even Paul himself did not envisage that Jesus would fail to honour his promise to return in the lifetime of the Apostles. If you want to read a full explanation of this, please see an entry I wrote more than two years ago on another blog by clicking this: Christ will come again
Scholars tell us that St John's Gospel is the last gospel to be written. It was written long after the Synoptic Gospels were written and it was probably written by someone after the death of John the Apostle, who was probably the last Apostle to die.
When everyone started to die off and one by one of the Apostles passed on and yet Christ had not returned, a rumour must have spread among the early Christian community that St John the Apostle, who was by then the only living contemporary of Jesus, would not die before Jesus' Second Coming. But John soon died and so what was to be done? The Gospel of John had to be written and that rumour addressed. Notice that the Gospel of John does not have the verses in the Synoptic Gospels that specifically talk about Jesus promising to return in the 1st century? By the time of writing, it would have been apparent to the writer of John's Gospel that Jesus certainly wasn't in a hurry to return.