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Biblical-theological Reflections

An Unfriendly Bodyguard

All four Gospels report Peter’s adamant affirmation of fidelity Jesus, no matter what may come (Matt 26:33–35; Mark 14:29–31; Luke 22:31–34; John 13:36–38). A key feature in the Synoptics’ presentation is Peter’s persistence about remaining with Jesus (Matt 26:35; Mark 14:31; Luke 22:33). In so presenting his declaration, Matthew and Mark focus exclusively on Peter’s commitment to die with Jesus (Matt 26:35; Mark 14:31). Beyond this affirmation, Luke also explicitly mentions Peter’s readiness to accept the lesser affliction of imprisonment with Jesus (Luke 22:33).

For John, Peter’s affirmation of fidelity still draws in Peter’s continuing presence with Jesus (John 13:37a). Here, however, Peter goes a step farther: Not only will he be present with Jesus, whatever may come, but he will die in Jesus’ behalf (John 13:37b; τὴν ψυχήν μου ὑπὲρ σοῦ θήσω; underlining added). The extent to which ὑπέρ indicates substitution (so: ὑπὲρ σοῦ ≈ in your place) is sometimes debatable.1 Particularly given the Synoptics’ preference for accompaniment language, John’s ὑπὲρ σοῦ could have a more general sense and indicate Peter’s profession of a willingness to die in keeping with how highly he values Jesus (so: ὑπὲρ σοῦ ≈ for your sake).2

Yet, in John’s Gospel, Jesus has already affirmed that the good shepherd will die in behalf of his sheep (John 10:11, 15, 17), and Jesus will shortly suggest that the one who has the greatest love will die in behalf of his friends (John 15:13). In both these analogous cases, the one who dies seems to do so at least in hopes that those may be spared in whose behalf he dies. Thus too in John 13:37b, Peter seems to be offering to serve as a kind of bodyguard for Jesus.3 Tied up as this offer is in John’s narrative with the rest of the Farewell Discourse (John 13:31–17:26), when Jesus says in this discourse “no one has greater love than this: that someone should lay down his life in his friends’ behalf” (John 15:13; μείζονα ταύτης ἀγάπην οὐδεὶς ἔχει, ἵνα τις τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ θῇ ὑπὲρ τῶν φίλων αὐτοῦ), Peter can hardly miss hearing this statement at least partly as a comment on his own offer that he has just made to die in Jesus’ behalf.

Although it would have been expressed differently in different contexts, “friendship” involves some kind of reciprocity, so that the one who lays down his life in his friends’ behalf is himself part of that friendship’s circle of influence.4 Within this circle of friendship, Jesus himself is preeminently the one who dies for his friends (John 15:13–15). Peter has promised to do the same for Jesus (John 13:37b), but Peter does not sufficiently comprehend the agenda on which Jesus is operating (John 18:10–11). So, when the time for Jesus’ death actually approaches, Peter rather distances himself from than interposes himself in behalf of Jesus (John 13:38; 18:15–18, 25–27).

Despite these failures, after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter is ready enough to confess his friendship with Jesus (φιλεῖν ≈ to love, to be a friend of) and to hear Jesus’ summons to shepherd his sheep (John 21:15–16). Jesus’ meaning has, however, not completely come home. Only when Jesus asks whether Peter is his friend does it seem that the reality his inquiry becomes clear (John 21:17).5 Semantically, ἀγαπᾶν (≈ to love) and φιλεῖν are closely related terms (John 21:15–17),6 but it is in the latter verbiage that Jesus has interpretively tied his own sacrifice to Peter’s unfilfilled promise of the same (John 13:37–38; 15:13–15).7 Although Peter has failed to make good on his friendly promise to die in Jesus’ behalf, he still affirms his friendship with Jesus (John 21:15–17). As the Chief and Good Shepherd, Jesus has died in behalf of his sheep and his friends, and this vocation he freshly commends to his friend Peter:

Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you would dress yourself and walk where you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and will bring you where you do not want to go. (John 21:17d–18; βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου. ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ὅτε ἦς νεώτερος, ἐζώννυες σεαυτὸν καὶ περιεπάτεις ὅπου ἤθελες· ὅταν δὲ γηράσῃς, ἐκτενεῖς τὰς χεῖράς σου, καὶ ἄλλος σε ζώσει καὶ οἴσει ὅπου οὐ θέλεις.)

“And he said this to show by what kind of death he would glorify God” (John 21:19a; τοῦτο δὲ εἶπεν σημαίνων ποίῳ θανάτῳ δοξάσει τὸν θεόν). Peter had shrunk back from his previous espousals, but it was still his vocation to follow the Good Shepherd and to do so faithfully to the end.8


1. See Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 383–89, for a discussion.

2. See BDAG, s.v., ὑπέρ, §A.1.a.ε.

3. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2003), 1004–5.

4. Ibid., 1004–15; cf. Augustine, Doctr. chr., 1.30.31 (NPNF1, 2:531); Augustine, Tract. Ev. Jo., 43.2 (NPNF1, 7:240).

5. Cf. BDAG, s.v., φιλέω, §1.

6. See D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996); Keener, John, 1235–36; Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 96–97, for a discussion.

7. Cf. Andreas J. Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 596–98.

8. Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God (Biblical Theology of the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 495–96n151.

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3 thoughts on “An Unfriendly Bodyguard

  1. Excellent post. M. Culy has additional perspectives that support these points in the recently published “Echoes of Friendship in the Gospel of John,” for what it’s worth:
    http://www.amazon.com/Echoes-Friendship-Gospel-Testament-Monographs/dp/1907534105/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1339910722&sr=8-6&keywords=culy%2C+martin

    Posted by R Kirk | June 17, 2012, 7:53 am

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This site and its content are licensed by J. David Stark under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person(s) or institution(s).
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