In 1870, the first Vatican Council declared that papal primacy was found in John 21:15, saying, “Upon Simon Peter alone Jesus after His resurrection conferred the jurisdiction of the highest pastor and rector over his entire fold” when He told Peter to “Feed my lambs” and “Feed my sheep.”1 However, our Protestant brothers and sisters will say that John 21 is rather about Peter’s reinstatement as an apostle, that he initially had denied Christ three times (Jn. 18:15-27), and now affirms his love for Christ three times. Is Vatican I right, or are Protestants right? I’d argue both, that Protestants are simply missing the other half of the meaning in Jn. 21.
John 21 begins with Peter wanting to go fishing (Jn. 21:3). A few other apostles join him, and they have no luck all night long. However, when a man from the shore tells them to cast a net on the right side of the boat, they obey, and catch an enormous amount of fish. This scene tells a lot about the apostles, who are called “fishers of men” earlier in their lives (Mt. 4:19), and that a “net” of fish is connected with the Church later on in the Gospel (Mt. 13:47). It prompts Reformed Scripture commentator Arthur Pink to say that the fish are symbolic of the “souls which the Lord enables His servants to gather in.”2
Because of how many fish there were, the apostles struggle mightily to bring the net of fish into the boat (Jn. 21:6). The struggle is intense, since Peter jumps out of the boat before bringing the fish in, doing so because he knows it is Jesus who had told them where to cast the net. Then they sail over to Peter and Jesus on the shore.
Peter does something prophetic once they get there. He went “aboard [the boat] and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn” (Jn. 21:11). Arthur Pink said that the fish symbolized souls, but would he realize that Peter single-handedly brings the net of souls to Christ — and not one was lost? It would seem to suggest that Peter had the strength of Christ to shepherd the Church.
Supporting this claim is former Protestant Cale Clarke, who says, “The Greek verb in the original text that is used to describe Peter’s dragging of the net is the same one used by Jesus in John 12:32. This is where Jesus says that, as he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself.”3 This scene, then, was probably a set-up for Christ — now that Peter has acted like a shepherd of souls, He can ask him to feed His sheep.
Once Peter brings the fish to Christ, the group of disciples have a meal with their rabbi. It is at this point where Jesus and Peter have the main dialogue we are looking at (Jn. 21:15-17). Peter is reinstated as a disciple when his three denials of Christ are forgotten, and Peter declares three times that he loves Christ. After each time Peter affirms his love for Christ, however, something vitally important happens.
Jesus tells Peter something that’s loaded with meaning, telling him to “tend my sheep” (Jn. 21:16). The Greek word for “tend” is the verbal form of “shepherd” or “rule.” Just as Peter had carried the fish to the shore, so he must shepherd and rule the flock of God. This word choice of “shepherd” is particularly striking since Jesus is said to “rule” the nations with a rod of iron (Rv. 12:5, Rev. 2:27, Rev. 19:15, Mt. 2:6). Plus, Jesus had said in Jn. 10:16 that there was “one flock, and one shepherd,” and that that “shepherd” was Himself. Yet here in chapter 21, Jesus flips this and says that Peter is the shepherd of the flock, of “my sheep” (Jn. 21:16). He seems to be saying to Peter, “I am the good shepherd, but I will exercise this role through you on earth.”
The backdrop for Jn. 21, then, is very likely Jn. 10, meaning that the idea of Peter representing Christ as Vicar is present. Lutheran New Testament scholar J. Jeremias admitted, “Only in Jn 21:15-17, which describes the appointment of Peter as a shepherd by the risen Lord, does the whole church seem to have been in view as the sphere of activity.”4 What profound responsibility he was given!
If Peter is the universal shepherd, that would mean that the apostles are a part of his fold as well. For Jesus tells Peter in front of some of the apostles to “feed” the flock. But how can this be when the other elders are shepherds as well?
Some will say that Peter could not possibly hold primacy above the other apostles, for Acts 20:28 says, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood.” How do we answer such a charge?
First, even though there are other leaders in the Church, there can be one leader who unites them all. Consider the way that our government is divided up. There are multiple states who have their own separate governors that guard their respective regions, and then there is a unifying agent of the states which the president oversees. In the same way, the other leaders in the Church can still have their respective flocks, but one in particular can be the leader of them all. The buck stops with him.
With this understanding of Peter, let’s reflect a bit more deeply. If Peter is to be the vicar of Christ and govern the whole Church, then that would mean that the other shepherds within the Church would be “sheep” under the care of Peter. This case is strengthened by the fact that the Greek word for “shepherd” in Jn. 21:16 can also mean “to rule.” This same word is used elsewhere in Revelation 12:5, where Christ is said to “rule” the nations with a rod of iron. It says, “she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne” (see also Matthew 2:6; Revelation 2:27, 19:15). Peter, then, rules the other bishops.
This idea of Peter being the universal shepherd was prophesied by Christ before His death, when He told Peter to strengthen his brethren (Lk. 22:31-32). Peter’s brethren, in this context, are principally the apostles, which is another way of indicating Peter’s call to lovingly care for and shepherd the whole Church. The apostles are a part of the lambs which Peter is to shepherd, giving another proof to Peter being the universal shepherd of the Church.
When Jesus told Peter to strengthen the Church, that was only going to happen if Peter repented from his threefold denial of Christ. Christ made sure that this would occur when Peter was “the first” to receive the “message of His resurrection . . . (Mark 16:7),” and when He appeared to “‘Cephas’ himself . . . before [doing so to] the Twelve (1 Cor. 15:5).”5 Seeing Christ would have moved Peter to conversion, cause him to profess his love for Christ once more (which happens in Jn. 21), and strengthen his brethren as the shepherd and feeder of the “one flock” of Christ (Jn. 10:16).
Objection and Response
At this point, we might ask ourselves how this can be, when Christ is the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4) of the Church? Well, we can understand this by understanding what a “vicar” is. A vicar is, according to Merriam-Webster, “one serving as a substitute or agent.”6 So Peter can serve as the “Chief Shepherd” on earth as Christ’s substitute or agent — until He returns from Heaven. This does not mean that Peter and Christ will be totally separate, but rather Christ is going to actively shepherd and rule His sheep on earth through Peter.
This is papal primacy. Only Peter was told in Scripture, among all the other apostles, to shepherd, feed, and strengthen the flock. This passage about Peter shepherding the flock is certainly the “final establishment of the one to whom the keys of the kingdom were entrusted.”7 At first, he seemed to be a complete failure as the future possessor of the keys, denying on three occasions that he followed Jesus. Yet the story ends with his proclamation of Christ in John 21, and a role that still lives on today.
- The Institution of Apostolic Primacy in Blessed Peter, chapter 1.
- Arthur Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 1968), p. 314.
- Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1977), 6:498.
- F. W. Grant, The Numerical Bible, quoted by Pink, 319-20.
- Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, 318.
About Luke Lancaster
Luke Lancaster is a Catholic religion teacher at Royal Palm Academy in Naples, FL. He is a graduate of Ave Maria University in Theology, and writes articles answering objections to the faith at stpeterinstitute.com with Marcus Peter.