By Joe David
An After-Breakfast Conversation
(A commentary on John 21:15-25)
In the first part of this chapter, seven disciples had come home to Galilee. They had gone fishing, seen Jesus on the shore, followed his instructions to fish on the right side of the boat, dragged a net loaded with 153 fish to shore, and... as the second half of the chapter begins, they have just finished breaking their fast with Him. Now they are relaxing.
Jesus says to Peter,"Do you love me?" and Peter, perhaps a little startled at the question, thinking that the answer is obvious, answers "yes", and Jesus responds, "Feed my lambs". Twice more this sequence is repeated, but with some changes. Then, after this unusual conversation, the Lord tells them all a little parable about being young and later being old. Then the Lord tells Peter to follow him, and Peter, apparently jealous, asks what John is supposed to do. The Lord mildly rebukes Peter’s jealousy by saying, "If this man tarry until I come what is that to you?", but then He tells John also to follow him.
Finally, the gospel of John, and indeed the collection of all four gospels, closes with an explanation by John that he is the writer of this gospel.
So now, let’s look more closely at the conversation, the parable, and the outbreak of jealousy.
Only two of the seven disciples, Peter and John, are mentioned in this part of the story. Peter represents faith, or truth, but truth about spiritual things that we really believe are from God. John represents good, or love to the neighbor. The former resides in the understanding part of the mind and the latter in the will part of the mind.
In telling Peter to feed His sheep, the Lord is saying that to follow Him means to preach the truths that all the disciples now know about the Lord, His coming, and about how a life should be led, in order to be a follower of the Lord in a new church. In the conversation the Lord is direct and probing. "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?" I think Peter is being asked whether he loves the Lord, Jesus, more than he loves his fellow Galilean friends, though it’s ambiguous, it could mean "do you love me more than these other six do?’ When Peter answers the first time he says "Lord thou knowest that I love thee."
With this first of the three probing questions, the Lord answers "Feed my lambs," while after that the response is "Feed my sheep." Sheep and lambs both represent people who are in a love of doing good, but while sheep means those who love to do good for the sake of the neighbor, lambs mean those who do good for the sake of the Lord. The first is spiritual good, and the second is higher, and is called celestial good. But people who wish to do good at first don’t know what is good; they need to learn that from the Word and be taught. This is why Peter is told to "feed them", which is to say that truth must indicate how good is to be done. In order to do things that are good, the will's wanting to, and the understanding's knowing how to go about it, must be conjoined. For a successful Christian life, or on a larger scale, a Christian church, 'Peter' and 'John' must work in harmony.
Then comes the parable. "When you were young you got yourself ready and did what you wanted on your own. But when you become old, you have to reach out for help and another shall carry you where you don’t want to go."
This doesn’t seem to fit in here, but of course it does, and in two ways. The first way is given in the Biblical text; it is about the Lord’s death, that all the prophecies were leading Him to His crucifixion, as is mentioned. The second way is a lesson for all of us. When we are young, confident, and strong, we feel that we can do what we want and don’t need any help. Temptations to do evil we ourselves can deal with. But when we grow wiser we realize that all our strength comes from the lord, and if we continue to depend only on ourselves, the temptations from the hells will be too strong and we will be led into doing what the hells want for us, not what we want. We must learn at the start to follow the Lord and depend on Him. This he says at the end of the parable, where it seems not to fit until we understand the parable. "And when He had spoken this He saith unto (them), follow Me." That’s what we need to do also.
Peter is happy to do this preaching of the truth and maybe feels that he has been singled out, but he also realizes that John also loves the Lord and is loved in return. So he asks "And what is this man supposed to do?" It seems that the needed harmony is not yet present, and that Peter is jealous of the bond, and probably hopes to be assured that he is number one... but that doesn’t happen. Peter is simply told that it doesn’t matter; he needs to do the job he has been given.
I’m reminded of the story of Jacob and Esau, in Genesis 25, where Esau is the firstborn and will inherit the birthright and blessing from Isaac, as his due. Jacob by craft devised by his mother deceives Isaac and steals what is Esau’s. Then he runs off to Padan-Aram and stays there with his uncle and becomes rich. It is only on his return journey that he wrestles with the angel and has his name changed to Israel, that he again meets Esau. The change of name means that now that Jacob is rich with truth from the Word, now with the friendly meeting with Esau, also rich, that the two twins can in parable, be merged into one personage, called Israel, meaning the joining of good and truth in the mind.
Esau means something similar to John, they both represent goodness or true charity. Jacob means something similar to Peter, they both represent truth learned from the Word. Any seeming enmity between them as to which is more important can make them both useless, and in a person who is becoming angelic (as everyone should be aiming for), there is no enmity. Truth enables good, and good inspires truth in order to get something done. Although we can think and speak of them separately, they are (perfectly in the Lord and less so in angels) conjoined into a oneness so as to be seen as married. The marriage of the Lord's Divine good and Divine truth is the origin of all creation. Yes, all creation.
This marriage of good and truth, and the need for both to work in our lives, in balance and harmony, is a core New Christian concept.
In the Gospels, there is just one more story that takes place after this one. In it, the rest of the disciples join the seven mentioned here to hear the Lord’s last commands.
17. The firstborn from the dead. This symbolically means, and which is Divine good itself.
No one as yet knows what it is to be firstborn from the dead. Moreover, the ancients debated what it symbolized. They knew that the firstborn symbolized the first or primary constituent from which sprung everything having to do with the church. Many also believed that it was truth in doctrine and faith, but a few thought it was truth in act and deed, which constitutes goodness of life. We will see that the latter is the first and primary constituent of the church, and therefore that, properly speaking, it is what is meant by the firstborn.
First, however, we must say something about the opinion of those who believed that truth in doctrine and faith is the first and primary constituent of the church, thus the firstborn. They believed this because truth is learned first, and because the church is a church in consequence of its truth, though not before the truth is lived. Prior to that it exists only in the thought and memory of the intellect, and not in any action of the will; and truth that is not truth in act or deed has no life in it. It is merely like a tree abounding in branches and leaves without any fruit, or like knowledge without any useful application. Or it is like a foundation upon which a house is being built for people to live in. These things are first in time, but they are not first in end, and those which are first in end are primary. For first in end is the living in the house, while the first in time is the foundation. The first in end, too, is useful application, while the first in time is knowledge. Likewise, when a tree is planted, the first in end is its fruit, while first in time are its branches and leaves.
 The same is the case with the intellect, which is formed first in a person, but to the end that the person may put into practice what he sees with the intellect. Otherwise the intellect is like a preacher who teaches rightly but lives an evil life.
Every truth, furthermore, is sown in the inner self and takes root in the outer one. Consequently, unless the truth that is sown takes root in the outer self, which it does by being put into practice, it becomes like a tree placed not in the ground but on top of it, which in the radiating heat of the sun immediately wilts.
This root is something a person takes with him after death if he has put truths into practice, but not the person who has known and acknowledged them in faith only.
Now, because many of the ancients made what is first in time first in end or primary, therefore they said that something firstborn symbolized truth in the church in doctrine and faith, unaware that it is the firstborn apparently, but not actually.
 Those, however, who made truth in doctrine and faith primary, were all condemned, because not a bit of practice or deed, or of life, was found in that truth. Cain, who was the firstborn of Adam and Eve, was condemned for that reason. That he symbolizes truth in doctrine and faith may be seen in Angelic Wisdom Regarding Divine Providence 242.
For the same reason too, Reuben, who was the firstborn of Jacob, was condemned by his father (Genesis 49:3-4), and the birthright was taken from him (1 Chronicles 5:1). In the spiritual sense Reuben means truth in doctrine and faith, as we will see hereafter.
The firstborn of Egypt were all struck down, having been condemned, and in the spiritual sense they mean nothing else than truth in doctrine and faith apart from goodness of life - truth which in itself is lifeless.
The goats mentioned in Daniel and Matthew 1 mean no others than people who possess a faith apart from life, as discussed in The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem Regarding Faith, nos. 61-68.
Around the time of the Last Judgment, people who possessed a faith apart from life were rejected and condemned, as may be seen in A Continuation Concerning the Last Judgment 16ff.
 It can be seen from these few considerations that the firstborn of the church is not truth in doctrine and faith, but truth in practice or deed, which constitutes goodness of life. For the church does not exist in a person until truth becomes a matter of life, and when truth becomes a matter of life, it is then goodness. That is because the thought of the intellect and memory do not flow into the will and through the will into practice. Rather the will flows into the thought and memory of the intellect and acts. Moreover, whatever issues from the will through the intellect does so from affection, which is a matter of love, through thought, which is a matter of the intellect. And it is all called good and enters into the life. Therefore the Lord says that he who does the truth does it in God (John 3:21).
 Since John represented goodness of life, and Peter the truth of faith (see no. 5 above), therefore John is said to have reclined at the Lord's breast and followed Jesus, and not Peter (John 21:18-23). The Lord also said of John that John would remain till He came (John 21:22-23), thus to the present day, which is the day of the Lord's coming. Consequently the Lord is now teaching goodness of life for people who will be constituents of His New Church, which is the New Jerusalem.
In sum, the firstborn is that which truth first produces from good, thus what the intellect produces from the will, because truth has to do with the intellect, and good with the will. This first element is primary, because it is like a seed from which everything else springs.
(References: John 21:18-21)
 As for the Lord, He is the "firstborn from the dead" because in respect to His humanity He is truth itself united to Divine good, from whom all people live, who in themselves are dead.
The like is meant in Psalms,
I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth. (Psalms 89:27)
This is said of the Lord's humanity.
So it is that Israel is called the firstborn (Exodus 4:22-23). "Israel" means truth in practice, "Jacob" truth in doctrine; and because no church is formed in consequence of the latter alone, therefore Jacob was named Israel. (In the highest sense, however, Israel means the Lord.)
 Because of this representation of the firstborn, all the firstborn of people and animals were consecrated to Jehovah (Exodus 13:2, 12; 22:28-29).
Because of this representation of the firstborn, in the Israelite church the Levites were taken in place of all the firstborn, and it is said that they therefore belonged to Jehovah (Numbers 3:12-13, 40-46; 18:15-18). For Levi symbolizes truth in practice, which constitutes goodness of life, and therefore his descendants were given the priesthood, on which subject more later.
For the same reason, too, the firstborn was given a double portion of the inheritance, and he is called the beginning of strength (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).
(References: Exodus 22:29-30)
 The firstborn symbolizes the primary constituent of the church because natural births in the Word symbolize spiritual births, and what first produces them in a person is then meant by his firstborn. For the church does not exist in him until the doctrinal truth conceived in the inner self is given birth in the outer self.