‘Lord, what about this man?’ (John 21:21). Peter’s question hints at a rivalry which has bubbled beneath the surface of the second half of John’s Gospel. Which disciple takes precedence: Peter, or the disciple whom Jesus loved? The latter had reclined in the privileged position of intimacy at the Last Supper, acting as mediator between Peter and Jesus (13:23–25). He had enabled Peter’s access into the high priest’s courtyard (18:15–16) and stayed to witness Jesus’s death after Peter’s denial and flight (19:26–27, 35). On Easter day, the two disciples set off for the tomb together, but the beloved disciple arrived there first (20:4). The rivalry between these two intimates of Jesus continues to the Gospel’s end. ‘Lord, what about this man?’
The French artist James (Jacques) Tissot depicts that tension between Peter and John, albeit here in the earlier scene of their running to Christ’s tomb (20:1–10). One of 365 scenes from the life of Christ, painted following what Tissot called a ‘pilgrimage of exploration’ to the Holy Land, it presents the moment when the beloved disciple reaches the sepulchre.
Following Christian tradition, Tissot’s John is ‘younger and more active than his companion’ (Tissot 1898: 245), well able to outrun Peter. Arriving at the tomb, he is already illuminated by the light emanating from the two angels inside (20:12). Indeed, John himself looks angelic, clothed in dazzling white. Peter, following behind, is still in the shadows, his head turned back towards the city of Jerusalem rather than ahead to resurrection light.
For the community which produced John’s Gospel, Peter may be the shepherd, who confesses his love for Jesus (21:15–19). However, it is the disciple whom Jesus loves who is their direct link to Christ, and who has nurtured them in the faith. His testimony is the testimony they have come to know as true.
Tissot, J. James. 1898. The Life of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Compositions from the Four Gospels with Notes and Explanatory Drawings, Volume II (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co.)
19(This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
20 Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” 23The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.
25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.