WHO ARE THE “THESE” IN THE “MORE THAN THESE” OF JOHN 21:15?
by Shawn Brasseaux
John chapter 21 says: “ So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.  He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.  He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.”
Notice verse 15 again: “So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.” Who are the “these” in the expression “more than these?”
Two explanations have been offered:
- Some say the phrase “more than these” refers to the other disciples. In other words, they have Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love Me more than these other disciples love Me?” After all, they say, Peter had claimed that no matter what others would do, he would always be loyal to Jesus (Matthew 26:33)
- Others claim the phrase “more than these” is talking about the fish. So, they have Jesus inquiring, “Do you love Me more than you love these fish?” This, of course, makes sense because Peter was a fisherman (John 21:3,7,11; Matthew 4:18; Luke 5:1-11).
Which is the most likely? How do we go about determining this?
Personally, I do not support the first scenario—the disciples. Jesus would not pit Peter against the other disciples. Can you imagine the Lord giving Peter the opportunity to boast once again about his dedication to Him, thereby generating resentment in the disciples listening to that conversation? The Lord Jesus Christ knew that Satan was always working to destroy their group, so He would not give place to the Devil. Many times prior to the cross, that attitude of competition and superiority bitterly divided the Apostles (see Matthew 18:1-6; Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 9:33-37; Mark 10:35-45; Luke 9:46-48). This was nothing but pride and selfishness. It is absolutely inconceivable that, after all that petty arguing, the Lord Jesus post-resurrection would stir up such envy and animosity in John 21:15.
I am more than happy to explain why I support the second possibility—the fish.
After appearing to His disciples following His resurrection (chapter 20), the Lord Jesus Christ was not seen for a time. Notice John 21:1-3: “ After these things Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and on this wise shewed he himself.  There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples.  Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.”
Peter led the (10) Apostles away, back to their old lifestyle as fishermen. At the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry, Peter and brother Andrew had forsaken their fishing business. Matthew 4:18-20 says: “ And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.  And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.  And they straightway [immediately] left their nets, and followed him.” (Verses 21-22 as well: “ And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. 22 And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.”)
Some three years later, Christ’s earthly ministry has ended. He has been rejected of Israel, crucified, buried, and has risen again. John chapter 21 opens. However, the Apostles prefer to return to fishing. They must be corrected, especially their leader Peter. On the shore of the Sea of Tiberias (Sea of Galilee), while the Apostles are fishing, the Lord Jesus is cooking fish and bread. Verse 9: “As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.”
At Jesus’ command, the disciples throw the net on the right side of the ship, and they catch 153 fishes (verses 4-6,11). Peter drags that net to land. Jesus invites them all to dine with Him, to eat of the food that He has cooked. Verses 12-13: “ Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. And none of the disciples durst ask him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord.  Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise.” And, verse 14: “This is now the third time that Jesus shewed himself to his disciples, after that he was risen from the dead.”
Now, we get to Jesus’ three questions to Peter: “ So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.  He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.  He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.”
The “these” would be the fish, the fishing business that Peter had returned to after neglecting his duty to Jesus Christ (the chapter’s opening verses). Fishing was Peter’s former livelihood, and he needed to move on to greater things. As Christ said years earlier, he was to be a “fisher of men.” Here, he was to “feed” the Lord’s lambs and sheep. Jesus asked that question three times not merely to emphasize, but also to give Peter the opportunity for restoration. We will recall that Peter denied knowing Christ three times on the night of His arrest.
Matthew 26:33-35: “ Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.  Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.  Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said all the disciples.”
Matthew 26:69-75: “ Now Peter sat without in the palace: and a damsel came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee. [70 But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest.  And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and said unto them that were there, This fellow was also with Jesus of Nazareth.  And again he denied with an oath, I do not know the man.  And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee.  Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew.  And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.”
In John chapter 21, Jesus Christ afforded Peter the chance to make up for his three failures. He had Peter say three times that he “loved” Him! It worked. The correction caused Peter to think differently. Never again does the Scripture have Peter returning to that old lifestyle of fishing, self-service. Instead, he was a great leader of the Messianic Church, teaching and preaching the Word of God throughout the first half of the Book of Acts (“feeding” God’s people, Israel’s Little Flock). Later, the Holy Spirit even used him to write two epistles—our Bible Books of 1 and 2 Peter. Indeed, Peter loved Jesus Christ more than he loved fish!