Small details often convey great meaning. Take for example in the Gospel of John where we are told that Peter and John ran to the tomb in the early hours of the morning and the disciple Jesus loved outran Peter and arrived at the tomb first. What does this mean?
The Gospel of John is full of language that we quickly learn is not to be taken literally. This points us to a deeper theological meaning. “I have food to eat that you know nothing about” Jesus tells the disciples when they find him at Jacob’s well talking with the Samaritan woman. [Jn. 4:32] His disciples ask one another “Did anyone bring him food?” [Jn. 3:2] That isn’t what Jesus was talking about.
When Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the darkness trusting the knowledge of his learning as light capable of revealing that Jesus “is a teacher come from God because no one could perform the signs you do unless this were true,” Jesus responds by saying that such knowledge is insufficient to discern the Kingdom of God. One must be transformed by something that comes from beyond the created order [Jn. 3:3] or one can see nothing of the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus tells the religious leaders from the Temple in Jerusalem who were questioning him, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” they replied, “It has taken 46 years to build this Temple and you are going to rebuild it in three days… “ [Jn. 2:20] missing the point.
There are numerous examples of this theme running through the Gospel of John, causing the reader to look beyond the literal words. By the time we come to the story of the empty tomb, the significance of these multiple levels in pointing to the central meaning of the Gospel is well established in the reader’s mind.
So when we read that the beloved disciple outran Peter to the tomb, it is likely that there is more to the meaning than that he was younger and in better shape. Peter had been first among the apostles during Jesus ministry. But now, on the morning of the Resurrection, the younger disciple is ahead of him. What does this mean? Exactly how is he ahead of him and in what way?
When Peter catches up with him, he goes straight inside the tomb, but he cannot make sense of anything that he sees…or doesn’t see. The younger disciple, who had waited for Peter before entering the tomb, now steps inside and “he believes.” [Jn 20:9]
What understanding are we offered by this small detail that John comes to faith in the risen Christ ahead of St. Peter? Is this simply about two men foot racing? Is it still about the competition that existed among the disciples as when they were arguing about who among them was the greatest? [Lk 9:46; 22:24] or who would sit on Jesus’ right and left in glory [Mt 10:35]? Does it relate to the odd comment Peter made on the beach with Jesus, “when he saw the disciple Jesus loved following them [and asked], Lord, what about this man?” [Jn 21:21]? The Lord offered Peter a mild rebuke, “If it is my will that he remain alive until I return, what is that to you Peter. Follow me.” [Jn. 21:22].
We might also note another small detail of the same kind. Following the Resurrection, when Jesus appears on the shore by the lake and calls out to the disciples who are in the boat, telling them to cast their nets on the right side, it is only after John recognizes him [Jn 21:7] and cries out “It is the Lord!” that Peter removes his clothes and jumps into the water to go to him on the shore.
That the beloved disciple literally arrives ahead of Peter at the empty tomb is not what matters. Or that he is the first to recognize him on the shore. Rather these suggest a small but enormously significant emphasis that points to an immense tectonic shift that has taken place. The world before the death and Resurrection of Jesus chronicled in the so-called Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and that which is revealed in the Gospel of the divine Theologian of the Risen Lord, by his beloved disciple, John, is as different as night and day.
The first three Gospels pose a “secret” which has to do with who Jesus is. This is the question that is asked repeatedly, sometimes by Jesus himself, by other characters and by the Gospels. It cannot be answered by human intelligence. The Gospel of John expounds on the meaning of the secret which cannot be understood by those whose knowledge rises no higher than what reason and the five senses can discern on their own apart from the spiritual illumination of faith.
This is also evident in the fact that none of the disciples who knew Jesus recognize the risen Lord when they first encounter him; not Mary Magdalene in the Garden; nor Luke and Cleopas on the Emmaus Way when Jesus walks for miles right next to them and yet he seems “a stranger” until he is revealed noetically in the breaking of the bread.
St. Peter had been the first to receive a noetic illumination that Jesus is “the Christ.” Jesus told him this was a revelation that had come from beyond his own human capacities. [Mk 8:29-32] He said this revelation of his identity was the “rock upon which I shall build my church.” [Mt 16:18] but Peter did not as yet understand what this meant. Those who thought this “rock” referred to Peter, the man himself, instead of the noetic revelation of Jesus’s identity as the One who seamlessly unites in his Person without confusion, the created and uncreated worlds of God and Man, in subsequent centuries made the same mistake as Peter–placing trust in a single man, rather than in all humanity united as “one bread” [I Cor. 10:17] in and through Christ who unites both worlds in his own Person.
According to the Gospel of St. Mark [who was Peter’s interpreter] Immediately after this revelation, Peter presumed to instruct Jesus on what the revelation meant, by taking him aside and rebuking him when he began to explain the nature of divine love–that the Messiah must be rejected, suffer and die in shame on the cross.
Peter’s subsequent confessions contained in the Gospel reveal that he had a difficult time making the transition from placing his trust in human will, reason and emotional zeal, to serving the beloved community as one among many who are knit together through Communion with the Risen Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
From Peter’s post-denial and Pentecost-infused humility, we learned that he was not present at the crucifixion of Jesus. The beloved disciple, however, remained at the foot of the cross where Jesus gave his mother into his care and he into hers.
Peter denied Christ three times. Whatever his fears and impulses in the moments he was warming himself by the fire outside the high priest’s courtyard, while the beloved disciple was inside with Jesus, Peter surely experienced a paroxysm of grief and self-reproach during the hours afterward. We can only imagine the painful shame and sorrow that enwrapped him as he later returned to the upper room with the other Apostles and Jesus’ mother, the beloved disciple, Joanna, Mary and the other women.
Remembering the Lord’s prophetic word to him earlier, that in spite of his protestations otherwise, Peter would deny him on three separate occasions before the rooster crowed, Peter’s heart surely teetered on the edge of despair, from which he was saved from a fate like Judas, only by remembering the prophetic word of love from Christ that he clung to in his heart at that moment: “I have prayed for you so when you have recovered, strengthen the brethren” [Lk 22:23].
At the worst moment of his life, by God’s grace, Peter is given to taste the depths of his human frailty and the fathomless mercy and love of Christ which goes still deeper, to render fecund a heart which cannot be transformed by human will, desire or knowledge alone into fertile ground for the Gospel. For, as St. Paul also discovered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [II Cor. 12:9]
When it is recorded, “The Lord is risen and has appeared to Peter!” [Lk 24:34] it is an easily overlooked detail, testifying to the wondrous message of love that was already spreading through the first Christian community. He who betrayed the Lord and saw himself unworthy to be an Apostle, was received by the Lord as the first Apostle to whom he revealed himself after his resurrection.
Although Peter was the first of the Apostles to whom the Lord visibly appeared, the beloved disciple John, is the first of the Apostles to have come to faith in the risen Lord without having first seen him. Jesus gives us the eleventh beatitude for him and all of us who come after him: “Blessed are those who have come to faith without having seen.” [Jn. 20:29] In this way, it is the beloved disciple who arrives at Christian faith before the Apostle Peter and becomes the theologian of the new creation.
St Gregory Palamas writes , “What Christ was to the Virgin Mother by nature, John became to her by grace [Jn 19:26-27]. If He alone was allotted the same mother as Christ, he alone of all men was His brother, kinsman to the Son of God, and like Him in all respects. Christ was the beloved Son, John was the beloved disciple. Christ was in the bosom of the Father [Jn 1:18] John leant on Jesus’ breast [Jn 13:23]. Christ was a virgin and by His grace, so was John. Christ was the Son of the Virgin and so was John. “The Lord thundered from the heavens.” [Ps 18:13] and John was thunder, for he more than the others, was called the son of thunder [Mk3:17] a most theological thunder which resounds to the ends of the earth declaring the divine truth that in the beginning was the Word from the Father, and the Word was with God, and was God, and in Him was life and the true light which illumines every man coming into the world, by whom in the beginning all things were made. [Jn 1:1-5,9.]”
By appearing to Simon Peter, the Lord confirmed his great commission to him to “strengthen the brethren” – first by the recognition and confession of human frailty, making it possible for him to join the ranks of other mortals rather than placing himself above and outside them which is what he had earlier presumed to do. “Even if all other men fall away, I will not.” [Mk. 14:29]. Secondly, by having seen the Lord, through no power of his own, he who had deserted him, became an Apostle – one who is sent to proclaim the Gospel of the Risen Lord.
In these ways Peter had the Gospel inscribed on his heart through the sword of the Spirit Who revealed to him his weakness, the hardest lesson of human life, but necessary to break up the ground hardened by pride that renders the heart opaque to Grace. Repentance, return and confession to his brethren in abject humility surely must have deeply moved the others and helped them prepare their hearts as well. “A humble and crushed heart, O Lord You will not despise.” Humility is the ground from which love springs forth.
The Lord has risen and has shown that He loves him who is cleansed of the pride of self-sufficiency and is invited to serve others by sharing the same cross of humility upon which the Lord was lifted up in order to “draw all men to myself.” [Jn. 12:32] It was this cross that Peter first rejected and in so doing, laid the foundation for rejecting Jesus himself. For “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will keep it forever.” [Mt 16:25] And “Whoever loves his life shall lose it; and whoever hates his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. [Jn. 12;25]
 Veniamin, C. (trans.) Saint Gregory Palamas Homilies, #44, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014, p. 348.