We all know how it feels when we disappoint someone – particularly someone we are close to. It might be our spouse. It might be a close friend. It might even be our boss. We’ve let that person down. When they needed us, we didn’t come through. And we hate ourselves for it.
That’s how Peter felt after failing Jesus. He boasted that he would never desert Jesus; he would never let him down, and then he denies him three times. He’s full of shame and guilt. He’s no use to God or anyone else now – how could he be? I can just imagine Peter doing what we all do in those situations. He’s replaying the tape in his mind, over and over, frame by frame – why did I do it? why did I do it?
That’s where we find Peter when we come to John chapter 21. He’s with a handful of other disciples by the Lake of Tiberias (also known as the Sea of Galilee). Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” The other disciples, say, “We’re coming with you.”
So, you see what’s going on here. Peter has failed Jesus – badly. He’s no use to Jesus anymore. There is one thing he can do however; he can fish. But that night they catch nothing. And the reason is because Jesus doesn’t let him catch anything. Peter is running away. He is running away, and Jesus is saying,
“You think you can do something without me Peter, but I want you to see you can do nothing without me. Not even fish.”
Then at dawn, a shadowy figure is seen on the shore and it calls out, “Friends, you don’t have any fish, do you?” Then the voice says, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat.” You can imagine what these experienced fishermen are thinking: “Oh that’s just rich. I like that. Like, the fish know the difference between the left side and right side.” John tells us in verse 6, “So they did, and they were unable to haul it in because of the large number of fish.”
As they are hauling it in, the disciple whom Jesus loved (that’s code-name for John), puts two and two together and says to Peter, “It is the Lord!” Peter, without hesitation, dives into the water. He’s swimming to shore, and he can’t get there fast enough. He wants to be with Jesus again, in spite of his shame and guilt. He’s messed up, but he loves Jesus all the same.
When they all get to the shore they find there a charcoal fire, bread and fish. It’s déjà vu for the disciples. It’s all happened before. It’s the same miracle Jesus performed when he first met Peter back in Luke chapter 5. It’s the same crowd, the same Peter, the same lake, and the same figure on the shore asking how many fish they had caught. And the same thing happens, except back then, the nets did tear.
What is Jesus doing? He’s bringing it all back for them. He’s recalling their memory. He’s calling them back. The bread and the fish, recalling the miraculous feeding of the 5000 and later, the 4000. Jesus is saying, “Do you remember? Do you remember that we did this together? Do you recall what I did?” Jesus has a special way of drawing his straying ones back to himself. He stirs their memory and touches their conscience.
So there they all are, sitting there by the fire, eating breakfast together. Then at some point I imagine, Jesus takes Peter on a little walk. He says to him, “Simon son of John…” Now you may remember earlier in the book, in chapter 1 verse 42, Jesus said to Peter, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated “Peter”).
Jesus is taking him back. He is taking him back to the beginning – back to the place where they had begun in Galilee, so he uses the name with which they had begun. You see, Jesus is willing to start over with Peter.
Then Jesus says to him in verse 15, “Do you love Me more than these?” Now the question here is, what does the “these” refer to? Is Jesus asking, “Do you love me more than these boats and fish?” or “Do you love me more than these men you are working with?” I tend to lean toward the latter. Remember Peter’s earlier boast: he vowed to stay faithful to Jesus even if all the others fell away. The irony is, it is Peter who denies Jesus, not the others. I think that Jesus may be asking,
“Do you really love me more than these other men love me? You made that pledge Peter; did you really mean it?”
Jesus asks this not just once, not twice, but three times. On the third time, Peter is grieved (recalling no doubt, his 3-fold denial).
I have a wonderful little book on my shelf called, The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. In it he unpacks Isaiah 42:3 where it says (in speaking of Christ), “A bruised reed he will not break and a smouldering wick he will not put out.” You know what a reed is. A reed is thin and frail and fragile. If the wind blows too hard on a reed it often breaks. Sibbes writes,
“God’s children are bruised reeds, before their conversion and many times after. For usually God empties men of themselves and makes them nothing before He will use them in any great service.”
A little further on Sibbes writes,
“As a mother is tenderest to her most diseased child, to her weakest child, so does Christ. Christ most mercifully inclines to the weakest and His way is first to wound and then to heal. And we see that there is more mercy in Christ than there is sin in us.”
Jesus is tending to a bruised reed. He is restoring a wounded conscience. But the way you restore a wounded or guilty conscience is not put a band-aid on it. You have to do heart surgery. You need to open the wound. It’s painful. And that’s exactly what we see happening here. Jesus is doing surgery on Peter’s conscience. And it nearly brings him to tears.
Following Jesus’ 3-fold probing of Peter’s love for him is a 3-fold commission to service:
- “Feed (basko) my lambs” (v.15)
- “Shepherd (poimaino) my sheep” (v.16)
- “Feed (basko) my sheep” (v.17)
This was Jesus’ call to Peter from the beginning. He’s putting him right back into service. He not only restoring Peter, he is reinstating him. He’s saying,
“These sheep Peter, they are mine. I bought them. I died for them. Now I want you to look after them. Feed them. Lead them. Protect them. Care for them. And the lambs Peter, my little ones; the ones that are weak and vulnerable and prone to wander. I’m putting them into your hands. Look after them.”
And what would be the one thing that would hold Peter to this, that would keep him faithful? Love for Christ. You can see it now, can’t you. You can see how all this fits together. You can see what makes a good pastor – or any Christian leader for that matter, one who will give the sheep what they need, not what they want, who will faithfully feed them the Word of God and protect them from error and lay down his own life for them if necessary:
It’s not love for the flock. It’s love for the Shepherd. It’s love for Jesus.
I’ll leave you with two points of application:
Firstly: no matter what you have done, no matter where you have been, you can start anew; you can start afresh. What Peter encounters in John 21 is a Saviour who is always eager and always waiting to start over. There’s new grace. There’s fresh mercy.
Secondly: What if you are a great failure and you are a great sinner and you can’t say with Peter, “Yes, Lord, I love you,” either because you don’t know Christ or because you do know Him but you feel like such a mixed bag? Sometimes you love Him; sometimes you don’t love Him. What do you do with that? Where do you go? You can’t cultivate it or create it or manufacture this love on your own. If you don’t have a love for Jesus, where do you get it?
Here’s the answer. The answer is very simple. God gives you that love, when you completely surrender yourself to him. The good news of the gospel is Christ grants his righteousness to us as a gift. Salvation is by grace – free, unmerited, undeserved grace. And God grants that grace to those who fall before him in worship and absolute surrender. Don’t try to start acting better. Don’t say to yourself, “I’m going to be a better person.” Open your heart and allow Jesus to come in and change and transform you. He will give you what you need. All he asks is for you to trust him.
Pray, “God, change my heart and make me new,” and then hang on and see how His grace upon grace will burst into your life.
Note: This post was based on a sermon I preached from the Gospel of John. You can listen to the full audio on our website here.