It’s All about Love (John 21:1–17)

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Failure can be painful—hauntingly so.

As I write these words, there are many matriculants in South Africa who are haunted by failure in their final academic year of high school. There are no doubt many others in lower grades, and still others in university, who are experiencing the same sense of haunting failure.

The same can be said athletically. I have often wondered whether Zola Budd and Mary Decker are haunted by failure in the 1984 Olympics.

More seriously, many might be haunted by relational failure: broken marriages, broken, friendships, broken relationships within the church, etc.

Or perhaps you are haunted by spiritual failure: memory of a sinful fall, a fallout in a local church, or failure in a particular ministry.

The question that haunts us in these, and other, failures is, is there hope? Can I be restored? In spiritual failure, the question is, can I get back to my first love and, if so, how? These issues, and others, are addressed in John 21 in the record of the restoration of Peter after his failure in his threefold denial of Jesus at the crucifixion.

Nobody who is familiar with the account of Peter’s failure in John 18 would argue that he had failed miserably. He had boasted earlier (Mark 14:29) that he would never deny Jesus, even if all the other disciples did. He could not fathom denying the Lord, but he fulfilled the Lord’s prophecy within hours of it being given.

Peter had already met the risen Lord on at least two occasions (see v. 14), but he was no doubt still hurting, wondering if he was the right man—the rock—to lead the apostles and the church (Matthew 16:18). The Lord had told Peter that he would play a prominent role in the early church—particularly in opening the door for the gospel to the Gentiles—but was he still qualified to lead in this regard? Would he still be able to be fruitful in ministry, to fish for men as he was supposed to do? Was he destined to live the rest of his life under a cloud of shame?

Ed Welch has described shame as the deep sense that you are unacceptable, either because of something you have done or because of something that has been done to you. Perhaps you think of some sinful action that you have committed and you wrestle with the shame of being unacceptable to God and to others. Perhaps you have been the victim of some terrible sexual abuse, and, through no fault of your own, you now feel as though you are unaccepted to God and others.

Welch further notes that shame is sometimes the result of being associated with a particular person or deed, even if you are not fully involved. I recall seeing a documentary many years ago about Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother, who felt great shame at being associated with the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

Whatever form the shame takes, we are tempted to wonder whether there is any hope for us. Perhaps as you look back at the year 2015, you feel a sense of shame and failure. Perhaps you are tempted to wonder if there is any hope for you. As we enter a new year, it is an appropriate time for us to reflect on the issue of hope, and to take comfort in the love of God for His people. It is a good time to reflect on the truth that God can renew us no matter how badly we have failed and that there is, consequently, hope for the future. We see this with the restoration of Peter, particularly in vv. 15–19.

The All-Important Setting

This chapter must be read against the backdrop of chapter 18. There, Jesus was betrayed and arrested in Gethsemane. The disciples were scattered, but John and Peter followed from a distance. John was acquainted with the high priest, and so obtained entrance to the courtyard of the high priest, where Jesus was taken for trial. In the courtyard, Peter was confronted by three different individuals regarding his relationship to Jesus. In each instance, he denied knowing Jesus, and with the third denial a rooster immediately crowed. Because Jesus had prophesied that this would happen, he immediately recognised his failure and fled the courtyard, weeping bitterly.

As noted above, Jesus had met Peter at least twice since that time. Peter clearly had no doubt that the Lord loved him and had forgiven him. But the haunting question as to his effectiveness in ministry still haunted him. It is that question that Jesus addressed with Peter in chapter 21.

As the chapter opens, we find Peter going fishing. There was nothing wrong with this. We cannot conclude that he had decided to quit ministry and take up fishing again. Since the Lord had told them to wait for the promise of the Father (Acts 1:4), there was little else to do. He had not abandoned the fellowship of the saints, for he was still with the disciples.

As appears to be the norm in the Gospel accounts, the fishermen toil for hours without catching anything. It is only when the Lord appears on the shore and tells them to cast their nets to the other side that their labours finally bear fruit. Perhaps a sense of déjà vu (cf. Luke 5:1–11) helps John to realise that the man on the shore is Jesus. Peter, stripped to his waist, clothes himself and jumps into the water to swim to Jesus. Clearly, he had no doubt that the Lord would accept him and still harboured deep affection for Jesus.

When the disciples all arrived at land, they found that the Lord had prepared a meal for them. After enjoying breakfast together, the Lord turned to Peter with an all-important question, likely in the proximity of all the disciples.

The All-Important Question

When Jesus met the disciples for the third time (v. 14), it was necessary to confront Peter with an all-important question. The Lord repeated that question three times in vv. 15–17: “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” (v. 15). “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” (v. 16). “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” (v. 17).

Though I cannot prove it, I strongly suspect that the disciples were all privy to this confrontation. They needed to know as much as he did that it was not all over, that Peter was being restored to a position of prominence among them. It was time for him to get back on the proverbial horse, and they needed to see it happen.

The Lord three times addressed him as “son of Jonah,” which is the same way that He had addressed him when He first told him that he was going to be the rock among the disciples (Matthew 16:4, 17). This familiar expression no doubt afforded Peter some hope.

As seen above, the Lord three times asked whether Peter loved Him, but the first time he added “more than these.” Those who argue that Peter had abandoned the ministry and returned to fishing say that “these” is a reference to the fish. The Lord was therefore asking, “Do you love me more than the fishing industry?” According to this interpretation, the question was once again whether Peter was willing to forsake all in order to follow Jesus.

I have argued that there was nothing wrong with Peter going fishing, and so I cannot see how this would be an appropriate interpretation of the Lord’s words. Instead, I think that “these” is a reference to the other disciples. Peter had earlier claimed that he would not forsake the Lord even if all the other disciples did. He thereby implied that he loved Jesus more than the other disciples did. Jesus was now asking him, “Do you still claim to love Me more than the other disciples love Me?”

Peter’s response was humble: “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He drew no comparisons to the others. There was no sense of one-upmanship.  His failure had humbled him, but he still loved the Lord and was glad to admit it.

The Lord, however, was not done. “He said to him again a second time, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?’” Peter gave the same answer, confessing his love for his Lord. But the Lord “said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?’” Peter was “grieved” that the Lord had repeated this question again, and so he answered, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”

Some interpreters play on the Greek words used here and argue that Peter is admitting a lesser love for the Lord than the Lord was asking for. The first two times, the Lord’s question is posed using the Greek word agape, while Peter responds with the word phileo. The third time, the Lord uses the word phileo, and Peter responds using the same term. Interpreters who play on these words argue that agape describes a far stronger love than phileo, and that while Peter was willing to admit that he loved the Lord in a phileo sense, he now realised that he did not love him in the agape sense that he once claimed. They say that the Lord deliberately used agape the first two times to drive home the point that Peter did not love Him as he once thought he did, and this is why Peter was grieved at the threefold question.

The problem with this interpretation is that, throughout the Gospel accounts, phileo and agape are used interchangeably. Peter’s grief was not over the word usage but over the fact that the Lord asked him three times. But the design was clear: Peter had denied Jesus three times and was now given opportunity to express intimate and affectionate love for Jesus three times. Wounding the sheep in order to heal the sheep, the Lord creates a whole new memory for the number three.

The point was clear: Peter’s failure need not be final. The Lord would accept him.

The all-important question for us is not, how badly did I fail in the past? The all-important question is, do you love Jesus Christ? That is the most important—the eternally important—question. J. C. Ryle has noted that this “is, in reality, a very searching question. We may know much, and do much, and profess much, and talk much, and work much, and give much, and go through much, and make much show in our religion, and yet be dead before God, from want of love, and at last go down to the pit.”1

If you belong to Him, you do love Him. No one loves Him like they should, but those who belong to Him do love Him. And if you love Him, and therefore belong to Him, your failure need not be final.

The All-Important Order

Having considered the all-important question, we now turn our attention to the all-important order that Jesus gave to Peter when he affirmed his love for the Lord: “Feed my lambs” (v. 15). “Tend my sheep” (v. 16). “Feed my sheep” (v. 17). Jesus said elsewhere, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Here, He gives Peter a commandment to prove his professed love. If Peter truly loved the Lord, he would feed His sheep—as he had been commissioned to do from the beginning.

Peter would prove his love for the Lord not only by his words but also by his works. It was easy to say that he loved the Lord, but he also needed to show that he loved the Lord. And he would show his love by work connected to the Lord’s flock.

If you love the Lord Jesus you will prove it by loving his flock. You cannot profess to love the Lord if you do not also love his church. As John said elsewhere, we cannot claim to love God, whom we cannot see, if we do not love His children, whom we do see (1 John 4:20–21). He is the head of the body. You cannot love the head if you have no connection to the body. God expects every Christian to be an active, devoted, faithful, serving member of a local church. Yes, the church is filled with those who fail and who sometimes bear shame, but we will nevertheless love those who are connected to the head if we are also connected to the head.

The Lord used the metaphor of sheep to describe His people. Sheep are dumb, distracted and dirty. That is precisely what we are spiritually. But if we love the Lord we need to love such sheep. In fact, the only way that we will ever faithfully love the sheep is if we love the Shepherd. It can be hard to love the sheep, but if we love the Shepherd we will obey Him by loving His sheep.

The All-Important Issue

In vv. 18–19 the Lord raises the all-important issue when He prophesies Peter’s death:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.”

(John 21:18–19)

Having signified Peter’s martyrdom by crucifixion, the Lord again stresses, “Follow Me.” Even in foretelling his death, the Lord was offering some encouragement to the apostle. Peter had once boldly professed that He would follow the Lord even till death. Though he had failed at a critical moment, his failure was certainly not final: He would indeed follow the Lord till death.

The ultimate proof of salvation is duration. The all-important issue is how we finish. It is those who persevere fruitfully who are shown to be the real deal. But perseverance does not negate the reality of failure. It is possible to fail miserably and yet to get back up and persevere. Perhaps you have come out of a year in which you feel that you have failed miserably in a multitude of areas. But far more important than your failures is the question, are you persevering today? Failure is a part of the Christian life, but so is perseverance.

Peter was restored both in his own eyes and in the eyes of his fellow apostles. God’s grace lifted him up and restored him to a place of effectiveness in the work of the kingdom.

The All-Important Experience

As important as all of the above has been, I want to suggest that the most important passage in this chapter is in fact vv. 1–14, for those verses show that Jesus’ love for Peter preceded Peter’s love for Jesus.

After these things Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and in this way He showed Himself: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”

They said to him, “We are going with you also.” They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning had now come, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any food?”

They answered Him, “No.”

And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast, and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish.

Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment (for he had removed it), and plunged into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat (for they were not far from land, but about two hundred cubits), dragging the net with fish. Then, as soon as they had come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have just caught.”

Simon Peter went up and dragged the net to land, full of large fish, one hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not broken. Jesus said to them, “Come and eat breakfast.” Yet none of the disciples dared ask Him, “Who are You?”—knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then came and took the bread and gave it to them, and likewise the fish.

This is now the third time Jesus showed Himself to His disciples after He was raised from the dead.

(John 21:1–14)

These verses show us the wonderful, tender, shepherding heart of the Lord Jesus. It was important for Peter to experience Jesus’ love for him before he expressed his love for Jesus. This is important for all of God’s children, which led Paul to pray,

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

(Ephesians 3:14–21)

John 21 is filled with threes. It was the third time that Jesus had revealed Himself to the disciples. Jesus asked three times whether Peter loved him, and Peter responded affirmatively three times. Three times the Lord exhorted Peter to feed the sheep. But in the first fourteen verses we find a wonderful threefold evidence of God’s love for His people.

First, the Lord reminds the disciples of their initial call to follow Him. The experience recorded here reminds us of the experience recorded in Luke 5, when the Lord first called Peter and his fellow fishermen to follow Him. This was therefore a reminded that He had not abandoned them as they had abandoned Him. He had called them three years earlier and His call remained. He still wanted them to follow Him and to fish for men.

Secondly, He provided a breakfast of fish and bread for them. The word translated “fish” here is used only one other time in the New Testament: in John 6, when Jesus multiplied the bread and fish to feed five thousand. This was perhaps a reminder to them of His provision for them. They were perhaps to cast their minds back to the multiplication miracle and to know that He was still committed to providing for them.

Third, we see evidence of God’s love for His people in the “fire of coals” on the beach. One of the strongest triggers of memory is smell. Perhaps the smell of fresh cut grass takes you back to a childhood sporting experience. Perhaps the smell of a particular meal takes you back to happy family memories. Peter denied the Lord around a fire of coals (John 18:18). I would think that a charcoal fire reminded Peter of his threefold denial, but it was over a charcoal fire that the Lord chose to restore him to ministry. Perhaps from this point on, a charcoal fire reminded Peter not of failure but of restoration.

Paul said that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance, and it was certainly the goodness of God that led Peter to repentance and restoration. In that sense, the breakfast is, in many ways, the key to this entire chapter.

Does the Lord not sometimes prove His love for us by doing something incredible for us, by some amazing providence? Does He not show us in this way that He is in control and that the future is brighter than we realise?

I was recently at a conference in Cape Town. The front desk of my hotel called my room and told me that someone was in the lobby wanting to see me. I had no idea who it might be (I passingly wondered if it might be the police!), so I went down to find out. When I got downstairs I found a brother whose relationship to me had become strained some years ago because of a doctrinal change on my part. For years, my thoughts of this brother were somewhat painful. But that day we experienced a sweet restoration of fellowship. He asked me to forgive him, which I was only too glad to do, and I was thankful for what the Lord did in that meeting. For me it was a wonderful experience of the goodness of God, and it was something that I needed at that point. And it led me to love the Lord in an even deeper way.

I don’t know what shame or heartache you are carrying as you read these words. I don’t know your sense of failure. But I know this: If you belong to Christ, there is hope of restoration. Put yourself in a position to experience His love by connecting with those who know and love Him. Spend time in His Word and obey it. Then experience His love and say with Peter, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”

Show 1 footnote

  1. J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 3:497.