+27 (11) 867 3505 church@bbcmail.co.za

Doug Van Meter - 6 August 2023

Finishing Well (John 21:1–23)

In John 21, the Lord Jesus Christ pastorally confronts Peter and predicts that he will grow old, weakening in body, yet dying a death in which he will glorify God. In other words, he will finish well. Finishing well is the goal of everyone who has been saved by the gospel of Christ. We will look at this passage under four headings: 1. An Existential Crisis (vv. 1–14) 2. An Essential Confrontation (15–17) 3. An Eventual Contrast (vv. 18–19) 4. An Erroneous Comparison (vv. 20–23)

Scripture References: John 21:1-23

From Series: "Miscellaneous"

Sermons in this series are once-off sermons preached by various church members.

Download Audio     Read Online     Download Homework

Powered by Series Engine

I recently had the privilege of spending a ministerial sabbatical in the land of my birth, where I spent the first 27 years of my life, the majority of those living in one town. It was an experience of happy nostalgia, mixed with some sobering reality.

It was fun to run through the streets on which I trained as a high school and university student and to point out some of my memories as my daughter ran alongside me. I drove by the building that was the site of the First Baptist Church of Milford where I heard the gospel and where my parents faithfully took us each Lord’s Day and for the Thursday evening church services. It was the place where Jill and I were married. A year later, our church moved to a fifty-acre property into new facilities and that original church building was purchased and renovated to be the municipal police station. My heart was filled with gratitude for a faithful pastor and a body of faithful church members.

Jill and I spent several Sundays at what was for many years our home church. Much has changed. The pastoral staff has completely changed and the new pastor is a man that was a teenager when he visited our church in Johannesburg in 1998. There are a lot of new faces, and those heading up ministries were unfamiliar to me. When we walked into the church, most people had no idea who we were. That was not so remarkable for me, but more so when you consider that Jill’s father pastored the church for 35 years. It wonderful to realise that the church is continuing two generations later. As we left church one Sunday morning, I said to Jill, “That Lord’s Day was gospel saturated.” It was a blessing.

But what struck me quite significantly was the number of people that I did recognise, though in some cases it took a moment for identities and names to register. The greying and/or balding heads, and the shrinking that sometimes attends the aging process, made it difficult to identify people whom I had known as a young man and, in many cases, as a young child. What stood out most was that, after four or five, and even six, decades, some of these remaining dear saints were faithfully serving the Lord at the same church. In many cases, those I knew as young and middle-aged people are finishing well. It encouraged me to do the same.

Jill and I spent a lot of time getting caught up on how So-and-So was doing, but I was often struck by our repeated enquiry, “Is he/she still alive?” In many cases the response was, “No, he died a couple of years ago,” or “Yes, but she is in frail care and has severe dementia/Alzheimer’s.” One day, we were having dinner with Jill’s parents when they received a phone call from a 65-year-old man named David (whom I knew as a teenager), telling them that his mother, and their good friend, had just died. She was in her early nineties. She had been one of my Sunday school teachers when I was a kid. After fifty years, I can still smell her perfume and see her sweet and kind smile. It was another stark reminder that time marches on and that believing in Christ does not deliver us from physical death and the grave. Once again, I was challenged to finish well, like Rosetta Bargo.

Each night with Jill’s parents, her dad would gather us to read a chapter of the Bible and pray before going to bed. Each morning, when I would go for a run, I would greet him as he sat on the front porch where he was reading his Bible and praying. At 83, he is finishing oh so well. As I age, I too want to finish well. Don’t you?

In the text before us, the Lord Jesus Christ pastorally confronts Peter and predicts that he, in fact, will finish well. He would die a death that would glorify God (v. 19). What a wonderful way to finish!

As we consider this text together, I want to point us to the theme of finishing well, and how to do so. We are all aging. Our days are numbered, literally (Psalm 139:16). Will we use them wisely? Will we continue to follow the Lord?

An Existential Crisis

Finishing well calls for the existential crisis of knowing the Lord is near. We see this principle at play in the opening section of our text.

After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. 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 will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.”  He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.

When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them,  “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.  This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

(John 21:1–14)

Jesus had risen and had appeared to the disciples, perhaps a couple of times. This was at least the third time (v. 14), and the location is significant.

Seven of the disciples were together and Peter said he was going fishing. The other six joined him on the Sea of Galilee. John intends for us to remember the time of their initial call to discipleship when they were also together fishing (Luke 5:1–11).

There was nothing wrong with them fishing. They were not fishing for leisure but for livelihood. They were working while they waited for further instruction. They had not bought into the life that “fulltime ministry” exempted them from making a living!

We should also appreciate that, at this point, they were still processing the tragic and triumphant events of the past few weeks. Nevertheless, their fishing trip was gloriously interrupted by what we can call an existential crisis. The disciples, and especially Peter, came face to face with the Lord, being faced with a decision as to whether they would continue to follow him. This experience would be indelibly pressed on their hearts and minds. Peter, no doubt, would never forget it. And that was the point. He was to grow old remembering this experience. As we age, we too need memories such as what transpired here: memories of God’s gracious kindness to us in our youthful failures, memories of the Lord seeking us and drawing near, and memories of great forgiveness despite great failure.

Déjà Vu

Jesus appeared on the shore. He asked them if they had caught anything, to which they responded in the negative, as in Luke 5. Also as in Luke 5, the Lord gave them authoritative instruction about where to fish. The Lord, in his sovereignty (Matthew 28:18), commanded the fish and, submitting to his dominion, 153 of them swam into the net. The disciples laboured to bring in the haul. Peter and John noticed the identity of this authoritative voice: the Lord Jesus Christ.

Great Failure Met with Great Forgiveness

Peter, affectionately thrilled, grabbed his coat, covering his nakedness, and made a beeline for the Lord. On shore, the smell of grilled fish filled the air, as did the sight and smell of charcoal. This is significant.

The last time Peter was around the smell of charcoal, he denied the Lord, three times, refusing to acknowledge his relationship with him. The same word for charcoal is used here as in 18:18. This is John’s literary hint that Jesus was giving Peter a new memory arising from the smell of burning charcoal, not of failurebut of forgiveness. And oh how we all need these transformations of our memories.

I think a conscientious Christian will be able to understand what Peter must have been going through as he was fishing. Yes, he had seen the Lord (John 20). Yes, he heard the report of the women who first saw Jesus after the resurrection (“Go, tell the disciples, and Peter” [Mark 16:7]). Nevertheless, if you have ever felt the guilt of sinning against the Lord, you can probably relate to what was probably Peter’s sense of “It’s over,” at least in terms of effective ministry. Having been entrusted by the Lord with the stewardship of the gospel and the shepherding of the church (Matthew 16:15–18), we can assume that Peter, with his threefold denial, concluded that this responsibility would be revoked. But what a gracious surprise from a gracious Saviour!

As we follow the Lord, we will all experience times when we practically deny the lordship of Christ. We will give in to various temptations: The temptation to silence when we should declare allegiance to Christ; the mistreatment of our brothers and sisters in Christ; divisive attitudes, words, and actions; sexual sin; bitterness and unforgiveness and ugly aloofness and rejection; arrogance and self-centred individualism; etc.

Concluding Application

The list is long, and could be longer, but the point is that Christians can and do and will fall and fail. But the good news is that Jesus comes after us. He will not break a bruised reed. Perhaps especially in old age.

As we age, we sometimes blush remembering our youthful folly, moral wickedness, relational wrongs, and outright rebellion. We remember our failures. And the Lord knows this. That is why he provides times of gracious crisis, pointing us to his gospel grace.

If you are like me, you might be prone to remember your failures. We need to remember God’s forgiveness and his favours. This is what the Lord was doing for Peter. Rather than dwelling upon his bitter failures, Peter was to dwell upon the Lord’s lavish love.

As we grow old in Christ, the Lord lovingly provides charcoal fires giving us fresh memories of his grace. Hang on to those memories. Remember those providential kindnesses. Remember his many deliverances in your life. Remember your loved ones whom he has saved. Remember the friends he has supplied. Remember his gracious forgiveness. Remember the power of his gospel.

When I was in the States recently, I received a Facebook message from  someone I had not heard from in decades. The last memory I had of this man was of sitting with him in a university lunch room exhorting him to forsake his sin and follow Christ, and being rebuffed in no uncertain terms. I was surprised to read in his Facebook message that he was glad I was still following the Lord. He asked if I would have time to have lunch with him.

I agreed, and he drove two hours to meet me for lunch. I was wonderfully blessed to realise that, some time after my last memory of meeting this man, God had saved him and he was now faithfully serving the Lord. God graciously gave me a new memory to replace the old memory. What a gracious God.

Younger people, steward well the Lord’s graces now, and they will serve you well when you are old and in need of encouragement (Ecclesiastes 11:9–12:7). Old Christian, ask God to stir up your spiritual olfactory senses, remembering all he has done for you up until this point. But especially remember the gospel that has saved you, reconciling you to a gracious God.

As breakfast was consumed, the Lord turned to address Peter. Since Peter’s failure was public, I believe this scene of restoration was also public. These other disciples needed to hear this interaction. It was important for Peter’s restoration and for the renewal of his ministry.

The Lord would ask Peter three questions. His response would be followed by our Lord’s prediction about his future. It is to these matters that we now want to turn our attention.

An Essential Confrontation

Finishing well requires numerous essential confrontations. We find this truth in vv. 15–17:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,  “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him,  “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

(John 21:15–17)

A Reaffirmed Affection

Earlier—perhaps several weeks earlier—Peter made what would prove to be an impetuous boast concerning his love for the Lord. Her said that, even if all forsook the Lord, he would not (Matthew 26:30–35). Quite a boast. Quite insensitive. Quite arrogant.

That impetuosity was being confronted here. Peter’s youthful zeal had been tempered by a severe trial. The Lord examined whether Peter had learned his lesson. This led to an essential question: “Do you love me?” But the first time he asked it, Jesus included an important phrase: “more than these?” What did Jesus mean? There are a few possibilities.

First, he might have been asking, “Peter, do you love me more than you love these nets and the fishing success?” Fishing was Peter’s livelihood and, at least on this occasion, the Lord had blessed him with a prosperous haul. If so, then the Lord was testing his willingness to, once again (Luke 5), forsake all and follow him.

A second possibility is, “Peter, do you love me more than you love these men?” If this is what he was asking, it was a test of ultimate devotion. These brothers were close to one another and following Jesus might require losing some of this. Following Jesus does often mean relational sacrifice. His calling might mean geographic separation.

Though these are legitimate concerns to be faced by disciples of Jesus, I don’t think either of these options is what Jesus meant. Rather, he probably meant, quite literally, “Do you still claim to love me more than these love me? After your denial of me, do you continue to boast that your love for me is superior to their love for me?”

This was a necessary step in Peter’s restoration. He needed to be confronted with his arrogant boasting in order to properly repent—before all. It is a timeless concern and question. And ageless one, we might say. Aging has a way of humbling us. And this humility it necessary if we will help the next generation.

If Peter would lead the disciples, and if they would happily work with him, they needed to know that he was no longer guilty of one-upmanship. They needed to see humility. Years later, Peter would counsel the importance of humility in the life of an elder (1 Peter 5:1–4). And as an elderly elder, Peter no doubt had learned this lesson well. Beginning here by the sea of Galilee.

Youthful arrogance is unattractive, off-putting, and unhelpful. But it is especially so in the life of an older person, where it is downright ugly, offensive, harmful, inexcusable. The longer we walk with the Lord, the humbler we should be through an increasing awareness of his holiness and goodness, and our sinfulness. Our failures rightly dealt with will produce meekness, patience, honest self-awareness, and gentleness towards others. Finishing well means mellowing—not in our zeal or our convictions—but rather tempering our arrogant assumptions.

The Repetitive Assignment

Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him and three times Peter responded in the affirmative, followed by Jesus three times issuing and reissuing the responsibility for Peter to feed his sheep/lambs.

The first and third assignments to “feed” the flock of God use a word that means “to graze,” which pictures a shepherd leading his flock to the pasture. The second word (“tend”) is a verb that means to shepherd. In some translations it appears as “pastor” (Ephesians 4:11, KJV). Peter himself would use this word to exhort elders to fulfil their shepherding/pastoral responsibility (1 Peter 5:2).

The Lord Jesus was restoring Peter to his role as a leader among leaders who would faithfully demonstrate his love for the Chief Shepherd by caring for the flock of God (Acts 1:15ff; Acts 2:14ff; Acts 3:11ff; Acts 4:19–23; Acts 5:1–11; 29–32; Acts 10–11; Acts 12:1–19).

We should all be encouraged that failure is not necessarily final. There is a way back to fellowship and to usefulness, and it is by the way of the cross. It is by the way of the risen Lord. It is by the way of the gospel. Whether old or young, the follower of Jesus must constantly find their hope—and identity—in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Only by clinging to the gospel of Christ will any of us finish well.

Peter’s rehabilitation, notes F. F. Bruce, resulted in his being recommissioned to serve the Lord “by hook and by crook.” That is, Peter had been commissioned by the Lord to fish for men (Luke 5) and to shepherd them as sheep. And he was to do so until the day he died, to the glory of God. We can perhaps summarise this interaction with an insightful tweet by an unknown source:

A mark of charisma is how soon a man builds another platform after destroying the previous one he built. The mark of character is how intentionally a man rebuilds trust with the people he has harmed and how deliberately he works to repair the destruction he caused. Character is correction, not perfection.

Character is righting the boat, not jumping ship, and building another one.

This is a fitting description of Peter. He stuck with those whom he had failed, and they stuck with him as well. Most importantly, the Lord did. And as we will see, the Lord expected Peter to feed the sheep till the end (see John 13:1).

An Eventual Contrast

Finishing well means embracing the eventual contrast. We see this in vv. 18–19:

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him,  “Follow me.”

(John 21:18–19)

Almost abruptly, Jesus attached to Peter’s commission the prediction that he would age and would die as a martyr. Peter’s youthful boast would, in fact, be fulfilled. He would die for Jesus.

The words, “Truly, truly” are used only by John—25 times in his Gospel. It is an intensive introduction to a most serious declaration. In other words, “Peter, pay close attention to what I am about to say.” To an active guy like Peter, Jesus was saying, “Don’t just do something, rather stand there and listen.” We need to all listen carefully. The contrast that Jesus communicates is a contrast that, in some ways, each of us should expect: the contrast between being young with growing old.

Jesus contrasted Peter as a young man with Peter being an old man. In doing, so he contrasted living with freedom and living with limitations; doing what one wants to do and doing what one does not want to do. Jesus tells Peter that as he aged, things would change. He would grow old (which prediction probably helped him when he faced death threats such as those recorded in Acts 3–5 and Acts 12), and eventually he would be martyred as an old man.

Learning to Lean

Peter would age. And as he did so, he would become more dependent upon others. He would no longer be able to function as before. His body would weaken and eventually he would die. The wording indicates that Peter would die as a martyr. He would be handcuffed, perhaps, led away, and killed.

Many throughout history have concluded that the description (“you will stretch out your hands”) implies that Peter would be crucified. This is probably precisely what Jesus meant. Regardless, Peter would come to the place when he would be unable to draw his sword and fight off the inevitable (Matthew 26:51). He would give glory to God by dying as a faithful martyr. He followed the Lord to the end. What a way to live; what a way to die. He learned to embrace the truth of Matthew 16:21–24. Aging should have this effect upon us.

A Faithful Follower

Bruce writes, “Then, in words which echo the first call of the disciples by the bank of Jordan (1:43), Jesus concludes Peter’s commission with the words, ‘Follow me.’ ‘Follow me as my disciple; follow me as in death. So Peter’s protestation, though deferred, will yet be fulfilled: ‘I will lay down my life for you’ (13:37).” May we all have such a testimony. May we follow the Lord, always, including when, as older saints, things occur that we do not want (weakening body, less sharp mind, sense of being disregarded, etc.).

We never read of Peter’s despondence. Rather, shortly before his martyrdom, he writes of unspeakable joy in the Lord (1 Peter 1:8). In his last inspired verse, he writes, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Peter persevered to the end, to old age, in his devotion to Christ and to his flock. May we do likewise.

Peter, of course, was not alone in his aging perseverance.

Abraham was faithful to follow the Lord through old age: “These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, 175 years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:7–8).

Isaac was faithful through old age: “Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days.” (Genesis 35:28–29)

Jacob was presumably an old man when he died and, on his deathbed, he declared his faith in God’s promises (Genesis 49).

Joseph lived to 110, persevering faithfully, clinging to God and his promises to the end (Genesis 50:22–26).

Moses died at 120 years old and was faithfully following the Lord (Psalm 90).

Joshua could testify he was old and yet serving the Lord at 110 years (Joshua 14:10).

David said, “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread. He is ever lending generously, and his children become a blessing” (Psalm 37:25–26). He served the Lord faithfully to the end because the Lord was faithful to him to the end.

In the New Testament record, we have the faithful testimonies of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth who, in their old age, faithfully followed the Lord to the end.

Simeon has the recorded testimony of faithfully following the Lord till his death as an old man (Luke 2:22–35) and Anna faithfully served and followed the Lord well into her eighties, if not late nineties (Luke 2:36–38).

The apostle Paul would die as a martyr as an older man, probably late 60’s. The apostle John, whom we will touch upon shortly, died as the oldest apostle faithfully declaring the gospel till his death as a man probably in his nineties (Revelation 10:11).

This is the biblical expectation for each and every disciple of Jesus Christ: serving the Lord until death parts us from earthly ministry.

The Rot of Retirement

I recently saw a T-shirt with these words on it: “I’m retired. You’re not. Have fun at work tomorrow.” Funny, but it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s purpose for work, and it probably reveals an unhealthy view of retirement.

During my time in the States, I observed that Americans, generally speaking, are obsessed with the idea of retirement. Some segments of South Africa are not far behind. For some, this is all they think about, checking their retirement annuities each day, planning how they will spend their time, including a plan to move to the coast. None of this is necessarily bad or wrong. In fact, planning for the future is a part of wisdom. Often, retirement from the workplace is non-negotiable and thus, at a particular age, the individual must clean out their desk and head for the door. But what is negotiable, what is under our control, is how we use our advancing age. Will we simply atrophy or will we continue to put one foot in front of the other (even if it requires a walker) faithfully following the Lord? Every aging Christian must do this, not only Peter, not only vocational pastors, but everyone who names the name of Christ. Retirement from a place of employment is one (often necessary) thing but this provides opportunity for reassignment elsewhere.

Perhaps retirement will afford you opportunity to use unutilised gifts in another vocation, which will enable you to continue providing for your family. Perhaps you can use the extra time to serve the Lord, standing in various gaps that exist in the church. Perhaps you can use your time to disciple and mentor others. Perhaps you can use your time to pursue theological knowledge for the sake of more effective ministry. Regardless, retirement from employment does not necessitate retirement from serving the Lord.

An Erroneous Comparison

Finishing well means avoiding erroneous comparisons. Consider how we see this in the text before us:

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers 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?”

(John 21:20–23)

Peter was still a young man and therefore said some silly things! Here, he asked about John, something like this: “Okay Lord, I am willing to submit to your will. But what about John? Will he have the same future as mine?” He asked a wrong question, comparing himself to another disciple. This is never wise, and perhaps particularly not wise when older people compare there lot with other older people. Why is my mom a healthy and strong 92 while those seventy years old are weak and frail? Why can some pastors continue at eighty while others cannot?

As we age, let us keep our eyes on Jesus Christ and follow him, not distracted by, but rather rejoicing in, what he is doing in the lives of others. Like him, let us keep our eyes fixed on the prize, knowing the joy that awaits us—joy purchased by his death and sealed by his resurrection.

We should remember that, when Jesus said these words to Peter, he too was a young man. Jesus did not become an old man. But, as a young man, he experienced everything that he told Peter he would experience. He stretched out his hands and was bound. He went where, humanly, he did not want to go. When he got there, he literally stretched out his hands on a cross to be crucified for Peter, and for all of his sheep. He finished well. And in doing so, he glorified God.

Having risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, he is able to ensure that we too finish well to the glory of God.

Non-Christian. Your sins will keep you from finishing well and will lead you to hell. Repent and believe on Jesus who alone is sufficient to be your Saviour.

Christian, Jesus has gone before us and experienced the horrors of death and the wrath of God on our behalf. Therefore, let us follow him, loving him, in our youth as well as in our old age. Let us finish well.