By Charles E. McCracken
So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, 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.” John 21:15
Read Today’s Text: John 21:1-19
The apostle John ends his gospel with an account that is often overlooked. Occurring about a week after Jesus’ resurrection, the conclusion to the Gospel of John contains a message that was not only critical for the rapidly growing first century church, but for Christians throughout the last two millennia.
The scene opens on the Sea of Galilee. The previous night, Peter announced his intention to go fishing; six of the disciples opted to join him.
Approaching the north end of the lake at dawn, they were hailed by a person on the shore asking, Children, have you any food (Jn. 21:5)? The grammar suggests that a negative answer was anticipated. In English, we might say something like, “Haven’t you caught any fish?”
In response to their dejected “No”, they were advised to throw their net on the other side of the boat. Suddenly the net was so full, they couldn’t haul it over the keel.
John grasped the significance immediately shouting, It is the Lord. Without a word, Peter grabbed his robe, jumped into the lake and swam to Jesus while the others towed the bulging net to shore.
It is not difficult to imagine Peter’s state of mind.
At Passover dinner, he announced he would never deny Jesus. Even if the other disciples left Jesus, Peter had declared his intention to remain loyal going so far as expressing willingness to die for the Lord, if necessary. And, he meant it.
When the temple guard came to arrest Jesus, you will remember that Peter was the first to take action. Grabbing a small sword, he promptly sliced off Malchus’ ear. It was only at Jesus’ command to put the weapon away that prevented Peter from inflicting more damage.
The rest of the night was a confusing blur. Helpless, Peter watched Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. He followed the mob to the house of Caiaphas awaiting news about the cross-examination of Jesus who stood before the Sanhedrin.
His attempt to remain inconspicuous failed when three individuals accused Peter of being in the company of Jesus. In the heat of the moment, Peter panicked and denied the accusations. After his third denial, a rooster crowed just as Jesus had predicted the night before (Jn. 13:38).
While the significance may have eluded them during the banter of Passover conversation, Jesus told the disciples, But, after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee (Mt. 26:32). Likewise, the women who encountered the risen Lord early on Sunday morning repeated the angel’s message, go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee (Mt. 28:10).
The Lord’s instructions reiterated by the angel alone could account for the disciple’s presence in Galilee after the resurrection, but the simple truth is that these men had homes in the area.
Not knowing when or whether they might see Jesus must have made the waiting difficult. With triple denial looping over and over in his mind, was it the anxiety of guilt that prompted Peter’s late night fishing trip? The Bible is silent on these details; however, with John’s recognition of the risen Lord, Peter seized the moment and swam to shore.
His dialogue with Jesus after breakfast is the crux of John’s retelling of the interaction.
This lone account suggests that Jesus took Peter privately away from the rest of the group. The intimate details of the conversation are not recorded because they were intensely personal. But, in the course of conversation with Peter, Jesus repeated an important question three times. His repetitive inquiry was not to demoralize Peter, but help him see his denial more clearly.The first time He asked, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?”
Jesus challenged Peter to assert that his love was greater than that of the other disciples. After all, Peter had declared, Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble. Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You (Mt. 26:33, 35).
Then, Jesus again asked, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me? The word translated “love” in both instances is the Greek word ἀγαπᾷς (agapas)—genuine, unconditional love. Based on his past performance, Peter was reluctant to make such a bold statement. He responded, Yes, Lord; You know I love You. The word Peter used was φιλῶ (philo), a term of affection or endearment; he was saying, “I’m fond of you; You’re my friend.”
The third time Jesus literally asked, do you really have affection (phileis) for Me; am I really your friend? This cut Peter to the core and he blurted, Lord, you know all things; You know that I love You (v. 17). He knew his actions didn’t support his earlier claim of loyalty and devotion. He was profoundly ashamed. He was overwhelmed by his failure. He couldn’t trust his feelings, so he appealed to Jesus who knew all that was in his heart.
It is significant that Jesus never contradicted Peter’s profession. Peter already knew the immensity of his failure. It accused him every day. He may have even wondered whether his failure had disqualified him from future service to the Lord.
Just as Jesus had personally addressed the skepticism of Thomas, He personally ministered to Peter’s acute awareness of failure. Jesus’ questions were a clear indication that God’s plan for Peter had not changed. At that crucial moment, His words, “shepherd my sheep . . . follow Me” were an affirmation of Peter’s calling, (vv.17, 19).
Jesus’ conversation with Peter is a fitting conclusion to the written account surrounding the resurrection of Jesus because it powerfully communicates a practical demonstration of God’s redeeming grace.
The interaction between Jesus and Peter was an indispensable example to first century Christians who endured intense persecution.
It is equally indispensable for Christians living in any moment of the Church Age.
Contrary to some Christian leaders who would take a hard line against those who deny the Lord in a moment of weakness, Jesus’ conversation with Peter set the precedent of grace and restoration.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost a few weeks later, Peter proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus Christ so powerfully in Jerusalem that 3,000 were added to the church (Acts 1:41).
In the face of persecution and imprisonment, he was stalwart. Peter was the natural leader among the twelve apostles and the first to take the gospel beyond the Jewish community.
© Charles E. McCracken 2016, text content only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author.