John 21 focuses primarily on Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples that we can all identify with. Jesus has risen from the dead, and Peter has seen Him personally and talked with Him at least three times at this point (John 20:19-29). I would say we could be fairly confident Peter and Jesus had a conversation about his denial when He appeared to Him alone (Luke 24:34). Peter loved Jesus, and deeply regretted that he had allowed fear to cause him to deny Jesus at a critical moment, but we know Jesus forgave Him readily. In John 21, we get a glimpse of how complete and unconditional the Lord’s love is for those who believe in and follow Him.
At this point, the disciples aren’t sure of the future. They know Jesus has told them He will leave them at some point. While their faith has been strengthened by His resurrection, they are in a waiting period, not knowing exactly what Jesus wants them to do. Peter still feels the lingering sting of failure. I would imagine he wonders how useful he is to Jesus’ kingdom, now that he has proven he is weak in the face of fear and persecution. He does the only thing he knows to do. He goes back to the familiar – he goes fishing.
Some might say he accepts his failure as a reason to return to his old life, but I rather think he returns to the place he first met Jesus. He needs a do-over, a restart, and so he goes back to where he was when Jesus first called him.
Jesus indeed meets Peter at his point of need. All four gospels tell the story of Peter’s failure, but only John, perhaps the youngest of the original twelve, includes his story of restoration. Inspired by the Spirit, he honors his friend, knowing what was really going on in Peter’s heart. The group fishes all night but catches nothing. At daybreak, Jesus comes, fills their net with a great catch, and invites them to breakfast on the beach. After they eat, Jesus and Peter take a walk, and it is here in their intimate conversation we see what restoration truly looks like.
Three times Peter denied Jesus.
Three times Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to declare his loyalty and love.
Jesus and Peter use different words for love. Jesus asks twice for Peter’s unconditional, decision-of-the-will love (agapao), but Peter is only able to honestly reply that he loves Jesus with the affectionate love of a friend (phileo). Jesus switches to this word in His final question, accepting that Peter is being honest with his limitations. Peter’s heart is grieved, disappointed that he can’t give Jesus what He asks for.
Do you ever feel that you can never measure up to what Jesus deserves from you? That you can’t love Him or serve Him or be grateful enough? That you will always fall short; that your weaknesses will always be a disappointment to Him?
Apparently, this doesn’t matter to Jesus. He knows our weaknesses and calls us to serve Him anyway. What were His instructions to Peter?
Feed my lambs.
Shepherd my sheep.
Feed my sheep.
Peter had failed Jesus at the worst possible moment, under trying circumstances. He had given in to fear and turned his back on the Savior. Yet Jesus calls him to take responsibility for the spiritual feeding and care of the people who would come to believe. He made him a pastor, a shepherd. He made him responsible to help others grow to spiritual maturity, to teach and preach and proclaim the Word of God.
Here is why we love Peter’s story. His failures did not exclude him from being used in the spiritual kingdom Jesus was establishing. When Jesus restores us, He does it completely. Our sins truly are forgotten. They are removed as far as the east is from the west. We are made wholly new.
How have you failed Jesus?
What regrets do you have that you think are grounds to exclude you from what God has called you to do?
This is the last story John tells us in his gospel, and I think it’s intentional. He has written for one purpose, that we believe in Jesus as the Son of God and have life in His name (20:31). Peter’s full restoration to fellowship and usefulness is a reminder that our belief is in a forgiving, restoring Savior who will not let us go nor give up on us. When we fail, we need to return to the place where we first met Jesus, with a repentant, expectant heart. He will come to us and we can be renewed.