If we only had the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, there would be a mystifying piece of the puzzle missing. Early in the morning of Jesus’ trial, Peter and John sat around a fire in the courtyard of Annas, where Jesus’ trial began. Suddenly the questions begin, “Aren’t you one of Jesus’ disciples?” “Weren’t you there when Jesus was arrested?” Surely, you’re one of them, your accent betrays you.” Three times the questions come and three times Peter denies that he ever knew Jesus, the third time calling curses down on himself.
And then, the rooster crowed, just as Jesus had said. And then Jesus’ and Peter’s eyes meet through the window, and Peter is devastated. Satan has sifted Peter and won. For all his claims to defending Jesus to the death, he has just denied three times that he even knew him. And the Gospels all tell us, “Peter went outside and wept bitterly.” He has denied and betrayed his Lord. He is down and out for the count, crushed by his own failure. That’s where Matthew, Mark and Luke leave Peter.
But then we begin reading in the book of Acts, and chapter two opens with the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples and Peter stands up boldly and confidently as the spokesman for the twelve. And if we were reading it for the first time we would have to wonder, what happened? What changed Peter from the defeated denier of Jesus to this tower of strength and confidence? John 21 answers that question. John wants us to know the marvel of forgiveness, the power of restoration and reconciliation.
John provides us with the one recorded post-resurrection appearance of Jesus in Galilee – all the other appearances we read about in the Gospels took place in Jerusalem. But Jesus has sent his disciples up to Galilee to wait. This apparently was several days, if not weeks following that night in the upper room when Jesus stood among them.
The incredible joy of the resurrection is now followed by waiting, for what and for how long, they didn’t know. Their enthusiasm waned with the days of uncertainty. Then one morning, Peter wakes up and announces, “I’m going fishing.” “Well,” the other disciples say, “we’re coming with you!”
There’s a bit of a debate over exactly what Peter intended. Some think that he was bored and wants a break from the waiting. Others say he was discouraged and doubting whether it was worth it and was saying, “I’m going back to my old life, at least I know fishing.” I think there is probably a bit of both. Waiting gives you time to think, and no doubt all Peter could think about was how he had failed Jesus.
Peter was in the wilderness. The wilderness is a time of testing and trial. It strips you down and reveals what’s inside. All of God’s great men have gone through wilderness times: Moses, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, even Jesus. Times of discouragement and introspection. It’s a time to listen for God’s voice, but you have to be careful because Satan will also dog your heels and whisper his words in your ear as well.
I’m sure Peter had heard Satan’s voice whispering, “Quit, run away! You did it once, you’ll do it again. You’re no use to Jesus, he doesn’t want you now.”
As it turned out that night, Peter was even a failure at fishing. They had fished all night and caught nothing. They were skunked, they were tired, they were hungry, they were frustrated, they were ready to call it a night. And then a voice calls out to them from the shore, “Haven’t you caught anything?” What, is he rubbing it in?
They can’t see who it is through the early morning mist on the water. They were about a hundred yards out from the shore, and dawn is just starting to break.
“No!” they answer. “Throw your nets on the other side of the boat.” They must have thought to themselves, “What do you mean, the other side of the boat, we’ve been fishing all night. If we didn’t catch any fish, there aren’t any fish to be caught.
But all this is starting to sound familiar. It’s a page out of their first encounter with Jesus. In Luke 5, Peter, James, John and Andrew had just come in from a night of fishing and had nothing to show for it. That morning as they are pulling their boat into the dock, Jesus jumps into the boat and starts preaching to the crowds who have gathered to hear him. As he finishes up the sermon, he looks at Peter and says, “Pull out a little ways from shore and let down your nets.” Peter says, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you says so, I will let down the nets.”
When they did, they immediately caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break and had to call the other boat to come and help them.
So, when the stranger on the shore tells them to let down their nets on the other side of the boat, Peter thinks, “Who knows?” And immediately they caught such a large catch of fish they couldn’t pull their nets in.
Suddenly the recognition comes, first to John, and he shouts, “It is the Lord!” And then Peter jumps in the water and begins to swim for shore – he can’t be slowed down by waiting on the boat to row to shore dragging the haul of fish.
As they arrive at the shore (about the same time), Jesus is there with a fire and fish cooking and bread for breakfast. Jesus call for more fish to cook.
John’s details in this account are the memories of an eyewitness. Sixty years later he remembers that the nets held 153 large fish, but the net wasn’t even torn from the weight.
There is one interesting note in the story. As they sit down to breakfast, apparently Jesus’ appearance has changed – they don’t seem to quite recognize his physical appearance, but John says, “None of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.”
I know, that begs a discussion about the appearance of the resurrection body. Will we recognize each other? Apparently yes, but it won’t be quite the same. But that’s a discussion for another time. We’ve seen five appearances now where Jesus showed himself to his disciples – first to Mary at the tomb, twice in the upper room, once on the road to Emmaus, and now here on the shore of Galilee. Though his appearance is different, there is no question in anyone’s mind that it is Jesus.
Breakfast is finished and now Jesus has unfinished business with Peter. Things have changed. We can only imagine what Peter must have been feeling. Certainly he is overjoyed at the resurrection of Jesus and his return to see them. But his most powerful and most recent memories are from that night in the courtyard of the high priest, when he denied he even knew Jesus. He had boasted that even if everyone else should leave Jesus, he would stand by him and die for him if need be. But he, of all of them, had betrayed his trust. How could Peter feel?
And now, they walk together along the shoreline of Galilee. Galilee, where Jesus had stilled the storm and walked on water and then invited Peter to walk on the water with him – and he had… for a second, before he took his eyes off of Jesus and sunk like a rock. Peter had messed up so many times, and Jesus had always forgiven him – but this was different.
Silently they walk as Peter waits for the inevitable – the scolding, the rebuke, the disappointed dismissal – and he would deserve it. But then Jesus speaks. No speech on commitment, no rebuke on failed promises. Only a question: “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” And Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
What follows is a conversation that we might miss if we just read it on the surface. You see, there are two words that are being used here that are translated with the one English word, “love.” They are the Greek words, “agapao” the word for unconditional love – the very word used in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” That is the word Jesus uses when he asks Peter, “Do you truly love me?”
The other is the word “phileo,” the word for friendship. It is an important and strong word, to be sure. But it is a lesser love than “agapao.”
So when Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me more than these?” Peter replies back, “Lord, you know I’m your friend.”
Just for a second – It would be interesting to know where Jesus is pointing. Is he asking Peter if he loves him more than his fishing boats, more than he loves the other disciples, or even whether he loves him more than the other disciples love him. It would be interesting, but it’s not the most important part of the conversation, except that Jesus had said, “Anyone who does not love me more than father, mother, sister, brother, wife or children, cannot be my disciple.”
But Jesus has tested the water, and found that Peter is holding back. He asks him again, “Do you truly love me?” Again, Peter replies, “Lord you know all things; you know that we’re best friends.”
The third time, Jesus asks this question, “Simon Peter, do you like me?” Suddenly Peter gets it. He is dismayed that Jesus is calling into question, not just the quality or intensity of his love, but the reality of his love. This time, Peter replies, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
And the fact is, Jesus did know. Jesus knows what is going on in our hearts, he knows our hurts and disappointments, our failures and shortcomings – he knows them all and loves us just the same. And that’s what he needed Peter to know that morning. He needed Peter to feel the forgiveness for his denials and the reconciliation of a restored relationship. Jesus is not concerned with Peter’s leadership ability, his ability to preach, his understanding of the gospel – just his love.
Not only did Jesus restore his relationship with Peter, he also restored him to ministry. Each time, after Peter responds to Jesus’ question of love, he tells him, “Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.” Jesus is restoring Peter to the work for which he had been preparing him for three years – to go out and serve in God’s kingdom, shepherding and taking care of Jesus’ disciples.
I don’t believe Jesus is assigning Peter to some preeminent position, but merely reaffirming the work that he had already prepared all of his disciples to do. He sensed Peter’s hesitancy and uncertainty concerning whether Jesus would still want him, but as Jesus reaffirms Peter’s love for him, he also recommissions him to serve him in his kingdom.
Jesus then tells a short parable about what it will cost Peter to follow him: “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. (Jn 21:18-19)
Tradition tells us that Peter would be put to death by Nero, and that when they came to crucify him, Peter requested to be crucified upside down, because he was unworthy to be crucified like his Lord. So, yes, they would stretch out his arms and lead him where he did not want to go. But he would go without fear, boldly proclaiming the power of Jesus.
And then Jesus said to Peter “Follow me!” Those were the words with which Jesus called Peter and now they are the words Jesus uses to reaffirm him.
I would like to say that Peter got it. And he did, but there is still a little bit of the old Peter hanging around, because he turned around and saw John following them a short distance behind and said, “What about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
John tells us the rumor got started that Jesus was saying he would never die, but John says, Jesus was just telling Peter to worry about Peter. And that’s good advice for us. Don’t get so caught up in what someone else is or isn’t doing that you forget to follow Jesus.
John closes his Gospel on a couple of autobiographical notes: First he says, This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
John assures us, his readers, that what he writes is eyewitness testimony. He isn’t making anything up or taking anyone else’s word for it. He was there and every word is true.
In fact, when we read John’s first letter, he begins that letter this way: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. (1 Jn 1:1)
And then, John brings his Gospel to a conclusion by reminding us that he couldn’t begin to write everything down that Jesus said and did: Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
Back at the end of chapter 20, John had declared his purpose for writing this Gospel – not a history or biography of Jesus life, but this: Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20:30-31)
John has intentionally selected these stories, these miracles, these conversations with one purpose – to bring you to faith in Jesus Christ so that through him you will have eternal life.
If you walk away from John’s Gospel amazed at Jesus the miracle worker, astounded by Jesus the great teacher, astonished that he made such an impact on the world, but unconvinced that he is the Son of God and unwilling to follow him with all your heart, John will have failed his purpose.
Everything John wrote was with the hope that you would believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you would have eternal life.
That was John’s hope and that is God’s invitation to you this morning. As Jesus said to Peter, he says to you: “Follow me!”