Last week we began the grand finale of our journey through John by entering chapter 21, where Jesus miraculously provided seven of His disciples a surprising super abundance of large fish and invited them to come and eat breakfast. What we come to this morning in John 21:15-25 is part two of this same sea side breakfast. And as we come to these final words, we come to what may be one of the greatest lies of the Devil. One of the lies of Satan that we’re too prone to believe is that even though our sins may be forgiven and even though we may be delivered from the judgment to come, our present struggles with sin forever disqualify us from being useful to the Lord. But part of the good news of the gospel is not only that we can truly be forgiven, but that we can also truly be restored to usefulness.This is the grand theme of the closing passage in John’s gospel where we find: 1) Peter’s public restoration, and 2) Peter’s personal commission.
We’ll take them one at a time.
Peter’s Public Restoration (v15-17)
“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.”
After their breakfast was over, Jesus struck up a conversation with Peter. Whether they stayed around the fire and talked or began a small stroll on the beach we’re not sure. Note that Jesus doesn’t begin by merely saying ‘Hey Peter, let’s chat.’ No, Jesus begins this conversation in a kind of solemn or serious tone using Peter’s full name.And then to Peter’s dismay asks him the same question three times, ‘do you love Me?’ Which Peter responds to each time with the same answer ‘yes Lord You know I love You.’ The connection to what occurred before is plain to see. Earlier by a charcoal fire in the presence of his enemies, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Here again by a charcoal fire and now in the presence of his friends, Peter affirms his love for Jesus three times.But let’s look at this back and forth to see what’s truly here.
v15 gives us the first question and response, “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.” The wording Jesus uses in this first question is interesting because it’s difficult to know what Jesus means by ‘do you love Me more than these.’Jesus could be asking Peter if he loves Him more than he loves the other disciples. While the disciples, as a whole, have surely grown very close by this point, but such a question seems a bit strange and gives an impression that the bond they’ve formed isn’t a good one so I don’t think that’s in view. Jesus could be asking Peter if he loves Him more than this fishing gear and the miraculous catch of fish still near them. If this is in view, Jesus would be leaning into Peter’s willingness to leave his former fisherman life behind him to follow Jesus. That may be in view, and it would’ve challenged Peter as to what he loved more. But something else could be in view. Jesus could be asking Peter if he loves Him more than the other disciples love Him. Remember Peter has in the past, boasted of his strong faith and willingness to die for Christ in the presence of the other disciples (John 13:8, 37-38, 18:10-11), so as to make himself seem something of a man among a group of boys, going as far as to say on one occasion that he would never fall away (see Matthew 26:31-32). But here Peter sits, having just fallen away, and here Jesus poses three questions to him which have the effect of asking Peter, ‘Peter, do you still think you love Me more than the others do?’ By asking him questions in this manner Jesus leads Peter to face not only who Jesus truly is and whether or not he loves Jesus, but who he truly is as well in his weakness and supposed strength.A.W. Pink states here that Peter’s fall, seen in this sense, was necessary to reveal the condition of his heart and humble his proud spirit.
Peter answers Jesus’ question in the affirmative, saying he does love Jesus and that Jesus knows this. So Jesus then responds to him saying, “Feed My lambs” showing Peter that a true love for Christ leads to a true love for those who belong to Christ. And then Jesus asks this same question two more times, once in v16 and another time in v17, and each time Peter answers in the affirmative. In response Jesus answers in His own similar ways in v16 and v17 saying, “Tend My sheep” and “Feed My sheep” again showing a love for Him leads to a true love for those who belong to Him. But do you see that little detail in v17? The more Jesus asks these questions the more grieved Peter becomes. ‘How could Jesus not know this?’ ‘Why does He keep asking me if I love Him?’ Well, Peter should feel grief, he had denied Him, three separate times. And Jesus is slowly but surely obliterating each dark denial with a pure confession of love.Jesus as the Master Physician isn’t doing surgery on Peter’s heart quickly. It’s a slow and painful process. But this pain, which is true pain, leads to a godly grief which will do Peter much good in the end.
Now, sometimes folks here will get a bit hung up on the Greek words for love used back and forth between Jesus and Peter in an effort to show that Peter wasn’t truly loving Jesus the way Jesus was calling him too, because Peter uses the word phileo (meaning brotherly love) while Jesus uses the word agape (meaning a heartfelt love).There are different words for love here, no doubt, just as there are different words for those who belong to Jesus (lambs and sheep) as well as different words for how Peter is to care for them (feed and tend). To conclude there is a lesson in these differing words is, in my opinion, unhelpful. John uses many variations in his words when referring to the same thing all over his gospel, and to make much of it here and not in other places isn’t consistent. Also, and perhaps more pointed, while many take the word agape to mean something like a true and heartfelt love, it doesn’t always mean that. In 2 Samuel 13 when Amnon raped his sister Tamar the Greek version of the Old Testament translates it as “Amnon agape’d Tamar.” In 2 Timothy 4:10 we find Demas abandoned Paul in the midst of ministry because he loved (or agape’d) this present world. And even in John’s gospel when John refers to himself being the ‘beloved disciple’ he uses both agape and phileo to do so (see John 20:2, 21:7). Lesson? Agape doesn’t always mean what many think it does. So, don’t get hung up here and miss the main lesson of the passage. Peter had publicly sinned and cast a large shadow on his credibility. This is why Jesus restores him publicly, to restore such credibility…and to teach him that before serving the Lord’s people (as important and weighty as that is) Peter must love the Lord himself, and then from such a great love for Christ flows the fuel to love, tend, and feed Christ’s flock.
So Church, once someone has fallen can there be true restoration? Can there be restoration for a leader like Peter? Even after gross and heinous sin? The answer is a clear yes.We see that with Peter here. But how does Jesus do it? Was it a quick one time confession? Was Jesus satisfied with a superficial apology? No, Jesus brings a heavy sense of the sinfulness of sin to Peter and allows him to feel the weight of it, the stink of it, and the guilt of it to bring a true repentance to him. Jesus knows everything, we see that in v17, so this restoration was rather quick for Peter. We don’t know everything, so the restoration process is and should be slower for us, but it must come if true repentance is present.
Once restored what did Jesus tell Peter? Take care of your flock, of your sheep? No. ‘Feed and tend My sheep.’ I think he got the message. In his own letter Peter repeated this in 1 Peter 5:2-4 saying, “…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” Elders, nothing will sober us quicker, in our calling, than knowing who these sheep belong to. Peter had to learn these things, may we learn the same and love the Lord deeply, and serve His people gladly from such love.
Peter’s Personal Commission (v18-23)
“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.” 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?”
Peter has just now been restored in the v15-17, and here in v18-23 Peter is commissioned. As his commissioning begins we learn the calling put before him. In his youth, perhaps even still now, Peter lives life the way he so desires. But the time is upon him where he can do so no longer, and one day he’ll be forced to be led and taken where he doesn’t want to go. In case we’re unsure of what this means John tells us this refers to the kind of death he’d experience to glorify God. Even so, in the meantime and all the way up until this moment comes Peter is to continue to love Jesus and follow Jesus. And praise God we know Peter was faithful to this commission. Reading through 1 Peter with passage in mind reveals much about how deeply Peter learned this lesson. Ultimately another 30 years of fruitful shepherding would pass from this moment before he would face a martyr’s death.
In v20-21 says Peter turns around and sees John ‘following them.’ This might mean Jesus and Peter were in fact on a stroll just the two of them which would then mean John hopped up and followed them. I think it’s more a subtle hint that what Jesus called Peter to do in v19 ‘follow me’ John the beloved disciple is already doing. By John’s description of himself here in v20 he doesn’t want us to miss his presence here. Whether still at the fire of not, John is clearly close enough to hear their conversation, and upon seeing him Peter wonders about God’s will for his life. He just learned he’d pay the ultimate cost for Christ, but what would come of John in the end? Peter’s motives aren’t easy to see but I do wonder, I mean this is Peter after all, was he aiming to measure up to John with their own respective callings? ‘Will my life’s calling be more glorious? Or will John’s?’ ‘Who will glorify God more in following Jesus?’ Peter is too like us here isn’t he?
See the danger of comparison.
In the ordinary ho-hum of life we’re prone to look around and wonder if others have a ‘higher calling’ than us in this life? Maybe we even believe God has given others an easier road to walk in life while He’s given us an unpaved, unclear, and near unwalkable road in our own life.If you’ve ever been tempted with those kinds of questions see in how Jesus would respond to you in how He responds to Peter. v22 contains His answer and gives us the last words of Jesus in this gospel, “If it is My will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Peter, and we too, must learn that God’s will for all of us isn’t the same. Yes the content of the gospel message and content of the Word of God is the same for all of us, but the context God desires us to carry His truth into isn’t the same for all of us. Peter will wear a martyr’s crown, John won’t. In fact, John is the only apostle who will reach old age. Who’s to say one calling is better than the other? Certainly not Peter in his context, and certainly not us in ours. God in His sovereign wisdom brings about His pleasure in all things and whether or not we understand why things are the way they are for us or for someone else, we must understand that God is wiser than us, knows more than us, and does all things for His ultimate glory and our great good.
Perhaps an illustration would help. This past March on our way back from Ireland I was too tired to read and had already watched all the movies I wanted to, everyone else around me was asleep, I’m tall so I can’t sleep on planes, so naturally I was looking at the screen in front of me for something to occupy my time. And I ran across a TV show some of you might have watched before, ‘The Joy of Painting’ with Bob Ross. I chuckled a bit and began watching it. So there he was afro and everything, talking in his calm voice, painting a forest scene. But as he began I couldn’t for the life of me figure what he was doing. None of the initial brush strokes or colors he was using made any sense to me, but he kept on going. And as he did the scene slowly but surely began to unfold into a breathtaking forest scene complete with a small stream trickling right through it. As bewildered as I was a few moments ago, it was wonderful to see it all come together into harmony.
Now, I’m aware this is just a painting show, but Church, the same principle rings true for us in all sorts of situations we’ll find ourselves in throughout life. Moments in life come when we can’t understand what God is up to, why things are the way they are with us, and why things are the way they are with other people. You might be tempted to think someone else has it better than you, or has a more glorious calling in life than you, but what does God tell Peter? Explicitly He says, ‘Mind your own business.’ Implicitly He tells Peter, ‘You may not understand it, you certainly can’t see the grand portrait I’m painting for My glory with your life, but you can trust me in how I lead your life.’ Church, we will see the grand Mosaic of redemption one day clearly and beautifully. So while may not see it now, we not only can trust Him, we ought to trust Him and remember that He always leads us well.
As this scene ends, in v23 we learn Jesus’ answer to Peter about John caused some misunderstanding for a time, so John takes time to correct a false view that had been circulating and labors to ensure everyone knows what Jesus had said.
Well guys, we’ve arrived at the end. We’ve seen much in our time this morning about Peter in these final words of John’s gospel. But now as we come to the final verses of John, he wraps it all up for us in v24-25 with words of…
“This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
John, speaking in a kind of editorial tone, concludes his gospel by telling his we can trust his account because his testimony is true. And that the Jesus of his gospel – the Jesus who is the eternal Word of God made flesh, the Messiah, the righteous One, the wonder working, authoritative teaching, wrath-bearing, atonement making Savior, now risen who is calling all men to repent and trust in Him – if all this Jesus did were written down, the whole world itself would prove to be too small a library to contain those books!
Isn’t this a delightful ending to such a wonderful gospel? It is not only a reminder of the limits of our knowledge, but a reminder to be grateful for what we do know about Jesus Christ. He has revealed Himself to us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth!
Words are hard to come by after spending so long a time in such a wonderful book. It feels as though we’re now saying goodbye to a good friend we’ve grown accustomed to having around. Though we’ve spent such a long time with John, two and half years is far too short a time to spend with such an excellent and admirable apostle, and even more so the God bringing all of this to us! Thankfully, we’ve got the rest of the canon of Scripture to begin digging into. So what do we say here at the end? Having been challenged to love and follow Jesus, knowing that a great and large task lies unfinished before us? The words of one modern hymn puts wraps all this up well in a v25 kind of way, “I could sooner count the stars, than number all Your ways. Though I only know in part, that part exceeds all praise.”
Richard. D. Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2014) page 703.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1971) page 870.
Ibid., page 869.
D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991) page 675-676.
Phillips, page 705.
A.W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1975) 1138.
Phillips, page 707.
Gospel Transformation Study Bible, note on John 21:15-19, page 1447.
R.C. Sproul (and many others!) does this in his commentary on John, see John – Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Orlando, Florida: Reformation Trust, 2009) page 404. The NIV translation also makes this point by using the phrases ‘love’ and ‘truly love’ throughout this passage.
Phillips, page 708. This section is immensely helpful.
Ibid., page 486.
Carson, page 686.
Sooner Count the Stars, Sovereign Grace Music, 2015.