Series: The Gospel of John
We all have things in our life of which we are ashamed. In this story, we see how Jesus restores those who have fallen through his restoration of Peter, who denied him three times.
The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), D.A. Carson
Expository Thoughts on the Gospel According to John, J.C. Ryle
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Do you have those things in your life that you still look back on that make you cringe? Sometimes it’s just embarrassing things. I think of the girl in high school who was 3 years older than I and far more attractive who I tried to get to go out with me; suffice it to say she didn’t go for it. I seriously still get that pit in my stomach when I think about it. Now that’s kind of funny and harmless, but other times it’s more serious. It’s marital unfaithfulness, significant fraud, extreme violence…maybe things you haven’t even told anyone yet. When we come to the passage on which we’re focusing today, Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, has committed one of those kinds of sins. In Matthew 10:33 Jesus said, “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” And Peter did just that. He denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times before men, and Jesus said whoever did that he would deny before his Father who is in heaven. So is there any hope for Peter? Is there any hope for you and me who have done similar things? In this passage we learn that there is, because Jesus restores the fallen, and here we see how: He welcomes them, he humbles them, he sends them, and he sends them personally.
He welcomes them
Our passage begins with John telling us that this was the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples. The other two are recounted in chapter 20. This time, seven of his disciples go fishing. The first night they catch nothing, but as day broke, Jesus appeared and told them to put down their nets on the other side of the boat, assuring them that they would catch some fish if they did. They did it, and they caught a massive number of fish. So John realized this is their Lord, and tells Peter. When Peter heard it, he jumped out of the boat and began swimming to the shore to meet Jesus. The last time we saw Peter personally mentioned in the Gospel of John was when he was denying Jesus three times. While Jesus was on trial for crucifixion, Peter hung back and warmed himself by a fire with the servants of the very people seeking to crucify him, and to them, he denied that he was a follower of Jesus.
Now, when you know you’ve sinned against God, you yelled at your spouse or your kids, you engaged in sexual immorality, you got drunk, you lied, do you tend to run toward Jesus, or away from him? When Peter hears, “It is the Lord” from John, wouldn’t you think he’d want to hide, or start steering that boat in the other direction? But he doesn’t. Instead, knowing full well that he denied Jesus three times, he swims toward Jesus, and does so quickly even. Maybe it’s because Jesus had already appeared to the disciples twice, and when he had appeared to them, he didn’t say, “Now you guys really blew this.” Instead, he said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). But bigger picture, it’s because Peter knew Jesus. He knew he was a merciful Lord, a kind Lord, a gentle Lord. Do you know Jesus like that? If when you’ve sinned against God, you distance yourself further from him…you avoid coming to church, avoid reading your Bible, avoid praying, avoid other church members…you aren’t believing the truth about Jesus. He’s merciful. When you’ve fallen, draw nearer to him, instead of running away from him.
When Peter and the other disciples reach the shore, once again Jesus welcomes them. He already has a fire going with some bread and fish nearby. Recall that Peter had been warming himself by a fire when he denied Jesus, so there is maybe here already a reminder of Peter’s denial of Jesus, and a restoration from it: Now instead of gathering around the fire with those who crucified Jesus, Peter gathers around the fire with Jesus and his disciples. The fire is welcoming, as are the fish and bread, Jesus tells them to bring the bread and fish they’d caught, and he cooks them and feeds them. This is the same Lord who washed their feet before his death, and now risen from the dead, he shows that he is still the Lord who serves them and supplies their needs. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is always a merciful and humble Lord. And this post resurrection appearance shows us that he will be with his people to supply their every need. After rising from the dead, he doesn’t move on to something else. That’s how we know the fallen can return to him. In his life on earth, he welcomed the tax collectors and notorious sinners, and he’s the same in his resurrection. Maybe you think you’ve really messed up; maybe you have. Don’t look for hope in minimizing your sin. Look for hope in maximizing the mercy and generosity of Jesus. You can’t possibly maximize it too much. Jesus welcomes the fallen, and then we’ll see he also humbles them.
He humbles them
After they finish eating, Jesus speaks directly to Peter. Notice the order. He welcomes Peter first, he feeds Peter first, and then he talks to Peter. Jesus calls Peter into relationship before he humbles him. But then he does humble him. This is the third time now he’s appeared to the disciples with Peter in the group, and Jesus won’t leave the elephant in the room unaddressed. Peter’s denial of Jesus was public; his restoration must be public. But he also doesn’t unnecessarily shame Peter. He comes at it indirectly. He asks Peter in verse 15: Do you love me more than these? It’s not clear who the ”these” is, but the option I’m inclined to favor is that Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him more than he loves the fish he ate. What’s better: A big catch, or Jesus? Now that you’ve denied me, Peter, are you simply going to return to a life of fishing?
And when you think about it, when you’ve fallen, that’s really the key question for you. Ok, you’ve sinned. Once you’ve already done it, there’s no changing it. The question is, what are you going to do now? Are you going to simply dive deeper into sin and go back to life without Jesus, or are you going to draw near to him? And the question beneath that question, the question that determines your answer to that question, is the one Jesus asks. Do you love him? Is he dear to you? To that question, Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Notice that Peter can’t appeal to his actions here. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Peter said to Jesus: “I will lay down my life for you!” But now he’s been dispossessed of that illusion. So he can’t say to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, of course I love you. Don’t you remember how in the hour of your greatest need I…” Oh wait. I didn’t actually act lovingly toward you in those moments. But he does love Jesus; so to what can he appeal? “You know that I love you” he says. If you don’t love Jesus, he knows; no use trying to cover it up with spiritual talk, religious activity, deep theology, or moral efforts. But if you do love Jesus, even though you’ve fallen, he knows that too. And it is possible to have truly and royally fallen, to have seriously sinned against God, and to still love Jesus. King David’s story is infamously included in Scripture in prat to remind us of this fact: He committed adultery and murder, but was restored. So also, though Jesus had said, “If you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father in heaven,” Peter denied him, and was restored. Murder and adultery were not the norm for David, nor did Peter go on denying Jesus, but their stories show that it is possible for those who are truly saved, for those who truly love Jesus, to fall spectacularly at times. And Jesus is still worthy of such peoples’ love.
Nonetheless, there is more that Jesus wants to do in Peter through this interaction, so he goes on to ask Peter the same question two more times. The second time Peter gives the same answer, but the third time, before Peter answers, John tells us that Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him a third time. No doubt, Peter’s grief came because he recognized that Jesus asked him three times if he loved him, just as Peter had denied him three times. And once again, Peter has no appeal but the knowledge of Jesus: He says Jesus knows all things, which by the way is an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity; only God knows all things. But though being asked three times grieved him, he doesn’t change his answer. He still says, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” He doesn’t say, “Um, Jesus, this is all starting to make me feel a bit uncomfortable. Why can’t you just take my word for it? Why can’t you just trust me?” He doesn’t say, “It’s really grieving me that you’re asking me this question three times. I don’t feel loved by that. In a loving relationship, I shouldn’t have to feel this kind of grief.”
And yet, this is what many today assume about a relationship with Jesus. If he really loves me, he won’t want me to feel anything negative, so if I do feel something negative, it’s not from him, it’s from the enemy. Man; that is so false. Jesus cares more about actually restoring you than he cares about keeping you comfortable, and where sin has occurred, real restoration can only occur when it is confronted. So when Jesus restores the fallen, he doesn’t only welcome them; he humbles them. He forces them to face what they’ve done and he dispossesses them of any illusions of their own self-sufficiency. And if you aren’t willing to be humbled by Jesus, if you aren’t willing to feel grievous, negative feelings as a result of Jesus, it proves you don’t really love Jesus. Let me explain that. A few months back my wife confronted me on some ways I’d been acting selfishly in our marriage: Often telling her things I wanted her to do for me rather than looking for ways to do things that serve her. It did not make me feel good to hear her say that. On some level, it grieved me. And at first, I didn’t like that feeling, so I responded defensively. If I had persisted in that, and basically said, “It doesn’t make me feel good to hear you say that, so I’m going to ignore it and not do anything about it,” what would that have proven? It would have proven that my feelings were more important to me than the ways I was sinning against her. It would have proven that I love myself, not her.
So if when you hear biblical preaching or you come across things in the Bible that make you feel negatively, that grieve you on some level, you simply avoid them or even try to change them, it reveals a lack of love for Jesus. Let him humble you; he’s doing it to restore you! Do you see that in my example with my wife, she confronted me because she loves me, because she wants our relationship to be closer? That’s what Jesus wants with Peter, and with all his disciples. That’s why he’s humbling you. Don’t fight it. Grieve your sin. Think negative thoughts, feel negative feelings when it’s appropriate to do so, and when you’ve sinned against God, it’s appropriate to do so. Even early in my Christian life, I didn’t get this. If someone told me they were grieving sin, I’d tell them they shouldn’t do that. Jesus died for that sin, and if they grieve it any longer, they aren’t believing the gospel. I was wrong about that. When you sin against God, grieve it. Don’t stay there forever; as you confess your sin to God, also believe the gospel, but let Him take care of the timing of when that sensible comfort is restored. Especially if you’ve sinned in kind of spectacular, extraordinary ways like Peter did here, don’t force yourself to feel better quickly. Take time to grieve it; that’s part of Jesus’ restoration of you. It was safe for Peter to feel that grief here, because Jesus had already welcomed him, Jesus had already fed him, and Jesus was in the process of restoring him. It’s safe to grieve your sin with Jesus. He’s the one who said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4).
So Jesus welcomes the fallen, he humbles them, but then the restoration process is complete when he sends them.
He sends them
Interspersed with Jesus’ questions to Peter about loving him and Peter’s affirmation that he does love Jesus are three commands from Jesus: Feed my lambs (verse 15), tend my sheep (verse 16), and feed my sheep (verse 17). John has something of a penchant for changing up his vocabulary, so there isn’t much to read into the changing terms here, although “tending” in verse 16 is the word commonly translated “shepherd” and is a bit broader than “feed.” Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus identified himself as the good shepherd, and he identified the sheep as the elect, those the Father chose before the foundation of the world to give to him, who therefore heard his voice, came out, and followed him, and for whom he laid down his life. He led them, he taught them, he prayed for them, and he cared for them. Jesus had shepherded his sheep while on earth, and now as he prepares to return to the Father, he sends Peter to do that same work.
And this was not a commission given to Peter exclusively, though in this story it is personalized to Peter. So Peter himself writes in 1 Peter 5:1-4 – “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 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; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” So Jesus is still the chief Shepherd, but Peter, along with the other elders, are undershepherds, whose job is to shepherd the sheep that are among them, in their particular church. It’s from that word shepherd that we get the word pastor, which is Latin for shepherd.
So we learn something from this passage about the call to eldership or the pastoral ministry, keeping in mind that in the Bible, elder and pastor are two words referring to the same office. There are elements of Peter’s call that are unique to him: No pastor or elder today stands in front of the risen Jesus and hears him tell them, “Feed my sheep.” What we do learn, though, is that the call to eldership springs from love for Jesus. In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we find lists of elder qualifications, but this is the qualification behind those qualifications. Even if you have perhaps fallen terribly in the past, you are not disqualified from the office if you love Jesus. A man who loves Jesus, and because he loves Jesus, desires to shepherd Jesus’ sheep; that’s a necessary condition of an elder. Such men are gifts from Jesus to his church, and so we should pray for God to give our church such men, and we should recognize them as elders if he does. And if you are a man who out of love for Jesus, wants to shepherd the members of this church, let one of the existing elders know, so that we can assess with you whether that might be something to which Jesus is calling you. If you see that in someone else, let the existing elders know, so that we can assess that with you.
Beyond elders, though, there is application here for all those who claim to love Jesus. If you love Jesus, you will love his sheep. John tells us in a letter he wrote later: Whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:21). It’s strangely common for Christians in America today to claim that everything is good in their relationship with Jesus while they are not members of a church, moving toward membership in a church, or loving the people in the church of which they are members. In other words, my relationship with Jesus is good, but my relationship with the church is not, many claim. I love him, I really do, but I’m not really involved in loving his sheep in any kind of active, meaningful way. Sure, I don’t hate them, but I’m not at all involved in their lives. Do you see how strange that is biblically? We have this passage in front of us, where Jesus clearly links love for him and love for his sheep, we have 1 John 4:21 that I just quoted, but consider other metaphors: I got this one from my friend Jeff Boettcher at Christ Church South Philly. In the Bible, the church is called the body of Christ, and Jesus is the head. What if you were to say to someone, “Hey, I really love you, but I only love your head. Your body I’m not interested in.” How loving is that? What if you say, “Hey, do you want to come over tonight to hang out? But just your head is invited.” What do you really want? A head on a stick, with no body? That’s disturbing, right?
Now over the years I’ve commonly heard people say something like this: “Ok, you’re right, I know I need community, but I just have a lot going on now, and I do have some Christian friends I keep up with who hold me accountable.” There are a lot of problems with that, but here’s a couple: First, you’re still thinking of the church as something that’s there for you, not something you have a responsibility toward. Jesus doesn’t say to Peter, “You need my sheep.” He says, “Feed my sheep.” In other words, Peter needs to engage the church not because of what he gets out of it, but in order to put something into it. Your sense of how much you need the church will inevitably ebb and flow, but your responsibility to build up the church, to love Jesus’ sheep, remains. Another problem with that way of thinking from this passage: Loving 3 or 4 friends of yours isn’t really loving the sheep; it’s loving your friends, and even the most wicked people around do that. In other words, you aren’t relating to them as sheep, you don’t love them simply because they’re sheep, or else you’d also love other sheep with whom you aren’t friends, which is what you commit to do when you join a church. When you join a church, you say, “I’m not picking who I focus my love on anymore. Whoever’s a member of this church, I’m going to focus on them.” So if anyone claims to love Jesus and isn’t at least moving toward loving particular people in a particular church, that claim is dubious at best. Things aren’t all good in your relationship with Jesus if you aren’t in relationship with a particular church.
And this can be especially tempting for those who have fallen. I’ve seen it happen over and over again: People fall into sin in some way, and in order to protect themselves from having to face it, they stay away from church. And they say, “I’ve repented; things are good between me and God,” but they’re missing this part of the story: When Jesus restores the fallen, he not only welcomes them and humbles them, he sends them back into his church, to build up the other sheep in that church. The restoration process isn’t complete until you’re doing that. When David repented of his sin with Bathsheba, he didn’t just repent privately: He wrote a Psalm about it, and addressed it to the choirmaster, so that the whole church would be built up by it. In it he told God that if God forgave him, he would “teach transgressors [his] ways, and sinners [would] return to [him]” (Psalm 51:13). In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus told Peter he would deny him three times, he told Peter, “and when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” If you’ve fallen publicly, don’t just return privately. When you turn, strengthen your brothers. Don’t live under the illusion that you can be restored to Jesus and stay away from his sheep. Love your brothers and sisters; build up the body of Christ. Jesus sends all those he restores to do just that.
Consider, then, based on what we’ve seen, what kind of community we should be as the body of Jesus at this church. We should be a welcoming community toward the fallen. When our brothers and sisters have engaged in sin, we should move toward them, not keep our distance. A simple thing Jesus shows us here is the example of sharing a meal with them. Invite them over for dinner. Let that be a regular part of our life together. Then when words of correction are spoken, people can perceive that it comes from a place of love and can feel safe to be humbled. We should be a community where it’s ok to not be ok, and it’s ok to be struggling. And yet, we should not be a community that leaves people there. We should confront sin, we should expect people to respond with repentance, and we should expect people to meaningfully reengage with their church family even after a fall.
And, finally, though he generally sends all of us to do that, he also sends us personally.
He sends them personally
We’ve already noted an obvious way in which Peter’s call was personal: Jesus called him into eldership, and not all Christians are called into eldership. All of us are sent to love the sheep; not all of us are sent to shepherd the sheep. We see it further as Jesus continues addressing Peter in verse 18, and tells Peter by what death he would die, a death where his hands would be stretched out, and another would take him where he does not want to go. As church tradition has it, Peter died by crucifixion for his faith in Christ, and that seems to be what Jesus is predicting here. Obviously not every disciple of Jesus, nor even every elder in Jesus’ church, dies of crucifixion, so this is a personal element of Jesus’ sending of Peter.
That comes out more clearly in the verses that follow. In verse 20 we read that Peter turned and saw John following them, and Peter asks Jesus, “What about him?” Peter’s like, “Hey, you just told me I’m going to die by crucifixion, that that’s what it would be like for me to follow you. What about him?” Jesus replies, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” John clarifies that Jesus wasn’t actually saying that John would remain until Jesus returned, but his point to Peter was, “So what if I did? That doesn’t change my command to you. You follow me.” John actually did end up going through his own share of sufferings for the name of Jesus; all disciples of Jesus do to some extent. But it does seem it was to a lesser extent than Peter, and that John lived longer and die of natural causes.
One of the most common temptations for all of us is the temptation to compare. Sometimes it’s easier when the comparison is to non-Christian people. You see their big house and at least you can tell yourself, “Well they probably aren’t giving 10% of their money away, and what good is a big house if you don’t have Christ?” But what about when it’s another Christian, and it’s your perception that the cost of following Jesus is more for you than it is for them? Indeed, there is variance among Christians, even though it ought to be a smaller gap than the variance in the world. There are rich Christians and poor Christians, though the rich Christians should not live as rich as the rich in the world, because they’re giving so much of their money away, and the poor Christians should not be going hungry, because the wealthier Christians are making sure that doesn’t happen. Nonetheless, there are rich Christians and poor Christians, married Christians and single Christians, Christians with 9 kids, and Christians struggling with infertility, healthy Christians and sick Christians, physically attractive and less physically attractive Christians, Christians who face violent persecution for their faith regularly, and Christians who seem to gain social advantages from their faith. The great temptation, then, is to look at those whose lives seem preferable to your own, and to say, “Lord, what about them?” And whoever you’re saying that about in your heart today, hear this word from Jesus himself: “What is that to you? You follow me.”
If it is my will that he live on 14 acres of land while you have no outdoor space, what is that to you? You follow me. If it is my will that she be married with 4 children, even though she’s 5 years younger than you, while you want to be married, and remain single, what is that to you? You follow me. If it is my will that he live in a neighborhood where nothing bad ever happens, while bullets fly on your block, what is that to you? You follow me. If it is my will that their church have more people, a bigger building, and a more polished kids ministry, what is that to you? You follow me. Those Jesus restores, he sends, not only generally into his church, to build it up, but personally, with a cost and with duties that are unique to them. So live the life that Jesus has assigned you; don’t worry about the life he assigned someone else.
And with that, John prepares to sign off. The life Jesus assigned him included writing this Gospel, and so he closes by certifying its authenticity. This is not a legend; this is eyewitness testimony, and the testimony is true. But before he signs off, he reminds us that though he’s written much, he’s only written a fraction of all that Jesus did. As you go today, and as we as a church go from the Gospel of John, remember the glory of Jesus. In Heinrich Bullinger’s 16th century commentary on the Gospel of John, he closed with this, and I roughly will to:
“This is he who is appointed and given to us by God the Father, as the fulness of all grace and truth, as the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world, as the ladder and door of heaven, as the serpent lifted up to render the poison of sin harmless, as the water which refreshes the thirsty, as the bread of life, as the light of the world, as the redeemer of God’s children, as the shepherd and door of the sheep, as the resurrection and the life, as the corn of wheat which springs up into much fruit, as the conqueror of the prince of this world, as the way, the truth, and the life, as the true vine, and finally, as the redemption, salvation, satisfaction, and righteousness of all the faithful in all the world, throughout all ages.” And, we could add today, as the restorer of the fallen. However you have fallen, draw near to Jesus today, instead of running further from him. Grieve your sin, and he will comfort you. Go where he sends you, into his church, to love his sheep there. And live the life he’s assigned you, whatever that ends up specifically looking like. He’s truly glorious, and John has only showed us a fraction of it.