April 8, 2018
Steven Lee (North Campus) | | John 21:15-25
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. 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?”
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 21:15–25
Have you ever wondered what happened between Christ’s resurrection and ascension? When the gospel writers give chapter after chapter of Jesus’ final week, we have very little of what Jesus said or did after his resurrection.
In our passage this morning from John 21, following Pastor Jason’s message Easter Sunday from John 20, we get one of the most profound, tender, and powerful exchanges ever recorded between Jesus and Peter. This passage gives us insight into how Jesus deals with a disciple who has failed him. Peter denied Christ; is Jesus disappointed or angry? And if Peter denied Christ—after seeing the miracles, walking with Jesus, hearing his teaching firsthand—what hope is there for us then this morning?
Our plan is to walk through the passage and note the four ways Jesus deals with Peter, and then apply that to us—his disciples today.
To understand what takes place in John 21 we have to first look at John 18. Jesus and his disciples pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas gives a kiss of betrayal and death. Peter, seeking to protect Jesus, cuts off the ear of a servant, but is rebuked by Jesus. He watches as his best friend is led away by the religious leaders to death. Peter follows and enters the courtyard of the high priest. John 18:17 picks up here:
The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”—John 18:17
Peter denies Christ. He denies Christ before someone of such low social standing. Not a priest or leader or Roman centurion, but a little servant girl. She is the bottom of the social ladder, and yet Peter has his back pinned against the wall. He denies his Lord. It picks back up in John 18:25:
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.—John 18:25–27
In Mark’s Gospel, Peter calls curses on himself, saying, “I do not know this man of whom you speak” (Mark 14:70–71). Peter is emphatic: “I don’t know this Jesus!” In this vulnerable moment, Peter denies Jesus three times.
Peter’s denial sets the backdrop of this stunning scene on the beach. Peter and the disciples go off fishing through the night, catching nothing. Jesus tells them to cast on the other side, and then they realize that this is Jesus. They warm themselves at the fire, with a breakfast of grilled fish, when the scene unfolds:
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.”— John 21:15–17
Jesus restores Peter as his disciple by asking him “Do you love me?” three times. Notice with me a number of things in this interchange.
Now some expositions of this passage talk quite a bit about the different Greek words for “love” that are used. The argument basically goes that Jesus uses the word agapao the first two times he asks the question, which is supposedly a deeper type of love, but Peter can’t bring himself to use that word and instead uses a weaker form of love phileo instead. In the third instance Jesus uses phileo to match Peter’s response. I don’t believe this is a good way to understand the text, so I won’t spend a lot of time here. But there are two main reasons why this isn’t a good way to read this text:
The main point is that Christ asked three times! Peter denied Christ three times, and so Jesus gives Peter the threefold opportunity to confess his faith and love for Jesus publicly three times, restoring him among the disciples.
Each time Peter answers, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my lambs.” Peter is recommissioned—given responsibility and instruction—to care for Jesus’ sheep; “love and care for my people, Peter.” Jesus repeats this three different times.
Peter is called to “feed and tend” and essentially shepherd God’s people. These are Jesus’ sheep and lambs—those called by his name. This echoes Jesus’ words in John 10 that Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. He’s done that now. But Jesus is also the door of the sheep, and only he who comes through the gate is a shepherd of the sheep and not a thief and robber. The sheep will follow his voice because that shepherd is not a stranger (John 10:1–18). Jesus recommissions Peter to that task as a shepherd of his people.
Peter takes this commissioning to heart as he writes …
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: 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.—1 Peter 5:1–3
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.”—John 21:18–19
Verses 18 and 19 are challenging verses in this passage. Why does Jesus jump from restoring and recommissioning Peter to talking about his death? I believe what’s happening is this: Jesus is reassuring Peter that he’s going to persevere to the very end. How did I get there?
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.— John 13:36–3
Notice Jesus’ words in verse 36, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” What does that mean? Peter intends to die to protect Jesus, but doesn’t understand that Jesus must die for him. Jesus must die for his forgiveness of sins and redemption, but then afterward, Peter would indeed be martyred for Christ.
Imagine that you’re Peter. In your Lord and Savior’s lowest moment—you fell away; you denied Jesus; you were embarrassed and ashamed of your Lord before lowly servants. Imagine the guilt that follows you wherever you go. You abandoned your Lord. You did not confess Christ before a lowly servant girl. Imagine the shame. How can Peter go on? How can he not live in perpetual doubt that he would fail again and deny Christ?
For Peter, if he denied Christ before a lowly servant girl, what about the threat of torture or death? What about sword, whip, chains, prison, starvation, or the threat of crucifixion: “Will I deny Christ then?” Jesus lovingly reassures Peter that he does know that he loves him because Peter is going to even die for him. Peter’s bold words, “I’ll even lay down my life for you” will eventually be true. “Peter, I know you love me—you’ll even die for me. You’re never going to deny me again.”
What effect does this have on Peter? It’s comforting and reassuring—I’m going to live and die for Jesus. How many of us have read Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ and to die is gain,” and thought, I hope I’ll repeat those same words with conviction when I’m on my death bed. Jesus banishes any fear Peter may have that he’ll deny Christ or won’t persevere.
In verse 18, “stretch out your hands” was used to describe crucifixion. Verse 19 makes clear this is taking about the manner of Peter’s death: “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.” When this was written, Peter had likely already been martyred, probably in Rome under the emperor Nero. Church history and tradition holds that Peter died by crucifixion, likely upside down.
What effect did Jesus’ words have on Peter? They emboldened him to live for Christ. Look at Acts 4:1–12.
And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, [greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”—Acts 4:1–12
Peter and John exhibit an unlikely boldness and give clear witness to the work and person of Jesus Christ. They are full of the Spirit. Their quivering voices are emboldened, their shaking knees are strengthened, and their fearful hearts are filled by the Holy Spirit. Even later, when they tell them to stop talking about Jesus, Peter says, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
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?”—John 21:20–23
Jesus and Peter walk along the shore with John tagging along within earshot. Peter suddenly thinks, “what about Johnny?” If I’m called to die—what about John? It’s part curiosity and part comparison.
Jesus says, “None of your business!” … “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22). This loving rebuke is to reorient Peter back on Christ: “Peter, keep your gaze on me. Don’t worry about John! Even if I keep him alive until I return, you don’t have to worry or wonder about that, Peter.” Instead, “Follow me!
Jesus restores, recommissions, reassures, and reorients Peter, and, by extension, does the same for all his disciples. Jesus is not mainly disappointed, frustrated or angry with his disciples, but he lovingly calls all of his children—his sheep that know him by name—to “Follow me.” Jesus’ call of discipleship—to follow him—is not burdensome and hard, but a gracious and loving call to follow him. Even to the cross.
When I walk across the street with my children, I tell them to hold my hand. My desire for them to hold my hand isn’t a mean, demanding command, but a loving act so that they will follow me. It would be unloving if I let them run across the street and get hit by a car. So my call for them to follow me is the way I keep them out of harm’s way.
Application #1: Jesus Uses Imperfect People to Accomplish His Purposes
Peter was a man just like you and me. He was bold and brash at times, and then he failed miserably in a pivotal moment. He walked on water and then sunk like a rock. He stood tall and wielded a sword to protect Jesus, but then he crumbled under the knowing gaze and pointing finger of a servant girl. His hardened muscles and calloused hands were insufficient to keep him steadfast. God uses imperfect people to accomplish his purposes. Your Savior knows your weakness, failures, and fears. He’s not surprised. Jesus knew Peter would deny him (before he ever chose him to be a disciple), foretold it, restores him, and recommissions him to do the work of an apostle: make disciples.
At his Q&A on Friday night, Pastor Brian Liechty shared about how they find some of their lay counselors. Some volunteer, some have a background in their education or training, and others come through having received counseling. They have found help with others walking with them, and now want to help others. This is 2 Corinthians 1:4 at work, God “comforts us in our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” We want Bethlehem to be a redemptive community for all. This is a place where it’s ok not to be ok. It is where normal, hurting people walk with other normal, hurting people through life.
Application #2: Jesus Gives Us Assurance
We, like Peter, can have assurance that will persevere and remain faithful until the very end. Jesus doesn’t tell us how we’ll die, like Peter, but we have assurance because Jesus knows his sheep, and by his death and resurrection he enables all those who are called by his name to persevere. So we don’t have to be afraid—will I deny Christ?—but grace and new mercy will be ready when we need it. Hebrews 10:19 tells us that we can “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.”
Application #3: Same Calling Lived Out Differently
All disciples must follow Jesus, but it looks different. Peter was called to die and John was called to write this gospel, a few epistles, and Revelation. Be concerned with obedience and faithfulness. “Follow me,” Jesus declares. Whether you’re a retiree, a homemaker, a single man or woman, a working professional, a business owner, a wife or husband, a student, an employee, a child and church member, wherever you’re at, we are called to live out our calling as disciple-making disciples. We are to follow Jesus and be eager and zealous to do his work.
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.—John 21:24
This is John’s eyewitness account. The last two verses are very similar to John’s thesis statement:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.—John 20:30–31
John’s aim of this eyewitness account is that you “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John is saying, “I was there; all of this is accurate!” and you can believe it. If you’re here and you have not trusted in Jesus—it’s not too late. See this picture of a Savior who is trustworthy to be followed and worshiped. Believe that Jesus is the Christ and in believing have life in his name. If you have not trusted in Christ, John has written his Gospel so that you would know—clearly and from his word—that Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior.
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 21:25
Perhaps this is just exaggeration for John, but I have reason to believe John is making a theological statement to close his Gospel work. His point is that Christ is inexhaustible.
Jesus is not only the obedient Son, and risen Lord, but the incarnate Word in John 1:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him was not any thing made that was made.—John 1:1–3
Jesus is the everlasting and incarnate Word of God that made all things. It is this Christ that lovingly calls and commands you to follow him. He is not only Lord and Savior, but Creator and Sustainer of all life. We will plumb the depths of his glory forever and ever, and never reach the bottom or exhaust all that there is to be seen.
As we now come to Communion, the Lord’s Table, we want to remember what this Table signifies. At this Table, Jesus restores us by washing us clean by the blood of the cross. Our sins are forgiven. Jesus recommissions us to remember who we are—children of God who cry, “Abba Father,” who come to this Table as children, friends, and disciples who follow Jesus. At this Table we are reassured not only of our place at this Table—to dine with the living God—but that our names are written in the Book of Life, and we have a place at the great banqueting table in heaven. And at this Table Jesus reorients us to take our gaze off ourselves and others—what we do and how we work—and to put our gaze on Christ.