Peter has been wrestling with a deep need to be approved of and Jesus has remained strangely silent. We can assume that Jesus is suspiciously silent for a deeper purpose, as almost everything Jesus does in the Gospels has deep implication. I think Jesus was deeply connected with the pain Peter was feeling. He certainly knew that Peter was torn up. He must have seen the zeal with which Peter ran to grab the fish! Yet He remains silent.
The weight of shame must have been great on Peter. To know that you rejected the Messiah in His darkest hour must have been unbearable. So, how is Jesus going to show Peter the grace necessary to move beyond this crippling need to prove himself? Breakfast! Jesus cooks breakfast! I like to think Jesus was a good cook and that the food He cooked tasted great… but that’s just me. So after breakfast, Jesus sits back and this conversation follows:
“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.” 16 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.” 17 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
Did you notice that Jesus is not using the name He gave Peter? Instead, He uses “Simon.” Peter must have felt that burn… He probably felt like he was unworthy and he was no longer allowed to bear that name. Jesus, I believe has something else in mind. Peter gets asked the question three times! The same number of times that he rejected Christ, the same number of times that Christ has now revealed himself in this gospel, the same number… Peter must have felt that as well. In the original language, the first two questions are slightly different than the third. The first two times Jesus asks to you love me with unconditional love (agape). Peter answers each time, “I love you with familial affection” (Phileo). On the third time, Jesus says, “do you love me with familial affection.” You can imagine Peter beginning to cry as he realizes what Jesus is doing.
You see, Jesus was not picking on Peter. Jesus was answering Peter’s soul need. He is showing Peter the balm for his soul need.
- Think back to when Peter was first following Jesus in Luke 5. The same miracle is done. So, here Jesus reminds Peter who He is for Peter. The first thing Jesus teaches Peter in this passage is: Jesus meets you in your labor and He is Lord over it and you for your good and His glory.
- Next, notice that Jesus did not need the fish the disciples caught. He already had breakfast going on the fire. But he tells them, “bring some of the fish you caught.” Peter runs to get the net and Jesus was showing the second lesson: Jesus delights in your efforts. Jesus values your efforts and work, even though He is God and does not NEED it. He values you and loves your work for him.
- Jesus includes Peter with the rest of the disciples. We often want to be singled out, but Jesus knows what is good. He purposely does not single Peter out as leader but identifies him with his brothers. In this way Peter is rescued from the accusations of the other disciples and the self-doubt that might have consumed him. And therein lay the third point: You are a part of a community that Jesus loves and you don’t need to bear the weight of failure alone.
- Then Jesus calls Peter, “Simon.” This is not a scathing rebuke. Jesus calls him Simon to alleviate the responsibility from him while simultaneously letting Peter know that Jesus is not done working in him. When Jesus met Peter in the Gospel of John He, almost immediately renames him. Here Jesus lifts the burden of living up to that name. Jesus calls him Simon to let him know he was loved from the beginning and he will be included even if he can never measure up to the name Jesus has for him. It is not Simon that makes himself Peter, but Jesus who does that. Peter probably took it as a rebuke at first, at least until he heard the last question. But the fourth lesson is: Jesus continues to work in you in spite of all your failures. He loved you when you were Simon and He is not done working in you.
- The question of love is a profound one. Two times Jesus essentially asks “do you love me no matter what?” Peter responds, “You’re like family!” Then the final time, Jesus asks, “do you love me like family?” Now it is tempting to think that Jesus is beating up on Peter, however, Jesus is meeting Peter on his level. When Jesus asks the first two times the word is detached from emotional affection. When Jesus asks the third time he articulates a familial affection in the word “Phileo.” By asking it this way, Jesus effectively tells Peter that he is family. The fifth point: You are part of Jesus’ family, no matter what you have done. He has loved you unconditionally and, more than that, he loves you with familial affection!
- The final and most evident balm for Peter’s soul is the call to the mission. Jesus calls Peter to the mission of shepherding the flock of God. He says, “feed/tend my sheep.” Peter stands wondering what his value is in the Kingdom, Jesus goes out of his way to send message after message of love and grace to Peter, and finally, Jesus gives him a commission of utmost value! Jesus commissions Peter to shepherd along-side the Messiah (the Good Shepherd, John 10)! When you feel like you have failed the Lord and your life is simply inadequate, hear this last balm for your ailing soul: focus on the mission of God, He has commissioned you to something great and calls you to work!
Perhaps you’re in the same place Peter was. I know I have been there. Take heart, Jesus has work for you to do! The easiest way to overcome the feeling of failure is to work and watch the Lord use you. What Joy!