Setting the Scene (21:1-14)
Seven of the eleven disciples are fishing but caught nothing. As day was breaking, Jesus is standing on the shore, but the disciples cannot see that it is Jesus. Jesus calls out to them while the disciples are in their boat if they have caught anything. They shout back that they have not. Jesus tells them to cast the net on the right side of the boat and they will catch some. When the disciples did this, the nets became so full that they could not haul in the net. The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” This event causes John to remember that this had happened earlier when Jesus was with them fishing. In Luke 5:1-11 we read the disciples not catching fish all night. At the instruction of Jesus they cast their nets on the other side. The nets become so full that the nets are breaking and the boats are sinking. John understands and when Peter understands that it was the Lord, he puts on his outer garment and swims to the shore. Please notice the emphasis by John that continues with the theme of this gospel. It is when Peter heard that it was the Lord, not when he saw him, that he jumps into the sea and swims to shore. The declaration of an apostle is enough to cause people to hear the message and follow Jesus. The other disciples come in the boat, dragging the net full of fish.
There are two important overtones by relating this event. When this happened the first time, as recorded in Luke 5, Peter confessed his sinfulness and Jesus called these disciples to become fishers of men. John 20 recorded the commissioning of his disciples with kingdom authority to go into the world as representatives of Jesus.
But there is another overtone that John gives us to set up the discussion between Peter and Jesus. When the disciples were on land, they saw a charcoal fire, with fish laid on it, and bread (21:9). Why does John tell us that this is a charcoal fire? Why not just say that the fish are on the fire and there is bread next to it? The charcoal fire is used in only one other place in the New Testament and John wants to draw our attention back to that event. Turn to John 18:15-18.
Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. 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.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself. (John 18:15–18 ESV)
John is calling to the readers’ minds when Peter denied the Lord Jesus three times. Jesus was arrested and Peter remained in the courtyard of the high priest, warming himself by the charcoal fire. It is at this place that Peter denies that he knows Jesus or that he has any association with Jesus. Three times Peter denied the Lord.
Jesus and Peter (21:15-17)
When they finished breakfast, Jesus needs to speak with Peter. But notice what Jesus calls him. Jesus calls him Simon. Remember that Jesus called Simon with the new name Peter, which means rock. Jesus has not called Peter by his given name Simon since John 1:42. Jesus does not call him “Rock” (Peter), but Simon. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” An important question to ask is, “What are these?” What is Jesus asking Peter that he loves Jesus more than? There are three possibilities. Does Peter love Jesus more these fish? Does Peter love Jesus more than these disciples? Does Peter love Jesus more than the disciples love Jesus? Most writers believe that Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus? I do not believe this the question Jesus is asking Peter. Why would Jesus turn loving him into a competition between his disciples? Jesus has tried to get rid of rivalry from among them and such a question would only cause it to return. This is not an argument over who love Jesus more.
I believe Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him for than fishing, which was his occupation before he met Jesus. Consider the scene as the scripture presents it to us in this chapter. The disciples are back in Galilee after Jesus has risen from the dead. Look at verse 3. “Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.'” Peter is not on mission. He is not telling the world that Jesus has risen from the dead. Peter has returned to his occupation in Galilee or at least has returned to one of his joys of life, which is fishing. Now remember the tone of this chapter. Peter has colossally failed the Lord when he denies knowing Jesus three times. Perhaps Peter thinks he is unqualified for the work as an apostle because of his failure in the courtyard of the high priest in front of the charcoal fire.
Thus, the denial scene is reset for Peter. The charcoal fire is burning and notice what Jesus does. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Does Peter love Jesus more than the fish? The other two times Jesus asks Peter, he simply asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Before we go further, I think we need to clear some debris out of the way of our understanding of this text. You have probably heard like I have that there are different Greek words for love that are used in this text. Many have made the point that Jesus asks Peter the first two times if he loves him, Jesus uses the word Greek word “agape” but Peter responds with the “phileo” Greek word for love. Then the third time Jesus asks if Peter “phileo” loves him. Then Peter responds that he does “phileo” love Jesus. The point is made that Jesus has to downgrade the love he is asking Peter to give. But Greek scholars have regularly pointed out that this is not the case. In fact, scholars have pointed that agape does not mean a higher love as it has often been portrayed. Agape and phileo do not have a hierarchy of love. So we must rid this false notion from our minds that we have been taught for a very long time from well-meaning preachers who did not know the Greek language well enough. I will just quickly note for you that the scriptures also do not sustain this distinction. There are times when agape is not used for a higher, godly love.
For Demas, in love (agape) with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. (2 Timothy 4:10 ESV)
Also, there are places in the scriptures where phileo love is used to speak of loving God and having that higher, spiritual love.
For the Father loves (phileo) the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. (John 5:20 ESV)
The point is simply this: the point of this text is not that Peter is not matching the same Greek wording as Jesus when he asks the question about love. Agape and phileo love are often used interchangeably in the New Testament also, as a simple Greek word search will reveal. Even this very paragraph proves this point out. Notice that Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep.” Should we make a big deal out of the fact that Jesus changed from “lambs” to “sheep?” Should we make a big deal out of the fact that Jesus changed from “feed” to “tend?” Absolutely not and no one does. These are interchangeable terms. For example, if my wife comes out in a new dress and asks me if she looks beautiful in this dress, and I respond that she looks great, am I giving her a lesser compliment because I chose a different word? Not at all, and no one would understand my words this way. So we must not make something out of the text that is not there. Unfortunately, this has caused us to miss what the text is truly about.
Three times Peter denied Jesus. Now three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter feels the weight of what Jesus is doing. Look at this in verse 17. “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?'” Peter understands what Jesus is asking. Now that we have this scene in our minds properly, what we read is amazing. Jesus does not ask Peter, “Are you going to fail me again?” Jesus’ question is simply, “Do you love him above all else?” Peter, if you love me, then stop fishing and go feed my sheep. Now that we know what Jesus is doing and Peter knows what Jesus is doing, listen to Peter after Jesus asks the third time if he loves him.
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” This is a wonderful confession. Jesus asks if Peter loves him three times. After the third time it strikes Peter and he was grieved over this. All that Peter can say is, “You know everything.” Peter does not point to his past actions. He cannot point to his past actions because they are irrelevant and his past actions condemn him and do not vindicate him. The past does not matter. Do you love Jesus today? All that Peter can say is, “Jesus, you know me and you know my heart.”
What Jesus does is absolutely glorious and Peter understands what Jesus is doing. The scene of his denial is reset but Jesus does not condemn. Rather, Jesus restores Peter. Jesus brings Peter back. This is the reinstatement of Peter. Peter is in Galilee fishing. “Peter, do you love me more than these?” “Peter, do you love me?” “Lord, you know that I love you!” Then do not remain here fishing. Go feed my sheep. The three failures of Peter are met with three opportunities of grace. You failed. Do you love me? Then get back to feeding my sheep.
This is the glorious, loving, merciful God we serve. You sinned this week. You have failed the Lord. You have not shown yourself to be a disciple of Jesus. You have denied the Lord in your words or your actions. What should you do? Should you give up? Is it too late? Are you a complete failure? Should you spend your life doing something else? When you sin, Jesus comes to you and asks, “Do you love me?” If you love him, then you will go and feed his sheep. You will continue forward in obedience, standing up in the grace of God.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2 ESV)
By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. (1 Peter 5:12 ESV)
Friends, this is how we stand in grace. We are commanded to stand firm in grace. This means that our failures do not destroy us. Rather, we will hear Jesus ask if we love him. If we love him, then we keep going in our love for him and continue serving and obeying him. This is the grace in which we stand. No matter how great our failure, Jesus is ready to forgive us and receive us back as one of his children.