The Comeback Kid: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Personal Failure
John 21Have you ever done something or said something that disappointed someone you loved? I suppose all of us, if we were honest, would have to answer “yes” to that question. Perhaps we promised to be somewhere, but when the time came, we weren’t there. Or we said, “You can count on me,” and so they did, but we failed to do our part. Or we said, “I’ll never tell,” and we did. Or we said, “I’ll back you up,” and we didn’t. Maybe we took a sacred vow and then foolishly broke our vow. Perhaps you feel guilty at this very moment over a broken promise that haunts your memory.
The experience is very common because disappointment and failure are part of what it means to live in a sinful world. We fail others, and sooner or later, they fail us. Disappointment runs in both directions because all of us have failed others and others have failed us. One observation will help us focus our thoughts. The more you care about someone, the greater will be their disappointment when you fail them and the greater will be your shame. After all, if you don’t care about someone, it may not bother you that you didn’t keep your word. But if you truly love someone, the thought that you have hurt them deeply may be nearly unbearable.
Brought Down by a Teenage Girl
And that is how Peter felt after Jesus rose from the dead. He couldn’t get his own failure out of his mind. In a moment of personal crisis, he had denied the Lord. Not once, but three times. And he did it only hours after bragging openly that he would be faithful to Jesus even if everyone else fell away. O how the mighty are fallen. One moment he is cocksure and arrogant. A few hours later a teenage girl brings him down. Under pressure, the bold apostle turned to butter. “Are you one of those men who were with Jesus?” “Jesus! I don’t know him.” “Didn’t I see you with his disciples?” “I don’t know the man.” “Aren’t you a follower of Jesus of Nazareth?” He begins to swear as only a fisherman can swear. “I tell you, I don’t know that man.” In the distance a rooster crowed. Moments later Jesus was brought out from his trial before the high priest Caiaphas. Luke 22:61 says that the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. That’s when the full impact of his sin hit him. Realizing what he had done, Peter went outside and wept bitterly. Two days later Jesus rose from the dead. When the women arrived at the tomb, an angel announced the good news and instructed them to “go, tell his disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7). What does that mean—"his disciples and Peter?” Peter’s denial has separated him from the other disciples. No doubt he wondered to himself many times—"What am I now? Am I a traitor or am I a disciple?”
Whenever we deny Christ (by word or by deed) we lose three valuable things:
We lose our joy.
We lose our assurance.
We lose our boldness.
Peter lost all three. He had no joy, he had no assurance, he had no boldness. John 21 is the story of how all three were restored to him. Here is a passage that speaks to anyone who has failed the Lord and wants to make things right. This is the story of how Christ restored his #1 apostle and prepared him for even greater work in the future.
I. A New Power 1 -14
It is evening on the Sea of Galilee, not long after the Resurrection. The disciples had gone back to their home region. It didn’t make sense to stay in Jerusalem with all the controversy and confusion surrounding the death of Jesus. They knew he had risen from the dead, but they didn’t know when they would see him again. Back now in familiar territory, Peter declares that he is going fishing (21:3). Six other disciples decided to spend the night fishing with him. But when the morning sun came up, they had caught nothing. A man on the shore (who turns out to be Jesus) asks if they have caught anything. When they reply in the negative, he suggests they cast their nets on the other side of the boat and they will catch fish. And of course, that’s exactly what happened. They caught so many fish they couldn’t even haul in the net. At that moment, John realizes that the man on the shore is Jesus, whereupon Peter impulsively jumps in the water and begins swimming for shore. The others follow in the boat. When the net is finally pulled in, the men discover they have caught 153 fish. Meanwhile Jesus has already prepared a charcoal fire on the shore and started cooking fish even before they arrived. He invites them to have breakfast with him, which was an invitation they could not refuse. So he gave them bread and fish and the disciples ate together with the risen Lord.
Everything is Sacred
This wonderful story teaches us many things. We learn from it that once Christ calls a man, he can never go back to being what he was before. A fisherman can follow Christ but he can never be just a fisherman again. A lawyer can follow Jesus but he can never go back to being just a lawyer again. A professor can follow Jesus but she can never go back to being just a professor again. A doctor can follow Christ but she can never go back to being just a doctor again. A businessman can follow Christ but he can never go back to being just a businessman again. He will never be satisfied, never be fulfilled, never be deeply contented. Once you have signed up for the Lord’s Army, you’ll never be happy anywhere else. I am not suggesting that Peter and the others were wrong to go fishing. After all, fishing was what they had been trained to do. But our Lord now transforms the ordinary and raises the mundane to the level of the sacred. It demonstrates that where Christ is concerned, there is no division between secular and sacred. Fishing is a sacred act when Jesus is involved. The same is true for teaching, farming, buying, selling, investing, building, and anything else we may do to earn our bread and provide for our families. Once Jesus enters the picture, everything is changed, and even the mundane things of life are transformed by our Lord. As Martin Luther pointed out, a dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God.
But why didn’t they recognize Christ when they saw him standing on the shore? It seems that after his Resurrection, our Lord had the ability to disguise or shield his identity from others. He did this to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). And he does it again in this passage. I believe Christ was teaching his disciples not to depend on his physical presence. They needed to learn that even though he would soon return to heaven, he was not leaving them and would never leave them.
Lunch with Jesus
I am sure all of us have wondered what it would be like to see Jesus face to face. I have sometimes thought that I would like to have lunch with Jesus. I could listen to his voice, ask him questions, and get his guidance for my life. What if Jesus were to attend one of our worship services? We’d all fall down in adoration before him, and then we would bring him our problems. Somehow it’s easy to think that if only Jesus were physically present, our problems would vanish. But that line of thinking is not biblical. There is nothing Jesus could do in person that he can’t do right now from his seat at the Father’s right hand in heaven. Neither distance nor physical presence makes the slightest bit of difference. He is always with us. This story is meant to remind us that Christ is with us whether we see him or not, whether we feel his presence or not, whether we hear his voice or whether we don’t. “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
But if Christ was watching the disciples from the shore all night, why didn’t he speak up sooner? Why allow these men to toil for hours in frustration? The answer is, they needed to fail. Failure in this case was the necessary prerequisite to eventual success. If that unidentified man had spoken up sooner, they would doubtless have rejected his advice. “What do you know? We’re professional fishermen. We know where to find fish. We’ve spent years fishing this lake.” But let the night pass and the sun come up and they are ready at last to listen to the voice of the Lord. So it is with all of us. The Lord allows us to fail in our own strength so that we may learn that only by his power will we ever succeed. This means that Christ is with us when we fail, and it is then that we may hear his voice speaking to us, showing us a new and better way.
There is one final point to be made. When they heard and obeyed the voice of the Lord, they began to catch fish. This is how God works with all of us. He lets us fail on our own so that he might later give us success at the very point where we had previously failed. At the beginning of his ministry, Christ called his disciples to “fish for men.” Now he is teaching them that even though he will soon be leaving them physically, he will be with them spiritually as they preach the gospel to all the nations. A great harvest of men and woman will be caught through their preaching and through the preaching of those who follow them. That harvest is still coming in 2,000 years later.
Roni and Charity Bowers
In our own day the gospel is going forth all over the world and the harvest is coming in, but at what a great cost. Every day this week Marlene and I have been talking about the tragic deaths of Roni and Charity Bowers. Jim and Roni were missionaries serving with the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism in Peru. Charity was their seven-month-old adopted daughter. They lived on a houseboat on the Amazon River in a remote region of Peru, traveling up and down the river visiting Indian villages and sharing the gospel with anyone who would listen. Missionary work is never easy, but they felt called by God to this part of the world and to this particular ministry. The Peruvian Air Force shot down their plane, mistakenly thinking it was being used by drug smugglers. Of the 50+ bullets that hit the plane, one pierced Roni’s heart and entered Charity’s head, killing them both instantly.
All week long there has been much talk in the major media about this story. The world wants to know why missionaries do what they do. Why would fine people like Jim and Roni Bowers put themselves (and their children) in harm’s way? Are there not safer places they could go? Why not stay in America? The answer is simple and profound. They went because Jesus called them to go, and when Jesus calls, you go. Period. End of story. They went because they wanted to be part of God’s harvest in a remote region of Peru. Did they know the risks? Absolutely. Was it an easy decision? No, it wasn’t. But they knew the Lord was calling, and they were certain that the Lord was with them every step of the way. They went in obedience, trusting God to take care of them. Nothing that happened when their plane was shot out of the sky changes that truth in the least.
II. A New Ministry 15-17
After the breakfast was over, Peter and Jesus took a walk together. This is the part of the story most of us know best.
“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep’” (John 21:15-17).
Several questions come to mind as we read this passage. Why did Jesus ask Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Answer: Because Peter had denied him three times. Why did he do this publicly? Because Peter denied him publicly. The man who had been so boastful, so sure of himself, so confident of his own courage, is now thoroughly humbled. Jesus’ first question—"Do you love me more than these?"—was a subtle reminder of his previous boast to be more loyal than the other disciples. In his reply Peter declares his love for Christ, but he wisely refuses to compare himself with anyone else. As painful as this was, it was absolutely necessary. Jesus is cleaning the wound so that it might be properly healed. He is getting rid of Peter’s guilt and shame by dealing with it openly.
Once we have hurt someone we love, it is hard to look them in the face and it is harder still to be questioned about our true commitment. “How could you have done that? What were you thinking? Do you even love me at all?” But the questions must be asked and the answers must be given. And they must be repeated if the truth is to be fully told.
Peter needed to see the enormity of his sin and he needed to hear Jesus ask these searching questions. Only then could he grasp the magnitude of Christ’s forgiveness. Only then could he be truly restored. Without the pain, he would not get better. Years ago, at a low moment of my life, when I had suffered because of stupid things I had said and done, a friend shared this thought with me: “The truth will set you free but it will hurt you first.” One reason we don’t get better is because we don’t want to face the hard truth about what we have said and done. But until we face the truth about ourselves, we can never be free.
This passage also reminds us that love is the foundation of all Christian ministry. First we love Christ, then we serve his flock. First love, then service. Never the other way around.
When Christ asks the question the third time, Peter’s heart is grieved and he blurts out, “Lord, you know all things.” With those words Peter renounces all his self-confidence. On that fateful night in the Upper Room, he thought he knew himself but he didn’t. Now he’s not so sure. He doesn’t even trust his own heart; instead he trusts in the Lord who knows all things. This is a mighty step forward in Christian growth. It is a great advance to come to the place where you can say with conviction, “My trust is in the Lord alone.” Sometimes we have to hit bottom and hit it hard before we can say those words.
Did it work? Did the painful surgery produce the desired healing? Yes. Peter never denied Christ again. And just a few days later, on the Day of Pentecost, fully restored, he stood in the temple courts and preached a mighty gospel sermon to the very men who had crucified the Lord (Acts 2:14-40). The old Peter was gone forever. A new man was born that day when Jesus restored his fallen disciple.
III. A New Sacrifice 18-22
But Jesus is not yet through with Peter. He has more to say to him:
“‘I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’ Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is going to betray you?’) When Peter saw him, he asked, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me’” (John 21:18-22).
Early church tradition says that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome because he said that he was not worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord. It is remarkable that Jesus skips the rest of Peter’s life and concentrates only on how he will die. Although he failed in the past, in the end he will glorify God in his death. A holy death is a worthy goal for all the saints of God. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
And when Peter asks about John’s fate, Jesus brushes him off with a mild rebuke, as if to say, “Don’t worry about it.” God deals with us as individuals. The Lord is not obligated to deal with you the way he deals with your friends. He is not obligated to bless you the same way he blesses anyone else. And he is not obligated to put you through the same trials (either greater or lesser) that anyone else goes through. Our only business is to make sure we are following Jesus closely. If we do that, we don’t have time to worry about how he treats our friends. Years ago I heard Vernon Grounds say that at a point in his life when many of his former friends had turned away from him, and many had deserted him, the Lord showed him John 21:22 in the King James Version: “What is that to thee? Follow thou me.” That verse set him free to follow the Lord, to turn away from bitterness, and to leave his former friends in the hands of God. There is a wealth of wisdom here that many of us need to learn.
A Sovereign Bullet
In the end it is good for us not to know the future. Our only task is to follow the Lord each day, taking one step at a time as he leads us. On Friday night there was a funeral service for Roni and Charity Bowers at Calvary Church in Fruitport, Michigan. Thirteen hundred people attended, including TV crews from all the major networks. There was a taped message from Elizabeth Elliot whose husband Jim Elliot was killed by Auca tribesmen in Ecuador in 1956. Steve Saint, son of one of the other missionaries killed in 1956, spoke in person. Eventually Jim Bowers gave his first public comments since the plane crash. After thanking a number of people, he made this remarkable statement:
“Most of all, I want to thank my God. He’s a sovereign God. We’re finding that out more now. Some of you might ask, why thank God? Of course now, after hearing some people speak tonight, you’re realizing why, maybe. Could this really be God’s plan for Roni and Charity? God’s plan for Cory and me and our family? And I’d like to tell you why I believe so, why I’m coming to believe so.”
His list of reasons included many items, but I was struck by one in particular. His wife and daughter were killed by the same bullet. Stop and think about that for a moment. What are the chances—humanly speaking—that a bullet could be fired from a speeding jet, pass through the fuselage of the missionary airplane, hit Roni Bowers in the back, go through her heart, and then end up in the head of the baby she was holding in her lap? The best marksman in the world could never make that shot on purpose. It had to be more than chance. In his remarks Friday night, Jim Bowers called it a “sovereign bullet.” What an amazing thing to say. A sovereign bullet. Meaning that God was there, he was not absent, he knew everything that was happening, and he could have intervened in a thousand different ways to stop that bullet from hitting Roni and Charity. But he didn’t. Only a man of biblical faith could have called it a “sovereign bullet.”
Why did it happen? The full explanation is hidden in the heart and mind of God. But Jim Bowers said he believed God allowed the tragedy to wake up a sleeping church: “I think he also wanted to wake up sleeping Christians, including myself, and maybe most of all, to wake up those who have no interest or little interest in God. And I say tonight, wake up!”
“It will be worth it all.”
You can find complete details about the tragedy, including a full transcript of Jim Bowers’ remarks, at the ABWE website: www.abwe.org. They have also posted Roni Bowers’ testimony. In it, she speaks about her spiritual journey over the years and concludes with the story of how she was unable to have children of her own despite repeated attempts. That’s why she and Jim adopted Cory (who was in the plane with them but was not hurt) and Charity. She concludes with these moving words that in retrospect seem strangely prophetic: “Now I choose to trust God fully. He is in control; he knows what is best. He doesn’t owe me anything, rather I owe him everything. When we as believers get to heaven, we won’t have to ask, ‘why?’ It will be worth it all.”
So it has come to pass as the Lord ordained. Through her death, Roni Bowers has touched people around the world, far more than she would have touched if she had survived the crash. And Jim Bowers is right. Through this tragedy, God has spoken to multitudes of people—believers and unbelievers alike. Out of death has come life and a wake-up call to a sleeping generation.
That brings me back to our text. If the Lord should say, “Do you love you me?” What would be your answer? In truth, the answer is not what you say but how you live. You love Jesus if you gladly follow in his steps wherever he leads you. In the Coast Guard, when there is someone to be rescued at sea, the sailors are taught that “you have to go, you don’t have to come back.” As the sad events of the last week have made clear, when Christ calls, we have to go. We don’t have to come back. May God give us grace to love Jesus so much that when he calls, we will follow him wherever he leads, whatever it costs. Amen.
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