Forgiving the Fallen

John 21:15-22

May 23, 2004 | Brian Bill

Shalom, it’s Peter again.  I talked with many of you last Sunday when I told you about an amazing fishing trip.  I had been doubly disappointed — first in myself for failing Jesus, and second when we didn’t catch any fish.  But then Jesus appeared, and after having breakfast on the beach, he asked me three questions.  

I was taken aback when Jesus referred to me as “Simon, son of John.”  While that was my name, I had really liked it when He referred to me as Peter, a piece of the rock.  Well, I knew I was anything but a rock at that moment.  My heart started racing because I didn’t know what Jesus was going to say to me. 

In His first question, He wanted to know if I loved Him supremely, above everything else.  He even added a curious phrase, “more than these?”  At first I thought He might have been referring to the fish on the fire.  I certainly loved Him more than I loved food, or at least I thought I did.  Then I looked up and saw the boat and my fishing supplies and wondered if He was asking if I loved things more than I loved Him.  And then I knew what He was asking.  I had made some pretty bold boasts: 

  • I would lay down my life for Him (John 13:37)
  • Even if everyone else would fall away, I never would (Matthew 26:33)
  • Even if I had to die, I would never disown Him (Matthew 26:35)

And now, instead of bragging, I was broken.  Jesus wanted to know if I loved Him unconditionally and without reservation.  Did I still think I was more faithful than the other disciples?  There was no way I could agree with that because I knew what was in my heart.  I told Him that I was fond of Him.  Interestingly, Jesus then told me to feed His little lambs.

I braced myself for the second question: “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me with an unconditional commitment kind of love?”  Once again, I deflected the question by telling Jesus that I liked Him a lot.  I cared for Him but I was hesitant to promise that I loved Him completely.  Amazingly, Jesus still had a job for me to do when He told me to shepherd His sheep.

 When Jesus asked the third question, my mind filled with my three-pronged failure.  I had grossly overestimated my own abilities.  But this time, Jesus used a different word for love.  Instead of asking if I loved Him unconditionally, He asked if I had brotherly love for Him.  This was unbelievable!  He came down to my level, meeting me right where I was.  He knew that I was in no position to pledge a love that would never fail.  I was both humbled and hurt that He did this.  Why couldn’t I say I loved Him unconditionally?  Because I wasn’t sure I did.  I’m so thankful that He knows everything about me and still chooses to love me.  With His help, I know I can grow in my love for Him.  Once again, he gave me a job to do.  This time He told me to feed His sheep.  

One pastor writes that there are a lot of things that Jesus could have said to Peter.  He could have responded to him like we would have.  He could have treated him with silence and given the cold shoulder.  He could have expressed anger and let Peter suffer.  He might have said, “You know, Peter, I normally would have asked you to do this but…I just don’t trust you anymore.”  He could have brought up his failure in every conversation.  He could have talked to the other disciples about it: “Remember that night when Peter denied me?”  He could have excluded Peter.  He could have found subtle and not-so-subtle ways to punish him.  And if he ran out of ideas…He could have asked us!  We’re pretty tough on people who sin differently than we do, aren’t we?

There’s a lot we can learn about forgiveness by following the example Jesus set for us when He restored Peter.  I see three calls from Christ in John 21:15-22. 

  • Love Lavishly
  • Serve Selflessly
  • Follow Faithfully

1. Love Lavishly.  

After breakfast is over, Jesus publicly forgives and reinstates Peter.  This is for Peter’s benefit and also provides some teaching for the other six disciples who are listening to the conversation.  As Peter smells the charcoal fire and feels its heat, he is reminded of how he warmed himself next to a fire in a courtyard right before he denied Jesus three times.

It’s curious that the questions asked by Jesus have to do with Peter’s level of love: “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?  Simon son of John, do you truly love me?  Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus could have asked Peter anything, or did some teaching, or told a parable, but He chose to ascertain His follower’s love level.  That hearkens back to Deuteronomy 6:5“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  Jesus summarized the entire list of laws in the Old Testament by quoting this verse as the premier commandment (Matthew 22:37). 

While this conversation was in Aramaic, John records the meaning of the dialog using the Greek language, which has three different words for love.  One term refers to romantic love and is not used here at all, but the other two terms are used.  Another word is agapao, which is an unconditional kind of love, and was used to describe wholehearted devotion.  The NIV brings out this nuance by translating agapao as “truly love” in verses 15-16.  This is the kind of love that is spelled out in 1 Corinthians 13:7-8“It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.”

The other expression is phileo, which is the type of fondness that two friends have for each other.  It’s often referred to as brotherly love.  We might use this word when we say we “like” someone.  

In the first and second questions, Jesus uses the word agapao“Peter, is your love unfailing?  Does it persevere?  Is it selfless?”  In his first enquiry, Jesus wants to know if Peter still believed that his devotion was deeper than the other disciples: “do you love me more than these?”  Peter doesn’t even attempt an answer to this part of the question because he knows that he doesn’t even come close to unconditional love.

Peter is honest and uncharacteristically humble in his response when he says that he likes Jesus.  He can’t bring himself to say that he truly loves the Lord because he knows that if he loved Him lavishly, he wouldn’t have denied Him.  Through his failure, Peter begins to realize that he has a fickle heart.  Through his embarrassment, he sees that he had exalted himself over the other disciples.  It was his pride that ultimately led to his fall.  

David never thought he would commit adultery and murder, Solomon didn’t think he would ever experiment with idolatry, Moses hadn’t planned on killing someone, Jonah didn’t think he’d ever run away, and Peter couldn’t imagine that he would deny his Lord.  Friends, we must always be on guard and be vigilant as 1 Corinthians 10:12reminds us: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” 

Peter has learned to be honest with Christ.  While he had affection for Jesus, and he does refer to Him as “Lord” in all three of his responses, he could no longer promise uncompromising devotion.  He was just being honest.  He wished he could say that he loved Jesus, but he better just say that he liked His Lord.  Likewise, we need to be honest in our relationship with Christ.  When He asks the third question in verse 17, Jesus is basically saying, “Peter, do you have affection for me?  Do you have phileo for me?”  

This hurt Peter because he could tell Jesus was coming down to his level.  This word literally means that he was “distressed.”  I’m thinking that the tears that started after his denial, when we read in Matthew 26:75 that he “went outside and wept bitterly,” are now starting to fall down his face again.  I’m reminded that repentance is painful and our sins do lead to sorrow as Hebrews 12:11 reminds us: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”  

Even at this lower level of love Peter probably wondered if Jesus thought he even had this kind of affection.  Oh, how he wished that he could be a rock once again, but he didn’t think that would ever happen.  He does however, appeal to the fact that Jesus knows all things, and maybe He will find some level of devotion still within him. 

An aged farmer and his wife were leaning against the edge of their pigpen when the woman wistfully recalled that next week would mark their golden wedding anniversary: “Let’s have a party, Homer and kill a pig.”  The farmer scratched his grizzled head and replied: “Gee, Ethel, I don’t see why the pig should take the blame for something that happened fifty years ago.”  Honesty about the health of our relationships is important, though I think they would be good candidates for the Peacemaker Seminar June 11-12!

Do you love God lavishly?  Are you completely committed to Him?  If not, admit it.  Put into words where you are right now in your relationship with Christ.  When you do, Jesus will meet you there and then bring you to where you need to be.  

Erwin Lutzer tells the story about a woman and her husband who came to a pastor for some help in their marriage.  The pastor started by addressing the husband, “The Bible says you’re to love your wife as Jesus Christ loves the church.”  The man replies, “Oh, I can’t do that.”  The pastor then tries a different tack, “If you can’t begin at that level, then begin on a lower level.  You’re supposed to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Can you at least love her as you would love a neighbor?”  The husband says, “No. That’s still too high a level.”  The pastor rubs his chin, takes a deep breath and then says, “The Bible says, love your enemies.  Why don’t you begin there?”

He knows the worst about us and still loves us!

Begin where you are today.  Jesus says to you and me: “Do you agape me?” If you don’t, just say something like, “No, I’m not there yet, but I want to be.  I still succumb to sin and fail all the time.  I need your help.”  Notice that in all three responses, Peter affirms that Jesus “knows.”  He knows the worst about us and still loves us!  When we’re that honest, Jesus says, “Good, now I can work on restoring our relationship so you can become a devoted disciple.  I need you to tell me your level of love for me, and when you do, your love for me will grow.” 

Through the repetition of the same question, Jesus is bringing out the depth of Peter’s penitence.  What about you?  What do you value most in life?  Possessions?  People? Your own pride?  Is there anything or anyone you are loving more than you love the Lord?  

2. Serve Selflessly.  

With each of Peter’s replies, Jesus gives him a task to do.  The Lord is not looking at Peter’s past; He is focused on what Peter can do in the future.  If the ultimate commandment is to love God with everything we’ve got, then the second most important instruction is to love people.  Jesus put it this way in Matthew 22:39“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 

 One way Peter is to demonstrate his fondness for Christ is by loving and caring for people.  The main point here is that our love for God will always show itself in love and care for God’s people.  If we say we love God lavishly, we better prove it by serving selflessly.  1 John 3:17-18“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

Friends, simply put, if we do not love God’s people, then we don’t love God.  1 John 4:8“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” We can’t separate the two.  We cannot claim to love the Lord lavishly and at the same time persist in bitterness or gossip.  If we say we love God, then we can’t continue to think that we’re superior to others.

Let’s look carefully at the task Peter is given:

  • “Feed my lambs” (15).  Little lambs need to be fed in order to grow.  Peter is reminded that children matter to God.  They need to be fed the Word of God as a regular part of their diet if they are to grow up in their salvation.  In addition, spiritually speaking, new Christians are referred to as spiritual infants.  In spite of Peter’s failures, he is called back into service, starting with the young.  We were reminded of the importance of ministry to children at the beginning of the service this morning.
  • “Take care of my sheep” (16).  This is the word translated “shepherd” and implies much more than just feeding.  A good shepherd makes sure all the needs of His sheep are taken care of and that they are protected.
  • “Feed my sheep” (17).  The Greek word here literally means, “Dear sheep.”  Peter must not tire of serving those around Him because they matter to God.

These are “doing words,” verbs that describe the function of all believers to feed the flock and shepherd the sheep.  Unfortunately, we have turned the verbs into nouns as we often refer to the “ministers” or the “pastors” as the ones who are to do this.  We’re all called to care for one another.  We know that Peter learned this lesson because he later wrote these words in 1 Peter 5:2“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care…”  Let me make four observations. 

  • These are His sheep and His lambs, not ours.  Jesus refers to them as “my” lambs, “my” sheep, and “my” sheep.  They belong to Him but He entrusts them to us.  We must never forget that everyone has worth and dignity in His sight, from the preborn on up.  John 10:27“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
  • Sheep and lambs are very different with different needs.  We must therefore minister accordingly.  We’ve each been given spiritual gifts and abilities that must be used to both protect and perfect the flock.  1 Peter 4:10“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” 
  • Our responsibility is to both feed and care.  As a church we must make sure all ages have the opportunity to be fed spiritually, and that everyone is connected to a group that can provide caring.  And when sheep wander, we must go after them.  
  • Failure doesn’t automatically disqualify someone from service.  In fact, Jesus links our love for Him with our serving of others.  Peter’s relationship with Christ was healed and he was recomissioned to ministry.  Jesus wanted Peter to know that He still had an assignment for him.  He had more confidence in Peter than he had in himself.  Peter was probably beating himself up for his failure; Jesus knew that one effective antidote for this self-imposed agony and pity party was for Peter to selflessly serve others.  In spite of his failures, he could still be used!

Jesus is telling Peter that just as he was once a weak lamb and a wandering sheep, he is still very dear to Him.  And, because he has experienced grace and forgiveness, he must go out and extend that to others.  

Are you looking for ways to selflessly serve those around you?  In his book, “Everybody’s Normal Until You Get to Know Them,” John Ortberg tells a story about a young man named John Gilbert.  When he was five years old, he was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, a genetic, progressive and cruel disease.  He was told it would eventually destroy all of his muscles.

At one point he was made the representative for Muscular Dystrophy in the state of California.  He was flown to Sacramento and honored by the governor.  That night he went to a fund-raising auction.  When the auction began, one item really caught John’s attention: a basketball signed by the players of the Sacramento Kings.  John got a little carried away, because when the ball was up for bids, John raised his hand, which his mother immediately pulled back down. 

The bidding for the basketball rose to an astounding amount for an item that was not the most valuable on the docket.  Eventually, one man named a figure that shocked the room and that no one else could match.  The man went to the front and collected his prize.  But instead of returning to his seat, he walked across the room and placed it in the thin, small hands of the boy who had admired it so intently.  The man placed the ball in hands that would never dribble it down a court, never throw it to a teammate on a fast break, never fire it from three-point range.  But those hands would cherish it.

Listen to what John wrote about this event: “It took me a moment to realize what he had done.  I remember hearing gasps all over the room, then thunderous applause, and seeing weeping eyes.  To this day I’m amazed…Have you ever been given a gift you could never have gotten for yourself?  Has anyone ever sacrificed a huge amount for you without getting anything in return except…the joy of giving?”

Ortberg concludes: “It was as simple as this: Somebody noticed.  Somebody cared.  Somebody acted.  Somebody gave” (Pages 197-199).  Have you bought a basketball for anyone lately?  Have you fed a little lamb?  Have you shepherded someone through their sorrow?  If you haven’t, will you start serving selflessly?  

3. Follow Faithfully.  

Verse 18 is very interesting because it contains a prophecy about how Peter was going to die: “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.”  The phrase, “I tell you the truth” or “verily, verily” in the King James Version, introduces something very solemn and important.  Evidently Peter is middle-aged because Jesus describes a time when he was younger.  Peter had a lot of freedom back then but there would be a time in the future when he would be led to where he didn’t want to go.   

Most commentators believe that the phrase, “you will stretch out your hands” is a reference to crucifixion.  Tradition tells us that Peter was in fact crucified, with his hands stretched out on a cross.  Verse 19 tells us that in his death Peter would “glorify God.”  According to historians, Peter was crucified upside down at his own request because he didn’t consider himself worthy to be killed in the same way Christ was.  As someone has said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.”

  • We are to follow no matter what happens.  The command, “follow me” in verse 19 is a present imperative, which means “keep on following me.”  Even knowing how he was going to die, Peter was to follow Christ faithfully.  It’s interesting that these are the same words Jesus used when calling Peter the first time in Matthew 4:19-20, just up the shore from where they are right now: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’  At once they left their nets and followed him.” And now, He speaks these words of life to one who was caught up in his failure.  What we can learn from this is that as we follow faithfully, our failures can be left behind.  Matthew 16:24“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
  • We must follow faithfully no matter whom else follows.  We like to focus on what others are doing, don’t we?  After Jesus revealed some shepherding plans for him, Peter immediately wanted to know what Jesus was going to do about John.  I love the answer Jesus gave in John 21:22“If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?  You must follow me.”  Our responsibility is to make sure the Lord is #1 in our lives and not to worry too much about other people.  The real question has nothing to do with what others are doing.  We like to compare, don’t we?  We see ourselves as a little bit ahead of others and if we sense someone is above us somehow, we like to cut them down to size.  Our focus is all wrong.  We shouldn’t be comparing or contrasting ourselves with others.  While we must provide care for people, God will ultimately take care of them.  We don’t have to play God; He does quite well on His own!  Let’s remember to not meddle in matters that don’t concern us and live out Hebrews 12:2“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…”
  • We must follow what God has already revealed.  Jesus had made clear what Peter was to do and yet he wanted more information.  We do this as well, don’t we?  Instead of wanting additional revelation, we need to put in practice what we already know.

We’re so much like Peter, aren’t we?  Here he’s been restored and recomissioned, and now he turns around and asks a question about someone else.  We’re in constant need of forgiveness because we keep on failing as well.  Just as Jesus redirected Peter, so he tells us, “What is that to you?  You must follow me and keep on following me.”  Peter eventually got this because he later writes in 1 Peter 2:21“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

Putting Into Practice

I’d like to suggest a few ways that we can put Peter’s experience into practice.

1. Maybe you’ve never responded to Jesus’ call to come and follow Him.

If not, today’s the day to do so as you reach out to Him for salvation.  Friends, the church is to be a hospital for the hurting, not a palace for perfect people.

2. Tell Jesus how much you love Him.  

Perhaps you’re a follower and you’ve failed like Peter.  It’s time to talk to speak to the Savior.  He wants to know how much you love Him…or how much you don’t.  Examine your heart and ask the question, “How much love do I have for the Lord?”  He can take your old life and give you a new one.  Just as He pursued Peter, so He is pursuing you.  Come back to Christ right now.  

3. Some of you are ready to recommit yourself to serve selflessly.

Decide this week how you will put others first.  Call someone.  Give someone a ride.  Come alongside a summer missionary.  Jesus not only forgives, He also restores us to ministry.

4. Determine to follow Jesus faithfully.

Will you do so right now, no matter what happens, no matter what others do, and without any more information? 

I invite you to respond however the Holy Spirit prompts you.  Maybe you need to kneel.  Maybe you need to stand.  Perhaps you need to walk down front to indicate that you are ready to “walk in His steps.”   

Breakfast on the beach with Jesus was a turning point for Peter.  Make today a turning point as you love lavishly, serve selflessly and follow faithfully.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?