What Christ Does With Failure

John 21

July 1, 2009 | Ray Pritchard

Listen to this Sermon

Let’s begin with a poem called “And God Said If” that helps set the scene:

If you never felt pain,
Then how would you know that I’m a Healer?

If you never went through difficulty,
How would you know that I’m a Deliverer?

If you never had a trial,
How could you call yourself an overcomer?

If you never felt sadness,
How would you know that I’m a Comforter?

If you never made a mistake,
How would you know that I’m forgiving?

If you never were in trouble,
How would you know that I will come to your rescue?

If you never were broken,
Then how would you know that I can make you whole?

If you never had a problem,
How would you know that I can solve them?

If you never had any suffering,
Then how would you know what I went through?

If you never went through the fire,
Then how would you become pure?

If I gave you all things,
How would you appreciate them?

If I never corrected you,
How would you know that I love you?

If you had all power,
Then how would you learn to depend on me?

If your life was perfect,
Then what would you need me for?

Pause and consider that final line for a moment:

If your life was perfect,
Then what would you need me for?

This is a sermon about a failure so shocking that we still talk about it 2000 years later. There are really two parts to Peter’s story-his three-fold denial the night Jesus was arrested and how Christ forgave and restored him. The first part depends wholly on Peter, the second wholly on Jesus.

Peter was in charge of his own failure.
Christ took charge of restoring him.

Behind this story lies a wonderful, liberating, hope-filled truth: Failure is an event, not a destiny. This is good news because we all fail sooner or later, and if we are honest, we all fail over and over again. As Peter’s story abundantly proves, it’s not our initial failure that ruins us. It’s what happens next that matters.

Failure doesn’t mean you have blown everything. It means you have some hard lessons to learn.
It doesn’t mean you are a permanent loser. It means you aren’t as smart as you thought you were.
It doesn’t mean you should give up. It means you need the Lord to show you the next step.
It doesn’t mean that God has abandoned you. It means that God a better plan.

Only those who have greatly failed will truly appreciate this story. If you have only failed in small things, then you will not be deeply moved. But if you have known the shame of large failure, then listen up. This story is for you.

When we have failed, especially when we have failed those we love the most, our mind becomes a swirl of emotions–Embarrassment . . . Anger . . .  Fear . . .  Shame . . . Despair. We feel dirty and unworthy because we acted foolishly. When we have hurt someone deeply, we want to know if they still love us or have we blown everything?

Only those who have greatly failed will truly appreciate this story.
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Will they ever forgive me?
Can I ever forgive myself?

Peter never forgot what happened when he denied Christ. As long as he lived, he never forgot that terrible night. Tradition says that he would start weeping whenever he heard a rooster crow. Tradition also says that he would wake up every night and pray during the hour when he denied the Lord.

How does Jesus restore his fallen disciple?  The answer comes in five stages.

I. He Sent for Him.

When the women arrived at the tomb early on Sunday morning, 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?”

Peter may have failed in the Upper Room, but Jesus sent for him.  Just a few hours earlier Peter had said, “Lord, you will never wash my feet” (John 13:8). And then later he bragged about his courage. He bragged that if everyone else deserted Jesus, he would never desert him. How wrong he was. Under pressure the bold apostle turned to butter.

Peter may have failed with Malchus, but Jesus sent for him. Peter meant well, but his futile attempt to protect Jesus accomplished nothing. “Put your sword away,” Jesus said. “It must be this way.”

Peter may have failed in the courtyard, but Jesus sent for him. “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.

After all that, the risen Christ sends for him! He doesn’t write Peter off as a permanent failure. He doesn’t put him in the “Biggest Loser” category. Jesus still has plans for Peter, plans to give him a hope and a future, plans to give him a second chance.

II. He Met with Him.

Where did Peter go after he denied Christ? The answer is, we don’t know for certain because the Bible doesn’t say. But we can surmise that Peter did what most of us do when have blown it big time. When we have made a huge mistake, the last thing we want is to be around other people, especially the ones who know us best and love us the most. Having let them down, we don’t want to see them at all. Sin separates us from God and from God’s people. Sin isolates us so that the devil can convince that, having made such a stupid mistake, no one wants to be around us again, ever. So we spend our hours in a miserable prison of self-imposed solitary confinement.

Sin separates us from God and from God’s people.
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I think that’s what happened to Peter that weekend. Wherever he was, he must have felt alone in the world. The last thing we are told is that after Jesus looked at him, Peter wept bitterly. We are not told where Peter was during the crucifixion on Friday or during the burial late that afternoon. We can guess that he retreated to some lonely spot, there to replay those awful moments in his mind so he could beat himself up all over again and ask, “Why? Why did I do it? What made me think I was so much better than the others? How could I have been so stupid?” and “What does Jesus think of me now?”

We find an answer to that last question in the fact that Jesus made a special appearance to Peter sometime on Easter Sunday. We don’t know where or when precisely nor do we know how long the meeting lasted. But twice the New Testament mentions that the meeting took place:

“It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon(Luke 24:34).

He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:4-5).

I am especially heartened that Jesus met with Peter before he met with the rest of the disciples. Aren’t you glad about that? Jesus not only sends for Peter. He goes to meet him before he meets with the others.

What amazing grace. There will be no public humiliation.  Since Peter denied Christ, things must first be settled between the two of them. With wisdom and grace, Christ comes after Peter and doesn’t wait for him to make the first move.

III. He Challenged Him.     

Now we come to John 21. It is evening on the Sea of Galilee, not long after the Resurrection. Peter and six other disciples have spent the night fishing and end up catching nothing. In the morning a man calls from the shore, telling them to put their nets on the other side of the boat and they will catch fish. They end up with so many fish, they can’t haul the net because it was so full of fish. When he realizes the man is Jesus, Peter impulsively jumps in the water and begins swimming for shore. It turns out that Peter and the other disciples caught 153 fish simply by obeying the word of Christ.

With wisdom and grace, Christ comes after Peter and doesn’t wait for him to make the first move.
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If Christ was watching the disciples from the shore all night, why didn’t he speak up sooner? Why allow his 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. Microsoft founder Bill Gates said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It makes smart people think they can’t lose.” The disciples needed to fail so they could learn to depend on Christ for their victories. Sometimes it takes shameful failure for us finally to wake up and see our need of Christ.

When we read John 21:1-14, we should connect it in our minds with Luke 5:1-11 where Jesus tells Peter to go out into the deep and let down his nets for a catch. Despite his doubts, Peter follows Christ’s command and ends up catching so many fish, they filled up two boats. So now we have come full circle. The question is the same on both occasions. “Peter, will you obey me even when it makes no sense?”

It is the same question the Lord asks us every day. Will we obey even when we think we have a better way? Will we obey even when the way forward seems unclear? Will we obey when our instincts tell us to do something different? Will we obey when we have failed on our own?

IV. He Reinstated Him.

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).

Peter and Jesus had this conversation around a charcoal fire (v. 9). The particular Greek word for “charcoal fire” is used in only one other place in the New Testament, in John 18:18 to refer to the charcoal fire in the courtyard where Peter denied the Lord.

The Lord allows us to fail in our own strength so that we may learn that only by his power will we ever succeed.
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By one fire he says, “I don’t know him.”
By another fire he says, “Lord, you know I love you.”

By one charcoal fire he denied Christ.
By one charcoal fire he is restored by Christ.

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 other disciples needed to hear Peter openly declare his love for Christ. Without hearing those words, the doubts would linger forever.

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 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.

Consider what Christ doesn’t do. He doesn’t try to make Peter feel guilty. He doesn’t humiliate publicly. He doesn’t ask him, “Are you sorry for what you did?” He doesn’t make him promise to do better. He just asks one question: “Do you love me?”

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.

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.
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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 a friend shared this thought with me: “The truth will set you free but it will hurt you first.” Often we don’t get better 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.

There are three qualifications for those who would serve the Lord:

The first is love.
The second is love.
The third is love.

First we love, then we serve.
First we love, then we speak.
First we love, then we lead.

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). Three thousand people were saved that day.

There are three qualifications for those who would serve the Lord: The first is love. The second is love. The third is love.</h6 class=”pullquote”>

The old Peter was gone forever. A new man was born when Jesus restored his fallen disciple.

V. He Reenlisted Him.

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 (John 21:18-19). Although he failed in the past, in the end he will glorify God in his death. In the Upper Room Peter had rashly boasted that he was willing to follow Christ to prison and to death (Luke 22:33). It’s as if Jesus tells him, “You were right about that, more right than you knew. Someday you will have a chance to keep your promise. And I know that in that day you will not fail.” The early historians tell us that Peter lived and died faithful to Jesus to the very end.

So we come to the end of the message. What does Christ do with failure? He redeems it!

God is able to forget our past. Why can’t we? He throws our sins into the depths of the sea and puts up a sign on the shore which reads, ‘No fishing.’ (Erwin Lutzer).

Peter remains a figure of surpassing interest to us. We can’t get enough of him. We know him well because we see him every morning when we look in the mirror. We love Peter because we can see ourselves in his story. In fact, his story is our story. For all of us the process of Christian growth is long and painful, with many ups and downs. Peter the rock often seemed very un-rocklike. It took repeated failure to produce rock-solid character in him. But Jesus never gave up on his man.

We love Peter because we can see ourselves in his story.
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Here is the final irony. From beginning to end, Jesus believed in Peter more than Peter believed in himself.

So it will be for all of us.

“If your life was perfect,
Then what would you need me for?”

The real hero of Peter’s story isn’t Peter.
The real hero is Jesus.

That’s why John 21 is in the Bible, so that all of us Peter-types would know that though we fall again and again, by God’s grace we can keep on getting back up.

What mercy!
What grace!

If he did it for Peter, he can do it for me and for you.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that over the gate of heaven there is a sign that reads “For Sinners Only.” That’s a legend, of course, because the Bible says nothing about such a sign, but it would be entirely appropriate. And in my imagining I picture another sign, on the inside of the gate, one that reads “By Grace Alone.” Those two statements tell us who goes to heaven:

For Sinners Only.
By Grace Alone.

And, finally, there is the longstanding legend that Peter will meet us at the gates of heaven. While there is no biblical proof of that, it would be appropriate for Peter to be there because he understood more than the others what those words really mean.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?