15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 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. 18 Very truly I tell you, 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.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
(John 21:15-19 NIV)
Yesterday we looked at the third time Jesus revealed Himself to His disciples after His resurrection. Peter decided to go fishing, and some of the other disciples went with him. After fishing all night and catching nothing, someone on shore tells them to try the other side of the boat. They catch so many fish that there can only be one explanation – it’s the Lord on the shore who was calling out to them!
Jesus has prepared a simple breakfast of bread and roasted fish for the disciples. They eat and likely talk about what is happening and what will come next.
As we pick up today’s passage, breakfast is over, and Jesus has a chat with Peter. Traditionally, this passage is considered the time when Jesus forgives Peter and restores him to ministry after Peter denied Jesus three times.
While this restoration view may fit nicely into a matching story (three denials, three renewals), I think there is more going on here that what naturally meets the eye.
Two other passages need to be considered: Luke 24:34 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, particularly verse 4. In both of these passages, the authors document that Jesus met with Peter separately and privately, before He met with the other disciples.
If Peter had not been restored at this point, why would he have jumped out of the boat and swam one hundred yards to shore to see Jesus? Peter’s reaction would likely have been much more like his first response to meeting Jesus in Luke 5:1-11, where Peter fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (v. 8).
I believe Jesus restored Peter to ministry when they met privately as noted in the Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 15 passages. That makes today’s section all about Jesus’ encouragement to persevere in caring for those that would be in Peter’s care.
We see Peter passing along this same admonition to the church elders in 1 Peter 5:1-4:
5 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
(1 Peter 5:1-4 NIV)
A second reason that this vignette is an encouragement and not a restoration is verses 18 – 19 where Jesus tells Peter how he will die. If this scene were a restoration, Jesus’ comments to Peter would need to be understood as punishment and reparation for Peter’s three denials of Christ. If we see this passage as encouragement, then Jesus is telling Peter not to be afraid to serve Him wholeheartedly, even when faced with death by crucifixion.
May we be inspired and strengthened by these passages, both Jesus’ encouragement to Peter, and Peter’s encouragement to the early church fathers.
Truly there is joy in serving Jesus, even when the consequences are life and death.