John 21. The Epilogue. Jesus and Peter.
Key Notes: Jesus did not show up when the disciples arrived in Galilee. They went fishing. Peter's fishing was a deja vu. Jesus disciplined Peter with firmness and grace. "... do you love Me?"
The Gospel of John starts with a prologue, describing who Jesus is. It ends with an epilogue, which shows Jesus in a very different light. In the prologue He is mysterious, awesome, huge. Here He is on our level, close to the ear, disciplining, showing tough love. The epilogue tells how Peter was reconciled and restored to his place among the apostles.
21:1–3 Seven of the disciples were together in Galilee. Why were they there? Where were the other four? Jesus had told them He would meet them there after He died and was raised and the angel at the tomb reminded them.
“I will go before you to Galilee.” (Matt.26:32).
The angel at the tomb said the same. (Matt.28:7).
Peter was given special mention in Mk. 16:7: “Go tell His disciples and Peter that He goes before you to Galilee; there you will see Him, as He told you.”
So they went. Jesus was not there. (Think of God's delays.) So Peter and his friends stood around waiting, wondering what to do, and Peter decided he would do what came naturally — fishing. Evidently his father was still in business, so boats and nets were not in question. They were probably hungry.
21:4–14 As is often the case with fishermen, they got nothing for their night’s work. [90% of the water has no fish in it.] They heard a voice from the shore, a hundred yards away, saying something like...
“Guys, you don’t have any fish, right?” They said “Right.”
Jesus said “Cast the net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”
That was the understatement of the week. John realized that Jesus was calling instructions to them. Peter grabbed his clothes and dashed through the surf to the shore. But he had to go back and help the others bring a school of large fish, 153 fish, back to shore. The net did not break.
Peter had had a fishing experience with Jesus a year or two before. Jesus had been in Peter’s boat addressing the crowd on shore. After His sermon He told Peter to throw out the nets. Peter had fished all night with no results, but reluctantly threw out the nets. There were so many fish that the nets broke and another boat that came to help was also swamped. Peter was overwhelmed with his incompetence, his sinfulness. Jesus told him he would become a fisher of men. He left his nets and followed Jesus. Lk.5:1–11
Does Peter recall his previous experience? Twice Jesus beat him at his own game—a carpenter telling a fisherman how to do his job. What is the message? Wasn't he supposed to be catching men now? Plainly he was not ready. Jesus came to make him ready. I think Jesus' delay and the night of fishing was part of the plan.
Jesus fed them breakfast of bread and fish cooked on the charcoal that He had already started. They were not quite sure that it was Jesus and no one was about to ask. They may have eaten standing up. Would He not be known to them in the breaking of the bread? Jesus was not talking; He made no attempt to break the tension. It must have been a quiet breakfast.
21:15–23 My guess is that Jesus and Peter moved away from the group so that their talk would be private and less pressured.
“Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?”
Peter was addressed by his full name, giving formality and reserve to the discussion. What is “more than these”? More than the fishing business—fish, boats, nets, lake, commerce and security?
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Peter’s word (Gr. philia) is a word of tender affection, but not the word Jesus used (Gr. "agape") for the highest form of love. Jesus repeated the question is the same way and Peter answered in the same way. Then Jesus asked him a third time, using Peter’s word (philia), and Peter answered with "philia" again, but more fully: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Peter was wounded by the third repetition. He had to respond three times, one for each of his three denials.
Peter was given his assignment, repeated each time he answered Jesus’ question. Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep. He was being reinstated, and given the job of shepherding the flock of God. He was also promised a death like Jesus'. Then He said "Follow Me".
John was following them and Peter turned and asked what would become of him. Jesus told Peter it was none of his business. Peter should follow Him. John lived with the aura that he would never die, but did live into old age and wrote the Revelation exiled on the island of Patmos. John assures us that he was a witness and tells the truth. He also tells us that there is much more that could be said about Jesus’ life—too much to be printed.
Jesus also dealt personally with two other would-be disciples after the resurrection. All three had broken fellowship with Him and all three He met with individually: Peter, James and Saul. His brother James had had no faith in Him. (Jn.7:5). Jesus met with James but we have no record of the conversation. (I Cor.15:7). Saul was trying to destroy the Christians. Jesus’ word to him was blunt and overpowering: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” (Acts. 9:4). With Peter He was gentle and persistent. Jesus told Peter that He would die a martyr’s death, a crucifixion like Jesus had suffered. Peter had earlier offered his life to Jesus with emotion and zeal. Jn.13:36
Jesus demonstrated the discipline of a mature adult. He was formal, firm, direct and persistent. He framed the event by reminding Peter of his position as a disciple, a learner. He reran an experience of fishing in which Peter had learned much. He fed Peter breakfast. Then He went to the heart of the matter: Peter had denied Him. He did not remind Peter of his failure; there was no need for an accusation. Had Peter lied to protect himself, or had he struck back at Jesus in his chagrin and disillusionment? In any case, love was lost and love had to be recovered. When it was clear that love in Peter was still strong, he was commissioned for service.
Most of the commentaries discount the significance of Peter using "philia" instead of Jesus' "agape", since the two words are often used interchangeably in the NT. However, there is a subtle difference, and since the discussion was so sensitive, I think Jesus’ use of Peter’s word on His third question would add a sting to Peter’s discomfort.
Jesus tested Peter’s qualification for pastoral leadership by focussing on his personal loyalty. We can say many things we would like in the pastor of a church, the shepherd of the flock: the wisdom of years, the vigor of youth, the voice of an orator and the humility of a servant. He should be kind to the elderly and winsome with the children. He should preach a great sermon and win the lost, but not step on our toes. We hope he can raise lots of money. He should be good with the elders, visiting the sick, caring for the homeless. An angel would be stretched.
But Jesus introduces a criterion for leadership that does not appear on our list.
“Do you love Me?”
Not “Do you love the church?” Loving the church is always an ambivalent emotion, contaminated with narcissism. The pastor receives adulation from his congregation.
Not “Do you love God’s people?” Loving people always involves mixed feelings —need love [eros] mixed with agape.
Nor “Do you love the Word, the theology, the liturgies, the public speaking”? These are technical aspects of the profession and can be very satisfying esthetically.
Have we ever seen a pastor who loved His Lord, his Over-shepherd more than anything else? We have never thought of such a question to ask a pastoral candidate. This would not be part of anyone's seminary training.
But let us not point the finger. Do I love Jesus more than anything?