“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” – John 21:15
Have you ever really blown it? Ever really messed up? You know: you let your Lord down and maybe because of fear and peer pressure didn’t acknowledge that you know Him or that He was your Savior and Lord? Ever just have a lapse in behavior, even cursed someone out? Ever curse a person who “accused” you of being a Christian or disciple of Jesus? Have you ever then compounded your pain and regret by thinking This time I’ve gone too far; Jesus will never forgive me ? Christians aren’t immune to really blowing it sometimes in life. Even disciples, even apostles blow it and let their Lord down.
Peter was a disciple and then elevated by Jesus to apostleship. But Peter really blew it. He not only denied Jesus, he denied he even knew Jesus. And he lost it and cursed a blue streak in the process! What made matters even worse was that Peter denied Jesus when Jesus needed him most, at the cross (Matthew 26:69-75). Have you ever let the Lord down at a critical moment; denied Him when you should have taken a stand with Him? If you are feeling despair and regret because of a failure I want to encourage you that it is possible to be reconciled and restored with Jesus.
In John 21, after Jesus had resurrected from the dead and appeared to the disciples, He appeared to them another time at the Sea of Tiberius. There must have been quite a bit going on in the mind of Peter. It was glorious that Jesus had risen from the dead. Jesus defeated death! That’s fantastically hopeful. Jesus had proven true to His word. Everything Jesus said would happen happened, just like He said it would, including what Jesus predicted about Peter. Peter had promised to stand by Jesus. He had promised to die for Jesus. But when the rubber met the road Peter denied Jesus; he denied Him three times (Mat. 26:31-35). Now what? Yes, Jesus had appeared to the disciples, including Peter. But where was Peter’s relationship with Jesus? How did Jesus feel about him? Would Jesus still include Peter in His plans even though he had terribly failed Him? Would Peter simply return to his old life as a fisherman? Yes, there was a lot on Peter’s mind. And maybe there was a lot on the minds of Thomas, Nathanael, James and John the sons of Zebedee and the two other unnamed disciples who joined Peter in fishing. They had denied Jesus too, just like Peter (John 21:1-3).
Feeling low about themselves they went back to do what they felt most comfortable doing; they went fishing. But seeking some self respect by returning to their old familiar work didn’t pan out as they had hoped. They fished through the night, but caught nothing, zero, zilch, nada, absolutely nothing. They thought they had failed as disciples of Jesus. Now they couldn’t even succeed at fishing! (John 21:4).
The disciples were discouraged. They tried to distract themselves from their discouragement by doing something familiar to keep their mind off of their problems. But that didn’t work. What they did apparently do was move away from Jesus enough in their mind that when He came they didn’t recognize Him. Isn’t that just like us? We get discouraged; respond by trying to get our mind off things by doing something, anything, and then when Jesus comes, we don’t recognize Him. Watch out for that.
In the morning Jesus called to the fishermen from the shore. But they didn’t recognize His voice (John 21:5). Unlike Mary Magdalene who recognized Jesus by His voice (John 20:16), when Jesus called to the disciples they didn’t pick up on Who it was who was calling them. They had let their discouragement divert them from Jesus.
Jesus is merciful. He doesn’t hold grudges. When we are discouraged and down in spirit so much so that we don’t or cant’ recognize His voice, He has a way of making His presence known. The disciples had labored unsuccessfully and unfruitfully through the night until morning. With a word of instruction from Jesus their fortunes would change. “Cast the net on the other side of the boat, and you will find some” Jesus called (John 21:6a). What is good to see is that in spite of their discouragement and diversion from the Lord and the ability to hear His voice they immediately obeyed. They had labored long and hard, but they were humble enough to respond to instruction. That paved the way for them to see and recognize and experience the Lord once again. Humble obedience always paves the way to deeper contact with Jesus (John 21:6b).
Jesus makes His presence known with fruitfulness. Even though they had fished on their own in the same place where Jesus now told them to cast their nets, when Jesus gets involved it results in production. Jesus is the difference between emptiness and fullness, between failure and success, between ineffectiveness and effectiveness. We plant and water in ministry, but increase comes from the Lord (1 Cor. 3:7). The disciples caught a net breaking abundance of fish where they in their own strength hadn’t caught anything before. There is a difference between that attempted in our own strength and that done in the strength of the Lord. In our own strength we labor to fruitlessness. In the strength of the Lord we labor in fruitfulness.
As soon as they saw that net fill they sensed something supernatural was going on. John, the disciple who loved to refer to himself as “that disciple whom Jesus loved,” was the first to exclaim, “It is the Lord!” Peter was the first one to act and jump overboard into the water to swim toward Jesus. Oh how the disciples must have had their spirit lifted as they saw Jesus and swam to Him. They must have rejoiced to hear Him tell them to bring some of their fresh catch of fish. Jesus wanted to eat with them; just like old times! Jesus had referred to them as “brothers” earlier but now He was inviting them to eat with Him; a cultural expression of welcoming fellowship (John 20:17). Jesus was inviting them to fellowship; a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness (John 21:7-10).
John is inspired to recollect of the full net of fish, “and although there were so many, the net was not broken.” (John 21:11). When Jesus blesses our efforts He stretches us (like the net) but He doesn’t break us. He holds together the instrument used to bring His production and fruit. Jesus will allow us to be tempted, but he will always limit the temptation or trial and provide a way that we can stand up under it (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13). Jesus will stretch our faith, but he will not break it to pieces; He will not destroy our faith. Remember that.
When we fail the Lord He will discipline us and address the issues that need to be addressed to bring us to reconciliation. That is what we see Jesus do here. But Jesus doesn’t heap guilt and accusation and destructive thoughts on us. That is the work of the enemy. Satan is a liar who wants to murder your faith (John 8:44). He wants you to think you’ve blasphemed the Holy Spirit and are beyond the redemption of the cross. FALSE! No sin, if repented of, is beyond the redemption of the cross of Jesus. If you fear or are concerned you have done some unpardonable sin, that in and of itself is proof your heart is tender enough to care about what you’ve done. That is the first step to genuine sincere repentance (cf. 2 Cor. 7:9-10). If we confess our sins to God and seek forgiveness based on Jesus redemptive atoning work on the cross, WE WILL BE FORGIVEN! That is certain (cf. 1 John 1:7-10).
What Peter and the other disciples were struggling with was a spiritual attack from Satan. Jesus is going to help them through this battle. Jesus will get up front and personal with Peter and the others and deal with the sin in their life. But Jesus will deal with it. He won’t let it drag on and He won’t hold a grudge. When He forgives and restores the issue dealt with is finished as far as he is concerned. Any digging up of buried sins of the past is a work of the devil. When that happens we need to put our spiritual armor on (Eph. 6:10-18) and take every thought and in faith obey Jesus and His word about it (cf. 2 Cor. 10:3-4). That is so important to remember my friends; so important.
Jesus, resurrected, is still the Servant serving the disciples (John 21:12-14). He had washed their feet (John 13), now He was cooking them a meal. It’s part of Jesus’ divine nature to serve. Service is not something Jesus did for mere effect and instruction. Serving is part of who Jesus is and it should be part of who we are. Later in John’s inspired book of Revelation Jesus will say, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). The disciples have heard Jesus knocking and they are open to Him. He will then dine with them in sweet fellowship.
“So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” (John 21:15). Fellowship is more than mere physical feeding. Fellowship is more than food. Fellowship is spiritual nourishment; edification. Jesus has physically fed the disciples, now He moves to the heart of one of their leaders by asking Him an all important question.
It’s interesting how Jesus addresses Peter. Jesus addresses Peter as “Simon.” The name “Simon” means hear or listen. By addressing Peter as “Simon” and not as “Peter,” (which means stone) perhaps Jesus was trying to get His attention. Peter had heard but he certainly hadn’t been a rock of faith; he wasn’t even a stone of faith.
“Simon” was what Peter had been referred to before Jesus called him to follow Him. By using his pre-call name and not the name Jesus gave Peter after his calling (Mark 3:16), Jesus was insinuating that Peter’s threefold denial was acting in accord with his old nature and not his new one of discipleship. By addressing Peter as “Simon” all three times in His questions to him it must have penetrated the heart of Peter and convicted him of his sinful denial of Jesus. When we fail Jesus it is because we revert to our old sinful nature.
There are some church groups that emphasize loving God as the means of attaining eternal life and salvation from sin. But we don’t get to heaven by love. Jesus’ disciples are marked and to be known by Christlike love, but they must be disciples first; Jesus said this to his followers (John 13:34-35). If we could love our way to heaven that would make heaven something we earn or worked toward. That is counter to what the gospel states. Salvation, eternal life, forgiveness of sins is something we receive by faith in Jesus as a gift of God’s grace (Romans 3-5; Gal. 2:16; Titus 3:4-7).
Sin separates us from God (Psalm 66:18; Isaiah 59:1-2). Jesus said eternal was knowing Him and the Father (John 17:3).We can’t know God when we are living in sin or before we have accepted Jesus as Savior. Before we accept Jesus as Savior we are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1-3). We can’t know Jesus when we are living in our sins. And you can’t love someone you don’t know. Therefore it is impossible to love your way into God’s kingdom. We don’t have the capacity to love Jesus before we are born again by the Holy Spirit (John 3). It is the Holy Spirit who pours out God’s love into our heart that enables us to love Jesus (Romans 5:5). Therefore we must first be born again and experience our second birth which is spiritual before we can love. That is what we see in the context of the gospel of John. We see the disciples born again (John 20:22). Then and only then do we see Jesus address their love for Him in John 21.
By addressing Peter as “son of Jonah” and linking him with that prophet perhaps Jesus was also subtly pointing to Peter’s departure from His calling. Jonah initially rebelled against God’s call and went in the opposite direction by sea. It took a great storm and three days in a fish to bring Jonah to his senses and turn him around (cf. Jonah). Peter had been in storms before (Matthew 14:22-33). Jesus had ministered to him in storms, even kept him from sinking. But now Peter had to learn to call out to Jesus in a different kind of storm. Now he would have to call out to Jesus in a relational storm.
The waters of working through relational problems were about to get stormy. Jesus begins by asking Peter the question, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” This question will get to the heart of the turmoil and stormy weather percolating in the heart and mind of Peter. Jesus is still asking that question, to us; “Claude, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” “__________, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” Insert your name there and they ponder that question from our Lord Jesus. It’s not an easy question to honestly answer.
What does “these” refer to? The word “these” can be translated with either a masculine or neuter gender grammatically. If the neuter is used it would refer to the great catch of fish Peter had just made - “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these fish; these material things of your labor.” If it is masculine, Jesus would have been referring to the other disciples – “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these other men; other disciples.” Either way, the point made by Jesus as He is addressing Peter’s love for Him is whether or not he loves Jesus more than anyone or anything else. Peter is being drawn into a self-examination as to whether he loves Jesus first and foremost. Jesus wanted Peter to consider if He was really the top priority in his life or was it material things or other people instead. Our usefulness and effectiveness in Jesus’ plans is determined by the level of priority we give Him in our life. Do you love Jesus “more than these?”
The word “love” (Greek agape) used by Jesus here is the highest form of love. This “love” is defined in loving like Jesus; humbly, sacrificially, with a servant’s heart (John 13:15, 34-35). Jesus was therefore asking Peter whether or not he had heard and remembered His teaching on His disciples identifying mark; loving “as I have loved you.” That is a challenging question! Do you love Jesus as He has loved you?
The account continues, “He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” (John 21:15b). Peter’s response, on the surface, seems to be a good response. But when we look at the word Peter used for “love” it exposes a shortcoming in his walk with the Lord. We need to examine the nature of our love for Jesus. What is the quality of our love for Jesus? Do we love Him a mile wide and an inch deep or to the very bottom of our being? That’s what we need to consider.
When Peter says, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You” the word he uses that is translated in our English as “love” is the Greek phileo. Phileo means to have affection for, like, kiss. Phileo means “love” but it is a lesser kind of love than what Jesus used in His question to “Simon, son of Jonah.” We might demonstrate the difference between the two words with the following sentences:
- “I love (phileo) this cake, but I love (agapeo) my wife.”
- “I love (phileo) my car, but I love (agapeo) my wife.” “I love (phileo) my dog, but I love (agapeo) my wife.”
- “I love (phileo) my friends, but I love (agapeo) my wife.” (Husbands are supposed to have a greater love for their wives than for their friends. Whether or not they do is a discussion for another time.)
- “I love (phileo) my wife, but I love (agapeo) Jesus.”
As you can see in this last sentence context means everything. Phileo and agapeo are comparatively used. When we “love” the things we should “like” we get ourselves in trouble. The same is true when we “like” the things we should “love.” In comparison to Jesus, everything else should be lesser loved. It is only appropriate to love Jesus supremely; no lesser love will do. Truly, the more we love Jesus and live in His love, the better loved everyone else will be loved because our love and life will be in balance.
“He said to him, “Feed My lambs.” (John 21:15c). Having received a response of affection from Peter Jesus then installs the first step toward reconciliation and reinstatement of Peter as one of His apostles. Jesus is calling Peter to “Feed My lambs.” These lambs Jesus is instructing Peter to feed are His lambs. The flock of God is never ours it is always His. Jesus referred to the church as “My church” (Mat. 16:18). We get in trouble and out of kilter when we forget that and start to insert ourselves where Jesus alone deserves to be in relation to the church. And to feed these lambs means to nourish them in what Peter has learned over the last three years in walking by the side of Jesus. Jesus was calling Him to feed His lambs His word, not Peter’s words.
Now I believe it’s important to note that this conversation is going on in front of the other disciples. Jesus is talking to Peter around a beach site breakfast in earshot of all the other disciples. So what Jesus is saying to Peter the other disciples are hearing too. No doubt the other disciples are thinking of their response to Jesus questions to Peter. “Do I love Jesus with an agapeo love; the way Jesus loved me; on the cross?” He said it for all their benefit and for all of ours.
Jesus does thorough work. So he proceeds into another layer of Peter. “He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.” (John 21:16). Jesus asked Peter a second time if he loved Him with an agapeo love. And a second time Peter responded that he loved Jesus with a phileo type of love. Now we see that Peter’s response is more of an admission of failure or not measuring up to Jesus question. It’s as though Peter is saying, “Yes, Lord, You know that I only love you with a friendly affection and not a love like you loved me with.” Admission of sin or shortcomings precedes spiritual growth and development. Admission cultivates humility. And that’s important because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5-6).
Even though Peter is not measuring up, Jesus continues His call on Peter saying, “Tend My sheep.” The word “tend” (Greek poimaino) means to herd, shepherd, tend sheep, rule, govern, care for, look after, and nourish sheep. The word “Pastor” is derived from a form of this term. Jesus is calling Peter to pastoral ministry here. The grammar of the verb “tend” also conveys the idea of you must keep doing this (Present/Active/Imperative). This was an exhortation to Peter by Jesus that Peter shouldn’t give up but he must keep on pastoring Jesus’ sheep. Jesus is telling Peter, “Keep on in ministry; don’t go fishing”
Jesus is calling Peter to be a shepherd of the flock of God that would eventually be raised up. Jesus calls imperfect people. Peter’s failures didn’t surprise Jesus. Jesus predicted them! But Jesus used Peter anyway. Jesus uses imperfect people. So if you’re imperfect, don’t give in to your sins or imperfections, but don’t disqualify yourself from being used by Jesus, just consider your love for Him.
Now one last time Jesus surgically probes to the hurt of Peter’s heart. “He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.” (John 21:17). It’s not an accident that Jesus asks Peter the same question three times. Peter denied Jesus three times. Each time must be addressed. And so Jesus probes deep into the heart of the fisherman to get to the heart of the problem with his love.
In His last question to Peter Jesus switches the word He uses for “love” using phileo. It’s as though Jesus is asking Peter, “Old nature Simon, son of one named after a disobedient prophet, do you really only like Me?” It grieved Peter to hear Jesus question him like this. It brought Peter face to face with his fleshly failure of Jesus. But it was necessary for Peter to address his sinful nature and what it had led him to do. We all have a sinful nature, and when we fall prey to it, it must be dealt with. There is a necessary intention of Jesus in this conversation.
Peter’s response to Jesus’ question is a further and more deeply heartfelt admission. Peter says to his Master, “You know all things.” Peter admits he can’t hide anything from Jesus. Jesus knows all things. We can’t hide anything from Jesus either. Don’t even try. Peter is now peeled down to nakedness before Jesus just like Adam and Eve were before God. His sin and its gory grotesqueness are laid bare. Peter admits, “You know that I love [phileo] You.” Peter admits he only likes Jesus. The sense of it is that Peter admits he hasn’t and doesn’t love Jesus as he should love Jesus. That’s a hard admission to make, especially after you’ve witnessed a falsely accused Savior of the world be beaten unjustly, lashed hatefully and crucified unmercifully. Yes, Peter is owning His sin and it hurts. Have you looked at Jesus on the cross? Have you owned your sin? Have you been humbled like Peter? It’s a prerequisite for ministry.
We’ve seen three overt questions by Jesus to Peter. But probably the million dollar question that begs to be considered is the one not asked but only implied. How can Peter’s love deficiency be fixed? Can it be fixed? Those questions are the gorillas in the room. These questions follow in implication. They are not directly asked but everyone there is thinking about them. But if Peter and those like him are ever to have any hope such questions must be asked and answered.
I believe this love deficiency can be fixed and that it was fixed. There is hope for people like Peter. Why do I believe that? Well, Peter denied Jesus three times. His three denials were rooted in fear, lack of faith, and reliance on himself; the flesh. But in about fifty days from the time of this conversation with Jesus there will be a drastic change in Peter. Peter will become bold as a lion and courageous as a fearless ship captain. That change will take place at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the apostles and other disciples in the Upper Room (cf. Acts 1 and 2). From that point on Peter will be a fearless dynamo disciple of Jesus. He will proclaim the gospel and resurrection of Jesus to those who had crucified Jesus. And three thousand will come to the Lord as a result of his powerful fearless preaching of the gospel of Jesus. The baptism with the Holy Spirit will make the difference in Peter. Peter’s love deficiency will be filled up as the Spirit pours agape love into His heart. From that point on the love of Christ will powerfully compel Peter in ministry to serve as an apostolic pastor of the flock of God (compare Romans 5:5, Acts 1:4-5 and 8;and 2 Cor. 5:14-21). He and the other world overcoming disciples of Jesus will be powered by God’s agape love that never fails (1 Cor. 13:8a).
Do you love Jesus the way He should be loved; with agape love? Do you love Jesus first and foremost? Does your life reflect that? Maybe you’ve tried to love Jesus in your own strength. Maybe you’ve discovered that in your own strength you can only muster up phileo affection for Jesus. Maybe you’ve found that in the time of need or crisis such affection doesn’t sustain you; it only leads to failure; frustration; denial of Jesus. Have you received the empowering baptism with the Holy Spirit? Have you had the Spirit pour out His agapeo Christlike love into your heart? We don’t have to fail like Peter failed the night he denied Jesus three times. We can have our personal Pentecost right now. It is a matter of asking Jesus for such a baptism of His love and receiving it by faith (cf. Acts 2:33 and 15:8-9). Will you settle the issue now? Will you sit down in prayer with Jesus, commune with Him, answer His questions about your level of love honestly, and then receive the empowering love of the Holy Spirit? Jesus says, “Do you love Me?” Do you?