by Pastor Jeff Plett
Every once in a while the disciple Peter must have felt intense pangs of guilt. He was still living under a cloud; the denial of Jesus still echoed in his mind. “No, I’m not one of His disciples,” he had said (John 18:25). “No, that wasn’t me you saw in the garden with Him.” “No, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t even know Him” (John 18:26-27).
Immediately the rooster crowed. He had denied the very Son of God not only once, but three times! It was good to see Jesus again, but His appearance must have caused pain and shame to resurface.
Jesus knows Peter’s heart and wants to restore Peter’s confidence and joy in the Lord. After they finished eating breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him a question, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21:15). The sense of the question probably is, “Peter, do you love me more than these disciples love me?”(Leon Morris).
After all, Peter had stressed in the most vehement terms that he was prepared to die for Jesus. He had boldly proclaimed, “Even though they all fall away, I will not. If I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mark 14:29,31). Of course, Peter had badly overestimated his courage and oneness with Christ. His confidence had quickly wilted in the face of pressure.
Also, Peter’s strong objection to Jesus being crucified showed that Peter had not wanted a crucified Lord. He preferred a powerful ruler who would crush any who would challenge Him. But Jesus had in fact been crucified. How did Peter’s devotion now stand in the light of this? Was he ready to love Christ as He was, and not how Peter wished him to be? That was an important question, and Peter must answer it (Leon Morris).
Peter Appeals to Jesus’ Knowledge
Jesus’ question probes Peter to the depth of his being. “Peter, do you truly love me more than these?” Peter doesn’t answer the question in terms of comparing his love with that of the other disciples. What does he do? He appeals to the Lord’s intimate knowledge of him: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:15).
Now that answer could be contested. Peter’s actions of late had been the opposite of love. His three-fold denial stood in blatant contradiction to his confession of love! How do you put the two together?
Yet he is appealing to Jesus’ full understanding of the situation. He is asking Jesus to look beyond his actions and into his heart. “Yes, you know I was wrong. I was weak. I denied you. But you know that deep in my heart I still love you!”
Haven’t we uttered that same plea of repentance? “Oh, Lord. You know I have failed you, disappointed you, sinned against you. But you know that deep inside I still love you.”
Jesus accepts Peter’s statement and then commissions him, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15).
The question comes a second time, again using Peter’s formal name: “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” Peter replies exactly as he did the first time, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” (John 21:16). Jesus responds, “Take care of my sheep.”
Jesus asks the same question a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:17). Peter is hurt that Jesus asks him three times whether he loves him. But Jesus is not about to quickly gloss over this fundamental question. Just as Peter disowned Jesus three times, so Jesus requires this simple yet profound confession three times.
There is not an ounce of self-righteousness in Peter’s response. He can only appeal to the fact that Jesus knows everything and therefore knows his heart: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you” (John 21:17) (D. A. Carson).
Lest there be any doubt that Peter is fully restored to future service, Jesus again commands, “Feed my sheep.” We notice that the sheep are Christ’s sheep, not Peter’s. He will be tending to and feeding Christ’s sheep (people), which means in the end Peter will be accountable to Christ as to how well he has carried out that work. In the same way, you and I are accountable to Jesus for the ministry that we do or don’t do.
On reflecting on these events, I’d like to highlight a few things. First, Jesus knew about the uncertainty and doubts that Peter and the disciples had towards Him. He is compassionate and caring and desires to strengthen their faith in Him.
I believe Jesus is concerned about our uncertainties and doubts as well. In various ways He works in our lives so that our faith in Him is strengthened. Sometimes He does it by enabling us to do a task that we could never have done without His help.
He helps us by answering our prayer requests. At times we are afraid and alone, and He quietly assures us of His presence. His desire is for us to put our trust in Him and to be at peace knowing He has our best in view.
Second, we see that many times the disciples should have been disqualified from the Lord’s service. At times they were selfish, wanting high positions of power and authority. When they encountered opposition, they suggested Jesus should call down fire from heaven to destroy the people. The disciples abandoned Jesus when He was facing trial and finally denied they ever knew Him. Jesus would have had every reason to kick them out of His band of followers.
We, too, have disappointed our Lord Jesus many times. We too, have been selfish, wanting the biggest and best for ourselves. At times we’ve been lax in our prayer life. We’ve said and done things that hurt other people. We’ve even denied that we know Jesus, by keeping quiet when we should have spoken out.
Peter was forgiven, reinstated as a disciple, and told to feed Jesus’ lambs. I’m glad that Jesus gives second chances even when we’ve failed him. Like He did Peter, He forgives us and reinstates us into service for Him.
Third, the one thing which Jesus questions Peter about is his love for Him. “Peter, do you truly love me?” It’s a probing question that Jesus asks of each one of us. Truly loving Jesus is the bottom line when it comes to being a Christian. And, it is the basic qualification for Christian service. Other qualities are desirable; having a true love for Jesus Christ is indispensable, absolutely necessary.
Thus, it is important that we humbly ask Jesus to fill us with His deep love that far surpasses our own. Then, having been reinstated into His service, filled with His love, we are ready to serve Him.
Jeff Plett, BRS, MDiv, is pastor of Hillside Christian Fellowship, Buffalo Head Prairie, near La Crete, Alta. He and his wife Laural Ann previously served for many years as the pastoral couple at the Evangelical Fellowship Church (Fort Frances, Ont.) and earlier served as part of a church planting team in Germany.