Jesus Reinstates Peter
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!"
My wife and I decided a few months ago that our thirteen year old son was ready to go up to the YMCA by himself for an hour or two at a time so that he could practice playing basketball. He had been petitioning for that for some time but we just recently felt like he was ready. He did great the first couple of times that he went, but then one night I dropped him off after school. The problem came when, while inside, he lost track of time and was almost twenty minutes late coming out to the car. I could have gone in to get him, but I didn’t because I let him fail in being on time so that he could learn a lesson. It may seem like a small issue, but most parents realize that there are no small issues. Even seemingly small things can be an opportunity for a big lesson. We told him that because of this breech of responsibility, he would not be able to return to the YMCA again by himself until we felt that we could rely on him again. In this case, we didn’t feel that any punishment beyond the natural consequences of his irresponsibility was necessary. After a few weeks, we felt that he had learned his lesson and had really improved in his responsibility in many areas. After school the next day, he came home and asked if we could go the YMCA to play basketball. I could not go, but I told him "sure." We got into the car and I took him up there. As I pulled up to the door (he still thought I was going in with him) I told him to be outside by a specific time when I would pick him. He was stunned for a moment and then asked if he could really go alone again. When I told him that he could because I trusted him, he got a big smile and jumped out of the car and ran into the building. I could have just told him that we trusted him again, sure. But the best way to show him that was to let him do something. We didn’t let him go to the YMCA again to prove himself, like a probation. Letting him go was the sign that we had forgiven him and trusted him to be responsible.
Throughout the Gospel of John we have seen Jesus consistently do and say things that were for the benefit of others rather than himself and this scene is one more elegant example of that. It’s like déjà vu for Peter, a coal fire and the confrontation of three questions concerning his allegiance to Jesus. But these questions from Jesus aren’t about shame or penance. They are about restoration. Jesus, above all, wants Peter to know that despite his night of adversity in betraying Jesus, he, and all of us, can be forgiven because of Jesus’ night of affliction and agony. But Jesus doesn’t just tell Peter that he is forgiven, he is going to give him an opportunity to do something. Peter will have another chance to show that he does love Jesus and will be loyal and can be trusted.
As the meal draws to a close, Jesus presumably takes Peter off by himself, perhaps for a stroll down the beach. It will become obvious as we get into the closing verses of the chapter, however, that, whether they took a long walk or a short stroll, John was following behind closely. Peter had denied Jesus, he had failed in his loyalty when he was so confident that he would succeed. This scene is not an indication that Jesus questions his ongoing loyalty but is proof of quite the opposite. Jesus is confident that Peter will go on to serve him loyally and become a pillar in Christ’s church. The question at hand is, does Peter know that?
Jesus’ opening question is a little difficult to completely understand. He asks Peter, do you love me more than these? There is a small bit of confusion as to what "these" refers to. There are three primary possibilities that have been put forth over the years. The first is that Jesus was asking Peter if Peter loved him more than the other disciples loved Jesus. The second is that Jesus was asking if Peter loved Jesus more than he loved the other disciples. And the third is that Jesus was asking Peter if he loved Jesus more than the big haul of fish, which he was using as a representative for the things of the world. It seems that the first option is unlikely but not out of the question. The other two are more likely, but we cannot ever know for sure. The precise details are simply not all that important and perhaps Jesus’ question encompassed a a little of all of them.
Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he truly loves him. Some commentators have pointed out, over the years, that there are two different words used in this section for "love." Although there may be a slight difference between the word that Peter uses all three times and Jesus uses the last time (phileo), and the word that Jesus uses the first two times (agapao), it seems more likely that these words are fairly interchangeable and that this is just another example of John using variance within repetition, something that he does quite often in his writings. It is certainly true that Peter think Jesus has asked him the same question three times and that’s what hurts and exasperates him.
So, what is Jesus doing? Why does he repeat the question three times? The simple answer is that Peter denied him three times. There were three denials, so there will be three affirmations. The first two times, Jesus asks Peter if he is really devoted, does he really Jesus. Peter answers unequivocally that he does. Yet, Jesus asks a third time and Peter is hurt. This third time, though, Peter is hurt. Perhaps the three times seems unnecessary but Peter, by his actions, had repeatedly shown that he did not want a crucified Lord and wanted no part of that himself, when the rubber hit road. Peter, it seems, finally realizes that and stops asserting so forcefully that he does love Jesus. He certainly does, but nothing in his recent actions would show that. Yet, he believes that the Lord knows. If he doesn’t already know that Peter loves him, what more can Peter say. Peter has finally learned to stop trusting himself and puts his faith in Jesus.
We should not miss that Jesus responds the same way each time to Peter. What is notable is what Jesus does not say. He does not tell Peter that if he loves him, he needs to pray more or do anything for Jesus. The way to show that he truly loves Jesus is to love Jesus’ people. This is the same principle that Jesus used in 13:34-35 when he said that people would be able to identify the love for God of his disciples by the way they loved one another. If Peter loves Jesus, he will demonstrate that by shepherding Jesus’ people. Peter certainly got the point and the shepherding language stuck with him his whole life. In 1 Peter 5:1-4, Peter urges his fellow elders to continue the work of shepherding the people of the Chief Shepherd, "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: 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; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away."
Peter understood later in life that the way to genuinely show love for Christ is to love and care for his people. He also understood that the mission that Jesus had given him was not a proving ground of his love, a probation of sorts. Rather, the mission was the sign that Jesus had fully accepted him and fully restored him. It is the same with us. When we become disciples of Jesus, he gives us a mission and work to do (Matt. 28:18-20; Eph. 2:10). Many Christians begin to feel burdened by this call and see it as a constant source of insecurity as though the mission that Jesus has given us is the means through which we prove ourselves worthy. Yet, just as with Peter, that is simply not the case. The work that Jesus has prepared for us is not the means of proving ourselves worthy, he has graciously given us that status by entering into his life. The work and the mission are ongoing signs of that unmerited status. When we shirk back from the mission, then, it means that we are refusing, in a sense, one of the primary means of God showing his grace to us.
In 13:37, John records Peter as having boldly told Jesus, "I will lay down my life for you." To that Jesus responded a bit bemused, "Will you really lay down your life for me" (Jn. 13:38). Peter had been so sure that he was willing to lay down his life for Jesus, not understanding that in order for him to actually be able to do that, Jesus must first lay down his life for Peter and all the world. Peter is fully restored, though, and he will soon enough get that chance to lay down his life for Jesus. When he was younger, he went about life doing his own will, but that will change in the future. He has now committed himself to doing God’s will. When he is old, after doing God’s will, someone will stretch out his hands, a first-century figure of speech for crucifixion. Peter will ultimately get his wish. He will lay down his life for Jesus. That is his calling and Jesus knows that he is ready so he issues a simple command. Just "follow me." If he continues to do that, he will feed Jesus’ sheep, he will lay down his life for others, he will do God’s will, and he will lay down his life and be crucified for Jesus. Church tradition, we should note, maintains that Peter was crucified, but requested, and was granted to be crucified upside down because he was not worthy of dying in the same fashion as the Chief Shepherd.
Do you truly understand that the mission of loving and feeding Jesus’ sheep and making more disciples is a sign of his love for us and our reconciliation to God rather than something we must do to prove our love? How does understanding these things in this way change your frame of mind and the way you continue to approach your walk of discipleship?