Jesus Restores Peter
Topic: English Passage: John 21:15-25
I once made my mom cry because of my choice of hair gel. This was about 10-15 years ago, before I was married. She didn’t cry because of how it made me look, and she didn’t cry because of the price. She cried because of the smell.
I was in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, combing my hair, and the bathroom door was open. And my mom walked by and then she stopped, and she looked at me and started crying. “What is that smell? What are you using?”
It actually wasn’t even a gel or a pomade; it was a tiny little container of hair wax I had just gotten a hold of. I don’t really know the difference between all that; I was just trying out something different. And in talking to my mom, I realized what had happened.
My mom loves her dad. And she has missed him ever since he died when I was about 6 months old. From what I’ve heard from my mom and my grandma, my grandpa held various jobs in his lifetime to try and support the family and the ministry, since he was a pastor too.
One of those jobs was as a barber. And my mom had these childhood memories of walking into the room while her dad was cutting someone’s hair.
Well, on that day, when she walked past the bathroom, the smell of the wax I was using triggered one of those memories. It took her right back to her childhood with her dad.
Have you ever had something like that happen to you? Have you ever had a smell trigger some distinct memory in your life? Maybe it’s the smell of freshly cut grass, or the smell of a specific kind of perfume or food.
Scientists tells us that our sense of smell, which is also called our olfactory sense, is closely linked with memory, probably even more than our other senses. In addition to that, our sense of smell is also very closely linked with emotion. Smells don’t just trigger memories, they trigger feelings. That’s what drives the perfume industry.
Apparently, that connection between smells and memories and feelings has to do with the way that our brains process those things. They go through the same portions of the brain. So the effect of a smell can be very nostalgic. A smell can have the power to take you back to a specific time and place in your life and recreate all those feelings, for better or for worse.
I say this to you because there’s a very interesting detail in this final chapter of Johns’ gospel, and I don’t want you to miss it.
We started this section in verse 15, but go back with me for a second to verse 9. And keep in mind, this interaction is happening on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, after Jesus had resurrected and after He gave the disciples a miraculous catch of fish.
Verse 9 says: When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.
There, in front of Simon Peter and the other disciples was a pile of burning coals. How many of you have ever smelled a charcoal fire? It’s not the same as a gas grill. There’s a distinct smell you get from it.
Interestingly, the Greek word here for a heap of burning coals is only used one other time. There is only one other mention of a charcoal fire in the New Testament, and we’ve already seen it. John chapter 18, verses 15-18.
Here’s what it says: Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. 17The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man's disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.
Now, imagine what might be going through Peter’s mind that night by the charcoal fire in chapter 18. His Lord had just been arrested. And one moment, Peter’s there in the garden swinging his sword, and the next, he’s lying to a servant girl, denying ever having been affiliated with Jesus.
That night was a swirl of emotions. At the end of it all, Luke tells us, Peter went out and wept bitterly.
So we take that moment by the fire in chapter 18, and jump back now to the charcoal fire of chapter 21. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that sitting next to Jesus at a charcoal fire would have transported Peter back to that night when Jesus was arrested, and Peter denied Him. John wants us to have that night in mind. Peter is remembering his great failure. He failed Jesus, even after he vowed not to do so.
I would imagine a good number of us know that feeling. To have someone we love so much and then to disappoint them so deeply.
Peter didn’t disappoint a coworker, or a member of his family. He grieved His eternal Creator, Lord, and Savior. He denied the Man who was going to give His life for him. How do you recover from that? How do you fix that relationship again?
Well, as a Christian, you need to be ready to answer that question, for yourself and for anybody else. How do you restore a broken relationship with an infinitely perfect God?
The biblical response to that question is, “You can’t.” You can’t fix that on your own. But the rest of the answer is, “You don’t have to, because someone has already done it.”
Isn’t that the message of the gospel? God has done for us, in Christ, what none of us could have done for ourselves.
That’s what sets true Christianity apart from false religion. False religion says either “everything is fine,” or “you can fix it.” Either there is no problem between you and God, or you can fix it on your own.
The message of Jesus Christ is that in yourself, you have no standing with God. We all deserve eternal judgment. We fall short of what His glory requires. But God, in His mercy and kindness and love, sent Jesus Christ as a sacrifice. He gave His life in the place of sinners so that we could be reunited with God. And to substantiate the message, He was raised from the dead, proving His victory.
God is the one who makes reconciliation possible. And beyond that, the Bible tells us, He’s the one who initiates our forgiveness. He takes the first step. That’s the message of the gospel. That’s the message of God’s grace, even going back to the garden of Eden, where God said to the man, “Where are you?” Where are you? God goes looking for wayward sinners.
And that message matters to us, not just at the initial moment of salvation. It matters to us every day. Because even after the moment of salvation, we continue to sin. We continue to disobey God. And yet God, in His mercy, is a saving and seeking God. He wants to restore us. As a loving and compassionate Father, He wants His children to enjoy a profound relationship with Him.
That’s what we see in the closing portion of John’s gospel. This is Peter’s restoration.
Peter is not the one who initiates His restoration to the Lord; Jesus does. Jesus takes the first step, and He graciously walks with Peter through it.
The first part of that comes in verses 15-17. I’m just going to call that the Gracious Restoration. The Gracious Restoration.
Let’s look at verse 15—When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
That a tough enough question as it is from one person to another. “Do you love me?” But this is a question from Jesus. And He’s asking with a comparison. There are a few different ways this question can be taken.
Jesus could be asking: “Peter, do you love me more than you love these other disciples?”
Another option is that Jesus is asking, “Peter, do you love me more than you love these things, this fishing lifestyle?” And those who prefer that interpretation, generally view Peter’s fishing as something he shouldn’t have done.
Lastly, it could also be interpreted as Jesus saying, “Peter, do you love Me more than these other disciples love Me?”
I lean toward the third option, but it’s not a major issue. We’re not gonna kick you out if you disagree. I think Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Him more than the other disciples do.
Some people aren’t comfortable with that idea because it seems harsh. I mean, how would you feel if Jesus came to you and asked, “Do you love me more than your friends do?”
But, Peter is not like a lot of us, right? He’s a tough guy, and Jesus was not opposed to giving him some very direct correction when it was needed. That’s why He said to him once, “Stand behind me, Satan!”
And before Jesus was arrested, Peter was the one standing in front of the other disciples claiming, “Even if everybody else falls away, I will never fall away.” He was the confident one. And now Jesus is addressing that foolish self-confidence. “Peter, do you really love me more than these other guys do? Do you really?
And what’s Peter’s answer? “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
Now, I don’t like having to spend a lot of time on something like this, but at this point, I think it’s important to make a clarification. Some people like to make a big deal about the difference between what Jesus asked and how Peter responded.
In Jesus’ question, the Greek verb for love is agapáo. And in Peter’s response, the Greek verb is philéo.
And so, some people have come along and said, “Agape is true love, and philía is a lesser kind of love. And Peter couldn’t affirm true love for Jesus, because he knew what he had done.”
Don’t listen to any of that stuff, okay. It’s unnecessary. Throughout the Bible, and especially here in John’s gospel, those two words are synonyms; they’re basically interchangeable. Don’t make a big deal about the difference.
John is writing a story for us, right? And it’s a true story. And yet, for the sake of not being repetitive, he uses synonyms.
Just in verses 15-17, he uses two different words that mean “to know.” He uses two different words for “feed” or “pastor.” And he uses two different words for “flock” or “sheep.” That’s John’s style. John is not trying to emphasize some kind of difference here.
Some people even think that Jesus’ conversation with Peter was in Aramaic, so John had to translate it into Greek when he wrote it. And if that’s what happened, the case for a distinction is made even weaker.
There are verses in the Hebrew Bible where the same term for love is used twice in the same verse. But when we look at the Greek translation, the translators used two different words. That’s how language works. Some words have multiple translations in other languages.
In John’s gospel, and in the New Testament, both agápe and philía can be used in a positive or in a negative sense. And they’re used interchangeable in John’s gospel.
John 3 says that the Father agápes the Son. Chapter 5 says the Father philéos the Son.
In John 3 it says that God agápes the world. IN John 16, Jesus tells the disciples that the Father philéos you. Different word. Same basic meaning.
And lastly, in John chapter 13 it says that John is the disciple whom Jesus loved (agápe). In chapter 20 it refer to John as the disciple whom Jesus loved (philía). So again, don’t get sidetracked on that kind of stuff. Just focus on the main message here.
Jesus asks Peter about his love, and Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love You.”
So, Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs.” Feed my lambs.
What’s Jesus talking about? That’s a calling back to His role as an Apostle of Jesus Christ. “Feed my lambs. Minister to my people. Teach them my truth.”
As Christians, we need to recognize that our food is God’s word. First Timothy 4 talks about being nourished by the words of the faith and of the good doctrine.
And the role of the Apostles will include teaching the people God’s word. And that’s what pastors and teachers do today, right? At least that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. This word is what matures us. This is what sanctifies us. This is what strengthens us. And teaching God’s truth is what Jesus is asking Peter to dedicate Himself to, as an expression of His love.
Peter’s task here would also be His obedience to Jesus’ earlier words from Luke 22. Jesus said, “Once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Strengthen my people.
Now, that conversation could have ended right there. Jesu could have just moved on, but He doesn’t. Verse 16—He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?”
Obviously, it’s a grieving question. Maybe he’s thinking that Jesus doesn’t believe him. More than that, asking the question three times would be a clear pointer to the fact that He had denied Him three times.
And so, grieved, how does Peter respond? There’s no external way at this moment that he can prove his love. He had let Jesus down in a major way.
And Peter knows that Jesus isn’t asking, “Do you love me perfectly?” All of us would have to say, “No” to that. He’s asking, “Is there love for Me in your heart? No matter how small or weak that love is, is it real? Do you love Me?”
And Peter, with no external evidence or confidence leans on something outside himself. He leans on Jesus’ perfect knowledge, His omniscience—He said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
That’s the end of this gracious restoration. Jesus has helped Peter strip himself of every human confidence. And Peter finally rests, not on himself, but on the power and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
You and I need to learn to do the same thing. This world, and even some Christian books and speakers out there, will tell you, “It’s all within your power. You can do it!” That’s where Peter was, and he failed miserably.
First Corinthians 10:12, a lot of you know it—Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
We’re supposed to walk in humble dependence. And no matter how long it’s been since we were converted, we recognize that the only reason we’re her is because of God’s sustaining grace.
And like Peter, even in the worst times of failure, Jesus is there ready to pick us up, and to use for His purposes again. He only uses weak, fragile instruments, so that He gets the glory. But in His compassion, Jesus will strip us of self-confidence and draw us to Himself, and send us out again for His purposes.
Even if a man were to disqualify himself as an elder or a deacon, as sad as that would be, if he came to Jesus in humility and repentance, he would not be disqualified as a child of God. And God would still have him shine as light in this dark world.
That’s the grace of Jesus Christ. He’ll always take you back. He’ll always restore you to Himself, if you belong to Him and you come in humility.
That’s the lesson Peter learned. And he went on to write 1 and 2 Peter, where he talks about our living hope, our inheritance in Christ which is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, reserved in heaven for us who are protected by God’s power through faith.
Peter learned to put his confidence in Christ, and to walk in humble obedience, ministering the truth of Christ to others.
In terms of relying on Christ even in times of failure, the Apostle John says exactly what Peter says here. In first John 3:21, he writes this: Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and He knows everything.
Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that encouraging? Even if you’re doubting your own salvation, even if you’re feeling the sting of conviction for what you’ve done, God doesn’t doubt your salvation. He knows who it is that truly loves Him. And they will never be lost. He’ll bring them back. That’s our Lord’s gracious restoration.
Well, immediately after that the story shifts gears a little bit, and we go from a gracious restoration to a sober preparation. A sober preparation.
Peter has been commissioned to go out and equip the saints with the truth of Jesus. And now, Jesus prepares him for what that’s going to mean in his life.
Look at verses 18 and 19—Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19(This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
If we only had verse 18, we’d have to guess what Jesus is talking about, but John explains it for us in verse 19. Jesus is talking about Peter’s death.
Jesus loves Peter. And Peter loves Jesus. And His love for Jesus is going to compel Him to proclaim the truth and minister to the church. And yet, that love will eventually lead to Peter’s death.
By the time John wrote this gospel, Peter had already died. Historical tradition says that Peter was killed under the reign of Nero around 65 AD by being crucified upside-down, something he is said to have requested, because he didn’t feel worthy to die like His Lord.
We can’t be certain if that’s what actually happened. But Jesus did say his hands would be stretched out, which could be an indication of crucifixion. Some historians think that could also refer to being placed in the stocks, but I’m inclined to go with tradition on this one.
The point here, though, isn’t exactly how Peter would die. It’s that Jesus would preserve his faith until the end. John says it in verse 19. Peter’s death was going to glorify God. Peter could be confident that Christ would sustain him.
And in that confidence, Jesus reminds Peter that love for God and love for Christ will cost him his life. But that’s what it means to follow Jesus, right?
We don’t love Jesus perfectly, but we love Him more than we love anything or anyone else, right? He is our Lord.
That’s why Jesus said, “If you’re going to come after Me, deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow Me.” Follow me. Those were some of Jesus’ opening words to the disciples, right? When He first met them, what did He say? “Follow Me.” And now, at the end of this gospel, He comes back to the very same message: Follow Me.
That’s a sober reminder for all of us. That is a sober preparation for what it means to believe in Jesus Christ and follow Him. Around the world, we have Christians dying because of what they believe.
Here in the United States, we’re not facing that just yet, at least not to the extreme of death on a large scale. But should that time come, we need to be ready to stand with Christ and with His message, no matter what we’re threatened with. If you want to follow Christ, you’re signing up to lay down your life. That’s what it means.
And at the same time, we should do it humbly depending on His sustaining grace. He’ll see us through to the end.
Christ’s gracious restoration is an expression of his love for us. And our commitment to follow Him is an expression of our love for Him. Love for Jesus is the impulse for gospel ministry, and it’s what allows us to persevere in the most difficult circumstance. So, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, and then He gives Peter a sober preparation for what’s ahead.
As we wrap up our study and the entire gospel of John, I’m gonna label the rest of the verses as a personal correction. That’s what comes next. A personal correction.
Peter understands exactly what Jesus is telling him, and in true Peter fashion, he opens his mouth to ask the wrong question.
Verse 20—Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”
The disciple Jesus loved is John. And because it says that John is following Peter, the image we get is that Jesus and His disciples are now walking, maybe along the coast of the sea.
So, Peter hears what Jesus has to tell him, and he turns around to look at John. Verse 21—When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?”
That exactly what most kids say when you give them a chore, right? But what about him?! What about her?! Am I the only one who gets stuck doing this?!
And here comes Jesus’ correction. Verse 22—Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
I don’t think that’s a difficult concept to understand. God’s will for John’s life does not diminish, in any way, Peter’s responsibility to obey what Jesus calls him to do.
And that principle holds true for all of us today. Your love and obedience for Jesus Christ is not supposed to be determined by what He’s called others to do. What’s your main concern? It is to be faithful to do what He has called you to do.
But our temptation is to use the lives of other Christians as an excuse, isn’t it? “Oh Jesus, if you gave me a wife like that or a husband like that, then I’d love her or him! … Jesus, if I had a job like that, then I could afford to give something to the church or to my neighbor … Jesus, if I were married, then I would pursue your plan for sexual purity.”
That’s not the way it works—not with Jesus. You are called to do what Jesus has called you to do, no matter what He’s called someone else to do. Our job is to follow Jesus.
And Jesus repeats the very same command He gave Peter at the end of verse 19: “Follow Me.” Follow Me by your faith. Follow Me by your love. Follow me by proclaiming this truth to all who will hear, no matter what it costs you.
That would have been a great way to end the gospel, I think—with that expression, “You, follow me!”
But John wraps up this gospel with a correction of his own. Verse 23—So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die;
That was a twisting of Jesus’ words—yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
So there was John. As history has passed down to us, he was the last of the Apostles. He might have even been one of the younger ones. John was eventually exiled for his faith. That’s what Revelation tells us. In his sovereign wisdom, God preserved John’s life, and he used him to write this gospel and 1, 2, 3 John, and the book of Revelation. He was Jesus’ beloved disciple, and he loved Jesus for the rest of his life.
Verses 24 and 25 say this—This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
John had to pick. He had to be selective about what to include in his gospel. How do you reduce the eternal, omnipotent creator of the world to a book? You could never capture it all.
But what God intended us to know, He’s preserved for us. And the message isn’t complicated. This has been written so that you would believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that by believing, you would have life in His name.
If you haven’t made the decision to turn from your sin, and surrender to Jesus Christ, do it today. The only alternative is eternal judgment. There’s not fancy ritual that needs to take place. But right where you are, you can go to God in prayer, and on the basis of what Jesus has done, you can ask Him for mercy and forgiveness.
And God will wash you white as snow. He’ll forgive you, and He’ll make you His child. If you still have questions, or want to talk some more, I’ll be up here after the service, so will some of the other elders. Or just talk with any one of our members. We’d love to do that.
For those of us who already know and love Jesus, we want to be faithful to the task He’s given us—to be used by Him to call more and more people to salvation. To know His grace and His love and His power. And to be made one with a new spiritual family.