This is the last message I will preach in the book of John. I think, if I counted correctly, today’s sermon is number 70. I didn’t plan it that way, but if it’s true, I think it’s pretty cool we ended up with 70 exactly. The number 70 indicates perfection, by the way. (ha, ha)
But seriously, it is with a certain sadness that we finish this book today. There is no more satisfying sermon series in my estimation, than studying one of the gospels. I think we will be beginning the gospel of Mark sometime near the beginning of summer. That is the only gospel, in fact the only book in the New Testament, that I have not preached through.
John however, ends his gospel a little differently than some of the others. He doesn’t focus on the Savior ascending into heaven as one might expect, but rather he ends with a focus on Peter, the fallen disciple. He spends this last passage showing us Christ’s compassion and grace towards that disciple that needed restoration.
And I think that John chooses to focus on Peter’s restoration because restoration is really the purpose of the gospel. And to that purpose Peter is emblematic of all of us. He is the prototypical disciple. He is in this portrait a failed disciple. He has fallen, he has failed to live up to his promises, he has denied Christ on three separate occasions. Yet Peter is beloved by all of us because he is so much like us. He has all the failures that we are so familiar with in our own lives. He overestimates his strengths and underestimates temptation. He thinks he’s more committed than he is. He thinks he loves the Lord more than he does. He thinks he can face any trial triumphantly; but he finds out he can’t. By the time we get to this point, even though he has seen the risen Christ, he is really a broken man. In fact, it’s possible that even the triumph of Christ’s resurrection has accentuated Peter’s despondency at failing Him in some way.
So John focuses on Peter’s reconciliation as the last message of his gospel, perhaps because he knows that it will prove invaluable in the ages to come to so many other disciples, who like Peter, find themselves at some point in their lives having failed in their Christian life. And John wants us to know, that just like Peter, we can find forgiveness, reconciliation and usefulness again through Jesus Christ.
I don’t want to take the time to recap all the events that has brought them to this beach on this particular morning. But I would like to pick up where we left off last time, with Jesus appearing on the beach after a long night of fruitless fishing, and having breakfast waiting for His disciples, after instructing them how to catch 153 large fish.
Verse 15 picks it up after they have finished eating breakfast, probably lounging on the beach, talking with one another. And suddenly, Jesus speaks to Peter publicly, in a way to produce a public restoration, so that the other disciples would know that Peter was reconciled to Christ again. And this is important. Luke tells us that Jesus had already appeared earlier to Peter privately. So this is not just for Peter’s benefit, but for the disciples benefit as well, as Peter was their leader. And furthermore, it is for our benefit, that we might know the desire God has for us to be reconciled with Him, and to restore our usefulness to Him.
We see in this exchange between Peter and the Lord, three questions, three affirmations of love, and three exhortations. Three as a number, indicates divine completeness. But more importantly, I believe, three corresponds with the number of times Peter denied the Lord. I think what Jesus is doing here is purposefully asking Peter three times, in order to completely expunge the three denials. Christ isn’t so much rubbing Peter’s nose in it, as He is giving Peter a chance to fully repent. True repentance is essential to restoration. Partial or half hearted repentance will leave a bitter taste in the mouth that if not dealt with, will produce eventual bitterness. God wants full repentance so there can be full restoration.
Remember, Judas was also sorry for his betrayal of Christ. And that betrayal and Peter’s denial are only a handbreadth apart. The difference is that Judas was sorry and wept bitterly. Peter was sorry and repented. One was destroyed, and the other was restored.
I also think that there is an echo of a principle here that Jesus taught in Matthew 18. Where if a brother sins against you, you speak to him privately. If he rejects that, you take another person and go to him a second time. And if he rejects that, you take him before the church. Three opportunities for repentance. Because the purpose of church discipline is reconciliation, not punishment.
So Jesus has the opportunity to take Peter to task for his failures. He has the right to disqualify Peter from further office. But He doesn’t do that. Instead of asking Peter if he is really, really sorry, if he is willing to pay the penalty to be allowed back in good standing, instead of demanding that Peter do some sort of penance, Jesus just wants Peter to come to love Him more than anything else. That is really the full extent of the law, isn’t it? To love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, your mind and your strength. Jesus said in Matt.22 that is the whole law. So if sin is breaking God’s law, then the solution is to love God more, in order that we might fulfill the law.
So Jesus wants to bring that principle to bear in order to produce restoration. So He asks Peter, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love Me more than these?” Jesus calls Peter by his old name, Simon, which meant shaky. Jesus had renamed him Peter, which meant Rocky, or the Rock. But now He calls him by his given name, his full name, Simon, son of Jonas. He called him by the name that signified his actions. Peter had gone back on his commitment to the Lord, he had even gone back on his ministry. He had gone back to his old career. And so the Lord calls him out in a subtle kind of way, “Simon, do you love me more than these?”
There is a lot of debate as to what is meant by “these.” I think the most straightforward answer is “more than these” represents the 153 fish laying on the shore. It was a mountain of fish. The other disciples were probably oohing and ah-ing over them, counting up how much a haul like that might be worth at the market. It probably represented a lot of money. So do you love Me more than these fish, more than your career, more than your the self sufficiency represented by his boat and nets and the large catch of fish.
But Jesus has also subtly used another word in His question, “do you love Me,” and that is the Greek word agapao, which means the highest degree of love. It means a sacrificial love – a love of the will. Simon, are you willing to love me sacrificially, even to the point of giving up this career, this source of income, this self reliance?
Well, Peter is still smarting from the fact that he had failed miserably to measure up to that kind of love as he had boasted of in the Upper Room on the night of Christ’s betrayal. So his answer, I think, reflects this new found humility. He says, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” Peter, however, uses a different word for love, the Greek word “phileo” which means brotherly love, or a familial type of love. It’s less strident than the sacrificial love Jesus is asking for. And I believe it’s because Peter has lost his confidence in the strength of his love. He knows that his love failed and so he offers a less strident promise of love.
But Jesus is gracious, and He accepts Peter’s response without rebuke, and gives him an exhortation. “Tend My lambs.” The emphasis of the word translated lambs indicates a little lamb. I tend to think it has the quality of helplessness, or innocence. Feed or tend, my little ones. The exhortation is to take on the job of a shepherd. Rather than be a fisherman, it’s a calling to be a shepherd. That’s what a pastor is, by the way. He is an under shepherd.
Peter will say to the elders of the church later on in his epistle in 1Peter 5:2, “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”
I will say this without any sense of arrogance, the shepherd is not a sheep. He is given responsibility for the feeding and tending and care of the sheep. He is given responsibility for the safety of the sheep. It is a serious charge, and one that should not be taken lightly. God will hold the shepherd to a stricter standard, and a greater condemnation. “Let not many of you become teachers knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.”… says James 3:1.
But what is amazing here is that Jesus takes this broken, failed disciple, and He restores him, not just to reconciliation, but to usefulness. Not just to some behind the scenes position, but Jesus puts Peter at the fore front of His church, to be the leader again, not just as leader of this motley group of 11 disciples, but of the first church in Jerusalem. God uses the weak things, and the the foolish things, to shame the wise and the strong.
That offers hope for all of us broken disciples here today. God has a plan to restore you, to be reconciled to God, and to be used by Him for His kingdom. No matter how many times you have fallen, or how many times you have failed Him, Jesus stands ready to forgive and restore you. God loves you so much, He has already punished His own Son so that He might restore you to usefulness. Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Whatever sin you have committed, Jesus paid for with His life, that you might have everlasting, abundant life, knowing that He loves you and wants to be reconciled to you. And if you will submit to that, He will use you and give you a purpose that has eternal rewards.
Well, you know the story. Jesus asks Simon Peter the same question again. ““Simon, son of Jonas, do you love Me?” Though Jesus accepted Peter’s answer the first time, He isn’t satisfied with Peter’s lesser degree of love. So He asks again if Peter agapao’s Him. Does he sacrificially love Him. Christ wants Peter to love Him with all His heart, all His soul, all His mind and all His strength. He isn’t satisfied with a sentimental love. He isn’t even satisfied with a passionate love. But He wants a love of the will. A committed love that will endure no matter the cost.
Why does Jesus make such a big deal out of love? Because love is the ultimate motivator. The motivation of money just makes you a marketeer. The motivation of popularity makes you an entertainer. But the motivation of love for Christ makes you leave everything, sacrifice anything, for His sake. And that is what God wants from us. He wants an unwavering love from His bride that will endure through sickness or in health, in poverty or in wealth, unto death us do part. He doesn’t want to guilt trip us into serving Him. He doesn’t want to legally require us to serve Him. He doesn’t want to force us to love Him. That isn’t real love. But real love is it’s own motivation. It’s a change of heart, a change of desires, and that is to please Him because we love Him. To die before we bring shame upon Him.
Maybe this time Peter tries to say it with more conviction in his voice, but he ends up saying the same thing. I am fond of You. I love you like a brother. You’re like family. “Yes Lord, You know that I love you.”
Once again, Jesus accepts Peter’s lesser response and says virtually the same thing He said before; “Shepherd My sheep.” Perhaps the emphasis on the commandment is somewhat stronger in this second command of Christ because you will remember that Jesus said if you love me you will keep My commandments. So maybe Jesus is saying, “Ok, Peter. You SAY you love Me, then keep My commandments, and that command is to shepherd My sheep.
It’s like Paul said in 1Cor, 9:16, “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me.” True shepherds are not hirelings. They have a stewardship, and the love of Christ compels me to fulfill it. And I think that is what was being impressed on Peter.
A third time Jesus asks the question, ““Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” This time though, Jesus changed the word for love to that which Peter had been using. Jesus used “phileo”. He came down to Peter’s level. God knows that we can’t meet the level of commitment that we should meet. And so rather than making us climb up to heaven, God comes down to the level of man. But John says that Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you phileo Me?” Peter is grieved, because He knows that Jesus knows his heart – that he is less committed than he should be. And yet Jesus is merciful and gracious and comes to accommodate his weakness so that he might be reconciled to God.
Peter’s response shows that grief, saying, ““Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” He still confesses a phileo love for Christ, but he confesses something more important than that; “You know all things.” The Lord knows our hearts. He knows our weaknesses. He knows if we really measure up to what we claim to be. The Lord knows our hearts and yet He still loves us.
Peter’s response is an echo of Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Well, we don’t really know our hearts, I’m afraid. We think more highly of ourselves than we ought to. But the Lord knows our hearts, and yet He still loves us. We are like Hosea’s wife of whoredom; lusting after the world and the things of the world. Never ceasing to have eyes of adultery. And yet God loves us, even sometimes from afar, taking us back and caring for us even when we are all used up and spent and no longer much good for anything anymore. Yet He still loves us, and reconciles us and restores us to usefulness.
Jesus repeats for the third time; “Tend My sheep.” Take care of that which I love. If you love Me, you will love your neighbor as yourself. Tend My sheep. Whether you are tasked with being a pastor, or a teacher, or just a disciple within the flock, we are all tasked with tending to His sheep. To love one another. Love is manifested in service to His church. Jesus said they will know you are My disciples by your love for one another, as you care for one another, and tend to one another.
Well, we could just stop there. But John makes two quick final points. Jesus not only calls us to love Him, but secondly He calls us to sacrifice and then finally He calls us to obey. The second point then is found in the exchange starting in vs 18, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He *said to him, “Follow Me!”
Peter had boasted before the crucifixion that he would follow Jesus to the death if necessary. He would die before denial. But of course, he failed that test when it came and he denied the Lord three times. Now after Peter’s confession of love three times, Jesus tells him that he will be called upon to sacrifice his life for the Lord.
Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside down on a cross, at his own request, so that he would not share the same type of death as Christ. He didn’t feel that he was worthy to die as Christ had died. But whether or not that is true, we aren’t sure. But we do know from what Jesus prophesied that Peter would die a martyrs death when he became old. And I read someone last week that said that he felt Peter would have been glad to hear that. To know that he would be given another opportunity to sacrifice everything for the Lord. I was sort of taken back by that statement, but the more I thought about it, the more I could see it as a possibility. Peter did love the Lord. And I believe that he had meant it when he said he would die for Christ. But when the moment of truth came he failed to follow through. And I’m sure that he wished he could go back and do it again, this time gladly offering himself as a sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. Now, Jesus was offering him the chance to make that sacrifice after all. To claim the victory over fear and selfishness. So I think perhaps it was a more encouraging statement to Peter than what we might think.
I don’t think that martyrdom is something most of us will ever be called on to do. But I do know that being willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus, regardless of how great the cost, is something all disciples are called to do. In fact, three times in the gospels it is recorded that Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Matt.16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23. That’s what agapao love is, sacrificial love. Willing to lay down your life for HIs sake.
Paul defines such love in Romans 12:1, 2, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The final point John indicates in this passage is that we are called to obey. Regardless of what we see other’s doing. Regardless if it seems we are all alone in suffering, or how great the sacrifice. Just obey. If you love the Lord, you will obey.
Vs.20, “Peter, turning around, *saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” So Peter seeing him *said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus *said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
A life that is truly dedicated to the Lord is compelled by love for Christ, characterized by sacrifice for Christ, and content with following Christ in obedience. To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. (1Sam.15:22) Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) Follow Me. That’s a pretty simple directive, isn’t it? Just keep on keeping on. Satan may get you to stumble, you may be a weak disciple, but if you fall, get up, brush yourself off, repent and keep on following Jesus. You may not have all the love that you know you ought to have for God. Just love Him with the love you have. Follow Him with the strength that you have. Jesus will take care of your sin, He will pick you up when you fall, but just keep on following Jesus until Jesus comes back or you go to Him. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Follow Him.
This is how you show that you love the Lord. This is how you grow your love for the Lord. You do as He did. You go where He went. You love as He loved. You imitate Him. You emulate Him. You follow in His footsteps. Peter said as much in 1Peter 2:21 saying, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” You pattern your life as He lived His. Follow Him. That’s what produces agapao love. Not conjuring up some sort of passion or sentimentality. But just follow Him. Don’t quit. Never stop. No matter the cost, no matter the sacrifice. Just follow Jesus.