When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”
Jesus of Nazareth and Simon, son of Jonah, also known as Peter, were friends. Peter was a fisherman, yet Jesus called him to a leadership role among his disciples. Peter was gifted with remarkable insight into Jesus (Matthew 16:15-19), but he had ideas about Jesus’ ministry that ran contrary to Jesus’ own, and the two men clashed (Mark 1:35-38; Matthew 16:21-23).
Early in his relationship with Jesus, Peter told him, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Jesus’ presence must have evoked a sense of guilt in Peter, but Jesus declined his plea and promised to make him a fisher of men (5:9-10).
That glimpse by Peter into the darkness in his own heart was only the initial stage of a journey to a realistic self-assessment. Yet despite his protestation, Peter still saw himself as a loyal disciple. On the evening before Jesus died, Peter assured Jesus that he would accompany him even to death (Mark 14:27-31). Peter’s braggadocio was ill founded. An hour or so later, menaced by a hostile crowd, he would deny having any relationship with Jesus (John 13:36-38; 18:15-18, 25-27).
Three days later, when Jesus rose from the dead, one of the first items on his agenda was to confront Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:4-5). We have no transcript of the meeting, but it is easy to imagine how abject Peter was (consider Mark 14:72). Whatever Jesus said, it must have included an offer of forgiveness, for the two emerged from the encounter with their friendship restored. This brings us to the present scene.
After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter and several other disciples go back to their homes along the Sea of Galilee. One night they go fishing on the lake. They don’t catch anything, but in the morning as they are returning, they see Jesus standing on the shore. He tells them to lower their nets. When they do, they catch a huge number of fish. In a burst of enthusiasm, Peter dives into the water and swims to Jesus while the others bring the boat to land. Jesus cooks a breakfast of grilled fish. After the meal, he takes Peter aside for the conversation in our reading [John 21:9-22]. It is the last time the two of them talk with each other one-on-one in the Gospels.
Jesus’ question—“Do you love me?”—touches Peter in his still very sensitive spot, his painful memory of having denied Jesus. But Jesus is probing the wound only to heal. By asking the question three times, he gives Peter the opportunity to replace his threefold denial with a threefold affirmation.
Jesus’ triple response, in turn, points Peter toward what he must do to demonstrate his restored love: care for Jesus’ other followers. For Peter, the fulfillment of this leadership role will not be something that feeds his ego. After his denial of Jesus and Jesus’ restoration of their friendship, Peter’s exercise of his ministry will be an expression of gratitude to Jesus, a means of showing Jesus that he really does love him. Soon Jesus will no longer be physically present, but Peter will experience the continuation of their friendship as he goes about teaching and encouraging his fellow believers—perhaps the way a widow might experience her husband’s presence as she carries on raising their children.
Peter’s relationship with Jesus will be on firmer ground after his failure, built no longer on Peter’s vain assessment of his own strength and courage but on his experience of Jesus’ forgiveness and kindness. Only Peter’s failure could enable him to see himself realistically—and convince him that Jesus knew him better than he knew himself.
Shameful as Peter’s failing of Jesus was, it will now give his service to Jesus a distinctive quality. Peter will be conscious of the fact that his role of leadership is not only a gift from Jesus, but also a gift that has been restored after he forfeited it. Surely this will infuse Peter’s ministry with a quality of mercy toward others that it might otherwise have lacked, as Peter “pays forward” the kindness he has received.
Jesus took the long view of Peter’s life. From the beginning he looked into Peter and saw the bad and the good, the weakness and the pride that blinded him to it, and his potential for great love. He took Peter as he was, knowing what Peter could become. This touches on the most remarkable aspect of Jesus’ friendship with Peter and the other men and women he called to follow him. He invited them to follow him knowing in advance that they would sometimes fail him. But he offered them his friendship so that they might become the men and women they wanted to be—men and women who loved and served him with their whole lives. Jesus made them his friends so that he might truly make them his friends, because his friendship with them was the only way they could become his true friends.
In the same way, Jesus calls us today. As we meet the challenges that arise in our following him, we discover things about ourselves that we do not like—weaknesses and sins. The dimension of our sins that comes to grieve us the most is our disloyalty and ingratitude toward him. For us, as for Peter, Jesus’ friendship becomes the deepest motivation for repentance and change of heart. Jesus shows himself to be the friend beyond all friends who enables us to be true friends with him—the very thing that we desire as we come to know him more deeply.
Excerpted from The Gift of Repentance (Keys to the Bible Series) by Kevin Perrotta (The Word Among Us, 2014). Available at wau.org/books