Do you love me? (John 21)


Easter is past and spring is here.

  • Longer daylight. Warmth. / Pollen & allergies. / Baseball.

*Fans of new rules? How ‘bout dem O’s hon!?!
*Baseball was my first love. Played little league every year for 13 years.

Baseball is a beautiful sport bc it requires a team and not solely one player taking over a game. It’s also very challenging to swing a round bat against a speeding round ball. In fact, the highest baseball single season batting average is .426 and that was in 1901. In other words, 42.6% of the time the person was able to hit the ball; so less than ½. In my lifetime, the closest to that was Tony Gwynn in 1994 averaging .397; and last years 2022 was .326; which is typically high in the modern era.

Think of how many other jobs can have 1/3 rate of success and 2/3 failure rate, and still count as high performance?

Similarly, basketball is another sport with an important skill in the ability to rebound. A rebound occurs after someone has missed a shot. A missed shot happens when a player tosses the ball too high, too hard, too long, too soft, too short – ultimately because the players focus and perspective was out of balance from reality, OR because the opposing team created a defense that frustrated and foiled the player’s ambitions. Further, sometimes the defense creates a foul that was an illegal move hampering the players shot. Regardless, coaches teach their players to eagerly pursue rebounds of missed shots.

In the Bible, there are lots of people who have a low rate of success and a high rate of failure but are still used prominently by God. Many of God’s servants had high ambitions but missed their target and had to deal with the consequences of missing their shot. Some of the most significant characters of the Bible have been on the rebound of life.

Today’s study will examine how to recover after failure. Further, this message is last (for now) in a series of messages on the hard sayings of Jesus. This hard saying comes from John 21:17 where Jesus asks Peter the question: Do you love me?

EXAMINE      John 21:17 Do you love me?

We need to start the message from John 21 in the previous chapter 20. Essentially, John is writing about events after Jesus’ resurrection. Various eyewitnesses tell us that Jesus appeared to multiple individuals and small groups of people.

  • Isn’t that amazing? If I was Jesus, I would probably have gone to the large Jerusalem Temple complex or some public stadium to announce the news to massive crowds. Instead, Jesus shows profound personal intimacy and tenderness among individuals and friends of His resurrection.
  • But let’s not be mistaken. He spent 40-days talking to over 500 eyewitnesses. Any of these individuals and places could have disproved a lie if it were so. Government authorities tried to renounce the rumors of a resurrected Jesus. But the witnesses could not be silent – regardless of the painful persecution they faced (cf Ac 4:20).

So, John 20 tells of Jesus appearing to all the disciples – and showing Thomas His nail pierced hands and punctured side. Then John 20:30-31 summarizes 30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31  but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

It seems the music is sounding a crescendo and credits are starting to roll with a nice ending to the book. However, John offers this surprising post-credit scene. Like the popular Marvel movie post-credit scenes that become teasers for future films, John 21 helps us understand how Peter rebounds from his denials and failures against Jesus and are precursors to Peter’s prime role in the early church.
21: 25  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 21
1  After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way.
2  Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together.
3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Peter had denied Jesus 3x in His most demanding moment. At this point, Peter knows Jesus has been resurrected. But it still seems like Peter isn’t quite himself. His letdowns determined his outlook. So, he returns to his old life of fishing.

Many people who drift from Jesus, or who have defied God with an act of sin return to their old life. They restart old habits. They rekindle old flames. And they deviate even further from the path of following Jesus.

And look how it was turning out for Peter: that night they caught nothing. What once was pleasurable and prosperous for Peter is now empty. In Peter’s life, he had seen too much to be happy in his old life apart from Jesus, but he was too discouraged to move forward in his faith.

Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt stuck – where you don’t necessarily want to run from God, but you don’t exactly want to run toward Him? Sometimes emotions and feelings can drive our decisions rather than grace-based truth.

Sometimes emotions and feelings can drive our decisions rather than grace-based truth.

4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children/Boys, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.”

I love this image because it reminds us that we can be adrift at sea with fruitless labor, but Jesus is standing on the shore waiting for us to return.

6  He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish.

The disciples were trained fishermen; it was their previous livelihood. They knew how to fish and that after a full night of catching nothing, tossing the net 6’ over was not going to make a difference. Yet, they had experienced this before (Lk 5:1-11).

Illustration: A woodpecker continuously knocking at a tree and while doing so lightning strikes. He thinks to himself, look at what I did. Obedience to God is about faithful effort in the right things and trusting Him with the results. God can accomplish in one moment more than we could in a lifetime of effort.

So, at the command of Jesus, the disciples cast the net to the other side of the boat. This time, instead of pulling up empty nets, they retrieved a heavy haul of fish that they had to tow it back to shore.

7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.

Seemingly, Peter wasn’t paying much attention but with the heavy haul of fish recognized the Lord’s work. Peter’s mindset immediately changes from fishing to hurrying to Jesus. Placing on his outer garment would have slowed his swimming, but he didn’t want to have to later leave Jesus’ presence, so he took it with him.

8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. 9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.

For Peter, the warmth and whiff of a charcoal fire likely caused him to reflect on his faith relationship with the Lord. In one moment, Peter protested knowing anything about Jesus while standing by a warm fire (Jn 18:18). This moment encompassed embarrassment and regret. Then about three days later, Peter faced another charcoal fire (Jn 21:9). Jesus grilled fish to feed the disciples and renew their faith in His resurrection power. For Peter, this moment was exemplifying forgiving grace. What was once a painful memory had been refined by fire to purify the genuineness of faith, which results in the praise, glory, and honor of Jesus Christ (1 Pt 1:6-7).

10  Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”
11  So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.

Previously, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and here He is cooking them breakfast. He is ever the servant! Notice the haul of fish numbered 153. This was not uncommon for professional fishermen who wanted precise profit at the daily market. A popular explanation for this specific number of fish is from an early church father Jerome (347-420AD) who noted at that time there were 153 different species known at that time.[1] In other words, Jesus wanted the disciples to catch all kinds of fish/people from every nation. In specific, the numerical symbolism is likely uncertain beyond a substantial quantity.

13  Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.

This is a possible allusion to the Lord’s Supper again. The imagery was definitely popular in early church art. Note the addition of fish, which helps us to remember the meal elements are not the focus but the message and presence to which they point.  

*Excursus: It’s been said that the Bible’s narrative arc can be traced with meals. From humanity’s meal in the Garden of Eden that caused a curse; to God’s Passover meal rescuing Israel out of slavery; to the sacrifices being a sweet aroma to the Lord; to the final sacrifice of Jesus with the Lord’s Supper relating the bread and the cup to the body of Christ; and ultimately to the marriage feast of the Lamb in the new heavens. Jesus longs to eat, drink, feast, and be merry with us. So, shall we enjoy every micro-fellowship that gives us hints of heaven.

14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love (
ἀγαπᾷς) me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (φιλῶ) you.” He said to him, “Feed (βόσκω) my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love (ἀγαπᾷς) me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (φιλῶ) you.” He said to him, “Tend/Shepherd (ποιμαίνω) my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love (φιλεῖς) me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love (φιλεῖς) me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (φιλῶ) you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed (βόσκω) my sheep.

After breakfast, Jesus and Peter have an engaging dialogue. While Peter has seen the resurrected Jesus at least 3x after his betrayal, Jesus initiates communication again with Peter. God is always the initiator of our salvation and spiritual growth. God’s love for us is greater than our love for Him.

Peter was embarrassed and guilty, and all the disciples knew his failure, as they knew their own. Yet Jesus ended the silence and sought to restore Peter. This restoration was more than a simple brotherly check-in, “Hey Jesus, are we ok?” “Yes, we’re ok Peter.” Instead, Jesus was asking Peter the most pivotal question in all of relationships: “Do you love me?” And Jesus spoke of the highest form of love – agape.

Jesus was asking Peter the most pivotal question in all of relationships: “Do you love me?” #John21

*Consider when a marriage is unsettled or unraveling. The spouses going to counseling can answer all sorts of questions about issues, attitudes, actions, but the hope of their relationship rests with their commitment to love; realizing that love is not just a feeling but a decision, and not just about receiving but giving. Love is a decision to give heart and body.

Previously, Peter insisted he loved Jesus.

  • Jn 13:37 “Peter said, “Lord, I will lay down my life for you.”
  • Mk 14:31 “Peter said emphatically, “I will never deny you.”
  • Jn 18:10 “Peter struck the arresting guard Malchus with a sword and cut off his ear.”
  • Jn 21 – Peter is trying to catch fish, he’s casting nets, he’s swimming first to see Jesus (while they row – likely same speed), he’s talking to Jesus, he’s back at the boat hauling fish, he’s bringing fish to cook… Peter’s trying to prove his worth and love to Jesus.

Yet, Jesus asks three times if Peter loves Him. Jesus uses the word “agape”, and Peter responds that he loves “phileo.” The third time, Jesus uses the same word as Peter, and Peter is grieved (Jn 21:17). While these words are sometimes used interchangeably, we must note that Jesus is intentionally probing Peter’s heart with these questions.[2]

Further, Peter exclaims, ““Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (φιλ) you.”

Let’s reflect on this exchange like this:

There are three people inside each of us.
1) The person we believe we are.
2) The person others perceive we are.
3) The person God knows we are.

Having integrity is all three of these merging together. For Peter, he perceived himself better than he was. Jesus knew the answer to these questions but He wanted Peter to admit that he didn’t.

Jesus wasn’t creating a dream team of disciples. All of them fell short. Instead, Jesus sought disciples with integrity and humility.

  • Isa 66:2 “this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
  • Ps 51:6, 17 “God delights in truth/honesty in the inward being… The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

There are three people inside each of us.
1) The person we believe we are.
2) The person others perceive we are.
3) The person God knows we are.
Having integrity is all three of these merging together.


Two closing reflections and applications from this passage:

  1. When we treat failure as a learning opportunity and not a life destination, then we are beginning to understand the gospel of grace. No follower of Jesus is perfect. Peter was not a great apostle because of his successes but because he was a student of grace. If we try to avoid failure, we end up suffocating faith and discounting grace. When we try to be perfect so others can look upon our good works then we are not properly giving God glory. Unfortunately, it’s easier to receive grace in our unrighteousness than it is in our self-righteousness.

    Many people of faith are content with ½ the gospel. We know we need to repent of our sin, but we still think we can earn grace and favor with our good works. So, we keep all the plates spinning: praying, Bible reading, attending church, serving ministries (multiple roles), succeeding at career, making people happy and not letting anyone down… except, inside we exhausted and empty. It’s too easy to turn faith into a transaction or balancing act where our serving and self-righteousness makes God owe us.

    God knows our humanity and heart better than we are willing to admit. So, we must not suffocate our faith or discount grace. Instead, we must be honest with God for how much we need Him.

Failure is not something we should be afraid. Malcolm Muggeridge beautifully said, ‘Christianity, from Golgotha onwards, has been the sanctification of failure.’ Like Peter, the great rock, rose from the rock heap of failure, we face our weakness inadequacy so that God’s strength can be made perfect in our weakness.”[3]

à Confess your comprehensive need for Jesus.

If we try to avoid failure, we end up suffocating faith and discounting grace.

Malcolm Muggeridge: “Christianity, from Golgotha onwards, has been the sanctification of failure.”

2) Serving God to feed and care for others comes from the overflow of feasting with Jesus. Jesus says, “Come have breakfast.” I’ll show you where to cast the net. I’ll provide the food. I’ll cook and serve the meal. And when you’re dining in my presence to taste and see the goodness of the LORD, then you will not be able to keep silent or still. Your enjoyment will become contagious so that others will want living water and life-giving grace.

The spiritually healthy Christian is not working for approval but partnership. Our joy is less in the doing and more in the being with God in our service. In this case, serving is always joyful and satisfying because we know our audience is the LORD not people. Serving becomes draining when we are not operating from the overflow of being with God. We cannot feed God’s sheep until we are fueling up and feasting with Jesus.

à Spend time with Jesus personally AND tangibly by being part of a “family group” of Christ followers. This fills you up so that you know better how and where to serve. What lambs are you feeding?

The spiritually healthy Christian is not working for approval but partnership. Our joy is less in the doing and more in the being with God in our service.

[1] Jerome, Commentaria in Ezichielem, Lib. xiv, Cap. 47; cf. PL 26. 474C. Quoted in Pillar NT Commentary by D.A. Carson on John 21:11

[2] For full discussion of this interchange see D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 676–678.

[3] R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 464.

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