Topic Scripture: John 21:15–19
Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl in 2002. The only player from that team still playing in the NFL was the kicker, Adam Vinatieri.
When Brady played in that game, what didn’t exist? There was no iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or Uber. U2 performed during the Super Bowl halftime show and paid tribute to the victims of 9/11.
Brady is the winningest quarterback in NFL history. With today’s game, he has more Super Bowl appearances than every team in the NFL (except the Patriots, of course).
He has won the most Super Bowls of any quarterback and the most Super Bowl MVP awards in history. But here’s what most people don’t know: if the Patriots lose to the Rams today, he will tie Jim Kelly as the losingest quarterback in Super Bowl history.
As we’ll see today, our culture views success differently than our Lord does.
What about your past most bothers you today? Let’s learn from Peter how to make peace with our past by trusting our failures to the God who redeems all he allows.
From Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee
We left Peter last week in the courtyard of the high priest. It was Thursday night, and his Lord has just been arrested. Peter had promised Jesus, “Even though they all fall away [referring to the other disciples], I will not” (Mark 14:29). Jesus warned him, “This very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times” (v. 30). Peter replied emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you” (v. 31).
And then he did, three times.
The next day was Good Friday. The One Peter promised to die with was executed on a Roman cross, but Peter was nowhere to be found. Later that day, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried his body while the women watched, but Peter was absent.
The next day passed in Scripture without recorded events. Then came Easter Sunday and the resurrection of our Lord, but Peter was not there. That night, Jesus revealed himself to the disciples, including Peter (John 20:19–20). He revealed himself to them again the next week.
Afterward, Peter and several of the disciples returned to fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus met them there and made them breakfast on the shore.
Now our text picks up the story: “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?'” (John 21:15a). Note that he referred to him by his given name, “Simon,” which meant “Sandy,” and not the nickname Jesus gave him—Peter, which meant “Rocky.”
“More than these” could refer to the boats, nets, and gear; in other words, “Do you love me more than the business to which you have returned?” Or Jesus could have been pointing to the other disciples, remembering that Peter had promised not to betray his Lord even if the others did. Jesus could have been referring to both.
He didn’t ask if Peter was sorry, or if he promised not to do it again. He asked if Peter loved him, knowing that if we truly love our Lord, we will not deny him.
Peter replied, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” (v. 15b). There is perhaps an interesting wordplay here. Jesus used the Greek word agape, meaning “unconditional love”; Peter replied with phileo, meaning “brotherly love.” John often uses the two words interchangeably, so I wouldn’t build an entire theology on this point. But he seems to have meant the words to convey different kinds of love here: Jesus asked if Peter loved him without conditions or exceptions, while Peter was honest enough to admit that he loved him as a friend.
Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs” (v. 15c), restoring Peter to his place as the leader of the apostles. Note that they are Jesus’ lambs, not Peter’s. Our job is to care for his people.
Then Jesus repeated his question, again using the word agape (v. 16a). Peter made the same reply, using the word phileo (v. 16b). And Jesus again commissioned him to “tend my sheep” (v. 16c).
Then Jesus asked the question a third time. This time, however, he used the word phileo. Peter replied with phileo as well (v. 17). And “he was grieved” by this third question, perhaps because Jesus lowered his question to Peter’s level, or perhaps because the third question reminded him of his three denials of his Lord.
Three denials led to three affirmations of his love for Jesus. Then our Lord responded: “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” (v. 18).
This seemed a strange prediction to make, so John explained it: “(This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.”) (v. 19a). John outlived Peter by some thirty years and knew that Jesus’ prediction did describe the apostle’s death. According to ancient tradition, Peter was arrested by the Romans and sentenced to be executed but told the soldiers that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as did his Lord. As a result, he was crucified upside down (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.1.2).
Then Jesus concluded: “After saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me'” (v. 19b).
Facts about failure and faith
From this remarkable event we learn three facts about failure and faith.
One: God can forgive any sin we confess to him.
Peter denied Jesus, but when he reaffirmed his love for his Lord, he was forgiven. This was not a privilege afforded only to Peter—this is our Father’s heart for all his children.
God’s word is clear: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We confess our sins, not to inform God or to earn his forgiveness, but to position ourselves to receive his grace.
When we do, he promises us: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become as wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
What does he do with our sins when he forgives them? “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). Where does he put them? “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Will he bring them up again? “I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).
Jesus died for every sin every sinner would ever commit. His blood paid our debt, no matter how much we owe. What our Lord did for Peter, he is ready to do for us.
Two: God can redeem any failure we trust to him.
Peter denied his Lord three times. Moses murdered an Egyptian and then fled as a felon. David committed adultery with Bathsheba, then arranged for the execution of her husband. Saul of Tarsus conspired to murder Christians.
What did God do with Peter, and Moses, and David, and Paul?
Satan doesn’t want us to believe this. He loves to tempt us to commit sin, then hold our failure against us. Over the years, I have found that highly successful people struggle especially here. They hold themselves to a high standard and are especially unforgiving when they fall short.
But know this: guilt is not of God. Whatever you have confessed, God has forgiven. What you have trusted to him, he can and will redeem.
Three: God can use any life yielded to him.
As we will see in coming weeks, Peter would lead the disciples in the Upper Room, preach the sermon at Pentecost, write two books of the Bible, and break the Jewish/Gentile barrier to allow billions of Gentiles into the kingdom of God. No life in Christian history has been more consequential.
But the road back started on the side of this lake. So can ours.
Where are you in our story? Every one of us is either Peter before breakfast or Peter after breakfast.
Perhaps you’re where Peter was before his breakfast with Jesus. You’re weighted down with failures and guilt from the past and wonder if God can use your life fully.
But you don’t have to stay there. You can be Peter after breakfast. You can make peace with your past by trusting it to the Prince of Peace. You can give him all that you’ve done and trust him for all that he will do with your life.
He’s come to you, making this your Sea of Galilee moment. What you do with it is your choice.
I was in a physical therapist’s office this week working on some back issues when I saw an interesting poster on the wall. It pictured a man who recovered from a brain injury to become a decathlete. He had written beside his picture these words: “The difference between adversity and opportunity is attitude. Make your choice.”
As you do, remember that God has already made his choice. He will forgive any sin, redeem any failure, and use any life surrendered to him. Including yours.
Why is his promise relevant to you today?