I love fishing. Some of my fondest fishing memories are with my dad, enjoying the tranquility on the river as we chat about life. Even if we came home empty-handed, those trips were successful because I had been with my dad.
Maybe it’s those fond memories that make John 21 one of my favourite narratives in the New Testament. In this case, though, Peter goes fishing not because he loves it, but because of the memory of failing his Lord.
The bitter disappointment of denying his Master three times during Jesus’ trial (Matthew 26:69–75) must have weighed heavily on Peter’s heart. After hearing of Jesus’ resurrection and seeing the empty tomb for himself (Luke 24:12), how should Peter act when he sees Jesus? The rest of the disciples are excited when Jesus suddenly appears in the upper room (John 20:19–20), but I wonder if Peter stays back, not knowing what to say.
Following Jesus’ command to go to Galilee where the disciples will meet him again (Matthew 28:7), Peter announces, “I’m going out to fish” (John 21:3).
I don’t think Peter is bored or hungry. I think he is pondering his last three years as a disciple and concluding he doesn’t have what it takes to be Jesus’ disciple. In desperation, he decides to do the one thing he’s good at: fishing.
Don’t give up…
I can relate to Peter’s feelings of doubt and overwhelming sense of failure as he sits on the shoreline waiting for Jesus.
After working almost 20 years in the construction industry and taking several years of schooling to prepare for full-time ministry, I can see myself in Peter. I wish I could say I let go of my stable career willingly. Instead, Jesus had to pry open my hands, one finger at a time, until I was face-to-face with the choice of either trusting him or trusting myself.
There are still times when the comfortable is so inviting: I want to be in a place where I know who I am and what I’m supposed to do, where I almost don’t need Jesus because I’m so in control.
But it didn’t help Peter. After spending all night on the sea and not catching anything, I wonder if Peter felt even more dejected. Maybe he thought, “The one thing I thought I knew how to do, I mess up too!” And just at that moment, Jesus appears on the scene.
Because Jesus doesn’t!
In true Jesus fashion, he cuts right to the heart and asks Peter,
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15).
Jesus asks Peter three times, and three times Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (vs. 15, 16, 17).
The first two times, Jesus uses the word agape, which indicates sacrificial love. However, Peter answers using phileo, meaning brotherly love. The third time, Jesus uses the word Peter had been using, “Peter, do you phileo me?” (v. 17).
“Peter is hurt” (v. 17). The three questions echo Peter’s three denials, but there may be another reason why Peter is sad.
When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him sacrificially, all Peter can give is a brotherly kind of love. When Jesus comes to Peter’s level, Peter has to recognize his own lack of commitment.
John 21:15 “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Rely on him
But Jesus doesn’t give up on Peter. The question isn’t how Jesus will come to terms with Peter’s denial, but how Peter will come to terms with his own shortcomings.
Failures in our lives present us with opportunities to learn to rely more on Jesus, less on ourselves. I have come to understand that God’s calling me away from construction into vocational ministry was not to present me with a more meaningful way to serve him, but to teach how much I need him, regardless of what I do for a living.
God asks all of us to let go of whatever we’re holding on to, be it dreams and aspirations, relationships or job security.
I started to let go when I allowed God to speak to me in a new way. When this journey started, I had no idea where he was leading or how I would end up serving him. But that’s how God operates. He stands on the shore of our lives and points to the things we have in our nets and asks, “Do you love me more than these…?”
Jesus has a plan for Peter: “Feed my sheep” (v. 17). But it requires letting go of his net. We can’t follow Jesus if we drag our past commitments with us.
Jesus tells Peter to focus on following him and nothing else (v. 20–22). Where’s your focus?
—Denis Federau is the lead pastor at Nechako Community Church, Vanderhoof, B.C.