One of the reasons I believe the Bible is the Word of God is because of the layers of depth that it contains in every passage; truly it is shallow enough for babes to play in, and deep enough for scholars to drown. A few days ago I would have probably been so arrogant as to state that I had plumbed the depths of John 21:15-17; but last night I saw an even deeper message, at least as beautiful as the surface message.
In order to get there, let me give you some context. This passage revolves around the Apostle Peter, the most vocal of Christ’s followers. His mind was set as to exactly how Christ would ascend to Prophet, Priest, and King of Israel, and he had to be corrected continuously, often quite sharply, over the three years that Christ discipled him. The peak of his errors occurred on the night that Christ was betrayed, Peter said, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus told Peter that before daybreak (the rooster’s crow), Peter would deny him three times (Matthew 26:33-35, Luke 22:33).
Here is where my recent discovery began, for immediately before this, Christ had commanded Peter, “when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32) I realized that Christ had given Peter a command even before Peter was restored; indeed, even before he fell. It reminds me of Isaiah’s amazing prophecy of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, for when that prophecy was made Jerusalem didn’t yet need to be rebuilt, because it was still standing, but the prophecy came to pass perfectly (Isaiah 44:26).
Peter did indeed flee from Christ, he did indeed betray him three times, and he recognized that his sin was grievous to Christ, and he wept bitterly. There is no doubt in my mind that at this time, Peter felt he himself was the Son of Perdition of whom Christ had spoken. Peter would have felt irredeemable and unforgiveable. But even as Peter was a grievous sinner, his God and Saviour is faithful, and Peter says it better than I can as to how he was restored, “[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:24-25) The word for returned is the same word that Jesus used to tell Peter, “when you’ve turned-again (re-turned), strengthen your brothers.” Peter knew by experience and by word that Christ seeks and saves the lost.
So that brings me to the Sea of Galilee in John 21. Christ was raised a few weeks in the past, he has appeared to the Apostles twice before, and they are overjoyed that the Messiah has come, that he has reconciled them to God, he has put their sins away, and he has defeated death. But Peter’s blatant oath that, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away...even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matthew 26:33,35) goes unaddressed, unresolved. On the Sea of Galilee, starting at verse 15, Jesus, sitting next to Peter, looks at his disciples and motions, asking Peter, “Peter, do you love me more than they do?” Jesus’ question is pointed, it is meant to drive Peter’s conscience into introspection, for Jesus doesn’t just ask, “Peter, do you like me?” He asks with a very specific word, agape, a sacrificial love that extends all the way to death, for agape has no greater man than this, that he would lay his life down for his friends (John 15:13). Jesus’ question literally asks, “Peter, would you die for me, even more than these?”
I can’t tell you exactly what Peter’s countenance did, but I imagine that it fell significantly. He responds, “Yes Lord, you know that I philo you.” Peter does not answer Jesus’ question, he can’t, because the last time he told Jesus he would die for him and never leave him, he failed miserably. So Peter says in effect, “I don’t dislike you, there is a genuine brotherly affection (philo) between us; but as to the extent of my faithfulness, I cannot say.” Jesus does the most amazing thing, something that I am hoping this article is building towards; he commissions Peter, “Feed my lambs.”
Jesus asks again, “Peter, do you agape me?” And Peter once again responds, “I philo you.” Jesus commissions Peter again, “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus asks a third question, but he changes it from the previous two, “Peter, do you phileis me?” This question crushes Peter, I can tell you that definitively because verse 17 says, “Peter was grieved because he asked the third time, ‘Phileis me?’” Here is a minor aside from the point I am making, but Peter changes the word he’s using for “knowledge”, previously he had said Jesus was “aware” of all things, but now Peter says, “Lord, you have perfect knowledge, you are omniscient, you know I philo you.” Jesus commissioned Peter a third time, “Feed my sheep.”
In the following verses, Jesus shows Peter that though Peter couldn’t say it, that he would indeed die for Christ. This passage has always strengthened me in my ministry of the gospel. In an age of imaginary ordinations, manmade titles, and worldly governments, I have been strengthened that if there is any affection from me towards Christ, my commission is to love the church; not the building, but the flock inside. I always remember that it is not I who loved God, but God who loved me first, and sent his Son to be a propitiation for my sins (1 John 4:9-11). Apart from Christ, I can do nothing (John 15:5). This is the strength that I received from meditating on this passage, but I wonder if you’ve seen the deeper layer which I so now love?
It was D.L. Moody who said, “The world has yet to see what God can do with a man who is fully committed to him.” Moody said a lot of stupid and unchristian things, but I believe this was the worst. In a synergistic world, a world where we’re all working with God to accomplish his will, we would all fail even more spectacularly than Peter. The world has never, and will never, see a mere human committed to God accomplishing anything. I’ve heard a sermon by Mark Spence that showed how dangerous this thinking was, for Mark was told by a seminary professor that a sinful past would ruin a life of ministry. Fortunately Mark has realized the full reconciliation in Christ and is now an accomplished evangelist and preacher.
But look at Peter, you’d be hardpressed to sin worse than him, breaking a direct promise to the Lord of Glory. Peter was forgiven, and more than forgiven, he was entrusted and commissioned. If you forgive someone, but refuse to trust them again, you have not really forgiven them. Christ forgives perfectly, he entrusts, he gives his followers who are the greatest failures the biggest responsibility. He works in us to accomplish his will perfectly, building his church masterfully. His grace is magnified in the fact that he turns his enemies into his closest of trusted ministers and friends. He states that those who have been forgiven much, love much (Luke 7:47).
Peter, that grand failure, was fully forgiven, fully entrusted, fully commissioned to take care of Christ’s most precious asset, his church. Elsewhere Peter puts it this way, “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-5) Then, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)
It was an unexpected find, but one that has greatly edified me, that Christ has chosen to forgive and commission his saints before even they have asked for forgiveness; even before they need forgiveness. It does not matter the extent of your sin, or the gravity of your betrayal, for the blood of Christ cleanses from all unrighteousness. He restores the fallen, he builds his church out of the least likely materials, and he strengthens and empowers his ministers to love his church.
One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
– Philippians 3:13-14