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Well, you may not realize it from week to week in the sanctuary because you’re facing this way and I’m facing that way, but there’s a big clock in the back that tells me when I’m supposed to be done, so that’s the bad news. The good news is I have a bright sun shining on my face and down on your heads as well, and so we have motivation to be somewhat succinct this morning. It’s good to be with you, good to see you, and good to gather around God’s Word.
I know it may be difficult. Maybe you weren’t able to bring your Bible, but if you have one with you, or you’re able to access one on a phone, would you turn to John 21. We are almost done with this series we have been in for years now, and coming to the end, John chapter 21, looking at verses 15 through 19 this morning.
Let’s ask for the Lord’s help. Gracious Lord, give us now ears to hear Your Word, minds to understand, hearts to believe, and wills to obey. We pray for Jesus’ sake and in His name. Amen.
John 21, beginning at verse 15.
“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.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved 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. 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.” (This He said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this He said to him, “Follow me.””
The persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire was sporadic, but at times it could be intense. And one of the times of intense persecution was under the emperor Diocletian, who ruled at the end of the 3rd century A.D. The persecution was especially intense for pastors, priests, bishops. Many were beaten, imprisoned, tortured, some were martyred. Many Christians, both clergy and lay people, gave in to the imperial power and pressure. They worshiped pagan gods, they gave up churches or artifacts, they handed over the Scriptures to be burned or destroyed. And remember, this is the time when you don’t have a dozen Bibles in your home. It was the prized possession of your community that your church might have its own copy of God’s Word and some handed them over to be burned or destroyed.
But you think about, some of those pastors were told “hand over your copy of the Scriptures or we will kill everyone in your church.” Then what would you do?
Once the persecution ended, the Church was left with an even more difficult question: What do we do with those who fell away and now want to come back?
If you know some of your history, you know that in the 4th century Constantine converted to Christianity and Christianity went from being the subject of persecution in the Empire to then receiving imperial favor and status. There were some who were called confessors. That was the name for the heroes, those who stood firm despite persecution. And then there were the traditores, they were called, the hander-overs, those who betrayed the faith. What do you do with those who betrayed the faith and now want to come back and some of them to their positions of authority or leadership?
Well, as you might imagine, the Church was divided and there were some who were on one end of the spectrum and wanted to be quite lax, quickly, easily, let’s just move on, let’s be done with it, glad the persecution is over, and let’s not even ask too many questions, let’s just welcome them back.
And then there were others who said, now wait a minute. These heroes who were tortured for the faith, were they tortured for nothing? You’re telling us that you can hand over God’s Word, you can worship pagan gods, and suffer nothing and then you can come back when the time is right and receive your position again? What about those who had suffered and what about their ministry? Those who had fallen away?
Well, in time there was a stricter group in Carthage, the Roman Empire, North Africa, and they elected their own bishop, a man by the name of Donatus and for the next number of decades the controversy around Donatism roiled in the North African church. There was a schism between the Roman church and the Donatists. They had their rival bishops. And wasn’t just like you might have, “Well, that’s my pastor,” “that’s my pastor.” No, everything you have to remember was intermeshed with politics, and so it was kind of like saying, “Well, that’s my President,” “no, that’s my President,” “that’s the king,” “no, he’s the king.” They had rival bishops.
And those who were on the very strict side, the Donatists they were later called, said that their priest was the legitimate priest, or the legitimate bishop, because he wasn’t tainted by the laying on of hands of any of these traitors to the faith. The controversy was deepened by economic, social tensions, but at its core it was also theological. The Donatists believed anyone consecrated by one of these lax bishops or any bishop that had been consecrated in turn by another lax bishop, then that consecration was invalid, the sacraments there were invalid, and the whole ministry was invalid. Donatism was deemed a heresy early on in the dispute in 314, but it would be almost another century before the theological battle was more fully decided.
You may know the name of Augustin. He was involved in almost every theological controversy in the 4th and into the 5th century, and he was in this one as well. Now, he didn’t get everything right. He was a man of his time, and he developed his Just War Theory in order to go at war against the Donatists. But he was right in his theological point: The validity of any right administered by the Church does not ultimately depend upon the moral virtue of the person administering it.
And you think that must be right, otherwise you’re asking an endless series of questions, “How holy do you have to be for the sermon to count?” And let me just say, this is not setting you up for any true confessions by your pastor, this is just leading to our text.
The Donatists, though we might sympathize with them, and their rigor for the faith, they made three crucial mistakes.
One, we cannot create a true church by looking simply to the unimpeachable lives of the members. Now, yes, there must be church discipline, yes, we want holiness and defined by grace. But the Donatists said first of all “We are the ones who… are holy… We are the ones who have not fallen away,” rather than defining themselves by saying “We are the ones for whom God has done something.”
Their second mistake was to think that the Church’s ministry was tied ultimately to the worthiness of the one ministering it. And here again, let me say, no excuse for wicked ministers or Bible study leaders or elders. There are standards, character matters to God and to others. We believe in church discipline. But the effectiveness of the Word is tied to the power of the Word. Some of you have probably had that sad experience. Maybe some other church or maybe just someone whose books you read or whose sermons you listen to online, and to see someone leave the ministry, fall from grace and you’ve been left with the question, “What do I do with all that I learned?” Well, the effectiveness of God’s Word is ultimately tied to the power of God’s Word, though it may be administered by sinful men.
And then third, and most obvious, and here I promise we’re coming now to the text, the mistake of the Donatists, though this does not seem to be the main thrust of the debate, it may be the most important thing for our consideration: They forgot about forgiveness. Yes, there are Judases in the faith, but there are also Peters. There are some who betray the Lord Jesus to their utter perdition, and there are those who deny Him and yet Christ welcomes them back.
If you look here in chapter 21, we need to say at the outset, Jesus is not laying out a one-size-fits-all plan for restoration. You have to remember Peter was not yet fully endowed with the Holy Spirit from Pentecost. He was more like a ministry trainee than he was a decades-long pastor. And he comes to his senses quickly and with his sin there were not complicating layers of those he had sinned against. It was a grievous sin, but it wasn’t an affair, it wasn’t that he had stolen money from someone or hurt someone in the congregation, so yes, we understand that Jesus is not saying the one-size-fits-all approach to restore anyone who has sinned is simply ask them three questions and everything is back to normal.
But laying out that caveats, let me make sure we do not miss the main point, and the main point is this: Your past failure does not have to be your future legacy. Your past failure does not have to be your future legacy.
Now for some of you, you’ll tuck this away and maybe someday the Lord will bring it to mind when you need this word about forgiveness. But for others of you, you know it all too well. Your past failure may be this past week and where you were online or what you said or what you thought or where your eyes wandered. Or for others you can too easily recollect something from 10, 20 years ago that though you wish were forgotten, in the stillness of the night it comes back, and you need to hear from God’s Word that your past failure does not have to be your future legacy.
Quickly we see Jesus teaches Peter on the road to restoration three lessons with his sin: Own it, say it, and then show that you have been changed by it.
First then, He wants Peter to own it. Notice Jesus addresses him first of all as Simon Peter. Simon, son of John. When He first called Peter, in John chapter 1, He says “you shall be called Peter for you will be a rock.” Well, he has hardly seemed like a rock, more like just rocky. You’ve not been a rock but here I’m calling you Simon Bar-Jonah. I’m giving you a second chance to be the rock that I want you to be. And He asks him the question, “Do you love Me more than these?” Do you love Me more than these.
Have you ever stopped to think what are “the these” to which Jesus is referring? It could be He’s saying “Do you love Me more than you love these disciples?” because remember He had breakfast here, seven of the disciples saw Him, had breakfast on the shore, they’re still there. “Do you love Me more than you love these disciples?” Well, that’s not a theme anywhere in John’s Gospel really, comparing the love he has for the other disciples with Jesus.
It could be that He’s saying, “Do you love Me more than these things?” meaning the fishing nets and the fish that they just caught and the fishing boats that just came to shore. Do you love Me more than your old way of life? But there’s really nothing that Jesus seems to be particularly negative about regarding the fishing. And besides, most of them in that crew were fishermen, so why single out Peter that he alone has to renounce fishing? Okay, some of you, that’s all you’re going to remember from this sermon: Pastor said, honey, I don’t have to renounce fishing to follow Jesus. Okay, that’s not what Jesus is saying.
He means, “Do you love Me more than these other disciples love Me?” Doesn’t that make sense of what we’ve seen in the Gospel? Think about Peter, impetuous bold Peter, so often the first to claim something, the first to do something, the first to put his big foot in his mouth. He walked on water, for a time. He confessed Jesus was the Christ. At the arrest and betrayal he was the one who drew his sword and struck off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the priest. He was the first to race into the empty tomb of the disciples and see the clothes. John 13:37: Peter says, “Lord, why can I not follow you? No, I will lay down my life for you.”
And in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 26, Peter says “though they all fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” Multiple times Peter had boasted, oh, they’re not going to do it, these other yahoos aren’t cut out for it, but I’m gonna follow you to the end, Jesus. I’m tracking with you. I will never leave you.
That supposed superiority has proved to be an illusion, for you know that three times Peter, despite his loud bravado, betrayed, denied Jesus. And so three times Jesus asks, “Do you love Me?” to mirror the three times that Peter denied his Lord, and three times Peter says to Jesus, “You know that I love You.”
Let me just give you a parentheses here. Some of you may have encountered this in a Bible study or a commentary or a study in John’s Gospel sometime. People will try to make a big deal about the Greek words that are used for “love,” that Jesus says in the first two questions “do you love Me?” and He uses the word “agapao,” “agape,” and then Peter responds, “You know that I love You” and he uses the word “phileo,” like Philadelphia, city of brotherly love. Do you agape? He says “phileo.” And then the third time Jesus says do you “phileo” and Peter says, yes, I “phileo.” And some people make a big deal and say, “See, Peter couldn’t even bring himself to express that real Christian kind of spiritual agape kind of love, he only could express that he had this phileo kind of love.”
Well, that’s not the way the Greek words work. They’re used interchangeably throughout the Gospel and we’re right to think that that they’re used interchangeably here. Jesus speaks of His love for His disciples using “agapao” in chapter 15 and “phileo” in chapter 16. John is called the “disciple whom Jesus loves” with agapao in chapter 13, phileo in chapter 20. The Father loves the Son, the Greek word agapao is used in chapter 3, phileo in chapter 5. You get the point. Over and over, these two words are used interchangeably.
It’s just like if someone said to you, “Are you with me?” and you said, “You know I’m fully committed to you.” “Are you with me?” “You know that I’m fully committed to you.” We wouldn’t think as an English speaker to read too much into those different words or expressions. You’re just answering the question with a synonym at that point.
And so we shouldn’t read much into agapao versus phileo.
Peter, look at verse 17, is not relieved when Jesus switches to the other Greek word, phileo. In fact, when He finally switches to that word, Peter’s grieved. Peter’s grieved because he’s realizing now that the three questions are there to match his three-fold betrayal. He told Jesus he would be with Him to the end. Jesus told Peter he would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed, and yes, Jesus was right and Peter wept bitterly. He wants Peter to own it.
Now, God’s not like, you know, “bad doggy, look at what you’ve done,” but He wants us to be honest with our failure. He wants us to be transparent before Him with our sin.
Maybe if you’re a really good Bible memory scholar, you recognize another connection here, because look at chapter 21, verse 9, when they got out on land they saw a charcoal fire in place. A charcoal fire. Well, of course, they need a fire so they can make the fish for breakfast. But do you recall that’s sort of an odd occurrence? There’s one other time in the Gospel where we have a charcoal fire, and it’s back in chapter 18, verse 18: “Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire because it was cold and they were standing and warming themselves, Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.” This is right after he denies Him, denies Christ before the servant girl. Surely there’s something firing in Peter’s brain as he’s there and he can smell the charcoal fire, see it there in his periphery, and recall the last time he was with a charcoal fire… He was denying His Lord three times. And now Jesus will ask him again three times, “Do you love Me?”
To be truly healed, and restored from your sin, you have to look it square in the eye, acknowledge it, refuse to make excuses for it. Notice Peter doesn’t say, “Well, Jesus, I see what you’re doing, but it was dark, it was cold, it was the middle of the night. I was tired. I had been up all night. I wasn’t quite thinking straight.”
No, Peter realizes what’s happening which is why he’s grieved. Jesus wants to teach Peter. Before I start this new mission, you, Peter, need a new start, and it starts with you owning it with recognizing that you can’t blame that on your parents, on your education, on your government. Yes, all of those things matter and they all shape us in who we are, but that was your sin, Peter. Do you see it? Do you own it? Are you, Peter, willing to walk in the light?
And it’s a question for each of you.
Now this doesn’t mean that you have to confess your private sin to everyone publicly. There’s certain layers you confess to those you’ve sinned against or public persons need to confess their sins more publicly. So this isn’t a one-size-fits-all. But sometimes there is a power over you that the devil has in your sin that can only be broken with a reckless honesty. And at times it feels like a reckless honesty. What will people think if they know who I am, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, who I’ve been with? And the devil holds that secret over you, that darkness over you, and it’s with a reckless honesty to own it before the Lord and before whomever must appropriately know of that sin that you find freedom.
Your past failure, Christian, does not have to be your future legacy.
He wants Peter to own it, and He wants Peter to say it. Notice when He asks the question “do you love Me more than these?” Peter does not say, “Well, yes, of course, I love You more than these other disciples love You.” No, he’s learned his lesson. That’s not the case. And he doesn’t simply say, “Of course I love You.” He references each time not just what he is committed to, but what Jesus knows he is committed to.
Verse 15: “You know that I love You.”
Verse 16: “You know that I love You.”
Verse 17: “Lord, You know everything. You know that I love You.”
Now you might say, well, technically, that’s not really a confession. Own it, say it, I thought you were going to say well, you need to say your sin. But that’s often the appropriate next step, but here Jesus is going to get at it in a roundabout way. And in fact He gets at it in an incredibly spiritual way.
It’s easy to regret mistakes. Look, you do not have to be a Christian to feel bad that you do something dumb and you lose your job. You don’t have to have the Spirit of God to regret that you took money or you drank too much or you cheated on a test or you broke the speed limit and lost your license. You don’t have to be a Christian to regret those things. Lots of people do. They make mistakes, they wish they wouldn’t have made mistakes, they face consequences, they’re embarrassed. Everyone wants a second chance.
Jesus’ question goes deeper. It’s as if to say, “Peter, I’m not just asking if you’re sorry for what you did. I know that. You wept bitterly. What I want to know on the other side of that regret, do you love Me?” In acknowledging that, in that way, Peter is in effect admitting that earlier he did not prove to have loved Jesus, not in that moment.
And Peter doesn’t waver. This is important for you. Peter doesn’t over-analyze himself. He doesn’t say, “Well, I’m full of all sorts of layers and hypocrisy and I can’t be sure about my own feelings… ” No, do you love Me? He says straight on, “Jesus, You know that I love You.” I love You and You know, and I know that You know that I love You.
Think about what is most important in ministry. Now, there’s probably lots of good ways you can answer that question, but think about whether you’re someone like me, pastor preaching, most of you aren’t. You have a ministry to your kids, you have a ministry to people in your dorm, you have a ministry to your family, you have a ministry to people in your Bible study. You want to minister to your neighbors. What’s the most important thing? What’s the most important thing in your heart if you’re really going to minister effectively? Isn’t it this question? Honestly, do you love Jesus? It’s such a simple question. It’s disarming.
Because we could ask, wouldn’t this be a more comfortable question, “Do you go to church? Do you affirm the Apostles’ Creed? Are you spiritual? Do you pray? Is God important in your life? Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?” All of those are really good questions, really important questions, but there’s something about this question that gets to your heart: “Do you love Me?” Jesus asks.
Can you hear the risen Lord Jesus asking not just Peter but you that question? Whether you’re 5 years old this morning or 95, can you hear Jesus ask you that question? Not just, “Do you read your Bible? Good. Do you give to the offering? Good. Are you committed to your church? Good.” No, here this simple, disarming question from the Lord Jesus, “Do you love Me?”
Remember that song from Fiddler on the Roof? Do you love me? Remember and he’s and she’s, Tevye’s wife is saying, “Oh, I do all these things for you and I cook and I clean and of course I’m showing that I love you,” and yes, love is a verb, we get it, but every husband and wife has that sort of, “No, I just, I need to hear you say it. I need to know that deep in your heart you’re not just, we’re not just co-laborers in this family enterprise.” I need to know that you’re not just a religious person who thinks that going to church is going to give good morals to you kids. Do you love Me?
And when Peter says three times “You know that I love You,” it’s a powerful step towards his restoration. It’s a way of admitting his sin. It’s a way of not just owning it but now moving past it and speaking to his contrition for sin and now his commitment to Christ.
Your past failure does not have to be your future legacy.
And then finally, own it, say it, show it.
Remember, Jesus is deliberately reinstating Peter in front of the disciples. This is public.
I love what John Calvin says: “That the disgrace of his apostasy might not stand in his way, Christ blots out and destroys the remembrance of it.”
Do you believe that Jesus can do that for you? Your sin, He can blot it out and destroy the remembrance of it.
He wants Peter to see it, but this is public because He wants the other disciples to see it. This isn’t just a private he and Jesus moment, “I love, this is really sweet” and they’re going to embrace. No, this is public. Peter’s being restored. He has a future. Jesus is in the business of redeeming and repurposing, and if Peter is a changed man, he needs to look like a changed man.
And to show it, Christ gives him these two commands: Feed My sheep, and isn’t it interesting He doesn’t say I want you to embrace your role as a church officer? Now that’s important, I believe in church office. He doesn’t say “I want you to fulfill this role in My church.” Well, that’s important, but what He wants to focus on here is not so much what official office he might hold, but what he will do: Feed My sheep.
And notice He doesn’t say “feed your sheep, Peter.” They’re not Peter’s sheep, they’re Christ’s sheep. This flock of Christ Covenant… You’re the Lord’s sheep and God has given to your undershepherds to help tend the flock in His behalf, but they’re not my sheep, they’re not any pastor’s sheep, they’re, you’re Christ’s sheep.
And it says something remarkable, doesn’t it, about the work of the apostles? And by extension the work that God gives to his undershepherds? It’s as if He says to Peter, “You want to show that you love Me? That you’re committed to Me no matter what? That you’re a rock? Feed My sheep. Look after My people. Care for them, warn them, lead them, guide them, teach them. That’s how you’re going to show that you love Me. Feed My sheep.”
And then He finishes, in verse 19, “Follow Me.”
Now it may be in that moment a literal “follow Me” because the next thing we see in verse 20 Peter turns, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, and they’re walking along the beach. But of course He means more than just “get up, let’s go on a walk together.” He means “I want you to follow Me. Are you ready? You failed three times. I’ve restored you three times. And now are you ready to follow Me to the end? Follow me to death?”
“You will stretch out your hands,” this is the way in the ancient world, a reference to crucifixion and Church history tells us that Peter would be crucified, likely under Nero. He would glorify God in his death. Do you see that, verse 19? If the Church of Jesus Christ is not in the business of helping people to die well, then they’ve lost sight of the Gospel. Whether that will come in this year or in 50 years or 90 years, the Church of Jesus Christ and the Gospel is to help us die well, to glorify God.
See, Peter’s greatest failure was behind him. And the greatest opportunity to give God glory was ahead of him. And yes, Peter would preach, yes, he would be a leader in the Church, but he would glorify God, and perhaps supremely so, by the way he died.
I preached on this text once before in my 20, almost 20 years of being a pastor. It was August of 2009. I was with my family on vacation in Colorado and I flew back to Michigan to preach at a funeral of a dear member of our church. His name was Don and I preached on this passage because Don had ALS. And I’ll never forget, he was a wonderful, godly man, served the Lord, passionate about missions, I’ll never forget, and I’m what, a 30-something kid, this godly man comes in my office. “Pastor, can I see you?” “Sure, Don, sit down.” He said, “I went to the doctor and I’ve been having these strange symptoms and I think it’s ALS.” I’d heard of that, we’ve all heard of it, and he proceeds to tell me what that means and what will likely mean.
And it was the case that as the months wore on he could not walk and dress himself as he did several months earlier. He could not stretch out his hands because he could not move them eventually. Others had to dress him. A fabulous motorized wheelchair carried him where he could not otherwise go. And he wasn’t a martyr like Peter, but he glorified God in his death. I never saw him bitter. He was resigned to his fate, but he was never fatalistic. He was not scared of death, but yet he very much wanted to live. He didn’t like to be debilitated, who would? But he did not doubt that God’s hand had brought him there and God’s hand would bring him home.
I remember gathering around him with some of the elders in their home and many of us shedding tears as we prayed for him early on. I remember visiting him before he really began to lose his mobility. He was still smiling, joking, sharing stories. We prayed. We read Isaiah 40. Here was a man who had served Christ for decades and without a doubt one of his most lasting ministries was going to be the way in which he glorified God when he died.
Many of you have stories like that. Lord willing, years from now, many of you will be stories like that.
There on the beach in Galilee Peter could not have known what awaited him. But Jesus knew, and He knew that Peter’s best ministry was in front of him. His finest hour would be at his death. Jesus knew, and now Peter would know that your past failure does not have to be your future legacy.
Now to be sure, you cannot tell Peter’s story without talking about that failure. You might say, “Well, Pastor, but we still remember Peter who denied Jesus. I don’t want people to remember the things that I’ve failed at.”
But notice this wasn’t the only chapter in Peter’s story. It wasn’t the most important chapter, it wasn’t the last chapter. The title page would not say “Simon Bar-Jonah, the one who denied Jesus three times.” The title page would be “Simon Peter, he fed the sheep in life, he glorified God in death.”
And remember that by the time John was writing these words, Peter had already died. They already knew that Peter had gone to be this leader of the church, that he had died a martyr’s death, and so this is telling them, “Here’s how it happened.”
Unless you’re tempted to say, “Well, the failure was still there and I would like my story to be written someday without any of my failures in it, I’d like that sort of biography.” Listen, okay, we’re not having biographies written of us, but if someone wrote a biography of each one of us, and it was an honest biography, it’s not all triumph to triumph. It’s not all glorious family devotions around the dinner table. There’s failure, and there’s sin. And as much as we would like that not to be a part of our story, remember this in closing: Perhaps God wants to teach us that it’s not ultimately so important what’s in your biography, because it’s not ultimately your story, it’s God’s story. See, if it’s about your final story, then we’re a mess of anxiety and feverish activity, trying to constantly expunge the record and make sure that everything about us known to the world is only good all the time.
But what if it’s God’s story more than yours? God’s story of redemption in your life? God’s story of forgiveness in your life? God’s story of grace in your life? What if the most important part of your story is Jesus’ story? And that failure is there to own it, to say it, and to show that you’ve been transformed by it, and then that God is glorified in it.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we don’t know with these people here or those who are watching online what particular word You have for some of us, but no doubt it is a poignant word. And for some of us it is a good reminder and for others it speaks to us, this text, immediately where we are and what we need to hear. O Lord, may we not lose the opportunity to do business with You this morning. Whatever You have to teach us, whatever You have to show us, wherever we have been hiding, keeping secret that which needs to be in the open, at least before You, would You so move in our hearts? And then give us a love, an undying love of the Lord Jesus, and a confidence that You know that we love You, and that You do not see us as a one-time failure, but as a current and future opportunity for glory. We pray in Jesus’ name, our once and coming King. Amen.