Read John 21:15–19.
In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning wrote, “Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.”
He’s right, of course. God’s grace really is amazing. It reaches down into the depths to pick us up, no matter how far we’ve fallen. The reality of grace means no more pretending. Because of God’s grace, we don’t have to smile on the outside when we’re crying on the inside. We can stop presenting our Instagram lives to the world when our true experience is anything but photo-worthy. Grace is really that good—better than advertised, actually. But it’s also in short supply in our world.
While the grace of God saves us, it was never meant to stay put in our hearts. It’s supposed to flow through God’s people and out into the world. In this way, grace should fill the air of our churches. It should be the main course every time we sit down as brothers and sisters to share a meal. It should be what we’re known for.
For those of us who love Jesus, extending grace to others should be as natural as breathing. Scripture commands, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Jesus Himself taught His disciples, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). And yet, because we are steeped in the ways of this world, our ears assaulted by the pounding beat of self, day in and day out, we are quick to consign grace to the junk drawer of theological terms. We are fine with grace raining down from heaven, but it’s another thing entirely to walk in it.
Peter did the unthinkable. He denied knowing the Lord three times. While Jesus was being maligned and assailed by members of the Sanhedrin in a mockery of a trial, Peter was warming himself by a nearby fire. Three times he was questioned, and three times he rejected the idea that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. He had good reason to fear for his life in that hour, but he also had good reason to trust the Lord—and he didn’t. He pushed away the truth in order to find temporary security and peace in this world.
When the rooster crowed and Peter realized what he’d done, he ran away in tears. He was heartbroken, and he had no one to blame but himself. And blame himself he did. Sins like Peter’s, born out of moral weakness, have a way of eating away at us, replaying over and over again in our minds like a narcissistic pop song stuck on repeat.
Here on the beach over breakfast in John 21, Jesus does not detail the depth of Peter’s sin. He doesn’t lecture His friend or ask him a series of probing questions to make sure he understands the serious nature of his crime. Nor does He let Peter know that while forgiveness is possible, it will be his last chance to get his act together and walk the straight and narrow. Jesus doesn’t welcome Peter back into the fold as a second-class disciple with some scarlet letter on his chest. He doesn’t strip Peter of his place in the group and let the others know he’s no longer worthy to lead. Instead, Jesus feeds Peter roasted fish and bread.
The only question the Lord asks is this: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). Who are the these in that sentence? Some have speculated it’s the fish, as though Jesus were asking, “Do you love Me more than you love your career as a fisherman?” That’s a possibility as far as the grammar goes, but it seems unlikely. Peter knew Jesus was the Messiah. He’d watched as He was arrested and then cruelly interrogated, and he knew He’d been crucified and buried. Jesus had endured it all because of His great love, and Peter knew it. He was there when Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13). It’s hard to imagine Peter thought he could simply go back to the way things were before he met Jesus.
It’s more likely Jesus is asking Peter if he still could claim to love Him more than the other disciples loved Him. John doesn’t record the scene in his gospel, but after their last supper together, Peter had pledged himself fully to Jesus: “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matthew 26:33). But of course, that wasn’t true. Peter did fall away, denying Jesus three times that very night.
Jesus doesn’t rub it in, saying, “Well, so much for your promise never to fall away.” Instead, He asks His friend if he still loves Him on the other side of his life’s greatest regret.
When someone falls, one of two things will happen: they will feel the weight of their sin pressing against their chest and cling all the harder to Jesus, or they will let shame overtake them and push the Lord away. Jesus knows that. That’s why He prayed that His good friend would choose the path of life: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32).
He prayed that Simon Peter’s faith would not fail. This was despite the fact that He knew Peter would deny Him. That wasn’t the failing faith Jesus had in mind as He prayed. Rather, Jesus was asking His Father to hold on tightly to Peter in the aftermath of his sin. And He was sure His prayer would be answered. That’s why He could say, “when you have turned back.” Jesus was confident that Simon Peter wouldn’t choose to walk away. His questioning of Peter on the beach, then, is meant to restore him.
Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him.* Three times Peter says he does. Three times, Jesus commands Him to shepherd His flock. Peter had sinned by denying Jesus three times, so Jesus restores His friend with a threefold commission.
It doesn’t seem that Peter gets the message until the third round. John tells us “Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time” (John 21:17). It is only then that Peter realizes what Jesus is doing, and even though Jesus has carefully guarded Peter’s heart by not bringing up Peter’s sin directly, when the third question rings out, Peter feels the weight of his disobedience once more.
But Jesus isn’t done there. He goes on to describe Peter’s future death as a martyr: “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (v. 18). A strong, early tradition tells us that Peter died in Rome about thirty-five years after this conversation on the beach took place. He was crucified, just like his Savior. But because he did not think himself worthy of such an honor, he asked to be nailed to the cross upside-down.
Peter had said he would die for Jesus. “I will lay down my life for you,” he declared (John 13:37). It wasn’t that Peter had a death wish of some kind; rather, it was that Peter wanted, in his heart of hearts, to be loyal to Jesus above all else. His denial of Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard had shown him he wasn’t quite there. Jesus is now telling Peter that he will indeed have the strength he once said he had. He really will live up to the promise he made. Peter will become the uncompromising, singularly focused disciple that he always imagined he was.
This is what grace looks like. It’s encouraging and restorative, edifying and life-giving. It’s not a consolation prize or a tempered scolding. It’s the love of God released without reservation.
* Much has been made of the Greek words used for “love” in this exchange between Jesus and Peter. Twice Jesus uses agape, and once He uses phileo. All three times Peter replies, he says phileo. It has been thought that agape is a bigger, unconditional form of love than phileo, which is primarily used to describe the love between brothers or friends. But it can be demonstrated that John uses the two words interchangeably throughout his gospel. In addition, we have to remember that what we’re reading, even when reading the original Greek, is really a translation of the conversation Jesus had with Peter. It’s likely they were speaking Aramaic.