It was the third time Jesus had appeared to His disciples since He rose from the dead. They were out on their boats in the Sea of Galilee. They had spent all night fishing and caught nothing. But then a man on the shore told them to cast their nets on the right side of the their boat, and when they did, they caught so many fish that the nets started to rip.
John was the first disciple to recognize that the man on the shore was Jesus Himself. He was there cooking them a simple breakfast of fish and bread. When the men finished eating, they rose and began to walk along the shore.
The Lord said to Peter, “‘Simon, son of John, do you truly love Me more than these?’”
What did He mean? And why would He ask? Peter had just suffered a massive failure. He had betrayed the Lord in a very public way. Now the Lord was going to restore Peter in a public way.
On the night of Jesus’ arrest, as Jesus explained what was about to happen, all the other disciples grew quiet. It was Peter, in all his boldness, who declared that he would never deny the Lord. It was only after he announced his loyal resolve that the other disciples had the courage to do so. Yet for all his bravery and determination, Peter’s human strength wasn’t enough. In the critical hour, when loyalty was the most sacred virtue of all, he faltered and failed. And to make matters worse, he didn’t crumble in the face of a Roman soldier or at the threat of death. He didn’t falter in the presence of a religious leader who could declare him a heretic. Peter caved when questioned by a little slave girl. And everyone knew.
Jesus understood what was going to happen before and warned him, but Peter could not bear to hear it. He refused to believe he could do such a thing. But Jesus knew that Satan, the powerful enemy of God, the very same, slithering serpent that tempted Adam and Eve, had asked permission to go after Peter, and God said, “Yes.” The Father was going to use the evil intentions of His enemy to try this servant who was so devoted to His Son. Peter had to go through a great breaking process to get rid of his own self-sufficiency and pride.
Peter didn’t understand any of this. He was under the illusion that he could muscle through on his own strength. But that would never do for the man who would become the Rock of the Church. If he was going to lead, he was going to have to learn how utterly weak he truly was so that he would depend on the power of the Most High God.
It was painful lesson, but it worked. Peter came to the end of himself in those awful days that followed his betrayal. After Jesus rose again, Peter was the disciple He appeared to first. There is no record of the things that Jesus said to him, but we can only imagine the grief and repentance that Peter showed his Master. What a close and sacred moment they shared as Lord and servant.
Now, as they walked along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus was asking Peter to reaffirm his love. This time, it was in public so that the other disciples could hear. Peter would indeed become God’s chosen leader, but the story of Peter’s denial would have damaged their respect for him. Had he fallen from grace? Jesus was making sure to reinstate him with honor.
Still, the question must have cut Peter to the core. “‘Yes, Lord,’” he said, “‘You know that I love You.’” Peter was certain that Jesus knew. In spite of his great failings, his love was real.
Jesus answered, “‘Feed my lambs.’” Peter’s love for Jesus was to show itself by watching over His people. Jesus had described Himself as the Good Shepherd, and Peter was His servant. The Lord was going to trust him with His most treasured possessions.
The Lord asked again, “‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me?’”
What could He mean by asking twice? “‘Yes, Lord,’” Peter said, “‘You know that I love You.’” Peter wasn’t going to depend on some heroic display of his love or any declarations of faithfulness. He was going to depend on the wisdom of Christ. He knew that Jesus knew, because Peter had faith that Jesus knows all things. That was all that mattered.
“Take care of My sheep,’” said Jesus. With His second request, the importance of Peter’s task was showing its gravity. Peter wasn’t made the leader of the early church because of his natural abilities or charisma or strength. He was advanced because of his utter love and devotion to Jesus Christ. It is the one necessary thing.
Once again, Jesus asked Peter, “‘Simon, Son of John, do you love Me?’” The third time must have felt like a bitter sting to Peter. That was the number of denials that Jesus predicted. That was how many times he denied the Savior at the time of His Great Suffering. And yet Peter cried, “‘Lord, You know all things. You know that I love You.’” Peter had nowhere else to go but trust. Jesus was (and is!) Divine. He knew every truth from every lie. He knew that Peter loved Him.
Jesus said, “‘Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but 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.’”
Wow. Now Christ was making another prediction. Peter truly did love Him, and one day he would show it to the point of death. Though Peter had spent his early years living his own life, from this point on, his life would be fully given over to the cause of Christ’s Kingdom. In the end, his arms were going to be stretched out for crucifixion. He would go on to imitate the life of Jesus in his own life, even in his suffering. And just as Jesus brought glory to His Father, Peter would bring glory to Christ. As the leader of the Church, the news of Peter’s death would travel far and wide. What could explain such unhindered, absolute faithfulness? The extent of his sacrifice was the measure of his love, and it would greatly honor his Savior.
But that was still decades ahead. For now, Jesus said, “‘Follow Me.’” Imagine knowing that at the end of your life, you were going to be crucified. Imagine knowing it was part of God’s plan and following Him anyway. There is no way to explain it other than to understand the depth of Peter’s love. And this high discipleship was exactly what Peter would go on to do.
But these things were not on Peter’s mind when he heard this. Instead, he turned and looked back at John. “‘Lord, what about this man?’” Was John going to suffer, too? John was so close to Jesus that he lay up against His chest on the night of the arrest. As Jesus explained that one of the disciples was going to betray him, Peter had to ask John to lean back and ask the Lord who it was. If Peter was called to suffer, what was going to happen to John?
Jesus said, “‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.’” Jesus was telling Peter, “‘It is none of your business!’” For you see, Jesus is going to return some day, and if God had ordained that John was going to live that long, that was the rightful decision of Almighty God.
Now, because Jesus said this, rumors started to spread. People began to say that John would never die. But in his book, John makes it clear that that is not what Jesus said. He was telling Peter that the life and death of each of His chosen ones is up to God. Peter needed to be faithful to God’s plans for his own life, not occupied with measuring it against God’s plans for someone else!
Isn’t it amazing that the Lord’s ordained plan for each of our lives, the way we will serve Him, even the way our lives will end, are already purposed in the heart and mind of God?
One day, Peter would be stretched out just as Christ was, on a cross. The Bible does not record the details of how Peter gave his life up for Jesus. We know that it came over three decades after this prediction came, and we know he died in Rome on a cross. By the time the Gospel of John was written, it had already happened. Peter’s life on earth would end with breathtaking, courageous faith.