READ : John 21:24-25; 20:30-31
What’s the most important quality for any Christian to have? Hint: it’s also what motivates Christ’s greatest servants.
Peter had decided to go fishing. He and some of the other of the disciples were in
Galilee, a few weeks after the resurrection of Jesus. The Lord had appeared to them in
Jerusalem and promised to meet them again in Galilee. But now that they were there,
nothing much seemed to be happening. I get the impression time began to hang heavy
(especially on the restless and impulsive Peter). Maybe money was running low while they
waited, and there sat their boat on the beach with the nets carefully washed and folded.
So Peter looked at it and finally jumped up. “I’m going out,” he announced, and as
usual the others all followed his lead. They toiled all night, like in the old days, the
net played out astern as they swept back and forth along the drop-off, straining over the
oars, the little boat groaning and creaking in the darkness. And they caught nothing.
As the eastern sky shaded into light gray and the first streaks of pink tinted the
horizon, they decided to give up and pack it in. The disciples were tired and hungry as
they pulled for home, and it didn’t help their mood any when a voice called out through
the misty twilight from the shore, “Did you catch anything?” “No,” they replied. “Try it
again on the other side,” the voice came back. For a moment the disciples sat there in the
stillness of the dawn, the only sound the gentle lapping of the water along the hull. Then
with a shrug they tossed the net over the side, and as it played out it suddenly came
alive with fish; 153 of them, to be exact, as John noted (v. 11) when he wrote the story
down, many years later.
Even when he was a very old man, John could still see every detail of that remarkable
morning on the Sea of Galilee as if it were yesterday. As the disciples strained to haul
in the net, John looked intently at the figure on the shore, and the memory of another
morning when a stranger’s telling them to cast their nets on the other side had produced a
similar miraculous catch came flooding over him. “It’s the Lord,” whispered John to Peter,
whereupon Peter jumped overboard and swam in. The others followed in the boat, dragging
the net which was too heavy to pull on board, and when they were all together on the beach
they sat down and shared a strange breakfast with Jesus. They ate in silence, more than a
little uneasy in the presence of the risen Christ. And then when the meal was finished,
Jesus spoke to Peter.
“Do you love me?” the Lord asked. He asked it once, and then again, and yet again. The
thrice-repeated question couldn’t help but calling to mind Peter’s threefold denial of
ever knowing Jesus. “Do you love me more than these?” Jesus added. That’s an ambiguous
question. Did Jesus mean, “Do you love me more than these other men do?” That would have
reminded Peter of his boast at the Last Supper in the Upper Room, that even if all the
others deserted Jesus he never would.
Or did Jesus mean, “Do you love me more than these – these men, these surroundings,
this boat, this beach, your occupation, your friends, your family, your very life? Am I at
the center, do I come first now in your heart?” Whatever the question meant, Peter said
yes to it. He answered humbly, three times over, confessing his devotion without bluster
or exaggeration: “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.”
I think of all the questions Jesus might have asked Peter on the beach that day, but he
chose just this one question because it’s the great necessity. The one absolute
requirement for any disciple is love for the Lord Jesus. The simplest follower of Jesus
can understand this demand, and yet it continues to test the most mature Christian. If you
truly love Christ then all is well; even mistakes in doctrine or failures of sin can be
put right. We may disagree on many things, you and I, we may worship in different ways, we
may not follow all the same practices, but if you and I both love the Lord Jesus Christ,
then we are one in him.
I think this is the key to understanding Peter’s whole life. Whatever else he may have
been or done, he genuinely loved the Lord. That’s what makes him different from Judas; for
example. So take a moment to examine your heart. Sort through your affections and see what
is there: love for family and friends, for pleasures and pastimes, for career and
community. That’s all well and good. But what about the Lord Jesus? How do you feel about
him? Don’t just say you accept the Bible or believe in God; those things don’t save, they
don’t transform you, they can’t really inspire you. Saving faith is not merely believing
certain ideas or holding a set of opinions, it is a personal connection to Christ, warmed
by personal devotion to him. It is knowing, and trusting, and above all loving a Person.
So do you love him? I think that’s the most important question of all.
After the question about love, Christ moves on to another level in his exchange with
Peter. The purpose of this encounter was to restore Peter publicly to his position as
leader of the apostles. Just as Peter’s denial had been public, so would be his
restoration. And this comes out in the exchange that follows. Each time Jesus asked, and
Peter answered, the question, “Do you love me?” Jesus responded with a command: “Feed my
lambs . . . Tend my sheep . . . Feed my sheep” (vv. 15-17). Jesus isn’t giving Peter three
different tasks, just one: to care for his people through his pastoral ministry. Peter is
to shepherd the sheep who constitute the body of Christ, the church. To feed the sheep is
to promote their spiritual nourishment and growth by the preaching and teaching of the
Word of God.
And here’s the connection between the question and the command. Love for Christ is the
strongest motive for Christian service. Little is done for the Lord merely out of guilt.
It isn’t just duty that drives men and women into Christian service or causes them to
invest their lives on the mission field. It’s love for Christ. But our love must also be
expressed in action. We can’t just sing “O, how I love Jesus” without also hearing his
command to us. He tells us, “Okay, go out then and care for people.” Without love for
Christ, service to others can become manipulative and self-seeking; but without service to
others, love for Christ becomes meaningless sentimentalism.
And now the encounter on the beach takes a still different turn. Jesus addresses Peter
“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.” [And here’s John’s comment on
that: “This he said to show by what kind of death Peter was to glorify God.”] And after
saying this Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”
So having tested Peter’s love, and then commissioning Peter to the apostolic ministry
of the Word, Jesus now speaks to Peter in veiled terms about how his ministry and life are
going to end. He indicates in a cryptic sort of way that Peter will eventually be taken
prisoner and crucified. In the Upper Room the night before Jesus’ death Peter had claimed
that he would lay down his life for Jesus; now Jesus says that one day Peter will make
good on his boast (cf. John 13:36-37). It’s a sober reminder of the cost of
In a classic book of that title, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Jesus calls a man, he
bids him come and die.” And that is always true spiritually. But sometimes it’s true
physically as well. But more than a prophecy of coming suffering and death, Jesus’ words
to Peter are a promise of victory. Jesus said this, explains John the Gospel writer, “to
show by what kind of death [Peter] was to glorify God” (v. 19). In his life or in his
death, the servant of Christ glorifies God.
Love for Christ motivates service to him; it also inspires sacrifice for him. Why did
the disciples all give their lives for the Lord? Tradition says that all of them died
martyrs’ deaths, except for John (who ended up an exile on the island of Patmos.)
According to trustworthy sources, Peter was crucified in Rome in the year A.D. 64. We’re
also told that Peter asked to be crucified head downwards, because he felt he was not
worthy to die the same way his Lord did.
What led him to accept such a sacrifice? It wasn’t obsession or compulsion or some sort
of death wish. No, Paul speaks for all true Christians when he expressed his wonder at the
Son of God, “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Once you truly feel
the force of that love, then no sacrifice, not even of life itself, is too much to make in
There’s one last word here that Jesus speaks to Peter. “Then he said to him, `Follow
me!'” (v. 19). That was also the very first command Jesus gave to Peter, years before on
that same shore in Galilee, when he invited him to become a disciple and a fisher of men.
So we come full circle; the first command is also the last. And once again, love for
Christ is the key. Love binds us to him, motivates us to seek and enjoy his company, makes
us want to go where he goes and do what he does. Peter would be a great leader in the
early church – many would say, the greatest – but he could only lead by following. That’s
how it is in the kingdom of God.