The Best Life
John 21:15 – 25
The Best Life
When you’ve let someone down …
All of us, I’m sure, know the terrible feeling of having let somebody else down. Perhaps we didn’t do something that we said we would. Maybe we spoke harshly or acted selfishly.
Perhaps we stood on the sidelines while someone was being excluded or ridiculed. Or worse, maybe we joined in with the gossip or laughter.
I imagine that most of us who are followers of Jesus, have had the experience of knowing we’ve let him down, perhaps even in some of those same sorts of ways;
Not doing something we know we ought to have done,
Deliberately choosing some action we know is displeasing to him,
Being silent when we should have spoken,
Or standing with those opposed to him, instead of wanting to be counted as one of his followers.
Perhaps it’s something really significant. Maybe we had an affair, or we wrecked a marriage, or we were abusive towards someone.
And so perhaps we’ve wondered, “is there a way back from there?”
I’ve failed Jesus so miserably, will he welcome me back?,
Can he still use me for his glory despite my monumental failing, or maybe it’s not monumental, it’s small, but repeated.
Can I be welcomed back?
Well, today we find ourselves at the very end of John’s gospel account, where Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, finds himself in that situation;
Peter has failed Jesus badly, denied 3 times that he was one of his followers, and so there’s a question over his relationship with Jesus and his role in the church.
Is there still a chance for ministry and service
when he’s let Jesus down so spectacularly?
We’ve seen that John’s gospel is divided into 2 halves;
The first 11 chapters describe Jesus’ miracles, which John calls signs because they point to Jesus’ identity, it’s all about who he is.
And then in the second half, from chapter 12, having seen who Jesus is, we then zoom in on the cross, and what this Jesus has come to achieve.
And the whole purpose of the book, John tells us at the end, is that we may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
And then we come across this scene on the beach,
After Jesus’ death and resurrection,
After Jesus has already appeared to Peter.
Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 15 tell us that.
It seems that Jesus has already forgiven Peter for denying him. So we might wonder, what’s this little episode got to do with having life in Jesus?
Jesus asks “do you love me?” (v 15 – 17)
Well, let’s have a listen to the question Jesus asks this man who failed him so spectacularly, Do you love me?”
See verse 15, 15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter. “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
In public, in front of these others, Jesus removes any doubt that Peter is restored to ministry.
The setting that Jesus has constructed for this conversation can’t have escaped Peter’s notice.
Back in verse 9 John tells us that Jesus had made, literally a “charcoal fire.” It’s the very same description used of the fire in the high priest’s courtyard where Peter had denied Jesus, and it’s a word used nowhere else in the New Testament.
Jesus could hardly have made it more obvious if there was a giant TV screen there showing replays of Peter’s denial!
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
It’s Peter’s proper name, Simon son of John, not the nickname “Peter” that Jesus had given him. And Jesus hasn’t called him Simon since chapter 1, when he first called Simon to follow him.
This is a deliberate echo of Peter’s original call to ministry.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
My Dad likes telling the story that when my parents were newly married, they had a cat, and my mum used to say to Dad, and I quote, “I love the cat more than you.”
Now, what was she saying? It’s ambiguous, isn’t it?
More than she loves my dad?
More than my dad, loves the cat?
Actually I don’t think there ever was any doubt, but then there’d be no funny story to tell!
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
More than who? or what?
More than Peter loves the other disciples?
More than he loves his fishing boat and net and everything associated with his former life before he met Jesus?
More than the other disciples love Jesus?
Once upon a time Peter had thought he loved Jesus more than the other disciples did.
Back in chapter 13 Peter was convinced that out of all the disciples he’ll be the one who will really love Jesus, regardless of the cost;
“No matter what they do, Lord, I’ll follow you to death, ”
But then he didn’t love Jesus. He loved his own safety more.
And so Jesus seems to be deliberate in his ambiguity;,
He does want to know, Simon, do you love me more than you love all these other things?
Your way of life?
Are you willing to leave them all behind for me?
But he also wants to Peter to think about if he really does want to compare his love to someone else’s.
See, Jesus is putting his finger, not on the action of Peter’s failure, but on the sin behind the failure.
He doesn’t ask, “Simon, are you going to deny me again?”
“Simon, are you going to deny me again?”,
A third time he asked him “Simon, are you going to deny me again?”
No, the issue is, Simon, do you love me?
Peter’s sin was not principally the words that came out of his mouth that night standing around the other charcoal fire, “Jesus? Nah, never heard of him!”
No, the problem was in here!
He hadn’t loved Jesus as he ought.
He hadn’t loved Jesus, as Deuteronomy instructed him to, as his Lord and God, with all his heart and soul and strength.
Jesus brings Peter to the realisation, that simply saying or not saying something is not the root of the issue, but love for Jesus.
And who of us haven’t been like Peter?
Denying Jesus by our words,
Or by what we don’t say,
Maybe we don’t want to be identified as followers of Jesus,
Perhaps we’re afraid that our work colleagues will think us narrow-minded if they know we’re Christian,
Maybe we’re ashamed to speak up when there’s a clear opportunity to share something of the hope we have in Christ.
If you’re anything like me you can think of a long list of ways in which you’ve been like Peter,
And yet, the solution is not simply to try harder,
To keep a tighter reign on your tongue,
To commit to speaking up even when you really don’t want to.
No, the solution is love.
If, by God’s grace, we learn to love Jesus more, we’ll be better able to serve, and follow, and stand for him.
The Scottish pastor Thomas Chalmers, who began his ministry in the church not yet as a Christian, amazingly he became a Christian after he’d been a pastor for years!
But after his conversion, he wrote about the difficulty of resisting sin and temptation, what we might call “letting Jesus down”, and he observed that there’s no point in laying down rules,
We can’t just tell ourselves “Clayton, don’t love the things of the world, obey Jesus instead”,
He argues there’s not even any point showing how worthless or fickle the alternatives to obedience to Jesus are.
No, Chalmers wrote that the answer to resisting sin,
To following Jesus no matter what, is to love Jesus and grow in love for him.
He called it “the expulsive power of a new affection.”
A new affection, a new love for Christ drives out all alternatives.
The only way Peter is going to be able carry out the ministry that Jesus is entrusting to him, is through being deeply captured by Jesus,
Convinced of his great love,
And loving him in return.
And for us when we struggle with our sin, and long to be able to live the kind of life Jesus wants us to,
Let’s be captured by this Jesus,
Convinced of his great love,
And love him in return.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
And so, perhaps a little wiser now, Peter chooses not to compare his love for Jesus with anybody else’s.
He simply says, “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”,
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?
You might know that there are some different words for love used in this exchange.
The Greek language that John’s writing in has 3 commonly used words for love.
And Jesus starts with the word “agape”, do you agape me?
But Peter replies with a different word, “phileo”, Yes, Lord,”, “you know that I phileo you
That happens in the first 2 times,
Then the 3rd time Jesus uses Peter’s word, “phileo” instead.
And people have drawn conclusions from this, saying Jesus’ original word is a really strong word for love, while Peter’s word is a weaker kind of love.
And so then eventually Jesus settles for that; “Well, you might not “love” me, but do you “love” me?”
And so this passage becomes about “you only need to love Jesus a little bit;, that’s enough.”
The problem is, John uses these words for love interchangeably all through his gospel account, and he uses that so-called weaker word “phileo”, to describe the Father’s love for the Son in chapter 5, which is clearly not a weak kind of love.
Add to that, that Jesus and Peter are almost certainly speaking in Aramaic not Greek. Aramaic doesn’t have those three words for love. It’s John who’s translating it all into Greek as he writes it all down.
The point is not, you just need to love Jesus a little bit, but as we’ll see, to love him enough to follow him to death!
3 times Peter had denied Jesus, and 3 times Jesus now asks Peter, “do you love me?”
And Peter responds, yes, Lord, you know that I love you.
Yes, Lord, you know that I love you
Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Peter is grieved at the repeated questioning.
It reminds him of his failure,
And yet to such a failed man, who did exactly what you or I probably would have done, certainly me!
To this man, Jesus’ entrusts significant responsibility.
Feed my lambs,
Take care of my sheep, literally “shepherd my sheep”
Feed my sheep
The best life that comes through Jesus is a life of service and caring for his people.
Jesus commands, “Feed my sheep”
Here is the supreme confidence that God has in his grace;, in the transformative power of his grace, that this man Peter who had denied Jesus, is charged with the responsibility of caring for Christ’s people, the church, the ones for whom he has just died
Yes, Peter had failed Jesus,
He’d failed to love him,
He’d try to save his own skin, but now with this command 3 times to take care of Jesus’ flock, there can be no doubt that Peter is fully restored to ministry.
The disciple who loves Jesus, will care for Jesus’ sheep, the way Jesus does.
There was a church leader in the 6th Century, who’s now known as Gregory The Great! He’s actually the one who set up the missionary efforts that established Christianity in Britain. So we’ve got something to thank him for!
But Gregory once wrote to another bishop in Constantinople, and commented on this passage.
Saying, it appears that, if one who is able, refuses to feed the sheep of Almighty God, he shows that he does not love the chief Shepherd.
That’s quite a strong statement, isn’t it?
If we’re able, but we do not feed the sheep of God, we show that we do not love the chief Shepherd, Jesus. And any love we claim, is hollow and meaningless.
Friends, if we say that we love Jesus,
Then the way we demonstrate that love, according to Jesus’ own words here in John 21 is not,
By the words you say to Jesus,
It’s not by making yourself busy doing the things that you hope he’ll be pleased with
It’s not showing your devotion by locking yourself away and spending all your time in private prayer.
Love for Jesus means feeding Jesus’ sheep.
Shepherding Jesus’ lambs.
And here’s why Jesus’ question, “do you love me?” is so important.
The most important qualification for caring for Christ’s people, is not skill, or commitment, or capacity.
It’s not even love for people.
It’s love for Christ.
One of the things I do in our church is help recruit people into ministry; staff, and volunteer leaders. And when we’re asking someone to step into a role of shepherding, Christ’s people, we do want to consider, character, gifting, godliness, and yet it’s clear that Jesus thinks this factor rises above all those others.
If Peter does truly love Jesus more than anything else, then he’ll love Christ’s people better than if he tried to love the people themselves.
It’s slightly counter-intuitive, isn’t it?
We might think that if you want to find someone who’s going to care for people well, look for someone who loves the people!
But Jesus knows, it’s love for Christ, that will ensure what’s best for people.
See if you love people above all else, you might be tempted to spare them the challenges of life that in fact Jesus calls them to endure,
If you love people above all else, then your love for them might wane when the people are un-lovely, as people are sometimes! Nobody here, of course!
If you love people above all else, then the temptation is always there to want them to love you, rather than them loving Jesus, and so the way you care for them, talk to them, lead them, can be about trying to increase their love for you.
But if we love Jesus, above all else, then we’ll care about those he cares about,
We’ll care for, those he cares for,
And we won’t ever find our love going cold because Jesus is being annoying or inconsiderate.
And we’ll keep finding new and wonderful things in Jesus, about Jesus, to point people to, that they might grow more and more in their love for him too.
To care for Christ’s people, we must love Christ.
And if we really love Christ, we’ll love his people more, not less.
do you love me?
Feed my sheep
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that these words gave Peter authority over the other disciples, and made him the representative of Christ’s authority on earth, and therefore the first pope, one who speaks for Christ.
Though clearly there’s nothing about Peter being responsible for all Christians everywhere, or having jurisdiction over the other disciples. So that is to abuse the text.
Peter is singled out here, not because he’s to be the boss of the church, but because without this moment there’d be a question over whether he even belongs in the church.
But having made clear that Peter’s love is genuine, Jesus explains what loving him looks like.
The idea of shepherding God’s people is used right throughout the Bible.
God says in places like Ezekiel 34 that he himself will shepherd his people. We see that in John 10 when Jesus says I am the good shepherd.
“I’m the one long-promised”
Of course, to call someone a sheep doesn’t really seem to us especially complimentary, does it?!
Sheep are skittish, smelly, they have little sense of danger, and a reputation for being stupid.
But the point behind the Bible’s use of the image is that they need to be cared for and led.
And so to “Take care of my sheep”, is to do exactly the things that Jesus himself does, and in fact that we see him doing in this chapter.
He’s providing for his people, in abundance,
Establishing leaders for them,
Protecting them from falsehood through the equipping of these disciples.
And here principally the focus is on feeding, which, in the light of the Old Testament images, is about teaching;, teaching God’s people from his Word so that they might be restored, and healed, and protected.
To feed the sheep is to give them what they need, so they can grow and mature and flourish for the true shepherd.
It’s providing spiritual nourishment.
And only someone who loves Jesus, will feed Jesus’ sheep.
What will loving Jesus look like today?
So what will loving Jesus like this look like today?
Well, Peter understood that this command wasn’t just for him, but for all who lead among God’s people.
He writes to elders later in the New Testament,
2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them 5:2
So this shepherding, feeding from the Scriptures, is what we ought to be looking for in our leaders.
If you wonder, “what should our church leaders be doing?” this is it.
But even those of us who aren’t leaders in our church, if we love Jesus he expects that we’ll obey him, love each other, and speak the Scriptures to each other, regardless of what role we have or don’t have.
If someone loves Jesus today, they’ll care for his people, leading them in and teaching them God’s promises, so that when trials come as we’ll see in a moment, they might persevere.
If we love Jesus, we’ll feed his sheep by reminding them of the glorious inheritance that waits for them,
Assuring them that God is faithful to his promises, Drawing their gaze always heavenward,
Fixing their eyes on the eternal prize Christ has achieved for them.
If we love Jesus, it’s entirely natural that we’ll love the people he loves,
That we’ll serve the people he served,
That we’ll be willing to give our life for the people he gave his life for.
And this care has to be, where the people are at.
Teaching has to be within reach!
Charles Spurgeon in the 19th Century used to say Jesus said, “feed my lambs”, not “feed my giraffes!”
People are weak and frail, and the teaching needs to be accessible.
Jesus calls, “Follow me!” to death and through life. (v 18 – 23)
And those who love Jesus like this are called to follow him, even to death, as Jesus’ words to Peter in the middle of this section demonstrate.
Jesus says, “Follow me!”, and he means to death, and through whatever life looks like.
See verse 18, 18 Very truly I tell you, 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.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
The language of having your body “stretched out”, was almost universally reserved in the first century, for speaking of crucifixion;,
There is no chance, that when Peter hears this, “dressed, stretched out, being led”, that he pictures himself as an Old Age Pensioner, living in a care home, needing help to put his dressing gown on, and being led slowly down the hallway to dinner.
No, this is crucifixion language, and John tells us that this is what Jesus means.
When he says to Peter, “Follow me!”, he’s saying “follow me to death.”
And while the Bible doesn’t record Peter’s death, the evidence we have outside the New Testament, indicates that he was crucified, probably around 64 AD, under the emperor Nero, in the persecution that followed the Great Fire of Rome
So Peter understood what was being asked of him, “follow me, even to death”, and yet remarkably, it was another 30 years or so until these words were fulfilled.
That is, Peter followed Jesus, for 3 decades, knowing this was to come.
No wonder Jesus wants to know “do you love me?”
What else could enable Peter to get out of bed every morning, knowing maybe today’s the day he’s going to die for Jesus, and if not today, then maybe tomorrow.
Most of us here or watching online are followers of Jesus. And if not, maybe we’re here because we’re interested in becoming a follower of Jesus,
Are we willing to live like this?
To follow Jesus to death.
We may not be called to that, though certainly Jesus says all his followers will suffer in some way for trusting in him.
And just as Jesus had spoken of his own death as bringing glory to his Father, now he says Peter following him to death will glorify God also.
Now that’s not going to be in the same way that Jesus’ death brings glory to his Father, but no doubt part of the way that Peter glorifies God in death is through his obedience;, that God preserves Peter in following Jesus, even to the end, just as he is glorified today, in the suffering of his people.
Not long before he eventually did die, Peter wrote to other Christians, saying, Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet. 4:12–13)
Peter knew that suffering and bringing glory to God through that were not unique to him.
This is that it means to follow Jesus no matter who you are.
When Jesus says follow me, verse 19, this is what he calls us to.
We often hear the terrible statistic that more Christians have been killed for their faith in the last 150 years than in the previous 18 hundred and 50 combined.
In their obedience, and perseverance, and death, they bring glory to God.
And even in the, comparatively minor suffering that most of us are likely to face for the name of Jesus,
When we respond well to suffering, not with shock or surprise, we bring glory to God by showing we’ve found his Word trustworthy, since he promised this would happen.
When we show our willingness to endure hardship or pain, ridicule, or isolation, we demonstrate that knowing Christ is more valuable than, a life of ease, or than comfort, or social standing, or anything this world offers us, and God is glorified.
When we suffer, even die, putting our hope in Christ and not in anything else we might be tempted to depend upon, we show that Christ is more trustworthy than the temporary things of this life, and God is glorified.
When suffering and death make us cling more and more firmly to Jesus, so we love him more and more, we become more and more like him, and God is glorified.
Suffering, even death, dulls the lustre of the pleasures of this life and shows God alone to be glorious.
Suffering and death force us to be humble, recognising who we are, in relation to the almighty God. And God is glorified.
For Peter, his response to Jesus’ command feed my sheep, and obedience to Jesus’ call, follow me, meant literally taking up his cross, and going to death so that God may be glorified.
For each one of us, the experience of obedience to Jesus’ call will be different.
But the best life that comes through Jesus that John wants us to have, is a life of following Jesus no matter what, and even to suffering and death.
That becomes clear when Peter sees the other disciple behind him and wants to know if the same thing’s going to happen to him
Verse 22, “Lord, what about him?”
22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me
Now this disciple is the one whom Jesus loved, verse 20, that is, John himself.
We can see that there in verse 24 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.
The one whom Jesus loved, is John’s way of referring to himself without having to say “I did this,” “I did that.”
It seems a little self-promoting to us, but in a Jewish culture, everyone understood there were different roles and relationships;, the pre-eminence of first-born son in a family, for example.
We mustn’t compare ourselves to someone else. Their experience of following Jesus might be different to ours.
The point is that Jesus calls us to follow him, to death and throughout all of life.
Because of this, a rumor spread among the believers verse 23, that John wasn’t going to die. And so John inserts this editorial comment, But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
As it happened, John lived much longer than Peter, maybe dying as late as 101 AD, 68 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And John knows, “Gosh, if people have this mistaken idea that Jesus has promised I’m not going to die until he returns, then if I do die before then, they’ll be devasted, because it will seem like Jesus can’t be trusted.”
He was there, he knows that’s not what Jesus promised, so he inserts this correction.
John knows, that claiming promises, clinging to promises that Jesus never made, that the Bible doesn’t make, is devasting to people.
It’s never a case of “Well, let them believe it if it encourages them, if they find some strength and hope in it.”
If Jesus hasn’t promised something, to cling to it as if he has, whether that’s long life,
Peace and security,
To cling to that as if Jesus as promised it, can only leave us disappointed and resenting God, when he doesn’t deliver.
We’ll conclude that God can’t be trusted, because we convinced ourselves that he promised us something that in fact he hadn’t.
The life of following Jesus will look different for different ones of us.
For Peter it meant martyrdom.
For John it meant a long life strengthening the church.
We’re not to worry that our life of obedience doesn’t look like someone else’s life of obedience.
We hear Jesus’ call; follow me.
Well how can we know that all this is trustworthy?
That the cost, which sounds like it’s going to be pretty high, is worth it?
Well, that’s why John assures us at the end, This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
He was there, he’s an eye-witness. And as a devout Jew, he knew the grave danger of bearing false witness.
This testimony is true.
John assures us that you’ll never regret following Jesus.
And that if you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, then by believing you may have life in his name.
So no matter what the cost,
No matter what following Jesus looks like;,
Suffering, martyrdom, a long life, no matter what, you will have the best life, because it’s life in Jesus.
Father, we praise you for the forgiveness and restoration that we see in Jesus’ ministry, and the supreme confidence you have in the transforming power of your grace, that even Peter can be drawn into your purposes and bring glory to you.
Help us to love Jesus, as he asks, to obey his command to love his sheep, pointing each other always to the spiritual nourishment of your Word, and hearing his call to follow him, through life, and even to death. For your glory. Amen.