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"Do you love me?"

2nd May 2006

This week, here's a Bible study on the first part of John chapter 21.

Verses 1-3
Afterwards Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way:
Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.
"I’m going out to fish," Simon Peter told them, and they said, "We’ll go with you." So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Seven of the disciples were hanging around, wondering what to do with themselves.

Peter decided to go fishing. Well, it was all he knew, fishing and following Jesus.

And he must have thought he was hopeless at following Jesus, wasn’t he? He argued with Jesus at the Last Supper, refusing at first to let Jesus wash him (John 13:8). Then he argued with Him again, later that same evening, refusing to believe that he would betray him (Mark 14:27-31).

The same evening, he tried to defend Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane; he attacked a guard with a sword, and cut his ear off (John 18:10-11). That was wrong, too. Peter would never understand what Jesus wanted from him, would he?

Then, later the same night, Peter had betrayed Jesus – three times, just as Jesus had prophesied and Peter had denied (John 18:17-18, 25-27, Luke 22:55-62). After the third betrayal, Jesus looked straight at him (Luke 22:61). Jesus must have known all along that Peter was useless, mustn’t he?

Then when they heard the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, they hadn’t believed it (Luke 24:9-12). Jesus must have known Peter didn’t really have enough faith, mustn’t he?

Then Peter and John ran to the tomb to see what was going on. Peter got there first, but he didn’t understand what had happened (Luke 24:12). John came later – he probably wasn’t as fit and strong as Peter, but what does physical strength matter – all Peter’s attributes were either bad or useless, weren’t they? But when John got to the tomb, he believed, he got it (John 18:8). John always was the spiritual one, the wise one. Jesus never said “get thee behind me Satan” to John, did he?

But when Peter decided to go fishing, the other disciples went with him.

And they fished all night, and they caught nothing.

Peter must have thought, “I can’t follow Jesus, and now I can’t even fish properly”.

And when we give up on our discipleship, and go back to our old way of life, we’re rubbish at it.

What did Peter think about that night on the water, while failing to catch any fish? He must surely have gone over in his mind the three-and-a-half years he’d spent with his Lord, remembering the stories Jesus told, the great miracles he’d done, the quiet times when Jesus was just with the 12, or the three. Why had Jesus bothered with a failure like Peter? He even took him up on the mountain that time when he’d been transfigured – let his glory really shine. He’d have remembered the time when Peter – only Peter – had walked on water. Peter had been bold – but he’d sunk.

The rest of them – and us – think it was great that he walked on water at all – nobody else did! But at this time I think he would have focussed on the fact that he sunk. When things go wrong, it’s so easy to think worse of ourselves.

And, surely Peter remembered another unsuccessful fishing trip, which Jesus transformed, the day Jesus called Peter into His service.

Luke 5:1-11
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding round him and listening to the word of God,he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch."
Simon answered, "Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets."
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, "Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men." So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

How long ago that seemed. How full of hope and excitement those days were.

Verse 4
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus.

Peter was lost in his thoughts, about how he’d been such a useless Christian and about how he couldn’t even be a decent fisherman.

Jesus was watching over him, but it didn’t feel like it.

Verse 5
He called out to them, "Friends, haven’t you any fish?"
"No," they answered.

The Greek word translated “Friends” is usually translated "children". Here, I think it's a greeting like we might say "lads" or "boys" - an affectionate, male bonding sort of word.

He called out to them, but they still didn’t realise their Master’s voice.

Even in our failures, Jesus is speaking to us, but there are times when we don’t even think it might be him.

Verse 6
He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Did they remember when they were called? Was there some echo that made them willing to try?

They must have remembered learning this lesson the first time: when we work on our own initiative, we fail, when we work in obedience to His leading, we prosper. This doesn’t apply to everyone – only to those whom the Lord has called. There’s no record that Peter and the others had any trouble catching fish before Jesus c alled them. There are a number of things that I could do in my own strength before Jesus called me – but now I find that not only does he prosper me when it suits His purposes, he also prevents my success when that suits His purposes.

When we ask Jesus to be Lord of everything, He takes us at our word.

Verse 7
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!"
As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.

John was the first to realise that it was the Lord – he always was the spiritual one. He saw that only the Lord could perform such a miracle. God could really do something with a man like John.

But who jumped out the boat? Peter!

Peter was a passionate man. Sometimes it got him into trouble. But the church needs passionate people.

John was probably a better theologian. His prayers might have sounded more eloquent. But Peter was the one with a heart that just wanted to run to Jesus.

Verse 8
The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.

Peter was living from his heart – just wanting to be with the Lord.

The other disciples were living from their hearts too, they were being sensible – after all, they’d get to Jesus fairly soon. They were staying dry, and looking after the boat, and holding on to the fish.

Verse 9
When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

A single Greek word, “anthrakia" is translated as "fire of burning coals”. This word occurs only twice in the whole Bible. The only other reference is:

John 18:17-18
"You are not one of his disciples, are you?" the girl at the door asked Peter.
He replied, "I am not."
It was cold, and the servants and officials stood round a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.

Peter must have remembered.

And Jesus offered them bread and fish. Peter must have alkso rememebred that, on the day that things started to really wrong, Jesus had said “this bread is my body, broken for you”.

Jesus could have met the disciples under any circumstances He wanted. He chose to meet them under circumstances that would remind Peter vividly and painfully for his failures. We cannot easily be healed of bad experiences in the past (whether done to us or caused by us) without calling them to mind. Jesus helps us to do this, sometimes without waiting for us to ask.

He has reminded Peter of the day he was first called, of perhaps the first miracle he saw – the miraculous catch of fish, of the Last Supper, when he had argued with Jesus, of this three betrayals.

Jesus knows all about the times we’ve betrayed him, and he wants us to know that He knows.

Verses 10-11
Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you have just caught."
Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.

Again, Peter was the first to respond. Jesus wanted some of the fish, and Jesus was jolly well going to get some of the fish. Here was a chance to do something for the Lord again. Maybe Peter had thought such times were over.

Verses 12-14
Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord.
Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.
This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

How like Jesus! He calls to us to come to Him and eat – He wants to do us good.

Verses 15-17
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep.

First question – Do you truly love me more than these?

Perhaps a reference to Mark 14:29 Peter declared, "Even if all fall away, I will not."

Peter replies “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”. He no longer claims to be better than the other apostles. If we are in right relationship with Jesus, we don’t need to compete with other Christians – indeed, we know that this would not be right; the church is not a competition, it’s a team. If we want Jesus’s lambs to be fed, we will not make them fight each other for attention or esteem.

Jesus asks three questions and Peter gives three answers. Each question and answer pair is phrased slightly differently. They all amount to:

  • Do you love me?
  • Yes.
  • Then serve my church.

We can’t love Jesus and not love His people.

1 John 4:20-5:1
If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.
And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.

Jesus has reminded Peter of the problems in their relationship – his arguing, his betrayal, his lack of understanding, his tendency to see things in his own terms and not through Jesus’s eyes, and consequently to do or say the wrong thing. Now Jesus lets Peter know that he is forgiven, and called to lead care for people.

Peter has said that Jesus knows he loves Him.

In this little conversation, Peter is assured that Jesus still loves him.

No matter how much you’ve got wrong, no matter how big your betrayals have been, Jesus still wants you back. He still wants intimacy with you. He still wants you to serve his church.