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"The Question that Matters Most"

Apr.19, 2015 Jn.21:1-22


Life can be pretty tough. There are business challenges - finding a job, surviving lean times; this week one of my daughters in Alberta was telling me her husband's pay had been reduced to 66% of what it was because of the downturn in the petroleum industry. There are relationship challenges - finding and keeping friends throughout life's changing circumstances; dating heartaches; marital frictions. There are physical challenges - unforeseen illnesses; injuries and farm accidents, like one in the area this week in which rocks from a loader-mounted stonepicker fell back on the operator. There are property challenges and losses - water damage, or even drastic events such as a house fire. Sometimes you just feel like packing it in. What's going to help us not quit?

A teenager had decided to quit high school, saying he was just fed up with it all. His father was trying to convince him to stay with it. "Son," he said, "you just can't quit. All the people who are remembered in history didn't quit. Abe Lincoln, he didn't quit Thomas Edison, hi didn't quit. Douglas MacArthur, he didn't quit. Elmo McCringle..."

"Who?" the son burst in. "Who's Elmo McCringle?"

"See," the father replied, "you don't remember him. He quit!"

In today's reading, we find the disciples in a moment of anticlimax when they perhaps were wondering about quitting, packing it in. Though there had been reports of Jesus rising from the dead, He wasn't with them consistently like He had been during the three ministry years. Should they call off this discipleship experiment and go back to their old livelihoods? The lesson Jesus offers encourages us not to quit when we're tempted to pack it in.


As John chapter 21 opens, we find the disciples waiting apparently in Galilee - perhaps as a result of the angels' instruction to the women at the tomb in Mark 16:7. Their priorities come under pressure. How many of you would rather be busy doing something rather than just waiting around?

Notice Peter's influence as a natural leader in 21:3: ""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."

Several of the seven were fishermen by trade, so going fishing seemed an obvious way to kill some time. But that's all they accomplished! Jesus had called them to fish for people (Matthew 4:19). For some reason, God was not blessing this initiative to go back to their old ways.

Early the next morning, before they call it a night, Jesus shows up on the shore, perhaps "cloaked" in different guise because they don't recognize Him. Ascertaining they haven't caught anything, He says in v6, ""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." Note the quantity: not just a fair catch, or even a good-sized catch; an overwhelming catch, one they're not able to pull up onto the boat! John even provides the eyewitness detail in v11, "large fish, 153".

Perhaps it is a gentle rebuke to the disciples: a reminder of Jesus' analogy of the vine and the branches in John 15:5: "apart from Me you can do nothing." God is well able to provide when we follow His priorities. Matthew 6:33 "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." Php 4:19 "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus."

What do they find when they arrive on shore? V9 "When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread." Jesus has already prepared some fish, quite apart from their catch - although He welcomes their contribution of some more from it as well (v10). V13 "Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish." He catered a meal for them, proved He could provide. In fact, this miracle of making the nets bulge is sort of His "signature miracle" harking back to His initial calling of the disciples in Luke 5(5f): it's what tips keen John off to the true identity of the stranger standing on the shore.

Jesus provides when we're on board with His priorities, His purposes.


It's easy, given our fallen human nature, to be selfish, willful, stubborn; and to be insecure, always comparing ourselves with others, looking over our shoulder and at the others alongside to see if we're "ahead of the pack" or falling behind. Without an eternal reference point, we end up judging our value by comparison with our peers. Jesus wants us to learn our value to Him independent of what's happening in others' lives. He wants us to be able to trust His judgment and wisdom as Lord rather than relying on our own impulses.

The apostle Peter was about as impulsive as they come. Often he would be the first disciple to blurt out a response, perhaps without giving it much thought. On the mount of transfiguration, he was the one who had the bright idea of camping out along with Moses and Elijah (Mk 9:5). It's Peter who, when the disciples see Jesus coming toward them in a storm walking on the water, urges Jesus to tell him to come to Christ on the water (Mt 14:28) - an initiative that resulted a bit later in Peter having a "sinking feeling". And it was Peter who, when Jesus predicted at the Last Supper His disciples would fall away, boasted, Mt 26:33 "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will." ...words he would later rue after denying Christ 3 times to save his own hide.

Peter's impulsiveness shows up in this story, too. Jn 21:7 "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." At first this seems odd to us, putting your clothes ON to jump into the water; but Peter had been stripped down for work, and it was disrespectful or inappropriate for Jewish people to greet officially without being fully clothed, hence he would have put on his tunic or overshirt and tucked it into his belt in order to swim to shore and greet the Master. Peter wanted desperately to be the first to get there! Even though it meant leaving the others behind to look after getting the boat and marvelous catch to shore. Enthusiasm is good, but such impulsiveness can actually come across as selfish, unthinking, inconsiderate toward others.

Perhaps Jesus chuckled to Himself as He saw Peter throw himself into the water in such a hurry. It was so classic "Peter"! Later, when alone, Jesus uses this imagery to help Peter see the path to maturity and character may require leaving impulsiveness and self-will behind. The Greek root for "wrapped his outer garment around him" in v7 is the same as that for "dressed yourself" and "dress you" in v18: "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.""

Jesus is prophesying Peter will have to yield some of his impulsiveness, his wilfulness, if he is to become the leader Christ is calling him to be. "To look after my flock, Peter, you can't just 'do your own thing' and be so self-willed, have such tunnel vision, doing whatever you want; you will need to learn to think of others, wait on them, and submit even your life to the Father's purposes - even when that entails crucifixion."

Peter wasn't just impulsive, he comes across as slightly insecure, even though we picture him as a burly fisherman, one big and strong enough to drag in to shore a net loaded with large fish (v11). He had boasted, perhaps to prop up a fragile ego, "Even if all fall away, I will not."

Perhaps there's a hint of reminder of that claim when Jesus asks Peter in v15, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" It's ambiguous - perhaps on purpose; does Jesus mean "more than these other disciples love me" or "more than you love these fishing expeditions"? In view of Peter's prior boast, I lean toward the former. "Peter, you know how you boasted you wouldn't fall away, and then you did, denying me 3 times.Are you still going to say your faith is stronger than that of all these other disciples? Do you still picture yourself as top of the heap?"

Verses 20-21 reveal a bit more of this "insecure" / comparing side of Peter. Jn 21:20-22 "Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them... When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?" Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me."" Note the bluntness of Jesus' reply: essentially, "Even if I do give him easier treatment, what's it to ya?!" Robertson comments, "A sharp rebuke to Peter's curiosity."

Jesus redeemed us at the cross. Our lives no longer belong to us ourselves, but to Him. 1Cor 6:19f "You are not your own; you were bought at a price." As Lord and Master, He has the right to call the shots, to deploy or dismiss us as best fits His sovereign will. Stephen is stoned fairly soon after Pentecost in Acts 7; James, John's brother, is put to death with the sword in Acts 12(2). But John remains alive until near the end of the first century. We are totally at the Lord's disposal, and we are not to be comparing ourselves with others or feeling unjustly treated if our time is shorter or interpret tough circumstances as God loving us any less.

We cannot and must not assume that following Jesus will make life any easier or longer for us; OR jump to the conclusion someone must have been less faithful because they didn't live to a ripe old age. Jesus does promise rewards for faithful following, but hardships are part of the package. Mk 10:28-31 "Peter said to him, "We have left everything to follow you!" "I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields-- and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.But many who are first will be last, and the last first.""

Stop comparing! Know, as a believer in Jesus, God loves you and has chosen you. That's enough! Our ordering system is different from His - the ones apparently "first" now may actually be "last" later.


There's some "unfinished business" needing to be tended to after the shoreside breakfast of broiled fish and bread. Jesus had declared Peter to be the "rock" on whose leadership, validated by a faith-confession, Christ would build His church (Mt 16:18). But the night Jesus was betrayed, the "rock" had shattered in several pieces. Peter must still be ashamed of how he had denied his Lord, proven faithless in the crunch. So in vv15-17 we see Jesus very solemnly and pointedly three times charge Jesus to answer a question, beginning each time, "Simon son of John", as if to stress the significance of the occasion.

It's not complicated. What's the key question? "Do you love Me?" Two times Jesus uses the verb for "true love" agapao, love based on esteem; 'spiritual affection which follows the direction of the will, can be commended as a duty.' Each time Peter answers using the verb for love which is a type of friendship love, phileo: 'spontaneous natural affection, emotional and unreasoning, instinctive.' It's easy to feel phileo for a buddy or good friend you really like. But agape demonstrates loving action even toward those for whom there is no natural affection; when it's not spontaneous or instinctive; when one has to exercise one's will perhaps to overcome resistance due to the unlovableness of the recipient. God showed His agape-love for us while we were still sinners, objectionable to His purity and holiness (Rom 5:8).

John may be using two different verbs for love for stylistic reasons, so it's less repetitive; or there may be significance to the two different words. Jesus asks about the highest form of love, most altruistic; Peter un-boastfully replies using a lesser form of love, not wanting to make the same mistake again of overstating himself or claiming too much, given his obvious failure. Jesus' adopting Peter's form of the verb the third time may translate to, "Do you even love Me as a friend?!" which could help explain Peter's hurt the third time Jesus asks. Each time Peter doesn't reply at all boastfully, not even presuming to say more than Jesus knows already as He knows every human heart. "Yes, Lord, You know that I love you."

It's a most humbling rebuke and reinstatement for Peter. It doesn't skirt or ignore the issue of his failure, but gets it on the table, and assures him that even though he blew it, Jesus isn't finished with him; He's got more service in mind for Peter yet. "Feed My lambs...Take care of My sheep...Feed My sheep." And in the book of Acts we see Peter stepping up to the plate and bravely becoming a chief spokesman for the fledgling cause. When Peter and John are hauled before the high priests, rulers, elders, and teachers of the law in Acts 4:13: "When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus."

Robertson comments on v15, "Here Christ probes the inmost recesses of Peter's heart to secure the humility needed for service." It worked. Peter did learn to feed the sheep. Tradition says he was crucified at Rome under Nero, upside down because he did not count himself worthy to be killed in the same manner as his Master. He wrote to other church leaders in 1Peter 5:1-4: "To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers-- not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away." I think he got that "willingness" and "serving" piece right!

Do you want to be used greatly in God's Kingdom? Check your motives. It's not about money, or power, or status, but about being eager to serve. And the thing that prepares for that is loving the Lord. "Do you truly love Me? Do you agape-love Me? Do you even friendship-love Me?" THAT'S the type of person Jesus is looking for to care for His flock - whether a flock of preschoolers or children in the home, up to a denomination. It's not about your "IQ" but your love-quotient; do you have a heart for HIM?


Life can be tough. We are tempted to throw in the towel when hardships come. But Jesus provides for us, helps us mature despite impulsiveness and insecurities, and roots us in His love that makes persevering possible.

A May 1985 Focus on the Family article tells of A 36-year-old mother was discovered to be in the advanced stages of terminal cancer. One doctor advised her to spend her remaining days enjoying herself on a beach in Acapulco. A second physician offered her the hope of living 2-4 years with the grueling side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She penned these words to her three small children: "I've chosen to try to survive for you. This has some horrible costs, including pain, loss of my good humour, and moods I won't be able to control. But I must try this, if only on the outside chance that I might live one minute longer. And that minute could be the one you might need me when no one else will do. For this I intend to struggle, tooth and nail, so help me God." Let's pray.