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“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’” — John 21:15
One Shepherd to Another
Have you noticed that the call of God often seems clearer or stronger when we are in a retreat setting? Somehow, when we’re sitting by a lake, or on the seashore, or in a quiet wooded glen, we may feel as if God is speaking directly to us.
There is a reason for this. For many of us, it is only in the quiet of such sylvan settings that we stop long enough – or are quiet long enough – to hear God speak.
Peter may have been in something of a retreat mode when Jesus came to him, following the resurrection, and talked to him about what he should do with the rest of his life. Let’s recall the story.
A story about fish(vv. 1-14)
We know little about interactions between Jesus and the disciples during the short period in which Jesus appeared on earth after his crucifixion and resurrection. After the story of how Jesus appeared to the 11 remaining disciples, featuring “doubting” Thomas, the Fourth Gospel recounts another encounter between Jesus and seven of the disciples. This time the location is by the Sea of Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee), and the focus is clearly on Peter.
Perhaps at a loss for what to do in those uncertain days, Peter had announced that he was leaving Jerusalem for Galilee, where Jesus had called him from a life of fishing near his home in Capernaum. Had Peter decided to return to his old job, or were he and the others in need of food? Or, was he hoping to see Jesus again? John’s gospel does not mention it, but both Mark 14:28 and Matt. 16:7 say the disciples were told that Jesus was going to Galilee.
“I’m going fishing,” Peter said, and his natural leadership ability swayed some of the others to join him (v. 3). For a while, they may have wished they had remained in Jerusalem: the men spent the entire night rowing from place to place, then casting their nets and drawing them back in, but had nothing to show for hours of exhausting, back-breaking labor.
As they came toward shore in the early dawn mist, Jesus appeared and called to the men, but from 100 yards away (v. 8), they did not recognize him. Jesus asked if they had caught anything, then told them to cast their nets in a different place. Surprisingly, the men did not grumble: perhaps they thought it was a local elder who knew of a productive spot over a brush pile. In any case, they flung the net wide and pulled the cinch, immediately feeling the tug of a massive catch.
With that, “the disciple Jesus loved” – presumably John – recognized that the stranger must be Jesus. He elbowed Peter, saying “It is the Lord!” Peter did not hesitate, but threw on his tunic and dove into the water, swimming ashore while the remaining six men struggled to bring the boat and their straining haul of fish in to shore.
Dragging the boat, the fish, and their haggard bodies onto the rocky shoreline, the disciples saw that Jesus had already prepared a campfire breakfast of fish and bread. He invited them to add some of their newly caught fish to the coals. In a scene reminiscent of both the feeding of the multitudes (John 6:1-14) and the last supper, Jesus distributed bread and fish, and they sat on the shore together, tearing at fresh bread and grilled tilapia while drying out in the warming sun (vv. 9-14).
A talk about sheep(vv. 15-19)
At this point, all of the disciples but Peter drop out of the story. Had they fallen asleep with full bellies and exhausted bodies? Were they busy counting and cleaning fish? We don’t know, for the author now concerns himself only with Jesus and the brash disciple who had vowed never to deny him – before doing so three times.
Jesus and Peter had unfinished business going back to Peter’s denial, and Jesus addressed him with such solemnity that he called him by his legal name: “Simon, son of John!” That got Peter’s attention. Then he asked an unexpected question: “Do you love me more than these?”
We can almost hear Peter’s mind working. The wary disciple might have noticed the emphasis Jesus put on the word “love” (John translated it with the Greek word agapaō, often used to describe Jesus’ unconditional love). “Do you love me more than these?”
Was Jesus asking if Peter loved him more than the other disciples loved him, or did he want to know if Peter loved him more than he loved his fishing boats or his friends? We don’t know. Peter wanted to profess his love, but he also knew his weaknesses. He had proclaimed eternal loyalty to Jesus once before, but later pretended that he didn’t know him. Peter was probably more careful with his words after that.
So, perhaps he wanted to say “Yes, Lord, I love you faithfully and unconditionally.” But maybe he didn’t have that much confidence in his own love. So he answered “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Here John uses the Greek verb phileō, which tends to be less intense than agapaō. In any case, Jesus accepted what Peter was willing to give, and he gave something in return: he gave a command. “Feed my lambs” (v. 15).
We can only imagine Peter’s response. “What? Feed my lambs? Jesus never owned a lamb in his life!”
While Peter sat there with question marks all over his face, Jesus looked deeply into his puzzled eyes and repeated the question. “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?”
Peter must have flinched. He knew that the Lord had reason to doubt his love. Still, it hurt to hear him ask the second time. But Peter responded as he had before. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Again, those two different words for love. Jesus asks for unconditional love. Peter promises something less.
And Jesus repeated his command, in a slightly different form: “Look after my sheep” (v. 16).
As Peter pondered the difference between sheep and lambs, perhaps wondering if this was a different command and what it meant, Jesus spoke again – still solemn, still formal. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Here Jesus switched to Peter’s less intensive word for love.
We can imagine a tearful Peter recognizing what Jesus had done. When the struggling disciple could not come up to Jesus’ standard of unconditional love, Jesus came down to where Peter was, and challenged him there, as well.
We suspect Peter would also have noticed that Jesus had asked him three times to affirm his love – once for each of the times he had denied him. The crusty fisherman-turned-disciple was chagrined but undaunted: “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
For the third time Jesus said simply, “Feed my sheep” (v. 17).
Then Jesus gave to the worried disciple a special gift, a word of encour-agement and prophecy, an assurance that Peter would indeed prove to be faithful, even to death. A younger Peter had been prone to stubbornly follow his own way, but “When you grow old,” Jesus said, “you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will clothe you, and lead you where you do not wish to go.” The author explains that Jesus was predicting the manner of Peter’s death. He would learn to obey God’s will, and not is own (vv. 18-19a).
This touching story suggests that for every failure, there is the opportunity for forgiveness. Three times Peter had denied Christ, and three times Jesus offered him the chance to profess his love and be accepted anew. Peter accepted the offer. In later years, a letter attributed to Peter declares: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by his wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:24-25).
Each of us must confront the ways in which we, like Peter, have denied Christ. We can deny Jesus through words we say (or don’t say), and through the things we do (or don’t do). We don’t always show convincing evidence that Christ lives in us.
If someone challenged us to prove we are Christians, how would we respond? Would we display our baptismal certificate or picture in the church directory? Would that be convincing?
All of us fail to be everything that Christ wants us to be, but the Lord does not give up on us. Jesus reached out to Peter where he was – in all of his doubts and self-recriminations, in all of his uncertainties about himself and his own commitment. Jesus accepted Peter, and he symbolized that acceptance by giving Peter a task, showing Peter the way, and calling him to follow (v. 19b).
While the focus is on Peter, this extended story contains two apt metaphors that speak to us all: Christ-followers are called to catch fish and to tend sheep. When Jesus first called Peter and Andrew, James and John, he challenged them to become fishers of men (Mark 1:17, Matt. 4:19). Now, he challenges Peter to a more pastoral role: to care for the people Jesus loves.
Whether in retreat settings or Sunday school rooms, in our work places or on the street, Jesus’ challenge still rings: “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep – follow me!” NJF
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for April 10, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: John 21:1-19
Our students will let us down. It is painful when it happens and the pain continues as our student overcomes the situation that they put themselves in. I have heard parents say that they can’t provide consequences for an action that caused pain because their relationship will be ruined and they won’t be able to get to them later. This might be the case if you only give the consequence and don’t continue the relationship. Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him, after Peter denying Jesus on the night of his crucifixion. Each time Peter responds “Yes.” Then Jesus gives him a specific instruction to show his love. As you help your students overcome their disappointments, think about having them do things that reveal who they are instead of who they are trying to be.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“A Man Whose Loyalty Can Be Bought” from The Ninth Gate
Read Scripture online: John 21:1-19