John 21: 4 – 19.
His denial of the Lord at the Praetorium, as predicted by Jesus hours earlier over the last supper, despite Peter’s protestations, devastated him (Luke 22:31-34; Luke 22:54-62); where he had betrayed his vociferous confession of faithfulness and courage to protect his Lord before the other disciples. And now, as the leader of a budding spiritual movement, he lived a haunted life after the death of its Founder. Despite the glorious news of Jesus’ resurrection, it seemed that Peter had reverted into the backwaters of his fishing profession to escape the guilt of his ignominious behaviour. Would God ever forgive him? The fact is, all of us have sinned in denying our Lord one way or another; all of us have fallen short of God’s glory as Peter had done (Rom 3:23-24). The moral of John’s narrative at the shores of Galilee on that fateful morning is that God’s forgiveness of our sins is only found on the basis of our repentance. How did the resurrected Christ handle Peter’s predicament?
Having caught nothing all night, Peter’s fishing trip ended when another disciple identified the voice from the shore instructing them to lower their nets on the starboard side (John 21:1-17). In a jiffy, he jumped overboard, not waiting for the catch, and swam towards shore. He sat down by the charcoal fire, casting his gaze furtively between his Lord and the fire, attempting to keep warm in the chill of dawn. When they had brought their catch to shore, they silently consumed their breakfast, uncertain how to interpret their sudden meeting again with the resurrected Christ. Then Jesus broke the stillness and directly addressed Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” The question was repeated a further two times to reinforce Peter’s own confession of his unalterable love for his Saviour before his colleagues. It was a definitive object lesson for the others as well since they too deserted Him at his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is pertinent to note that Jesus did not directly confront Peter on his denials, but instead, got to the motivational roots of that behaviour. Was it pride? Cowardice? Disbelief? Self-preservation? In Peter’s case, God did not beat-around-the-bush when He required him to repent. Spiritual freedom begins when we accept our culpability. When one repents, he looks squarely at the wrong done and takes personal responsibility for it without excuses. Victimhood can never be the basis for our imprudent behaviour.
Peter’s deep-seated emotional response to Jesus’ final question, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” was one of deep disappointment, hurt and grief; reminiscent of his own prior betrayal! (Mark 14:72). How did Jesus turn this debilitating awareness of repentance around for Peter? (c.f., 2Cor 7:10). Instead of pointing to his own actions to prove his loyalty as he had done days earlier, Peter deferred to Jesus’ knowledge of him, “Lord, You know everything; You even know whether I love You or not.” Perhaps at long last, Peter had learned that he cannot follow Jesus in his own strength and had realized the hollowness of affirming his own devotion in a way that relies more on his own power of will than on Jesus’ enablement (cf. John 13:36–38; significantly, in response to Jesus’ new love commandment). Likewise, we should soundly distrust our own self-serving pledges of allegiance that betray our self-confidence rather than a humble awareness of one’s own limitations. Hence, the repentance that is God-centred is one where we become genuinely distressed and taken up with grieving for our sins which resulted in the cross of Christ, but rejoicing at the salvation that proceeded from that once-for-all sacrifice. There is a noteworthy difference between Peter, the fisherman, in the earlier portion of the Gospels (Luke 5:1-11) and Peter, the disciple, in this passage of John’s Gospel. The former was self-absorbed and somewhat independent, while the latter was repentant and knew that he had been crucified with Christ (1 Peter 1:13-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25).