John 21:1-19

Oh, Simon Peter . . . If you, dear reader, say that you are not like the Peter of the Gospels, then you and I have little in common.  Impetuous, quick-tempered, over-thinking, big-hearted Peter . . .

Thank You, Father, for giving us so many honest pictures of Simon Peter. They show us that we are redeemable too.

After Jesus’ death, the disciples didn’t really know how to fill their days. They had been so involved for three years, but now they had no one to follow, no crowds to hold back, no teachings to digest.  Even though Jesus had appeared to them more than once, the loss was palpable.  One day, Peter, who was accustomed to work and busyness, decided to go fishing.  No harm in that.  (Probably.  It depends on when Jesus told them to stay in the city—Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4.)  Six other disciples went with him.

I wonder what they talked about, out there on the boat all night. Did Peter confess his denial to them?  Did they speculate about the Holy Spirit?  After all, Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit back in that locked room (John 20:22)—all but Thomas—but they hadn’t actually experienced Him at Pentecost yet (Acts 2:4).  Maybe each was simply lost in his own recollections of the past few years.  At any rate, it must have been a long night because they didn’t catch even one fish.

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author’s photo

As the sun began to lighten the sky, they heard a voice calling from the shore. The distant person told them to lower their nets on the opposite side of the boat, and when they did it, they caught 153 fish. (I wonder who counted them.)  Long-story-short, John realized that the man on the shore was Jesus . . . maybe because Jesus did the same thing when He first called these guys to follow Him (Luke 5:4-6).

Here’s where things get awkward. Peter jumps out of the boat in his eagerness to reach Jesus, leaving the other six guys to pull this huge catch of fish in to shore.  Not the first time he had jumped out of a boat to get to Jesus, by the way (Matthew 14:22-32).  The other six row in because, really, there is no need to get themselves soaked in that early-morning coolness.  But Peter is so eager, so anxious, that He overcompensates.  A few minutes later, when Jesus asks them to bring him some of the freshly-caught fish (despite the fact that other fish are already cooking), Peter jumps up, trudges back through the shallow water, heaves himself into the boat, then single-handedly pulls the full-to-breaking net onto the beach.  He’s trying too hard.  He wants to show Jesus that he knows he failed miserably back there in the courtyard when he denied even knowing Him (John 18; I wrote about this previously).  He wants to prove his faithfulness.  He needs to talk to Jesus, to apologize, to clear the air.  Peter is desperate for reconciliation, but Jesus is just squatting there frying fish!

They sit around the fire, Peter picking at his breakfast while his clothes slowly dry. He glances frequently at Jesus, trying to read his expression.  Peter needs a private moment; Jesus wants to eat.  Peter feels like there’s this huge thing—like an elephant—between them; Jesus looks unconcerned.  Peter dreads the coming conversation:  disappointment? punishment? shame? banishment?  What will Jesus do or say to him?  Can’t we please just get it over with?

-Story break-  Have you ever been there?  You’ve failed someone or hurt someone, and you need to talk about it, but the right opportunity eludes you.  Sometimes that thing-we’re-not-talking-about feels bigger than all the things we are talking about put together.  Yeah, I’ve been there, too.

Finally—after what feels like hours to Peter—Jesus wipes his fingers on his cloak and stands up.  He gestures to Peter:  Let’s go for a walk.  We know they went away because John followed them (John 21:20).  Uncharacteristically, Peter waits for Jesus to have the first word instead of launching into his over-rehearsed apology, but Jesus doesn’t want to talk about “the incident” back in the courtyard.  He simply asks Peter a question, Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?  Ouch; Jesus uses his old name rather than ‘Rock’.  What is Jesus saying?  He is probably implying that Peter is back at the beginning, deciding again to become a “fisher of men” (Luke 5).

But more importantly, ‘these’ what?  Oh, how I wish we knew where Jesus pointed when He asked this question!  There are three possibilities (according to the notes in my Bible).

  1. “Do you love me more than these other disciples love me?” Peter had claimed to love Jesus more than the others did, saying, “Even if all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29). Comparisons are not Jesus’ style.
  2. “Do you love me more than you love these other disciples?” Personally, I can’t imagine Jesus asking this question. Peter’s love for the other disciples was never relevant.
  3. “Do you love me more than you love these fish and this fishing equipment?” On the surface, this question forces Peter to choose between fishing and following Jesus, but I think there’s a deeper meaning here. Jesus had just done a miracle, supplying these seven disciples with a huge catch of fish.  Lots of people followed Jesus—would even say they loved Jesus—because of what Jesus could do for them.  They were like a modern-day rap star’s ‘posse’, which disappears when the money is gone.  This is the tough question:  Do you love me purely for Who I AM, or do you love me for what I can do for you?  Hmm.

Peter didn’t grasp the significance of the question either. He answered quickly (maybe still overcompensating):  Yes, Lord, you know that I love you Then Jesus gives him a simple command: Feed my lambs.  I imagine a pause here.  They walk.  They ponder.  Jesus lets the question and the command sink in.  Finally, he asks again, Peter answers again, and Jesus gives essentially the same command again.  Another pause.  Perhaps Peter is thinking, “Really?  Is this all He wants to say?  What about the courtyard?  What about that servant’s ear?  I’ve messed up a lot in the last few days.  Why doesn’t He mention any of that?”

When Jesus asks the same question a third time, Peter is a little insulted. He stops walking (I imagine) to answer.  This time, however, Jesus elaborates a little—not about the past, but about the future.  Thankfully, John explains in the text that Jesus is talking about how Peter will die.  But much would happen before that day.  Jesus sees all that Peter will go through in the intervening years.  He knows Peter will be repeatedly tempted to return to his fishing nets.  He knows Peter will endure agony, shame, ostracism, and eventually a painful death.  He knows how hard it will be for Peter to walk into Cornelius’ home (Acts 10), how Peter will stand before the religious leaders and speak Truth (Acts 4), how many hours/days/years he will spend in prison (Acts 12), how many miles he will walk, and how (tradition has it) he will request to be crucified upside down because he feels unworthy to die like his Savior.

There was no way Jesus could prepare Peter for all of these things as they stood there on the beach in the now-bright morning sun. He didn’t need to.  Only one thing mattered.  He looks deeply into Peter’s eyes, and He says, Follow me!  Keep your eyes on me.  Stay focused on me.  Leave the fishing nets.  Leave the past behind you.  Don’t worry about the other disciples.  Don’t worry about the synagogue.

Have you ever tried to convince someone of his or her ability at a crucial moment? “You can do this!  You can score the winning run/finish the recital piece/spell the hardest word/complete the race/make the big presentation/ace the exam!”  Most of the time, you need to grab the person by the shoulders, look straight into that person’s eyes, and muster every ounce of emotional energy you can find to transfer into his or her confidence.  That’s how Jesus is talking to Peter here.  All this stuff is going to happen, but the only thing of importance to Peter, the way He will finish well, the way he will feed Jesus’ sheep (long-term result:  1 & 2 Peter), is to concentrate on following and nothing else.

Just.   Follow.   Me.

My theme song for the last couple of months has been Elsa’s song from Frozen:  “Let it go, let it go, turn away and slam the door.”  (My kids say that I don’t sing it right.)  So much has happened with our family in the last few years:  much good, some bad, some my fault, some beyond my control.   I’ve been trying to figure out how to close the door on the painful things and the regrets without losing the wisdom and the friendships that I gained through that time.  I don’t think Peter ever forgot about sinking into the water, about denying Jesus, about cutting off that guy’s ear.  But those things didn’t define his future.  My impetuous mistakes, my well-her-heart’s-in-the-right-place failures . . . they will not define my future, either.  Like Jesus said to Peter, from today, just follow Me.

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4 thoughts on “The Elephant on the Beach

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