How Jesus Restores a Fallen Disciple
I’m still in Easter mode, primarily because the scriptural aftermath of the resurrection takes another five and a half weeks to play out. So I’m not eager to get back to “normal” devotional life while the biblical calendar of these momentous events continues to run its course.
My last two posts touched on (a) the crucifixion/post-crucifixion fallout, and (b) the first two post-resurrection group appearances on the first two Sundays after the crucifixion. John alone records that second group appearance. And John alone describes Jesus’ third appearance (Jn 21:14) to his gathered disciples.
Two points of interest surface immediately. First, they are no longer in Jerusalem but have journeyed up to Galilee (Jn 21:1) as Christ instructed them (Mt 28:10). And second, apparently only seven of the disciples are gathered on this occasion (Jn 21:1-2), though we know all eleven of them went to Galilee (Mt 28:16). It’s not surprising that Matthew and the other non-fishermen among them would not be interested in an all-night fishing expedition. [For the record, I see no basis in the text for supposing that Peter and the others were “going back to their old way of life” in any negative sense. They were not independently wealthy men; while they obediently waited for Jesus in Galilee they had to eat, and they knew how to catch fish.]
We are primarily interested in one disciple in particular, because John is. We know that on the day he rose, Jesus showed himself to Peter, apparently privately (Lk 24:34; 1 Cor 15:5). Of that encounter we are told nothing; a shroud of scriptural silence is drawn over those sacred moments. The only window we have into Peter’s full restoration is John 21, over a week later. What does that look like?
Jesus Probes the Point of Failure: Self-Confidence (Jn 21:15-17)
Jesus does not examine Peter’s creed, or question his courage, or focus on the mettle of his faith. He asks instead, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?” It seems a simple question. Doubtless it was clear enough in the moment; Jesus could have alleviated any ambiguity by a glance or a gesture. Peter understood it and asked for no clarification. A broad consensus agrees that the “these” was not the fish or fishing paraphernalia but the other disciples. And the “more than” refers not to Peter’s love for his companions but his love for Jesus compared to their love for Jesus.
When Jesus forewarned them of his coming death and their coming trial, Peter protested, “Even if everyone else stumbles because of you, I will not” (Mk 14:29). When Jesus corrected his self-certainty with a warning of his impending denial, Peter doubled down and “spoke more vehemently, ‘If I have to die with You, I will not deny You!’” (Mk 14:31). Granted, the others, not wanting to be outdone, “all said likewise.” But Scripture consistently depicts Peter as the disciple least burdened with self-doubt—even when Jesus repeatedly gives him ample opportunity to cultivate some (cf. Mk 8:32-33).
Now, it seems, Peter’s superiority complex has dissipated. By the shore that morning, Peter curbs his self-confidence. His reply to Jesus’ query about his love for his Lord includes no self-comparison. He claims no superior devotion above and beyond the other disciples.
Three times Jesus questions him.
Three times his weary, contrite, and humbled soul falls at the feet of Jesus’ omniscience: “Lord, You know that I love you.”
Three times Jesus accepts Peter’s reply, and three times re-apostles him: “Feed my sheep.”
Those who know by painful personal experience their own failure and frailty—and the joy of restoration and recovery—may become more watchful and sympathetic shepherds of others.
Jesus Reissues the Prime Directive: Follow Me (Jn 21:18-19)
Jesus then takes Peter back to the basics: “You have a hard row to hoe ahead of you. Your death, when it comes, will not be easy or pleasant.” At some point, on some level, Peter came to understand Jesus’ somewhat cryptic forewarning (cf. 2 Pet 1:14). Having given Peter that oracle, Jesus reissues Peter’s life mission: “Follow me.” This is Jesus’ word of restoration to any defeated disciple: “Get up. Dust yourself off. Do you still love me? Good. Then keep following me.” It is 1 John 1:9 in capsule form. The supernatural catch of fish was a purposeful splash from the past to remind him of their first meeting (Lk 5:4-8), and so were these words (Mk 1:16-18). The road to recovery for the fallen disciple is just that simple, and that radical: “Follow me.”
Jesus Reinforces a Singularity of Focus (Jn 21:20-23)
But it’s hard to read what follows without imagining a double entendre in those words: “Follow me, Simon. Let’s take a walk along the shore. I have more I want to say to you.” Or else they were already walking. Because at this point Peter turns and sees John following them (Jn 21:20). And that prompts a question: “So, what about him?” Simon, it seems, is not quite cured of his penchant for comparison. Why do others seem to have an easier life than me? Why am I saddled with these difficulties and disadvantages? Comparing disciple destinies is a pointless exercise and a perilous distraction.
Jesus’ answer echoes Aslan (or vice versa, to be sure): I tell no one any story but their own. “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? It’s not your job to evaluate how I dispatch my servants. Some I send ‘o’er land and sea without rest’ while others ‘also serve who only stand and wait.’ You just follow me.” *
Do you wonder what Jesus thinks of you in your failure, and what he might say to you if you could hear him? Why do you think we have his conversation with Peter?
*Incidentally, these verses give us a glimpse into a first-century doctrinal anomaly that is both amusing and instructive. John informs us that this exchange between Jesus and Peter gave rise to a widespread theological misconception based, interestingly, on a rather pedestrian hermeneutical error. The theological misconception was the assumption that Jesus would return before John died. The hermeneutical error responsible for this misconception, as John points out, was overlooking the little word “if” (Jn 21:23). We do well to take that as an inspired lesson for modern hermeneutics as well.