Restoring the Fallen: Peter’s Restoration (John 21:1-19)

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Sometime after Jesus appeared to Thomas and the disciples, Peter got restless. He had followed Jesus for three years, and now Jesus was appearing occasionally but was no longer with them consistently. What was he supposed to do now? So he quite naturally found himself gravitating toward the work he knew best — fishing. 

Back to Work

John 21:1-7:

1 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way.
2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together.
3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
5 Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.”
6  He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish.
7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.

Professional fishing was not a one-man job, and night was the best time for fishing. So, having decided to return to the work, Peter and six other fishermen toil throughout the night. But all night, hour after long hour of throwing and hauling in the heavy nets, they catch nothing at all.

Just at daybreak, when it is about time to shut it down and go home, someone calls to them from the shore: “Do you have any fish?” When they admit that they do not, the person calls, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some fish!” They do, and immediately the net is absolutely full of fish —  so many that they can’t even pull it back into the boat.

Focus on the Text: If this scene sounds a bit familiar, it should. Almost the same thing happened when Jesus first called Peter as His disciple — a full night of fishing with nothing to show for it; Peter cast once more at Jesus’ command followed by an enormous catch of fish. Jesus is re-creating His original call of Peter. John notes that the disciples worked all night because that’s what they did. Recording the fact that Jesus appeared just as dawn was breaking reminds us of the resurrection when the women came to the tomb also at the break of dawn. It creates a mood of light breaking through the darkness, very much in keeping with the action of Jesus in restoring Peter.

So when John suddenly realizes who the Stranger on the shore is and tells Peter, Peter wastes no time in getting to Jesus. He doesn’t stop to think about the fact that the boat is heading to shore anyway or that he’s leaving the other disciples to handle the unwieldy load of fish. He probably doesn’t even know why he’s so desperate to get to Jesus or what he will say when he arrives. He just realizes that he’s not appropriately clothed and that he desperately wants to be with Jesus, so he immediately dons his outer garment, leaps into the sea, and swims to shore. It’s not a carefully-thought-out plan, just the impulsive act of a heart that longs for Jesus.

God wants us to use our brains, to think things through, and to make intelligent choices.

Think about it: God wants us to use our brains, to think things through, and to make intelligent choices. Most importantly, we need to be like Peter — desperate to be with Jesus.  

Focus on the Text: Normal dress of the first century Jews was a tunic with an outer coat or robe over it. One would remove the outer robe at night or sometimes in private, but to appear in public clad only in the tunic was considered inappropriate. Peter had shed his outer robe while working and so was not properly clothed to be seen in public, though he was not naked in the modern sense. Many modern versions translate the text to reflect this.

Breakfast with the Lord

John 21:8-14:

8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.
10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”
11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.
12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Arriving on shore, Peter and the other disciples find an unexpected but welcome sight — Jesus already has a charcoal fire going, with fish and bread cooking on it. But for Peter, the fire is more than just a way to cook breakfast — it was also a charcoal fire that he was at when he denied Christ. 

Focus on the Text:  There are only two places in the New Testament where the term “charcoal fire” is used. Both are in John’s Gospel — once at Peter’s denial, and once here at the scene of Peter’s restoration. John is drawing a clear parallel between the two fires. In fact, Jesus is bringing in several elements from previous encounters. Besides the charcoal fire, there is an obvious parallel with the original call of Peter, Andrew, James, and John as recorded in Luke 5:4-11. The bread and fish would remind them of the miraculous feeding of the 5000. Jesus’ serving the disciples parallels His humble service to them at the Last Supper. The cooked fish echoes Jesus’ eating fish to prove that He wasn’t a spirit at His first, post-resurrection meeting with the disciples. This is much more than a chance encounter or a simple appearance — it is full of memory and meaning for the disciples.

Jesus asks the disciples to bring some of the fish that they just caught. Peter immediately goes to obey. (Maybe he feels bad that he’s left the other disciples to do the work of landing the net; maybe now that he’s with Jesus, he feels awkward, not knowing what to say, or maybe he just wants to prove himself by immediate obedience.) He pulls the net to shore, probably with the help of the other disciples, and finds that, after sorting out the fish that are too small to be worth keeping, there is an astounding 153 fish!

Going Deeper: We are not sure what Jesus meant in asking them to bring some of the fish that they had caught. Perhaps He wanted them to share in providing the meal; perhaps He simply meant that they should finish the work of sorting the fish and discarding those that they would not keep. But either way, Jesus’ request is the catalyst for landing and counting the fish. This lets us know the magnitude of the miracle: 153 large fish was an enormous catch, and the fact that the net was unbroken was amazing! By the way, the reason John says that there were 153 fish is simply because that’s how many fish there were. There is no symbolic meaning to the number. As he often does, John here uses details to direct our attention to what’s important. He doesn’t tell us exactly when how long after the resurrection this scene occurred because it’s not important for his purpose. But for this narrative, both the people involved and the setting are very significant, so John gives a lot of detail about the scene: who is there; the exact time of day, the exact number of fish; the clothes that Peter was wearing; how far they were from land; the fact that the net did not break; the exact words used by the various speakers; etc. This tells us to pay attention, not just to what is said, but to the entire scene.

Once that work is done and breakfast is finished cooking, Jesus invites them to eat. Noting at this point that they did not dare ask who He was indicates that they are still a bit reticent. It may also suggest that they are hesitant to come join Him, so He brings the food to them and serves them.

Difficult Questions

John 21:15-19:

15 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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
18 “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”
19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Focus on the Text:  The name “Peter” means “a rock,” and Jesus Himself had given him the name “Peter” when He first met him (1:42). In fact, the first thing Jesus said to Peter was, “You are Simon, the son of John. You shall be called Peter.” So when Jesus shifts back to Peter’s previous name, “Simon, son of John,” the implication is that Peter’s discipleship is in question.

After breakfast, Jesus addressed Peter. Peter had been the one to declare that, even if all the other disciples forsook Him, he would stand with Him to the death. Essentially, he boasted that he loved Jesus more than any of the other disciples! But now Jesus asks him if he loves Him more than the other disciples do. In other words, “With all that has happened, do you still stand by your boast?” Peter gives a hearty “Yes, I do love You!” He does not repeat “more than these,” though — apparently Peter is focusing on what he can affirm, hoping to let the comparison to the other disciples slide. Or maybe he is getting a bit conceited. After all, Jesus had appeared to him individually and not to the other disciples (Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:12). He alone had leapt into the sea to swim to Jesus, and he alone had instantly obeyed Jesus’ command to get some fish from the net.

When Peter affirms his love for Jesus, Jesus tells him to “feed My lambs,” or later, “feed My sheep.”  In other words, “Peter, you don’t show your love for Me by boasting about it or by being the most demonstrative, but by humble service to others. If you really love Me, show it by taking care of your fellow believers.”

But Jesus isn’t going to let him off with a superficial response. So He asks again, “Peter, do you actually love Me?” But this time Jesus leaves off “more than these.” Again Peter gives the expected response: “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.”  

God wants deep, genuine commitment to Himself, and is going to keep pushing you until you confront whatever it is that is keeping you back from real, total surrender.

John emphasizes that the question was asked a third time, and the fact that the question was posed three times wounded Peter deeply. When Peter denied Christ, he gave the easy answer to three questions, and now he’s twice given the easy answer to Jesus’ questions. Jesus is forcing him to re-live his past failure and is bringing him face-to-face with his tendency to take the easy way out. But this time Peter’s bravado is gone. In the past, Peter had attempted to correct Jesus, but now he brokenly appeals to Jesus’ superior knowledge. “Lord, You know everything. You know that I love You.” 

Think about it: Jesus kept pushing until Peter was deeply wounded, because that is the only way that Peter would really deal with his unfaithfulness. God wants deep, genuine commitment to Himself, and is going to keep pushing you until you confront whatever it is that is keeping you back from real, total surrender.

Going Deeper: Some commentators and numerous preachers have pointed to the fact that John uses two different Greek words for “love” in this passage: phileo and agapao (the verb form of the more familiar agape). They claim that agapao suggests a deep, godly love while phileo indicates brotherly affection. So while Jesus was asking if Peter had deep, abiding love for Christ, Peter was affirming his affection for Jesus. The reason Peter was grieved the third time is that Jesus changed the question to, “Do you really have affection for Me?” While this sounds good, it is probably not what John intended. First, while the two words can carry those different emphases, John does not consistently use them in those ways. For example, John 12:24 says that the Pharisees love (agapao) the praise of men, whereas John 16:27 says that the Father loves (phileo) us. Second, John’s gospel contains changes between synonyms just for variety, without any intended difference in meaning. For example, Jesus also changes between “feed My sheep” and “feed My lambs,” and there seems to be no significant difference between the two. Third, it is likely that both Jesus and Peter were speaking in Aramaic (since that was the common language of Israel at the time), and Aramaic has only one word for “love.” So overall, it’s best to view the change between the two words for “love” as just part of John’s style of writing with no intended change in meaning, and most scholars handle the passage from this perspective. The significance is found, not in the different words, but in the fact that the same question was asked three times, echoing Peter’s three denials.

Peter’s End And Restoration 

Peter has reached the end. He has nothing more to offer in his own defense or as proof of his love, and he’s appealed to Jesus’ all-encompassing knowledge. So Jesus now affirms the reality of Peter’s love. “Peter, you once said that you would die for Me. You were right — you will die for me. One day, someone will dress you in clothes that you do not want to wear, and take you where you do not want to go — to death by crucifixion. But you will go, and by so doing you will prove that you truly do love Me.”

Then, after the appearance and the miracle, after the process of question and answer, after the prediction of faithfulness to death, Jesus concludes by simply saying, “Follow Me.” Those were the words by which He called all of the disciples, and with the same words, Jesus renews His call to Peter. During Christ’s earthly ministry, “Follow Me” literally meant “Walk where I walk and live where I live.” But now it means, “Follow My teachings, obey My commands, and walk in My Spirit.” This becomes the new marching orders for the disciples, and for us.

Steve Oliver
Steve Oliver is Lead Pastor of Troy Holiness Church in Troy, MO. He earned his PhD in New Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University.