Peter – Purifying Faith (John 21:1-18)
After salvation we need to continue to live by faith in order to be pleasing to God. Serving and witnessing in this sin-filled world means that the wickedness of this world will cling to us. This happens through the mind and heart, resulting in words and lives that are no longer godly but carnal. The faith needed to live lives pleasing to Christ is compromised and tarnished by the pride of life, lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes. Peter as the self appointed head of the 12 disciples (usually he was the first one to speak up) was a very important Apostle in the continuation of Christ’s ministry on earth after Christ’s ascension. Peter became the leader of the Apostles with Judas Iscariot gone and with Christ’s ascension. Peter appointed Matthias to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle. Peter preached the first message to begin the local church witness at Pentecost. These ministries of Peter would not have been possible if Peter had continued to lean on self-confidence to do God's work. God needed to help Peter get rid of his confidence in self and to replace it with God confidence.
The way to do it was to break Peter’s self-will and self-confidence and yet not destroy him in the process. After His resurrection, Christ did not bring up the subject of Peter’s three time denial of Him especially after Peter had boasted that he would not deny Christ because he was prepared to even die for Christ. Peter failed miserably because he did deny three times that he did not know the Lord. Peter was devastated and broken within. John 21 records the eighth appearance of the resurrected Christ. In was in this eighth appearance that the Lord restored Peter and purified his faith in the process in order to teach him God-confidence.
I. To Break Faith (vs. 1-3) – Peter felt downcast about his denials of Christ. Perhaps Peter felt that he had disappointed the Lord so badly that the Lord did not want him to serve Him anymore. Furthermore the Lord did not bring up the subject of Peter’s denials in the first seven appearances. Peter wanted to go back to fishing. Six of the disciples were with him. They wanted to follow Peter and go back to fishing. Like the previous time (three years ago) they had fished all night and caught nothing. What better way to restore Peter than to use the similar experience at his first calling to be a fisher of man! As long as Peter’s faith was mixed with self-confidence, his faith was weak and needed to be purified. Peter needed to be broken but not destroyed. Peter’s self-confidence in trusting Christ based upon his own strength must be destroyed before it can be replaced by God-confidence in trusting Christ.
Peter’s heart was ready. The situation was perfect. Now the Lord would appear to restore his servant back unto Himself, ready to serve Christ again and with the right confidence.
II. To Repair Faith (vs. 4-14) – To repair Peter’s faith the Lord appeared first thing the next morning. The disciples did not know that it was the Lord. He asked them whether they had caught anything. They said they caught nothing. Then the Lord told them to cast their net “on the right side of the ship, and ye [they] shall find.” They obeyed. The disciples were not able to draw the net because of the multitude of fishes. The moment that happened, the disciple whom Jesus loved (most likely it was John who wrote in the third person) told Peter that it was the Lord Jesus Christ. The similarity of the experiences was not lost to the disciples. When Peter heard this he cast himself into the sea to meet his Lord. The disciples were about 200 cubits, i.e. 300 feet, from shore. A meal was already prepared for them by the Lord. The Lord asked them to bring the catch to shore. Peter went and he counted the fish and it was exactly 153. To an expert fisherman like Peter he probably knew the approximate number of fishes a net of that size could hold. The net was about to break but it did not. This was unlike the previous occasion when the Lord called them. The net broke and Peter was called a fisher of man by Christ. In this instance it was a similar calling but with a different cryptic message. The net was about to break but it did not, teaching Peter that the experience of denying the Lord three times was not meant to destroy Peter but to remove his confidence in self so that he could exercise only God-confidence in his service unto the Lord. It was meant to repair his faith to rebuild it.
III. To Rebuild Faith (vs. 15-18) – The rebuilding process was almost immediate. The Lord asked Peter three questions that seemed the same but were not. The first question was: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” Jesus wanted to hear if Peter would again boast like before that he loved the Lord more than all the other disciples! The word “lovest” is “agape” love which means “an unconditional and sacrificial love.” Peter said that the Lord knows (cognitively) that he would continue to love Him. Peter dared not use “agape” love but “phileo” love which is conditional love. Peter had stopped comparing and boasting. Then the Lord asked Peter to feed, i.e. pasture, His lambs like a herdsman would do.
The second question: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” The comparison stopped. The word “lovest” is also “agape” love. Peter’s reply was exactly the same. He used “phileo” love again in his reply. This time the Lord replied Peter, “Feed, i.e. shepherd, my sheep.” To shepherd is to protect and keep safe. The previous word “pasture” is to feed them by leading them to green pastures so that they will grow.
The Lord asked Peter the third and final time, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” The word “lovest” was no longer “agape” but “phileo.” The Lord came down to Peter’s level of conditional love. Peter was grieved because the Lord asked him the third time and came down to his level of “phileo” love. It was a conditional love that was based upon Christ’s love for him and a Master servant relationship rather than a self-confident boastful kind. This time Peter’s reply was different. He said, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.” The first “knowest” is cognitive knowledge but the second “knowest” is experiential knowledge. Peter was in effect saying that he had during the past three years of following the Lord shown his love for the Lord. Then the Lord replied and said to Peter, “Feed, i.e. pasture, them as a herdsman of Christ’s sheep.” Peter must keep on protecting and feeding God’s people all his life, for they are Christ’s flock. Peter did exactly this in later years of his ministry as the epistles of First and Second Peter testify. The Lord concluded the rebuilding of Peter’s faith and ministry by revealing to him how his life would end: John 21:18 "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” Through this experience, Peter’s faith was rebuilt by the Lord into a stronger and Christ-centred faith.
Conclusion – Painful experiences in life are always good for God’s children. If they have been faithful, then these adversities are sent by the Lord to strengthen their faith in Christ. However, if God’s children have strayed away like Peter, then adversities are sent by the Lord to purify and make strong again their faith. Peter’s problem was self-confidence. This needed to be removed from his life. Through his boasting of never denying the Lord even if all the other disciples did and his subsequent three time denials, Peter was a broken man. He realized his boastful words were nothing but empty words. The Lord needed to teach Peter. He broke his self-willed faith and then repaired it and rebuilt it to a Christ-centred faith. All believers need to remain humble and Christ-centred. Then our faith in Christ will be pure and strong. We will then be mightily used by the Lord for the blessing of God's people and the salvation of sinners in our lives. Pray for a pure faith that is void of self-will and pride. Amen.
Yours faithfully in the Saviour’s Service,
Rev Dr Quek Suan Yew, Pastor