After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 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.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” 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. 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. 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.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 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. 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. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
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.” 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.” 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. 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.” (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” (John 21:1-19).
We are all prone to fall into sin, to live a life less than what we are called to. We often look to Peter and his denials of Christ and mentally shake our heads at his choices. Jesus, however, has other ideas when it comes to Peter–and us, as we’ll find out in this conversation.
Jesus has now been crucified and resurrection. The work that He came to earth to do has been completed. He has secured life for all who trust in Him. This conversation takes place in the midst of final instructions and encouragements to His disciples (John tells us it is the third appearance of Jesus to His disciples after the resurrection). Peter and several disciples are now in Galilee waiting for Jesus, as He commanded them (Matt. 28:7).
The Fruitless Fishing Trip
While in Galilee Peter decides, “I’m going fishing,” and several other disciples join him. Many have commented that Peter’s assertion that he was going fishing marks a return to the life he knew before encountering Jesus, as though he were deserting or backsliding, being discouraged. However, John records that they knew Jesus was alive and that He had already commissioned them (20:20-21). It seems unlikely that they would be discouraged. The fact is they had been told to go to Galilee and wait for Jesus, and they went fishing to pass the time; there is certainly no moral injunction against making a living while waiting on the Lord’s command (unless He commands otherwise). Unfortunately for the disciples, their night of labor was fruitless.
As dawn breaks and rescues the disciples from the long night, Jesus is standing on the shore, but the disciples didn’t recognize Him. It being early morning the mist on the lake could have made recognition difficult, and they were likely focused on the frustrating night. Jesus calls out, “Children, haven’t you caught any fish?” Jesus uses a phrase that is a term of affection. The question is phrased in such a way to expect a negative answer, showing that Jesus knew they had failed to catch any fish before the question was asked–their “no” only confirmed it.
Jesus then calls out that they should cast their net on the right side of the boat and they would find fish there. Whether or not Jesus supernaturally knew there were fish there or could see them from shore, it is certain that the number of fish present was a miracle, since the tone is one of awe and surprise. The disciples probably decided that since they had spent all night, one more try wouldn’t hurt anything.
John records that immediately the net was swarming with fish, so many that they could not bring the net in. Something about this seems to open John’s eyes, either Jesus’ voice or the result–it is remarkably similar to Luke 5:1-11. He tells Peter that it is Jesus who is on the shore. Peter, acting in his characteristically impulsive way, puts on his cloak (he had taken it off, leaving only the tunic) and jumps into the water. He apparently swims to shore, since John reports that they are about one hundred yards from shore. (On a side note, the KJV rendering, “for he was naked,” is inaccurate. The Jews were strict in not exposing their nakedness in public, dating back to the Mosaic Law, hence the wearing of a tunic as an undergarment.)
Jesus invites them to bring some of the fish and have breakfast, and John notes here that none asked Him, “Who are you,” since they all knew it was the Lord by now (v. 12). The context of verse 13 seems to indicate that Jesus’ actions in breaking the bread and fish served as a link back to the last meal they had shared together. The scene is now set for Jesus’ conversation with Peter.
An Unexpected Outcome
Peter must have often wondered about his future. After all, he had publicly denied Jesus three time, after making bold assertions that he would never fall away. Surely he remembered Jesus’ words about what would happen to one who denied Christ–such a one would be denied before the Father. He is now in a very uncomfortable position. None of us enjoy having to face the consequences of our past, and we can picture Peter kind of squirming as the conversation starts.
It is interesting that Jesus never brings up the actual denials of Peter. Rather, He frames the discussion in positive questions (question that expect an affirmative response). Whether He intended this as a model for the church to follow is unknown and is a matter that church leadership should consider prayerfully.
The three questions by Jesus are to negate the three denials by Peter. Each time, Jesus simply asks, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” In the first two instances, Jesus uses the word agapaō, the divine love of God, manifested through Christ that sacrifices self for His purpose. However, Peter answers with phileō, which denotes “tender affection,” such as the love that the Father has for the Son (John 3:35; 5:20). The two words are never used interchangeably or indiscriminately, so one gets the sense that Peter is, at the moment, unable or unwilling to commit to “love” in the way that Jesus presents it.
Jesus’ addition of “more than these” in verse 15 is somewhat ambiguous. There are three possible meanings to this: 1) “Do you love Me more than these other men love me?” 2) “Do you love Me more than you love these other men?” 3) “Do you love Me more than these things [boats and fishing, things of the world]?” In light of Peter’s earlier promise to never fall away from Christ regardless of what the others might do and given the context of this discussion, it seems that the first option is probably in view.
For the third exchange, Jesus changes the word “love” to match Peter. He uses phileō, as a seeming concession to Peter. Jesus meets Peter where he is and starts from that point. We learn later that Peter did indeed manifest the agapaō of God, and was willing to die for his faith, crucified upside down, history tells us. This scene is meant to encourage the believer, reminding him that Christ came to restore the broken and fallen and He always starts at the point of need, where the believer is, in order to lead the believer to a higher calling.
While Peter may have been frustrated that Jesus asked him three times, “Do you love me,” the questions were meant to counter his three denials. With each affirmation by Peter, Jesus gave a command. “Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my lambs.” Each statement is not only a command, but it is a statement of restoration–Jesus is restoring Peter to his calling.
In restoring Peter, Jesus reminded him that he still had a purpose. Jesus now gives Peter a glimpse into his own future. He says that one day Peter will be led by another. Another would dress him and lead him where he did not want to go. This seems ambiguous, but John interprets it for the reader. Jesus is here showing how Peter would die and thus glorify God. Peter’s death would not be simply from old age, rather it would be a death “in the line of duty,” suggesting imprisonment before death. Though this seems a morose and forbidding thing to say, Jesus probably means it as encouragement, as a way to say, “Peter, I have restored you, and here is how you will know you have been restored: You will fulfill your purpose and will remain faithful to the end, dying for My name.” Then Jesus gives the solemn command, “Follow Me.”
Takeaways from this Passage
We are all prone, as we saw, to fall away from Christ, and even to deny Him–either by our words or (more likely) by our lives. Christ can and will restore anyone to Himself–no matter the place that you have fallen to. As Jesus told Peter, “I am not finished with you yet.” All you need to do is accept His restoration and follow Him.
[Some of the material in this post has been adapted from my commentary That You May Believe: A Commentary on John, available here.]