John 21:15-25


The passage before us is John chapter 21, the final section, verses 15 through 25…

We said a few weeks ago that verses 1 through 14 of this chapter were primarily intended to reveal Jesus – who Jesus is and what Jesus does. If that is the case, then we might say the text before us reveals who we are, and what we do as followers of Jesus.

Peter and John are functioning here not only as apostolic leaders, but also as representative Christians. John is bringing his Gospel to a close; Jesus has accomplished the mission given to him by his Father, and now the disciples are given some of the most important and foundational lessons of the Christian life, and for the life of the Church.


READ vv.15-19
You are probably aware that Jesus uses two different Greek words for “love” as he questions Peter. Peter uses the same word each time – it is the Greek word “phileo,” whereas Jesus in his first two questions uses the word “agapao” but then on the third question he uses the same word Peter has been using – “phileo.” Some commentators have argued that a significant point is being made by this variation in terminology. As D.A. Carson explains,

Commonly it is argued that agapao is the stronger form of “to love,” but so powerfully has Peter had his old self-confidence expunged from him that the most he will claim is the weaker form – even when Jesus draws attention to the point, using the weaker form himself when he asks the question for the third time. This accounts for the distinction the NIV maintains between “truly love” and “love.”

Carson then goes on to list seven key arguments against this commonly held viewpoint. I am not going to list them for you, but I do find them compelling, especially where Carson points out that John is fond of using minor variations in vocabulary just for the sake of style. In fact, right here in this passage John changes between «feed my lambs» and «tend my sheep» and «feed my sheep.» So I am of the opinion that we are not to see a particular point being made by the changes in terminology.

It is also worth noting here the statement that Jesus was telling Peter by what kind of death he was going to glorify God. We might have expected that after the glorious resurrection of the Lord in chapter 20, and the tremendous, miraculous catch of fish in the opening verses of chapter 21 – shouldn’t the rest of the story be nothing but blessing, nothing but power and success and victory? We know from the book of Acts and the rest of church history that the way of the cross is the way of victory.

Remember back in John 12, Jesus told his disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And you can imagine the disciples looking at one another and thinking, “Finally – now Jesus is going to unleash his messianic power and conquer his enemies! This is going to be a great display of power and victory! Let the fireworks begin!” And Jesus says,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.

READ vv.20-22
Some commentators detect a hint of envy in Peter’s question, “Lord, what about this man?” I think it is more likely that Peter is genuinely concerned for John’s welfare. But whatever Peter’s motives in asking the question, the Lord says to him, basically, “That’s not your concern! You follow me!” This is a good reminder that we must not get so distracted by what others have been called to do that we neglect our calling.

READ v.23
Apparently Jesus’ statement in verse 22 had circulated while the apostle John was still alive, and had caused confusion, with the rumor going around that Jesus meant to say that His Second Coming would happen in John’s lifetime. John knows that if he had then died and Jesus still had not returned, real damage could be done to the faith of many believers. So he wants to clarify exactly what Jesus did and did not say.

READ vv.24-25
It’s as though John thinks back over all that he has said about Jesus, and he longs to say more, to show more, to convey the true greatness of the Son of God – but there aren’t words that would do it justice! All the books in the world could not adequately capture the glory and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ!

This is one of the most beautiful and most powerful pictures of grace in the entire Bible. You recall the devastating picture of sin and failure at the charcoal fire a few days earlier. Peter’s bold professions of his loyalty to Jesus had been snuffed out that night. He’d been warming his hands by the bright flame of that fire, and then came the questions, and the denials, and the sound of the rooster’s crow. In that moment all of Peter’s self-confidence, all his boasting, all his resolve to follow Jesus no matter what the cost, was gone.

Now we find Peter sitting by another charcoal fire, and another series of three questions is being asked, this time by the Lord himself. This is a picture of the grace of God being extended to traitors, to failures, to sinners like us – for we are all traitors apart from the mercy of God. This is a passage for us to treasure – there is grace for us. There is restoration. Jesus has died the death that we deserved, taken the punishment in our place, and he has gone through death and come out alive, thus conquering sin and death and bringing us to God. This is a passage to be celebrated. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more!

And there is a sense in which grace is the keynote of the Christian life. We grow in grace, we are nourished by grace, we never outgrow our need to remember that we were saved by grace. We rely upon fresh outpourings of grace. As John said in the first chapter of his Gospel, we look to Jesus for grace upon grace, one grace after another.

And yet…I want to raise an issue with a view of grace that seems to be gaining currency in our circles. I believe it is a potentially dangerous misconception about God’s grace. To illustrate this view, let me mention a book on leadership I was reading recently, a book that had come recommended to me by a man in our denomination. This book had many fine points to make, many insights I hope to incorporate into my own life and ministry. But there was one particular point that troubled me.

The point was repeatedly made that you can either live to trust God or you can live to please God. Trusting God and pleasing God were set forth as altogether different life directions. The concept was presented in the image of two doorways that a leader stands facing. One door says “trusting God’ and the other says “pleasing God.” You can choose one and one only as the pathway of your life.

That struck me as one more variation on a particular brand of teaching that I have encountered at times. I’m not sure what to call it, but it is basically the idea that grace is a destination, a place to camp out. It is a version of grace that never gets to the imperatives, what Christ commands us to do – in fact what happens is that all language of striving, and performance, and trying to be a better Christian – all that is pushed to the side or even categorized as legalism.

What I want to show you this morning is how Jesus’ restoration of Peter does not square with a concept of grace as a destination, grace as an end point. Notice the way that Jesus restores Peter. We might have expected Jesus to ask Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter would say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I do.” Jesus would then respond, “I forgive you, you are restored, you are welcomed back into my presence, because I have paid for that sin.”

We might have even expected Jesus to say, “Peter, stop your striving to please me; just rest in my grace, just trust me, and everything from here on will work out, if only you will are gripped by my grace.” And generally speaking, that would have been a true statement, but that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus says, “Feed my sheep,” and twice he says to Peter, “Follow me!” And then his next topic is Peter’s death. Peter, feed my sheep, follow me, and you are going to be killed for the sake of my name.

Restoration comes with responsibility. Grace comes with a commission. Grace is a launching pad to a life entirely given to serve God in all that we do. You find this taught throughout the pages of God’s Word. In the text we read for the confession of sin and assurance of pardon – Isaiah chapter six, you find this dynamic. Immediately after the moment where Isaiah’s lips are touched and he receives the declaration that his sins are forgiven, Isaiah says, “Here am I; send me!” He has been forgiven, and now he is going to be sent out to preach the gospel to others.

Or think of a passage like 2 Thessalonians 2.16-17. Paul says this:

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.

Grace brings not only comfort, not only personal peace and the assurance of the Father’s love, but it also establishes us in every good work. Or again as Paul would say in Titus 2.11-14, grace trains us to do certain things:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

We could find dozens of passages like that. None of the biblical writers would have recognized a version of the gospel in which grace becomes an end point, or a gospel in which the imperatives of Scripture, the commands of God are viewed suspiciously because they might make us legalists. The biblical gospel is not an either/or – either trust God or please God. The biblical gospel is a both/and – the biblical writers have no problem whatsoever saying in one breath, “All your good deeds cannot please God enough to earn salvation, so trust him for it,” and then in the next breath, “Live with all your might so as to please God.” Find out what pleases the Lord. That comes from the apostle Paul, the greatest champion of free grace! God’s grace sets you on a path of good works, a holy calling to serve and to obey and to minister in his name.

In the last year or so I have switched from being a Jiffy Lube customer to an Oil Can Henry’s customer. I don’t know if this is true of all Jiffy Lube locations and all Oil Can Henry’s locations, but at least in Renton there is a substantial difference between the two in terms of the cleanliness of the place, and the attitude of the employees, and the quality of service.

In the three or four times I have been to Oil Can Henry’s I have noticed the increasing amount of care that goes into making the customer’s experience a pleasant one. You stay in your car, rather than having to wait in a dingy, dirty, cramped waiting room with bad coffee. They bring you a fresh copy of USA Today for your reading pleasure. You can watch on remote cameras all of the work being done on your car. Or not – you could close your eyes and take a nap if you chose. Now they have begun to offer free wireless Internet as you wait in your car. You know, at some point customers are not going to want to leave. They will curl up in the car with their latte and wireless Internet and hang out for a few hours – maybe all day! But of course that would be to entirely miss the point of being at a place like Oil Can Henry’s, a place designed to get you back on the road to do other things.

So it is with God’s grace – if we treat grace as simply a place to soak up the personal comfort of knowing God’s favor, or a place to just camp out and continually reassure ourselves that God loves us, we have only half the truth, a most dangerous thing. This is not just the danger of having a faulty theology, but there can be real spiritual ruin when a person does not see that the gospel of grace leads us to the pursuit of a holy life. This is one of the devil’s great tactics down through the ages — to whisper in our ears, “You don’t need to worry about holiness; you’re accepted, what difference does it make? You don’t need to pray, you don’t need to be so careful about fighting your sin, you don’t need to be so disciplined, you don’t need to strive – you’re already accepted! So just relax and take it easy!”

But the Bible never makes that inference from the grace of God. The great Puritan pastor Thomas Brooks put it this way:

Christ has freed you from all your enemies, from the curse of the law, the predominant damnatory power of sin, the wrath of God, the sting of death, and the torments of hell; but what is the end and design of Christ in doing these great and marvelous things for his people? It is not that we should throw off duties of righteousness and holiness, but that their hearts may be the more free and sweet in all holy duties and heavenly services. This I am sure of, that all man’s happiness here is his holiness, and his holiness shall hereafter be his happiness. Christ has therefore broken the devil’s yoke from off our necks, that his Father might have better service from our hearts.

Has the grace of God had this effect in your life? Have you seen grace compel you to action? Or are there ways in which you are stuck in a mode of self-absorption – you are hindered from serving Christ or ministering to others because you feel as though you have to experience more healing, more grace yourself, before you can jump into action? Let me encourage you to look at this case study of Peter’s life, and take heart.

The Lord Jesus Christ stands ready to restore all those who have sinned against him, betrayed him, denied him, rebelled against him. And no matter how weak or useless you feel, it certainly can’t be any worse than what Peter felt. And at that charcoal fire, when the word of grace came to Peter, it came with an awesome commission. It wasn’t just some odd job, as though Jesus was trying to lift Peter’s spirits and boost his self-esteem and find something for him to do. Jesus put Peter right at the leading edge of the entire movement of the Christian gospel into the world! Jesus says to Peter, “The precious sheep, those I have purchased at the cost of my own blood – I am going to entrust these into your care!”

The Lord has given you similarly awesome tasks – to fight sin, to strive for holiness, to die to self, to love others as you have been loved, to testify to the goodness of God even in difficult circumstances, to spread the gospel to the nations.

We know how Peter responded – we cannot even imagine how church history might have unfolded had Peter not gladly embraced his calling.

Now it is our turn. We are the ones sitting on the beach with the Lord Jesus, and he is extending his grace to us, and with that grace, giving us a commission. What are the things he is calling you to do? Are you actively responding to that call? Peter’s response had profound and far-reaching consequences down through the ages. Yours will, too.