Read John 21.
After his resurrection, Jesus made several appearances. We read about an important one today here in John 21. The purpose of these appearances, of course, was to demonstrate his resurrection. But although he spent extended time with the disciples, he did not resume his previous ministry, nor did he overthrow the Roman government and establish his kingdom as the disciples expected (see Acts 1:6).
This must have been unsettling to the disciples. Jesus was alive and he showed up at times, but he didn’t stay around; instead, he would spend time with them, then disappear. What was the plan going forward? They did not know.
So, Peter being the natural leader that he was, announced his intention to go fishing (v. 3). The other disciples who were with him followed (v. 2, 3b). We do not know if Peter did this to pass the time, to resume something familiar in his life, or if he was dabbling with the idea of returning to his previous occupation.
Regardless of why, he was no good at it anymore. Verse 3b says, “…that night they caught nothing.” Hard to stay in business if that happens to you often. While it probably wasn’t unprecedented for Peter before he became a disciple of Jesus, it was far from normal. After their failure to catch any fish, Jesus revealed himself by giving them a miraculous catch (vv. 4-7).
Although they now had plenty of fish to eat themselves and to sell, Jesus had already made breakfast preparations for them (v. 9). He fed them (v. 13), then turned to the matter of Peter’s restoration.
While it is true that Peter had seen Christ before this, it is also true that the memory of his denial of Jesus was still fresh in his memory. Until Jesus addressed it, Peter’s denial would be a barrier to Peter becoming the leader Jesus had appointed him to be. In this passage, Jesus asked Peter to affirm his love–his commitment–to Christ three times, one that corresponded to each of his denials of Jesus. Each time he affirmed his love for Jesus, Jesus commanded him to care for his followers. The point was made that Peter’s denial was forgiven; now he must do what the Lord commanded by caring for God’s people (v. 15c, 16c, and 17d). The final command to Peter was to be ready to die for Christ (v. 18) but to follow Jesus anyway (v. 19).
Do you have any failures in your past that are impeding your present ability to serve Jesus? Take a lesson from this passage. Jesus was gracious toward Peter; he knew that Peter was repentant for denying Christ but that he felt lingering guilt about doing it. Jesus refocused Peter’s attention, calling him to commit to Christ in the present and stay committed to him in the future, even though it would cost him his life. The issue wasn’t that Peter had failed Jesus and so he had to go back to fishing because he couldn’t be an effective apostle. The issue is that he needed to focus on following Jesus–doing what Christ commanded him to do today.
So it is for any one of us. If you are consumed with regret or sorrow over failures in your life, let this passage be restorative for you. No matter what you’ve done, it isn’t as spectacularly bad as denying you even know Jesus while he was being treated unjustly. If Jesus forgave and restored Peter to useful service, he will do so for you, too. Forget about the failures of the past; focus today on following Jesus and doing what he commands right now. That’s the way forward if you’re his disciple.