Main Idea: Jesus gives us a clear picture of what it looks like to live as his disciple.
- Our Confidence Will Not Be in Our Own Strength but in the Sovereignty of Christ.
- Our Comfort Will Not Be in Our Own Morality but in the Mercy of Christ.
- Our Concern Will Not Be for Our Own Priorities but for the People of Christ.
- Our Commitment Will Not Be to Our Own Comfort but to the Cross of Christ.
- Myth 1: For a mature believer suffering is easy.
- Myth 2: The amount we suffer is based on our behavior.
- Myth 3: God isn’t in control of suffering.
Jesus calls us to follow him. As we journey through life, we can either chart our own course or follow the path of Jesus. Twice in this final chapter Jesus says, “Follow me” (vv. 19, 22). That sums up the message of the Gospel of John. Jesus is the promised Savior who calls us away from the path of destruction to follow him into eternal life. Each reader is left with a question: Will I follow Jesus? This final chapter gives us a clear picture of what it looks like to live as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Our Confidence Will Not Be in Our Own Strength but in the Sovereignty of Christ
What’s the point of including the fishing story right here? Consider the last few chapters. Chapters 13–17 describe the night preceding Jesus’s death and focus on his final instructions to the disciples. Chapters 18–19 chronicle the arrest, betrayal, and crucifixion. Chapter 20 declares the wonderful truth of the resurrection. Now chapter 21 begins with a story about fishing.
This story paints a portrait. The disciples were not hobby fishermen; they were experts. Prior to Jesus’s call as disciples, they had made their living on the sea. They hop into the boat to catch some fish but have no luck—all night long but not a single fish. Can you imagine the frustration? It’s no big deal for an amateur to come up dry, but a group of professional fishermen working all night and not catching a thing? That doesn’t happen. They must have been tired and cranky. The sun’s starting to rise, and they hear a voice from the shore call out a prodding question: “You don’t have any fish, do you?” It gets worse. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat and you’ll find some.” They decide to listen and catch 153 fish in one net—so many fish that John realizes it is Jesus. This was a miraculous catch. Only Jesus could have done it.
It’s a great story, and it’s a great picture of following Jesus. We can’t do it on our own. Regardless of our gifts and abilities, our experience or our strengths, we are unable to follow Jesus apart from his work in our lives. Jesus told the disciples that apart from him they could do nothing (15:5). Any effort to serve him in our strength will be as effective as the disciples’ fishing. “Serving Christ in our own strength, trying to do it our own way, is like going after Moby Dick with a pickle fork” (Hughes, John, 455–56). You can become an expert in selfish living on your own. If you make instant gratification your ultimate goal, you can succeed in your own strength. No one can stop you from earning a gold medal in self-promotion. On the other hand, if you want to give up your personal comfort for someone else’s eternal good, your effort is not enough. If you want to be a godly wife and a contented mother, you will fail in your own strength. If you desire victory over that area of sin that constantly plagues you, your best intentions will fall short. All the good you do will be empty and short-lived apart from the effective power of Jesus Christ working in and through you. That’s why this fish story is so encouraging. If we follow Christ, we don’t need to rely on our own strength. He will provide exactly what we need exactly when we need it.
There’s a reason they didn’t catch any fish. They caught nothing so Jesus’s power could be demonstrated. But did they realize that in the moment when the net kept coming up empty? We may experience seasons of frustration that serve a purpose we can’t see. As we follow Jesus, there may be days, weeks, months, even years when it feels as if we are failing. We may be following Jesus, doing what he says, and yet feel as if everything is going wrong. And to make it worse, we may not be able to see the purpose in it. It may not be until much later, if ever, that we discover the reason. In those times the object of our trust will be revealed.
What made it worse was that the disciples’ area of failure was the area they had the most confidence in. They were professional fishermen! If there was anything they excelled at, it was fishing. Jesus used this area to teach the disciples a vital lesson: following him meant their confidence couldn’t be in their own strength but must be in his sovereignty.
Our Comfort Will Not Be in Our Own Morality, but in the Mercy of Christ
No disciple took greater comfort in his own work, effort, and moral standing than Peter. Nothing he said lacked confidence. There was little doubt in his mind he could do whatever he set his mind to. It didn’t seem to register he was imperfect, he had faults and failures, and he was a sinner. On the night that Jesus was arrested, Peter pledged undying devotion to him. He went as far as to claim that he would lay down his life for Jesus. Jesus responded by predicting Peter’s betrayal (13:38). Peter’s denial of Jesus—just as Jesus predicted—shattered his false veneer of morality. Like pulling the final Jenga piece from the bottom of the tower, it caused his self-righteousness to come crashing down. That’s an experience we all need to have. We must come to the point where we realize that no lasting comfort can be found in our morality.
Peter needed to be broken, but he also needed to be restored. That’s exactly what Jesus does. In many ways he recreates the scene of Peter’s denial to remind Peter that his life can’t be built on human morality; it must be founded on divine mercy. Only twice in John’s Gospel do we read about a charcoal fire, here (in verse 9) and in 18:18. The first is when Peter denies Jesus three times, and the second when Jesus restores Peter three times. The smell of charcoal burning—a reminder of Peter’s greatest failure—would become a soothing aroma as Peter is forgiven.
Jesus’s first question was, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (v. 15). That is, “Do you love me more than these other men love me?” This is exactly what Peter had based his comfort on. “I love Jesus more than other people do!” How could he who denied Jesus three times claim to love Jesus more than someone else? The foundation of his self-righteous morality had eroded, and he was forced to confront the reality he wasn’t good enough. His effort wasn’t enough. Twice more Jesus asked Peter if he loved him (vv. 16,17). All three times Peter responded yes. This is the mercy of Jesus at work. For so long Peter was like a lame man, dragging himself around on a pair of crutches. When he denied Jesus, the crutches splintered. He could no longer lean on his own self-righteousness. But Jesus didn’t leave him helpless. With great mercy he restored Peter. In mercy he lifted him up and healed him. No longer was Peter the one doing something. Now it was Jesus. Peter didn’t have to do anything. He didn’t do penance. He wasn’t baptized. He did nothing to atone for his failure. Jesus atoned for Peter’s failure. Peter did nothing but receive mercy.
The street sign hanging over the path Jesus calls us to walk does not say “Morality.” It says “Mercy.” His mercy is our comfort. When we fail—and we will fail—his mercy will restore us. Remember what the old Puritan preacher Richard Sibbes said: “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us” (“The Bruised Reed”).
Our Concern Will Not Be for Our Own Priorities but for the People of Christ
Not only does Jesus restore Peter, but he also commissions him. He instructs Peter to feed his sheep. We know from chapter 10 that Jesus’s sheep are those who will believe in him. When we place our faith in Jesus Christ, we are united to him and to all who believe in him. He ushers us into a new community of faith. We are naturally selfish people. Never in Scripture are we told to love ourselves, but on more than one occasion we’re told to love people just like we love ourselves. It is assumed we love ourselves. If we aren’t following Jesus, we are living for ourselves. That doesn’t mean each person who doesn’t follow Christ is an outright hedonist, but it does mean we ultimately make our decisions based on the good we feel it will bring to us. Not every decision and not every area of life, but the ultimate trajectory of our lives will be what we perceive as our own good.
Following Jesus means our priorities will be radically altered. Instead of serving ourselves, we will serve those who are part of the church—his sheep. Our focus will not be internal but external. The way of Jesus is filled with opportunities to serve our brothers and sisters. There is so much a church can mine from Jesus’s instructions to Peter.
The sheep are Jesus’s sheep, not Peter’s. The head of the church is Jesus, not a man. He is the one we are to follow. His instructions guide us. The faithfulness of a shepherd is measured in only one way: how faithful he is to the Word of God.
The sheep need to be on a strict diet of Scripture. No substitute will do. Only God’s Word will nourish the sheep and bring growth. Peter figured this out. That’s why he wrote, “Like newborn infants, desire the pure milk of the word, so that you may grow up into your salvation, if you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet 2:2-3).
Those who shepherd must know God’s Word. The word pastor literally means “shepherd.” A pastor’s role is to feed the flock the food of the Word. That’s why all pastors/elders need to be men skilled in handling Scripture. They are men who, when you meet with them, make God’s Word more clear to you.
A shepherd’s first priority is to feed the sheep. Jesus didn’t tell Peter to build his church. In fact, Jesus says that he would take care of building the church (Matt 16:18). Peter was to feed the sheep. A shepherd’s number-one duty is the ministry of the Word.
Shepherds must be motivated by love for God. Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Then in response to Peter’s declaration of love, Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Love for God must motivate those who lead the church. If anything else becomes the motivating factor, then they open themselves up to serious dangers. Doctrinal aberration, personal agendas, soapbox issues, confused priorities, and personal kingdom building are all the result of loving something else more than God.
Sheep meet together to feed on God’s Word. We gather corporately to feast on the Word of God. Consuming his Word causes us to grow, mature, and obtain the strength to go out and serve God.
Sheep should be growing. If you are being fed the Word of God by a shepherd, you should see effects from that diet. A baby eats and becomes an adult. An adult eats and gets stronger. Are you eating the food of God’s Word? It’s possible to come to dinner every week and have the food spread before you but not consume any. If you stop eating, there will be noticeable signs. Over time your appetite will start to falter; you’ll no longer crave the food you once loved. Over time your strength will fail; you’ll lack the energy and vitality you once had.
Peter could minister the gospel of grace to others because he had experienced it. When Jesus restored Peter, Peter gained firsthand knowledge of the mercy of Christ. You can’t effectively teach people about God’s mercy unless you’ve experienced it yourself. Ministry that flows from a need to compensate for guilt is destructive. If we try to help others to earn or keep God’s favor, we will do far more harm than good. Effective ministry is from one imperfect, broken sinner to another imperfect, broken sinner. As recipients of God’s mercy, we remind one another of the grace found in Jesus Christ, we walk arm in arm to Jesus for healing, and we feast together on the good food of the Word of God.
Our Commitment Will Not Be to Our Own Comfort but to the Cross of Christ
Where did Jesus go? He went to the cross. It should come as no surprise to us that following a crucified Savior may mean there is a cross for us. That’s what Jesus was telling Peter (vv. 18-19). A time was coming when he would be bound, taken against his wishes, and killed. We need to be prepared to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Not all of us will suffer in the same way, but if we are faithful to follow Christ, there will be suffering of some type. The only way we can prepare for suffering is by learning to view it from God’s perspective. That’s tough: we’ve all heard false perspectives on suffering that cloud our ability to see suffering through God’s eyes. This passage clears up our vision by debunking three common myths about suffering.
Myth 1: For a Mature Believer, Suffering Is Easy
As an old man Peter would be carried where he didn’t want to go (v. 18). Writing to suffering Christians, Peter cautioned them not to be surprised at their “fiery ordeal” (1 Pet 4:12). If suffering were easy or light, would Peter have described it with those words? Only pseudo-spirituality pretends suffering is easy. The gospel doesn’t minimize suffering; it helps us see its ultimate purpose and gives us strength to endure.
Myth 2: The Amount We Suffer Is Based on Our Behavior
When Peter heard about his own suffering, his first response was, “What about [John]?” (v. 21). That’s what we often do when suffering comes. We look at those who don’t appear to be suffering and ask, “What about them?” We do that because we look at suffering through the lens of legalism: “Because of my sin, I have to suffer some, but I shouldn’t have to go through more than that guy. Look at his sin.” We often act as if we only receive the suffering we deserve and that we really don’t deserve for it to last long. “So take it away, Lord, and give it to someone else.” We say suffering isn’t fair, but when we think clearly, we don’t want fair. Fair is eternal suffering in hell. God may have you suffer greatly but give little suffering to a brother or sister. The difference doesn’t depend on you; it depends of God’s gracious, sovereign plan.
Myth 3: God Isn’t in Control of Suffering
Of all the myths about suffering, this one is most prevalent and most dangerous. The logic goes like this: suffering is the result of sin. God doesn’t sin. Therefore, suffering is outside of God’s control. That logic will not hold up under the scrutiny of Scripture. Even here it fails. What would happen to John was determined by what Jesus’s will for John was (v. 22). So that means what would happen to Peter—suffering and death—was determined by Jesus’s will for Peter. God has a purpose for your suffering. Your suffering is not meaningless. It is not random. It is God’s will for you. We may not understand the full scope of his purposes in sending suffering, but we should never doubt that he does have a purpose. Listen to an older and wiser Peter as he instructs the sheep:
Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed. . . .
So then, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator while doing what is good. (1 Pet 4:12-13, 19)
Peter did entrust his soul to a faithful Creator. History records that Jesus’s prophecy came true, and Peter was martyred for his faith when he was an old man. That means that for more than thirty years he faithfully followed Christ, aware that he was going to die the painful death of a martyr. In his example we see someone whose commitment was not to his own comfort but to the cross of Christ.
The Christian life is in one sense difficult, but in another sense it is simple. It is difficult because we are sinners who live in a cursed world, but it is simple because Jesus boils down the Christian life to two words: “Follow me.” That’s it—follow Christ. Sometimes he will lead us to the mountaintop and sometimes through the valley. Will we follow him?
At my house we’ve been reading John Bunyan’s classic allegory on the Christian life, Pilgrim’s Progress, together as a family. The story is about Christian, who leaves the City of Destruction to journey to the Celestial City. As he journeys, he faces many difficult situations: the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation, the Giant Despair, Doubting Castle. He suffers at the hands of the wicked prince’s servants and watches his traveling companion, Faithful, get killed by the mob in Vanity Fair. Each character and situation brings to life truths from Scripture. But the greatest thing about Pilgrim’s Progress is its simplicity. Each morning as we read the next chapter around the breakfast table, I’m reminded the question I will face that day is, Will I follow Christ? Will I stay on the King’s path that leads to the Celestial City? Some days I will be tempted to turn back to the City of Destruction. Some days I’ll be sidetracked at Doubting Castle. There may also be some day when I’ll be attacked by the citizens of Vanity Fair. But, like Christian, I need to continue to travel the King’s path where my confidence is in Christ’s sovereignty, not my strength. My comfort is in his mercy, not my morality. My concern is for fellow pilgrims, not my own plans. And by his grace, my commitment is to his cross, not my comfort.
Reflect and Discuss
- Why is the story of the disciples fishing good news for tired Christians?
- Describe a time in your life when you felt like everything was going wrong. How do these times reveal the object of your trust?
- What is Jesus showing the disciples by allowing them to fail at fishing?
- Why is it good news for Christians that our comfort is the mercy of Christ rather than our morality?
- Do you believe Christ’s mercy has covered your sins? How does your answer affect your daily life?
- How has following Jesus changed your priorities?
- How has experiencing the mercy of Christ prepared you for proclaiming it? What specific examples from your own life display Christ’s mercy?
- What are three common myths about suffering? Which myth are you most likely to believe?
- Why is it good news that God is in control over suffering in your life?
- How has the cross made it possible for Christians to endure suffering?