Hope for a Bunch of Failures
Many of us may be looking at 2020 as a big mistake. The year has not gone at all as we expected it to go, I am sure. We likely all have things we regret about this past year. We likely even can look at some decisions that we have made along the way and recognize that we have made some mistakes. Some of these mistakes may even make us feel like we have been failures this past year.
All of us make mistakes that cause us to fail miserably at times. I remember a time in high school when my best friend failed in a magnificent way in basketball game. It was a very close game with one of our greatest rivals. All of a sudden, my friend found himself with the ball wide open for a basket. He quickly took the basket only to realize after it went in that he was on the wrong end of the court. He had a mental lapse and forgot which end of the court was ours. In front of all the fans, he failed to help the team. In fact, he hurt the team by giving the rivals two more points.
This evening I am pretty sure that I am looking at a bunch of failures. I am sure that in our lives we each have stories somewhat similar to my friend’s. There have been plenty of times when we have failed to improve a situation in a way that we wanted to. But even more significantly, I think I am confident that I am looking at a bunch of spiritual failures as well. I am confident that we have each failed our Lord at some time in our lives. We can even likely list some spiritual failures in 2020 when COVID has consumed more of our attention than Christ.
For this reason, I decided to turn to John’s epilogue tonight for our final sermon in 2020. John chapter 21 functions like an epilogue to his book. The body of John’s Gospel wraps up with the concluding verses 30 and 31 of chapter 20. John has demonstrated that Jesus has risen from the dead. Jesus has fulfilled His mission by living a sinless life, voluntarily dying for the sins of others and then rising from the dead in victory. That victory was conclusively demonstrated through His multiple appearances in chapter 20. John has also accomplished his evangelistic goal of giving us “all that [we] need in order to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that believing [we] might have life through His name” as that final verse of chapter 20 states. John’s objective has been completed and he has formally concluded his book.
Yet we still have chapter 21, an epilogue. What role does an epilogue play? Well, it serves to tie a few loose ends up after the formal conclusion of a book. Jesus has completed His mission, but that doesn’t mean that His relationship with His disciples has ended. In fact, His relationship with His disciples will continue to exist. But in what manner? How will the risen Christ relate to His disciples, and, by extension, the future community of believers going forward? It was really to give solid indications as to the answers to these questions that John wrote chapter 21.
At the beginning of chapter 21, John records that Jesus’ appeared to 7 of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. He gives the men an early morning miraculous catch of fish followed by a prepared breakfast on the shore. All of that has transpired in the verses just prior to the ones we are going to consider this evening.
This evening we are going to look at what occurred when breakfast was finished, and Jesus zooms His attention in on one particular disciple. This is a well-known account…when Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves Him. This is a well-known event, but it is also an important event. Peter, as we well know, failed Jesus miserably on the night when Jesus was arrested. He denied that he even knew the Lord.
As I have already suggested, though, Peter is far from unique when it comes to failure. I am quite confident that every person here has failed to honor and serve Jesus at one time or another in our lives, probably even many times this past year. We have all denied, either through our words or our actions, our Lord when we should have spoken boldly on His behalf. I am sure that as a group we are a bunch of failures; we are too much like Peter to be anything else.
Still, there is as great of hope for us just as there was for Peter. We can still be useful to Jesus. We can still serve Him. There is hope because God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ. God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ.
Our theme above me is Joyfully Magnify Christ. We may be arriving at the end of 2020 feeling as if we have failed to do that as we should have this past year. Well, God used Peter in a mighty way to magnify Christ in the years after this event; God can use us in 2021 too. God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ.
Before God could use Peter again, Peter had to learn four lessons from Jesus; four lessons that we need to learn as well before we will joyfully magnify Jesus as we ought and as I expect most of us desire.
Transition from introduction to body:
God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ. Let’s look at our verses this evening as we try to learn these four necessary lessons…<read John 21:15–19>.
If you have been in church for very long, you have probably heard one, or even several, sermons on this passage. It is a wonderful passage, a glorious passage. It is a natural place to turn for hope and comfort. I would also expect, that the chances are pretty good that you have heard that Jesus used two different Greek words for “love” in these verses. In John’s record, he has Jesus using the Greek word ἀγαπάω the first two times that He asks Peter if Peter loves Him and then uses the Greek word φιλέω in the third question. This is last word, φιλέω, is the word that we have Peter responding with to all three questions. Often much is made over Jesus’ change of words, emphasizing that ἀγαπάω indicates a deeper, more pure love than φιλέω. The way it is usually presented is that Peter is unable to affirm such a pure love, but he is then grieved when Jesus switches to the supposedly lower form in the third question.
As you might already gather, I’m not convinced that the emphasis of the passage comes from the switch in the word used for love. I’m not convinced, so am going to spend a couple minutes explaining why I believe that focusing on the words for love in this passage is not where the significance lies. In fact, I fear that it largely misses the main point of the passage overall. I will give you three quick reasons.
One, there is no doubt that the terms for love that Jesus uses change. However, there is great doubt as to the significance of that change. Greek scholars cannot agree on what the significance is…which should give us pause already. What the scholars do agree on is that there is a lot of overlap in the two Greek terms and that John seems to use them rather interchangeably as virtual synonyms. For example, in John 3:35 “the Father loves the Son” uses ἀγαπάω, but in John 5:20 “the Father loves the Son” uses φιλέω. Yet, I am sure that we do not think that the Father has any sort of lesser love for the Son in chapter 5 than He does in chapter 3. It is hard to see the significance in this word change when John frequently uses variation in this Gospel and the two Greek words have so much overlap.
Reason number two, the different words for love are not the only pairs of words used in this passage. In the three questions and responses of verses 15, 16, and 17, there are two words used knowing (the first two are the same and the third is different), two words used for tending the flock (the first and third are the same and the second is different), and for the flock itself (the first is different and the second and third words are the same). Yet all the attention tends to be placed on the pair, ἀγαπάω and φιλέω. It doesn’t seem appropriate to see a significance in the switch in the words for “love” if the other pairs do not carry similar significance in their variation.
Number three, we need to look closely at what is actually recorded in the passage. In the first two questions, when Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love (ἀγαπάω) me?” Peter’s immediate answer is “Yes, Lord.” In fact, Peter uses a word that means “indeed” or “truly.” He does not tell Jesus that he does not ἀγαπάω Him…he says “yes” even though he responds with φιλέω. Then in verse 17 John specifically records that “Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time.” The emphasis is on the fact that Jesus asked Peter the same essential question three times. This clearly would have been a blunt reminder to Peter of his own three-fold denial of Jesus. It was the repetition of the question, not the change of words in the question that caused Peter’s distress.
There is no doubt that Peter denied Jesus three times when he was standing around that courtyard fire just as there is no doubt that Jesus is using these three questions around this fire to restore Peter to full ministry. In fact, that is the point. The point wasn’t for Jesus to communicate to Peter that He forgave him or to get Peter to affirm his love for Jesus. Jesus had already met with Peter prior, Luke 24:34 records that they even had had a private meeting on Resurrection Sunday. The point here was to restore Peter to useful ministry. Just because Peter failed…he was not washed out. He could still be useful; he could still magnify Jesus Christ with his life. But there were some lessons that he needed to learn as Jesus restored him in this public setting.
This really is good news for the bunch of failures gathered here this evening. Just because we have failed doesn’t mean that we are now and forever useless. God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ. In order to do so, the first thing that we need to learn is that…
I. We must not measure against others our devotion to Christ.
This lesson is the focus of Jesus’ first question to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” If you look back to verse 2 of the chapter, you will see that there were six other men sitting around the fire with Jesus and Peter. I imagine that Jesus gestured to the group has He asked this penetrating question to Peter, “do you love Me more than these?”
My imagination has Peter immediately turning red and hung his head in shame. This question goes right to the heart of Peter’s arrogant claim on that final night in the Upper Room. Peter had claimed in front of all the rest of the Eleven disciples, including these seven men, that his devotion to Jesus surpassed all of theirs. Peter had bragged that he would lay down his life for Jesus before he would desert Him. In Matt 26:33 we are told that at the same time he claimed he would remain loyal to Jesus even if all the other disciples failed to do so. Peter was measuring His devotion to Jesus by comparing himself to others.
You know, Peter may have not been completely wrong in his assessment of the other men. After all, the other men all scattered that night. John was the only disciple besides Peter who hung close at all to see what happened during the rest of the night and John certainly did not do anything to draw attention to himself in defense of Jesus. Peter was the one who in the garden drew his sword to fight for Jesus.
But the accuracy of Peter’s claim is not the point; the basis of his measurement is. Peter was measuring his devotion to Jesus against the devotion of others. That, my friends, is a recipe for pride. Peter took pride in the fact that he thought he was better or stronger in this measure than the others; he was more committed than they.
With this one question Jesus quickly tears both the measure and Peter’s pride away. Peter gets it. In his response Peter doesn’t mention the others at all; he simply tells Jesus that Jesus knows that He loves Him. Peter will leave it to Jesus to assess anything beyond that.
I know that this is not a complicated lesson, but it is one that we certainly must learn. Be honest with yourself, how often do you really judge your commitment—your loyalty, your devotion—to Christ by comparison with others? You are more devoted because you are involved in more areas of service. You are more devoted because you have read more of your Bible. You are more devoted because you attend more services…or this year, because you returned to in-person service sooner…or maybe because you stayed home out of love for others. At any rate, you are more devoted because…you pick an area of comparison with others. I guarantee, whatever area you will pick will be one in which you come out looking rather good. You compare yourself to others and conclude that you certainly are devoted to Jesus. In fact, deep down you are prideful of that fact. Awful, horrible, rotten, sinful pride. That is what comparison with others breeds, even comparison of our measure of devotion. Comparison led to Peter’s failure and unless we learn this lesson, it will lead to ours as well. Comparison to others will destroy our ability to magnify Christ.
The first lesson that we learn from the first question that Jesus asked Peter is that we must not measure against others our devotion to Christ. God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ. Learning the first lesson begins to prepare us so that God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ.
Jesus’ second question teaches a second lesson;…
II. We must examine the depth of our devotion to Christ.
When Jesus asks Peter a second time “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” there is no comparison to the other disciples. This adjustment serves to isolate the question to Peter alone; he is being asked to examine his own devotion to Christ in complete isolation from others, does he love Jesus? Peter must look into his own heart. He must look at his own motivations. He must examine his own pride. He must even contemplate his own failures He must assess whether or not after all that he has done there is a real love for Jesus within him.
Peter does that self-assessing and answers in the same manner as he did the first time, “Yes Lord, You know that I love You.” He has looked past his failures and determined that his love for Jesus is genuine. Peter is confident enough of this fact, in spite of his failures, that he can still affirm his love for Jesus.
We need to go through this exercise as well. As I said, I am confident that we are a bunch of failures here tonight. We have fallen to our own pride and have not lived out the devotion for Jesus that we have claimed at other times. Still, is there a genuine love for Jesus within us? Assess yourself, do you love Jesus? Is there a genuine devotion to Him in your life? The Bible assures us that if we have accepted Jesus as our Savior, we will find that we have that love. One, or even many, failures will not change that. Love for Jesus is implanted with our spiritual lives. If you cannot find it in your life, then you need to accept Jesus as your Savior.
Don’t stop your assessment, though, with simply finding that there is love for Jesus in your life? How deep is your love? Is your devotion growing greater or have you suppressed it and let it stagnate? We need to have a growing devotion in order for us to joyfully magnify Christ. What does the examination of your own devotion reveal?
From Jesus’ second question to Peter, we learn that we must examine the depth of our devotion to Christ. Do we have a love for Jesus and is it growing? God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ.
Jesus then asks Peter the third question in verse 17 and from this we learn a third lesson…
III. We must trust only God’s assessment of our devotion to Christ.
This seems to be the point of Jesus asking Peter the third question. From the way that Peter responds, it seems that Jesus is ensuring that Peter has given up on his self-confidence completely. Peter’s response to this third question…the one that grieves him deeply because it reminds him of his three-fold denial of Jesus…is to cast himself entirely upon the all-knowing sovereign Lord who is asking the question.
Peter believes that he loves Jesus, but he has been humbled now. He knows that he really has no reason to have any confidence in his own ability or even his own knowledge. Peter believes that he loves Jesus, but he recognizes that only Jesus knows for sure. Peter has learned that his heart is deceitful, his knowledge of himself is limited. He needs the all-knowing, all-searching God to make the final assessment. That is the only assessment that he can have confidence in in the end. Peter has learned not to appeal to anything within himself and he lays himself bare before his Lord in front of the other men. Peter is humbled. Jesus has given Peter an opportunity to reaffirm his loyalty to Him and Peter has humbly accepted that opportunity. He demonstrated that he ultimately trusts only God’s assessment of his devotion.
Ultimately, we too must trust only God’s assessment of our devotion to Christ. We must not depend on our own knowledge, but must trust the One who, as John told us back in John 2:25, knows what is in man. We must trust God’s assessment of our devotion to Christ.
But how do we do that? Well, this is where prayer combined with Bible mediation comes into play. We need to meditate on God’s word and consider how the things that God says there will look like in our lives. What will a heart of love will look like? What will sacrifice look like? What will service look like? We must ask God to show us our true devotion to Jesus. And we must let God test our devotion through trials. Do we consider it all joy when we encounter various trials, or do we become distraught? Those trials are in our lives because God has assessed that we need them. God has many ways to show us our level of devotion to Christ, but we must allow Him to do so. Do we want to spend more time with Christ in prayer and mediation or less? It takes time with God to come to understand what His assessment of our devotion is. We must learn to trust His assessment and not our own.
The third lesson is that we must ultimately trust only God’s assessment of our devotion to Christ. God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ. In order to do so, though, we must be devoted to Him.
There is one more lesson to learn from our verses tonight. Number four,…
IV. We must demonstrate through obedient service our devotion to Christ.
Each time after Peter answers Jesus’ question, Jesus responds with a statement for Peter to faithfully engage in ministry to those Christ loves, “Tend My lambs” and so forth. Peter is given commands for faithful service. As I mentioned earlier, there is variation in the commands “Tend My lambs,” “Shepherd My sheep,” and “Tend My sheep” While it seems like the variation does not have any specific significance, the overall force is that Peter is to serve Jesus faithfully by caring for other believers. This is both the natural outworking of love for Jesus and the true demonstration of that love.
John and the other men sitting there hear these commands. There could be no doubt in their minds that Peter continues to have a role to play in Jesus’ mission even though he had messed up badly by denying Jesus. But then they heard the next surprising two verses as well. Jesus goes on and tells Peter about the future that awaits him: Peter will suffer martyrdom at some point when he grows old. Peter has a difficult future ahead of him, but Jesus sums up what he is to do until that time with the final command, “Follow Me!”
“Follow Me!” I am sure that these two words took Peter all the way back to the moment when Jesus first called Peter to follow Him. Jesus had called Peter to follow Him and He had promised that He would make Peter a fisher of men. Peter had failed miserably, but now as the final instruction is given the initial command is repeated. Peter has failed, but Jesus tells him to “follow” Him.
The cool part of this command is that the form of the word Jesus uses indicates that Peter is to keep on doing something that he was already doing; it is a continuing command. Jesus has moved past the failure and Peter needs to do likewise. As one commentator put it, “Peter had followed Christ, but not continuously in the past. For the future he was to follow steadfastly in the ways of the Lord.” He needs to do that until that future prediction comes true.
John’s comment at the beginning of verse 19 explaining that Jesus’ words were signifying the type of death that Peter would experience indicates that Peter had died by the time John wrote this gospel several decades after these events. From what we know, Peter went on and faithfully served Jesus for three decades after this moment, all the time with this prediction of martyrdom hanging over his head.
Just one quick example of what that looked like. In Acts 12 Peter was arrested and Herod Antipas planned on executing Peter the next morning. Verse 6 records that at the moment he was miraculously freed by an angel, Peter was found sleeping. It is clear that he didn’t fear martyrdom; Peter was going to remain faithful and obedient to his Lord as long as he had the opportunity.
That needs to be our response to Jesus as well. None of us have been told by our Lord that we will be martyred for our faith, but we all us have the same responsibility to follow Jesus. We are to live lives of obedient service. We are to display our devotion to Jesus by serving other believers. We are to demonstrate our love and devotion by serving others faithfully.
How are we doing in this regard? Is our devotion evident through the way we live our lives. What has 2020 revealed? What will 2021 reveal? Will we faithfully share Christ with others? Will we deny ourselves the things of this world? Will worship be a priority? We can turn from our failures. We can learn from our failures. We can humble ourselves before Jesus and follow Him.
Transition from body to conclusion:.
We must demonstrate through obedient service our devotion to Christ. That is our fourth lesson this evening.
God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ.
Remember my high school friend. After he made that basket in the wrong end, giving points to the opponents, he had to determine what he was going to do. Was he going to give up in embarrassment or was he going to mentally get back in the game and help the team.
We need to do a similar thing with our spiritual failures. We have all failed our Lord, but we need to remember: God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ. We saw that in the life of Peter this evening. In order to get back in the spiritual game we must learn the lessons that Peter learned that morning beside the Sea of Galilee. We must not measure against others our devotion to Christ. We must examine the depth of our own devotion to Christ. We must trust only God’s assessment of our devotion to Christ. And we must demonstrate through obedient service our devotion to Christ.
I know that we have failed our Lord…some of us most likely very recently and very often. 2020 may have been a dismal year of failure overall for some. That is all past. Are we ready to let our loving Lord get us back in the game? Are we ready to grab the hope that He holds out to a bunch of failures like us? Are we ready to simply follow Him?
God can use each of us to joyfully magnify Christ.