Jesus Journey: 40 Days in the Footsteps of Christ

Day 40

For Every Time

Read John 21

Waves wash pebbles on the Galilean shore. Early morning fishing boats scud quietly past. They set the scene perfectly for the scripture I’m reading our travel group.

It’s a touching story, one of my favorites in the whole Bible. And I’m reading it in the very spot Christian pilgrims have been remembering this awesome encounter for at least 1,700 years.

I’m back at Tabgha, the spot with the seven springs. There’s a church built here in honor of the events in John 21, the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy.

But we sneak behind the building, to a beach on the lakeside where fishermen have been washing out their nets for centuries. The story in John 21 may not have happened in this precise place — the Bible doesn’t specify a location — but it was at a place like this, on this lake.

I love this story because, here’s the risen Jesus, with disguise power, disappearing power, walking-through-walls power… I mean, he could have literally done anything, gone anywhere. But what he chooses to do is find his disciples, and specifically his ashamed sheep.

Because that’s his agenda. That’s how he always uses his power. He came to seek and save the lost.

And today it’s Peter who is lost.


Peter’s already seen Jesus alive, in the upper room on the previous Sunday.

But if you read the gospels carefully, you’ll notice Peter doesn’t say much then. For once! My guess is he felt stupid and guilty. He had denied even knowing Christ in his hour of greatest need. And now — Jesus is risen? Peter probably said, “He is risen? Oh, no!” Not, “He is risen indeed!”

A few days after Resurrection Sunday, Peter says to the other disciples, “I’m going fishing.”

In other words, “I quit.”

Peter’s obviously disgusted with himself. He feels he’s disqualified. So he’s cutting himself from the squad. He goes back to his old job, after three years away. Fishing. And it goes from bad to worse, because he’s a failure even at that. Even though the others come along to help, he cannot catch a thing.

As if to rub it in, a typically playful post-resurrection Jesus appears on the shore in the misty morning and yells out to the boat before they recognize him: “Catch anything, boys?”

I imagine them a little irritated, yelling back, “No!” Then Jesus says, “Try the other side of the boat!” Brilliant. Some of the disciples might have muttered something like: “So who’s the fishing genius?” but some may have already been suspecting who this was because they do flip the nets over to the other side — and instantly their ship is nearly swamped sideways with the weight of the catch as hundreds of fish rush into their net.

“It’s the Lord!” says John and of course Peter, ever impulsive, bounds into the waves and on to shore, leaving John and the others to do most of the heavy lifting (a fact John may be rubbing in a little when he meticulously points out there were 153 fish in that net!).


The next verse contains a crucial word.

When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. John 21:9

Don’t miss the detail: A fire made of what? Coals. Intriguing. Why would the gospel writer specify that? And why didn’t Jesus just use wood?

The Greek word anthrakia (from which we get the English word “anthracite,” meaning a charcoal fire), is found only twice in the New Testament. The second time is here. The first time is in John 18:18. It’s the word used for the courtyard fire where the servants of the high priest stood warming themselves through the chilly night of Jesus’ trial. It was there that Peter denied Jesus. Three times.

You know how smells can bring back memories? For me?

Campfires = fun. Coffee = morning.
Pine trees = vacation. Popcorn = matinees.

For Peter, charcoal = failure.

I think Jesus is building a charcoal fire here as if to say, “Hey Peter, remember another charcoal fire a few days back? Let’s wipe that memory away. Let’s rebrand that experience.”

Then, instead of lecturing him, Jesus says, “Come and have breakfast.” (John 21:12) I love that Jesus is making breakfast for them. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” and he’s still at it here. He makes them fish and bread (and hummus — well, not really).

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” John 21:15

More than what? Maybe he’s asking, “…more than these fish?”
As in, “Do you want to follow me more than you want to fish?” Or maybe he’s reminding Peter of his boast, “Even if all these deny you, I never will!” As if to say, “So, how’d that work out for you, Peter?”

Peter says he does. Then Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, three times in a row.

“Do you love me?” Times three.

Not, “Will you try harder next time?”

Not, “Do you promise never to do that again?”

But, “Do you love me?”

He is asking what, to him, is the most important question of all. He said it was the most important command. He said our understanding of all the Law and the Prophets hinges on the answer to this question.

If you don’t understand that this is the question Jesus is asking still, then you will assume that he evaluates you based on your performance. Peter is depressed precisely because he thought this way. He had bragged to Jesus that he, Peter, would prove himself worthy, that he would impress Jesus with his valor and faithfulness. His performance and his potential were the way he measured his spiritual life. Then when he fails, he assumes Jesus will reject him. But that’s his measuring stick, not Christ’s.

You have nothing to prove to Jesus. You don’t have to impress Jesus. You don’t have to earn anything from Jesus. You just have to love Jesus.

When Peter insists he does, then Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” Three times. Again.

Once for every time Peter denied him.

In other words, get off the bench and back in the game!


I think it’s strategic that Jesus chooses a spot like this to reinstate Peter. Think about it: Why did Jesus wait? Why didn’t he just do this in Jerusalem?

Because he was communicating, Look, Peter, I called you when you were a fisherman right at this very lakeshore three years ago, and now — knowing everything I know about you — all your failures and your foot-in-mouth disease — I would do it again.

I chose you. I choose you still. And I will never un-choose you.

I don’t know about you, but when I fall into sin, or some stupid habit, I sometimes imagine Jesus saying — “You stupid idiot, why did I ever die for your sins? Why’d I choose you? How do I get out of this?”

But in fact, he’s saying the same thing he said to Peter: “Do you love me?” Then don’t waste time in self-pity. “Feed my sheep!”

Jesus will never un-choose you.

Aren’t you glad?

God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to produce rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume . . . and it is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever. — Vance Havner 55

Do you ever feel like you’ve disqualified yourself from God’s love, or from Christian service?

Spend some time listening to Jesus speaking to you. What is he saying?

Based on the authority of the Bible, I believe it’s, “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.”

And he says it once for every time you deny him.


Have you ever wondered if your failures disqualify you as a Christian? What does this story teach you? In what ways can you obey Christ’s command to “feed my sheep”?