”Simon, Do You Love Me?”
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”Simon, Do You Love Me?”

John 21:4-19  (ID: 2461)

When we make foolish or disobedient choices, the guilt we feel often sidelines us from the full benefits of relationship with God. The disciple Peter had this experience after repeatedly denying his association with Jesus following His arrest. Reflecting on the disciple’s predicament, Alistair Begg draws our attention to the fact that we worship the God of all grace, who knows us, loves us, and offers us second chances—just as Jesus did with Peter.


Sermon Transcript:

I want to read from the Bible, and I’d like to read from two passages: one in the Gospel of Luke in chapter 5, and then one in the Gospel of John chapter 21. Luke chapter 5, we’ll read from verse 1, and then in chapter 21 of John, we’ll read from verse 15:

“One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding [round] him and listening to the word of God, he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

“When he[’d] finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’

“Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’

“When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

“When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they[’d] taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

“Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.’ So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.”

And then John 21:15. Well, I’ll just point you to verse 4, if I may:

“Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

“He called out to them, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’”

(It’s a very embarrassing question for people who’ve been fishing, especially when the answer is no.)

And “he said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ [And] when they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.”

Now verse 15:

“When [after breakfast] they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’

“‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’

“Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’

“Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me?’

“He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’

“Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’

“The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’

“Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’

“Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you[’re] old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’”

Amen.

I thought this morning that having listened to Peter’s word of encouragement in his first letter, that before we come around the Lord’s Table, we would stay with Peter again tonight, and that we would view him in this rather fascinating light as it is given to us at the end of John’s Gospel.

If your Bible is open at John 21, the context in which we find Peter set is in his declaration that he is going out to fish. The circumstances of the appearances of Jesus being what they are, Peter has determined that he is off, and he’s going fishing, and his influence as a leader is there whether he is making progress or whether he is digressing or regressing. And you will see that there in verse 3, when he makes this declaration, “I am going to fish,” the others tell him, “Well, that seems like a fine idea, and we’ll go with you.” And “so they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.” It’s hard for us to believe that John does not have almost immediately in his mind as he writes here the cross-reference, as it were, of another occasion in which, on a fishing expedition, these same disciples in the exact same location were unable to catch anything at all. And that’s why we read from Luke chapter 5.

And at the heart of this little scenario is Peter himself—the Peter who by dint of his denial of Jesus was apparently in this declaration, this return to his old life, saying, “I’ve had my chance and I blew it. I betrayed him. I, the one who vowed that I could play the hero—that even if everybody else deserted him and fled, I, the one who said, ‘I will never do this, Lord Jesus; you can count on me.’ And here I am, the one who thought he would play the hero, standing as a testimony, as a visual illustration, of the worst that is represented of cowardice.”

There is a wonderful song that comes from the pen of Robert [Louis Stevenson], the Scottish poet of an earlier era. If I could sing, I would sing it for you right now, but I’ll spare you that embarrassment—and myself too. I only wish that it was as common to you as it is to me, because it’s hard for me to convey the pathos of this song, but it has this phraseology: “Sing me a song of a lad that is gone, say, could that lad be I?”[1] “Sing me a song of a lad that is gone, say, could that lad be I?” And it is actually an autobiographical song, and it is a song that speaks to disappointment, to declension, to heartache, to the over-the-shoulder gaze to a time when things were better, when progress was being made, and it is a quite wonderful song, speaking to the issues of someone who has turned his back on the way that he has been going and has determined that it is time, if you like, to throw in the towel.

And that is what you have here in this little fishing scene. And as they find themselves in this context, it’s hard to imagine that Peter himself, in putting this little fishing group together, would not have had recollections of many fishing trips, and perhaps even of that famous fishing trip on the night some three years earlier when they had caught nothing at all. And perhaps as he pushed the boat out and as he sat there with his friends with the same experience of nothing, with his mind replaying the video, as it were, he’s saying to himself, “If only I could have that night back again. If only I could go back to the days when those things were true.”

And again, the song from Scotland says,

Billow and breeze, [and] islands and seas,
[And] mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, [and] all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.[2]

And that is really Peter’s testimony: “All of my proud affirmations, all of my great expectations, all of that has now been buried as a result of my great declension. If only,” he must have thought to himself, “I could get one more chance at this.” Because essentially, he was sitting on the sidelines as a result of his failure.

And I speak tonight to some who are sidelined as a result of your failure. I don’t speak because I have a knowledge of you. I speak only because the Bible makes it clear that such failure is not unusual, and since we are a normal company of people, it would be surprising if there were not some amongst us who actually find ourselves in that paralyzed situation, sitting on the sidelines, benched, intermittently feeling that we would like to have the chance again, and then simultaneously feeling that if anybody ever asked us to take up the chance again, we would inevitably have to say no, because all of it is in the past.

And it is in that kind of context that John says to Peter these wonderful words. Jesus, having stood on the shore in verse 4, the disciples not realizing that it is Jesus, calling out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they replied, “we don’t.” Then he gives the instruction to them, and then, in verse 7, “then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” “It’s the Lord!”

Now, what follows is dramatic, isn’t it? As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord!” he was off. “He wrapped his … garment[s] around him (for he[’d] taken it off) and [he] jumped into the water.” Doesn’t that seem to be the wrong way around? Shouldn’t it say, “He had wrapped his garments around him, so he took them off and jumped into the water”? Well, no. Eastern custom was that if you went to meet a superior, you put your jacket on, you put your garments on. You didn’t go in your shirtsleeves to meet someone who was your superior. So he gathers his garments around him, and in a moment, he’s gone. Now, it is this, I think, that gives me the legitimacy in saying what I’m saying. He doesn’t say, “Oh, I don’t want to see Jesus,” or “I can’t begin to imagine what he has in store for me now.” No. “It’s the Lord!” and off he goes.

And then you have this wonderful little context where “they saw a fire of burning coals … with fish on it, and some bread.” And “Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish you[’ve] just caught,’” and “‘Come and have breakfast.’” Jesus, what a friend for sinners! “Come and have breakfast.” In that sense of diffidence, none of them dared say, “Are you really Jesus?” Because actually, deep down, they knew it was the Lord, and Jesus gave the bread and the fish to them, and “this was … the third time…”

And “when they had finished eating,” Jesus might have said to Simon, “You know, maybe you and I could just have a little conversation ourselves here for a moment or two.” And what happens in this next section is a series of three threes, isn’t it? Three questions, three confessions, and then three words of exhortation.

Now, you don’t need to turn back to 18:17 to be reminded of what had gone on in Peter’s condition: how he had denied the Lord Jesus, how he done so in a threefold way at the fire. And now Jesus comes to him and gives him the opportunity, by means of these three questions, to make a threefold affirmation of his faith.

“Simon Peter,” he says, “Simon son of John.” If you remember, back at the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus has changed his name from Simon to Peter. Simon means “shaky,” and Peter means “rocklike.”[3] And he says, “Your name is going to be rocklike now; you’re Rocky. You were Shaky, but you’re Rocky.” And now he calls him by his shaky name, because in actual fact, he had been so very shaky. And the very way in which Jesus addressed him was a chilling reminder that his behavior had not been like the kind of person who affirms their love for Jesus.

And so, he asks him, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” Now, one of the great questions of biblical interpretation—not a great one, but a question—is, Who are the “these,” or what are the “these”? “Do you truly love me more than these?” Is Jesus asking him, “Do you love me more than these other fellows love me?” Or is he asking him, “Do you love me more than you love these other fellows?” Or is he asking, “Do you love me more than you love these fishing accoutrements, to which you apparently have returned?”

At the heart of the Christian story, it is a relationship with Jesus. It is a love affair. It is not a course in systematic theology.

Now, the vast majority of commentators take the third view—namely, that he is asking him to choose between the old life to which he seems to be returning and the new life of being a devoted follower of Jesus. I actually don’t think that’s too good. I think if that was accurate, then Peter would not have dropped the comparison in his reply. He doesn’t reply and say, “Yes, I love you more than these.” If it had been a question about fishing tackle, it wouldn’t have been a problem for him to say, “Yes, I love you more than fishing tackle. I love you more than my old life.” But if he understood the question to relate to his devotion to Jesus being greater than his colleagues’ devotion to Jesus, he can’t find it in himself to maintain the comparison in his response. So he doesn’t say, “You know that I love you more than these.” Of course, he declared than he did. Remember, he was the superhero: “If they all buzz off, I’m going to stay with you, Jesus.” Essentially, he was saying, “I actually do love you more than these.” And Jesus gives him the chance; he says, “Do you really love me more than these?” “‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’” It’s like he’s replying to half of the question. And “again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me?’” And “the third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’”

Now, you’ve all heard enough sermons on this to know the distinction between the two Greek words phileo and agape, and I don’t want to go back through that again. We don’t have time, and I’m not convinced of its validity in any case. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful, the more I’ve thought about it. I think the more significant thing is this: that Peter recognizes that his most recent actions have not been such as to reveal his love. Therefore, he’s not in a position to point to them. In the same way, for some of us tonight, if we have in some instance blown it, failed, we recognize that when the question of the Lord Jesus comes to us—“Do you love me?”—what are we going to plead in our defense? What are we going to show for our affirmations of love? “Do you love me?” It’s actually a searching question, isn’t it? It’s a simple question.

And what Jesus is inquiring about here is not an inquiry that comes to us on the level of sentimentalism, because it is a question that demands a decision. And the only thing that Peter can plead before the Father, before Christ, is his omniscience, if you like. “Do you love me?” He says, “Lord, you know that I love you.” In other words, the only thing he can plead is the understanding heart of Jesus. That’s significant, isn’t it? He doesn’t come with great affirmations: “Oh yes, Lord, just the other day I was reading seventeen chapters of Leviticus and thinking what a marvelous book it is.” No “I just finished some other great adventure for…” No, he understands that Jesus is penetrating to the core of his being with a simple question. He doesn’t ask him, “Do you understand something?” He doesn’t ask him, “Have you been affirming something?” He asks him, “Do you love me?”

Let’s not forget the fact that at the heart of the Christian story, it is a relationship with Jesus. It is a love affair. It is not a course in systematic theology. It is not the ability to amass doctrine and store it up and regurgitate it. Jesus doesn’t ask him those questions. Not that they are irrelevant, but they are not the issue here. The issue is, “Do you love me?” And when we find ourselves in deep difficulty, whether it is as a result of our own foolishness, or whether it is as a result of circumstances that have buffeted us and beaten us, the only thing that we can ever claim is the fact that Jesus knows us.

Spurgeon at one point tells the story of going to visit one of the elderly members of his congregation. He found this lady housebound—very, very dispirited. And in the course of talking with her, she said to him, “Pastor, I don’t think that I have any real faith. I don’t think that I have any love for Jesus Christ at all.” Spurgeon did not argue with her. He went across to a bureau, he picked up a piece of paper and a pencil, he wrote something on the paper, and he brought it back to her. He wrote on the paper, “I do not love Jesus Christ,” and then he asked her to sign it. And she said, “Oh no, I couldn’t sign that.” And he said, “No, come along, now, sign it.” She said, “Oh no, I couldn’t sign that. Jesus knows that isn’t true.”[4] “Jesus knows it isn’t true.” So, for us tonight, if we find ourselves in need of restoration, we have nothing to say in our defense. Our professions and our ruined circumstances are only a course of disappointment. But the wonderful thing is, we can plead the knowledge of Jesus.

Now, notice too, in verse 17, the pain that is involved in this third question—the pain that’s involved in it. It says that “Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” And again, this isn’t one of these questions in a Bible study: Well, why was he so concerned about the third question? Was the third question more devastating than the first two? Or was it just because he didn’t take his word for it on the first two occasions?

Well, actually, I think there is some truth to what I said earlier, in not wanting to make much of it. But Jesus is asking him if he, Peter, loves him with the self-giving love that is in the Greek word agapeo, “to love.” Peter replies by using the lesser word, phileo. So Jesus asks him—the NIV tries to bring it out by using the word “truly”—“Do you truly love me?” In other words, “Do you love me with a self-giving love?” Peter replies, “Lord, you know that I phileo you.” He doesn’t use the bold and striking word that Jesus uses. On the third occasion, Jesus uses Peter’s word, and he says, “Well, let me just ask you: do you actually love me with a brotherly kind of love?” In other words, he says to him in essence, “Peter, Simon son of John, are you my friend? Are you my friend?” Because he’s already taught them—and Peter knew this—“If a man loves me, he will keep my commandments.”[5] Therefore, the man who is backslidden, the man who is faltering, the man who is fallen as a believer, discovers the pain of dislocation, and when the master surgeon reaches out to restore, it’s painful to have things put back in place. And again I say to you, notice that the concern of the Lord Jesus is about Peter’s love for him. Other qualities are desirable, and yes, they are necessary, but it is love that is completely indispensable.

Now, when you put all of this together and you recognize that Jesus asks him three times, “Do you…?” he replies, “Yes I do.” “Well then,” says Jesus, “in that case, I have a little job for you. I want you to feed my sheep.”

Now, those of us familiar with this story say to ourselves, “Yes. Yes, I understand that. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, now go ahead and be the leader of my church.’” Isn’t this surprising? Jesus puts the feeding of his flock into the care of one who had failed so miserably. He entrusts his flock to the specific care of the one guy in the group, apart from Judas, who had made a royal hash of things.

We worship a God who is the God of all grace. He’s the God of the second chance, and the third chance, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth too.

In other words, when we apply our test of, when we study the Bible, asking the right questions, when we ask ourselves the question, “What is surprising about this passage?”—what is surprising is what Jesus says: “I want you to feed my sheep.” In other words, in giving to him this responsibility, it shows that Jesus trusts him. That Jesus trusts him! Here, if you like, is Christ’s revenge for the wrongs of Peter.

“I think you are one of those Galilean… Were you not with Jesus of Nazareth?”

“No, no, no, no, no, no.”

“It’s funny, because your accent is very similar. I was just wondering if you were with Jesus of Nazareth.”

“I told you that I wasn’t with Jesus of Nazareth! Excuse me, can I just get closer to the fire?”

“Hey! Didn’t I see you cutting off my friend’s ear? Aren’t you one of Jesus’ boys?”

“I’m stinking not one of Jesus’ boys!”[6]

It’s a bit of a mess, I put it to you. And Jesus says, “Peter, will you take care of my sheep for me?”

See, the task that he gives him shows that Jesus trusts him, and the task that he gives him shows that Jesus tests him. He tests him. What is his test? Well, love’s test is action. And the test of obedience is expressed in the actions that follow love. And so he says to him, “Okay, I take you at your word. I trust you enough to give you the responsibility of feeding my sheep.” And of course, in the Acts of the Apostles, all the way through, we see how Peter responded to the test.

Well, what I have in mind as we come around the Lord’s Table tonight is the individual who by dint of foolish choices and disobedient actions and uncharacteristic activity has benched themselves. And I’m reminding you of the story of Peter to remind you of what is true not only here but throughout the totality of Scripture: that we worship a God who is the God of all grace. He’s the God of the second chance, and the third chance, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth too. You may even have been staying away from the Lord’s Supper because of something like this. You shouldn’t do that. This Table has been prepared for sinners, and around this Table we come and bless God for his goodness.

Father, I pray for any tonight who in their own way have said, similar to Peter, “I think I’ll just pack it in, and I’ll go back to fishing. I think I’ll chuck this and go back to what I did before Christ called me.” And they may be fighting a royal battle with the Evil One. And I pray that you will remind them in this encounter of the immensity of your grace and the wonder of your love. We thank you that at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, he bore all of our sin so that we might die to sin and live for him.[7] We come in our weakness and seek your power, Lord Jesus Christ. And in your name we pray. Amen.


[1] Robert Louis Stevenson, “Sing Me a Song of a Lad That Is Gone” (1892).

[2] Stevenson.

[3] See John 1:42.

[4] C. H. Spurgeon, “Jesus Near but Unrecognized,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 20, no. 1180, 367.

[5] John 14:21, 23 (paraphrased).

[6] See Matthew 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:56–62; John 18:15–18, 25–27.

[7] See 1 Peter 2:24.

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.