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.” (John 21.17)
After the interim between Christ’s execution and resurrection, the disciples are ecstatic to resume a semblance of normal life. Their Master’s presence restores their confidence to reenter the world. There are a few changes. Judas is gone. Women take more active roles in what is unmistakably a new paradigm. And Jesus most assuredly isn’t the same. He comes and goes at will. He alters His appearance from time to time. His flesh is real, yet He’s supernatural. This final change is very welcome. Since many see Jesus and several touch His transformed body, no way can His resurrection be discounted as a spectral visitation. This is by design. “A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have,” Jesus reminds the disciples. (Luke 24.39)
Pensiveness and despair that overshadowed the disciples dissipate from everyone’s heart. Except for Peter. His friends sense something happened during their recent ordeal that Peter won’t disclose. They’re correct, of course. While they took cover on the night of Jesus’s arrest, Peter followed Him, doing his best to keep tabs on Christ without being detected. His strategy backfired. He was recognized three times, and he denied knowing Jesus every time. Peter’s haunted by the specter of his faithlessness. Since he and Jesus keep no secrets from one another, Peter knows they’ll need to sort things out.
The Breakfast Interview
Peter’s obviously distracted. He feels certain he’s shattered Christ’s faith in him and assumes their friendship is over. When Jesus appears to the disciples after He’s risen, Peter’s mistake goes unmentioned. This makes him jumpy. Not long after that, he’s sitting around with a few disciples and out of the blue he says, “I’m going fishing.” (John 21.3) Yet out on the water he forgets everything about his trade. They fish all night and catch nothing. The next morning, a Stranger turns up on the shore and tells them to hang their nets off the right side of the boat. They catch 153 large fish. The miracle prompts John to tell Peter, “It’s the Lord!” Hearing this, Peter does the nuttiest thing we see from him, period. Having stripped down to fish, he now puts his clothes back on, jumps in the water, and wades to shore! He wants to reach to his Friend right away. Once the others secure the boat, Jesus tells them to bring some fish over to a fire He’s built. “Let’s have breakfast,” He says.
Here’s the thing. There are already a few fish and some bread baking on the fire—just not enough to go around. Could this mean Jesus comes to the shore intending to talk with Peter? It appears so, since the breakfast interview that follows involves no one but them. After they eat, Jesus turns to Peter and calls him by his birth and family names: “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” He asks. Peter answers, “Lord, You know I love You.” Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs.” (v15) Jesus repeats the question; Peter repeats his answer; and Jesus says, “Take care of my sheep.” (v16) Tendering the question a second time suggests Jesus wants to confirm Peter’s clear about what’s being asked of him. (In light of Peter’s erratic behavior, He might as well say, “Focus!”) But Jesus asks the question again, and this third round hurts Peter to the quick. “Lord you know everything,” he responds. “You know I love you.” And that’s the confession that reinstates Peter: “You know everything, even my failure and confusion and fear—the whole toxic cocktail that left me in a stupor of denial.”
Lives of Rhymes
In a saga overrun with problematic people, I find Peter to be the Gospels' most frustrating character. He’s willful one minute, wobbly the next, extremely perceptive here, thick as a brick there, an invaluable asset in one situation and a major liability in another. Yet I also find Peter’s singular beauty entrancing. His is a life of rhymes meted out with geometric precision. Jesus calls him from professional fishing to become a “fisher of men” (Matthew 4.19) Then once the time comes to reel the disciples in, he tries to catch fish. He’s the first human to confess Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16.16) Then when Jesus is falsely arrested for claiming He’s Christ, Peter denies any knowledge of Him. On that fateful night, Peter trails Jesus at a distance. (Matthew 26.58) Then on this glorious morning, he goes overboard to be near Him. Peter’s disavowal occurs three times around an unfriendly fire; he reasserts his love for Jesus three times around hospitable embers. He starts as Simon, is renamed Peter, reverts to Simon, and finally regains the right to be called “Peter.” That’s the rhyme scheme of his life: B-A-B-A. And I find this maddening pattern breathtaking in how perfectly it overlays our scheme.
We too live lives of rhymes meted out with geometric precision—starts and stops, progress and setbacks, confessions and denials, stupid nights and brilliant mornings. Through all of our ups and downs, however, the theme that holds Peter’s life together lends unity to ours. We love the Lord. It’s the constant that ultimately defeats our inconsistency. Jesus knows we love Him, too. Yet He often draws us to His fire, where He feeds us and then asks us to confess our love for Him. His question cuts us to the quick until our answer changes from “You know I love you” to “You know everything.” When we reach that place, we grasp salvation and reconciliation depend on second chances. That’s what redemption means: reclaiming what’s lost—starting over. We find grace and forgiveness in the rhymes of our lives, where Christ’s strength answers our frailty, His truth undoes our denial, and His relentless love eclipses our self-recrimination. “Do you love Me?” He asks, pushing us to the point where starting over begins.
A fresh start is always in order. The need to renew our love for Christ is always an opportunity to strengthen our faith.