Have you ever felt completely beaten – finished, done, over, never trying again? You thought you had it in you, but you were wrong. You didn’t realize what you were in for. And now it’s all over. No point trying. You just can’t do it. You’ve given up on yourself, at least in that area of life. There’s no redeeming this.
In John 21, after denying Jesus and seeing him resurrected, Peter feels the same way.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
If you’ve heard this passage before, you’ve probably heard that Jesus’ three questions redeem the three times Peter denied him. But this is not a simple story of joyful restoration. Imagine Peter, plagued by his shame. He hadn’t lived up to his ideals – not simply his verbal claims, but the core belief about himself that he would remain faithful to Jesus even at the cost of his life. The trial proved him less than he thought himself to be.
There is no doubt Peter wanted to be faithful. Impulsive, bold, and confident, Peter has always trusted his gut. He has spoken and acted before the others, probably before thinking things through (Mt 14:28; 16:16, 22; 17:4). He has assumed his actions would display the honor and faithfulness he was certain were his nature. But he is betrayed by a fearful part of himself that he never knew existed.
Now, hurt and ashamed, he faces the man he most wanted to honor and impress. Face to face at the fire pit, in front of the others, Jesus brings up what Peter has feared. There is no avoiding it: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?”
I imagine Peter, head down, feeling exposed and ashamed, squirming inside, and perhaps holding back tears. He swallows hard. He wants so badly to say, “Yes, I love (agape) you.” But he must admit what he has learned the hard way: he’s not capable of agape, pure selfless love. He offers what he has and no more, acknowledging what Jesus already knows – what Jesus knew before Peter himself knew: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.” He can’t bring himself to use the word agape. All he can offer is friendship, brotherly affection, and no more. He who once claimed, “Even if they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Mt 26:33), now cannot even repeat “more than these.” He hasn’t lived up. He doesn’t live up. He’s not superior to the others. He’s worse.
Jesus willingly drops “more than these,” but asks again: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?” Does Peter feel a hint of sadness or despair at this point? How hard is Jesus going to push on this tender spot? Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I’m your friend and feel brotherly affection for you.” It’s all he can offer. Are his eyes still turned away?
Finally Jesus relents. This third question is different: “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?” Peter is grieved, says the scripture. It’s not clear from the text that the grief is caused by a third repetition. Quite possibly it’s the change of wording that grieves Peter: Jesus lowers the bar. Does the reality of his limitations finally hit Peter when he hears them coming from Jesus’ mouth rather than his own? Does Jesus’ acceptance of Peter’s self-evaluation turn the shame to grief? I don’t imagine he can hold back his tears any longer. There is a relief in letting them out. It’s true: he failed. And Jesus is still here, still offering friendship, even inviting him to leadership. Is it possible? Perhaps he dares a look at Jesus’ face for the first time and finds it kind.
After validating the truth about Peter, Jesus comforts him. Although Peter did not have it in him to stick with Jesus to death, and although Peter will not want to die the death that lies ahead for him, Jesus says he will do it (vv 18-19). He will not fall away a second time.
As he hears Jesus’ words, Peter must feel some fear. But he had wanted the honor of faithfulness and now he knows he will have it even though his desire is mixed with fear. He no longer has to worry that his hidden fear will betray him. He knows it is there, he knows that Jesus accepts his limited phileo, and he knows he will be faithful to the end in spite of his fear. His coming honor overrides his past shame. He can see clearly both his faults and his future. Perhaps now he can finally hold Jesus’s gaze, taking in the compassion, love, and honor Jesus offers.
Now that’s restoration.