So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, 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.” (John 21:15)
The old car sits rusting in a field—an eyesore that once roared down the highway. Then, one day, someone buys the decaying carcass, takes it into his garage, where with skilled hands, the vintage vehicle is restored—a classic car now turning heads as it speeds again across the asphalt.
This is the message of the Gospel. It is what Christ will do to a life wrecked by sin. Peter experienced such a restoration as recorded in the twenty-first chapter of John’s Gospel. Three times he had denied Jesus and now three times Christ asks him if he loves Him. It was as Peter stood by the distinctive smell of a charcoal fire that his failure occurred and it would be again beside a charcoal fire that Peter’s forgiveness will be experienced. Peter’s denials had been in public and now his repentance must be done in public as well.
Each time, Jesus confronts Peter with the question, “Do you love Me?” followed by Peter’s affirmation of that love and concluded with a commission by Christ. In the first case, Jesus asks if Peter loves Him more than the other disciples do. This took the fisherman’s mind back to when Jesus predicted that they would all abandon Him in His hour of trial, and Peter’s response was to assure the Lord that though the rest of the disciples did, he would stand firm. The Rock—for so his name meant—became Jello and slid into the shadows. Now, his bravado is banished and Peter makes no such claim to love Christ in a way superior to his colleagues. He does say that he loves Jesus, but the love Christ inquires about is agape—God’s kind of love—while Peter acknowledges a lesser love using the word phileo—brotherly love. Humility has replaced his swagger after his denials of Christ. Then Jesus told him to prove it by feeding His lambs. Peter would always recall this and later charge pastors to feed God’s flock with Scripture (1 Pet.5:2). Our love for the church equates to love for Christ—and will be expressed not by profession, but action.
A second time Jesus confronts Peter—not asking about his love in comparison to his comrades—instead targeting Peter’s love specifically. Peter’s response is identical; Christ’s is different. He tells the fisherman to “Tend my sheep.” Shepherds are responsible not only to feed the sheep, but lead the sheep—guiding them for they tend to wander and guarding them for they are defenseless against predators. The specific term Jesus uses here means, “little sheep.” In the first commission, He refers to lambs and now little sheep—the next stage of their growth. God’s people need tending at every stage of their spiritual development.
The final time Jesus condescends to meet Peter at his level asking him if he indeed has phileo love for Him. Peter, doubtless under conviction over his denials, is grieved and appeals to the Lord’s omniscience, “You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus again calls on Peter to feed his sheep—and the word denotes a mature sheep. We never grow beyond our need for the Word.
Jesus is in the restoration business. If you have failed, you can be forgiven—and brought to a place of usefulness again.