John 21: 15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
This passage in John 21 is one of the great moments of the Bible. Peter, the warrior disciple, has just gone through the most difficult time of his life and has endured more grief than we can imagine. Peter was the disciple who at least attempted to walk on water (Matthew 14), he was the one who said: “even if all fall away, I will remain” (Matthew 26:33), and Peter backed it up when he took on the crowd who was armed with swords and clubs (Matthew 26:51). And yet we also know that he was the one who denied even knowing Jesus, and he did so three times (Matthew 26: 69-74).
Verse 75 in Mathew 26 says that “…he went outside and wept bitterly”. I think we can lose an appreciation for what had actually transpired here. Peter grew up as a Jew, meaning that from the earliest days he would have been taught from the scriptures. He would have been taught of the great day when the Messiah, the Christ, would come back to earth to save his people. How crazy would it have been the day he realized who Jesus actually was? It was only Peter who said, “you are the Christ, the son of the living Lord” (Matthew 16:16). And in response Jesus said that this was revealed to Peter by God. “And I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
For centuries prophets had been predicting the birth of the Christ, and not only was Peter living in the exact time of his emergence, it was he whom God had chosen to reveal his son to, and it was he who was chosen to lead the New Testament church. Now picture betraying that man; now picture betraying Christ himself. It is one thing to betray a friend, but to betray God in the flesh?! And for a warrior like Peter, to betray any friend, let alone Christ, this was more agony and grief than he could bear.
But it is in this place that we see the wonderful grace of our savior. In this passage in John 21, Jesus allows Peter to confirm his love three times, and in a way erasing the three times in which he denied knowing his friend Jesus. It is interesting that Peter is not reinstated as a warrior, but rather as a shepherd. Jesus instructs Peter to “feed my lambs” – he needs to give spiritual food to the young in the faith. Jesus instructs Peter to “take care of my sheep” – he needs to provide and watch out for the mature body of Christ. Finally, Jesus says “feed my sheep” – Peter needs to provide spiritual food for the mature believers as well.
And in an almost strange and seemingly unrelated train of thought, Jesus next tells Peter how he will die. He will die an old man being dressed and led by others where he does not wish to go. “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” (John 21:19). How can Peter possibly glorify God in such weakness? But that is the wonderful truth. Jesus reinstated Peter as a shepherd whose only strength will come from God. No longer will he be dependent on his own strength or abilities when he shepherds God’s flock, but instead he will rely fully on God’s power. And to do so, Peter must first die to himself and become weak so God could be elevated. In that place he could become a true shepherd.
“That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12: 10)