John 21:12 (ESV) … “Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.”
Jesus met His disciples on the beach where He had already prepared breakfast for them. This entire scene must have stirred Peter’s memory and touched his conscience. Surely he was recalling that first catch of fish (Luke 5:1–11) and perhaps even the feeding of the 5,000 with bread and fish (John 6). It was at the close of the latter event that Peter had given his clear-cut witness of faith in Jesus Christ (John 6:66–71). The “fire of coals” would certainly remind him of the fire at which he denied the Lord (John 18:18). It is good for us to remember the past; we may have something to confess.
Three “invitations” stand out in John’s Gospel: “Come and see” (John 1:39); “Come and drink” (John 7:37); and “Come and dine” (John 21:12). How loving of Jesus to feed Peter before He dealt with his spiritual needs. He gave Peter opportunity to dry off, get warm, satisfy his hunger, and enjoy personal fellowship. This is a good example for us to follow as we care for God’s people. Certainly the spiritual is more important than the physical, but caring for the physical can prepare the way for spiritual ministry. Our Lord does not so emphasize “the soul” that He neglects the body.
Peter and his Lord had already met privately and no doubt taken care of Peter’s sins (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5), but since Peter had denied the Lord publicly, it was important that there be a public restoration. Sin should be dealt with only to the extent that it is known. Private sins should be confessed in private, public sins in public. Since Peter had denied his Lord three times, Jesus asked him three personal questions. He also encouraged him by giving a threefold commission that restored Peter to his ministry.
The key issue is Peter’s love for the Lord Jesus, and that should be a key matter with us today. But what did the Lord mean by “more than these”? Was He asking, “Do you love Me more than you love these other men?” Not likely, because this had never been a problem among the disciples. They all loved the Lord Jesus supremely, even though they did not always obey Him completely. Perhaps Jesus meant, “Do you love Me more than you love these boats and nets and fish?” Again, this is not likely, for there is no evidence that Peter ever desired to go back permanently into the fishing business. Fishing did not seem to compete with the Saviour’s love.
The question probably meant, “Do you love Me—as you claimed—more than these other disciples love Me?” Peter had boasted of his love for Christ and had even contrasted it with that of the other men. “I will lay down my life for Thy sake!” (John 13:37) “Though all men shall be offended because of Thee, yet will I never be offended!” (Matt. 26:33) There is more than a hint in these boastful statements that Peter believed that he loved the Lord more than did the other disciples.
Many commentaries point out that, in this conversation, two different words are used for “love.” In His questions in John 21:15–16, our Lord used agape, which is the Greek word for the highest kind of love, sacrificing love, divine love. Peter always used phileo, which is the love of friend for friend, fondness for another. In John 21:17, Jesus and Peter both used phileo.
However, it is doubtful that we should make too much of an issue over this, because the two words are often used interchangeably in the Gospel of John. In John 3:16, God’s love for man is agape love; but in John 16:27, it is phileo love. The Father’s love for His Son is agape love in John 3:35 but phileo love in John 5:20. Christians are supposed to love one another. In John 13:34, this love is agape love; but in John 15:19, it is phileo love. It would appear that John used these two words as synonyms, whatever fine distinctions there might have been between them.
Before we judge Peter too severely, two other matters should be considered. When answering the first two questions, Peter did affirm his agape love when he said, “Yes, Lord!” The fact that Peter himself used phileo did not negate his wholehearted assent to the Lord’s use of agape. Second, Peter and Jesus undoubtedly spoke in Aramaic, even though the Holy Spirit recorded the conversation in common Greek. It might be unwise for us to press the Greek too far in this case.
In spite of his faults and failures, Peter did indeed love the Lord, and he was not ashamed to admit it. The other men were certainly listening “over Peter’s shoulder” and benefiting from the conversation, for they too had failed the Lord after boasting of their devotion. Peter had already confessed his sin and been forgiven. Now he was being restored to apostleship and leadership.
The image, however, changes from that of the fisherman to that of the shepherd. Peter was to minister both as an evangelist (catching the fish) and a pastor (shepherding the flock). It is unfortunate when we divorce these two because they should go together. Pastors ought to evangelize (2 Tim. 4:5) and then shepherd the people they have won so that they mature in the Lord.
Jesus gave three admonitions to Peter: “Feed My lambs,” “Shepherd My sheep,” and “Feed My sheep.” Both the lambs and the more mature sheep need feeding and leading, and that is the task of the spiritual shepherd. It is an awesome responsibility to be a shepherd of God’s flock! (1 Peter 5:2) There are enemies that want to destroy the flock, and the shepherd must be alert and courageous (Acts 20:28–35). By nature, sheep are ignorant and defenseless, and they need the protection and guidance of the shepherd.
While it is true that the Holy Spirit equips people to serve as shepherds, and gives these people to churches (Eph. 4:11ff), it is also true that each individual Christian must help to care for the flock. Each of us has a gift or gifts from the Lord, and we should use what He has given us to help protect and perfect the flock. Sheep are prone to wander, and we must look after each other and encourage each other.
Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), the Great Shepherd (Heb. 13:20–21), and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). Pastors are “under-shepherds” who must obey Him as they minister to the flock. The most important thing the pastor can do is to love Jesus Christ. If he truly loves Jesus Christ, the pastor will also love His sheep and tenderly care for them. The Greek word for “sheep” at the end of John 21:17 means “dear sheep.” Our Lord’s sheep are dear to Him and He wants His ministers to love them and care for them personally and lovingly. (See Ezek. 34 for God’s indictment of unfaithful shepherds, the leaders of Judah.) A pastor who loves the flock will serve it faithfully, no matter what the cost.