I am sure the tension of the moment was palpable. Jesus had reconstructed the entire scene. It was dawn, just like it was not too long ago. There was a charcoal fire, just like that morning outside Pilate’s palace (John 18:18). And there were questions, three of them in fact, just like that terrible morning when Peter adamantly denied that he even knew Jesus.
Now Peter was put to the test again.
The familiar nature of this passage is intentional. If this were a movie, you’d almost think these were flashback scenes, taking us back to an earlier experience in life. A fishing trip where Jesus provided a miraculous catch of fish—after a night of complete futility—was repeated. The first time Peter wasn’t sure who Jesus was, even questioning the fishing advice of an apparent carpenter. Yet, by the time it was all over, he was asking Jesus to depart from him because his sin of unbelief was so obvious (Luke 5:1–8). This time, he couldn’t swim fast enough to be close to Jesus.
The disciple, the one Jesus loved, said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tied his outer clothing around him (for he had taken it off) and plunged into the sea.
Jesus wanted Peter to remember and relive his initial calling. But the early morning, the charcoal fire, and the three questions had another moment for Peter to relive. You can feel the pit in his stomach as the Lord inquires of him three times. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” With each question, the affirmative response came back. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And with each answer, a reframed and reinstated calling into a life of ministry came. The final words of Jesus in the Gospel narratives come as an invitation away from the guilt and shame of betrayal into the wide-open space of discipleship. “Follow me!”
When I read this passage, I hear Jesus asking me the same questions He asked Peter. I am just as guilty of denying Jesus in my life as Peter was. I carry the shame of pretending that I don’t know Him by how I live when the pressure is high. And the cross looms large. It was there that Peter’s denial was atoned for. On the cross, my hypocrisy was forgiven. In Jesus’s death, your abandonment and blasphemy were canceled. But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus’s resurrection happened!
The unexpected power of John 21 is that it’s not just a story about forgiveness. It’s a testimony and invitation into a reconciled relationship with the resurrected Christ. His words are for us as much as they were Peter. “Do you love me?…Follow me!”