How Jesus Restores Us When We Fail
Passage: John 21:1–25
Jesus restores us through recommitment and recommissioning.
In school, the day that papers or quizzes or tests were handed back could be a nerve wracking day. How much red ink would I see on the page? What percentage and letter grade would I see circled at the top of the page? Would I my anxieties be relieved when I looked at the grade? Would I look at it with pride? Or would I feel even worse after seeing it?
I’m no longer handing in papers and tests to people, but I can still feel like I am being graded every day. I’ve known for years that I tend toward being a perfectionist. I want everything to be perfect and if it isn’t, it’s not good enough. Last year, a mentor in my life had me take a personality test. He and I happen to share the same personality type and he told me people with this type never think they have done enough and what they have done isn’t good enough.
Each day, I want to live for Jesus. I want to follow him. I want to do his will. I want to do what matters. I want to love the people around me like he has loved me. And yet when I turn in my report for how I did each day, I can often feel like my grade is pretty low or perhaps even failing. I knew the expectations but failed to perform. I didn’t love Katie like I should. I had moments where I was harsh and didn’t listen well. I was impatient with Hudson when he was really cranky. I hit snooze twice so I didn’t get to read my Bible as much as I should before Hudson woke up. I didn’t pray enough. At the end of every day, I didn’t do enough and what I did wasn’t good enough.
Do any of you feel this way? Do you feel like you never do enough for God? At the end of the day, there’s still more you could have done. Do you feel like what you did do wasn’t good enough? You could always do better and you could always do more.
This week we wrap up our Final Words for Following Jesus series with John 21. I’m so glad that this chapter is in the Bible because as someone who feels like he fails a lot, this is good news for me.
John 13 through 17 records the final conversation Jesus had with his disciples. In it, he makes it pretty clear what he wants them to do after he is gone: he said that if they love him, they will obey his commands. What are Jesus’ commands? The one he really wants them to put into practice is loving each other as he has loved them. He also tells them that he wants them to pray for his will to be done and he wants them to tell others about him. Pretty easy, right? We are only being graded on three things: prayer, loving others, telling others about Jesus. Pretty easy. Those are the only three questions on the test at the end of each day. Did you pray for Jesus’ will to be done today? Did you love others like Jesus has loved you today? Did you tell others about Jesus today? But even if those are the only three questions on the test, most of us at the end of every day feel that we have failed in those three areas.
Jesus spent considerable time warning about the hate of the world. He tells us that the world will pressure us to turn away from Jesus and the world won’t want to hear our message about Jesus. But he wants us to remain faithful to him and tell people about him anyway. If we were graded on whether we hid our beliefs about Jesus so the world will like us, many of us probably feel that we’d fail the test.
Jesus also said that he was giving his life to so we can have a relationship with God. But if at the end of every day, we were graded on how high of a priority we made our relationship with God, we would often feel like failures. Did you spend time talking to God? Did you spend time listening to God? Or was he an afterthought and squeezed in if there was time?
Even if you succeeded in doing all of these today, you probably feel you didn’t do them enough or good enough. You could have done them more and done them better. “I could have prayed more. I could have loved people better. I could have told more people about Jesus or done a better job at it.”
John 21 is good news for every one of us who feel like we fail as disciples of Jesus. Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, failed big time. When Jesus was being questioned by the religious leaders, Peter denied being one of his disciples three times. He caved to the hate of the world. Instead of showing his love for Jesus, he wanted to be loved by the world. Instead of standing with Jesus, he tried to hide his love for Jesus. John 21 shows us how Jesus restores Peter after his failure and it shows us how Jesus restores us after we fail.
The big idea that summarizes today’s passage is this: Jesus restores us through recommitment and recommissioning.
Fishing and Breakfast (John 21:1-14)
We are going to focus on Jesus’ conversation with Peter but verses 1 through 14 set the stage. In verse 1, we are told that Jesus revealed himself to the disciples again by the Sea of Tiberias, which is another name for the Sea of Galilee. We are reminded that all of this is happening after Jesus was crucified, died, and was laid in a tomb. All of his disciples knew he was dead and they were acting like he was gone. Then they discovered that his tomb was empty and then they saw him face to face - alive! Jesus came back from the dead just like he said he would. God raised him to life. And this proved to them that Jesus is their Lord and their God. He is the King they’ve all wanted to lead them back to God and at the same time, he is the Son of God who took on flesh as a human being.
Since this is after Jesus’ death and resurrection, this also reminds us that every one of Jesus’ disciples deserted him. Jesus told them that they would all leave him alone and they did. After he was betrayed and arrested and put on trial, none of his disciples stood with him. Most of them ran. Peter didn’t run, but he denied knowing Jesus when asked. And yet, Jesus still came to them after his resurrection. He didn’t say, “Well, time to start from scratch and find some new disciples.” The good news is that Jesus is way more committed to you than you are to him.
Verse 2 tells us that seven of Jesus disciples were all together when Peter said he is is going fishing and the other six said they’d go with him. Fishermen in Jesus’ day considered night time the best time to fish. But they fished all night and caught nothing.
Just as the sun was about to peek over the horizon, someone from shore yelled to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” It’s Jesus, but none of them know it’s him because they are a football field length away from shore. “No,” they respond. So Jesus says, “Try the right side of the boat. You’ll find some there.” After following his instruction, they have more fish in their net than they can haul in. Perhaps this is intended to remind us of John 15 when Jesus told his disciples, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” The disciples catch nothing until they do as Jesus says.
With this catch, John, who is the one writing all this down and who calls himself the disciple whom Jesus loved, realizes who is speaking to them. “It is the Lord!” he yelled. Peter had his outer garment off as he worked in the boat and upon hearing that it’s Jesus on the shore, he grabbed it and jumped in the water to swim 100 yards to shore, leaving his companions to take care of the fish themselves.
When the disciples catch up to Peter, they find that Jesus has built a charcoal fire with a few fish already cooking. He tells his disciples to bring some of their fish to be cooked as well. It seems they get a little too excited about the huge catch of fish because Jesus has to tell get their attention again by saying, “Come and have breakfast.” As they sat around the fire eating fish and bread for breakfast, they all knew they were sitting with Jesus but didn’t ask to confirm it. They just knew. Remember how we saw last week that Jesus still looked like himself with scars and all and yet was unrecognizable? This seems to be the nature of resurrection bodies.
Wouldn’t you think that Jesus, the resurrected Lord of the universe, would have more important things to do than to make a fire, cook breakfast, and eat it with them? He just defeated sin, Satan, and death! He just died and came back to life! And now he is making sitting around eating breakfast. This is a picture of Jesus’ patience. He’s unhurried. Do you ever think that Jesus has more important things to do than care about you? Do you ever think that Jesus doesn’t have time for you? This scene shows Jesus’ continual care and desire to be with his disciples then and now. It shows us that Jesus wants to have a relationship with us. He wants to know us and he wants us to know him in an unhurried way. And it also is preparation for what happens next.
Recommitment and Recommission of Peter (John 21:15-19)
The elephant in the room is the fact that Peter denied Jesus three times. What makes this really sad is that just hours before he denied knowing Jesus, Peter said that he would follow Jesus anywhere, even to death. All it took was the question of a slave girl for him to go back on that declaration.
But do you remember where the next two denials took place? When the next two people asked Peter, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?”, where was Peter standing? He was standing by a charcoal fire. The soldiers and servants who arrested Jesus started a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the former high priest’s house to warm themselves.
Now what has Jesus done? He has built a charcoal fire and invited Peter and the other disciples to sit around it. And as they sit eating breakfast, I can imagine Peter getting those nervous butterflies in his stomach as he thinks back to what he did last time he was sitting by a charcoal fire near Jesus. What’s Jesus going to say? What’s Jesus going to do?
Peter had denied Jesus three times, twice around a charcoal fire. Now sitting around a charcoal fire, Jesus asks Peter three times to recommit. He asks him three times to reaffirm his love for Jesus. But he doesn’t only ask him to recommit: Jesus recommissions Peter. Jesus has a mission for Peter but there has been a break in their relationship which must be mended.
The big idea that summarizes today’s passage is this: Jesus restores us through recommitment and recommissioning.
Let’s read what Jesus does starting in 15:
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15a)
The first question is, “Do you love me more than these?” What is Jesus comparing Peter’s love to? Is Jesus asking if Peter loves him more than Peter loves these other disciples? That’s unlikely. Is Jesus asking if Peter loves him more than these fish? In other words, he is asking Peter if he loves Jesus enough to abandon his occupation of fishing to follow Jesus. That’s possible. What’s most likely is that Jesus is asking: Do you love me more than these other disciples love me? It might sound strange for Jesus to ask for this comparison, but it makes sense if we remember that when Jesus said he would be betrayed and they couldn’t follow where he was going, Peter said, “I will lay down my life for you.” Peter so confidently pledged his love for Jesus before and then hours later denied even knowing Jesus. Now Jesus is asking him to make that confident pledge again. Peter answers: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)
The big idea that summarizes today’s passage is this: Jesus restores us through recommitment and recommissioning. Jesus’ commitment has not diminished. Jesus’ love for Peter has not diminished. Peter denied Jesus, but Jesus still came to Peter. But Jesus’ love doesn’t mean he is just going to ignore what Peter did. Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times. Three opportunities to prove his love. Three opportunities to lay his life down for Jesus. And instead, Peter said, “No, I am not one of his disciples.”
The good news is that Jesus died for deniers. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus is the good friend who lays does his life for his friends. Jesus is always faithful. Jesus doesn’t break promises or commitments. But that doesn’t mean when we fail to keep our commitments to him that restoration doesn’t need to take place. When we fail, we feel guilt and shame. We feel we’ve let him down. Peter certainly did. In the Gospel According to Luke we are told that Peter wept when he heard the rooster crow after his third denial. Peter knows he let Jesus down. From Jesus’ side of things, he isn’t saying, “Peter, you failed and now you have to convince me to love you again. You have to convince me to forgive you. You have to convince me to be committed to you.” Jesus has already proven no one deserves those things so Peter doesn’t have to prove he is deserving of Jesus’ love. But Jesus wants to restore Peter. So he calls him over to a charcoal fire like the one where he denied him. Looking at the same flames and smelling the same smells, he asks him to recommit.
But restoration isn’t complete until we are recommissioned. Every failure is a failure of mission. It’s a failure to live out the purpose, calling, and mission Jesus has given us. And so forgiveness is only one part of a fully restored relationship with God. We are also then sent to do his work that we failed to do.
In verse 16, Jesus asks again.
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.” (John 21:16)
In verses 17, Jesus asks yet again:
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. (John 21:17)
It’s interesting that each time Jesus asks, Peter says, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Peter assumes Jesus is asking a question to which Jesus already knows the answer. This last question by Jesus grieves Peter because Jesus asked so many times. Peter responds, “You know everything.” Jesus is Peter’s Lord and God. Of course Jesus knows Peter loves him.
Peter loves Jesus. Jesus knows Peter loves him. Peters knows that Jesus knows. And yet, Peter denied Jesus three times. So how can Peter say, “You know I love you, Jesus”? Peter’s actions didn’t show it. This conversation with Peter shows us that while Jesus’ commitment to us is secure, our commitment to him grows and matures over time.
The Bible calls our relationship with Jesus as marriage, which is helpful. When Katie and I got married, we spoke vows of commitment to one another that neither one of us ever intends to break. And even while that is true, there are days when the way I treat Katie looks nothing like those vows I made to her. Have I gone back on my commitment to her in the long-term? No, but in that moment or on that day my short-term actions were not in line with the long-term commitment to her that I never intend to break. And even though that long-term commitment is not in question, if I don’t seek her forgiveness when I wrong her, connection is broken. Restoration needs to take place. Katie wouldn’t say to me, “It doesn’t matter that you hurt me today because you made a long-term commitment to me.” That’s how relationships break down and fail.
In our relationship with Jesus, the good news is that his long-term commitment to us and his daily actions are always in sync. Jesus never fluctuates. He is 100% loving 100% of the time even though 100% of the time we don’t deserve it. But it’s also good news that Jesus doesn’t question our long-term commitment when we have short-term failures. That doesn’t mean he ignores those failures. He wants us to experience restoration through recommitment and recommissioning.
It’s pretty amazing that even though Peter fails so big, Jesus gives him such a big job. Peter is the first leader of the church! He’s the one Peter commissions to shepherd the his Jesus’ sheep. Jesus extends that same amazing grace to us. Grace doesn’t only mean we get undeserved forgiveness when we fail. Grace means we get undeserved responsibility even though we have failed and probably will again!
In verses 18 and 19, Jesus tells Peter just how much Peter will prove his love:
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.” (John 21:18-19)
“Stretching out your hands” was a common way of referring to crucifixion, since you would stretch out your hands to be nailed to the cross. Peter said he would lay down his life for Jesus and Jesus is telling him he’ll have his chance.
But this doesn’t sit well with Peter. Let’s see why in verses 20 through 23.
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:20-23)
Peter loves Jesus. Peter wants to lay down his life for Jesus. Peter even says he loves Jesus more than the other disciples. So why does Peter have a problem with dying for Jesus? As he and Jesus walk, Peter looks back at John following them and asks, “What about him?” Peter wants to know, “Is John going to die for you too?” Is he going to have it as hard as me?” Jesus’ answer is, “If I want him to live until I return, what’s that to you? You, follow me!” Jesus told him in verse 19 to follow him and now he returns to it.
One of the enemies of joy in our life is comparison to others. How many of our feelings of failure in following Jesus would be relieved if instead of comparing ourselves to others we instead focused on Jesus? When we compare ourselves, we either feel better about ourselves because we are doing better than the person next to us or we feel worse about ourselves because we aren’t doing as well as them. Or we look at others and think, “It’s not fair. God has blessed them more. God has given them more gifts and talents than me. God has given them an easier life.” What if our eyes were on Jesus and what he thinks of us and wants us to do?
Then John identifies himself in verse 24:
24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:24-25)
John is testifying about Jesus. It’s funny that he clears up how people misunderstood verse 23. Apparently, before John even wrote this down, the misunderstanding spread that John would not die. But John didn’t understood Jesus’ words that way. He says, “Jesus only said if it is his will.”
John admits the impossibility of his task: write down a story of Jesus’ life. Well, he says, if I wrote it all down the world couldn’t contain the books. But he told us in chapter 20 that he selected the parts he wrote down so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and so that we may have life in his name.
Why don’t we go to God when we have failed? What do you expect from him? What do you expect him to do?
This passage is good news for me because I need to be reminded that Jesus is way more committed to me than I am to him. I struggle with feeling like a failure. I’ve never done enough and what I’ve done isn’t good enough. Here Jesus reminds me that anything Jesus gives me is the opposite of what I deserve. Even when I haven’t done enough or haven’t done it well enough, I can still hear, “Well done good and faithful servant” from him.
And even when I completely fail to do what he has asked me, his commitment to me doesn’t waver. Even as I grow and mature in my commitment to him and love for him, his love for me is as strong as ever because it isn’t based on my performance.
What’s a way that you have failed Jesus? What responsibility has God given you that you are failing at or have failed at? Jesus opens his arms to fully restore us.
Four stages to restoration and three beliefs can keep us from full restoration. Which one of these is where you are at with that failure?
Stage one is owning our sin, recognizing that we have done wrong and failed. The belief that keeps us from moving beyond this stage is believing “My sin isn’t that bad” and “I’m not in need of forgiveness.” Jesus doesn’t talk to Peter about how bad his sin is because Peter knows how bad it is. But when people think they are self-righteous, Jesus gives them a diagnosis to convince them that they are more sinful than they are aware and less righteous than they think.
Stage two is going to God for forgiveness. The belief that keeps us from moving beyond this stage is believing “God isn’t that good.” Do you stay away from God because you don’t believing he will really forgive you? Do you ask for forgiveness, but think he doesn’t forgive you? Or you don’t feel forgiven? When we do this, we are calling God a liar. We are saying, “I know you say you are good and loving and gracious and merciful, but I just don’t believe you.”
Stage three is recommitting and stage four is recommissioning. We failed and we weren’t faithful and we didn’t show our love for Jesus, but now we recommit by saying, “I do love you, I want to surrender to you, I want to follow you. We are recommissioned by leaving to do Jesus’ will. We ask him for guidance, strength, and help. We want to be sent to do whatever it is we failed at before.
The belief that keeps us from moving to this stage is “God exists to forgive me.” Full restoration doesn’t stop at forgiveness. It moves beyond forgiveness to mission. It isn’t much of a relationship to only interact with someone when you have done something wrong. Jesus wants us to be “one” with him - one in will, one in life purpose, one in our desires. So when we have failed, we come to him not only saying, “I messed up, please forgive me.” We come to him wanting to be restored to mission.
What if we were a community of people who responded to one another’s failure in this way? So often we settle for something less than full restoration. We settle for ignoring other people’s sin and failures. We settle for avoiding it. We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We don’t want them to feel bad. We are scared of how they will react to it. And so we settle for broken relationships with each other and broken relationships with God. Jesus puts his Spirit in us so we can continue his work of restoration with one another. Jesus has commissioned each of us to be instruments of his restoration to fullness of relationship with God and with each other.