The last two chapters of John’s Gospel are full of personal revelations and tailor-made mercy. John records Jesus’ revelation to Mary in the Garden (20:11–18), to the disciples in the Upper Room (20:19–23), to Thomas eight days later (20:24–31), and finally to seven disciples on the Sea of Tiberias (21:1–23). Each of these “revelations” bring faith in the risen Lord (see Thomas’ response, 20:28), because each of them reveal to doubting eyes the truth of Christ’s resurrection.
At the same time, each of these revelations are intensely personal—meaning, they cater to the weaknesses and experiences of each individual. For instance, with Thomas Jesus answers his need to see the wounds in Jesus flesh (20:24–25) with an invitation to “put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side” (20:27). Jesus command (“Do not disbelieve, but believe”)—an instance of the effectual call?—is undergirded by giving Thomas the personal revelation he needed to trust in Jesus.
The same is true with Peter. After Jesus had appeared, Peter went back to fishing—not knowing Jesus’ plans for him. John makes a clear connection between Jesus words around the “charcoal fire” (21:9) and Peter’s denial, which also took place around a “charcoal fire” (18:18). In this personal visitation, Jesus restores Peter with his three-fold question: “Do you love me more than these” (21:15–19)? If it is to the fish he is speaking, Jesus is very personally addressing Peter. He is bringing up his painful past and using it against him—rather for him!
Using the Past to Reframe the Present
Much like Jesus designed the second revelation in the Upper Room at Thomas, so the whole event by the see was designed to restore Peter. In John 21, Jesus comes to the shore to find Peter, just like he did in Luke 5. And like before, he calls the tired fisherman to throw his net into the water. In Luke’s Gospel, they had toiled all night and caught nothing. Here again, the night of toil brought the same result—empty nets. Like before, Jesus commands them to drop their nets into the water once again, and like before Peter obeys and fish fill the net.
But here is the difference: In Luke’s narrative, at the time of Peter’s call to ministry, the fisherman says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (5:8). Jesus’ lavish grace overwhelmed Peter then and he withdrew himself, aware of his sinfulness and Jesus’ holiness. Now, however, Peter’s response is different. When the fish burst the nets, Peter disrobes, jumps out of the boat, and swims to shore. The rest of the conversation, discloses the love of Peter for Jesus and Jesus love for this fisher of men.
There is much that could be made of these two episodes, but one point stands out: the personal, almost private way, Jesus calls his servant to himself. It is as if God designed the whole narrative in John 21 to recapitulate the events in Luke 5. The characters, the place, and the activities all repeat. But, different this time, is Peter’s response. He has been greatly humbled by his own weakness and now he is ready for restoration as Jesus comes to re-commission him for his evangelistic work.
Uniqueness and Ubiquity with Peter and the Apostles
In applying this story there is danger is making too much of a direct application. There will never be another Peter, just as there will never be another set of apostles. Peter is the “rock” on which the church is built (Matthew 16:18); the apostles are the foundation of the temple Christ is building (Ephesians 2:20). Together, they play a unique role in redemptive history that necessitates an inspired interpretation for the sake of all future followers and fisherman of Christ.
Yet, for all the facts that make Jesus story with Peter unique, there is a certain truth revealed—namely, Christ calls his sheep by name (John 10:3). Infinite in his knowledge, God personally calls all of his children home by name. Doctrinally, this relates to the effectual call of God. Through the universal, general call of the gospel, God opens eyes, ears, and hearts to receive his good news. In those moments, deep calls unto deep, but on the surface—i.e., in what we can see—God often uses our personal histories—our failures and our follies— to bring us to our knees before him.
God is a personal God and the testimonies of the Gospels show how he steps into our lives in very personal ways. Peter’s experience at the Sea of Tiberias teaches us to trust God. While we cannot manufacture such “God moments”—as some like to call them—neither should we dismiss or deny them. God loves to use our personal histories against us, in order to break us, in order that in his omni-personal way, he might heal us with personal faith in him (cf. Hosea 6:1–3). This is true in Israel’s history—a history filled with recapitulation and historic ironies. And this is true in your story—if you are in Christ.
Saving Faith Requires a Personal Experience with God
How many are the ways God uses earlier episodes in your life to reveal himself to you? How many are the pains and sorrows you experience, so that (years and even decades) later God can heal these wounds with the perfect of tincture of his saving grace? How often does he manufacture events in our lives for the purpose of bringing us to the same point as Peter?
Jesus asks of Peter, a fisherman by trade: “Do you love me more than these?” To which a broken fisherman replies: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17). In such an instance, Peter may be confessing doctrinal truth—the Lord is omniscient. But considering the context, his words are far more personal: “Lord, you know everything—my sin, my weaknesses, my denials, my doubt. You know in my great weakness I love you.”
Indeed, while this event is unique to Peter, as it prepares the way for Pentecost and his foundational ministry for the church in Jerusalem, it is also significantly paradigmatic. Like Peter, Christ brings all his children to the place of absolute surrender. He permits us to stumble—physically, emotionally, sometimes morally—so that the wounds and weariness of our lives become the things driving us to our knees before him.
The God of Comfort Who Grants Tailor-made Mercy
What a marvelous God we serve who makes use of every part of our lives. As the omniscient Potter, our heavenly Father knows everything taking place in your life and he is using it to lead his sheep to himself. Through our personal tragedies and triumphs, he is carving out a road that leads us to him. As Jesus told John the Baptist, “Blessed is he who does not take offense at me” (Luke 7:23).
May we who are in the crucible of his care, learn to embrace the road God has given us and to see how our ever-loving God is recycling the events of our life to make us more like his Son. He is the God of all comfort and tailor-made mercy. May such personal knowledge liberate us from trusting in ourselves, and like Thomas may we declare, “My Lord and My God!”
Soli Deo Gloria, ds