Click here for a print-friendly version
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 15, 2018
By Dr. Hal Brady
Spring Quarter: Acknowledging God
Unit 2: All Glory and Honor
Lesson Scripture: John 21:15-25
- Summarize the conversation between the risen Jesus and Peter at the Sea of Galilee.
- Explain the relationship between loving Jesus and imitating his gracious love and service.
It is true that most football fans will recognize the name Joe Montana. Montana was a star quarterback for the University of Notre Dame during the late 1970s. He then played professional football, spending most of his career with the San Francisco 49ers. He won four Super Bowls with the 49ers and was named Most Valuable Player in three of those games. Known as the “Comeback Kid,” Montana guided his team to 31 come-from-behind triumphs during his professional career.
As we know, Simon Peter was a broken man following his denial of Jesus. The writer of Matthew indicates that after his denial, Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). We can only imagine how often Peter’s thoughts tormented him in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion. But it was the resurrected Jesus who offered Peter the opportunity to make a “comeback.” And as scholars affirm, accepting that “comeback” opportunity meant leaving remorse and shame behind as Peter entered a place of renewed service to the Master. Undoubtedly, Jesus’ words of restoration and his challenge of service to Peter have something to teach us today.
As to background, the image of a shepherd caring for sheep is central to our text. This is an image very close to the experience of biblical people, drawing as it does on a common occupation. The Old Testament uses sheep and shepherd to picture the relationship between God and his people, most notably in Psalm 23. However, the relationship between God’s people and their leaders, especially the king, is also portrayed in similar terms.
Scholars inform us that Israel can be described as sheep with no shepherd (Numbers 27:15-17; 1 Kings 22:17), and wicked leaders of the people are characterized as bad shepherds (Jeremiah 23:1-4; 50:6; Ezekiel 34:1-10).
The picture of sheep without a shepherd is also used of people in Jesus’ day (Matthew 9:36). Now, Jesus describes himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10:11), in contrast to “thieves and robbers who have no concern for the welfare of the sheep (John 10:8-10).” Jesus goes beyond what an ordinary shepherd will do, even giving his own life for the sake of the sheep. Jesus’ conversation with Peter should be understood against this backdrop.
Repeated Exchange (21:15-17)
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21:15). The shared meal of the seven eventually gives way to a one-on-one conversation between Jesus and Peter. The solemn character of the moment is underscored by Jesus’ form of address: “Simon son of John.” Peter’s name occurs frequently in this Gospel but not like this. Each time Jesus questions Peter here, he uses this full and formal form of address.
Jesus’ question creates its own question for the reader: What does the word “these” refer to? Does “more than these” mean, “Do you love me more than these nets and boats, than your old way of making a living? “Does it mean,” do you love me more than you love other people? Or does it mean, “Do you love me more than these other people love me?” Scholars tell us that no answer is possible from the text. Therefore, we may conclude that Jesus means “these” as a general point of reference: “Do you love me supremely, most of all?”
“Yes, Lord,” he (Peter) said, “you know that I love you” (John 15b). Peter’s answer is strongly affirmative, but worded in an interesting way. Prior to Jesus’ death, Peter expressed bold confidence that he was writing to give his own life for Jesus’ sake. But Jesus countered that Peter would in fact deny him three times before the rooster crowed (John 13:37,38). As we know, Jesus knew better than Peter what was in Peter’s heart. It was here that Peter acknowledges Jesus’ awareness of his inner life. Scholars point out that Peter’s statement of love for Jesus is also a confession that he no longer has anything to hide from his Lord.
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs” (John 15c). Jesus then challenges Peter to act on the love that he proclaims. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus has laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:15). If Peter loves Jesus, he will live in the same way, protecting and providing for God’s people, as Jesus’ under-shepherd. It’s noteworthy that in Peter’s first epistle, he charges elders to serve as nurturing, protecting shepherds under the supreme shepherd, Jesus (1 Peter 5:1-4).
With only slight variation Jesus asks Peter a second time about his love for him. We can imagine that Peter is puzzled to be asked a question he has already answered. Once more, however, he expresses his love for Jesus; and Jesus responds with a challenge similar to the first: “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time Jesus asked the question of Peter, we are told that Peter was hurt by the repetition. Does Jesus doubt his answer? Is Jesus questioning his loyalty? Or, as scholars suggests, is Peter’s distress the result of seeing a connection between these three exchanges and his three denials of Jesus (John 18:15-18, 25-27)?
At this point, Peter expands on his previous responses by confessing not just that Jesus knows his inner thoughts (John 2:25), but that he knows “all things.” Jesus’ knowledge is the kind of knowledge that God alone has.
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17c). For the third time, Jesus repeats the command that flows out of Peter’s confession of supreme love. The challenge is always the same. Peter is to put his love into action as he leads God’s people. And, of course, Jesus is his example as the good shepherd.
It is important to note that it was three times Peter denied his Lord, and it was three times that Jesus gave him the chance to affirm his love. As we are informed, Jesus, in His gracious forgiveness, gave Peter the chance to wipe out the memory of the threefold denial by a threefold declaration of love.
But as scholars make clear, the real focus of Peter’s conversation with Jesus has to do with his commission to tend the flock of Christ, not the quality of his love for Christ. We can only prove that we love Jesus by loving and serving others. We should note it and underline it! Jesus commissions Peter three times to care for his “flock” – “Feed my lambs,” “Take care of my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.”
Solemn Prophecy (John 21:18,19)*
Scholars state that “Death and Glorification are united so thoroughly in John’s Gospel that John regularly refers to Jesus’ death simply as ‘his glorification’” (John 12:23). And the same correlation now applies to Peter (21:19). For Peter, discipleship will involve not only a ministry tending the flock of Christ, but also martyrdom that glories God.
“I tell you the truth” reflects the double formula “truly, truly,” and is an expression reserved for Jesus’ most important sayings. To this point, Peter’s life was characterized by freedom. He dressed himself and was free to come and go as he pleased.
But in the future, Jesus declares, when Peter is old, he will not tie his own garment, but will instead be tied up and led against his will. This is an unmistakable prophetic warning that Peter will be arrested and bound, his hands stretched out as a prisoner who will be taken to where his captives desire, as Jesus was (John 18:12,13).
Here, we are reminded that Jesus has told his followers that if the world has hated him, the world will also hate them (John 15:18-21;16:1-4). That warning is now personalized to Peter. Peter’s life will reflect his Lord’s. But though Jesus’ words are solemn, they are not hopeless.
Jesus’ words may predict Peter’s arrest and execution alright, nevertheless, they are no simple tragedy. Peter’s death will glorify God. Scholars inform us that Jesus has previously spoken of his own death in just this way (John 12:23-28). This means that those who follow him must be prepared to do so even at the cost of their lives. It is in giving one’s life that one truly receives life from God (John 12:25,26). Thus, Peter’s upcoming imprisonment and death are not sentences of doom but a call to embrace the greatest purpose for which one can live: to glorify God.
Jesus ends the prophetic warning with the command “follow me.” As we recall, Peter was among the first to follow Jesus because of the testimony of John the Baptist and Peter’s brother Andrew (John 1:35-42). At this juncture, Jesus calls him to follow with a new perspective, understanding all the implications.
According to scholars, a very ancient tradition tells us that Peter did indeed die a martyr’s death as a prisoner in Rome. And part of that tradition is that at Peter’s request he was to be crucified upside down, so his death would not too closely resemble that of the Lord’s.
Refocused Challenge (John 21:20-22)
Assuming that perhaps Peter is a bit overwhelmed with the harsh words that Jesus has spoken to him, Peter attempts to change the subject. Following behind Peter and Jesus at this moment is the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” traditionally understood as John, the author of this Gospel. The verse also mentions this fact that when the disciples were gathered in the upper room prior to Jesus’ death, Peter had asked John to find out from Jesus the identity of Jesus’ betrayer (John 13:23-26).
Now, if Peter will be arrested and killed, what about John? Will his friend John also be ousted and killed? If both are followers of Jesus, hated by the world that hated him, will they both suffer the same fate?
The text does not say what motivated Peter’s question. But it surely expresses faith in Jesus as the one who can supply the answer.
However, Jesus’ reply to Peter refocuses Peter’s thoughts on what Jesus has just charged him to do. What might happen in the future to others is not Peter’s concern. It will not change Peter’s situation, and it will in no way change the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to abide with his followers through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit (John 16:33). So a Christian’s focus is not to be on the future of fellow believers, but their own faithfulness. Thus, Jesus tells Peter a second time to “follow me.” In other words, Peter is to just keep on serving as a shepherd who cares for his sheep.
True Testimony (John 21:23-25)
At this point, we are told that the narrative of the story ends, and reflection from John the author begins. The “disciple” of whom Peter inquired is the one who tells the story we have just read. Indeed, he is the source of the entire record in this Gospel. It is his testimony of what he has witnessed, in both signs and sayings. The testimony includes numerous things, including the vital fact that Jesus is the Word become flesh (John 1:14). Amazing as it is, the testimony about it is true.
John goes on to tell us that after Thomas’ confession of Jesus, that Jesus performed “many other signs” not recorded in his Gospel (John 20:30). As an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, John realizes that he must be selective in his material. There is no way he can record everything. But what John does provide in his Gospel is sufficient to bring any person to faith in Jesus, and that’s the stated purpose of his Gospel (John 20:31).
Thus, our response to Jesus’ words to Peter needs to be what Peter’s was: to rise up, follow Jesus, and feed his sheep. While martyrdom may not be in our future, nevertheless, giving our lives sacrificially in the service of Christ must always be the theme of our lives.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- In what ways can class members accept the challenge to feed Jesus’ sheep? Be practical!
- How has an experience of a “second chance” from God shaped you? How should it?
- How can we walk the line between meeting the needs of others (feeding the sheep) while not allowing the callings of others to distract us from ours?