When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” (verses 15-17)
What an agonizing encounter. Fish on the grill, seated together around the fire with friends, this should have been a relaxed occasion. But Jesus’ first question, asked in front of the others, must have been immediately awkward. “Simon … do you truly love me?” What could Peter do but push right on through and simply speak what was in his heart. “Yes, Lord, you know I do.”
The second time must have caused his blush to rise. But the third time clearly struck him to the heart. Why was Jesus pressing on this issue again and again? Doesn’t he believe me, Peter must have thought.
Perhaps the pain of guilt still lingered for Peter. After all, three times over, he’d heedlessly denied he even knew Jesus, let alone love him. Yet, he’d had the previous encounter with the risen Lord. He’d received Jesus’ peace, spoken directly over him (and the other disciples) three times, just like the denials. Presumably he’d also apprehended the richness of Jesus’ grace poured out at the cross. It seems clear to me that Peter had received it deeply and well. That plunge into the lake in order to get to Jesus as quickly as possible speaks to the reality.
So what is happening in this instance? Why is Jesus pressing the issue? Certainly forgiveness is an ongoing issue that often needs to be apprehended again and again. But I think there’s something more. Jesus’ words focus on the task he wants Peter to accomplish. He’s to engage in feeding and caring for Jesus’ sheep. The Master wants to make sure Peter has understood his calling, and that it’s still alive and active.
It strikes me Peter might well have known he was forgiven by Jesus, fully accepted into ongoing relationship, but might have assumed his usefulness in the Kingdom had been diminished, indeed thwarted, perhaps permanently. But time and again, once for each of those painful denials, Jesus reinforces that Peter has work to do, work that expresses the heart of Jesus himself, work that will demonstrate Peter’s full identity with the Master.
It strikes me, too, that Peter wasn’t the only one who needed this reinforcement. The other disciples did, too. Yes, the interview was increasingly awkward, but none of them would ever forget it. Peter had stumbled in outright denial, but it didn’t keep Jesus from fully embracing his friend, nor keep him from commissioning him afresh for effective service in his kingdom. The disciples needed to know.
That scene around the fire, awkwardness included, is meant for us, too, to strengthen our own hearts for ongoing service. We love him. We’ve been commissioned. Don’t hold back. Press on.
Dear Lord, thank you that your grace and peace meet us each step of the way. Forgiveness sets us on our feet, time and again. You call us into your service, each one, just like Peter. Thank you. Praise your name.
Reflect: Is there any past failure that stands in the way of you fully embracing the Lord’s commission for you right now? If so, place yourself in a seat round that fire, and hear Jesus’ words spoken directly to you. Be strengthened for service. Enter in.