The Rock once more. — by Matt Richardson

John 21:15–17

15 So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?”

He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”

He said to him, “Feed My lambs.”

16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”

He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”

He said to him, “Tend My sheep.”

17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, 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 all things; You know that I love You.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.


 “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?”

Words can cut you to the bone. But no words can cut you more than when they are delivered by someone who truly knows you, someone who loves you and knows what is in your heart. This is why a shouting match with a rude person in traffic does not hurt as much as an argument with a hurt and disappointed spouse. An offended driver may hurl insults that are quickly forgotten but the accusations of loved one reminding you of a litany of failures will penetrate deep into your heart.

This is the effect that Jesus’ question must have had on Peter that bright morning on the lakeshore. Jesus, the Lamb, the teacher, the One who was slain but now resurrected and sharing a fish breakfast with his disciples once again. Jesus was reaching out to His disciples once more to become “fishers of men” as he had done so long ago. 

Jesus’ question to Peter brought back his rash boast made in the upper room before that fateful, terrible night of Jesus’ arrest. “All of you will be made to stumble because of me this night,” Jesus proclaims after the bread has been broken and the cup shared. As the appalled disciples dart looks at one another Peter, the no-nonsense former fisherman, finds his words and boldly proclaims, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.” [Matthew 26:33] These wimps may let you down, Lord, but not me! But before the night had ended Peter had denied Jesus, had stumbled not once but three times.   

It is this boast that Jesus zeroes in on Peter with his question. “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” More than fishing? No. Jesus meant the other disciples that Peter had so easily dismissed in comparison to his own loyalty. Peter’s guilt of betrayal began with pride in his heart and it is to this that Jesus turns to first in a process of breaking Peter down in order to build him back up.

“Lord you know that I love you.” Peter replies to which Jesus simply tells him “Feed my lambs.” Peter, perhaps feeling that he was reassuring Jesus with his profession is stunned to be asked the same question a second time. He says yes again to be told the same command: “Tend my sheep.” Unthinkably for Peter, Jesus asked him the same question once more: 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 all things; You know that I love You.”

All around them the disciples had perhaps grown silent. The morning reverie and camaraderie of a fish breakfast among friends now shredded by what they were witnessing.  You see, Peter had denied Jesus three times so Jesus now had used three questions to both break Peter’s heart and to restore him to his side.

This is how Jesus works when it comes to dealing with the guilt of those he loves. He comes to you in your guilt with gentle firmness not to destroy or punish but to reveal and heal. As Jesus laid bare Peter’s heart on that beach he could have crushed and sent him on his way but instead Jesus lived the words of Isaiah:  

A bruised reed he will not break,
and smoking flax he will not quench
; — Isaiah 42:3

When you encounter Christ while carrying your burden of guilt in life, Jesus seeks to remove it from you, not add to its weight. But to do this he sometimes must show you the source of the pain you carry. His method is summed up beautifully in Richard Sibbes’ great work “The Bruised Reed:”

“Weakness with watchfulness will stand, when strength with too much confidence fails. Weakness, with acknowledgement of it, is the fittest seat and subject for God to perfect his strength in; for consciousness of our infirmities drives us out of ourselves to him in whom our strength lies.” — Richard Sibbes, “The Bruised Reed,” 1631

As Jesus’ questions weakened and humbled his friend, the rock of Peter’s guilt was being rolled off his shoulders, and “Simon, son of Jonah” had become Peter, petrus, “the Rock” once more. 

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.

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