“Lovest thou me more than these?” (John 21:15,16,17).
Peter wept bitterly after he denied affiliation with the Lord three separate times. We squirm in our seat when reading it. It just doesn’t seem like the same person we’ve been reading about throughout the ministry of Jesus. The agony is palpable.
Is it more shocking that Judas hanged himself, or that Peter didn’t?
Back to the boat went Peter (John 21:3). It was his safe place. Here, among other fishermen, the water, and the aquatic life, Peter could do that which he knew. He could profess “I am a fisherman,” and do it well. As a fisherman, he wouldn’t be a failure.
As if the denials didn’t cut deeply enough, on the shore of Galilee, as they contemplated the future together, the Lord re-opened the wound.
“Peter, do you love me more than these?” Most people hear the Lord asking Peter how sure he is of his devotion now. He boasted so greatly – he would go to the grave with the name of the Lord Jesus on his lips (Matthew 26:33; Luke 22:33). Then, he lied to spare his life (Matthew 26:69-75).
Three times a denial from Peter, then, after the resurrection, three times a question from the Lord. “Peter, do you [really] love me more than these [other disciples]?” Three times a question from the Lord, and three times an affirmation from Peter. “Lord, you know that I love you” (I am aware of the linguistic intricacies here, but we won’t delve here and now).
Believe it or not, behind these questions is encouragement. Jesus wouldn’t have bothered if he thought Peter was a lost cause, or if he thought Peter wasn’t ready to follow through. Jesus was not just picking scabs. He was affirming to Peter, through the questions, that he still believed in him. The question was, did Peter believe in himself?
Peter’s situation affirms human inclination: the faith that comes out of our mouths is usually disproportionate to the faith that comes out of our feet. It is much easier to sing, “O, How I Love Jesus” in the assembly, than it is to simply go out and live as if we mean it. It is easier to write about suffering for the Cause, than it is to just suffer. It is easier to affirm that we’d go to the grave with his name on our lips, than it is to grab the shovel and dig the hole.
God help our feet to keep up with our tongue.