“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, 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.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, 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 everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”” (John 21:15–19, ESV)
Before getting into this passage I think it appropriate to go back and read a couple of other passages. The first of them is found in John chapter 13 where Jesus gives a new commandment to His disciples. While it may be several chapters previous in John’s letter, it really only occurred a short time before. On the night in which he was betrayed, after Judas had left them, Jesus turned to His remaining disciples and said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:31-35, ESV).
Peter immediately picked up on His leaving and said that he wanted to go with Him. When Jesus responded telling Simon Peter that He couldn’t now but would follow later, Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37, ESV). Jesus answered Peter saying, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” (John 13:38, ESV)
Here Jesus had charged His disciple in His pending absence to love one another; just as He had loved them they were to love one another. And the way that Jesus was preparing to demonstrate His great love for them (and us) was to lay down His life for our sins. Having said this, it was just a few words later that He challenged Peter as to whether or not he would do the same thing, adding that He knew that before morning came that Peter would in fact deny Him three times. And of course we read in John chapter 18:15, 25, and 27 that this is exactly what Peter did. “Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.” (John 18:27, ESV)
So, after they had eaten their fill of fish and bread on the shore with Jesus, we read that Jesus turned again to Simon Peter and said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these [probably referring to the fish they just enjoyed and Peter’s previous career path]?” Peter immediately responded saying, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” The discussion of John chapter 13 had been about them loving others as He had loved them. Here He asked Peter if he truly did love Him and Peter declared that He surely did, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Responding, Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Because of Peter’s love for Jesus he was to demonstrate it by feeding Jesus’ lambs—those who would believe and be saved. In John 18:17 we have the first denial. Here in John 21:15 we have Jesus’ first handing over of His precious lambs for Peter to tend.
But once was not enough. We go on to read, “He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”” And again, Peter responded, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” And Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” In John 13:25 Peter betrayed Jesus the second time, and in John 21:16 Jesus again affirmed him by charging him to shepherd His own sheep. Sheep need a shepherd, and Jesus knowing that He would not be physically present to do this charged Peter to engage in that task on His behalf. What incredible trust Jesus put in Peter and what a demonstration of reaffirming confidence He showed Him.
This second question was not enough. Jesus again asked Peter for the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” This time rather than immediately responding, John wrote for us that Peter was grieved that Jesus had asked the same question still again. I can only imagine what Peter must have been thinking. “Doesn’t He trust me? Have I failed Him that badly that He must push me so hard? What else does He want? This time Peter replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Peter said that He knew that Jesus knew everything, and that in His knowledge of everything He must surely know just how deeply Peter loved Him. Peter did not directly say that He loved Him, but rather he went to Jesus’ own knowledge of that truth. To this Jesus responded to Peter the third time, “Feed My sheep.” What an amazing act of compassion. In John 13:27 we have the record of Peter’s third denial which was immediately followed to the crow of the rooster to drive the point home. And here in John 21:17 Jesus for the third time charges Peter to take care of His sheep.
With God nothing is wasted. Peter who stated his readiness to follow Jesus even into death, here is charged by His Lord whom he deeply loved to tend to His sheep in His absence. And rather than leaving him to believe that he might die soon as happened to Jesus, Jesus went on to tell him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” Paul added for us these words, “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.”
We don’t know exactly how the apostle Peter died, but it is suspected that he died in 67 or 68 a.d., some thirty-five years later, and from the words of John it is suspected that he might even have also been crucified with some saying by tradition that this was done upside down. This we simply do not know. What we do know is that according to Jesus’ own words Peter was going to live for many years of fruitful ministry, and when that time came for his death it was going to be by the hands of others who dressed him and carried him away to where he did not want to go.
Peter’s time of effective service had not ended. He was not to return to fishing as a humiliated follower of Christ. Instead he was to be used by God powerfully for many years to come. He even was to be the key mouthpiece on the day of Pentecost leading to many souls being saved who would then need to be fed and tended to. From what we see of Scripture, Peter took his call seriously and did it effectively as God enabled him.
What an encouragement it is to us who have struggled, even turning our backs at times, failing in various way, and having faltered in trust. Where we are week, God is infinitely strong. Where we struggle in walking by faith, God is always faithful. And when we don’t know what lies ahead, God knows what He has for us and He indeed is faithful to complete it.
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6, ESV)