John 18:15-27; 21:15-22.

Jesus, The Author of Forgiveness

         January 19, 2003                       © 2003, J.W. Carter
     www.biblicaltheology.com              Scripture quotes from KJV


Have you ever endeavored in what you thought was an important undertaking only to fail in the attempt? Sometimes we invest a significant amount of time, money, energy, or emotion into achieving a goal, and when we fail in achieving it we see the expenditure as a loss. What are some of the ways we respond to failures? How do we sometimes personalize failure? Where do we place blame?  A casual perusal of scripture will reveal many examples of failure. Adam & Eve (Genesis 3:6), Abraham (Gen. 12:10-20), Sarah (Gen. 16:1-6), Moses (Numbers 20:1-12), David (2. Sam. 11:1-27), Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-6), Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2), Paul (Acts 9:1-2), Barnabas (Galatians 2:11-13), John Mark (Acts 15:37-39)  We see failure in people who are not followers of God in the Old Testament, and those who are not followers of Christ in the New. We see failure in people who love the Lord. What we see is that failure is both common and normal. There is a common misunderstanding that leads to bad interpretation of events that have lead to failure. Consider the following thought:

"Blessed is the man who fails in his attempt to reach his highest aspirations, for woe it is to the man who reaches his greatest dream and in so doing only proves it to be too small a challenge." (Author unknown.)

If we observe the lives of what we consider great people, either in scripture or in other areas of world history, we will find that success comes only after a sequence of failures.  What happens to someone who achieves success without the benefit of having experienced failure and the pathway starts to get rough?  (They often experience the most devastating response to their subsequent failure.)  What does the experience of failure do for us?  (It teaches us, strengthens us, gives us resource for wisdom, empowers us for ministry.) 

Have you ever thought of failure in this way? Instead of trying to place blame and fault, wallowing in a pity party of doom and gloom, focusing on perceived losses, there is another way:  a Godly way to respond to these experiences that have come and will inevitably come again. We will look at the experience of Peter, witness the most profound and debilitating failure that he experienced, and how Jesus used it for His purpose. 

John 18:15-17a. 

Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, 16but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in. 17"You are not one of his disciples, are you?" the girl at the door asked Peter.

Here we find Peter entering the courtyard of Caiaphas, the high priest, during Jesus' interrogation at the beginning of Jesus' passion and death. Jesus had been arrested only a few hours earlier, and the disciples were stunned and confused. Earlier in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus told the disciples that he was going to enter the city to be killed by the religious leaders. What was Peter's response to Jesus' prediction of his own death? (16:23) Peter vowed that he would go into death with him, side-by-side. When put to the test, Peter's admiration for Jesus was not enough to empower him.

John 18:17b. 

He replied, "I am not."

The circumstance here is interesting. Another disciple went into the courtyard ahead of Peter (presumably John), and this disciple was known by the high priest who would have been fully aware of their relationship with Jesus. This disciple went in first, apparently to gain permission for Peter to enter. The disciple went back to the gate and brought Peter in. At this point, a young girl who was watching the door asked a simple question, "Aren't you one of Jesus disciples?" Peter quickly replied "I am not." What makes Peter's lie so remarkable? 1. This girl had no social status and was not in a position to be a threat to Peter. However, his fear blinded him to the truth of the situation. It was easier to tell a little white lie and not have to deal with any possible consequences that a testimony would have at this point. 2. In the Greek, the question was in a grammatical form that did not demand an answer. This is relevant, again because the girl was not in a place to demand any answer from an adult man, so no answer was either expected or necessary. 3. Peter was being escorted by one who was clearly known as a disciple of Jesus.

John 18:24-25.

It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself. 25As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, "You are not one of his disciples, are you?" He denied it, saying, "I am not."

The plot thickens. Again, while standing around a warm fire, Peter was asked the same question. However, rather than coming from a powerless girl, it was asked by someone who had enough respect to be given a place around the fire, presumably one of the officials, or one of the official's servants. Again, the question was worded in a way that did not demand an answer. Peter's fear, combined with his impetuosity again inspired the same lie, but this time it was within earshot of those around the fire, and one of them recognized him.

John 18:26-27.

One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, "Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?" 27Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.

Luke 22:60-62 describes the circumstance here in more detail.

Peter replied, "Man, I don't know what you're talking about!" Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times." 62And he went outside and wept bitterly.  Luke 22:60-62. 

John's gospel omits the very significant event described in Luke 22:61:  Jesus looked upon Peter as the cock crowed. Peter was devastated by the significance of his own failure. Peter's failure was not out of character for him, as his ignorant impetuosity got him in trouble on many occasions. Later, when Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit, God would use that gift in a mighty way by replacing his ignorance with the truth, and his impetuosity with a confident tenacity.

What caused Peter's failure? Fear, lack of confidence, confusion, misinterpretation of the circumstances all may have been part of the formula for Peter's error. Peter found out that admiration alone was not a sufficient motivation to put his life in harm's way. This is not dissimilar to many Christians who admire Jesus, but lack the commitment needed to follow through on difficult or uncomfortable tasks. Consequently, most of the needs in the Kingdom go unmet.  One only needs to see the exodus of membership in a church when conflict within the body arises.  When the going gets tough, those who lack commitment will often take an easier route.  For Peter, the easier route was to deny his affiliation with the arrested Jesus.

As failure in our lives is common, our experiencing such events is inevitable.  Our first response to such events may tend to be focused inward towards our own feelings of guilt or shame.  However, Romans 8:28 reminds us that all things that we experience can be used for God's purpose, and our experiences of failure are not exceptions.  What we need to consider is the maintenance of a Godly response to our failures. After the resurrection we are introduced to a different Peter. It did not require the Holy Spirit to first inspire change. Peter met Jesus with the disciples several times after the resurrection, and one characteristic of the disciples is obviously missing in those meetings: Peter is silent. Peter greatly mourned his failure. The scripture stated that he wept bitterly.  His later silence later belies the depth of Peter's grief.  Jesus came to Peter and met him at the point of his need.

John 21:15. 

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."

Following the resurrection, the disciples were not present with Jesus around the clock as they were before. Jesus appeared to them and other disciples, as many as 120, for a period of about 40 days. Most of the disciples went back to their homes and businesses, so we find Peter, Andrew, James, John and three other disciples fishing. Jesus calls from the shoreline for them to lower their nets, and as a result of their obedience, they hauled in a miraculous catch, causing them to recognize that it is Jesus who gave the command. They went into shore and cooked up some of the fish and ate. 

When they were done eating, Jesus took Peter off to the side and asked a rather curious question. In the NIV Jesus asks Peter, "do you truly love me…? Peter responds with "you know that I love you." There is a difference in the words used for love here. In the Greek, the "truly love" is the word "agapeo," and the "love" response of Peter is the Greek word, "phileo." Jesus was asking Peter if he loved him with the deep, unconditional, committed love that Jesus had demonstrated for the last three years. Peter responded with literally, "you know that I am your dearest friend and brother." This response was so uncharacteristic of the Peter we have come to know and love. Where is the "Simon 'let's storm the gates of hell' Peter" we knew before?  We would expect Peter to respond with the same word, but he now knew his limitations.  He was still speaking through the humility of his grief and guilt.

Peter had just demonstrated to himself by his experience in Caiaphas' courtyard that he lacked the kind of love that Jesus was talking about, and his response to Jesus was brutally and painfully honest. However, despite his shortcoming, how did Jesus respond to Peter? Jesus assigned him the task to which he was called, without criticism or blame. Despite his failure, Jesus wanted to pick Peter up, dust him off, and put him back on the course that would fulfill the commitment that Peter made when he promised to follow Him.

John 21:16.

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."

Why did Jesus repeat the exact question? Peter denied Jesus three times. He was about to get the opportunity again, or at least it would appear that way to Peter, to testify three times.  Peter's response could not be different. And, neither could Jesus' response to Peter. Jesus and Peter were at an impasse. Peter now knew his own limitations and even Jesus' prodding could not get him to compromise and blurt out an impetuous response. Peter had done some serious maturing in the last few days.  

John 21:17.

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. 

Jesus broke the impasse. There is no little amount of theological debate over these three questions. Some people think there is no significance to whether "agapeo" or "phileo" is used here since they are interchanged in some other places in the scripture. However, Peter was hurt when Jesus asked the question a third time. This time Jesus asked, "do you phileo me," or "will you be my friend and brother." At this point, Jesus came down to Peter's level of commitment, and asked a question that Peter could emphatically answer positively. Unfortunately for Peter, it also revealed there was a deeper love for Jesus that was sorely needed, a love that he did not yet understand. But, by now he knew his limitations. Still, Jesus called him to ministry, despite those limitations.  Jesus could now use Peter, broken of his self-aggrandizing and ignorant confidence.  Though Peter was not yet perfected in his faith in any way, he was in a position to be used by God.  

It would be all too easy for us to give up when we experience failure. We could interpret our failure as an excuse to circumvent the ministry path that God has called us to. We could look at the failure of others and deduce that we do not need to be concerned about them, or that they are correct in not pursuing ministry. These are more of Satan's lies that serve as blinders, taking our sight off of our call and placing it on our own limitations.   People will never be superhuman. We will always experience failure. For example, how did almost every gunfighter in the "Old West" die? In a gunfight. There will always be someone who is faster, smarter, more equipped, more attractive, more …, but still God has called each of us to ministry in a very personal way. Our responsibility is to God alone, and when we reject our call due to perceived failures, we are rejecting God.  One does not have to be the fastest runner to be a faithful prayer warrior.  Once does not have to be a beauty queen to give a cup of water to one who is thirsty.  Satan would cause us to focus on those lesser attributes in our own personalities so that we would ignore the greater ones that we can express with more confidence.   

John 21:18-19.

I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"

Peter had previously said that he would die for Jesus. Now Jesus was prophesying that Peter would get that opportunity. He was telling Peter that the agape love he lacked would come. He was telling Peter that He would be sufficient for him, so that one day he would be able to face opposition. Likewise, Jesus has the same message for us. Most of us are at the point in our lives that Peter was after the Holy Spirit came to the disciples in the upper room, after Jesus' resurrection, because we have the power of the Holy Spirit within us to empower us to express true agape love with those around us. Our burden for the lost is real. Our love of God, and our love for each other is real. That love can inspire us to give in ministry to one another without a second thought. With exercise, it can empower us to demonstrate great faith and courage when put to the test.

John 21:20-22.

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") 21When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?" 22Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me."

For some reason, we continually gauge our view of ourselves by a measurement against that of others. Apparently, Peter had great respect for the apostle John, and he honestly asked if John would be subject to the same persecution. Never before did we see Peter as concerned about the other disciples. His responses were always quite self-centered and self-serving. Now he was concerned for John, the disciple with the soft heart. Surely John would not go through such an experience. How would he have the strength to deal with it?  Jesus taught Peter that the commitment to the Kingdom was personal, and each of us are unique individuals, with unique personalities, skills and talents. If we take our focus off of the skills and talents, as well as the failures and perceived inadequacies of others, and place that focus on Jesus and our calling to Him, we will find that our own failures are nothing more than rungs in the ladder that take us to where God wants us to be.

James reminds us to count it as joy when we suffer.  (James 1:3).   Count it as joy when you fail. Look at those experiences as opportunities to (1) learn better how to succeed in that direction, or (2) learn that Jesus has another direction for us, and we need to depend upon Him to find it.