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The Restoration of a Broken Life

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: John 21:15–25

Our love for and commitment to the Lord is demonstrated by our faithful obedience to Him. It is not measured by how we compare to others.  


Simon Peter and six other disciples are sitting before a charcoal fire on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Peter is drying off from swimming ashore following that miracle catch of fish. This breakfast, prepared by Jesus Himself of fish and bread, is the Lord’s way of reinstating these men into ministry.

Peter would naturally assume the Lord would never be interested in using him again. But following breakfast, a conversation between them takes place. It is nothing less than a wonderful revelation of how the Lord uses broken hearts and broken people for His glory.

This is going to be the restoration of a broken life. We begin at John 21:15:

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.” 

Don’t miss the name change here. Jesus does not say, “Simon Peter” but “Simon, son of John,” as if to say, “I named you Peter—“Little Rock”—but that meant you would be steadfast and consistent. You thought you already were, but you denied knowing me out there in the courtyard in the face of some servant girls who challenged you. So, let’s just drop that “rock” part of your name and go back to the basics. Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter answers, “Lord, you know that I love you.”

Expositors do not all agree on the significance of two different Greek words used here in this conversation that are both translated “love.” Some say this is just stylistic variation and does not matter. I believe John knew exactly what he was doing in writing this account and he took special care to record it exactly.

The term for love that Jesus uses is agapaō—this is a strong, unfailing, loyal love. The term Peter responds with is phileō—it is the word for warm, affectionate friendship.

We are told later that this conversation grieved Peter (verse 17). More than likely that is because Jesus asked him the same question three times, mirroring Peter’s three denials of Jesus.

The self-confidence Peter had declared in the upper room is now gone—experience has crushed it out of him. And frankly, the Lord is going to crush him even more. Beloved, the Lord will not use proud, self-assured vessels; He is looking for broken, crushed, contrite vessels.

You will notice that Jesus does not just ask, “Do you love me?” but “Do you love me more than these?” Who or what are “these”? Some think Jesus is talking about Peter’s fishing business. Others think it is a reference to Peter’s love for his friends and family.

I believe Jesus is tying this question back to that earlier, upper room conversation, where Peter boasted, “Even though they all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29). He was essentially saying, “Lord, I love You more than all these other disciples!”

Now Jesus asks, “Simon, Son of John, do you really love me more than these other men?” And it is as if Peter admits, “Lord, I cannot say that now, like I once did; but I do have warm affection for You as my friend.”

Then Jesus stuns, not with a personal rebuke, but with a personal commission: “Feed My lambs” (verse 15). This is a reference to tending the younger lambs who easily wander away. I am sure Peter is quite shocked.

Next, we read, “[Jesus] said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’” (verse 16).

Again, He is asking, “Do you have that strong, loyal love for Me?” And again, Peter effectively responds, “Lord, You know I care deeply about You as my friend.”

And there is another shocking follow-up here. It is as if the Lord says, “I can work with that,” for He again recommissions Peter, this time saying, “Tend my sheep” (verse 16)—literally, “Shepherd my sheep.”

Now keep in mind, Peter is a fisherman, not a shepherd. He is being called to a different kind of profession. Fisherman don’t care for their fish; fishermen don’t nurse fish back to health; fishermen don’t carry wounded fish on their shoulders.

Shepherds feed and lead and protect and discipline and love their sheep. And who can do that better than one who has been broken and forgiven—a shepherd who depends upon his Chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, daily?  

Now verse 17:

[Jesus] 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.”

In this third question, Jesus changes his term for love—he uses Peter’s word. It is as if the Good Shepherd is graciously stooping down to the level of His crushed lamb; He drops the use of agapaō and uses phileō, and, in effect, says, “Okay, Peter, do you really have deep affection for Me?”

I believe Peter is deeply moved all over again at the unfailing love and grace of the Lord, against whom he has so deeply sinned. Yet Jesus still has an important role for him: “Feed my sheep.”

Then in verse 18, the Lord delivers a rather strange prophecy to Peter:

“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.”

John adds in the next verse that Jesus said this “to show by what kind of death [Peter] was to glorify God.” In other words, Peter’s hands will be stretched out on a cross. Indeed, tradition informs us that Peter was crucified—though, by his personal request, upside down, because he did not consider himself worthy to die in the same manner the Lord had. Here is the good news for Peter: though he will die, he will remain true to the Lord.

Having heard what his own future holds, Peter then looks at his friend John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (verse 20), and says to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” (verse 21).

Peter is asking, “What are you going to do with John?” And Jesus teaches Peter a lesson we all need to learn: it is unwise to compare what God does in our lives with what He does in the lives of other believers.

The Lord responds rather bluntly in verse 22: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” That is, “Don’t compare yourself to him; you just keep following Me.”

John wraps up his Gospel with two statements. First, he says in verse 24 that everything he has written is true. Second, in verse 25, he says that he did not write down everything Jesus said and did. In fact, if everything were recorded, he says, “The world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

If you are like me, you would love to have a few more chapters! We do not have everything we would like to know, but we have everything we need to know to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

So, this is the account of Jesus’ restoration of Simon Peter. And think about this: Jesus could have asked Peter a thousand different questions here:

  • Peter, are you sorry for what you did?
  • Peter, have you truly repented?
  • Peter, will you promise never to deny Me again?

There is none of that. It is simply, “Do you love Me?”

And this is the mark of growth in Peter. Before, he would have tried to explain the depth of his love for Jesus. Now he simply and honestly responds, “Lord, You know everything about me—even my heart.” And Jesus effectively says, “I can work with that; now go and feed My sheep.”

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