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A Friend for Failures (John 21:1-22)

What do you do when you have failed a friend? His name was Peter and what he did that day has never left my heart. I was finishing up a spring semester at Moody Graduate School. I lived in the dorms. It was also my birthday. Peter called me up and suggested that I round up some of the friends at school and go up to Devon Ave for some fellowship and Indian food. He was not on campus that day, but lived just minutes away. “Call me as soon you guys pick a place to eat and I’ll drive over,” he said. I agreed.

Well after calling and rounding up my friends and getting all the rides situated, we headed up to Devon. We found a good restaurant and sat down to eat. Since I was the only Indian in the group at the time and so everyone was asking for suggestions for their order. Before I knew it, I was all caught up in ordering for everyone.

We laughed, we talked, we ate and we had a good time. It was a good birthday, that is, until my cell phone started to vibrate. It was then that it hit me. Peter! I had totally forgotten all about him! I looked over at the table to find that most of the food was finished except for a half a bowl of rice and a quarter piece of nan bread. To be honest, my mind was racing in the few seconds I had as I saw his number on coming up with a good lie to get out of this. Maybe we could order another dish and put it on the table. “Maybe,” the options did not seem to come as quickly as I had hoped.

I could not think of anything to tell him. I walked away from my friends quickly so no one would see my embarrassment. “Are you guys there yet?” was the voice on the other line. I replied, “Pete, listen, I’m sorry, but I totally forgot to call you when we got there.” There was a little silence. I felt horrible. My stomach was in knots and I felt like the curry was about to seep through my body.

“It’s ok. I want to come. Where are you?” I thought this was a really bad idea. I just wanted to go home now. I tried to talk him out of not coming, but he kept insisting. I finally agreed. I hung up and everyone noticed the change in my demeanor. I confessed what I had done (or not done) and the celebratory spirit suddenly vanished. Now I felt like to crawl into a hole and die. Epic Fail.

My friends were also shocked that he was going to come and tried to think of ways to appease the situation. A few minutes later, Peter showed up at the restaurant. Now I’m going to stop here and finish this story at the end of the message.

But failure is all around us and in us. We often get it from parents about school (where is the + after the A?). They give us a lot of challenge, but very little support, which causes us to burn out. We will fail in our relationship with others (as one guy said, “the more I know people, the more I love my dog”) and there will be failure with God. I always make that resolution to get through the Bible this year, but soon a few days into it, I stop. As a result, I know everything up to Noah’s Ark really well, because that’s where I quit year after year!

We all fail. Don’t you wish you had a backspace button to go back and delete our mess-ups in life? Sometimes I say the most bonehead things to my wife and have to bite my tongue. I wished I had a time machine to go back and fix the past sometimes. In the game of golf, which I really do not know much about or care to anytime soon, one part has really intrigued me. It’s called the mulligan rule. Heard of it? It’s like a do-over. Say you hit the ball and it goes into the trees or falls into the pond. You can call a mulligan. It won’t even count. No one will even write it down. It won’t appear on the score card.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a mulligan for other areas of life? Author John Ortberg asks. “Imagine a policeman stops you for speeding, you just start to tear the ticket up. Thanks officer, I’ll be taking my mulligan. “Right you are,” he says. The bank tells you the check bounced. Mulligan, you tell them. No problem, they say. Botch a test, say something stupid to that guy or girl you have been interested in….just call a mulligan!

Life is unfortunately, not like that. However, the Lord gives us mulligans! I am so thankful for that. Today I want us to look at a guy who desperately needed a mulligan. Let’s turn to John 21.

Let’s start with this first thought:

I.     Jesus intentionally pursues us in our failure (vv.1-8).

Look at John 20:30-31. These are the last verses of the chapter. When you read them, they sound like a great ending. But like the movie, “The Return of the King,” there is another ending after the ending. Why didn’t John just stop there? Well, scholars have all kinds of ideas why, but I think because he felt the need to tell how Peter was restored for his reputation in the Christian community. I am so glad that God writes the final chapter.   

John gives us a quick summary of what happened in John 21. Jesus revealed Himself to His disciples. This is the third resurrection appearance. The Sea of Tiberias is the same as the Sea of Galilee. I love that about our Lord. If I was Jesus (and I’m glad I’m not) and had been just crucified and humiliated and left to die and I rose again, I would want to head over to Jerusalem, bring some angels with me, arrange my own victory parade and pound on the high priest’s door and Pilate’s door and be like, “Who’s your daddy now?”

But I love this here that our Savior is hanging out more with His disciples than parading anywhere else. His heart is always with His people! Look at John 21:2. Simon Peter is mentioned first because he is usually leading the pack and this chapter will focus on him. The sons of Zebedee are James and John.

John 21:3. Peter says, “I’m going fishing” and the others think it is a good idea. Now the question is was what Peter and his disciples did right or wrong. Some would say that Jesus already called them out of the fishing business to be fishing for men and this is going back to their old life.

Others would say the disciples had already seen Jesus and He had told them to go meet Him in Galilee (Mark 16:7). Besides, as they were waiting, they needed to eat, so they went fishing. So it was not a backsliding event, it was just to keep busy as well as to make provisions for food as they were waiting for Christ.

Well I am not sure. I would say it’s both. From reading the rest of the chapter, I imagine Peter still struggling with his failure. I cannot help but thing that this fishing expedition was in hopes to get his mind off things. He must have been replaying his failure over and over again in his mind. I wonder how many names he has tried to call himself. I wonder if he has cried until he was numb?

Was fishing a way to hold back the pain? He must be tired of having the same incriminating conversations with himself. He must have had several sleepless nights. He must have needed some escape or mindless diversion. I mean don’t you do that when you have failed the Lord? Don’t you try to look for friends or a movie or workout or something to keep you away from dealing with the issues?

They’re going out at night because feed on the surface at night. Besides, if they do get a big enough catch, they can sell it in the morning for a good profit. Peter hears the waves slapping against his boat. He throws out his net, probably what is called a trawl net, which was thrown from the boat and dragged through the water with cables. Nothing. Some sticks, seaweed and stones.

I wonder if his mind goes back to the time Jesus was on his boat (Luke 5). That was when they had this huge catch of fish Jesus called Peter into the ministry. He had fallen on his face before this awesome person and at his unworthiness to be His follower. Memories. He launches the net back into the sea, wishing if only he could throw away one memory into the sea of forgetfulness, when he let down His friend when He needed him the most. Three times! He had denied him three times. The Rock of Gibraltar of the disciples had become a mere pebble of a man.

The whole night goes by the same way. Things are empty when Jesus is not around huh? Look at John 21:4. It is 6am. Jesus shows up! Where was He this whole time? Why didn’t he show up at the beginning of the fishing trip? Maybe they should have waited till He showed up in the first place?

But one thing is sure. No matter how far you have drifted away and no matter how long the night has been and how empty your hands are, you will always find Jesus waiting at the shore of your failure.

The Bible says that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Ps.30:5). After Good Friday is always resurrection Sunday. You can always bank on the fact that you will find Jesus intentionally pursuing you.

Now either they were too far into the sea or Jesus in a post-resurrection body (which we too will have) was not easily recognizable to the disciples. In either case, they did not recognize Him. John 21:5. Jesus calls them “children.” This is an affectionate term equivalent to perhaps, “in a colloquial sense equivalent to the English ‘lads’ (R. Brown 1970: 1070), the Irish ‘boys,’ or the American ‘guys’” (Carson 1991: 670).[1] In other words, “Hey guys, any luck?” Notice is not “Hey, Backsliders!” or “Rebels!” or “Ex-Apostles!” It is interesting that in that Gospels, the disciples never catch anything without Jesus’ help.

Interestingly, He still withholds his identity. Why does He ask this question like He doesn’t know? He often does that did you notice? He walks into a conversation and asks, “What were you guys talking about?” (Luke 24:17). “Bring your husband here,” He asked the woman who was married five times (John 4:16). He often asks those questions not for His knowledge, but for His disciples to acknowledge truth about themselves. Believers, if you are going to get help from the Friend of Failures this year, you are going to be humble and continually acknowledging the truth of your condition.

They reply, “No.” They are not even like, “You know there were some that just got away.” There is an admission of failure there. Then Jesus says in John 21:6: “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” Try again. Don’t quit.

I wonder if those words stir up Peter’s memory as he tries it? Jesus had said the same thing to him the last time they were in a similar position. Suddenly the Master of the Sea calls up his creation to the surface. The water churns with fish! Just as the net fills up and they all begin to strain to haul it in and as Peter puts the pieces together, John cries out, “It is the Lord!” in John 21:7.

Peter goes again back to that morning when Jesus had stepped on that boat. He had asked Jesus to leave him, having felt so unworthy. But that day Jesus never left him. And he is about to find out that He will never leave him here either. The Lord, so tender and sensitive, is staging this whole scene for the audience of One—Peter!

John is quick to make the point, but only Peter is quick to run to Him. Peter is always the guy of action. You know, we are always too hard on Peter. He make lots of judgments on him, but at the end of the day, Peter has such a love for His Lord. If I realized it was the Lord and had failed him like Peter did (and I do fail him, even much more worse than Peter), I would probably hide my face at this moment and turn away. But not Peter! What do you do when you failed a friend? You go to him.

Put this prayer down: “Lord, in times when I fail, help me to run to you more quickly.” Peter puts on his outer garment, some sort of fishermen’s coat. He had taken it off to move freely around in catching fish.  Some translations have “for his was naked,” but this means he was in his undergarments, a short tunic that men wore under their coat. It would be rude to greet Jesus in this so he puts on his coat. I wonder if the other disciples are thinking or asking Peter, “Dude, you wanna help us here?” He doesn’t care. He is filled with emotion and he swims he never swam before, with tears mingled with sea water. Fish? What fish? This is because the provision is not as great as getting to the Provider. He realized Jesus an intentional pursuer, especially of those trapped in failure.

At age 20 pastor George Matheson of Scotland (1842-1906) was engaged to be married but began going blind. When he broke the news to his fiancée, she gave the ring back and said, “I cannot be the wife a blind preacher.” She left him. 20 years later, when his own sister got married, the heartbreak of 20 years prior had hit him hard. In prayer, he wrote this hymn:

O Love that will not let me go

I rest my weary soul in thee

I give thee back the life I owe

That in thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be[2]

There is a love that will not let you go. How do you know he is pursuing you? Anytime you feel conviction, He is knocking on the door of your heart. Anytime you get prayers answered for things you never prayed for, know He is pursuing you. When you feel the nudge to go to Bible Study, prayer meeting or Sunday service, that’s Him pursuing you.

Secondly,

II.      Jesus plunges our failure into His grace for greater service (John 21:9-22).

So the disciples make it on land. They are exhausted, cold, hungry and wet. Shivering, Peter comes to shore to find a warm charcoal fire. Breakfast?! Interestingly, the words “charcoal fire,” here are used one other time. Do you know where? John 18:18. The last time we have seen a charcoal fire is when Peter was warming himself outside when he denied Jesus! See, again Jesus is staging this entire scene to tenderly restore Peter.

What is Jesus doing? Was He being really mean to bring this up like this? I wonder if Peter thought Jesus is going to say, “Alright Coward, sit down.” Or “Some friend you turned out to be.” “Boy, was I wrong about you.” Really He should say that to all of the disciples. Who really did stand up for the Lord? But Jesus is cutting Peter here, but not to hurt him, but to heal him.

See how tender our Lord is! What do cold, hungry, tired, wet disciples get when they come to Jesus again? Not a beating, but breakfast! Look at what Jesus says in John 21:10: “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” Wait a minute, Jesus already had fish cooking when they showed up with their catch. Where did Jesus get the fish? Well, you know, news flash!! Jesus does not need us to get things done, but will be glad to have us on His team. See this is just a glimpse of how ministry is going be done. Without Jesus, forget it. As they trust His Word, with His power, He will provide for them and then use what they have.

In John 21:11, Peter actually helps this time and hauls in the fish. Now the number is given: 153. Please do not get all consumed with this number. Some have taken this and divided up and tried to figure out all kinds of things about the end times and secret codes and so on. Actually, I think the number is recorded, because they took time to count them all! They were so amazed at the catch that they wanted to have an accurate number…that’s all!

Jesus invites them to fellowship in John 21:12. See Him as a tender host here! They are not saying much, just enjoying His fellowship, perhaps too timid with guilt. I wonder if Peter here is trying to find a way to bring up the deep pain in his heart.

I am shocked here by our Lord’s tenderness. He does not treat us as our sins deserve, but as high as the Heavens are above is the earth, so great is His love to those who fear Him (Ps. 103: 10-11). As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us (Ps. 103:12).

We often think God is out to hurt us, but as a tender father, he is out to restore us. He is not a policeman sitting with his radar gun in the bushes, but a Father running and looking for a lost son or daughter.

Breakfast is over. Peter has his head down and tries to finish his meal. He is like a prisoner about to hear the verdict from the judge. Jesus looks at him and asks in John 21:15, “Do you love me more than these?” Time to take off the mask Peter. Now another thing you should not make a big deal about are the different forms of the word “love” that John uses in this section. Some have said that when Jesus speaks He is using the word “agape” which is the word for sacrificial love, but Peter responds with “phileo” which is a friendship kind of love. The problem is that John uses “agape” and “phileo” interchangeably throughout his Gospel and if you study them, you’ll realize that’s just his style. He is not trying to make some point with the different uses.

But the point here is that Jesus is restoring and reinstating Him. He doesn’t ask him, “Peter, are you sorry for what you’ve done? Do you promise to never fail me again? Will you try harder?” No, first things first. Jesus had seen his hurt and his sorrow. He knew he had repented. Three times he had denied him openly and three times he asks Peter to openly verbalize His love.  This is not to rub it in, but to give Peter an opportunity to confess His love. I think the “these” here refer to the other disciples. Peter had always been quick to say things like, “I will lay down my life for your sake” (John 13:37) or “Though all men shall be offended of you, yet I will not be offended” (Matt. 26:33).  Peter says, “Yes I love you.”

Jesus then says, “Feed my lambs.” In other words, “I still believe in you Peter. You are still the right man for the job.” “Jesus, I failed you.” Jesus says, “I know. Be a leader.” Jesus drives down into his heart of hearts incredible grace and affirmation. There are seven of them here and Peter’s failure was the greatest. He was the most out of touch with who he was.

What is Jesus saying? Plunge your failure into my grace and I will make you a greater leader than ever before. If you have been forgiven much, you love much. Why would such a person be a great leader? The more you understand your own brokenness, the more you will understand how the human heart works, the more you will be able to minister to others, the more you will be reliant on the Lord. The more wise you are going to be and less surprised as to how life goes.

Do you see what Jesus is calling him to? “Feed my sheep.” Do you know even a cat purrs when you feed it. Sheep give you nothing. Feed my sheep means love and serve and care people where relating to them will give you no benefit at all. How in the world can you give so unselfishly, be that patient and loving a person? So unneedy that you are that tender and kind and have that kind of shepherd heart? It will only happen when you see yourself as a failure only plunged into the grace of Jesus Christ. Are you reconciled to the reality of who you really are?

Conclusion

He asks the same thing three times, until Peter realizes he cannot love Christ on his own and confesses who Jesus is. Jesus tells him that in fact his loyalty will be tested to the end, when he will glorify Christ by his death. Tradition tells us that Peter when sent to die by crucifixion, asked to be crucified upside down, because he felt unworthy to die like his Master and Lord. Peter is told, “You’re gonna die.” “Oh ok. What about him?” Love him. Always comparing himself to others. Constantly failing. Jesus should have said, “You know what? Get out! I’m done!” But no, just when you think His grace is exhausted, He gives and gives and gives some more. Grace and Truth here. Follow me Peter. That’s your job. Don’t worry about other people.

How can Peter be loved and restored like this? How can a God be so gracious and so affirming and so loving with a failure like Peter and a failure like us? On the cross, Jesus the shepherd became a lamb to pay for his sheep’s sin. Jesus was forsaken so we would be pursued. He was plunged into the fire of God’s wrath so we can plunge our failures into the warm fire of His grace. Jesus got the beating for our failures, so today when you wash up cold and empty, He greets you at His table, serving you as a host food that will nourish you and restore you. And since Jesus the Great Shepherd treated us lambs like that, we can treat other lambs the same way.

So Peter came to the restaurant that night. He carried a little book bag with him. His face was stoic and I smiled uncomfortably as I saw him. He said, “hi everyone!” and walked right by our table. We then saw him talk to the waitress and walk into the bathroom.

I thought, “What is he doing? Is he going to come out with a 9 mm and shoot me?” A couple of minutes later, the lights turn off. The bathroom door opens. I see flickering lights. Peter comes out with a birthday cake. Everyone starts singing. My eyes moisten. The day I wished I wasn’t born, Peter celebrates my birthday. Do you what that’s called friends? Grace. Afterwards, I pulled Peter aside and said, “Pete, you know something? You remind me of Jesus Christ.”

Will you fly to Him today?


[1]Köstenberger, A. J. (2004). John. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament

(590). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

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