From Failure to Fruitfulness: A study of John 21:15–17

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“So 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, ‘Tend My lambs.’ He said to him again 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, ‘Shepherd 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 all things; You know that I love You.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend My sheep.’”

After Jesus rose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples numerous times over a period of 40 days. John 21 records one of those appearances, the infamous “Peter, do you love me?” dialogue between Jesus and Peter. Peter had failed deeply in a way he never thought he would, but Jesus never gives up on His elect and dearly beloved children. He began a work in us and He wants to bless us and use us to be fruitful in this life. When He sees one of His own swallowed up by failure, He seeks us out to restore us and prepare us for future ministry. Today was Peter’s day.

The chapter begins with Jesus appearing to His disciples and providing breakfast and an abundant catch of fish. He was literally feeding His own flock—an object lesson for Peter—as Jesus was about to command him to “feed my sheep.” Jesus had already met with Peter privately after His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:5). Now it was time to “publicly” restore and recommission Peter.

Commenting on the need for “public restoration,” D.A. Carson notes, “The opening words, ‘When they had finished eating,’ establish the connection. . . The link is important: as Peter had boasted of his reliability in the presence of his fellow disciples (John 13:8, 37–38; cf. 18:10–11), so this restoration to public ministry is effected in a similarly public environment.”

Earlier, Peter had exalted himself above the rest of the disciples. Jesus told His disciples they would all fall away, but Peter thought he was better than that. He was prideful. Matthew 26:33–35 records Peter’s words: “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” We all know what happened next. He denied Jesus three times.

Jesus knows that we all fail. Jesus even predicted Peter’s failure. But He also promised Peter’s restoration and recommissioning. In Luke 22:31–32 Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Notice how Jesus predicted not only that He would sustain Peter’s faith but He would actually use him to strengthen his brothers.

God longs to restore His children. “No condemnation” is the heart of the gospel. Peter had recently failed—big time—and he now felt condemned. In one way or another, we all have failed the Lord at times. Sometimes our failures are deep and wide, and the pain and remorse for those failures haunt and cripple us. It is in these feelings of condemnation that we must remember the gospel and that Jesus knows our failure and longs to bring us back to wholeness.

But to be restored, we must repent. Repentance can be difficult, but it leads to being fruitful. Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him. We read in verse 17 that “Peter was grieved.” Being asked the same question three times hurt; it no doubt reminded him that he denied Jesus three times. It was painful. Like Peter, we must genuinely own our failure and the pride or foolishness that led to it.

Some believe the key to this exchange is in the different words for love used by Peter and Jesus. Scholars have long discussed the fact that Jesus and Peter used different Greek words for love here. C.G. Kruse notes, “It has often been noted that the verb ‘to love’ (agapaō) used in Jesus’ first two questions is different from the verb ‘to love’ (phileō) used in Peter’s first two answers. . . Sometimes a lot has been made of these differences, but the fact is that agapaō and phileō are used synonymously in the Fourth Gospel. For example, both agapaō and phileō are used of the Father’s love for the Son (10:17; 15:9; 17:23, 24, 26/5:20). . . and the Father’s love for the disciples (14:23/16:27).” In light of this it seems wise not to make too much of the use of these two different words for love.

We can’t say for sure why Peter was grieved, but it seems that the reason he was grieved was because he really wanted Jesus to know that he sincerely repented and did love Him. C.G. Kruse notes: “Why he was hurt is not explained. . . In response, He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Peter’s answer was the same as before, except that he prefaced it with the words ‘you know all things’ to stress that he really meant it when he said ‘you know that I love you,’ and that Jesus who knew all things knew the state of Peter’s heart.”

Peter had learned his lesson. It was time for his recommissioning. Three times here Jesus commanded and commissioned Peter to tend His lambs and feed His sheep. Restoration led to recommissioning. Jesus gave Peter a job. It was time to serve Jesus again by serving His people. It was time to move past failure to fruitfulness. Restoration from former failure is great preparation for future service.

Peter went on to lead a life of fruitful service. The book of Acts and Peter’s two epistles are a testimony to just how fruitful Peter became. Here at Cairn it is our desire to train our students and prepare them to do the same. Thank you so much for your prayers, service, and gifts that assist us in this noble task. May the Lord bless you and if you are grieving any former failures may He restore you as well and cause you to live a life of fruitful service for Christ.

Tom Allen, ThM is a professor of New Testament at Cairn. He can be reached at