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In John 21:15-19 the apostle John details a third time Christ appeared to His disciples after His resurrection. After eating breakfast with them, Christ turns His attention towards Peter. John writes,
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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 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.” 17 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” (John 21:15-18).
Notice that Jesus asks Peter three questions. In v.15 and v.16, Jesus asks Peter if he (agape) loves Him. In v. 17, Jesus asks Peter if he (phileo) loves Him. Without overemphasizing the different words used for love by Christ (since God loves His people this way: Rev. 3:19; we’re to love Christ this way: 1 Cor. 16:22; God loves His Son this way: John 5:20; etc.), it must be noted that John emphasizes Peter’s grief over being asked a third time concerning his love for Christ. It seems that being asked a third time triggered Peter’s memory of his own thrice denial of Christ:
31 Then Jesus said to them,“You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 33 Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” 34 Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night,before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” 35 Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same (Matthew 26:31-35).
Notice Peter claimed that even if all the other disciples fell away, he would not. Thus, Christ asks him if he loves Him more than the other disciples (John 21:15). Then, Christ proceeds to ask Peter 2 more times if he loves Him (3 times total), to point Peter to His sin of denying Him three times:
69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.”71 And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.”73 After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74 Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. 75 And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly (Matthew 26:69-75).
Jesus was arrested, and the disciples scattered. Even though Peter had assumed he loved Christ more than the other disciples, he still denied Him three times. Jesus tells Peter if he loves Him, he must “feed His lambs (v.15),” “tend His sheep (v.16),” and “feed His sheep” (v.17; same word for “feed” as in v.15). Since Christ was about to ascend to heaven, Peter was commissioned to continue Christ’s ministry on earth by shepherding Christ’s people. Peter’s love for Christ is directly connected to Peter’s love for His people.
With all of this information in mind, notice Christ’s “evangelism strategy”:
18 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.” 19 (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 21:18-19).
Peter denied Christ three times because he feared men more than God. Peter feared death. Notice in John 21:18 that Jesus prophesies of Peter’s coming murder. John reiterates this by pointing it out in v.19. History agrees with Christ’s prophecy, testifying that Peter was crucified upside down as an elderly man.
Christ’s final statement amazes me. He had just pointed out Peter’s sin by asking him if he loved Him three times. After fully knowing that Peter denied Him due to fear of death, Christ tells Peter that He will be murdered one day. Then, Christ tells Peter, “Follow Me.” How amazing! For, it’s precisely because Peter follows Christ that his life would one day be required of him. How’s that for an evangelistic strategy?!
So, Jesus’s evangelistic strategy here is not to kiss Peter’s bottom, or to tell him how wonderful he is, or to boost his self-esteem, but on the contrary, to point out Peter’s sin, to lead him as a sheep to the slaughter, to compel him to follow Jesus to a horrible death. Why would Christ compel Peter to do such a thing? The answer is found in Luke 14:26, “26 If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” In order to trust in Christ alone for salvation, and follow Him, one must repent of all the things and people he or she loved more than God prior to repentance and faith. This is simply what Christ compels Peter to do here.
You and I must do the same. The next time you preach the gospel, will you kiss your hearers’ bottoms, telling them how wonderful they are? Will you compel them to trust in Christ because Christianity is cool? Will you tell them how Christ wants them to be healthy, wealthy, and happy? Or, will you tell them to come and die? Will you tell them to pick up their cross and come and follow Jesus (Mark 8:34)? Will you use Christ’s evangelistic strategy? 1) Point out their sin, 2) Tell them they will be hated, and 3) Tell them to follow Christ knowing full well what they are giving up: everything they previously loved more than Christ (Also see Matthew 19:16-22 for an unrepentant response to Christ).
Will you preach the bad news so that the gospel will be clearly seen as THE good news?
If you refuse, don’t claim to love Christ or your hearers in a Christ-like manner, for a refusal to shepherd God’s sheep reveals that you have an unrepentant, wicked heart. If this describes you, I plead with you to come and die, repent of your love for temporary life and the approval of man, and run as a sheep to the slaughter, laying down your wants and loves because you want and love Christ more!