Loving Jesus & Feeding His People at All Costs
Sermon on John 21:1-21 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on May 17, 2015
I’d like to say thank you to all the brothers who led the men’s conference this past weekend. Andy, thanks for leading the team. It was incredibly edifying—the messages and the testimonies were so helpful for the brothers; and I trust the Lord will bring much fruit from this weekend. For those who weren’t able to make it, be watching for the audio to be posted online in the near future.
Alright, let’s look at John 21. The bulk of this chapter hangs together as one unit; so I plan to walk us through most of it today. To this point, Christ died for our sins, he was buried, and then on the third day he rose and appeared to the disciples without Thomas. Then later Jesus appeared a second time to the disciples with Thomas. Today we see Jesus appear to the disciples a third time while they’re out fishing; and several things come together about loving Jesus and feeding his people at all costs. Let’s pick it up in verse 1.
1After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. 2Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. 8The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. 9When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15When 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.” 16He 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.” 17He 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. 18Truly, 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.”
By way of introduction, I’d like to make three observations that prepare us to understand this passage. Not all of us have heard every sermon from John’s Gospel; and even fewer may remember some of the storyline between Jesus and Peter. And so my hope is that these three observations will get us all on the same page, help you grasp the bigger picture of what’s going on, and then help you connect what’s-going-on to your own walk with Christ. And then following those three observations, I have five truths about loving Jesus and feeding his people at all costs. But first, three initial observations.
Existing Storyline between Jesus & Peter
Observation number one: the existing storyline between Jesus and Peter begs for completion. This storyline began in 1:42, where we see Jesus calling Simon the son of John, and giving Simon a new name called Cephas in Aramaic, Peter in Greek, and both mean “rock”. It was Jesus’ way of saying that he would give Peter a foundational role in establishing the church, not because of who Peter was, but because of who Jesus is and what Jesus would make Peter to be (cf. Matt 16:18-19).
And from that point on, Peter stays by Jesus’ side. Even when hundreds of other disciples eventually walk away from Jesus—because of his offensive teaching—Peter leads the others to confess, “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed…that you are the Holy One of God” (6:68).
But as the story goes on, it becomes more and more apparent that Peter doesn’t understand everything yet. He didn’t understand why Jesus washed his feet like a slave (13:6, 8), but Jesus told Peter that he would understand afterward (13:7). Peter didn’t understand why he lacked the ability to follow Jesus to death, but Jesus promised Peter that he would follow afterward (13:36).
And sure enough, Jesus is right. Even though Peter promises to die for Jesus (13:37), even though Peter takes up a sword against Jesus’ enemies, Peter cannot follow Jesus to the cross. Instead, we find Peter standing by a charcoal fire with Jesus’ enemies (18:18). He warms himself, while Jesus suffers for him. Peter slowly caves in to the fear of man, and then denies knowing Jesus at all three times over (18:17, 25, 26).
Some “rock” Peter is. Will he really play a foundational role in the church as Jesus seemed to indicate? Will he really understand what’s going on “afterward” as Jesus said he would? Will Peter really be enabled to follow Jesus “afterward” as Jesus promised him? The storyline begs for completion. There are loose ends that need to be tied-up; and chapter 21 serves that end. It completes the storyline.
Peter had walked away from Jesus for a charcoal fire in Jesus’ greatest moment of suffering; but now Jesus has another charcoal fire going to remind Peter of his betrayal and to show Peter the extent of Jesus’ love (18:18; 21:9). Peter deserved nothing from his Master except punishment, but Jesus asks Peter to join him for breakfast, having already born Peter’s punishment on the cross (21:12).
Peter denied Jesus three times over; but now Jesus three times over asks Peter to confess his love (21:15-17). Peter didn’t live up to his name, the rock; but now Jesus entrusts Peter with building the church’s foundation (21:15-17; cf. Matt 16:18-19). Peter couldn’t follow Jesus to the cross, but now Jesus assures Peter that he will follow him even when it will cost him everything (21:18). Everything Peter had needed before but didn’t have, Jesus had now purchased for him on the cross and was giving it to Peter freely to use for God’s glory. That’s how the storyline ends.
But how so? How could Jesus simply restore and commission Peter so readily and with such confidence after so much sin on Peter’s part? Jesus could do so, because discipleship begins not with who we are but who Jesus is for us—he’s our all-providing Savior.
Revelation Becomes Basis for Commission
That leads us to observation number two: Jesus’ revelation—who he is for us—in verses 1-14 becomes the basis for Peter’s commission in verses 15-23. So here I’m showing you how the main parts of this passage relate to each other: we should understand the miraculous catch of fish in light of what Jesus says to Peter afterwards.
It’s another one of those acted out signs, that’s then followed by an interpretation. We get several of these in John’s Gospel—a particular sign then followed by an interpretation (cf. 2:13-22; 5:1-18; 6:1-51; 9:1-41; 11:1-44; 13:1-17). So also here, who Jesus is for the disciples provides the basis for his instructions. Jesus provides a miraculous catch of fish to reveal who he is for them; and then—based on who he is for them—Jesus teaches his disciples how they should be about their mission. They should be about their mission by serving and feeding Jesus’ sheep, because Jesus continues to serve and feed his sheep, the disciples.
This gets fleshed out particularly in Jesus’ relationship with Peter, and serves as the occasion in which Peter is publicly restored and then commissioned by Jesus as one who plays a foundational role in establishing Jesus’ church.
For Pastors Especially & Also All Jesus’ Sheep
That leads me to make one more observation before diving in to our five truths, and it may be the most important in terms of bringing this passage home for everybody. Observation number three: this passage applies to pastors especially, but has implications for all of Jesus’ sheep. Three times Jesus commissions Peter with specific charges related to shepherding or leading the church: “Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep.” He’s talking about Peter leading his people. And, of course, the Book of Acts and Galatians and even one of Peter’s own letters, all indicate that Peter served as an apostle and also as an elder in the Jerusalem church. He was a pastor, and Jesus’ words are especially fitting for his pastoral role (Acts 4:37-5:3; 6:2; Gal 1:18; 2:9; 1 Pet 5:1-5).
But please don’t let that mean—and don’t ever let that mean—that such instructions aren’t important for you. Not only do you need discernment when recognizing and appointing particular men to be your elders, but numerous places in the New Testament tell us to imitate our leaders insofar as they imitate Jesus (Acts 20:35; 1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:1, 6; Heb 13:7, 17).
That means passages like this one and entire books like 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus—they speak to all of us, not just the leaders among us. These words aren’t merely to show leaders like Peter how to disciple others; they have many things to say about discipleship, period. And more than that, they reveal our Savior to us. Even if Jesus is doing something unique for Peter as his apostle, we get to witness more of who our Savior is and what he’s like and how he treats all his disciples, not just Peter. So, having made our three observations let’s look now at five truths playing out in this passage about loving Jesus and feeding his people at all costs.
1. Jesus’ Provision Climaxes in the Cross but Doesn’t End There
First, Jesus’ provision climaxes in the cross but doesn’t end there. Running through John’s Gospel is this theme that Jesus is the all-providing Savior. Jesus provides the wine in Cana; he provides the living water in Samaria; he provides the bread by the Sea of Galilee; he provides the truth for the deceived; he provides the life for Lazarus—at every turn, Jesus is making the provision we so desperately need.
Of course, as the Gospel unfolds, these little snippets of Jesus’ provision set us up for the greatest provision of all in the cross itself. The cross brings the satisfaction of God’s wrath, the freedom from our sins, the reconciliation we needed with God, eternal life, and even deliverance from the strongholds of the devil. What more could we ask for, than what God has given us in the cross of Christ?
And yet now we see Jesus risen from the dead, appearing to the disciples, who’ve caught nothing all night, and saying, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat and you’ll find some.” Why? Hasn’t he given them everything already? Why provide even more? To reveal more of the kind of Savior he is. His provision for the disciples—while climaxing in the cross—didn’t stop at the cross. The cross wasn’t a dead-end to his provision. He forever lives to keep providing for them, to keep surprising them with his extravagant love, to keep amazing them with his kindness.
In fact, notice how the disciples come to realize that it’s Jesus. It’s not that they knew it was Jesus before they cast the net on the right side. John tells us plainly that they didn’t know that it was Jesus (21:4). But regardless of what they knew or not, true sheep obey when the Shepherd speaks. So they toss the net on the right side; haul in a massive catch; and it’s then that John cries, “It’s the Lord!”
In other words, it’s characteristic of who Jesus is, it’s what he’s like, it’s how he’s always revealed himself before: he’s their provider, now providing for them in his resurrection life. And he’s still your provider, too, if you’re his disciple. Sometimes we miss this, don’t we? Don’t get me wrong: the cross remains the decisive event we look to for the greatest provision of God’s love. Never do we need to question God’s love for us, because the cross stands as the unchanging, objective demonstration of God’s love for us. We should be absolutely stunned when we look at God’s provision in the cross. But never should we think that God’s provision stopped there—as if to say he’s now in heaven minding his own business and we must continue on our own.
No, the resurrected Christ still stands as our constant provider. He remains the living water when we are thirsty. He is still the bread when we are hungry. He is life when we are dead. He is the Light when we suffer darkness. He feeds his disciples.
This is why Jesus taught them earlier, “apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5). His provision here matches his teaching elsewhere that our constant dependence must be upon him. Why? Because he is alive; he ever lives to provide for us. How does Paul put it in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with Jesus [i.e., now risen from the dead] graciously give us all things?” Jesus’ provision climaxes in the cross but doesn’t end there.
2. Discipleship Is Most Simply a Matter of Loving Jesus
Second, discipleship is most simply a matter of loving Jesus. We see this love first in Peter’s response in verse 7. It’s great isn’t it? He’s the one who had the idea to go fishing in the first place. Cut two: Jesus shows up, they haul in a massive catch, and he’s like, “Check ya later!” and hops out of the boat to beat them to shore—“You guys haul it in; I’m going to see Jesus!” It’s a picture of his love for Jesus; he has grown to cherish him.
But then Jesus ensures that Peter’s love has roots that go deep in Christ and not deep in self. Verse 15 after they finish breakfast, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these [i.e., more than the other disciples do].” That’s what Peter had said earlier anyway: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matt 26:33). “You ran to me first, but do you really love me more than these, Peter?” He hadn’t before. The question is piercing. And even though Peter confesses his love, Jesus still questions Peter twice more, and with each question Peter cannot help but be reminded of his three-fold denial of Jesus. Three times he denied Jesus; three times Jesus asks him to confess his love.
And Peter is laid bare before the Lord. Verse 17 says that Peter was grieved, “because Jesus said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” And it’s no small grief. The grief described here was used earlier to describe the sorrow all the disciples experienced when Jesus was crucified (16:20). It’s a heavy, broken grief.
Jesus’ questioning lays Peter bear. Jesus makes him face the weight of his sin, his betrayal, his weakness, his hypocrisy. But Jesus isn’t doing it as an end itself. You see Jesus makes us face our sins that we might learn to love him more, because of what he did to take away those sins. Jesus bled and died to take away Peter’s sins. And that’s all Peter has. Notice that Peter doesn’t race to give an account of all the good things he has done to prove his love for Jesus; he casts himself on what Jesus knows of him: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” And this is all Jesus requires of us ultimately, most basically, that we love him. How do we know that? He restores and commissions Peter as a result to take care of his sheep.
There are a lot of Christian books on the shelf telling us how to live the Christian life. Many books are very instructive on important things like reading our Bible, praying, sharing the gospel with others, showing hospitality, and so on. In our media age, it seems like every minute, somebody else is blogging or Tweeting about how we can serve our spouse better, serve our children better, serve our church better, serve our city better, and on the list could go.
And without minimizing any of the good exhortations and the practical instructions that come to us through various God-given mediums, our passage really boils discipleship down to one main thing: do you love Jesus? I couldn’t help but draw the same conclusion when Jonathan led us through Matthew 10:37-38 yesterday: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Discipleship begins with loving, with cherishing Jesus above all else. He’s not just a priority; he’s everything to you.
3. Loving Jesus Means Feeding & Caring for His People
But that love for Jesus takes us to a third truth in our passage: loving Jesus means feeding and caring for his people. That becomes clear in Jesus’ instructions to Peter: “Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…feed my sheep.”
Now, Peter doesn’t feed Jesus’ sheep by providing them with miraculous catches of fish—as if to say, “I fed you with fish, now you do the same to them.” That’s not the connection. Rather, Peter is to feed Jesus’ sheep with Jesus’ unique, self-revelation to the disciples. You see, Jesus isn’t merely feeding them a meal; he was feeding them with his self-revelation. Verse 1, “He revealed himself again to the disciples…and he revealed himself in this way.” Verse 14, “This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”
Peter isn’t to feed them fish, he is to feed them Jesus—and more specifically, Jesus’ self-revelation as all-providing Savior. Where do we access Jesus’ self-revelation? Right here in the Spirit-inspired words of the disciples.
This idea of feeding Jesus’ sheep fits the theme developed earlier in John’s Gospel—that once Jesus ascends to heaven, the disciples will bear witness to Jesus’ saving works and to Jesus’ teaching about those works. They will bear witness to his self-revelation—God almighty becoming flesh for our salvation. And by doing so, Jesus’ people will be fed, not with fish but with eternal life (14:25ff; 16:12-15; 20:22-23, 31).
Something we must always remember as a church is that loving Jesus will mean feeding his people with Jesus; it will mean that we nourish one another with Jesus’ self-revelation in Scripture. How does that happen? It happens when we preach the crucified and risen Christ to one another from the Scriptures.
This is why Christ puts pastors in the church; and their primary responsibility is to feed his sheep with the word; and these pastors must feed and care for the sheep in the same way and with the same character of the One who leads us beside still waters.
But those leaders feed the sheep with Jesus to foster a community of people who do the same for one another. This is why Paul rejoiced over congregations when they were feeding one another with the word. Romans 15:14, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another;” and he’s talking about everybody in the church at Rome, not just the leadership. Could such a word be said over us? If not, then let’s give that some attention. Let’s partner in grace to make it so, my friends, because loving Jesus means feeding and caring for his people—giving each other Jesus’ self-revelation in the word.
4. Loving Jesus and Feeding His People Are Costly
Fourth, loving Jesus and feeding his people are costly. Look at what Jesus says to Peter in verse 18; this is just after the third time he tells him, Feed my sheep: “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 don’t want to go.” And then John tells us what Jesus means: “This [Jesus] said to show by what kind of death [Peter] was to glorify God.” Now, this is simultaneously sobering and sweet.
It’s sobering, because it calls us to love Jesus’ sheep at all costs to ourselves. According to 10:1-18, some of those sheep are still lost and must be gathered into the church through our preaching of the gospel (cf. 11:52; 12:32). But others of those sheep have already been gathered into Jesus’ fold by believing the gospel—I’m looking at a handful of them right now. But regardless of whether they’re still out there or in here, we’ve been call to love them and feed them at all costs to ourselves.
When you give yourself over to loving Jesus—and in turn to loving Jesus’ people—you have given yourself over to dying to see others alive with Christ, nourished with Christ, filled up to the brim with Christ. If you love Jesus this morning, that’s your calling. You have been called to die to see others live. And it’s not that you’ve been called to die just so that outsiders live—though that’s absolutely true in the Great Commission. You’ve been called to die so that your already-saved brothers and sisters may live in Christ, too.
That’s sobering: Jesus just shed his blood for the sheep; he’s asking us to lay down our lives too in love for the sheep. We don’t lay them down in the same way he did, as a substitute. But we certainly lay them down so as to point them to the utter self-sacrifice of our substitute. Every brother and sister in this room become worthy of your utter self-sacrifice—and perhaps even death—because Jesus paid for them. Dying for the sheep isn’t contingent on whether we feel like it; it’s contingent on what Jesus already did for them. Does that transform our thinking about each other, or what?
Every saint in this room is worth the blood of Jesus, and therefore worth utter self-sacrifice. Those sacrifices will look different for different relationships. Those sacrifices will take on their own complexities depending on the persons and the cultures involved. Those sacrifices will even result in various services and activities, as Christ gifts each person differently. I’m not saying that each of your dying to see others live will look exactly the same. It didn’t even look the same for Peter and John. Peter was going to be crucified; John was going to hang around a little while longer—write a Gospel.
But self-sacrifice for Christ and his people will characterize us. We will die to self to see others fed and nourished and built up in Christ. The question to ask yourself is this: Am I embracing the cost of loving Jesus? Or am I looking to escape the cost by avoiding people, by squandering my gifts, by hiding from the often-times hard conversations that come with loving people who are different than me? Am I looking for more comfort in this world and more margin for my selfish ambitions? Or, am I embracing the cost of loving Jesus? According to Jesus’ interaction with Peter, loving Jesus and feeding his people are costly. It demands your life.
5. Jesus Gives Us Everything We Need to Glorify God
I said Jesus’ words are sobering. But I also said that they’re simultaneously sweet. And that leads me to our fifth truth about loving and feeding Jesus’ people at all costs: Jesus gives us everything we need to glorify God.
Look back with me quickly at 13:36. This is before Jesus died, and Jesus just finished telling the disciples that he was going away. And so Peter asks, “Lord, where are you going?” And Jesus answers him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” That’s a promise by Jesus.
What we are seeing in 20:18-19 is that Jesus is keeping his promise to Peter. Peter wanted to die for Jesus, but he proved that he couldn’t. Now, Jesus is giving Peter the ability he lacked beforehand. Jesus is giving Peter the strength to follow him in taking up his cross. These words are sweet, because they confirm that Jesus is faithful to help us endure the cost of discipleship. He will not leave us or forsake us when we suffer. He will keep us holding on to him as our ultimate treasure—even if it means our death.
And through this provision our lives glorify God. How do they glorify God? They glorify God by showing others that God is the greatest treasure to possess, not life in this world. We’ve been through this before: the value of something is measured by what we’re willing to give in order to have it.
Consider Jesus’ parable of the treasure in the field: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44). Where do we see the worth of the treasure displayed? The worth of the treasure is displayed in that the man sells everything he has, in order to make it his possession.
The same is true of Peter’s life here. His life of loving Jesus and feeding the sheep will cost him everything. But, when it costs him everything, his life puts the value of God on display. Even his death glorifies God; it reveals to others how worthy God in Christ really is. God displays the worth of Jesus Christ to the world when his people are willing to give up everything to follow him and obey him and give him to others.
The sobering: we’re called to serve and feed Jesus’ sheep at all costs—and it may even kill us. The sweet: Jesus gives us everything we need to glorify God when we endure the costs of following Jesus. And he will do the same for all of you who believe.
Some of you may wonder how your life could possibly glorify God. Some of you wonder how God could even use you after the sins you’ve committed, after the hurt you’ve caused others, after the way you grieved the Holy Spirit once again. Take a good, long look at your Savior in this passage. Look at the way he treats Peter. There’s a reason Jesus appointed men like Peter—a coward—and Paul—a murderer—to be pillars in the church. And it’s to show that the unlikeliest of people—when touched by the grace of God in Christ—can and will bring God glory with their lives.
Paul says, “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [of sinners], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1:16). Jesus will give you everything you need to glorify God with your life. In different ways, he will provide for each of us; but he will still provide it, so that you endure, so that his sheep might be fed, and so that God may receive all the glory.
other sermons in this series