John’s gospel reaches its high water mark with Thomas’ confession that Jesus is his Lord and God (20:28). This is where John wants to bring his readers. He ties everything together by stating in v. 30-31 that the signs he had recorded are for that purpose—to bring people to belief in Jesus and the life that comes from such belief (10:10). That being so, what follows in chapter 21 is probably best thought of as an epilogue. It’s an interesting story with many familiar elements; the disciples fishing, Jesus appearing and offering advice, and a large catch of fish.
But it’s not quite that straightforward.
When Jesus first appeared, the disciples didn’t recognize Him (v. 4). He asked if they have caught anything as if he were a prospective buyer (v. 5). The disciples answered that they haven’t and He suggested they try casting their nets on the right side of the boat (v. 6). After they followed His counsel and their nets were stretched tight with fish, they realized Who it was. Jesus called them to a meal of bread and fish (v. 7-13).
Afterwards, He conversed with Peter. Jesus began by asking if he loved Him “more than these?” (v. 15). It seems to me He was referring to the other disciples since Peter had boasted of remaining faithful to Jesus even if the others deserted Him (Mark 14:27ff). If this is correct, He has asked Peter, “Do you still think you love me more than the others?” Peter had learned his lesson and simply affirmed his love for Christ. Jesus then asked him the same question again and still a third time (v. 17). John tells us that Peter was hurt by this.
The repetition hurts Peter as it would any of us, but there’s more to it than that. It surely evoked memories of his previous boasting and how he subsequently crashed and burned when it mattered most. It must have seemed to him that Jesus was questioning his current devotion while rubbing his face in his past failures.
But He’s wasn’t.
As Peter would understand later, the three times Jesus asked him to affirm his love were meant to be a measure-for-measure match for the three times he had denied Him. Jesus graciously gave Peter the opportunity to confront his three failures and replace them with three confessions.
Though Peter’s faith in Jesus had wavered, Jesus’ faith in Peter hadn’t. He still had plans for him (Luke 22:32). Therefore, Jesus joined commission to confession. The commission was for him to take care of Jesus’ sheep. Peter was to do with others what Jesus had done with him and the other disciples. Three times Peter told Jesus he loves him and three times Jesus responds by telling him to take care of His sheep. Whatever else is true, it should be clear that He was telling Peter that taking care of His sheep was loving Him.
As Peter gave himself to others, He was giving himself to Jesus. This is not only what it meant to love Jesus (Matthew 25:44-45), it was how Peter would find wholeness and healing. Christ had forgiven him and as he shared that with others he would experience the fullness of hope and healing. Taking care of the sheep would not only bless the sheep, it would bless Peter! The redemption he experienced would be renewed as he allowed himself to be an instrument of redemption to others. As he lost his life, he would find it. Love and life began with making confession, but they were maintained by enacting the commission.
So Peter follows Thomas as an example of one who believed and found life. The epilogue of John’s gospel really becomes a prologue, the end becomes a beginning, and glorious life jumps off the page at us.