II Samuel 19:11-20:13; John 21:1-25; Psalm 120:1-7; Proverbs 16:16-17
I want to jump right in to today’s post by focusing on the John passage. I’ve thought a lot about this passage and even taught it earlier this spring at a women’s breakfast event. I’m hopeful that this will be clarifying for others of you out there who may have found parts of this passage troubling, as I have in the past.
In our section, we see Peter, Thomas, Nathanael and two other unnamed disciples all together. This isn’t surprising that they are together – it’s been a disorienting time for the disciples, as Jesus was betrayed, tried and crucified. Remember what we just read - the disciples abandon Jesus; even Peter, who swore he would never betray Jesus, denied any association with him three times on the night before his death. The disciples are confused and disoriented and desperately needing to be together – so they go fishing. This may seem like a pretty harmless activity – to us, fishing is probably a leisure activity – but we know from earlier Gospel passages that Peter was a fisherman by trade.
So the disciples have returned to fishing, yet with no success. Jesus enters the scene, though the disciples don’t know it’s him. Jesus asks them if they’ve found any fish and, when they reply that they haven’t, he instructs them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. That’s when something astounding happens - their nets are now overflowing, though miraculously, not breaking. They haul the fish to shore and have breakfast with Jesus.
This is the stage to the scene that I really want to focus on today – Peter’s conversation with Jesus. This is the famous scene, the one where Jesus reveals to Peter his purpose for Peter’s life. If you’re like me, perhaps you’ve read this conversation before and found some parts of it strange. Yes, it’s wonderful that Jesus reinstates Peter after his failure and it’s wonderful that Peter is able to assert his love for Jesus. But there are some troubling parts as well.
Why does Jesus ask Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” Who is he talking about? Is it some kind of competition about who loves Jesus the most? Is Jesus talking about the other disciples? If so, isn’t that a little rude? I wouldn’t turn to my daughter and ask her, “Do you love me more than your brothers love me?” Why does Jesus ask it three times? And what does Jesus mean when he says to Peter, “Feed my sheep?”
I want to unpack these verses, and I want to start by tackling the question of what Jesus means when he asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” There are several interpretations out there about who or what Jesus is referring to. I don’t remember a particular time when I was taught that Jesus was referring to the other disciples when he asks Peter this, but somehow that was always my understanding. But as I’ve researched it more, I’ve come to believe that this is not what Jesus meant. I now believe that Jesus is actually talking about fish.
Does that surprise you? Does it seem strange that Jesus would ask Peter if he loves Jesus more than he loves fish? Let’s take a look back at the context.
First, note how many times the word “fish” is used. I count eight – and one of those times, in verse 11, it is a description of how many fish there are and how big they are. Fish are ALL OVER this account. Imagine the scene - the men are rushing off the boat, hauling in all the fish, of which we are told there are 153. They sit down to eat fish and bread, only six of them including Jesus, so it is probably unlikely that they ate all 153 fish. So, they’re by the seashore, with the remains of the fish they just ate all around them, plus their nets and boats and the many fish they didn’t cook. That is the scene in which they’re sitting when Jesus approaches Peter. As they are finished eating, a meal of fish, it actually makes sense that Jesus would continue the theme and ask Peter, as he perhaps even motions to the fish by the fire, “Do you love me more than these?”
But why would Jesus ask Peter if he loves him more than fish? Clearly, there is something deeper going on here. We know that Jesus is not really asking if Peter loves him more than he loves fish, but rather what they represent, namely Peter’s life before Christ. The fish in this story are a symbol of the life Peter led before Jesus came into his life. As we’ve already seen, after Peter’s betrayal and Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter goes back to fishing – we can assume that he actually had a fairly successful fishing business, if it still existed for him to go back to, after being away from it for three years. So maybe he’s had employees or family taking care of the business for him, but when he is at his lowest, lost for any sense of direction, longing for something secure and comfortable, he returns to this former career. With no clear direction from Jesus, and his betrayal fresh in his mind, his only plan is to go back to his old way of life – life before Jesus, life before being a disciple, life before his denial. It’s in this moment that Jesus comes to Peter and asks him, “Peter, do you love me more than you love your old way of life?” Jesus comes back into Peter’s life to lay claim to it again. It’s as if he’s telling Peter that he’s not going to let him go back to his old way of life.
And Jesus asks this not just once but three times. The parallel is beautiful – just like in his betrayal, where he denied Jesus three times, here Peter is able to declare three times his love for Jesus. And at the same time, Peter receives his calling – feed the flock.
That’s the final reason that I believe the “these” refers to fish in this passage – do you see the consistent use of the animal imagery occurring here? Fish and sheep were the most common animals in that day, so it makes sense that Jesus uses them in this supremely important conversation with Peter. Jesus says to Peter that instead of returning to this job in which he provides literal food (fish) for people, he is instead to provide spiritual food for the people of Jesus (sheep, flock, lambs). “Feed my sheep,” Jesus tells Peter. Don’t go back to your old way of life, to these fish – go forward, reinstated, as the leader of a new movement that would become Christianity.
And what is Jesus’ claim on your own life today? What is Jesus calling you to? Like Peter, let’s walk with boldness into the plans that God has for our lives.
- Esther McCurry
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