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Following Our First Love (John 21:1-25) – Mark Ottaway

Following our First Love

John 21:1-25

Turn to John 20. It is hard to believe that we started this study in John one year ago. as He began his gospel “In the beginning was the Word,” the introduction of Jesus Christ. And what I appreciated so much about John is that John goes beyond the information about Christ, as he seems to have this fascination with Christ. We also saw the purpose of the book, which was so evident in John’s gospel, for he clearly states his purpose for writing in the second last chapter.

“Therefore many other signs Jesus also did in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

John 20:30-31 (LSB)


So, John brought us through the life of Christ right up to the crucifixion and then last week the resurrection. Then those words in John 20, “and that by believing you may have life in His name, period. As this would seem to be a logical conclusion to his gospel. But then John turns one more page. It would almost be like a “PS” at the end of a letter. So, let’s discover John’s final thoughts. First, we will see where Jesus appears on the shore while they are fishing after they have caught nothing, where He instructs them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and of course, they have a great catch. And then John sort of addresses an unanswered question at this point from his gospel, as last week when Peter and John where at the empty tomb.

“So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed.”

John 20:8 (LSB)


So, we read here that John believed, and though Peter of course was there, it actually does not say that Peter believed in the passage. Now we could assume that Peter believed also along with John, and that he was there when Jesus confronted Thomas. But there does seem to be a need to clear up things with Peter, as we do know he had denied his Lord three times just before all this. So, after the great catch they eat together and then Jesus will address Peter.

“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.’”

John 21:15b-17 (LSB)


So, Jesus deals directly with the question around Peter and it probably is this, where is Peter’s heart? Though he obviously knows Jesus is alive. There are many things that you and I might know intellectually that may or may not necessarily greatly move us. And we might think, how could Peter see firsthand the resurrection of Jesus and it not move his heart to serve Christ the rest of his days? Well, that is likely a question that we need to ask ourselves. For there are many things in our hearts that would keep us from serving Christ, even though we may know that we believe in Him. We might say to our children or to someone we are trying to encourage, knowing what to do and doing it are what? Two different things. Just because Peter has seen the risen Lord does not automatically mean that he is going to be willing to do all that the Lord is calling him to do. And I do not believe it to be any secret that Jesus has much for Peter to do and I also think that Peter is fully aware that he will be asked to be a big part of what lies ahead for Christianity. And so the question is not only what He believes, the question now is, what he is willing to do? I mean Peter has already stated what he believes. They were out on the sea in Matthew 16:

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, saying, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”

Matt 16:13-16 (LSB)


See, this faith that Peter possessed, is not a belief only faith. For it is a faith that acts. As the faith that we have received from God means that there is a quality to our faith. Because faith is given to us as a gift from God. For it is God Himself who opens our eyes so that we can believe. This is part of the transforming work of salvation. For if salvation was something that we accomplished then yes, it would have no transformation power within it. But since it is a work of God, there is a transformation within us, we are being changed. And therefore, our changing lives become proof that we actually possess a true saving faith. And part of that change is occurring because we now serve Jesus Christ. Jesus said back in John 14, “If anyone loves Me [Christ], he will keep My word; and My Father will love him.” See, we serve the One who fulfilled for us the requirements of the Law, and that is such freedom, which Paul spoke about in Galatians 5, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free.” Not freedom to sin, but freedom to serve Christ.


And here becomes the test for Peter. Yes, Peter, you have denied Me; and yes, Peter you have boldly stated who I am. In other words, you have said what you believe. So, what is it Peter? Where is your heart in all this? Well, Peter has given some indication of where his heart was (vs 3) I am going fishing, maybe a little weary of the thought of ministry. Because when we talk about doing this or that, it gives indications of where our heart is. And sometimes it may indications of a heart that is drifting away from Christ. Yet Peter, whom we know in hindsight is one of Christ’s sheep and Christ therefore will not let Peter go says (vs 15), “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” That’s it! Do you love Me, Peter? I have done all this for you, so do you love Me?


That is the question for us, are you going to serve Christ? That is the question we ask when we get baptized here at Elim. Is it your desire to serve Christ all the days of your life? And that commitment includes a belief in who Jesus is, and it also includes a love for Christ so that we desire to serve Him all the days of our life. And Peter answers (vs 15), “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” I thought about that response and we tend to always think of it from the perspective of Peter’s love, which is a right understanding; but I also noticed in Peter’s words as I studied it this week, You know that I love You. That displays a very sincere heart, doesn’t it? Not “Yes, Lord, everybody knows I love You.” “Yes Lord,” my family knows I love You. “Yes Lord” I know I love You. Those are all good things, but they can also be perspectives that may be tainted, as we can fool people. In fact, we may be able to fool ourselves. But Peter says, but You Lord, know I love You. That is a powerful statement. For if Jesus knows that Peter loves Him, it must be true; for we cannot fool Christ, no one can fool Christ. It would seem silly to try to fool me that you love Christ, when you do not really love Him. Young person, it would be foolish to try to fool your Mom and Dad into thinking that you love Christ, when you really do not, because Christ knows your heart anyway.


So, Jesus responded to Peter (vs 15), then tend My lambs. And before we get into this, it is important to note here that it appears all the other men are still here; (vs 15), so when they had finished eating. It would seem that this conversation is in front of everyone, as the words by Peter earlier that he would not deny Christ would be made in front of all the disciples. This recommissioning of Peter was something that they all needed to see and hear, especially if he was going to be their leader, as Peter actually lied before the others prior to the crucifixion, when he overstated his commitment and said he would never deny Christ. So now, Jesus is allowing him to be truthful before the others.


And this is a high ministry that Jesus is asking of Peter, as He actually gives Peter the responsibility of His lambs. And the principle is this, those who love Christ will also love His lambs. Our love for Christ is often demonstrated by our love for His people. And the second principle is this, that the only real way we can minister to Christ’s sheep, is if we truly have a love for Christ. Because some do not. For many have been part of ministry to people only for self-recognition, to feel good about themselves, to relieve guilt, or even to gain something from it. It is true, I love pastoring here. I love preaching. I love studying the Scriptures. But the main reason for doing ministry here or anywhere must be because of a love for Christ and His people. It is noteworthy here that Peter does use a weaker love in response than Jesus used, and it could be because he knew of his overstatement in the past; so, he was careful not to overcommit. And when Peter is asked if he loves Christ more than these, some have suggested that the “these” is his old way of life, his life of fishing; or that it means, do you love Me more than these other disciples. Hard to know for sure. But the emphasis is that first and foremost for the believer is that he must love Christ more than anything.

“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.’”

John 21:16 (LSB)


This is now a focus on the greater ministry as Peter is to shepherd, not only the lambs of Christ, the younger maybe weaker followers of Christ; but he is also to minister to the stronger believers, the sheep. Paul taught in Acts 20 to “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock.” In other words, this is not just a minor role, but a very responsible role. I also noticed that in 1 Peter 5:2, Peter himself wrote:

“[S]hepherd the flock of God among you, overseeing not under compulsion, but willingly, according to God; and not for dishonest gain, but with eagerness.”

1 Pet 5:2 (LSB)


Here again stressing the sincerity in leadership, leading for the right reasons, and I also like that, with eagerness. You know, there are times when ministry is hard, yet no ongoing successful ministry will ever happen if those who are doing the ministry are not eager and excited and passionate about doing the ministry. Sometimes you may look back on ministry and think, boy I am glad that is over. Well, it is probably good that you are not involved in that ministry anymore. But I trust that for most, you can look back on ministry and say yes it was hard and took commitment and there were some struggles to get through; but it was a joy, I loved the fellowship of the saints, and it was a blessing and I would do it again. Interesting again that Jesus asks Peter do you agape Me, the stronger love. And Peter responds, You know I phileo You, the weaker love. This is the same as in the first question and response. It would be sort of like Jesus saying, Peter do you love Me greatly? And Peter responding, Lord I am really devoted to You.

“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.’”

John 21:17 (LSB)


Interesting here that Peter’s response is still the same, as he answers Christ You know that I love (phileo) You, often used as a loyal friendship love. Not small in any sense, it just does not have quite the same forever commitment that agape love tends to assume. But actually, the interesting part here is that it is only in the third question of Jesus, that Jesus Himself lowers the love from agape to phileo. So, each of these in the Greek is as follows:

  1. Peter do you agape Me … You know I phileo You
  2. Peter do you agape Me … You know I phileo You
  3. Peter do you phileo Me … You know I phileo You


We get the idea here that Jesus and Peter were being very honest with each other. That Peter because of his past failures and weakness was very careful in what he said. And it would seem that Jesus understood this, for He had always known Peter’s failures. You know when we read a story like this, there is something within that wants Peter to say, Lord, I will always follow You! I will always do what is right! But there is also something to be said about honesty. And I think from Peter we can learn such devotion and yet we do not want to overstate our strengths, nor do we ever want to understate our weaknesses. Because what it seems is happening to Peter here is that he is learning that he cannot follow Christ, and do all that the Lord is going to call him to do on his own strength. Therefore, in his weakness, he is learning to lean on Jesus. Andreas Köstenberger wrote:

“Perhaps at long last Peter has learned that he cannot follow Jesus in his own strength and has realized the hollowness of affirming his own loyalty in a way that relies more on his own power of will than on Jesus’ enablement … Likewise we should soundly distrust self-serving pledges of loyalty today that betray self-reliance rather than a humble awareness of one’s own limitations in acting on one’s best intentions.”

Andreas Köstenberger

Some, of course, have suggested that Jesus asked Peter this question three times because Peter had denied the Lord three times. In other words, Christ gave him the chance to reinforce his commitment to Christ as he had denied Christ. I suppose there could be some reasoning behind this, but there is really no need to speculate. Some have suggested numerous reasons the disciples caught (vs 11) 153 fish. And you can find as many reasons as you will find commentators of why it is 153. That it represented the number of nations that would receive the gospel and on and on some will go to demonstrate the meaning behind the 153. Yet this is a foolish way to deal with the Scriptures. I would say it says 153 because that is how many fish they caught, at least that is what we know for sure. Always best to take at face value what the Bible is telling us.

“‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.’ Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’”

John 21:18-19 (LSB)


This is a massive time here for Peter. It is almost like Jesus has invested in him and will allow him to be such a big part of the ministry, despite his denial of Christ. You know, it would almost seem like if Peter at this point had made some outrageous promise of his love for Christ and his great ability to do all that the Lord commanded, the Lord may have ended up saying to him, sorry Peter, I might use someone else. But those words, “Follow Me,” would have been such an encouragement to Peter, as it was showing Peter the Lord’s desire to use him even though he had failed in the past. And really the struggle that Peter went through, that the Lord even warned him about, must have become a great strength in Peter’s life. For Peter could have come off his denial and quit, and gone back to fishing where he was comfortable. And we might feel that at times as well, where we have failed and it would be easier to crawl back into a corner without the added responsibility. Or maybe we were wrongly treated doing ministry at some point, and so, we concluded that we will never let this happen again, and so, we draw back. Because quitting is easy, moving forward can be difficult. Familiarity is painless, stepping ahead can be a little risky. And here Jesus says to Peter, “Follow Me.” And maybe Peter took a deep breath and thought maybe I should have answered, not sure if I love You all that much, but that would have been a life of regret for Peter.


Interesting that Jesus was referring to the kind of death that Peter would die. Notice he didn’t say, Peter, you follow Me and you will end up rich and famous and on top of the world. No, Jesus spoke about Peter stretching out his hands. And Christian tradition records that Peter ended up dying as a martyr for his Lord, being crucified upside down. Yet notice what Peter said near the end of his life.

“If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be put to shame, but is to glorify God in this name.”

1 Pet 4:14-16 (LSB)


Then notice:

“Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, ‘Lord, who is the one who betrays You?’ So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, ‘Lord, and what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!’ Therefore this saying went out among the brothers that this disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?’ This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his witness is true.’”

John 21:20-24 (LSB)


I find it interesting in the verses we just read that Peter wrote, that one of the things he listed with other areas of sinfulness was the area of being a “troublesome meddler.” What Peter was learning here from the words of Jesus was that we cannot concern ourselves with the path our Lord may have chosen for someone else. We see this in one of Jesus’ parables where various workers started at different times of the day, so that some worked all day and others worked for only an hour, yet they all received the same wage. And there will also be those whom the Lord will call for such recognizable positions, whereas others will work under the radar. And those who end up with much material wealth, and others who end with nothing. And Jesus would say, what is that to you, you follow Me! Finally:

“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written one after the other, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

John 21:25 (LSB)


Let me conclude with three lessons. The church in Laodicea as a whole were chastised for leaving their first love, the first love they had for Jesus Christ.


Lesson #1 – Following our first love means deepening our faith in Christ.


I would say through the ups and downs of Peter’s life, he really was growing in his faith in Christ. And, as we have already said, there is two aspects to that, for a deepening faith includes a greater belief and a greater love. I smiled when I read some of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 1:

“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.”

1 Pet 1:6-8 (LSB)


Here we see again that joining of faith, you believe in Him, with another aspect of our faith, you love Him. Is that your experience with Christ? Is there a growing and deepening of your faith? Which means I am learning, my belief in Christ is growing and I am loving Him more.


Lesson #2 – Following our first love means a willingness to follow God’s leading.


The prospects here for Peter were not all that good from a worldly perspective because the commitment to follow Christ is not based upon what we may receive here in this life. Yes, there are so many blessings in following Christ, but they may not be the ones that some Christian circles talk about, as the Lord may choose a hard road for some physically, relationally, or materially. The key or the proof of our faith is really our determination to follow whatever path that is that God lays out for us. And we certainly understand from this passage that it means that we cannot be concerned about another believer having a better marriage or nicer family, or more things or a higher profile position. No, our Lord has made it clear here that the believer who loves Christ will follow the leading of Christ, whatever that may be.


Lesson #3 – Following our first love means caring for the Lord’s sheep.


Our modern-day Christianity has emphasized the individualism of our relationship with Christ. But we really should be struck here of the heart of Christ as He leaves His sheep. And one of His tops priorities is that His sheep are cared for. And this cannot be overlooked in Christianity or in our church. That our love for Christ is greatly demonstrated by our caring for His sheep, the young, the old, the weak, and the strong. Paul told the Thessalonians to “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone,” as our Lord said to Peter, feed My sheep. He would say the same to you and I here at Elim, would you deeply care for My sheep. Let’s pray. Lord, we come before You this morning, encouraged by the words written by John. For I am sure we have all been Peter’s to some extent, where we have disobeyed You, and maybe even felt that we were no longer worthy to serve. Might we come before You honestly as Peter has done, realizing our weakness and our reliance on the Shepherd. And place our faith and trust in You. And love You with a love that continues to grow as we know You more and as we walk with You longer. And Lord, may we be used by You. Might You place in each of our hearts what You would desire of us. And Lord, may we be to willing to serve, wherever and whatever You might call us to. And all God’s people said, amen.