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“Follow Me”

John 21:1-25
Bob DeGray
April 25, 2004

Key Sentence

When you follow him you will do the things he has done.


I. “Isn’t that just like him?” (John 21:1-14)
II. “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17)
III. “Follow me” Word (John 21:18-25)


        In my first years as a Christian I lived in New Jersey. You may not know it, but New Jersey has a lot of miles of beaches, from Sandy Hook in New York harbor through Asbury Park and Atlantic City all the way down to Cape May. Because of the beaches one thing I did in high school was beach evangelism. We’d go on Friday or Saturday and walk the beaches, engaging people in conversations about Jesus and sharing the Good News. One day we met a lady who appeared a bit scatterbrained, but we told her that we were talking to people about Jesus. Her absolutely sincere response has been burned into my brain for the last thirty years. With simple enthusiasm, she said “Oh, I know him!” That’s a good model! As we mature in Christ we should be able state with simple conviction that we know Jesus.

        One evidence of that is when you begin to recognize his work. You start to see his fingerprints, his ways of doing things in the events of your life, and after a while you feel like saying ‘man, isn’t it just like Jesus to do it this way?” I could give you examples from my own life, even from the Russia trip, but the example I really want to point to is the one that happens to the disciples in John 21 when they encounter the risen Christ for the third time. In this case they recognize him not by his scars but by his character and behavior. And when they do he commissions them to follow his example in all things. In fact the overall lesson of this chapter is that when you follow him, you will do the things he has done.

I. “Isn’t that just like him?” (John 21:1-14)

        We begin with John 21:1-14 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: 2Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3"I'm going out to fish," Simon Peter told them, and they said, "We'll go with you." So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. 5He called out to them, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" "No," they answered. 6He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. 7Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.

         8The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. 10Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you have just caught." 11Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.

        12Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

        John 21 is an epilogue. The end of the previous chapter perfectly concludes the Gospel, telling us that John wrote it so that we would believe and receive life. But like many authors who structure their work to reach a climactic moment, John has a few loose ends to tie up. First, he hasn’t told us about the restoration of Peter after his denial. Second, he hasn’t projected the impact of the resurrection into the next era, in which his readers were living. Third, he hasn’t taken the story back to Galilee, though his readers probably knew Jesus had appeared there after the resurrection. So John adds a chapter saying ‘oh by the way, here’s how some things turned out.’

        The episode he recounts takes place in Galilee, though he uses the Roman name ‘Tiberias’ for the lake, as he did in chapter six. Seven of the disciples are spending time by the lake, and decide to go fishing. Some commentators have said this is a miserable failure on the part of the disciples - that having seen the resurrected Christ, they ought not to have gone back to their old homes and old occupations. But it seems to me they were really being obedient. It was forty days between the resurrection of Christ and his ascension, and another ten days before the Holy Spirit came. Jesus commanded that until they received that power, they should wait. We think of them waiting in Jerusalem, but this time in Galilee was also a waiting time, and as one commentator said, they had to eat. So I don’t take the fishing as negative.

        But it is totally in character that Simon Peter is the one who won’t just wait. He says “I’m going fishing.” I doubt that he still owned a boat after two or three years of following Jesus, but someone in the group must have had access to one through their family. Remember, Zebedee’s sons, James and John, were also fisherman, and Nathanael, from Cana in Galilee may have been one as well. At one point John calls the boat they use a little boat, so it may not have been in daily use, but more of a spare. If you’ve ever spent much time around boat people you’ll know that this is common. So these seven go out, and they fish all night, and catch nothing. In many seasons of the Galilean year, night was the time to get a good catch, but not this night. One imagines Peter saying ‘man, I don’t even know how to fish anymore.’

        Toward dawn the disciples saw what was probably a silhouette against the lightening sky, a man they didn’t recognize. He says ‘You don’t have any fish, do you?’ This question is not a ‘Jesus-give-away’, since it’s traditional to ask even strangers ‘how’s the fishing?’ and someone who had been around fishing could probably tell at a glance if the boat was full or empty. But then this stranger said something that should have set off bells in the disciple’s heads ‘Throw your nets out on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’

        In Luke 5, early in his ministry, Jesus had said a similar thing and a miracle had resulted. They should probably have been suspicious. On the other hand, fishermen get a lot of unsolicited advice from folks who think they know where the fish are. So they try his idea without immediately concluding that this must be Jesus. That’s when they begin to catch the fish, a haul so large they can’t pull the net from the water.

        It’s at that point that John begins to say ‘Wait a second, I’ve seen this before, this kind of thing only happens when . . .” and at that point he says to Peter ‘It’s the Lord’. Carson says ‘Characteristically, the beloved disciple displays quick insight, and Peter quick action.’ He wraps his outer garment around him and jumps into the water. It’s a little unusual to put on a bulky garment for swimming, but it may be that Peter’s reverence for Jesus caused him to not want to appear before him in only his inner tunic. While Peter swims, the others begin to cross the hundred yards to shore in the boat. They drag it up the beach, leaving the full net hanging off the far side, and find Jesus standing by a small charcoal fire which already has one or more fish cooking on it, and some bread next to it. Notice that though the disciples had not yet brought the fish, there was already fish cooking.

        I don’t know whether Jesus miraculously made fire and fish and bread or whether he bought fixin’s in town on the way to the lake, but it is just like Jesus, before or after the resurrection, to provide for his followers. They can’t have forgotten his other provisions of bread and fish. So again, we’re at an ‘isn’t that just like Jesus’ moment in this text: they recognize him both because of the miraculous catch of fish and because of the way he humbles himself to serve and care and provide for them.

        But the fish in the net were needed. Jesus says ‘bring some of the fish you have caught.’ Peter, who must have been a large, strong guy, just the way we picture him, climbs aboard the boat and drags the whole net full of fish around and onto the shore. Then, in amazement, he or somebody counts the fish, and finds there are 153. If you think this counting is unlikely, you’ve never been around fishermen. They love to document the catch, maybe because no one believes them without documentation.

        They count the fish while breakfast cooks, and soon Jesus says come and eat. While he’s serving them, none of the disciples dares to ask “who are you?” John says ‘they knew it was the Lord.’ But if they knew it was him, why did they hesitate? I think the reason was awe. They’d spent three years with Jesus, but these post resurrection experiences were something special, and they still couldn’t quite believe it was really happening. Their joy and awe may have led to a feeling of ‘don’t say anything, to spoil this’. The first time Jesus provided fish, Peter felt the same thing. Luke 5:8_9 “But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus' feet, saying, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!" 9For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken.” So this first part of the chapter is an exercise in recognizing Jesus.

        How did they recognize him? The same way we’re to recognize him now. When Jesus is away on the shore they can’t see his face, but they recognize him by his power at work in their situation. As they get closer, they recognize him by his provision for their needs. In the same way we’re in an age when we do not see Jesus face to face. But he’s still at work, and we recognize him by his love shown in our circumstances and in the lives of those around us, and as we get closer to him to recognize him by his simple provision for our needs. We say ‘isn’t that just like him’ when an odd turn of events proves to be his provision for us. We say ‘Jesus was at work’ when something circumstantial feels like much more than a coincidence.

        Ok, for example, I can’t resist telling the story of losing my Bible in Russia. We had taken the Saturday night train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and met up with Rick and Jan Thompson. I’d been using ATM machines to get rubles, and I needed a bit more to get us through English camp. So on the way to Moscow Bible Church we stopped at an ATM machine in a mall. After I got our rubles I decided to just stuff them in my pocket and keep my hands in my pockets for safety. I forgot I’d carried my Bible with me, and left it on top of the ATM. When we got to church I realized it was gone, and Abbie and I walked back to try to find it. But despite our success in using our minimal Russian to tell people what we were looking for, it was gone.

        Meanwhile, out of the nine million in Moscow, the next person to use that ATM was Daniel Clark, an American teacher at Hinkston Christian Academy, who had just been to the first service at Moscow Bible Church. In my Bible he found a bulletin from Trinity, and so later that day, Sunday morning here, he called the church, and talked to Helen and to Gail. It turned out he knew and had worked with John and Jenny Porwall, the directors of Student Venture in Moscow, the organizers of our English camp. Somehow Daniel got the Bible to Jenny before she came to camp, and at our team meeting Monday night, she stood up with it and told us how it had come to them. As Doug Rask said ‘I got chills down my spine when I saw her hold it up.’ Me too. Why? Because it was so clearly Jesus at work orchestrating those events and telling us ‘Hey, it’s Me; I’m here; I’m sovereignly guiding this whole thing.” Isn’t that just like him, to turn a loss into an affirmation?

II. “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17)

        Jesus affirmed the disciples by being the one they knew, the one who cared in miraculous and practical ways. But having done so, he shows that he wants his people, Peter in particular, to have the same attitude. Verses 15 to 17: When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." 16Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." 17The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep.

        This conversation, with it’s exhortation repeated three times, takes place publicly, in front of the disciples, just as Peter’s boast that he’d never deny Jesus took place before them, and just as the denials themselves were public. It’s likely Peter had already been privately restored by Jesus. Luke’s Gospel and Paul’s list in 1st Corinthians imply that Jesus appeared to Peter alone, shortly after he rose. But now there will be a public reconciliation and restoration to ministry for this leader of the disciples.

        Jesus begins by asking Peter ‘do you love me more than these.’ He’s not asking if Peter loves Jesus more than he loves his brother disciples, nor if he loves Jesus more than the fishing, which some strange scholars have argued. No, he’s asking if Peter loves him more than the other disciples do, a boast Peter would have been very likely to make prior to his denial. But Peter has learned. He will not try to compare the relative strength of his love. He appeals rather to Jesus’ intimate knowledge of his heart: despite my bitter failure, he says in effect, you know I still love you.

        It’s common, in studying this text, to focus on the Greek words for love used by Jesus and Peter. One is agape, the other phileo. Some commentators would say that agape is God’s unconditional love, phileo is human love. Jesus asks using agape, and Peter responds with phileo, thus implying ‘My love isn’t up to God’s standard’. Then the third time Jesus asks using ‘phileo’ and Peter says ‘you know I phileo you.’

        But aside from making Peter’s allegiance to Jesus less than the rest of us are called to have, for example in 1st Peter 1, this also doesn’t fit the way John uses these words, which is interchangeably. For example, when describing himself as ‘the disciple Jesus loved’, John three times uses agape and once phileo. God the Father’s love for the Son is agape, but in one place it’s phileo. His love for us is agape and in another place phileo. John loves synonyms and uses them often in his writing. I don’t think the change of words is the point - it’s the threefold assurance of Peter’s love and his threefold re-commissioning, that makes this story significant.

        Jesus says to Peter “Take care of my sheep”. Each resurrection appearance includes some kind of commissioning, but this one isn’t to evangelism. It’s to care for the flock, care for his brothers and sisters in Christ. In the context of what we’ve seen, it’s a call to be like Jesus, who had just showed his care for the disciples in the miraculous provision of fish in the lake and in the very practical provision of fish over the fire. Jesus had said he was the good shepherd. Now he’s looking for Peter, and others to be shepherds like him. This means that you and I need to take responsibility to care for our bothers and sisters in practical ways. Peter learned this lesson. He later wrote to elders and said “Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers__not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

        Doesn’t that sound like a mature reflection on what Jesus is telling him? In the same way we need to be concerned for the spiritual lives of others, for the emotional needs of our brothers and sisters, for their physical needs, and for everything that will enable them not just to survive but to thrive as God’s people. If Peter really loves Jesus, who is the Good Shepherd, he will seek lost sheep by evangelism. He will feed and tend the young and vulnerable lambs by discipleship. And, like the Good Shepherd, he will also lay down his life for the sheep. And so will we.

III. “Follow me” Word (John 21:18-25)

        That’s one of the things Jesus emphasizes in verses 18 to 25: 18I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"

        20Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") 21When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?" 22Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." 23Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" 24This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. 25Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

Back in John 13 Peter assured his Lord that he was willing to die for Him. But he won’t die the way he once thought, seeking to protect His Master. Instead he will die as Jesus did, as a good shepherd, and for the sake of the gospel. Notice that this is more than a prediction of death - it’s also how Peter will die. Jesus says that this death will take place when Peter is old - it is not imminent. He says that by this death Peter will glorify God. And he says that it will be like Jesus’ death. Verse 18: “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” In the ancient world the phrase ‘stretch out the hands’ was used of crucifixion, the ‘stretching’ referring to the moment when a condemned prisoner was tied and then nailed to the cross piece. Jesus is saying Peter will be similarly tied, his hands stretched out and a martyrdom that is not his will but his Father’s will be done. So when Jesus tells Peter ‘Follow me’, he’s not just talking about imitation of Jesus’ life and character, but also his death. This is the ultimate “follow me” which started with the first miracle of the fish, and grew more and more significant as Jesus taught them and showed them his life, until finally he said that following him meant taking up a cross. Now he’s assuring Peter that this cross-bearing, at least in his case, will be literally true.

         And Peter understood. He was willing to lay down his life for the Savior, and tradition tells us that he was crucified, but that he asked to be crucified upside down, so that no one would confuse his death with Jesus’. But what about the rest of them? What about John? Verse 20 seems to imply that at this point Jesus and Peter are walking, with John following behind, at a distance. Peter apparently looks back and calls Jesus’ attention to John. If Peter had to die to follow Jesus, was this also true of him? Jesus’ answer, which led to some misconceptions, is basically ‘don’t concern yourself about someone else. If I want him to live until I come, it’s no business of yours. You need to follow me.” Apparently there were more than a few people who understood this to mean that John would not die before Jesus returned. So John clears up that misconception, pointing out what Jesus actually said, and discounting not the return, but the implication that John will still be alive when it happens.

        But don’t miss that Jesus again emphasizes Peter’s following. The outcome of following may be different for Peter than it will be for John. The outcome may be different for you than it will be for me. But the content of that following - feeding his sheep, taking care of his flock, imitating him as he continues to do those kind of things - that hasn’t changed, will not change, and never does change. John is calling us to examine our own love for the Lord, and to show that love by caring for those He loves, in a way that is consistent with His sacrificial death at Calvary.

        As he closes, John once again emphasizes that the whole book is eye-witness testimony. Verses 24 and 25 “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. 25Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” In recent years as I’ve read biographies, I’ve been amazed how much can be written about a person who lived hundreds of years ago. I read a 500 page biography of Admiral Lord Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar, and it was based almost entirely on his letters. I also read a biography of his contemporary, Captain James Cook, the explorer. That 500 page book was based mostly on ship’s logs of his voyages. Imagine how many pages can be written when you are an eyewitness to a great and interesting life. So John’s exaggeration pictures the truth - countless books could be filled by the life of Jesus, countless lessons learned, miracles seen, teachings reported.
        But remember, John wrote with a purpose - that those who read these reports and study these teachings may come to faith. As one recent commentator wrote “The verdict is clear. You should believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah the Christ and that by His sinless life and sacrificial death, your sins may be forgiven. And having believed the verdict, you should not only be overcome with His love for you, but you should be compelled by your love for Him, to serve Him, to shepherd his lambs. While you follow him, no matter where he leads, you should love and care and provide and give and sacrifice as he did.” That’s the last word of this Gospel.