My reflections each Easter season are fairly consistent. As I mull the significance of Palm Sunday, the march to the cross, Christ’s passion, and then resurrection morning, I always zoom in on Peter. I’ve mentioned before that of all the characters in Scripture, Peter is the one with whom I most self identify. I would rather be like Ruth or Joseph. But like it or not, I’m like Peter. I have had a lifelong problem with my mouth working faster than my brain. Peter had the same problem. God has worked on me for years to shut my mouth, listen, and think before I speak. But as I read each negative situation in which Peter managed to get himself, I can see me doing the exact same thing.
The most soul wrenching interaction between Jesus and Peter is recounted in Matthew 26. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, he tells the disciples of the coming crucifixion and their scattering. Peter rashly proclaims, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” (Mt. 26:33) Yet, just hours later, Peter denies Jesus — not once, not twice, but three times — even swearing curses that he never knew him. Peter quickly comes to himself, goes out, and weeps bitterly (Mt. 26:75). It is a sad, sad scene. Peter has failed Christ miserably. His failure is all the more bitter in light of his bold, naïve protestations that he would never do such a thing.
The first time Peter sees Jesus after the resurrection is recorded in John 21. In contrast to the previous scene, it is all the more beautiful. If anyone should be ashamed, hiding themselves from Jesus, it is Peter. He failed Christ miserably at His darkest hour. Yet both Peter and Jesus have a different reaction than expected. Christ offers no condemnation, and Peter exhibits no shame.
4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He 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. 7 That 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. 8 The 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.
While the other disciples make a respectable return in the boat, Peter jumps right into the water and swims/runs to Jesus. I can imagine the moment for him. They had crucified his Lord! He had denied Jesus! And there the Savior was, standing on the shore. Peter’s response reflects his utter need for Jesus. “Jesus, I can’t do this on my own. I just denied You three times. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing now. I can’t even catch fish on my own. I’m sitting here fishing on this boat because I have no idea what else I’m supposed to be doing. I need You!” In that moment, NOTHING else mattered. His shame was preempted by his NEED of Jesus. Getting to Jesus was number one priority.
After that scene, Jesus gives Peter a chance to affirm his love for Christ the same number of times Peter had denied it. And each time, Jesus tasks him with the great responsibility, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17). Do you see the great mercy and grace Christ deliberately shows Peter and deliberately records for us today in his Word? This man, Peter, got it wrong more times than he got it right in the gospels. And, yet, Jesus tells Peter that God will build His house upon Peter the Rock!
The image of Jesus coming to Peter after the resurrection means much to me. As someone who has failed Jesus enough to know the turmoil Peter must have felt in that moment, I love the thought of Peter’s eyes meeting Jesus’ for the first time after the resurrection. And I praise God that Jesus doesn’t condemn Peter. He is SO GRACIOUS with Peter. Before all of this, Jesus had told Peter He was going to build His church on Peter the rock. And after Peter’s denial, Jesus comes to him in affirmation that His plans for Peter have not changed. God’s purposes for Peter were still on track! And then Jesus spends precious time before His ascension reaffirming His plans for Peter. “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Then feed my sheep.”
Christ’s interaction with Peter before, during, and after the crucifixion epitomizes gospel grace to me. I know the theological language for all Christ accomplished for me on the cross. But watching it play out between Jesus and Peter in the gospels (and then reading on into Acts and the epistles to see what Peter became and taught in consequence) puts a face on it for me. Peter earned nothing and nearly squandered everything. However, though Jesus knew Peter would betray Him, He loved him anyway, pursued him with His grace, and affirmed to him His purposes for him. And this same Jesus loves, pursues, and affirms you and I. This is such very good news.