Do you ever avoid certain passages of Scripture because they remind you so vividly of past sin? You’ve confessed your sin, and you trust that God is faithful and just to forgive you of that sin and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9). But still, certain Scriptures or sermons based upon them seem to reopen old wounds and to remind you anew of an old and deep pain.
We see something similar happening to Peter as he talks with Jesus following Christ’s resurrection. Just prior to Jesus’s crucifixion, Peter faced three questions about his relationship to Jesus and he denied three times that he was the Lord’s disciple. Jesus predicted that three-fold betrayal (Luke 22:34), and upon Peter’s final denial of his relationship to Jesus, the Lord looked at him knowingly (verse 61). Peter saw the Savior’s stare and broke down, going out and weeping bitterly.
In John 21, the risen Jesus asks Peter his own series of questions about Peter’s relationship to him. Several times in slightly nuanced ways, Jesus asks: “…do you love me?” Though interesting, the questions’ nuances are not as important as their number: three. Clearly, Jesus wants Peter to recall his three failures to identify with him. Why would Jesus do this? Is this line of questioning not contrary to God’s “forgetfulness” of our sins, his putting them as far away from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103) and his never keeping a record of our wrongs (1 Corinthians 13)?
Perhaps you wonder why the Lord in his providence would put certain passages within his word in your face, as it were, forcing you to remember past sins you’d rather forget. Perhaps in those moments, you feel like Peter did when he saw Jesus looking at him across the way, only this feels like a fresh look based upon an allegedly forgiven sin. You feel Jesus lock eyes with you by way of His word, and your heart shatters all over again.
But when you come across these painful passages, what does your Savior’s stare actually say?
Jesus is not reminding you of old failures in order to create new guilt; he is reminding you of his finished work to free you from that guilt. He is calling you to feel the strength of that forgiveness and to step forward in new obedience, making progress in your holy war against the sinful tendencies to which you once yielded. These passages do not put you down over past sin; they prepare you to put down the sin which yet remains within you. Let’s see how this truth plays out with Peter.
In verse 18, Jesus reveals to Peter the way by which Peter will one day die. It will be a martyr’s death; it will be awful. How could Peter, who had recently failed under far less pressure, possibly bear up under a trial far worse?
Notice, Jesus does not say to Peter: “Do you remember when you failed me?” Though he clearly calls that context to mind, Jesus’s question is far different, far more positive than it may seem at first. The Savior asks: “Do you love me?”
Jesus uses these questions like a spiritual spade, piercing from slightly different angles into the soil of Peter’s heart. Question after question, Jesus digs deeper into the depths of Peter’s guilt, beneath the self-deceit, the fear, the anxiety, the pride. Why cause such trauma to an already troubled heart? Jesus digs deep into Peter’s heart to show Peter what was there, what had taken root at the core of his being: true, unfailing faith.
Prior to Peter’s betrayal, Jesus tells the disciples that Satan wanted to sift them like wheat. Jesus then singles Peter out, and says to him: “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32) Now, like an EMT applying rhythmic, resuscitating pressure upon a patient’s chest, Jesus pushes repeatedly upon Peter’s soul to force from him a gasping affirmation of abiding life. Peter cries out in desperation: “Lord, you know everything!”- a declaration of Jesus’ divinity. And more than a mere doctrinal affirmation, Peter follows with a soul-deep cry of affection for the Savior: “You know I love you!”
There is something very Job-like about this conversation between a believer and his Lord. Jesus’s question to Peter “What is that to you?” echoes God’s “Where were you …” line of questions for Job from the whirlwind (Job 38:1ff). In both interrogations, the Lord of heaven and earth mercifully reduces a man to nothing but the grace God had given him, humbling that man under His mighty hand, so as to exalt him in due time.
Peter’s confession, his catharsis – similar to Job’s stunning statement of faith in chapter 19:25 of his book – is exactly what he needed at that pivotal moment in his life. Caught between profound regret for his recent past and the jarring new knowledge of a terrible time in his future, Peter needed to see for himself, and apparently to say for himself, that he really knew, and really loved, his Lord. And even more comfort would come after his confession as he reflected upon the beginning of his heart’s passion for the true and living God (1 Peter 1:1-3).
As Jesus and Peter talked, John trailed behind them (verse 20), the same John who would later write about how love for God comes about in a believer’s heart. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). In John 21, Jesus tells Peter how to love his brethren: “Feed my sheep.” (verse 17) And so Peter did, for the rest of his life in this world, as we read in the book of Acts and from his own letters later in the New Testament.
Peter writes in the first chapter of his first letter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Jesus’s questions are not meant to reopen a raw wound in Peter’s heart. Jesus’ questions show Peter that the wound was not fatal, that his Lord did not, and would not, let his disciple’s faith fail. Jesus predicted Peter’s failures, but He also prayed for Peter’s faith to abide and predicted that it would. The effectual, fervent prayer of THE righteous man accomplished much for Peter (James 5:16) and it does for you, too. If you know Christ or come to know him, then the righteous one has prayed and predicted the same for you (John 14, 17).
As with Peter, the Lord’s word does pierce us at times, but a surgeon’s cut is made in kindness. Jesus always uses the sword of the Spirit to heal and strengthen His people. You need not fear condemnation from any of your Father’s words (Romans 8:1); because of Jesus’ redemptive work, you never need to doubt the finality of your Father’s forgiveness (Hebrews 1:1-4, 9:11-14, 10:10). Pour joyfully through the pages of Scripture. The Spirit of God will reveal to you what the Savior has accomplished in you as your Father’s child, and you’ll get to see his glorious plans for you to grow in his grace (2 Peter 3:18).