In John 21, we see the resurrected Jesus appear to seven of His disciples. We see Him specifically reach out to Peter to assure him that he was still His disciple even though Peter denied Him three times. John makes three key observations about Jesus’ interaction with Peter that shows once we are His, Jesus will always call us back.
First, John describes how Jesus appeared and made Himself known to the disciples (John 21:4-7). The seven disciples had fished throughout the night and did not catch anything (John 21:3). When Jesus appeared, He told them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. When they did this, the catch of fish was so big they could not pull it back onto the boat (John 21:6).
Peter’s reaction was to immediately jump out of the boat and swim to shore, so while he may not have immediately made the connection, it is hard for us to miss the connection between Jesus’ appearance here and when He first called His disciples in Luke 5:4-8. At that time, Peter and three others had spent the night fishing and catching nothing, and then after Jesus told them where to cast their nets, the catch was so big it started to break their nets.
Next, John tells us that Jesus had prepared a charcoal fire to cook the fish (John 21:9). This detail may be easy for us to miss, but the only other time the term “charcoal fire” is used in the Bible is in John 18:18 when Peter is warming himself during Jesus’ trial. It was also at that charcoal fire that Peter denied Jesus three times.
Smell is a very powerful sense. The smell of fresh dough still takes me back to my first job in a pizza restaurant even though it has been over 30 years since I worked there. If Peter did not make the connection to Jesus calling him from the boat, the smell of a charcoal fire could have been a powerful trigger of his denial of Jesus.
Finally, after Jesus finished eating breakfast with His disciples, John describes to us how Jesus address Peter directly by asking him three times, “do you love me” (John 21:15-17). The fact that Jesus asks Peter three times clearly symbolizes his three denials of Jesus (John 18:17, 25, 27).
If there was any doubt about Peter’s understanding the connection between the boat and the charcoal fire, we know for certain that Peter understood that Jesus was reminding him of his three denials. After Jesus asked Peter “do you love me” the third time, John tells us, “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (John 21:17). Even though these reminders must have been hard for Peter to hear, Jesus still reassured Peter that he was still His disciple by telling him to feed and tend to His sheep.
Jesus used these reminders for Peter not to shame him for his denial, but He used them for at least two purposes:
First, these reminders helped to humble Peter. The Peter in the book of Acts and in his two letters is not the brash and proud Peter of the Gospels. The way that Jesus sensitively reminded Peter of what he did helped to keep him humble much like Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). We all need reminding of how far we could fall if it were not for God’s sustaining grace.
Secondly, these reminders helped to reassure Peter that even though Jesus knew his past, he was still fit to be His disciple. Even though Jesus remembered the denials of Peter, He still went out of His way to make sure Jesus knew that He still called him His own. This should be a comfort for us to know that we are never too far gone to be used by Jesus, and once we become His, nothing can change that (John 6:37).