Putting The Past Behind

The one thing I am sure we all have in common is this: We have all been hurt by someone. It may have been a long time ago or it may have been yesterday. It may have been little or big, but we all carry scars that have come from relationships. That’s what makes this encounter in John 21 so interesting. When Jesus was denied by Peter three times, it must have left scars. Peter had made big boasts. He was the one who said, “though everyone else may turn away from you  . . . I never will.” But when it can to the moment of truth Peter not only denied his Lord, he did it strongly. It must have hurt.

We watch with interest as Jesus deals with the wayward disciple. And as we watch and listen we see some things we must not forget. First, we see

An Example to follow

There are a lot of responses that Jesus could have had to Peter. He could have responded to him like we would have. He could have treated him with silence. He could have given him the cold shoulder. He could have made it crystal clear that He was angry at Peter and let him suffer.

He could have “punished” Peter. Every time Peter made a promise Jesus could have raised an eyebrow as if to say, “we should believe you?” Jesus could have said, “You know Peter, I usually would have asked you to do this but . . . I just don’t trust you anymore.” He could have brought up the denial in every conversation. You know, “remember that night when Peter denied me . . . ?” He could have excluded Peter from the things he invited others to do. He could have found subtle and not so subtle ways to punish this disciple. And if He ran out of ideas . . . he could have asked us! 🙂

But this is not what Jesus chooses to do. Instead Jesus gets to the heart of the issue. He wants Peter to grow from the experience, not be shackled with it. What Jesus does is let Peter know that He believes in him and still trusts him. Jesus forgives Peter. He doesn’t say the words . . .  but sometimes those exact words are unnecessary. Isn’t it true that sometimes in marriage a well-times hug says, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” better than words? Sometimes an invitation to dinner, a phone call where you say, “I’ve missed talking with you!” convey your heart better than words. Jesus set Peter free.

I meet lots of people who are tied in knots with resentment and bitterness. Something happened in the past and they have not forgotten. In fact, the pain of the event is only surpassed by the pain of the memory. Every one of us has people who have hurt us. They spoke an unkind word; they cheated us in a business deal; they were inattentive or abusive as parents; they were unappreciative children; they disappointed us when we were in a crisis; they broke their vow. Every one of us has a Peter in our lives. The question is: what are we going to do about it?

I suspect some of you are already building walls of resistance because you can see where I am going. Please, don’t shut me out . . . and the truth of Scripture. The Lord does not deny the reality of our pain but He does want us to handle it properly. Jesus has told us that a person who is unwilling to forgive shows that they do not appreciate what they have been forgiven. Jesus tells the parable of the man who was forgiven a great debt but then went and threw a man who owed him a much lesser debt in jail. This is condemned. (Cf. Matthew 18:22 ff) Jesus argues that we have been forgiven a much greater wrong than any wrong someone could do to us. Knowing what it is to receive mercy, we should be willing to extend it. If we are unwilling to extend forgiveness it only goes to show we did not appreciate what we have received.

We are also told that a person who is unwilling to forgive is usurping God’s Authority. In Romans 12:9 we read, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” Commenting on this passage, author Philip Yancey writes,

In the final analysis, forgiveness is an act of faith. By forgiving another, I am trusting that God is a better justice-maker than I am. By forgiving, I release my own right to get even and leave all issues of fairness for God to work out. I leave in God’s hands the scales that must balance justice and mercy. [What’s So Amazing About Grace?]

When we refuse to forgive someone, we show that we don’t really trust God. You see that God does not deny the reality of our pain. He understands it. And He asks us to leave the pain and the repercussions to Him.

The Bible tells us that those who are unwilling to extend forgiveness will pay a price. Lewis Smedes writes,

The first and often the only person to be healed by forgiveness is the person who does the forgiving. When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us.

Jesus says, that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. Now these words are certainly difficult. We do not earn salvation by what we do. This is not an “arrangement” with the Almighty. I think Max Lucado might have something when he said,

In any given Christian community there are two groups: those who are contagious in their joy and those who are cranky in their faith. They’ve accepted Christ and are seeking him, but their balloon has no helium. One is grateful, but the other is grumpy. Both are saved. Both are heaven bound. But one sees the rainbow and the other sees the rain.

Could this principle explain the difference? Could it be that they are experiencing the same joy they have given their offenders? One says, “I forgive you,” and feels forgiven. The other says, “I’m ticked off,” and lives ticked off at the world. (The Great House of God p. 126)

Max also tells the story of this Amos and Andy routine,

Amos asks Andy what that little bottle is he’s wearing around his neck. “Nitroglycerine,” he answers. Amos is stunned that Andy would be wearing a necklace of nitro, so he asks for an explanation. Andy tells him about a fellow who has a bad habit of poling people in the chest while he’s speaking. “It drives me crazy,” Andy say. “I’m wearing this nitro so the next time he pokes me, I’ll blow his finger off.”

Friend, do you realize that when you refuse to forgive you are being just like Andy? An unwillingness to forgive is sinful and foolish. You may think that you are making the one who hurt you pay . . . but have you noticed that it’s you in the cell?

A Question to Keep Us focused

But there is a second thing we learn from this account. We see here a question that keeps us focused. Jesus asks Peter the same question three times. It is likely that the number was intentional since Peter had denied the Lord three times. And you have probably heard that there are two different words for love used in this passage. Jesus uses the stronger one and Peter uses the weaker one. I’m not sure what we are to make of this. Is it that Peter did not love Jesus deeply, or was it that Peter was unwilling to make any more big boasts? I think it may be the later.

The first question is: “Do you love me more than these?” I think Jesus was asking Peter if he still thought his love was superior to that of the other disciples. Notice that Peter is unwilling to make any such claim now. I think this shows that Peter had become more humble. This is a good thing.

But I also think there may be another reason why Jesus asked this question three times. It sometimes takes asking a question  many times before someone hears the real question. Have you ever said to someone, “How are you?” and gotten a superficial, “I’m fine.” Then you follow up and ask “How ARE you? And then the person responds with a more complete answer. They might say, “well, my family is struggling . . .” and then one more time you ask, “How are YOU?” Then and only then do you seem to get an answer to the real question. Then the person confesses that they are lonely or frightened or sick. We might have to tell somebody we love them several times before they believe us. I think Jesus wanted to make sure that Peter HEARD the question. We need to make sure that we hear it too.

Do you see, this question shows us that Jesus is not seeking religion . . . he is seeking a relationship? Jesus doesn’t ask, “Do you love the church?” or “Do you love the people who go to church with you?” He does not say, “Do you love the way faith helps you in life?” He asks, “Do you love ME?”

The story is told of the deep love and devotion French soldiers had for their leader, Napoleon. He noted that it was not at all unusual for a mortally wounded soldier to raise himself on one elbow and give a final cheer to his revered General. And if by chance the dying man saw Napoleon nearby, he would, with his final breath, shout, “Vive Emprereu!” Perhaps one of the most eloquent expressions of all, however, came from the lips of a soldier who had been shot in the chest. As the surgeon was attempting to remove the bullet, the suffering man was heard to whisper, “If you go much deeper, Doctor, you’ll come to the Emperor” . . . He had him on his heart.

Do you understand how differently we would live our lives if we kept this question foremost in our heart? When someone hurts us, we wonder if they really love us. Let Charles Spurgeon make the application,

When we were speaking with an angry word and with a sullen look, could not thy Lord have touched you, and said, “Do you love me?” When you were doing such-and-such a thing, which you knew in your conscience was not according to his command, might he not have said, “Do you love me?” Can you not remember the murmuring word you spoke because something had gone wrong with you in business this week, and you were speaking ill of the God of providence for it? Oh, might not the loving Savior, with pity in his languid eye, have said to you, “Why, do you talk like this? Do you love me?” Oh, do you not think within yourselves, “can I love him when I have broken so many of his commandments! Have I reflected his glorious image to the world as I should have done? Have I not wasted many hours within this week that I might have spent in winning souls to him? Have I not thrown away many precious moments in light and frivolous conversation which I might have spent in earnest prayer? How many sins have I winked at? How many crimes have I covered over? How have I made my Savior’s heart to bleed? How have I done dishonor to his cause? How have I in some degree disgraced my heart’s profession of love to him? Oh, ask these questions of thyself, beloved, and say, “Is this kindness to your Friend?

When our love for the Lord is true, we live differently. Many today are wearing bracelets that say WWJD and it stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” It is meant to challenge us to respond to situations not as instinct dictates, but in a manner similar to what our Savior would do. It would be just as appropriate to wear a band that had DYLM on it. “Do You Love Me?” It’s not only a GOOD question.  It is the PRIMARY question.

A Job to do

We can’t leave the text until we notice one more thing. We notice that Jesus gives Peter a job to do. Our Lord does not only forgive Peter, but he puts him back on the right course. He does this by spelling out for Peter what it is that He wants him to do. He wants him to feed and care for the sheep.

In a sense, we all share in that same responsibility. All of us are involved in caring for the flock of God. It is certainly true that there is a potent message for everyone in a teaching position . . . especially Pastors. Jesus does not call us to entertain the sheep, administrate the sheep, develop support groups for the sheep, or make the sheep feel better about themselves. We are to FEED the sheep.

A story is told about an old American Indian who attended a church service on Sunday morning. The preacher’s message lacked real spiritual food, so he did a lot of shouting and pulpit pounding to cover up his lack of preparation. In fact, as it is sometimes said, he “preached up quite a storm.” After the service, someone asked the Indian, who was a Christian, what he thought of the minister’s message. Thinking for a moment, he summed up his opinion is six words, “High wind. Big Thunder. No Rain.”

All across America people flock to the church. Many love their church and the times of worship they enjoy. But many of those same people are starving spiritually. They are having fun but they are malnourished. The reason? “High Wind. Big Thunder. No Rain.” We must teach the truth of Scripture! It is God’s truth that will set us free!

Notice three things,

  • They are God’s sheep . . . not ours. We are not building our Kingdom, or our Church, but we are to build the Household of God! That reminder alone will stop much of the pettiness that divides us.
  • The sheep are not all the same. He calls some lambs and others sheep. As we care for each other, we must understand that each person is unique and different. Our methods, words and actions must be tailored to the situation. Some people can handle a big steak. Others need a bottle. Still others need that strained stuff.
  • We are not only to feed them, but care for them. It’s not enough to simply recite Bible verses to each other. I don’t know a lot about livestock. But I do know this: there is more to taking care of those animals than just putting out feed and water. They need help when having their calves. They need medical help when they are sick. They need warmth when it is bitterly cold. They need attention when it is terribly hot. They need protection from predators. It’s not enough for us to “go through the motions” we must get involved with each other if we are going to help each other grow.


One final thought. Jesus tells Peter that He knows that he will indeed be faithful. He knows that someday Peter is going to give his life out of love for the Savior. Indeed, Jesus DOES know that Peter loves him. But don’t miss what comes next. Peter, sees John following behind them and asks “What is going to happen to him?”. Jesus responds: “if I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

Why is that significant? Jesus is telling Peter that the issue is not John, but it’s him. And so it is with you today. The issue is not those who hurt you.  It’s you. Will you forgive? The issue is not whether the other guy loves Christ. The question is, “Do YOU love Him?” It’s not whether others are doing their job but whether you are. This is a message that is meant to be taken personally.

So with this in mind, I close with these questions: is there someone that you need to forgive today? Do you need to make a visit, dial a number, extend a warm embrace to someone you have been odds with for too long? Friend, are you willing to trust God and love God enough to let go of the bitterness and resentment?

Have you gotten sidetracked? Have you forgotten that the question is not about your experience but your heart? Will you examine your heart today and ask, “Do I Love Jesus?” Don’t be hasty with the answer. Ask the question several times. Make sure you understand the depth of its meaning.

Have you spent all your time playing with the sheep when you were supposed to be feeding them? Is your Christianity anchored in substance or superficiality?

And finally, are you yearning for forgiveness? Do you feel a barrier between you and God because of something you have done? Friend, as the Savior’s representative let me give you this message from the Father, “Come to me, you who are weary and heavily burdened . . . and I will give you rest.” His arms are open. Forgiveness is extended. There is no cold shoulder or condemning look . . . He offers you instead, grace. It’s time you take off the burden of guilt you wear. Your sin has been dealt with at the cross . . . and now you are free. Free to begin to follow Him. Free to get acquainted with the One who has loved you since before you were born.

Peter heard the message well. Tradition says that Peter died the death of a martyr. He was sentenced to be crucified. But Peter requested that he be crucified upside down because he did not feel worthy to die in the same way as his Lord. Peter took to heart what Jesus said that day on the bank of the river. He walked away leaving the past behind and focused on the serving Christ in the future. I pray you will do the same.

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