When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.” (John 21:15, NIV)
Have you been there? Heart surrendered to Jesus and set on serving Him faithfully, but then Satan one-ups you through a trying circumstance, a familiar temptation, or just the subtle invitation to slip into a self-trusting mode of operation. Those moments that we end up missing the mark in our personal lives make us wonder if we can truly have a positive spiritual impact on others' lives. Maybe you haven't had those doubt-filled moments, but if ever there was someone who could relate, it was Peter.
In a startling sequence, Peter goes from professing immovable loyalty to Jesus (Jn. 13:37) to emphatically denying and disowning Jesus three times over (Jn. 18:17, 25, 27). By the time we catch up with the once-zealous disciple in John 21:1-3, Peter picks up the nets of his former trade, as if he had begun to question the future he had in being a fisher of men. But on that despondent morning, Jesus draws near and performs a miracle that undeniably reminds Peter and the other disciples of how their journey with Jesus began in the first place -- empty nets instantaneously filled to breaking (Jn. 21:6; cf. Lk. 5:4-6).
After enjoying a breakfast on the beach together, Jesus addresses Peter in front of the others with a very pointed and leading question: "Do you love me more than these?" Peter's response is humble and unexaggerated, not filled with comparisons to others as before Jesus' crucifixion (Mt. 26:33). Instead of driven by self-reliance, he speaks with a healthy self-distrust, deferring to Jesus to verify the genuineness of his heart: "You know that I love you." And with this humble confession secured, which was also repeated three times over, Jesus re-commissions Peter to follow Him with this distinct charge: "Feed My lambs" (Jn. 21:15). Rather than securing a commitment to catch others as a fisherman, Jesus commissions Peter to care for others as a shepherd.
Peter's spiritual failure actually positioned him to be a faithful shepherd.
In the eyes of our Lord, Peter's story of spiritual failure did not have to end in utter defeat. Jesus saw in Peter, as he sees in each one of us, a potential to bless others in spite of and even because of our brokenness. Furthermore, this ministry potential is something that Jesus could see even before Peter's denial: "But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to Me again, strengthen your brothers" (Lk. 22:32, NLT).
Before his fall, Peter was always speaking unadvisedly, from the impulse of the moment. He was always ready to correct others, and to express his mind, before he had a clear comprehension of himself or of what he had to say. But the converted Peter was very different. He retrained his former fervor, but the grace of Christ regulated his zeal. He was no longer piteous, self-confident, and self-exalted, but calm, self-possessed, and teachable. He could then feed the lambs as well as the sheep of Christ’s flock (E.G. White, The Desire of Ages, 812).
The broken and now repentant Peter could truly strengthen others around him. Fully aware of his own weakness, he could sympathize with the "lambs," those young in the faith who would need gentle shepherding and compassionate care.
Does this mean we should foolishly dive into spiritual failure and defeat? Hardly. But Peter's story demonstrates in living color that the power of the gospel can turn our most bitter defeat into that which fits us for usefulness in the kingdom. Let's take hope in Jesus' saving power to move us from failure to fitness.