Fourth Sunday in Easter: Jn. 21:15-25
Here, as the close to the breakfast episode, John zooms in on the restoration and forgiveness of Peter. This is not the first time John has highlighted forgiveness as proof of the resurrection (Jn. 20:23), and this comes immediately to the fore in his epistle (1 Jn. 1:5-10). In other words, forgiveness is one of the chief proofs of the resurrection.
The Text: When Jesus first appeared to His disciples, one of His repeated statements was “peace be with you” (Jn. 20:19, 21, 26), and one of the first things He explains is that this means they are being given the Holy Spirit (Jn. 20:22). And the gift of the Spirit means that they are being entrusted with a ministry of forgiveness (Jn. 20:23). This theme is picked up again in the questions Jesus asks Peter. The scene has been carefully crafted to remind us of Peter’s denial. There is a fire of coals (Jn. 21:9, cf. 18:18), and Peter is asked a similar question three times (Jn. 21:15-17, cf. 18:17-18, 25-27). Jesus’ final exhortation to Peter reminds us of the calling of the disciples at the beginning of His ministry, ‘Follow me’ (Jn. 21:19, 1:39-43). In other words, Jesus is clearly starting over with Peter. This is a restoration/forgiveness scene, given at the close of the gospel as a final testimony to the truth of the gospel (Jn. 21:24-25).
God in Christ Forgave
The appearance of the risen Jesus is in some ways like Joseph revealing himself to his brothers after so many years (Gen. 45). And as with Joseph’s brothers, there was likely some measure of trepidation (cf. Gen. 50:15ff). Afterall, the disciples had all abandoned Jesus (Mt. 26:56, Mk. 14:50), and Peter explicitly denied Him three times (Jn. 18:15-27). The disciples, by not standing with Jesus, had in some sense stood with His enemies. The pattern for our forgiveness is God’s forgiveness in Christ (Eph. 4:32, Col. 3:13). How does God forgive? Through Jesus. So we need to understand how we have been forgiven so that we can extend this same forgiveness.
The Problem: Cosmic Treason
This is what all sin is – it is an act of personal, cosmic treason against God. Paul makes this point when he speaks of people being “sinners” and “enemies” of God as parallel realities (Rom. 5:8-10, Col. 1:21). God is love, but God is also just. Part of the point of the giving of the law was to make it clear that the whole world was guilty of this treason (Rom. 3:19). And whoever breaks just one part of the law is guilty of it all (Js. 2:10). All sin is defiance to the goodness of God, and in some way a deep desire to dethrone God and become god. Therefore, because this is evil and would overthrow all of God’s goodness and justice, God hates sin (e.g. Pr. 6:16-19), and His response is righteous anger and wrath (e.g. Ps. 2:12, 7:11, Ezra 5:12, Eph. 5:6, Col. 3:6, Rev. 6:16, 14:10, 15:7, 19:15). Hell is the final destination for those who do not escape this wrath, a place of eternal darkness and sorrow and suffering. And despite caricatures to the contrary, Jesus spoke about Hell regularly (Mt. 8:11-12, 18:8-9, 25:41, Mk. 9:42-48, Lk. 16:19-31).
The Solution: Propitiation
But if Jesus came to proclaim the verdict of God against sin, He also came as the only possible means of acquittal for sinners. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness… that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 23-26). The wages of sin is death, but the free gift is eternal life. To propitiate means to satisfy and to cover. He bore our sins in His own body in order that the death we owe might already be over (1 Pet. 2:24). Jesus suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus freely endured the wrath of God for every sin committed, past, present, and future, so that we might be cleansed and forgiven and restored to the God who made us (1 Jn. 1:7-2:2).
The Commission: Feed My Sheep
Peter was an apostle with a particular ministerial calling that has been handed down to other elders who feed and tend the flock of God (1 Pet. 5:1-4). This includes a judicial ministry of forgiveness and excommunication – which is ultimately the pronouncement that a person’s sins are not forgiven (Jn. 20:23, cf. 1 Cor. 5:5, Mt. 18:15-18). There is also a general corollary ministry granted by the Spirit to all believers, a ministry of love and forgiveness that is to characterize the lives of all the followers of Jesus (Eph. 4:32, Col. 3:13). This is also a ministry to the sheep of God’s pasture, and it flows directly out of the love of God. This is why the first apostles proclaim this forgiveness as part of their testimony to Jesus’ resurrection, especially calling the lost sheep of Israel home (Acts 5:31, 13:38, 26:18).
Conclusion: The Spirit of Forgiveness
It’s no accident that receiving the forgiveness of our sins is nearly synonymous with receiving the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:38). The forgiveness of our sins nearly is the Holy Spirit in person. He is God’s legal/judicial promise and commitment not to hold our sin against us. He is our down payment, God’s pledge of His determination to only view us in Christ. This Spirit necessarily drives us to forgive others as we have been forgiven. This drive is urgent: Leave your gift at the altar (Mt. 5:24). This drive is pervasive: Husbands, dwell with your wives with understanding that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Pet. 3:7). How can you say you love God whom you have not seen, if you do not love your brother whom you have seen (1 Jn. 4:20)?
The call to forgive is a call to die to self, to lose your life for the sake of Jesus. To love enemies is to risk literal death. In this we see how forgiveness is an evidence of the resurrection. When people are forgiven, they become fearless forgivers. They forgive because the wrath of God has been satisfied. The wrath of God is satisfied because Jesus died and rose again (1 Cor. 15:17).