Standing in the True Grace of God, Lesson 2

Originally posted September 21, 2017, at Women of Purpose.

Our first lesson ended at the lowest point in the apostle Peter’s life. He had denied his beloved Master and Lord and we last saw him weeping bitterly. Our lesson this week opens with the scene in which the Lord will restore Peter to his position as leader of the disciples. Easter has come, and the tomb was empty. Peter has seen his Lord on several occasions, but in John 21 we see how Jesus tenderly gathers up the pieces of his broken disciple and puts him back together, turning his fall to the good for him and for the church.

We begin with John 21:1-8 with a group of disciples accompanying Peter for some night fishing. It seems that Peter, and others, are at loose ends now that the roller coaster events of the last few weeks are calming down. They had spent three heady years walking beside Jesus during his public ministry, and now that he has been crucified (!), dead (!), buried (!), and resurrected (!?!?!), they aren’t quite sure what their role is anymore. They knew their place while they followed him then, but what does following him now mean?

. . . Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.

This passage clearly parallels the passage in Luke 5:1-11, when Jesus first called Peter, James, and John to follow him. In the Luke passage, they had also fished all night long and caught nothing. In that passage, they had been told by Jesus where to cast their nets. And in that passage, they caught almost more than their nets and boats could hold. Arthur W. Pink, in his exposition of this passage, sheds some light on the significance of the similarities:

“Its striking resemblance to the first miracle which some of these disciples had witnessed (Luke 5:1-11) must have brought to their remembrance the very similar circumstances under which they had been called by Christ to leave their occupation as fishermen and become fishers of men. Thus they would be led to interpret this present “sign” by the past one, and see in it a renewed summons to their work of catching men, and a renewed assurance that their labour in the Lord would not be in vain. . . It was designed to assure them that just as he had prospered their efforts while He was with them in the flesh, so they could count on His guidance, power, and blessing when he was absent from them”[1]

By these signs they are to recognize that their work of “catching men” is not over, rather, it is renewed with supernatural vigor. They needn’t wander back to their “pre-Jesus” lives—once a true follower of Jesus, always a follower.

The similarities seem obvious, and yet, there is a key difference between these two fishing excursions: where is Jesus? In the Luke passage, he is in the boat with them, alongside them, when they make the miraculous catch of fish. He then calls them to follow him, and thus begins their three years of walking with him. In our passage in John 21, Jesus is on the shore, directing their activities from afar. Again, from Arthur Pink:

“The disciples on the sea picture us, here in this world; the Saviour on the shore (whither we are bound) Christ in Heaven. How blessed, then, to behold Him occupied with us below, and speaking to us from “the shore!”[2]

Jesus is just as invested in our lives now as he was with the disciples during the three years they walked beside him. He directs his church—us—from his place in heaven, guarding and guiding us, saving and sanctifying us. His guidance now, as then, yields a supernaturally abundant harvest. By staying on the shore, Jesus was showing the disciples that even though he will be “far away,” they can still be confident that he is involved in directing and prospering their ministry.

In John 21:14-19, Jesus gives Peter a threefold opportunity to publicly redeem his denial. As Peter had earlier denied his Lord three times, here, he confirms his love for his Master three times. Jesus addresses him as Simon, son of John, to remind him of his weakness without the grace of God. Why does Jesus ask, “Do you love me more than these?” Note the way Mark records Peter’s response to Jesus’ warning before his arrest:

“Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though they all fall away, I will not.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said emphatically, ‘If I must die with you, I will not deny you’” (Mark 14:27-31).

In his earlier bravado, Peter stood in front of the other disciples and pointed a rhetorical finger of accusation at them while thumping himself on the chest in profession of a superior loyalty and love for their Master. Now, they all know how that turned out. His boasting and his fall had been public spectacles, so now, also, his repentance and redemption. This interview was not done in secret, but in front of the other disciples on the shore. As they were witness to his pride and eventual downfall, so now they are witness to his humility and healing.

The questioning grieves Peter, which, as Arthur Pink explains, was a necessary part of the cure:

“He would not heal Peter’s wound slightly, but would work a perfect cure; therefore, does He as it were, open it afresh. The Saviour would not have him lose the lesson of his fall, nor in the forgiveness forget his sin.”[3]

This should also remind Peter of Jesus’ warning in John 13:36-38 of the sifting which was then soon to occur, and which Peter now fully realizes has occurred. At that time Peter had based his profession of love on his own loyalty to Jesus. Now, he bases his confession of his love not on his own actions—which failed—but on Christ’s own knowledge of him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (17). The Searcher of hearts knows who loves him.

“The needed point is reached: the strong man converted to weakness is now fit to strengthen his brethren; and, as Peter descends step by step the ladder of humiliation, step by step the Lord follows him with assurance of the work for which he is destined.”[4]

Jesus humbles his disciple that he might build him into a servant-leader for his church. He who remembers his own weakness and inclination to sin will offer mercy and grace to those who need it. Each time Peter answers the Lord’s question, Jesus commands him to, “feed my lambs. . .tend my sheep. . .feed my sheep.” Jesus is honoring and accepting Peter’s humble confession of love by restoring his authority as lead apostle and commissioning him to nourish and shepherd the Lord’s own flock: his church. This confirms that Peter and the rest are indeed to continue with the ministry which began by leaving their former occupations to follow the Lord during his earthly ministry. Their ‘fishing for men” has only just begun!

Now that Peter knows his weakness and deep need to rely on the grace of God and has been fully restored in heart, conscience, and commission, the Lord gives him one more command, “Follow me.” Before, when he declared his good intention to follow wherever his Master would go (John 13:36. 37), he was unable. But now, he is fully prepared by the Lord—and will soon receive the Holy Spirit—so that he can “take up his cross and follow” Christ, “being conformed to his death.”

“By ‘Follow me,’ Jesus meant, ‘Be my disciple and apostle, and as such follow me in service, in suffering, and in death (by being willing to endure affliction and even martyrdom for my sake).’ It was a renewed call to discipleship and to the duties of the apostolic office.”[5]

 Now we move to Acts 2: 1-41, in which we see Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit fulfilled (Acts 1:5), and the ushering in of a new era as the Spirit comes to take up his dwelling with men—not temporarily, but forever. In verses 1-4 we read that the believers, including Peter, who were waiting together, heard the sound of a mighty rushing wind—though they didn’t feel the effects of wind; they saw divided tongues of flame resting upon each of them, signifying the presence of God[6] (as John the Baptist had prophesied that “He who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” [Mat 3:11]); they experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit; and they spoke with “other tongues,” —recognizable languages, as is made clear by the reaction of the multitudes from other nations who heard them.

Peter then takes his stand and delivers a powerful, unflinching, Christ-exalting sermon to the crowds. He preaches that Jesus was “attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs,” that he was delivered up and killed “by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” and by “the hands of lawless men,” was raised up from death by God because “it was not possible for him to be held by it,” was seen by witnesses, was exalted to the right hand of God, from where he poured out the holy Spirit, which accounted for what the people were now witnessing.

Peter had previously rebuked Jesus for suggesting that he would suffer and be killed. But now, his perspective has radically changed. He now gives full credit to God the Father for ordaining the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for his sovereign purposes and for his glory. He finally gets it! He now sees the link between the Master he knew and the prophecies from the Old Testament. He quotes the prophecy from Joel that, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (21), and connects it firmly to Jesus when he declares, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (36).

“The transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the heart and life of Peter produced such a remarkable result that there is none who at a later time more clearly set forth the pre-ordained necessity of Christ’s atoning death.”[7]

Peter understands that Jesus had come for the express purpose of dying on the cross, so that in the name of Jesus Christ all whom the Lord God calls to himself might receive forgiveness of sins (38, 39). The rest of the apostles clearly support Peter as he, filled with the Spirit, preaches to the multitudes and boldly proclaims the Gospel of Christ and calls all who wish to be saved to repent, believe, and be baptized. Peter calls them to repent: to make that inward turn of their hearts and minds away from sin and toward God, exhibited in outward evidence of contrition and a new pattern of life; and he calls them to be baptized: an outward sign of the inward change which publicly declares allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.

We next read through several episodes in the book of Acts and observed that Peter is able to perform miracles of healing and other signs and wonders now that he is filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 3:1-8; 5:12-16; 9:32-42). Before Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter was so afraid of what the authorities could do to him that he crumbled at the accusation of a servant girl. Now that he is filled with the Spirit, he is boldly proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, even in front of the very authorities he formerly feared! No more denying Jesus for Peter; now he is defying orders and boldly proclaiming him!

Peter must have seen the connection between the miracles that he was performing and the message he preached. In his Pentecost sermon he said, “Men of Israel . . . Jesus of Nazareth (was) a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst” (Acts 2:22). Commenting on the verse in Acts, Simon J. Kistemaker says, “The word ‘attested’ describes Jesus as a person who is sent out by God and who speaks on God’s behalf.”[8] Peter had declared that the miracles performed by Jesus proved that God himself had sent him and was the power behind his ministry. So, too, with the miracles performed by Peter. They were God’s way of saying, “I’m God, and I approve this message.”

Our final look at the newly made Peter is in Acts 10:1-48. We look first to see who and what sort of person Cornelius is. According to our text, he is a centurion, which means he is a member of the Roman Army in charge of 100 (or so) soldiers. Furthermore, he is “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (1, 2). The testimony of his own servants is that he is “an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (22). Here is a non-Jew who has embraced the God of the Jews and performs works which testify to his genuine faith. Further confirmation that his faith must be real is the appearance of an angel who tells him to send for Peter as a reward for his prayers and alms which have “ascended as a memorial before God” (4).

Meanwhile, in Joppa, Peter is entranced by a vision sent from heaven:

(Peter) saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (Acts 10:11-16)

Evidently, Peter needs to hear something three times for it to get through. This time the Lord God is clarifying for him the extent to which the death of Jesus is going to affect not only religious practice, but cultural norms, dietary restrictions, and his entire Jewish worldview of the people from other nations. Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets and the psalms (Luke 24:44). By his death on the cross, Jesus was bringing to fulfillment the promise which God made to Abraham when he first called him out of Ur: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

This promise was made before the covenant sign of circumcision, before the dietary laws, before the nation of Israel was told in every which way that they must keep themselves separate from the Gentile nations—and individuals—around them. These commandments had been ingrained into every Jewish child from the cradle. Stay separate; keep apart from the others. But now, as Paul would later write to the Gentile believers in Ephesus, those regulations were obliterated with Christ’s death on the cross.

For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made us both [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:14-19)

God was preparing Peter to march out and fulfill the command which Jesus had given the disciples before he ascended to heaven, recorded in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Notice the ever-widening ripples of witness the disciples were told to pursue. Beginning in Jerusalem and moving outward to Judea, then Samaria, and then to the end of the earth.

Here’s the thing: These Jewish men were fully prepared to take this message to all these places and preach the Messiah to the Jews they found there. They were living in an age when Jewish people were dispersed across the extent of the known world! Going and telling these far-flung Jews that the promised Messiah had come was not a stretch for them.

Inviting Gentiles to also repent and believe on Jesus Christ for salvation, however, was another matter entirely.

Peter—humbled, open-hearted, Spirit-filled Peter—doesn’t need to be told a fourth time. When the messengers arrive at the door he is ready to hear what they have to say and go where the Lord is telling him to go. So, to Caesarea he goes, taking a few believers along with him to witness what the Lord will do next. Upon his arrival, he is warmly greeted by Cornelius and taken to speak to a room filled with family and friends of this devout Gentile. Peter, a bit bewildered, opens his mouth to preach the gospel to these people, as it dawns upon him that the barriers between Jew and Gentile have come crashing down. He tells them of the mission, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, emphasizing that he is indeed Lord of all—all people without distinction!

Before he can finish, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon his audience and they begin speaking in tongues and praising the Lord. Without time for a Q & A session, without time for an altar call, God confirms his sovereign election of these Gentile converts with the same sign poured out upon the assembled disciples on the day of Pentecost. With this miracle, the Lord of all has used his bold, impetuous, humble, and obedient servant to open wide the door of the church to admit Gentiles. I imagine Peter was the most surprised person in the room, standing in awe of the unbounded love and mercy of God.

There will still be details to be worked out and the council at Jerusalem will ultimately conclude that circumcision is unnecessary for Gentile converts (Acts 15). Paul will become the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’ (Romans 11:13), and travel extensively sharing the gospel and planting churches. But, first, God used his instrument, Peter, his fisher-of-men, to preach to the nations.

God has carefully prepared Peter for a lifetime of fearless ministry. Lifetime, because he will indeed serve the Lord until his dying breath. Fearless, because he has learned through much trial and error to rely on the Lord for strength and not on himself.

Next week we will delve into 1 Peter 1:1, 2. May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

[1] Arthur W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1945), 305-306.

[2] Ibid., 309

[3] Ibid., 321

[4] Bishop Ryle, as quoted by A. W. Pink, p 323

[5] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1953), 490.

[6] Exodus 3:2; Exodus 13:21

[7] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1973), 656.

[8] Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1990), 93.

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