Guilt can wreak all sorts of havoc in our souls. Depression and anxiety are two of the more straightforward ways that guilt can affect us. Other ways are less obvious but more dangerous. We can take our pain out on others or seek to punish ourselves with empty methods of self-atonement. Some abuse substances to anesthetize the inner pain. One of the most destructive ways to handle guilt is to sear our consciences by running headlong into whatever was causing the guilt in the first place (1 Timothy 4:2).
As we move into the last chapter of John, we find that we’re back in Galilee. Seven of the disciples are fishing. Some speculate that the disciples were reverting to their old way of life before following Jesus, but it’s important not to let our speculations cause us to miss the primary point of the text. Jesus reveals Himself through the miracle — or “sign,” as John would say — of the disciples catching 153 fish in response to Jesus’ command after catching nothing all night.
The central character is Peter, and his life brings us back to the theme of guilt. After brashly asserting his willingness to die for the Lord (John 13:37), Peter had denied Jesus repeatedly during the Lord’s darkest hours (John 18:17, 25, 27). Can you imagine the guilt that Peter felt both before and after the Lord rose from the dead? Would there be a place for Peter in the Lord’s Spirit-breathed mission (John 20:21-22)? Peter had been a leader among the disciples, a first among equals (John 6:68-69). What was his role now?
Peter still obviously loved the Lord. He was one of the first to go to the empty tomb (John 20:3-6). When he realized the man who had guided them to catch the fish was the Lord, he put on his cloak and swam to Christ. Nonetheless, Peter’s grievous sins had to be dealt with.
We have a clue that the Lord was going to address Peter’s sins when John describes the fire the Lord had made on the shore as a “charcoal fire” (John 21:9). The last and only other charcoal fire in John was where Peter had denied Jesus (John 18:18). Jesus then asks Peter three times whether Peter loved Jesus. Why three times? Peter had denied the Lord three times. When the Lord asks the third time, Peter knows that the Lord is alluding to Peter’s three denials.
Each time Peter reaffirms his love for the Lord, the Lord commissions Peter with taking care of the Lord’s “sheep” or “lambs,” reminding us of Jesus’ teaching in John 10. The Lord is reinstating Peter, and Peter’s passion for shepherding God’s people would continue until the end of his life (1 Peter 5:2, 2 Peter 1:12-15). Peter’s calling, moreover, would require the ultimate sacrifice. To save his own life, he had denied the Lord. The Lord was giving Peter another chance to give his life and thus bear much fruit (John 12:24). If the extrabiblical traditions are accurate, Peter was crucified in Rome (Eusebius, Church History 2.25).
In this final snippet in the Gospel of John, we see how the Lord handles our guilt. He goes beyond the guilt that we feel to the guilt that we have. If we, like Peter, admit to that guilt, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) takes away our sin and reinstates us. Though the calling on our lives is costly, where else can we go? The Lord alone has “words of eternal life” (John 6:68).