Few of us will ever have to bear the unique weight of failing so miserably that our failures are remembered and talked about beyond our lifetime. However, for many of us the thought of failing in such a way that our failure (or sin) would be remembered even a week from now is crippling. This pressure has only been multiplied many times over in light of the emergence of cancel culture.
Jesus has much to teach us about how He deals with people who fail in big ways and likewise how we should counsel people who have blown it bigtime.
Peter: “I don’t know Jesus. I don’t know Jesus. I don’t know Jesus.”
If there was ever an individual in the Bible who gave cause to be publicly shunned and shelved (“canceled”) it would be Peter.
Jesus had prophesied to Peter that he would deny Him three times (John 13:36-38), and Peter did exactly this. Following Jesus’ arrest Peter is asked about his affiliation with Jesus on three separate occasions. Each time Peter is given an opportunity to align himself with Jesus, he denies Jesus (18:15-27). It is impossible for us to know how Peter must have felt when that rooster crowed, confirming that he had done something he once thought impossible (John 13:37).
This memorable moment in Peter’s life sets the stage for a one-on-one counseling session with Jesus that would shape the rest of Peter’s life and ministry. What Peter learns as Jesus ministers to him is that Jesus doesn’t participate in ostracizing him, or in what we have come to know as ‘cancel culture.’ Instead, Jesus offers a better way forward (John 21:15-19).
Jesus: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?”
As John closes out his Gospel he records an usual conversation between Jesus and Peter. What makes this conversation unusual is that Jesus asks Peter the same question three times: “do you love me?”
Many readers have taken note the fact that there are two different Greek words used here for love: agape (used by Jesus in v.15 & 16 but not v.17) and phileo (used by Peter in v.15, 16, 17). As a result, many make the point that Jesus is quizzing Peter on the degree of his love and that Jesus is attempting to get Peter to see he needs to have a more sincere and heartfelt love for His Savior (agape). The application then for us as modern readers is that we need to have that agape kind of love for Jesus.
A Different Perspective
The trouble with this view is that Jesus actually uses the Greek word phileo the third time he asks Peter if he loves Him (v.17), whereas in the first two times he asks Peter if he loves Him He uses the Greek word agape. If Jesus were trying to pit agape love against phileo love, it wouldn’t make sense for him to switch which Greek word he is using on His third attempt to drive home His point to Peter.
A better explanation of this exchange is that Jesus is consoling a broken and defeated sinner towards understanding his future is full of hope. The key to this explanation is not in nuancing the Greek words but in considering the number of times Jesus asks Peter the same question, “do you love me?”
Jesus asks Peter this question three times because Peter denied Jesus three times. This correlation is significant. Peter is about to be reminded of something wonderful about Jesus.
In denying Jesus three times he had committed an unimaginable sin with unimaginable consequences – his life was forever injured. However, Peter’s future wasn’t over. Jesus is not in the business of shunning sinners. Each time that Peter answers Jesus’ question and affirms his love for Jesus, Jesus simply instructs him to busy himself with making disciples (“feed my sheep”). What Peter learned in this conversation with Jesus is that Jesus wasn’t done with him.
Sin has consequences and sin has the ability to alter the trajectory of a person’s future. These consequences are felt relationally, socially, emotionally and even professionally. Regardless of the consequences a person’s sin sets in motion, Jesus isn’t done with them. Jesus wants every sinner to be busy feeding His sheep.
When you counsel a believer who is crushed by something they’ve done, whether it be a mistake or a sin, they need to know that although their future may have changed, Jesus is not done with them. Jesus’ call to feed His sheep and make disciples continues regardless of what they’ve done and there is joy to be found in this work.