Words of uncertainty spill from Peter’s lips: “I’m going out to fish” (John 21:3). The other disciples respond, “We’ll go with you.”
Fishing is their way to stabilize conflicting feelings. Peter drags his nets as a concession to a priceless relationship he thinks he’s lost with Jesus. His uncertainty is not a doubt of Jesus’ power or divinity. Rather, he fears he wasn’t cut out for Jesus. As night turns to dawn, even his abilities to fish waver.
Thomas doubted that Jesus was flesh-and-blood alive again. Peter on the other hand doubts he can ever be fully forgiven for his betrayal. How can he ever make such a mixture of boasting and denial right again? His heart is gutted through and through. All his grasping to prove he was the man for Jesus ended in a flash of self-preservation. His empty, foolish promises have left him aching inside.
Peter probably hasn’t spoken about his self-inflicted wound to the others. This is a hidden spiritual issue he needs to bring to Jesus alone. But will he get that chance? And if he does, will Jesus denounce him? Peter sinks in self-doubt. His old, empty ways are dying. He would jump at the chance to be right with Jesus again.
I too struggled with hidden issues of uncertainty in my first year of study at Calvin Theological Seminary. I was an artist seeking to combine theological training with visual art. I felt this to be an exciting call by God. I also felt the huge impact it would have on my wife and three kids. Commitments to God also meant keeping promises to them. But early on in seminary someone told me, “It’s time for you to hang up your palette and start painting with your words.” Those words bounced around in my brain for two solid years. Did I have to die to my artistic ideas and rise to a new call of ministry? The thought left me empty inside. I forgot about living in the resurrection of Jesus.
We all face hidden issues of uncertainty. We need to ask God for help. God changes us to live in the resurrection of Jesus. Living in the resurrection means living in the assurance of God’s forgiveness and love through Jesus. When we don’t jump out of our own emptiness we remain in uncertainty. We need to die to self-deception that leaves us empty, and to rise in the fullness of Christ.
Dying to self seems so uncertain. It means our entire self belongs to Jesus. We must trust that Jesus will empty us and love us at the same time. Dying and rising with Jesus is the only way to be changed and restored for eternity.
Peter is ready to jump out of his boat and rise with Christ. But how can he possibly do this on his own? Then the disciples hear the voice of a man from shore, telling them where to drag their nets. Suddenly they catch a load of fish! God prepares a miracle catch, and Peter understands: “It’s the Lord!” (v. 7). He jumps into the water to swim to shore.
We can call this an impulsive Peter leaving his friends behind. Or we can call this an act of repentance, maybe even Peter’s baptism—leaving sin and shame behind, dying and rising with Jesus. God enables him to jump out of his emptiness toward his master. God gives him the chance to resolve those hidden issues and shameful memories alone with Jesus. Peter’s words of denial—“Woman . . . Man, I don’t know him!”—wash off in the water. He rises from the water to meet his Savior.
Jesus is already preparing Peter to live in the resurrection. He fills Peter’s emptiness with his resurrection power.
The light of dawn, people around a fire, and Jesus standing close by take Peter back to another painful dawn by a fire ring. Jesus leads Peter back to where the wound began. Three times he asks him, “Do you love me?” (v. 17) He gives Peter the chance to turn around his empty words to be healed. An arch in the painting represents the way Jesus envelops Peter with his unchanging grace. “Do you love me?” hangs above and outside this arch. Jesus enables Peter to say with certainty, “You know I do.”
Jesus’ forgiveness comes with the power to restore and entrust Peter with what God has called him to be. The threefold response of Jesus, “Feed my lambs” (v. 15), rests in the arch, the assurance that Jesus has the power to resurrect Peter.
I asked God to answer my uncertainties between my call to ministry and my artistic inclinations. And God sent people to help me rise out of my fears. God gave me friends at a local art gallery to keep me painting while in seminary. And God provided a counselor to help me see the light through the deeper shadows of my uncertainties. Professors and staff at the seminary and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship helped me find where art and theology converge. Classes at the seminary helped heal my hidden issues. I grew spiritually through the knowledge and care I received.
Eventually I learned to think of using artwork in terms of evangelism and pastoral care. God prepares us to live in the resurrection of Jesus. God uses our seminary to equip his people with all their gifts in the name of Jesus. Painting pictures and writing sermons both rest on prayer and Easter, the certainty of God’s love.
Come to the shore with Jesus to find forgiveness, healing, and the power of the Holy Spirit to redeem and restore God’s glory in what he has called you to be. Easter is the certainty that there is no limit to God’s love in Christ Jesus to you and me.