“The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.” (John 18:17–18, ESV)
“When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.” (John 21:9, ESV)
When the disciples see Jesus on the shore after a long and frustrating night of fishing, he already has a fire going with fish and bread on it. It’s against this backdrop that Jesus has a conversation with Peter:“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”” (John 21:15, ESV)
Jesus asks Peter again, “Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me?” Peter responds in the affirmative again.
A third time Jesus asks Peter the same question and John records his answer:“He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17, ESV)
There was method to Jesus’ seeming madness. The two fires give us a clue as to what that method was. Peter had denied Jesus three times at a charcoal fire, and now Jesus is restoring Peter to ministry. The Bible Knowledge Commentary writes: “Earlier Peter had denied Jesus beside a fire (18:18, 25). Now beside another fire he was restored publicly.”
This is a beautiful picture of restoration and the extent of God the Son’s love and forgiveness. Peter who had boasted that he would die for Christ, went on to deny him three times. Was he fit for service any more after that particular incident? Was he useful? Could he be forgiven?
Jesus through this thrice repeated question, gets to the heart of Peter and restores him to full fellowship and leadership: “Tend my lambs,” he tells Peter, and this Peter will do for the rest of his life. His denials are forgotten. He has been forgiven. He is restored. Leon Morris summarizes very nicely:
“There can be little doubt but that the whole scene is meant to show us Peter as completely restored to his position of leadership. He has three times denied his Lord. Now he has three times affirmed his love for Him, and three times he has been commissioned to care for the flock. This must have had the effect on the others of a demonstration that, whatever had been the mistakes of the past, Jesus was restoring Peter to a place of trust. It is further worth noting that the one thing about which Jesus questions Peter prior to commissioning him to tend the flock is love. This is the basic qualification for Christian service” (Morris, p. 875).