South Sydney Anglican Church

Backsliding Peter takes his eyes off the Prize

11 April 2021

Series: Easter 2021

Topic: Easter

Bible Passage: John 21: 1-14

Big Idea:       Backsliding Peter takes his eyes off the Prize

Point 1:         Peter (& 7 disciples) go back to their old way of life

Jn.21 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee.[a] It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus[b]), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Point 2:          Peter (& 7 disciples) are reminded that obeying Jesus is only option

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” prosfavgion – food

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved (John) said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.[c] When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Point 3:          Peter (& 7 disciples) are fed by the Jesus (that they may feed others)

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” (ajristhvsate) None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Jn 21:15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Lk 9:62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

1Ki 19:20 Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother good-by,” he said, “and then I will come with you.”

“Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?”

1Ki 19:21 So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant.

Jer 3:22 “Return, faithless people;

I will cure you of backsliding.”

“Yes, we will come to you,

for you are the LORD our God.

Jer 14:7 Although our sins testify against us,

O LORD, do something for the sake of your name.

For our backsliding is great;

we have sinned against you.

Jer 2:19 Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you.

Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you

when you forsake the LORD your God.

Jer 15:6 You have rejected me,” declares the LORD.

“You keep on backsliding.

So I will lay hands on you and destroy you;

I can no longer show compassion.

Eze 37:23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

Big Idea:       Backsliding Peter takes his eyes off the Prize

Intro:              Well morning friends and visitors. My name is Matt Johnson and as part of our Easter sermon series we are going to finish the gospel of John (over the next two weeks). After John finishes his account of Jesus’ death and resurrection – we find one extra chapter(chapter 21) that kind of focuses on the failures of the apostle Peter. So I’m going to pray…


Well in Luke’s gospel Jesus said to his disciples (Slide 2; Lk.9:62). I believe this is the very thing we see Peter do in John 21. Instead of doing what Jesus told him to do, we see Peter looking back and dabbling in his old pre-Christian way of life.

So today we’re getting completely AGRICULTURAL. We’re talking about ploughing, fishing and feeding lambs. So let me give you a little story to get you into the agricultural headspace. A FATHER was teaching his son to plough paddocks. It was an old school plough that was pulled along by a couple of horses – like this (Slide 3). So dad got behind the horses and showed his son how to do it. But when the son had a go, he made a complete mess of it. So Dad said, “Listen son, the best way to keep your plough lines straight is to fix your eyes on an object way, way off in the distance and then head straight for it (again and again) – then all your plough lines will be straight.” So the son got to work doing what his dad said.

Anyway, Dad came back and hour or two later and the field was a mess. The plough lines were going all over the place. So Dad said, “son what have you done. What object have you been aiming at?” The son replied,

Well Dad, can you see that cow on the far hill…” (Of course, the cow is moving around. The dad meant a tree or mountain that was fixed). But I hope this story gives you a bit of an idea of Jesus’ words in Luke 9 (Slide 3). If you are plowing a field but you’re constantly looking backwards over your shoulder or your getting distracted by the things around you – your going to make a mess of the job.

Jesus is saying – if you are going to follow me – you need to be focussed on what you are doing. If you keep looking back to your old way of life (as a non-Christian) thinking 1) if only I could still get drunk, 2) if only I could still be greedy or 3) if only I could still sleep around – then your ploughing as a Christian is going to be terrible. If you keep looking over your shoulder(at all things you’re leaving behind to follow Jesus) then you’re going to make a mess of what Jesus wants you to do now.

And I believe this is what we see the apostle Peter do in John 21. So let me explain;

Point 1:         Peter goes back to his old way of life

Show:                        John 20:30-21:3 (READ)

Explain:        This story takes place at least 2-3 weeks after Jesus’ death. Jesus first appeared to his disciples in the upper room on the Sunday evening (after Good Friday). Then a week later Jesus appeared to the disciples and doubting Thomas. This all happens in Jerusalem. But today’s story happens on the SEA OF GALILLEE. This is 126km from Jerusalem (and with no buses or cars or trains) – that’s at least a week’s walk. So, the disciples have now gone home after Passover.

Now it is possible that the disciples have gone to Galilee in faith because Jesus told the disciples – that they would see him again in Galilee (Mk.14:28). But I don’t think this story is POSITIVE. The disciples are off track and off mission. Jesus just told the disciples in the previous chapter; “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (Jn.20:21) – ie to make disciples and to fish for men. But now Peter and the disciples have returned to Galilee (their old stomping ground) and they are on the verge of returning to their old way of life (fishing for fish). They know what Jesus wants them to do, but they aren’t doing it…

I think we are all tempted at times to go back to our old pre-Christian way of life. It sometimes seems easier. In moments of weakness and temptation – our old lives 1) chasing money or 2) doing drugs can sometimes seem attractive. If only, I could go back things would be easier. But this is dangerous. We shouldn’t put our hand to the plow and then look back…

Now friends, there is actually A LOT OF DEBATE among Christian scholars as to the purpose of John 21. Most Christian scholars believe John 20:30-31 is the climax of Johns gospel. Look with me again at John 20:30-31 (READ – Jn.20:30-31). John tells us that he has written all that he has written about Jesus, his death and resurrection – so that we might believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. That is how people are saved, by believing in Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.

So Johns gospel comes to A CLIMAX – and we are told how we need to respond: BELIEVE IN JESUS. End of story. (Or is it). The problem is we now get a whole extra chapter that primarily focus’ on Peter. It almost seems out of place. In fact, some scholars think chapter 21 is a later addition to John’s gospel. But fact is – all the earliest copies of John’s gospel include chapter 21. So what is the purpose of this “EXTRA” chapter?

Although, all the gospels record Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, only John tells us about the humble REINSTATEMENT of Peter. I believe the question John 21 is answering is whether backsliders can be readmitted to the church. If someone believes in Jesus, but then backslides and commits serious apostasy – should they ever be forgiven. APOSTASY is when Christians begin 1) to reject Jesus and 2)go back to non-Christian ways of living (usually in periods of persecution). In the early church some Christians believed this was an unforgiveable sin. But Peter’s story (and the grace Jesus shows him) kind of answers this question. Peter denies Jesus FIRST with his words and SECOND with his actions and yet (upon recommitment to Jesus) he is still reinstated as an apostle…

Now I lean in this direction because in John’s gospel – THE DANGER OF APOSTASY – is drawn out more than any other gospel. Let me show you a few instances – that either speak of apostasy or hint at the likelihood of apostasy (Slide 5; Jn. 6:66; 9:22; 16:1-2). As you can see – John speaks about disciples turning back and giving up their faith in Jesus. That is apostasy. He has warned us that a time will come when Christian Jews will be put out of the synagogue. And Jesus gives us these warnings – so that when we are put out of synagogue (rejected by our family and friends etc etc) we wont fall away – ie so we won’t commit apostasy. That is the ideal. As Christians we should never deny our Lord and Saviour (who bought us with his precious blood).

Apply:            But what happens when Jesus’ followers do deny him? What if they even backslide for a while (and lead others astray in the process)? Well, given all the warnings in John’s gospelabout apostasy – I believe Peter becomes THE PERFECT FOIL – for how apostates should be treated when there is genuine repentence; with grace, grace, grace.

The fact is – all of us stuff up in the Christian life at some point. Perhaps, we aren’t as blatant as Peter who denied Jesus three times. But we still do it. 1) We have opportunities to talk about Jesus with friends and at work – but we don’t take them – for fear we might be ridiculed or lose our job. 2) Sometimes – we know what we should be doing. We should be in church on Sunday, but we go to the beach. We know we should be contributing something to the church financially, but we give nothing. 3)Other times, it’s just blatant temptation. A Christian in the church – falls into sexual immorality or goes back to drinking in excess. It’s all the same story. It’s apostasy. It’s backsliding. OF COURSE, we shouldn’t do this – just as Peter shouldn’t have denied Jesus three times. But guess what? It happens because we are all sinners. And just as Jesus shows Peter grace and forgiveness, we need to learn to show one another grace and forgiveness…

Point 2:         Peter is reminded that obeying Jesus is the only option

Show:                        Jn.21:4-6 (READ)

Explain:        Well as the disciples go back to Galilee, and they go back to fishing. They are fishermen. So, they go fishing all night. This is NOT PARTICULARLY STRANGE. Fishing at night is often the best fishing because the fish come into the shallower water looking for food. For years, my mates and I, used to get up at 2am in the morning to go fishing on the rocks at ULLUDULLA because the best fishing was in the couple of hours before dawn. Quite often, just after the sun came up the fish would go completely off the bite and we’d go home. So, there is nothing particularly strange about the disciple’s methodology.

But we hear that it doesn’t really work. They fish all night and they catch NOTHING. When Jesus speaks to them from the shore – it’s not so much a QUESTION as a STATEMENT. Jesus says; “you don’t have any fish do you?” They answer “no.” There is a strangeness to this statement. How does Jesus know they have no fish? They are 100 meters out in the lake. Any fish would be down in the hull of the boat hidden from view. Yet, Jesus knows they have no fish.

Now I don’t want to SPIRITUALISE this too much, but this does reflect a spiritual reality. Our old, pre-Christian way of life (without Jesus) is actually futile and empty. When we look back our pre-Christian life sometimes appears attractive. But the truth is – our former, pre-Christian way of life is empty and gives zero-return. The Bible says that Jesus redeemed us 1) from our EMPTY way of life and 2) that we should no longer have anything to do with the “FRUITLESS” deeds of darkness. Perhaps even fishless. The point is there is no profit in going back to our former way of life. There is no gain in backsliding. It is empty. And the apostle Peter actually knows this… Picking up on the apostasy theme in John’s gospel – Jesus said (Slide 6; Jn.6:67-69).

The point is – if we leave Jesus as Christians – what are we going back to? NOTHING. FUTILITY. FRUITLESS DEEDS AND EMPTY NETS. Peter knows this. He says; Where else would we go? But in his stupidity Peter does it anyway. He denies Jesus and goes back to fishing. The reality is that backsliding is part of our fallen, sinful nature. Whenever we are going backwards in the Christian life, rather than forwards in the Christian life – we are backsliding.

Show:            Now the book in the Bible that has the most to say about backsliding is the book of JEREMIAH. Let me show you a little bit (Slide 7: Jer.2:19; 3:22; 14;7). Now notice especially the first quote – that says your own backsliding will rebuke you. Consider and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the LORD.

There is always a certain level of pain and futility that we bring upon ourself when we ignore what Jesus tells us to do. Things just don’t work properly when we disobey Jesus. (Some people are very slow to learn this…)

Apply:            So the disciples are fishing for fish, instead of fishing for men – even though there is ZERO RETURN. Then Jesus comes along and he says “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some fish.” Now let me just saythat normally speaking – if there are no fish on the left-hand side of the boat, there will be no fish on the right-hand side of the boat either. I find it hard to believe that after a long night fishing these men are just going to obey some random on the beach who says try the other side of the boat.

Rather, I think this is actually a God moment. When we abandon God (and go off in our own stupid direction, justifying our sinful behaviour) it usually requires God’s intervention to wake us up. So I think this is a God moment, Jesus intervenes in such a way that they just obey. They cast the net on the right side of the boat and wulla – life is no longer futile and empty. Obeying Jesus works. Now immediately (as the nets begin to break) – John and Peter realize that’s got to be Jesus – and Peter jumps overboard, fully robed. Now I love Peter. He may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but he definitely was a man of action. Upon recognizing God’s intervention he immediately jumps overboard and swims toward Jesus. That’s the first intelligent thing we’ve seen peter do for several chapters…

Point 3:         Peter enjoys hospitality and grace from Jesus

Show:                        Jn.21:7-9 (READ)

Explain:        Well, when you’re backsliding, there usually comes a point where you begin to WAKE UP to your own stupidity. You begin to see the return from ignoring Jesus – is worse than a big fat zero. You begin to see that you’ve been ignoreing Jesus’ clear instructions. There’s a kind of Ahh huh moment. Now at this point – you can wallow in your own stupidity or you can blame others or you might even question God.

But at some point you just have to repent OR you’re lost. The good thing about Peter is that as he recognizes again the value of trusting Jesus’ word, he repents and comes back to Jesus. And despite ALL his apostasy and backsliding – Jesus welcomes Peter and gives him (and the other disciples) breakfast. In other words, Jesus shows them grace and forgiveness and extends the right hand of friendship. It doesn’t matter how much you have stuffed up – if you return to Jesus – he will always show you grace and forgiveness. But as we’ll see next week Jesus does remind Peter of what he is MEANT to be doing. He is meant to be feeding Jesus’ lambs, not fishing for fish – so get on with it…

Apply:            Now normally we just read the plain meaning of the Bible without reading additional meaning into the narrative. And at one level – this is just a story of Jesus appearing to his disciples for a third time. But given the theme of apostasy that runs through John’s gospel (and the fact that apostasy was becoming a big issue about the time John’s gospel was written) I think we are MEANT TO SEE a certain spiritual significance in this final story. This is how Jesus treats all his wayward followers. YES, WE ARE MEANT TO BELIEVE Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God – and we are meant to obey him, always. Apostasy and backsliding should never be part of the story. But the reality is – that apostasy and backsliding has been part of the church’s story even from the beginning. The apostle Peter did it and yet Jesus still showed him grace and forgiveness as he came back…

We need to remember is that none of us are perfect. Sometimes we are going to say some really dumb things and do some really dumb things. But John’s gospel (through THE FOIL of Peter) shows us that apostasy and backsliding is not an unforgiveable sin.

Now of course, we want to do everything we can to prevent this happening – BECAUSE 1) backsliding offends God and 2) always hurts us. But Jesus died on the cross for all our sins– including the sins of apostasy and backsliding. So Christians (who do backslide and do dumb things) shouldn’t be automatically written off. If like Peter, backsliders are willing to COME BACK to Jesus and EAT HUMBLE PIE – they should be accepted by the church, just as Jesus accepted Peter. Yes, Peter has to eat a big fat portion of humble pie in John 21. And yes, I admit that is never fun. Coming back with our tail between our legs (or soaking wet like a drowned rat) is always a bit humiliating. But as Peter does so – Jesus embraces him and tells him to get on with the job. This is grace, wonderful grace. We need to remember that Jesus is quick to forgive us – not just 7 times, but 70 x 7 times if necessary. So the minute we recognize that we’re off track or backsliding – we should just run back to Jesus, (or swim back) say sorry and get on with the job. Perhaps you know you’ve been backsliding in some area of your life – and its just time to admit it and come back to Jesus today. Stop making excuses. Just come back, say sorry and get back on the horse…

But as I finish today – I want to share with you a final plowing story. In the Old Testament, in 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah, calls Elisha to come, follow him and become a prophet. Elijah called Elisha to follow him, just as Jesus called the disciples to follow him. And just as the disciples were tempted to look back, so too was Elisha. THE IRONY IS – that Elisha was ploughing a field when Elijah called him. Elisha was literally ploughing a field and he was TORN between ploughing the field (HIS OLD WAY OF LIFE) and following Elijah (HIS NEW WAY OF LIFE). Do you know what he did?

(Slide 8; 1Kng.19:21). If you are tempted to backslide or to go back to your old way of life – there comes a point where the wise thing to do is slaughter and burn the things in your old way of life. Take away the temptation. Too many Christians todaytry to have a bet each way.” We try to have our new way of life with Jesus and our old way of life in the world – and all we end up doing is committing apostasy and eating humble pie – over and over and over again.

So let me ask you – what is causing you to look back and not commit yourself wholeheartedly to Jesus? Is it the pursuit of women? Men? Drugs? Career? Comfort? Materialism? Whatever it is there comes a point where the WISE thing to do is kill your oxen, burn your plow, give up your boat and fishing nets and whatever else keeps dragging you backwards – because Jesus alone has the words of eternal life and all other ground (that we are tempted to go back to) is sinking sand…

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