Bible teachers are always looking for illustrations to support their points. When it comes to the gospel message, perhaps the most important concept to illustrate is divine mercy and the hope of forgiveness.
An excellent illustration of mercy is given near the end of John’s Gospel. While Jesus was being interrogated by the high priest, Peter, one of Jesus’ three closest disciples, was waiting outside. As he warmed himself by the fire, Peter was confronted by a servant girl who accused him of being one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter replied, “I am not.” Twice more Peter denied being one of Jesus’ followers (Jn. 18:15-18, 25-27).
Can you imagine committing a greater blunder than Peter’s? Peter had been following Jesus for about three years. During that time he saw Jesus perform all kinds of miracles and heard Jesus teach about God’s kingdom. What Peter saw and heard convinced him that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). But now in Jesus’ greatest time of need, Peter deliberately and repeatedly denied having any connection with Jesus.
So how would you feel if you were Peter? Would you feel like a complete failure? Would the guilt crush you killing any hope of forgiveness? Would you walk away from it all never to return?
Peter certainly felt awful about what he had done. Luke says that Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (22:62). But Peter stuck around. When Peter heard that Jesus’ body was missing he ran to Jesus’ tomb to see what had happened (Jn. 20:3-6). Some time later, Peter and a half dozen other disciples went fishing. A man on the shore called out to them and told them to let down their net on the right side of the boat. When they did, they caught 153 fish. As soon as Peter heard a fellow disciple announce, It is the Lord!” referring to the man on the shore, he dove into the water and swam to Jesus (Jn. 21:7-8).
Upon reaching shore, the disciples noticed a charcoal fire with fish and bread laid out on it. The resurrected Jesus then invited them to have breakfast and proceeded to serve them. After breakfast, Jesus addressed Peter with the same question three times: “Do you love me?” (Jn. 21:15-19). That question seems to be Jesus’ way of confronting Peter for his three-fold denial. But notice Jesus didn’t immediately bring up Peter’s mistake, and when he did, he didn’t ask directly, “How could you have denied me?” or “Why did you do it?” Instead Jesus waited, then asked a question that focused on the present and the heart: “Do you love me?”
I think Peter knew something about Jesus’ mercy. Why else would he run to the tomb and swim to shore? Peter shows us that when we really mess up, deliberately and repeatedly, we shouldn’t lose hope. Instead we should dive into the water and swim to Jesus. Jesus will be waiting for us on the shore and Jesus will be merciful.