Mark D. Roberts

ben witherington teaching laity LodgeRecently Ben Witherington III spoke at a Laity Lodge retreat. Ben, as you may know, is a leading New Testament scholar with impressive credentials. (When I printed his list of publications from his website, it took ten pages!) Ben also has one of the most informative and delightful blogs in the blogosphere. You’ll never know whether he’ll put up a weighty piece of biblical scholarship or some silly pictures of animals. (Photo: Ben Witherington holding forth at Laity Lodge.)
Ben is also an engaging speakers. He’s one of those unusual scholars who is able to communicate warmly (and often hilariously) with a lay audience. At Laity Lodge he did a four-part series on the Johannine literature, focusing on some of the major themes found in the the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John.
One of Ben’s messages focused on the resurrection appearance of Jesus to Peter and the other disciples in John 21. In a nutshell, the disciples go fishing on the Sea of Tiberias (Galilee) after Jesus was raised. They fish all night, but catch nothing. In early morning, Jesus appears on shore and tells them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. Promptly they have so many fish in their net that they can’t even bring it into the boat. Realizing who’s on the beach, Peter swims to meet Jesus. There he and Jesus have a conversation as they are warmed by a “charcoal fire” (21:9). Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter professes his love for Jesus. By the third time he is grieved, no doubt because it seems as if Jesus hasn’t believed his earlier professions.
Ben Witherington pointed out a strong connection between this story and the one we find in 18:15-27. There, in fulfillment of Jesus’ earlier prophecy, Peter denied Jesus three times. These rejections of Jesus happened, according to John, as Peter warmed himself by a “charcoal fire” (18:18). The Greek word anthrakia, which means “charcoal fire,” appears only this verse and in John 21:9 in the whole New Testament. Thus, John clearly means to connect the dots between Peter’s denial of Jesus in John 18 and his encounter with Jesus in John 21. In both texts we have a conversation next to a “charcoal fire.” In one passage, Peter is asked three times about his relatioship to Jesus, and three times he denies a connection. In the other passage, Peter is asked three times about his relationship to Jesus, and three times he professes his love for Jesus.
Ben Witherington shows that John 21 is a story of Peter’s redemption. Jesus seeks out Pete, places him by a charcoal fire, and asks him three questions in order to redeem what was lost in Peter’s earlier denial. Implicit in this scene is the awesome mercy of Jesus, who offers forgiveness and restoration. Moreover, Jesus authorizes Peter to take care of his “sheep.” Not only is Peter restored in his relationship with Jesus, but also he is given authority in the soon-to-be-formed church.
This story of Peter speaks pointedly to any of us who have denied Jesus. And which of us has not denied Jesus in some way? Perhaps we’ve never been quite so blunt as Peter. But we have denied Jesus in a variety of ways. Maybe you’ve been in a conversation where people have been speaking poorly of him, but you chose to remain silent. Or maybe you’ve spoken clearly of your faith in him, but turned around to deny him by your actions. The good news for us in John 21 is that Jesus forgives, restores, and uses even people like Peter . . . and me . . . and you.

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