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Overcoming Failure

By John Clevely

Welcome to Part 4 of this exciting series on 40 Days with Jesus. Today, we are going to look at the subject of overcoming failure. All of us struggle in life and have failed in various ways.  Some of you are still living in the consequences of that failure – and have wondered whether you can ever get beyond that failure. Well I’ve got some great news for you: your future is greater than your failure; the call is greater than the fall!


History is full of people who have overcome failure:


He did not speak until he was four and did not read until he was seven, causing his teachers and parents to think he was mentally handicapped, slow and anti-social. Eventually, he was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. It might have taken him a bit longer, but most people would agree that he caught on pretty well in the end, winning the Nobel Prize and changing the face of modern physics … his name? Albert Einstein!


Today, we are going to study another stunning example of overcoming failure.  The man’s name is Simon Peter. One of Jesus’ closest disciples, he displayed a particular proficiency for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But his life reached a low point when he denied Jesus three times. Yet within a couple of months he was boldly preaching about Jesus on the Day of Pentecost, and became one of the greatest leaders in the history of the Church. What made the difference? An encounter with the risen Jesus! The story is found in John 21, and contains two hugely encouraging lessons.


  1. Jesus helps us in our present struggles


All of us face struggles and challenges in life. Some of you may feel at rock bottom, as if nothing is working; others may well have reached something of a barrier and are struggling to get to the next level of breakthrough. The good news is that Jesus is alive and present by His Spirit to help us! Let’s read John 21:1-3:


Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias.  It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathaniel 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.


Peter is often criticised here for going fishing – as if somehow he was running from the call of God on his life. But it is more likely that he is simply filling the time (waiting for Jesus to appear to them at Galilee as He had promised), and may just have been going out to earn some money. He is not doing something that is overtly wayward – just doing a normal ‘human’ thing. Yet in spite of doing what he was trained to do, and fishing when he should have done (at night), still they caught nothing! This is the key point – their struggle, failure and subsequent frustration, like ours, is part of just being human in a fallen world.


Yet, into this situation of struggle and failure Jesus comes on the scene:


Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus. (John 21:4)


This has echoes of the road to Emmaus – Jesus is present to help, but initially the disciples don’t recognise him (again, the suggestion is that somehow He looked different in his post-resurrection state – maybe especially as he was on the shore). But the point is that Jesus was right there – watching, waiting to help.


There are two possible applications to our lives:


  1. The fishing can represent our daily lives, our family, business, relationships etc – life is just not working
  2. Fishing can represent the mission of the Church.


If you look back at Ezekiel 47 the fish in the river of God were symbolic of people, and Jesus picked up this theme early on in Peter’s call: ‘“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people”’ (Matt. 4:19).


Either way we are not supposed to carry on either our daily lives or God’s mission without His help. The good news is that He is right here, wanting to help us in our present struggles. However, we must first respond to His help and in doing so we must …


  • Welcome His intervention

Jesus is ready to intervene; but we must welcome His intervention. Notice clearly that Jesus takes the initiative.


He called out to them, Friends, haven’t you any fish?’ (John 21:5, my emphasis)


Notice too, His heart for the disciples. He literally addresses them as ‘friends’ – not as stupid, rebellious disciples, but as friends. Jesus uses a term of great endearment and affection, and reveals the Father-heart of God for us, a God who wants to come close to us and help us make life work.


Looking at the text, Jesus isn’t asking the disciples the question because He doesn’t know the answer. God never asks a question that He doesn’t know the answer to, but He is engaging with them and us.


Notice how the disciples answer with a simple honest response. They don’t seem to resent this question as an intrusion or an insult. They don’t try to deny or hide the problem. They don’t say ‘No, I’m fine’ like so many of us do.  Moreover, there is no suggestion throughout the rest of the passage that the disciples resent His intervention, however awkward or challenging it may be. And so if you want Jesus to help you in your present struggles you must welcome His intervention. Secondly, we must …


  • Obey His instruction


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. (John 21:6)


We don’t know whether this instruction was based on a word of knowledge about where the fish were, or actually was a miracle of Jesus calling the fish.  Either way, the Creator has all the knowledge and power that we will ever need. He knows more about the fish than the fishermen! He knows more about accountancy than the accountant, more about business than the entrepreneur, more about parenting than parents, more about teaching than teachers, more about life and more about reaching people than we do!


And the good news is that He is not a dead Jesus or even just a risen Jesus who appeared to His disciples and went to heaven. No, He is Jesus who is alive and present with us by His Spirit and ready to help us in every area of our life and ministry. There is never a situation or circumstance where He is not there – even if we don’t recognise Him fully.


The key is to obey his instruction. In the ESV translation of this passage it says that Jesus told them to ‘cast the net’ and it says of the disciples, ‘so they cast it’. This is a huge statement. These are experienced fishermen who had been fishing at the optimum time, all night. They had worked hard and were frustrated, but there was obviously something in His voice that overcame their natural reluctance. The key is that they obeyed His instruction.


Bill Hybels talks about the importance of obeying the promptings, or ‘whispers’ as he calls them, of God. These often come in the form of simple little instructions. The problem is that we can miss these so easily. But obeying a simple little instruction can change the situation we are in.


How does God speak to us? Regularly through the Scriptures; sometimes in pictures; sometimes in word whispers in our spirit. When we obey His instruction we can experience a total turnaround. The disciples went from catching nothing to catching so many fish that they were unable to haul the net in. What a picture of abundance! So, firstly we need to welcome His intervention; secondly we need to obey His instruction; and thirdly we need to …


  • Accept His invitation: Jesus performed this miracle because it was His way of inviting the disciples, and especially Peter, into a renewed relationship with Himself. The purpose of a miracle is to point to the miracle-worker and when we recognise the miracle-worker there is an invitation to a closer walk with Him.


If we look at the passage we can see that firstly, the miracle leads to recognition.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’

(John 21:7)


Significantly, the first to recognise Jesus was the one who had been closest to Him. So for us, too – as we develop an intimate daily walk we will be quick to recognise Him at work, calling us to deeper relationship.


If the contemplative disciple is the first to recognise Him, the activist Simon Peter is the first one to run to Him!

As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, ‘It’s the Lord,’ he wrapped his outer garment around him … and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish (John 21:7-8)


Peter’s reaction is so wonderful and impulsive. Here was the one who had denied Jesus, and yet there is something about the risen Jesus that means that Peter doesn’t run from Him in shame, but runs to Him! This is a wonderful picture for us; no matter what we’ve done or not done we can have the freedom and confidence to run to Him and not from Him.


From recognition there comes the invitation to a deeper relationship. Jesus is cooking and invites them to ‘bring some fish’:


Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’  Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.

(John 21:10-11)


There is lots of speculation about what the number 153 symbolises, but the simplest explanation is that there were lots of fish. And the miracle is that still the nets were not torn. When God blesses us, He provides for us, and fills our nets. There will be an abundance, but the nets will not break.


Then there is Jesus’ second word of invitation to ‘Come and have breakfast’ (John 21:12). What a tender, practical, personal embrace.


Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. (John 21:12-13)


Here is Jesus still wanting to serve the disciples, and also serve us. The meal was a sign of great friendship and fellowship, which also speaks of the Lord’s desire to meet our practical needs; wanting to provide a safe, relational context for the real climax of the story.


Not only does Jesus help us in our present struggles, but, secondly …


  1. Jesus heals us from our past failures


In one of the most dramatic and tense dialogues in the whole of literature, we read how:


When they 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.’ Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt, because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’ (John 21:15-17)


There are a number of key things going on here:

  1. Jesus has just cooked the fish on a fire of burning coals – or, to use the literal translation, a ‘charcoal fire’. The only other place that this word is used in the entire New Testament was in John 18:18, when Peter was warming himself by the fire when he denied Jesus.
  2. Jesus deliberately addresses him as ‘Simon, son of John’ and not Peter, the Rock. This highlighted Peter’s failure to live up to that name and his need for restoration.
  3. Jesus deliberately asked Peter the same basic question three times, reflecting that Peter had denied him three times.


So, what’s happening here? Jesus is coming to Peter to heal him from his past failure. In doing so Jesus is deliberately reminding him of his denial, not to make him feel bad, but to bring him to a place of repentance, restoration and re-commissioning. Why does He have to face him up to the past? Because He wants Peter to own the problem. Henry Cloud said: ‘we have an innate ability for self-deception.’ So, for example, in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the key to recovery is to first acknowledge that you have a problem. This is what Jesus is doing. He doesn’t want Peter carrying that problem into his future.


However, notice what Jesus doesn’t do in this situation. He doesn’t come and say, ‘Now Peter, you remember how you denied me?’ Of course Peter remembers and the shame of it would have dogged him all his life. Instead, Jesus goes to the root of the problem and asks ‘Do you love me?’ Jesus is highlighting that the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. Jesus is saying ‘Peter, the reason you denied me was a love issue – you loved yourself, your reputation, what others thought of you – more than you loved me.’


It is this problem that is right at the root of mankind’s sinful condition and of our own lives. Somewhere at the root of our greatest failures is a failure to fulfil the great commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.


Jesus knows that if Peter is not only going to know forgiveness, but is going to be fit for service, He has to come and deal with the heart issue! And He does!


Amazingly, Jesus is not put off by Peter’s denial. He doesn’t stop believing in Peter. The great news for Peter and for you and me is that the call is greater than the fall.


Peter, having faced up to his sin and having reaffirmed His love for Jesus, is re-commissioned. And through this we see such a wonderful aspect of God’s character – that our God is the God of the second chance.


Thomas Edison was working on a crazy contraption called a ‘light bulb’ and it took a whole team of men 24 straight hours to put just one together. The story goes that when Edison was finished with one light bulb, he gave it to a young boy helper, who nervously carried it up the stairs. Step by step he cautiously watched his hands, obviously frightened of dropping such a priceless piece of work. You’ve probably guessed what happened by now; the poor young fellow dropped the bulb at the top of the stairs. It took the entire team of men 24 more hours to make another bulb. Finally, tired and ready for a break, Edison was ready to have his bulb carried up the stairs. He gave it to the same young boy who dropped the first one. That’s true forgiveness. He gave him a second chance!


I love the fact that our God gave Peter and gives us all a second chance. Why?  Because the call is greater than the fall. And look at the results. A few weeks later, Peter is leading the disciples, preaching with boldness about the crucified, now risen and exalted Jesus (no denying Him here!) and 3,000 people get saved, baptised and added to the Church in one day. He is instrumental in the first recorded healing miracle of the early Church, he is put in prison, is released by an angel, confronts sin with scary discernment and walks the streets of Jerusalem with such an anointing that the sick try just to get to his shadow so that they might be healed. And if that was not enough, he was given the privilege of being the first to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.


Even today, 2000 years on, he is honoured, along with the apostle Paul, as being the greatest and most significant founding leader of the church to which we belong!


What hope, what restoration!


So for many here today! You may still be living in the pain and shame of past failure. For some of you, you have never accepted Christ – you may feel you have lived a life and wondered whether God could or would ever forgive you!  If this is true for you then I encourage you to take heart. Look at how God transformed Peter! For many of you, you may have failed Christ in the past, you know that at some stage in your life you took a wrong turn and you wonder whether you can ever get back to God’s plan. The great news for you today is that God wants to come and help you face up to the past. He wants to forgive you, restore you, heal you and re-commission you.


Let me finish with this:


A few years ago, an angry man rushed through a Museum in Amsterdam until he reached Rembrandt’s famous painting ‘Nightwatch’. Then he took out a knife and slashed it repeatedly before he could be stopped. A short time later, a distraught, hostile man slipped into St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome with a hammer and began to smash Michelangelo’s beautiful sculpture ‘The Pieta’. Two cherished works of art were severely damaged. But what did officials do? Did they throw out the works of art and forget about them? Absolutely not! Using the best experts, who worked with the utmost care and precision, they made every effort to restore the treasures.


You are far more precious to God than a priceless work of art. God made you, and He has a plan for you. He sent Christ to restore you – not only from the damage done to us by others, but also from the damage we have done to ourselves. When He restores us, he doesn’t just patch us up, He makes all things new.


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