A Charcoal Fire

Guest Author: Nate Bramsen

Separation, division, loneliness, and longing are common denominators in the story of mankind. We long to be known, yet fear being exposed. Rather than pursuing the answer, we run from the problem.

Peter finds himself in an all so familiar place as Jesus gently calls his name from the shore. Immediately, his thoughts drift back to that day, some three years ago when Christ wooed him from his nets to follow Him. Ah, that voice. The same voice which in love commanded a little girl to wake from death’s grip, in zeal cleansed the temple, in passion announced the kingdom, and in agony cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matthew 27:46) Yet now, Jesus extended an invitation to breakfast. On the menu, fish and bread. But Peter notices something else. A charcoal fire. (John 21:9)

Jesus is up to something more. Take notice. Only two times in Scripture is this phrase, “a charcoal fire” used. Both found in the book of John. Here, and a couple chapters back, in John 18:18, “Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter was also with them, standing and warming himself.” The last time Peter stood around a charcoal fire was on that fateful night of Christ’s betrayal and it was around that very charcoal fire Peter denied even knowing the Man in the judgment seat. Upon glimpsing this seaside scene, no doubt a trigger of emotional pain shot through Peter’s veins. But Jesus was not seeking retribution. Rather, this was about restoration.

Jesus re-created the setting of this night in Peter’s past. Not to bring up his faults, but to enable him to move past his failure by recognizing his responsibility. Where only shortly before Peter denied Christ three times around a charcoal fire, here, Peter emphatically declares his undying love for Christ. Three times. (John 21:15-19) Where previously Peter refused to bear the consequences of being associated with Jesus of Nazareth, he now embraces the call to follow this King of Heaven, even to the point of death. Peter’s fall was painful, but not final. Jesus had told Peter earlier, “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32) Darby translates it, “when once thou hast been restored…” Our very restoration is not for self-advancement, but for the building up of His church.

When Jesus called Peter and his friends from their life of fishing (Matthew 4:18-22) to “follow Him”, Matthew noted that James and John were “mending their nets.” They recognized a broken net catches few fish. Likewise, a discouraged saint catches few men. The word used for “mending” is the same word translated “restore” in Galatians 6:1. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Just as catching fish requires a mended net, fishing for men requires restored vessels.

Webster’s Dictionary defines “restore” as “to bring back to a previous condition,” but I would suggest that even that definition is lacking. Christ does not merely restore broken pasts. He redeems them. He wants to take our faults, failures, and frustrations and make them beautiful trophies of His grace and redemption. He wants to use the very things that once were our shame to the praise of His glory. This is a theme of Scripture.

Many find themselves in this same vortex of madness. Emptiness, despair, failure, frustration, and hopelessness define their days. Even in the very presence of those they know and love, loneliness characterizes their moments. In seeking to be known and vulnerable, they feel betrayed, distanced, and at times, cut off from acceptance. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “Of all the diseases I have known, loneliness is the worst.” Like Peter, we go back to fishing. Back to that thing in which we think we’ll find our identity, only to realize that was never who we truly were. Why? Because we were created with an eternal purpose satisfied only in the pursuit of the Eternal…never intended to be satisfied by the diversions of time.

The Gospel of Jesus is an announcement of a Savior. Not some religious formula or a set of moral teachings. “For unto you in born this day in the City of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) “And you shall call His name Jesus for He shall save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) Only those in desperate situations need saving. Our problem is not that we pray to God out of desperation. It is, however, our failure to recognize we are always in desperate need of Him.

As a waterfront lifeguard in the United States, we had a basic rule. You were only allowed to save those who agreed to be rescued. If they refused your help out of pride, you had no legal rights to help them. It is our very sin and need that drives us to our recognition of the Savior who has come to where we are. Not our good works, righteousness, or zeal. Furthermore, it is not merely a running to Him for salvation from the penalty of sin, but for our deliverance over the daily power of sin. It is in our confession of Jesus Christ as the only and all-sufficient solution to our sinful state that we are born again to new life and it is in our weakness that His strength is made perfect. I love the words of the Puritan Prayer, “Grant that through the tears of repentance, I may see more clearly the brightness and glories of the saving cross.”

How many times do repentant brothers and sisters, who come confessing sins committed, meet accusation rather than restoration? How often do we seek to expose and judge rather than dropping the stones of condemnation and declare with our Savior to the adulteress woman,“Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11) To those of us that want to sit in God’s chair, Jesus would say, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) Confession begins with you and with me.

Never once in Scripture does our Lord reject the truly repentant sinner; only the self-righteous receive such a response. We are unworthy of the grace of Jesus Christ. Period. That is grace. That is the Gospel. Our very sin and weakness ought to drive us to the throne of grace. Not that we may go on sinning, but that we may know Him more. The songwriter encapsulated this thought beautifully, “Could my zeal no respite know, could my zeal forever flow. These for sin could not atone, though must save and though alone. Nothing in my hand I cling, simply to Thy cross I cling.”

In our local churches today, have we ostracized and discouraged confession by our response to the sinner? God wants our very sin to drive us to the Savior. Confession was not designed to be the vehicle that pushes us on a pursuit of compensation based on our works and good behavior, but rather an unveiling of the reality of our lost state without Christ.

Among Christ’s followers, there is a great need for restoration. Not a mere passing over of sins committed, but a demonstration of Jesus’ love which seeks to restore and renew lives which once were discarded as useless for the Kingdom. Are we looking to gently encourage and shepherd our brothers and sisters past their past, or are we condemning them based on their history? Nets are mended for the purpose of fishing once more. In God’s economy, a broken net is a call for the Church to “…forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Corinthians 2:7-8) Furthermore, Paul goes on to plead that we would not be “outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his strategies.” (2:11) To withhold comfort and refuse restoration to a sincere, repenting sinner is to directly play into Satan’s hand.

Never forget that, as a believer in Jesus, on the best day, our story is a sinner saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. For those believers trapped in a funnel of despair, know that Jesus calls you to His charcoal fire. Not to condemn, but to affirm His love and offer restoration. He invites you anew to follow. He extends not only the invitation of intimacy, but offers a call to invest in the eternal.

Do our lives, as His lights in this world, reflect Christ’s attitude of restoration? Are we seeking to mend broken nets, laying aside bitterness, resentment and pride, so that under a unified and unhindered banner, we may proclaim His restoration to this generation?

Still He calls, “Follow Me.”

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