The Apostle John was a master storyteller. As with any excellent fiction writer, he painted such detailed pictures of the disciples’ interactions with Jesus that we can almost step into the scenes of his gospels. John’s gospel, likely the last gospel written and the first gospel to attempt contextualization to another culture, approaches Jesus’s life differently than the synoptic gospels.
While John moves swiftly through the first half of the his gospel, often called the book of signs, he slows down in the last half of his gospel account. Suddenly, we move from high-flying overviews with an occasional drop down into detail into a more detailed account of the last week of Jesus’s life.
After the long discourse recorded in John 14-16 and the long prayer recorded in John 17, John leads us back into action in John 18.
Jesus, crossing the brook Kidron, moves into action, having set his face toward the coming Cross. He is in full command throughout the entire chapter, showing the other-worldly nature of his kingdom, which he declares to Pilate in verse 36: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
One seemingly small detail jumps out to the observant reader: a charcoal fire.
As Jesus is brought before the High Priest, having boldly, calmly giving himself up to those who sought him in the dark with torches and weapons (v.4-5), the Apostle John gives us a vivid picture of Peter warming himself around a charcoal fire (v. 18, 25).
John juxtaposes Jesus’s care and concern for everyone else in the moment of his greatest need with Peter’s selfishly warming himself at the fire. John has set the stage for Peter’s three-fold denial around a charcoal fire. The reader can almost imagine the light and dark shadows, the watery eyes from the smoke, the smell lingering on the clothes long after the fire is out.
Later, after Peter’s persistent failure given three chances to identify himself with Jesus, we find another poignant scene taking place around a charcoal fire.
Jesus, having risen from the dead and appeared first to Mary Magdalene and then to the disciples who were hiding in a locked upper room, surprises his disciples who were fishing just as the day was breaking (John 21:1-4).
Jesus first recreates the scene of his original calling of the first disciples, helping them recognize him as the Risen Lord (Luke 5; John 21). In line with his impetuous nature, Peter jumps into the water to swim toward Jesus, forgetting for a moment the wall of awkwardness that still stood between them.
He walks up the beach to a charcoal fire where Jesus is cooking a meal for Peter and the disciples. Peter gave away his chances to align himself with the Lord, but the Lord continues to give himself to Peter in sacrificial, costly love.
Jesus, in line with his nature, does not shy away from the hard subject. Rather, he gently leads Peter there in healing conversation, forcing him to relive his failures by asking him three questions around a charcoal fire. Eyes filled with tears, the smell of charcoal smoke, the interplay of light and darkness. Same scene. Different ending.
Peter is graciously reinstated around the same kind of fire where he radically failed. What a merciful and masterful Jesus we serve.
Charcoal fires would never be the same,
Their smell would invoke his shame:
Threefold denial of Jesus’s perfect name.
Days later, at another fire he was fed
Fish with Christ fresh from the dead.
By coals’ warmth to forgiveness he was led.
Around charcoal fires, Peter spoke of grace,
Sharing good news with God’s chosen race,
Showing them in Jesus God’s own face.
Now in glory, warmed by Christ alone,
Peter both fully loved and fully known
Sees the Lamb of God upon the throne.
What are the charcoal fires of your life? What scenes of failure might Jesus be inviting you to revisit with his grace?
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you might be feared…O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” (Psalm 130:3, 7-8).