Serving as police chaplain for many years I was in the position of hearing more than a few Christians mock "jailhouse conversions." My sentiments are just the opposite. God seems to be in the habit of doing some pretty mighty and powerful things when people are brought to a place of profound, personal shame - and jail has a way of producing that kind of shame. In fact, I might push the point even further. The power of Jesus Christ is most often seen in weak, broken people who have nothing to offer God. I am not talking about the kind of humility we ministerial professionals often profess to possess, but the genuine thing that rises from the ashes of brokenness. C.S. Lewis once wrote, "A man is never as proud as when striking an attitude of humility," and heaven knows we ministers know how to strike the attitude. This seems to me to be the meaning behind the promise that "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." The real blessings of God's grace and the power of His manifested presence fall on that person who has been broken and humbled.
Peter is an example of a believer who had everything going for him, and then fell into deep shame and brokenness because of his own failures. Early on in Peter's life Christ Himself had commissioned Peter for kingdom service (Matthew 16:17-19). Peter had the privilege of daily walking with Christ throughout our Lord's ministry (Matthew 17:1). Peter's closeness to Christ even brought Peter to thinking of his own spiritual greatness and legacy (Matthew 18:1). But when Christ was arrested we find Peter in the courtyard of Caiaphas denying that he knew Christ (three times), cursing God (to prove he didn't know Christ), and then leaving the courtyard weeping because of his sin and shame over his conduct (John 18).
But something happened to Peter. This man who spat a curse, denying he knew Christ in order to save his own skin, eventually would die a courageous death, refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ. We are told that at the end of Peter's life, under threat of death if he refused, Peter was ordered by Roman officials to deny Christ. Yet, Peter did refuse and then made the remarkable request that his tormentors crucify him upside down because he was unworthy to die in the manner of his Lord. What had happened to Peter?
Jesus met Peter at the place of his failure, brokenness and shame . . . and then empowered Him and sent Him out to minister from that very place. In other words, Peter's ministry went from powerless to powerful because Peter went from boasting to brokenness. Let me show you what I mean.
There are only two places in the Bible where the phrase "fire of coals" is used. First, in John 18:18, in Caiaphas' courtyard, when Peter denied Christ. Peter's failure to be faithful brought him great shame and brokenness, and we read that when Peter actually denied Christ he was warming his hands at "the fire of coals."
Then, after the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, Jesus meets Peter for the first time since Peter's betrayal, shame and personal brokenness. It is at this meeting, recorded in John 21:9, that we find the second and only other occasion where "fires of coals" is mentioned in the Bible. It is also interesting that this is the only time in the Bible we find Jesus making a fire. Rather than making the typical fire, Jesus makes a "fire of coals." The smell of coal is unique. It burns differently, it smells differently. Everything about the fire of coal that Jesus made reminded Peter of his denial, his failure, and his shame in Caiaphas' courtyard. But it was at this meeting with Jesus, at the second fire of coal, that Peter's life was transformed - so much so that he leaves Christ to go and become a great teacher, missionary and martyr.
There is no need for pretension in real Christianity. There is no reason we Christians have to pretend we are something when we aren't. We don't need to hide our struggles, cover our failures, or sweep away our shame. In fact, the power of God will only rest on us when we allow ourselves to feel the flush heat of shame as we recount our failures to others. Christ is in the practice of pouring out His power and grace on the weak and the humble. "But we have this treasure (Christ Jesus) in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (II Corinthians 4:7 NIV). God chooses to use broken vessels so the glory and power of His Son will never be diminished by man's pride in supposed abilities.
Some might object by saying, "If a believer really does sense his or her utter unworthiness, inability and failure, will there not be a "checking out" of Christian ministry. No, for Christ will separate us, as He separated Peter, from the pain of our shame by giving us His grace and power. Christ recommissioned Peter at that fire of coals by the Sea of Galilee and then Peter goes out in power to minister Christ and to eventually die a faithful death. Peter was a different man. He was broken, but met the God who meets His people at the place of our shame.
Christ revealed to Peter. . . "You can't, I can." The nets that were cast at the command of Christ in John 21 came back full of fish. The fish pulled into the net were 153 and the net was not broken (John 21:11). This account is similar to the first meeting the disciples had with Christ in Luke 5, except in that instance the nets broke and fish were not numbered. But in this last encounter with Christ, at the coal fire, the fish were numbered and the nets were not broken - 153 fish.
Why 153 fish at this last encounter with Christ?
There may be other reasons, but the letters in Hebrew for the number 153 form the acronym "I AM GOD."
God has chosen imperfect people to advance His kingdom - but we must first meet Him at the place of our shame to grasp that He is God, and without Him, we are nothing.
In His Grace,