We have here Christ’s discourse with Peter after dinner, so much of it as relates to himself, in which,
I. He examines his love to him, and gives him a charge concerning his flock, John 21:15-17. Observe,
1. When Christ entered into this discourse with Peter.—It was after they had dined: they had all eaten, and were filled, and, it is probable, were entertained with such edifying discourse as our Lord Jesus used to make his table-talk. Christ foresaw that what he had to say to Peter would give him some uneasiness, and therefore would not say it till they had dined, because he would not spoil his dinner. Peter was conscious to himself that he had incurred his Master’s displeasure, and could expect no other than to be upbraided with his treachery and ingratitude. “Was this thy kindness to thy friend? Did not I tell thee what a coward thou wouldest prove?” Nay, he might justly expect to be struck out of the roll of the disciples, and to be expelled the sacred college. Twice, if not thrice, he had seen his Master since his resurrection, and he said not a word to him of it. We may suppose Peter full of doubts upon what terms he stood with his Master; sometimes hoping the best, because he had received favour from him in common with the rest; yet not without some fears, lest the chiding would come at last that would pay for all. But now, at length, his Master put him out of his pain, said what he had to say to him, and confirmed him in his place as an apostle. He did not tell him of his fault hastily, but deferred it for some time; did not tell him of it unseasonably, to disturb the company at dinner, but when they had dined together, in token of reconciliation, then discoursed he with him about it, not as with a criminal, but as with a friend. Peter had reproached himself for it, and therefore Christ did not reproach him for it, nor tell him of it directly, but only by a tacit intimation; and, being satisfied in his sincerity, the offence was not only forgiven, but forgotten; and Christ let him know that he was as dear to him as ever. Herein he has given us an encouraging instance of his tenderness towards penitents, and has taught us, in like manner, to restore such as are fallen with a spirit of meekness.
2. What was the discourse itself. Here was the same question three times asked, the same answer three times returned, and the same reply three times given, with very little variation, and yet no vain repetition. The same thing was repeated by our Saviour, in speaking it, the more to affect Peter, and the other disciples that were present; it is repeated by the evangelist, in writing it, the more to affect us, and all that read it.
(1.) Three times Christ asks Peter whether he loves him or no. The first time the question is, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? Observe,
[1.] How he calls him: Simon, son of Jonas. He speaks to him by name, the more to affect him, as Luke 22:31. Simon, Simon. He does not call him Cephas, nor Peter, the name he had given him (for he had lost the credit of his strength and stability, which those names signified), but his original name, Simon. Yet he gives him no hard language, does not call him out of his name, though he deserved it; but as he had called him when he pronounced him blessed, Simon Bar-jona, Matt. 16:17. He calls him son of Jonas (or John or Johanan), to remind him of his extraction, how mean it was, and unworthy the honour to which he was advanced.
[2.] How he catechises him: Lovest thou me more than these?
First, Lovest thou me? If we would try whether we are Christ’s disciples indeed, this must be the enquiry, Do we love him? But there was a special reason why Christ put in now to Peter. 1. His fall had given occasion to doubt of his love: “Peter, I have cause to suspect thy love; for if thou hadst loved me thou wouldst not have been ashamed and afraid to own me in my sufferings. How canst thou say thou lovest me, when thy heart was not with me?” Note, We must not reckon it an affront to have our sincerity questioned, when we ourselves have done that which makes it questionable; after a shaking fall, we must take heed of settling too soon, lest we settle upon a wrong bottom. The question is affecting; he does not ask, “Dost thou fear me? Dost thou honour me? Dost thou admire me?” but, “Dost thou love me? Give but proof of this, and the affront shall be passed by, and no more said of it.” Peter had professed himself a penitent, witness his tears, and his return to the society of the disciples; he was now upon his probation as a penitent; but the question is not, “Simon, how much hast thou wept? how often hast thou fasted, and afflicted thy soul?” but, Dost thou love me? It is this that will make the other expressions of repentance acceptable. The great thing Christ eyes in penitents is their eyeing him in their repentance. Much is forgiven her, not because she wept much, but because she loved much. 2. His function would give occasion for the exercise of his love. Before Christ would commit his sheep to his care, he asked him, Lovest thou me? Christ has such a tender regard to his flock that he will not trust it with any but those that love him, and therefore will love all that are his for his sake. Those that do not truly love Christ will never truly love the souls of men, or will naturally care for their state as they should; nor will that minister love his work that does not love his Master. Nothing but the love of Christ will constrain ministers to go cheerfully through the difficulties and discouragements they meet with in their work, 2 Cor. 5:13, 14. But this love will make their work easy, and them in good earnest in it.
Secondly, Lovest thou me more than these? pleion touton. 1. “Lovest thou me more than thou lovest these, more than thou lovest these persons?” Dost thou love me more than thou dost James or John, thy intimate friends, or Andrew, thy own brother and companion: Those do not love Christ aright that do not love him better than the best friend they have in the world, and make it to appear whenever they stand in comparison or in competition. Or, “more than thou lovest these things, these boats and nets—more than all the pleasure of fishing, which some make a recreation of—more than the gain of fishing, which others make a calling of.” Those only love Christ indeed that love him better than all the delights of sense and all the profits of this world. “Lovest thou me more than thou lovest these occupations thou art now employed in? If so, leave them, to employ thyself wholly in feeding my flock.” So Dr. Whitby. 2. “Lovest thou me more than these love me, more than any of the rest of the disciples love me?” And then the question is intended to upbraid him with his vain-glorious boast, Though all men should deny thee, yet will not I. “Art thou still of the same mind?” Or, to intimate to him that he had now more reason to love him than any of them had, for more had been forgiven to him than to any of them, as much as his sin in denying Christ was greater than theirs in forsaking him. Tell me therefore which of them will love him most? Luke 7:42. Note, We should all study to excel in our love to Christ. It is no breach of the peace to strive which shall love Christ best; nor any breach of good manners to go before others in this love.
Thirdly, The second and third time that Christ put this question, 1. He left out the comparison more than these, because Peter, in his answer, modestly left it out, not willing to compare himself with his brethren, much less to prefer himself before them. Though we cannot say, We love Christ more than others do, yet we shall be accepted if we can say, We love him indeed. 2. In the last he altered the word, as it is in the original. In the first two enquiries, the original word is Agapas me—Dost thou retain a kindness for me? In answer to which Peter uses another word, more emphatic, Philo se—I love thee dearly. In putting the question the last time, Christ uses that word: And dost thou indeed love me dearly.
(2.) Three times Peter returns the same answer to Christ: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. Observe, [1.] Peter does not pretend to love Christ more than the rest of the disciples did. He is now ashamed of that rash word of his, Though all men deny thee, yet will not I; and he had reason to be ashamed of it. Note, Though we must aim to be better than others, yet we must, in lowliness of mind, esteem others better than ourselves; for we know more evil of ourselves than we do of any of our brethren. [2.] Yet he professes again and again that he loves Christ: “Yea, Lord, surely I love thee; I were unworthy to live if I did not.” He had a high esteem and value for him, a grateful sense of his kindness, and was entirely devoted to his honour and interest; his desire was towards him, as one he was undone without; and his delight in him, as one he should be unspeakably happy in. This amounts to a profession of repentance for his sin, for it grieves us to have affronted one we love; and to a promise of adherence to him for the future Lord, I love thee, and will never leave thee. Christ prayed that his faith might not fail (Luke 22:32), and, because his faith did not fail, his love did not; for faith will work by love. Peter had forfeited his claim of relation to Christ. He was now to be re-admitted, upon his repentance. Christ puts his trial upon this issue: Dost thou love me? And Peter joins issue upon it: Lord, I love thee. Note, Those who can truly say, through grace, that they love Jesus Christ, may take the comfort of their interest in him, notwithstanding their daily infirmities. [3.] He appeals to Christ himself for the proof of it: Thou knowest that I love thee; and the third time yet more emphatically: Thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee. He does not vouch his fellow-disciples to witness for him—they might be deceived in him; nor does he think his own word might be taken—the credit of that was destroyed already; but he calls Christ himself to witness, First, Peter was sure that Christ knew all things, and particularly that he knew the heart, and was a discerner of the thoughts and intents of it, John 16:30. Secondly, Peter was satisfied of this, that Christ, who knew all things, knew the sincerity of his love to him, and would be ready to attest it in his favour. It is a terror to a hypocrite to think that Christ knows all things; for the divine omniscience will be a witness against him. But it is a comfort to a sincere Christian that he has that to appeal to: My witness is in heaven, my record is on high. Christ knows us better than we know ourselves. Though we know not our own uprightness, he knows it. [4.] He was grieved when Christ asked him the third time, Lovest thou me? John 21:17. First, Because it put him in mind of his threefold denial of Christ, and was plainly designed to do so; and when he thought thereon he wept. Every remembrance of past sins, even pardoned sins, renews the sorrow of a true penitent. Thou shalt be ashamed, when I am pacified towards thee. Secondly, Because it put him in fear lest his Master foresaw some further miscarriage of his, which would be as great a contradiction to this profession of love to him as the former was. “Surely,” thinks Peter, “my Master would not thus put me upon the rack if he did not see some cause for it. What would become of me if I should be again tempted?” Godly sorrow works carefulness and fear, 2 Cor. 7:11.
(3.) Three times Christ committed the care of his flock to Peter: Feed my lambs; feed my sheep; feed my sheep. [1.] Those whom Christ committed to Peter’s care were his lambs and his sheep. The church of Christ is his flock, which he hath purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28), and he is the chief shepherd of it. In this flock some are lambs, young and tender and weak, others are sheep, grown to some strength and maturity. The Shepherd here takes care of both, and of the lambs first, for upon all occasions he showed a particular tenderness for them. He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them in his bosom. Isa. 40:11. [2.] The charge he gives him concerning them is to feed them. The word used in John 21:15, 17, is boske, which strictly signifies to give them food; but the word used in John 21:16 is poimaine, which signifies more largely to do all the offices of a shepherd to them: “Feed the lambs with that which is proper for them, and the sheep likewise with food convenient. The lost sheep of the house of Israel, seek and feed them, and the other sheep also which are not of this fold.” Note, It is the duty of all Christ’s ministers to feed his lambs and sheep. Feed them, that is, teach them; for the doctrine of the gospel is spiritual food. Feed them, that is, “Lead them to the green pastures, presiding in their religious assemblies, and ministering all the ordinances to them. Feed them by personal application to their respective state and case; not only lay meat before them, but feed those with it that are wilful and will not, or weak and cannot feed themselves.” When Christ ascended on high, he gave pastors, left his flock with those that loved him, and would take care of them for his sake. [3.] But why did he give this charge particularly to Peter? Ask the advocates for the pope’s supremacy, and they will tell you that Christ hereby designed to give to Peter, and therefore to his successors, and therefore to the bishops of Rome, an absolute dominion and headship over the whole Christian church as if a charge to serve the sheep gave a power to lord it over all the shepherds; whereas, it is plain, Peter himself never claimed such a power, nor did the other disciples ever own it in him. This charge given to Peter to preach the gospel is by a strange artifice made to support the usurpation of his pretended successors, that fleece the sheep, and, instead of feeding them, feed upon them. But the particular application to Peter here was designed, First, To restore him to his apostleship, now that he repented of his abjuration of it, and to renew his commission, both for his own satisfaction, and for the satisfaction of his brethren. A commission given to one convicted of a crime is supposed to amount to a pardon; no doubt, this commission given to Peter was an evidence that Christ was reconciled to him else he would never have reposed such a confidence in him. Of some that have deceived us we say, “Though we forgive them, we will never trust them;” but Christ, when he forgave Peter, trusted him with the most valuable treasure he had on earth. Secondly, It was designed to quicken him to a diligent discharge of his office as an apostle. Peter was a man of a bold and zealous spirit, always forward to speak and act, and, lest he should be tempted to take upon him the directing of the shepherds, he is charged to feed the sheep, as he himself charges all the presbyters to do, and not to lord it over God’s heritage, 1 Pet. 5:2, 3. If he will be doing, let him do this, and pretend no further. Thirdly, What Christ said to him he said to all his disciples; he charged them all, not only to be fishers of men (though that was said to Peter, Luke 5:10), by the conversion of sinners, but feeders of the flock, by the edification of saints.
II. Christ, having thus appointed Peter his doing work, next appoints him his suffering work. Having confirmed to him the honour of an apostle, he now tells him of further preferment designed him—the honour of a martyr. Observe,
1. How his martyrdom is foretold (John 21:18): Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, being compelled to it, and another shall gird thee (as a prisoner that is pinioned) and carry thee whither naturally thou wouldest not.
(1.) He prefaces the notice he gives to Peter of his sufferings with a solemn asseveration, Verily, verily, I say unto thee. It was not spoken of as a thing probable, which perhaps might happen, but as a thing certain, I say it to thee. “Others, perhaps, will say to thee, as thou didst to me, This shall not be unto thee; but I say it shall.” As Christ foresaw all his own sufferings, so he foresaw the sufferings of all his followers, and foretold them, though not in particular, as to Peter, yet in general, that they must take up their cross. Having charged him to feed his sheep, he bids him not to expect ease and honour in it, but trouble and persecution, and to suffer ill for doing well.
(2.) He foretels particularly that he should die a violent death, by the hands of an executioner. The stretching out of his hands, some think, points at the manner of his death by crucifying; and the tradition of the ancients, if we may rely upon that, informs us that Peter was crucified at Rome under Nero, A.D. 68, or, as others say, 79. Others think it points at the bonds and imprisonments which those are hampered with that are sentenced to death. The pomp and solemnity of an execution add much to the terror of death, and to any eye of sense make it look doubly formidable. Death, in these horrid shapes, has often been the lot of Christ’s faithful ones, who yet have overcome it by the blood of the Lamb. This prediction, though pointing chiefly at his death, was to have its accomplishment in his previous sufferings. It began to be fulfilled presently, when he was imprisoned, Acts 6:3; Acts 5:18; 12:4. No more is implied here in his being carried whither he would not than that it was a violent death that he should be carried to, such a death as even innocent nature could not think of without dread, nor approach without some reluctance. He that puts on the Christian does not put off the man. Christ himself prayed against the bitter cup. A natural aversion to pain and death is well reconcileable with a holy submission to the will of God in both. Blessed Paul, though longing to be unloaded, owns he cannot desire to be unclothed, 2 Cor. 5:4.
(3.) He compares this with his former liberty. “Time was when thou knewest not any of these hardships, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest.” Where trouble comes we are apt to aggravate it with this, that it has been otherwise; and to fret the more at the grievances of restraint, sickness, and poverty, because we have known the sweets of liberty, health, and plenty, Job 29:2; Ps. 42:4. But we may turn it the other way, and reason thus with ourselves: “How many years of prosperity have I enjoyed more than I deserved and improved? And, having received good, shall I not receive evil also?” See here, [1.] What a change may possibly be made with us, as to our condition in this world! Those that have girded themselves with strength and honour, and indulged themselves in the greatest liberties, perhaps levities, may be reduced to such circumstances as are the reverse of all this. See 1 Sam. 2:5. [2.] What a change is presently made with those that leave all to follow Christ! They must no longer gird themselves, but he must gird them! and must no longer walk whither they will, but whither he will. [3.] What a change will certainly be made with us if we should live to be old! Those who, when they were young, had strength of body and vigour of mind, and could easily go through business and hardship, and take the pleasures they had a mind to, when they shall be old, will find their strength gone, like Samson, when his hair was cut and he could not shake himself as at other times.
(4.) Christ tells Peter he should suffer thus in his old age. [1.] Though he should be old, and in the course of nature not likely to live long, yet his enemies would hasten him out of the world violently when he was about to retire out of it peaceably, and would put out his candle when it was almost burned down to the socket. See 2 Chron. 36:17. [2.] God would shelter him from the rage of his enemies till he should come to be old, that he might be made the fitter for sufferings, and the church might the longer enjoy his services.
2. The explication of this prediction (John 21:19), This spoke he to Peter, signifying by what death he should glorify God, when he had finished his course. Observe, (1.) That it is not only appointed to all once to die, but it is appointed to each what death he shall die, whether natural or violent, slow or sudden, easy or painful. When Paul speaks of so great a death, he intimates that there are degrees of death; there is one way into the world, but many ways out, and God has determined which way we should go. (2.) That it is the great concern of every good man, whatever death he dies, to glorify God in it; for what is our chief end but this, to die to the Lord, at the word of the Lord? When we die patiently, submitting to the will of God,—die cheerfully, rejoicing in hope of the glory of God,—and die usefully, witnessing to the truth and goodness of religion and encouraging others, we glorify God in dying: and this is the earnest expectation and hope of all good Christians, as it was Paul’s, that Christ may be magnified in them living and dying, Phil. 1:20. (3.) That the death of the martyrs was in a special manner for the glorifying of God. The truths of God, which they died in the defence of, are hereby confirmed. The grace of God, which carried them with so much constancy through their sufferings, is hereby magnified. And the consolations of God, which have abounded towards them in their sufferings, and his promises, the springs of their consolations, have hereby been recommended to the faith and joy of all the saints. The blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the church, and the conversion and establishment of thousands. Precious therefore in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints, as that which honours him; and those who thereby at such an expense honour him he will honour.
3. The word of command he gives him hereupon: When he had spoken thus, observing Peter perhaps to look blank upon it, he saith unto him, Follow me. Probably he rose from the place where he had sat at dinner, walked off a little, and bade Peter attend him. This word, Follow me, was (1.) A further confirmation of his restoration to his Master’s favour, and to his apostleship; for Follow me was the first call. (2.) It was an explication of the prediction of his sufferings, which perhaps Peter at first did not fully understand, till Christ gave him that key to it, Follow me: “Expect to be treated as I have been, and to tread the same bloody path that I have trodden before thee; for the disciple is not greater than his Lord.” (3.) It was to excite him to, and encourage him in, faithfulness and diligence in his work as an apostle. He had told him to feed his sheep, and let him set his Master before him as an example of pastoral care: “Do as I have done.” Let the under-shepherds study to imitate the Chief Shepherd. They had followed Christ while he was here upon earth, and now that he was leaving them he till preached the same duty to them though to be performed in another way, Follow me; still they must follow the rules he had given them and the example he had set them. And what greater encouragement could they have than this, both in services and in sufferings? [1.] That herein they did follow him, and it was their present honour; who would be ashamed to follow such a leader? [2.] That hereafter they should follow him, and that would be their future happiness; and so it is a repetition of the promise Christ had given Peter (John 13:36), Thou shalt follow me afterwards. Those that faithfully follow Christ in grace shall certainly follow him to glory.
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