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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

John 21

 

 

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Verse 2

John

AN ELOQUENT CATALOGUE

John 21:2.

This chapter, containing the infinitely significant and pathetic account of our Lord’s appearance to these disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, is evidently an appendix to the Gospel of John. The design of that Gospel is complete with the previous chapter, and there is a formal close, as of the whole book, at the end thereof. But whilst obviously an appendix, this chapter is as obviously the work of the same hand as wrote the Gospel. There are many minute points of identity between the style of it and of the rest of the work, so that there can be no difficulty or doubt as to whence it came. This enumeration of these seven disciples, regarded as being the work of John himself, seems to me to be significant, and to contain a good many lessons. And I desire to turn to these now.

I. First of all, the fact that they were together is significant.

How did they come to hold together? How had they not yielded to the temptation to seek safety by flight, which would have been the natural course after the death of their Leader on a charge of treason against the Roman power? The process of disintegration had begun, and we see it going on in the conduct of the disciples before the Resurrection. The ‘Shepherd was smitten,’ and, as a matter of course, ‘the sheep’ began to ‘scatter.’ And yet here we find them back in Galilee, in their old haunts, and not trying to escape by separation, which would have been the first step suggested to ordinary men in an ordinary state of things. But where everybody knew them, and they knew everybody, and everybody knew them to be disciples of Jesus Christ, thither they go, and hold together as if they had still a living centre and a uniting bond. How did that come about? The fact that after Christ’s death there was a group of men united together simply and solely as disciples, and exhibiting their unity as disciples conspicuously, in the face of the men that knew them best, this forms a strange phenomenon that needs an explanation. And there is only one explanation of it, that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. That drew them together once more. You cannot build a Church on a dead Christ; and of all the proofs of the Resurrection, I take it that there is none that it is harder for an unbeliever to account for, in harmony with his hypothesis, than the simple fact that Christ’s disciples held together after He was dead, and presented a united front to the world.

So, then, the fact of the group is itself significant, and we may claim it as being a morsel of evidence for the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

II. Then the composition of this group is significant.

Taken in comparison with the original nucleus of the Church, the calling of which we find recorded in the first chapter of this Gospel, it is to be noticed that of the five men who made the Primitive Church, there are three who reappear here by name-viz. Simon Peter, John and Nathanael, and Nathanael never appears anywhere else except in these two places. Then, note that there are two unnamed men here, ‘two other of His disciples’; who, I think, in all probability are the two of the original five that we do not find named here-viz. ‘Philip and Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother’-both of them connected with Bethsaida, the place where probably this appearance of the risen Lord took place.

So, then, I think, the fair inference from the list before us is that we have here the original nucleus again, the first five, with a couple more, and the couple more are ‘Thomas, who is called Didymus’-and we shall see the reason for his presence in a moment-and the brother of John, one of the first pair.

Thus, then, to the original little group that had gathered round Him at the first, and to whom He had been so often manifested in this very scene where they were standing now, He is revealed again. There, along the beach, is the place where James and John and Simon and Andrew were called from their nets three short years ago. Across yonder, on the other side of the lake, is the bit of green grass where the thousands were fed. Behind it is the steep slope down which the devil-possessed herd rushed. There, over the shoulder of the hill, is the road that leads up to Cana of Galilee, which they had trod together on that never-to-be-forgotten first morning, and from which little village one of the group came. They who had companied with Him all the time of His too short fellowship, and had seen all His manifestations, were fittingly chosen to be the recipients of this last appearance, which was to be full of instruction as to the work of the Church, its difficulties, its discouragements, its rewards, its final success, and His benediction of it until the very end of time. It was not for nothing that they who were gathered together were that first nucleus of the Church, who received again from their Master the charge to be ‘fishers of men.’

And then, if we look at the list, having regard to the history of those that make it up, it seems to me that that also brings us some valuable considerations. Foremost stand, as receiving this great manifestation of Jesus Christ, the two greatest sinners of the whole band, ‘Simon Peter, and Thomas, which is called Didymus,’ the denier and the doubter. Singularly contrasted these two men were in much of their disposition; and yet alike in the fact that the Crucifixion had been too much for their faith. The one of them was impetuous, the other of them slow. The one was always ready to say more than he meant; the other always ready to do more than he said. The one was naturally despondent, disposed to look ahead and to see the gloomiest side of everything-’Let us also go that we may die with Him’-the other never looking an inch beyond his nose, and always yielding himself up to the impulse of the moment. And yet both of them were united in this, that the one, from a sudden wave of cowardice which swept him away from his deepest convictions and made him for an hour untrue to his warmest love, and the other, from giving way to his constitutional tendency to despondency, and to taking the blackest possible view of everything-they had both of them failed in their faith, the one turning out a denier and the other turning out a doubter. And yet here they are, foremost upon the list of those who saw the Risen Christ.

Well, there are two lessons there, and the one is this-let us Christian people learn with what open hearts and hands we should welcome a penitent when he comes back. The other is,-let us learn who they are to whom Jesus Christ deigns to manifest Himself-not immaculate monsters, but men that, having fallen, have learned humility and caution, and by penitence have risen to a securer standing, and have turned even their transgressions into steps in the ladder that lifts them to Christ. It was something that the first to whom the risen Saviour appeared when He came victorious and calm from the grave, was the woman ‘out of whom He had cast seven devils,’ and the blessed truth which that teaches is the same as that which is to be drawn from this list of those whom He regarded, and whom we regard, as then constituting the true nucleus of His Church-a list which is headed by the blackest denier and the most obstinate and captious sceptic in the whole company. ‘There were together Simon Peter and Thomas, which is called Didymus,’ and the little group was glad to have them, and welcomed them, as it becomes us to welcome brethren who have fallen, and who come again saying, ‘I repent.’

Well, then, take the next: he was ‘Nathanael, of Cana in Galilee’; a guileless ‘Israelite indeed,’ so swift to believe, so ready with his confession, so childlike in his wonder, so ardent in his love and faith. The only thing that Christ is recorded as having said to him is this: ‘Because I said. . . believest thou? Thou shalt see greater things than these.’ A promise of growing clearness of vision and growing fullness of manifestation was made to this man, who never appears anywhere else in Scripture but in these two scenes, and so may stand to us as the type of the opposite kind of Christian experience from that stormy one of the doubter and the denier-viz. that of persistent, quiet, continuous growth, which is marked by faithful use of the present amount of illumination, and is rewarded by a continual increase of the same. If the keynote to the two former lives is, that sin confessed helps a man to climb, the keynote to this man’s is the other truth, that they are still more blessed who, with no interruptions, backslidings, inconsistencies, or denials, by patient continuousness in well-doing, widen the horizon of their Christian vision and purge their eyesight for daily larger knowledge. To these, as to the others, there is granted the vision of the risen Lord, and to them also is entrusted the care of His sheep and His lambs. We do not need to go away into the depths and the darkness in order to realise the warmth and the blessedness of the light. There is no necessity that any Christian man’s career should be broken by denials like Peter’s or by doubts like Thomas’s, but we may ‘grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour.’ ‘So is the kingdom of heaven, first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.’

Then, still further, there were here ‘the two sons of Zebedee.’ These were the men of whom the Master said that they were ‘sons of thunder,’ who, by natural disposition, in so far as they resembled one another {which they seem to have done}, were eager, energetic, somewhat bigoted, ready with passionate rebukes, and not unwilling to invoke destructive vengeance, all for the love of Him. They were also touched with some human ambition which led them to desire a place at His right hand and His left, but the ambition, too, was touched with love towards Him, which half redeemed it. But by dwelling with Him one of them, at least, had become of all the group the likest his Master. And the old monastic painters taught a very deep truth when, in their pictures of the apostles, they made John’s almost a copy of the Master’s face. To him, too, there was granted in like manner a place amongst this blessed company, and it is surely a trace of his hand that his place should seem so humble. Any other but himself would certainly have put James and John in their natural place beside Peter. It must have been himself who slipped himself and his brother into so inconspicuous a position in the list, and further veiled his personality under the patronymic, ‘the sons of Zebedee.’

Last of all come ‘two other of His disciples,’ not worth naming. Probably, as I have said, they were the missing two out of the five of the first chapter; but possibly they were only ‘disciples’ in the wider sense, and not of the Apostolic group at all. Nobody can tell. What does it matter? The lesson to be gathered from their presence in this group is one that most of us may very well take to heart. There is a place for commonplace, undistinguished people, whose names are not worth repeating in any record; there is a place for us one-talented folk, in Christ’s Church, and we, too, have a share in the manifestation of His love. We do not need to be brilliant, we do not need to be clever, we do not need to be influential, we do not need to be energetic, we do not need to be anything but quiet, waiting souls, in order to have Christ showing Himself to us, as we toil wearily through the darkness of the night. Undistinguished disciples have a place in His heart, a sphere and a function in His Church, and a share in His revelation of Himself.

III. The last point that I touch is this, that the purpose of this group is significant.

What did they thus get together for? ‘Simon Peter saith, I go a fishing. They say, We also go with thee.’ So they went back again to their old trade, and they had not left the nets and the boats and the hired servants for ever, as they once thought they had.

What sent them back? Not doubt or despair; because they had seen Jesus Christ up in Jerusalem, and had come down to Galilee at His command on purpose to meet Him. ‘There shall ye see Him, lo! I have told you,’ was ringing in their ears, and they went back in full confidence of His appearance there. It is very like Peter that he should have been the one to suggest filling an hour of the waiting time with manual labour. The time would be hanging heavily on his hands. John could have ‘sat still in the house,’ like Mary, the heart all the busier, because the hands lay quietly in the lap. But that was not Peter’s way, and John was ready to keep him company. Peter thought that the best thing they could do, till Jesus chose to come, was to get back to their work, and he was sensible and right. The best preparation for Christ’s appearance, and the best attitude to be found in by Him, is doing our daily work, however secular and small it may be. A dirty, wet fishing boat, all slimy with scales, was a strange place in which to wait for the manifestation of a risen Saviour. But it was the right place, righter than if they had been wandering about amongst the fancied sanctities of the synagogues.

They went out to do their work; and to them was fulfilled the old saying, ‘I, being in the way, the Lord met me.’ Jesus Christ will come to you and me in the street if we carry the waiting heart there, and in the shop, and the factory, and the counting-house, and the kitchen, and the nursery, and the study, or wherever we may be. For all things are sacred when done with a hallowed heart, and He chooses to make Himself known to us amidst the dusty commonplaces of daily life.

He had said to them before the Crucifixion: ‘When I sent you forth without purse or scrip, lacked ye anything? And they said, Nothing.’ And then He said, as changing the conditions: ‘But now he that hath a purse or scrip, let him take it.’ As long as He was with them they were absolved from these common tasks. Now that He had left them the obligation recurred. And the order of things for His servants in all time coming was therein declared to be: no shirking of daily tasks on the plea of wanting divine communications; keep at your work, and if it last all night, stick to it; and if there are no fish in the net, never mind; out with it again. And be sure that sooner or later you will see Him standing on the beach, and hear His voice, and be blessed by His smile.


Verse 4

John

THE BEACH AND THE SEA

John 21:4.

The incident recorded in this appendix to John’s Gospel is separated from the other appearances of our risen Lord in respect of place, time, and purpose. They all occurred in and about Jerusalem; this took place in Galilee. The bulk of them happened on the day of the Resurrection, one of them a week after. This, of course, to allow time for the journey, must have been at a considerably later date. Their object was, mainly, to establish the reality of the Resurrection, the identity of Christ’s physical body, and to confirm the faith of the disciples therein. Here, these purposes retreat into the background; the object of this incident is to reveal the permanent relations between the risen Lord and His struggling Church.

The narrative is rich in details which might profitably occupy us, but the whole may be gathered up in two general points of view in considering the revelation which we have here in the participation of Christ in His servants’ work, and also the revelation which we have in the preparation by Christ of a meal for His toiling servants. We take this whole narrative thus regarded as our subject on this Easter morning.

I. First we have here a revelation of the permanent relation of Jesus Christ to His Church and to the individuals who compose it, in this, that the risen Lord on the shore shares in the toil of His servants on the restless sea.

The little group of whom we read in this narrative reminds us of the other group of the first disciples in the first chapter of this Gospel. Four out of the five persons named in our text appear there: Simon Peter, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John. And a very natural inference is that the ‘two others’ unnamed here are the two others of that chapter, viz. Andrew and Philip. If so, we have at the end, the original little group gathered together again; with the addition of the doubting Thomas.

Be that as it may, there they are on the shore of the sea, and Peter characteristically takes the lead and suggests a course that they all accept: ‘I go a fishing.’ ‘We also go with thee.’

Now we must not read that as if it meant: ‘It is all over! Our hopes are vain! We dreamed that we were going to be princes in the Messiah’s Kingdom, we have woke up to find that we are only fishermen. Let us go back to our nets and our boats!’ No! all these men had seen the risen Lord, and had received from His breath the gift of the Holy Spirit. They had all gone from Jerusalem to Galilee, in obedience to His command, and were now waiting for His promised appearance. Very noble and beautiful is the calm patience with which they fill the time of expectation with doing common and long-abandoned tasks. They go back to the nets and the boats long since forsaken at the Master’s bidding. That is not like fanatics. That is not like people who would be liable to the excesses of excitement that would lead to the ‘hallucination,’ which is the modern explanation of the resurrection faith, on the part of the disciples.

And it is a precious lesson for us, dear brethren! that whatever may be our memories, and whatever may be our hopes, the very wisest thing we can do is to stick to the common drudgery, and even to go back to abandoned tasks. It stills the pulses. ‘Study to be quiet; and to do our own business’ is the best remedy for all excitement, whether it be of sorrow or of hope. And not seldom to us, if we will learn and practise that lesson, as to these poor men in the tossing fisherman’s boat, the accustomed and daily duties will be the channel through which the presence of the Master will be manifested to us.

So they go, and there follow the incidents which I need not repeat, because we all know them well enough. Only I wish to mark the distinct allusion throughout the whole narrative to the earlier story of the first miraculous draught of fishes which was connected with their call to the Apostleship, and was there by Christ declared to have a symbolical meaning. The correspondences and the contrasts are obvious. The scene is the same; the same green mountains look down upon the same blue waters. It was the same people that were concerned. They were, probably enough, in the same fishing-boat. In both there had been a night of fruitless toil; in both there was the command to let down the net once more; in both obedience was followed by instantaneous and large success.

So much for the likenesses; the contrasts are these. In the one case the Master is in the boat with them, in the other He is on the shore; in the one the net is breaking; in the other, ‘though there were so many, yet did it not break.’ In the one Peter, smitten by a sense of his own sinfulness, says, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’ In the other, Peter, with a deeper knowledge of his own sinfulness, but also with the sweet knowledge of forgiveness, casts himself into the sea, and flounders through the shallows to reach the Lord. The one is followed by the call to higher duty and to the abandonment of possessions; the other is followed by rest and the mysterious meal on the shore.

That is to say, whilst both of the stories point the lesson of service to the Master, the one of them exhibits the principles of service to Him whilst He was still with them, and the other exhibits the principles of service to Him when He is removed from struggling and toiling on the billows to the calm of the peaceful shore in the morning light.

So we may take that night of toil as full of meaning. Think of them as the darkness fell, and the solemn bulk of the girdling hills lay blacker upon the waters, and the Syrian sky was mirrored with all its stars sparkling in the still lake. All the night long cast after cast was made, and time after time the net was drawn in and nothing in it but tangle and mud. And when the first streak of the morning breaks pale over the Eastern hills they are still so absorbed in their tasks that they do not recognise the voice that hails them from the nearer shore: ‘Lads, have ye any meat?’ And they answer it with a half surly and wholly disappointed monosyllabic ‘No!’ It is an emblem for us all; weary and wet, tugging at the oar in the dark, and often seeming to fail. What then? If the last cast has brought nothing, try another. Out with the nets once more! Never mind the darkness, and the cold, and the wetting spray, and the weariness. You cannot expect to be as comfortable in a fishing-boat as in your drawing-room. You cannot expect that your nets will be always full. Failure and disappointment mingle in the most successful lives. Christian work has often to be done with no results at all apparent to the doer, but be sure of this, that they who learn and practise the homely, wholesome virtue of persistent adherence to the task that God sets them, will catch some gleams of a Presence most real and most blessed, and before they die will know that ‘their labour has not been in vain in the Lord.’ ‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.’

And so, finally, about this first part of my subject, there stands out before us here the blessed picture of the Lord Himself, the Risen Lord, with the halo of death and resurrection round about Him; there, on the firm beach, in the increasing light of the morning, interested in, caring about, directing and crowning with His own blessing, the obedient work of His servants.

The simple prose fact of the story, in its plain meaning, is more precious than any ‘spiritualising’ of it. Take the fact. Jesus Christ, fresh from the grave, who had been down into those dark regions of mystery where the dead sleep and wait, and had come back into this world, and was on the eve of ascending to the Father-this Christ, the possessor of such experience, takes an interest in seven poor men’s fishing, and cares to know whether their ragged old net is full or is empty. There never was a more sublime and wonderful binding together of the loftiest and the lowliest than in that question in the mouth of the Risen Lord. If men had been going to dream about what would be fitting language for a risen Saviour, if we had to do here with a legend, and not with a piece of plain, prosaic fact, do you think that the imagination would ever have entered the mind of the legend-maker to put such a question as that into such lips at such a time? ‘Lads, have ye any meat?’

It teaches us that anything that interests us is not without interest to Christ. Anything that is big enough to occupy our thoughts and our efforts is large enough to be taken into His. All our ignoble toils, and all our petty anxieties, touch a chord that vibrates in that deep and tender heart. Though other sympathy may be unable to come down to the minutenesses of our little lives, and to wind itself into the narrow room in which our histories are prisoned, Christ’s sympathy can steal into the narrowest cranny. The risen Lord is interested in our poor fishing and our disappointments.

And not only that, here is a promise for us, a prophecy for us, of certain guidance and direction, if only we will come to Him and acknowledge our dependence upon Him. The question that was put to them, ‘Lads, have ye any meat?’ was meant to evoke the answer, ‘No!’ The consciousness of my failure is the pre-requisite to my appeal to Him to prosper my work. And just as before He would, on the other margin of that same shore, multiply the loaves and the fishes, He put to them the question, ‘How many have ye?’ that they might know clearly the inadequacy of their own resources for the hungry crowd, so here, in order to prepare their hearts for the reception of His guidance and His blessing, He provides that they be brought to catalogue and confess their failures. So He does with us all, beats the self-confidence out of us, blessed be His name! and makes us know ourselves to be empty in order that He may pour Himself into us, and flood us with the joy of His presence.

Then comes the guidance given. We may be sure that it is given to us all to-day, if we wait upon Him and ask Him. ‘Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find.’ His command is followed by swift, unanswering, unquestioning obedience, which in its turn is immediately succeeded by the large blessing which the Master then gave on the instant, which He gives still, though often, in equal love and unquestioned wisdom, it comes long after faith has discerned His presence and obedience has bowed to His command.

It may be that we shall not see the results of our toil till the morning dawns and the great net is drawn to land by angel hands. But we may be sure that while we are toiling on the tossing sea, He watches from the shore, is interested in all our weary efforts, will guide us if we own to Him our weakness, and will give us to see at last issues greater than we had dared to hope from our poor service. The dying martyr looked up and saw Him ‘standing at the right hand of God,’ in the attitude of interested watchfulness and ready help. This Easter morning bids us lift our eyes to a risen Lord who ‘has not left us to serve alone,’ nor gone up on high, like some careless general to a safe height, while his forsaken soldiers have to stand the shock of onset without him. From this height He bends down and ‘covers our heads in the day of battle.’ ‘He was received up,’ says the Evangelist, ‘and sat on the right hand of God, and they went forth and preached everywhere.’ Strange contrast between His throned rest and their wandering toils for Him! But the contrast gives place to a deeper identity of work and condition, as the Gospel goes on to say, ‘The Lord also working with them and confirming the word with signs following.’

Though we be on the tossing sea and He on the quiet shore, between us there is a true union and communion, His heart is with us, if our hearts be with Him, and from Him will pass over all strength, grace, and blessing to us, if only we know His presence, and owning our weakness, obey His command and expect His blessing.

II. Look at the other half of this incident before us.

I pass over the episode of the recognition of Jesus by John, and of Peter struggling to His feet, interesting as it is, in order to fix upon the central thought of the second part of the narrative, viz. the risen Lord on the shore, in the increasing light of the morning, ‘preparing a table’ for His toiling servants. That ‘fire of coals’ and the simple refreshment that was being dressed upon it had been prepared there by Christ’s own hand. We are not told that there was anything miraculous about it. He had gathered the charcoal; He had procured the fish; He had dressed it and prepared it. They are bidden to ‘bring of the fish they had caught’; He accepts their service, and adds the result of their toil, as it would seem, to the provision which His own hand has prepared. He summons them to a meal, not the midday repast, for it was still early morning. They seat themselves, smitten by a great awe. The meal goes on in silence. No word is spoken on either side. Their hearts know Him. He waits on them, making Himself their Servant as well as their Host. He ‘taketh bread and giveth them and fish likewise,’ as He had done in the miracles by the same shore and on that sad night in the upper room that seemed so far away now, and in the roadside inn at Emmaus, when something in His manner or action disclosed Him to the wondering two at the table.

Now what does all that teach us? Two things; and first-neglecting for a moment the difference between shore and sea-here we have the fact of Christ’s providing, even by doing menial offices, for His servants.

These seven men were wet and weary, cold and hungry. The first thing they wanted when they came out of the fishing-boat was their breakfast. If they had been at home, their wives and children would have got it ready for them. Jesus had a great deal to say to them that day, a great deal to teach them, much to do for them, and for the whole world, by the words that followed; but the first thing that He thinks about is to feed them. And so, cherishing no overstrained contempt for material necessities and temporal mercies, let us remember that it is His hand that feeds us still, and let us be glad to think that this Christ, risen from the dead and with His heart full of the large blessings that He was going to bestow, yet paused to consider: ‘They are coming on shore after a night’s hard toil, they will be faint and weary; let Me feed their bodies before I begin to deal with their hearts and spirits.’

And He will take care of you, brother! and of us all. The ‘bread will be given’ us, at any rate, and ‘the water made sure.’ It was a modest meal that He with His infinite resources thought enough for toiling fishermen. ‘One fish,’ as the original shows us, ‘one loaf of bread.’ No more! He could as easily have spread a sumptuous table for them. There is no covenant for superfluities, necessaries will be given. Let us bring down our wishes to His gifts and promises, and recognise the fact that ‘he who needs least is the nearest the gods,’ and he that needs least is surest of getting from Christ what he needs.

But then, besides that, the supply of all other deeper and loftier necessities is here guaranteed. The symbolism of our text divides, necessarily, the two things which in fact are not divided. It is not all toiling on the restless sea here, any more than it is all rest and fruition yonder; but all that your spirit needs, for wisdom, patience, heroism, righteousness, growth, Christ will give you in your work; and that is better than giving it to you after your work, and the very work which is blessed by Him, and furthered and prospered by Him, the very work itself will come to be moat and nourishment. ‘Out of the eater will come forth meat,’ and the slain ‘lions’ of past struggles and sorrows, the next time we come to them, will be ‘full of honey.’

Finally, there is a great symbolical prophecy here if we emphasise the distinction between the night and the morning, between the shore and the sea. We can scarcely fail to catch this meaning in the incident which sets forth the old blessed assurance that the risen Lord is preparing a feast on the shore while His servants are toiling on the darkling sea.

All the details, such as the solid shore in contrast with the changeful sea, the increasing morning in contrast with the toilsome night, the feast prepared, have been from of old consecrated to shadow forth the differences between earth and heaven. It would be blindness not to see here a prophecy of the glad hour when Christ shall welcome to their stable home, amid the brightness of unsetting day, the souls that have served Him amidst the fluctuations and storms of life, and seen Him in its darkness, and shall satisfy all their desires with the ‘bread of heaven.’

Our poor work which He deigns to accept forms part of the feast which is spread at the end of our toil, when ‘there shall be no more sea.’ He adds the results of our toil to the feast which He has prepared. The consequences of what we have done here on earth make no small part of the blessedness of heaven.

‘Their works and alms and all their good endeavour Stayed not behind, nor in the grave were trod.’

The souls which a Paul or a John has won for the Master, in their vocation as ‘fishers of men,’ are their ‘hope and joy and crown of rejoicing, in the presence of our Lord Jesus.’ The great benediction which the Spirit bade the Apocalyptic seer write over ‘the dead which die in the Lord,’ is anticipated in both its parts by this mysterious meal on the beach. ‘They rest from their labours’ inasmuch as they find the food prepared for them, and sit down to partake; ‘Their works do follow them’ inasmuch as they ‘bring of the fish which they have caught.’

Finally, Christ Himself waits on them, therein fulfilling in symbol what He has told us in great words that dimly shadow wonders unintelligible until experienced: ‘Verily I say unto you, He shall gird Himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth, and serve them.’

So here is a vision to cheer us all. Life must be full of toil and of failure. We are on the midnight sea, and have to tug, weary and wet, at a heavy oar, and to haul an often empty net. But we do not labour alone. He comes to us across the storm, and is with us in the night, a most real, because unseen Presence. If we accept the guidance of His directing word, His indwelling Spirit, and His all-sufficient example, and seek to ascertain His will in outward Providences, we shall not be left to waste our strength in blunders, nor shall our labour be in vain. In the morning light we shall see Him standing serene on the steadfast shore. The ‘Pilot of the Galilean lake’ will guide our frail boat through the wild surf that marks the breaking of the sea of life on the shore of eternity; and when the sun rises over the Eastern hills we shall land on the solid beach, bringing our ‘few small fishes’ with us, which He will accept. And there we shall rest, nor need to ask who He is that serves us, for we shall know that ‘It is the Lord!’


Verse 7

John - Luke

FEAR AND FAITH

‘IT IS THE LORD!’

John 21:7.

It seems a very strange thing that these disciples had not, at an earlier period of this incident, discovered the presence of Christ, inasmuch as the whole was so manifestly a repetition of that former event by which the commencement of their ministry had been signalised, when He called them to become ‘fishers of men.’ We are apt to suppose that when once again they embarked on the lake, and went back to their old trade, it must have been with many a thought of Him busy at their hearts. Yonder-perhaps we fancy them thinking-is the very point where we saw Him coming out of the shadows of the mountains, that night when He walked on the water; yonder is the little patch of grass where He made them all sit down whilst we bore the bread to them: there is the very spot where we were mending our nets when He came up to us and called us to Himself; and now it is all over. We have loved and lost Him; He has been with us, and has left us. ‘We trusted that it had been He who should have redeemed Israel,’ and the Cross has ended it all! So, we are apt to think, they must have spoken; but there does not seem to have been about them any such sentimental remembrance. John takes pains in this narrative, I think, to show them to us as plain, rough men, busy about their night’s work, and thinking a great deal more of their want of success in fishing, than about the old associations which we are apt to put into their minds. Then through the darkness He comes, as they had seen Him come once before, when they know Him not; and He speaks to them as He had spoken before, and they do not detect His voice yet; and He repeats the old miracle, and their eyes are all holden, excepting the eyes of him who loved, and he first says, ‘It is the Lord!’ Now, besides all the other features of this incident by which it becomes the revelation of the Lord’s presence with His Church, and the exhibition of the work of the Church during all the course of the world’s history, it contains valuable lessons on other points, such as these which I shall try to bring before you.

Now and always, as in that morning twilight on the Galilean lake, Christ comes to men. Everywhere He is present, everywhere revealing Himself. Now, as then, our eyes are ‘holden’ by our own fault, so that we recognise not the merciful Presence which is all around us. Now, as then, it is they who are nearest to Christ by love who see Him first. Now, as then, they who are nearest to Him by love, are so because He loves them, and because they know and believe the love which He has to them. I find, then, in this part of the story three thoughts,-First, they only see aright who see Christ in everything. Secondly, they only see Christ who love Him. Lastly, they only love Him who know that He loves them,

I. First then, they only see aright who see Christ in everything.

This word of John’s, ‘It is the Lord!’-ought to be the conviction with the light of which we go out to the examination of all events, and to the consideration of all the circumstances of our daily life. We believe that unto Christ is given ‘all power in heaven and upon earth.’ We believe that to Him belongs creative power-that ‘without Him was not anything made which was made.’ We believe that from Him came all life at first. In Him life was, as in its deep source. He is the Fountain of life. We believe that as no being comes into existence without His creative power, so none continues to exist without His sustaining energy. We believe that He allots to all men their natural characters and their circumstances. We believe that the history of the world is but the history of His influence, and that the centre of the whole universe is the cross of Calvary. In the light of such convictions, I take it, every man that calls himself a Christian ought to go out to meet life and to study all events. Let me try, then, to put before you, very briefly, one or two of the provinces in which we are to take this conviction as the keynote to all our knowledge.

No man will understand the world aright, to begin with, who cannot say about all creation, ‘It is the Lord!’ Nature is but the veil of the invisible and ascended Lord: and if we would pierce to the deepest foundations of all being, we cannot stop until we get down to the living power of Christ our Saviour and the Creator of the world, by whom all things were made, and whose will pouring out into this great universe, is the sustaining principle and the true force which keeps it from nothingness and from quick decay.

Why, what did Christ work all His miracles upon earth for? Not solely to give us a testimony that the Father had sent Him; not solely to make us listen to His words as a Teacher sent from God; not solely as proof of His Messiahship,-but besides all these purposes there was surely this other, that for once He would unveil to us the true Author of all things, and the true Foundation of all being. Christ’s miracles interrupted the order of the world, because they made visible to men for once the true and constant Orderer of the order. They interrupted the order in so far as they struck out the intervening links by which the creative and sustaining word of God acts in nature, and suspended each event directly from the firm staple of His will. They revealed the eternal Orderer of that order in that they showed the Incarnate Word wielding the forces of nature, which He has done from of old and still does. We are then to take all these signs and wonders that He wrought, as a perennial revelation of the real state of things with regard to this natural world, and to see in them all, signs and tokens that into every corner and far-off region of the universe His loving hand reaches, and His sustaining power goes forth. Into what province of nature did He not go? He claimed to be the Lord of life by the side of the boy’s bier at the gate of Nain, in the chamber of the daughter of Jairus, by the grave of Lazarus. He asserted for Himself authority over all the powers and functions of our bodily life, when He gave eyes to the blind, hearing to the deaf, feet to the lame. He showed that He was Lord over the fowl of the air, the beasts of the earth, the fish of the sea. And He asserted His dominion over inanimate nature, when the fig-tree, cursed by Him, withered away to its roots, and the winds and waves sunk into silence at His gentle voice. He let us get a glimpse into the dark regions of His rule over the unseen, when ‘with authority He commanded the unclean spirits, and they came out.’ And all these things He did, in order that we, walking in this fair world, encompassed by the glories of this wonderful universe, should be delivered from the temptation of thinking that it is separated from Him, or independent of His creative and sustaining power; and in order that we should feel that the continuance of all which surrounds us, the glories of heaven and the loveliness of earth, are as truly owing to the constant intervention of His present will, and the interposition beneath them of His sustaining hand, as when first, by the ‘Word of God’ who ‘was with God and who was God,’ speaking forth His fiat, there came light and beauty out of darkness and chaos.

O Christian men! we shall never understand the Christian thought about God’s universe, until we are able to say, Preservation is a continual creation; and beneath all the ordinary workings of Nature, as we faithlessly call it, and the apparently dead play of secondary causes, there are welling forth, and energising, the living love and the blessed power of Christ, the Maker, and Monarch, and Sustainer of all. ‘It is the Lord!’ is the highest teaching of all science. The mystery of the universe, and the meaning of God’s world, are shrouded in hopeless obscurity, until we learn to feel that all laws suppose a Lawgiver, and that all working involves a divine energy; and that beneath all which appears there lies for ever rising up through it and giving it its life and power, the one true living Being, the Father in heaven, the Son by whom He works, and the Holy Ghost the Spirit. Darkness lies on Nature, except to those who in

‘the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky,’

see that Form which these disciples saw in the morning twilight. Let ‘It is the Lord!’ be the word on our lips as we gaze on them all, and nature will then be indeed to us the open secret, the secret of the Lord which ‘He will show to them that fear Him.’

Then again, the same conviction is the only one that is adequate either to explain or to make tolerable the circumstances of our earthly condition. To most men-ah! to all of us in our faithless times-the events that befall ourselves, seem to be one of two things equally horrible, the play of a blind Chance, or the work of an iron Fate. I know not which of these two ghastly thoughts about the circumstances of life is the more depressing, ruining all our energy, depriving us of all our joy, and dragging us down with its weight. But brethren, and friends, there are but these three ways for it-either our life is the subject of a mere chaotic chance; or else it is put into the mill of an iron destiny, which goes grinding on and crushing with its remorseless wheels, regardless of what it grinds up; or else, through it all, in it all, beneath it and above it all, there is the Will which is Love, and the Love which is Christ! Which of these thoughts is the one that commends itself to your own hearts and consciences, and which is the one under which you would fain live if you could? I understand not how a man can front the awful possibilities of a future on earth, knowing all the points at which he is vulnerable, and all the ways by which disaster may come down upon him, and retain his sanity, unless he believes that all is ruled, not merely by a God far above him, who may be as unsympathising as He is omnipotent, but by his Elder Brother, the Son of God, who showed His heart by all His dealings with us here below, and who loves as tenderly, and sympathises as closely with us as ever He did when on earth He gathered the weary and the sick around Him. Is it not a thing, men and women, worth having, to have this for the settled conviction of your hearts, that Christ is moving all the pulses of your life, and that nothing falls out without the intervention of His presence and the power of His will working through it? Do you not think such a belief would nerve you for difficulty, would lift you buoyantly over trials and depressions, and would set you upon a vantage ground high above all the petty annoyances of life? Tell me, is there any other place where a man can plant his foot and say, ‘Now I am on a rock and I care not what comes’? The riddle of Providence is solved, and the discipline of Providence is being accomplished when we have grasped this conviction-All events do serve me, for all circumstances come from His will and pleasure, which is love; and everywhere I go-be it in the darkness of disaster or in the sunshine of prosperity-I shall see standing before me that familiar and beloved Shape, and shall be able to say, ‘It is the Lord!’ Friends and brethren, that is the faith to live by, that is the faith to die by; and without it life is a mockery and a misery.

Once more this same conviction, ‘It is the Lord! should guide us in all our thoughts about the history and destinies of mankind and of Christ’s Church. The Cross is the centre of the world’s history, the incarnation and the crucifixion of our Lord are the pivot round which all the events of the ages revolve. ‘The testimony of Jesus was the spirit of prophecy,’ and the growing power of Jesus is the spirit of history, and in every book that calls itself the history of a nation, unless there be written, whether literally or in spirit, this for its motto, ‘It is the Lord!’ all will be shallow and incomplete.

‘They that went before and they that came after,’ when He entered into the holy city in His brief moment of acceptance and pomp, surrounded Him with hosannas and jubilant gladness. It is a deep and true symbol of the whole history of the world. All the generations that went before Him, though they knew it not, were preparing the way of the Lord, and heralding the advent of Him who was ‘the desire of all nations’ and ‘the light of men’; and all the generations that come after, though they know it not, are swelling the pomp of His triumph and hastening the time of His crowning and dominion. ‘It is the Lord!’ is the secret of all national existence. It is the secret of all the events of the world. The tangled web of human history is only then intelligible when that is taken as its clue, ‘From Him are all things, and to Him are all things.’ The ocean from which the stream of history flows, and that into which it empties itself, are one. He began it, He sustains it. ‘The help that is done upon earth He doeth it Himself,’ and when all is finished, it will be found that all things have indeed come from Christ, been sustained and directed by Christ, and have tended to the glory and exaltation of that Redeemer, who is King of kings and Lord of lords, Maker of the worlds, and before whose throne are for ever gathered for service, whether they know it or not, the forces of the Gentiles, the riches of the nations, the events of history, the fates and destinies of every man.

I need not dwell upon the way in which such a conviction as this, my friends, living and working in our hearts, would change for us the whole aspect of life, and make everything bright and beautiful, blessed and calm, strengthening us for all which we might have to do, nerving us for duty, and sustaining us against every trial, leading us on, triumphant and glad, through regions all sparkling with tokens of His presence and signs of His love, unto His throne at last, to lay down our praises and our crowns before Him. Only let me leave with you this one word of earnest entreaty, that you will lay to heart the solemn alternative-either see Christ in everything, and be blessed; or miss Him, and be miserable. Oh! it is a waste, weary world, unless it is filled with signs of His presence. It is a dreary seventy years, brother, of pilgrimage and strife, unless, as you travel along the road, you see the marks that He who went before you has left by the wayside for your guidance and your sustenance. If you want your days to be true, noble, holy, happy, manly, and Godlike, believe us, it is only when they all have flowing through them this conviction, ‘It is the Lord!’ that they all become so.

II. Then, secondly, only they who love, see Christ.

John, the Apostle of Love, knew Him first. In religious matters, love is the foundation of knowledge. There is no way of knowing a Person except love. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of Christ are not to be won by the exercise of the understanding. A man cannot argue his way into knowing Christ. No skill in drawing inferences will avail him there. The treasures of wisdom-earthly wisdom-are all powerless in that region. Man’s understanding and natural capacity- let it keep itself within its own limits and region, and it is strong and good; but in the region of acquaintance with God and Christ, the wisdom of this world is foolishness, and man’s understanding is not the organ by which he can know Christ. Oh no! there is a better way than that: ‘He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.’ As it is, in feebler measure, with regard to our personal acquaintance with one another, where it is not so much the power of the understanding, or the quickness of the perception, or the talent and genius of a man, that make the foundation of his knowledge of his friend, as the force of his sympathy and the depth of his affection; so-with the necessary modification arising from the transference from earthly acquaintances to the great Friend and Lover of our souls in heaven-so is it with regard to our knowledge of Christ. Love will trace Him everywhere, as dear friends can detect each other in little marks which are meaningless to others. Love’s quick eye pierces through disguises impenetrable to a colder scrutiny. Love has in it a longing for His presence which makes us eager and quick to mark the lightest sign that He for whom it longs is near, as the footstep of some dear one is heard by the sharp ear of affection long before any sound breaks the silence to those around. Love leads to likeness to the Lord, and that likeness makes the clearer vision of the Lord possible. Love to Him strips from our eyes the film that self and sin, sense and custom, have drawn over them. It is these which hide Him from us. It is because men are so indifferent to, so forgetful of, their best Friend that they fail to behold Him, ‘It is the Lord!’ is written large and plain on all things, but like the great letters on a map, they are so obvious and fill so wide a space, that they are not seen. They who love Him know Him, and they who know Him love Him. The true eye-salve for our blinded eyes is applied when we have turned with our hearts to Christ. The simple might of faithful love opens them to behold a more glorious vision than the mountain ‘full of chariots of fire,’ which once flamed before the prophet’s servant of old-even the august and ever-present form of the Lord of life, the Lord of history, the Lord of providence. When they who love Jesus turn to see ‘the Voice that speaks with them,’ they ever behold the Son of Man in His glory; and where others see but the dim beach and a mysterious stranger, it is to their lips that the glad cry first comes, ‘It is the Lord!’

And is it not a blessed thing, brethren! that thus this high and glorious prerogative of recognising the marks of Christ’s presence everywhere, of going through life gladdened by the assurance of His nearness, does not depend on what belongs to few men only, but on what may belong to all? When we say that ‘not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called’-when we say that love is the means of knowledge-we are but in other words saying that the way is open to all, and that no characteristics belonging to classes, no powers that must obviously always belong to but a handful, are necessary for the full apprehension of the power and blessedness of Christ’s Gospel. The freeness and the fullness of that divine message, the glorious truth that it is for all men, and is offered to all, are couched in that grand principle, Love that thou mayest know; love, and thou art filled with the fullness of God, Not for the handful, not for the elite of the world; not for the few, but for the many; not for the wise, but for all; not for classes, but for humanity-for all that are weak, and sinful, and needy, and foolish, and darkened He comes, who only needs that the heart that looks should love, and then it shall behold!

But if that were the whole that I have to say, I should have said but little to the purpose. It very little avails to tell men to love. We cannot love to order, or because we think it duty. There is but one way of loving, and that is to see the lovely. The disciple who loved Jesus was ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ Generalise that, and it teaches us this, that

III. They love who know that Christ loves them.

His divine and eternal mercy is the foundation of the whole. Our love, brethren, can never be any thing else than our echo to His voice of tenderness than the reflected light upon our hearts of the full glory of His affection. No man loveth God except the man who has first learned that God loves him. ‘We love Him, because He first loved us.’ And when we say, ‘Love Christ,’ if we could not go on to say, ‘Nay, rather let Christ’s love come down upon you’-we had said worse than nothing. The fountain that rises in my heart can only spring up heavenward, because the water of it has flowed down into my heart from the higher level. All love must descend first, before it can ascend. We have, then, no Gospel to preach, if we have only this to preach, ‘Love, and thou art saved.’ But we have a Gospel that is worth the preaching, when we can come to men who have no love in their hearts, and say, ‘Brethren! listen to this-you have to bring nothing, you are called upon to originate no affection; you have nothing to do but simply to receive the everlasting love of God in Christ His Son, which was without us, which began before us, which flows forth independent of us, which is unchecked by all our sins, which triumphs over all our transgressions, and which will make us-loveless, selfish, hardened, sinful men-soft, and tender, and full of divine affection, by the communication of its own self.

Oh, then, look to Christ, that you may love Him! Think, brethren, of that full, and free, and boundless mercy which, from eternity, has been pouring itself out in floods of grace and loving-kindness over all creatures. Think of that everlasting love which presided at the foundation of the earth, and has sustained it ever since. Think of that Saviour who has died for us, and lives for us. Think of Christ, the heart of God, and the fullness of the Father’s mercy; and do not think of yourselves at all. Do not ask yourselves, to begin with, the question, Do I love Him or do I not? You will never love by that means. If a man is cold, let him go to the fire and warm himself. If he is dark, let him stand in the sunshine, and he will be light. If his heart is all clogged and clotted with sin and selfishness, let him get under the influence of the love of Christ, and look away from himself and his own feelings, towards that Saviour whose love shed abroad is the sole means of kindling ours. You have to go down deeper than your feelings, your affections, your desires, your character. There you will find no resting-place, no consolation, no power. Dig down to the living Rock, Christ and His infinite love to you, and let it be the strong foundation, built into which you and your love may become living stones, a holy temple, partaking of the firmness and nature of that on which it rests. They that love do so because they know that Christ loves them; and they that love see Him everywhere; and they that see Him everywhere are blessed for evermore. And let no man here torture himself, or limit the fullness of this message that we preach, by questionings whether Christ loves Him or not. Are you a man? are you sinful? have you broken God’s law? do you need a Saviour? Then put away all these questions, and believe that Christ’s personal love is streaming out for the whole world, and that there is a share for you if you like to take it and be blessed!

There is one last thought arising from the whole subject before us, that may be worth mention before I close. Did you ever notice how this whole incident might be turned, by a symbolical application, to the hour of death, and the vision which may meet us when we come thither? It admits of the application, and perhaps was intended to receive the application, of such a symbolic reference. The morning is dawning, the grey of night going away, the lake is still; and yonder, standing on the shore, in the uncertain light, there is one dim Figure, and one disciple catches a sight of Him, and another casts himself into the water, and they find ‘a fire of coals, and fish laid thereon, and bread,’ and Christ gathers them around His table, and they all know that ‘It is the Lord!’ It is what the death of the Christian man, who has gone through life recognising Christ everywhere, may well become:-the morning breaking, and the finished work, and the Figure standing on the quiet beach, so that the last plunge into the cold flood that yet separates us, will not be taken with trembling reluctance; but, drawn to Him by the love beaming out of His face, and upheld by the power of His beckoning presence, we shall struggle through the latest wave that parts us, and scarcely feel its chill, nor know that we have crossed it; till falling blessed at His feet, we see, by the nearer and clearer vision of His face, that this is indeed heaven. And looking back upon ‘the sea that brought us thither,’ we shall behold its waters flashing in the light of that everlasting morning, and hear them breaking in music upon the eternal shore. And then, brethren, when all the weary night-watchers on the stormy ocean of life are gathered together around Him who watched with them from His throne on the bordering mountains of eternity, where the day shines for ever-then He will seat them at His table in His kingdom, and none will need to ask, ‘Who art Thou?’ or ‘Where am I?’ for all shall know that ‘It is the Lord!’ and the full, perfect, unchangeable vision of His blessed face will be heaven!


Verse 15

John

‘LOVEST THOU ME?’

John 21:15.

Peter had already seen the risen Lord. There had been that interview on Easter morning, on which the seal of sacred secrecy was impressed; when, alone, the denier poured out his heart to his Lord, and was taken to the heart that he had wounded. Then there had been two interviews on the two successive Sundays in which the Apostle, in common with his brethren, had received, as one of the group, the Lord’s benediction, the Lord’s gift of the Spirit, and the Lord’s commission. But something more was needed; there had been public denial, there must be public confession. If he had slipped again into the circle of the disciples, with no special treatment or reference to his fall, it might have seemed a trivial fault to others, and even to himself. And so, after that strange meal on the beach, we have this exquisitely beautiful and deeply instructive incident of the special treatment needed by the denier before he could be publicly reinstated in his office.

The meal seems to have passed in silence. That awe which hung over the disciples in all their intercourse with Jesus during the forty days, lay heavy on them, and they sat there, huddled round the fire, eating silently the meal which Christ had provided, and no doubt gazing silently at the silent Lord. What a tension of expectation there must have been as to how the oppressive silence was to be broken! and how Peter’s heart must have throbbed, and the others’ ears been pricked up, when it was broken by ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?’ We may listen with pricked-up ears too. For we have here, in Christ’s treatment of the Apostle, a revelation of how He behaves to a soul conscious of its fault; and in Peter’s demeanour an illustration of how a soul, conscious of its fault, should behave to Him.

There are three stages here: the threefold question, the threefold answer, and the threefold charge. Let us look at these.

I. The threefold question.

The reiteration in the interrogation did not express doubt as to the veracity of the answer, nor dissatisfaction with its terms; but it did express, and was meant, I suppose, to suggest to Peter and to the others, that the threefold denial needed to be obliterated by the threefold confession; and that every black mark that had been scored deep on the page by that denial needed to be covered over with the gilding or bright colouring of the triple acknowledgment. And so Peter thrice having said, ‘I know Him not!’ Jesus with a gracious violence forced him to say thrice, ‘Thou knowest that I love Thee.’ The same intention to compel Peter to go back upon his past comes out in two things besides the triple form of the question. The one is the designation by which he is addressed, ‘Simon, son of Jonas,’ which travels back, as it were, to the time before he was a disciple, and points a finger to his weak humanity before it had come under the influence of Jesus Christ. ‘Simon, son of Jonas,’ was the name that he bore in the days before his discipleship. It was the name by which Jesus had addressed him, therefore, on that never-to-be-forgotten turning-point of his life, when he was first brought to Him by his brother Andrew. It was the name by which Jesus had addressed him at the very climax of his past life when, high up, he had been able to see far, and in answer to the Lord’s question, had rung out the confession: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!’ So the name by which Jesus addresses him now says to him in effect: ‘Remember thy human weakness; remember how thou wert drawn to Me; remember the high-water mark of thy discipleship, when I was plain before thee as the Son of God, and remembering all these, answer Me-lovest thou Me?’

The same intention to drive Peter back to the wholesome remembrance of a stained past is obvious in the first form of the question. Our Lord mercifully does not persist in giving to it that form in the second and third instances: ‘Lovest thou Me more than these?’ More than these, what? I cannot for a moment believe that that question means something so trivial and irrelevant as ‘Lovest thou Me more than these nets, and boats, and the fishing?’ No; in accordance with the purpose that runs through the whole, of compelling Peter to retrospect, it says to him, ‘Do you remember what you said a dozen hours before you denied Me, “Though all should forsake Thee, yet will not I”? Are you going to take that stand again? Lovest thou Me more than these that never discredited their boasting so shamefully?’

So, dear brethren! here we have Jesus Christ, in His treatment of this penitent and half-restored soul, forcing a man, with merciful compulsion, to look steadfastly and long at his past sin, and to retrace step by step, shameful stage by shameful stage, the road by which he had departed so far. Every foul place he is to stop and look at, and think about. Each detail he has to bring up before his mind. Was it not cruel of Jesus thus to take Peter by the neck, as it were, and hold him right down, close to the foul things that he had done, and say to him, ‘Look! look! look ever! and answer, Lovest thou Me?’ No; it was not cruel; it was true kindness. Peter had never been so abundantly and permanently penetrated by the sense of the sinfulness of his sin, as after he was sure, as he had been made sure in that great interview, that it was all forgiven. So long as a man is disturbed by the dread of consequences, so long as he is doubtful as to his relation to the forgiving Love, he is not in a position beneficially and sanely to consider his evil in its moral quality only. But when the conviction comes to a man, ‘God is pacified towards thee for all that thou hast done’; and when he can look at his own evil without the smallest disturbance rising from slavish fear of issues, then lie is in a position rightly to estimate its darkness and its depth. And there can be no better discipline for us all than to remember our faults, and penitently to travel back over the road of our sins, just because we are sure that God in Christ has forgotten them. The beginning of Christ’s merciful treatment of the forgiven man is to compel him to remember, that he may learn and be ashamed.

And then there is another point here, in this triple question. How significant and beautiful it is that the only thing that Jesus Christ cares to ask about is the sinner’s love! We might have expected: ‘Simon, son of Jonas, are you sorry for what you did? Simon, son of Jonas, will you promise never to do the like any more?’ No! These things will come if the other thing is there. ‘Lovest thou Me?’ Jesus Christ sues each of us, not for obedience primarily, not for repentance, not for vows, not for conduct, but for a heart; and that being given, all the rest will follow. That is the distinguishing characteristic of Christian morality, that Jesus seeks first for the surrender of the affections, and believes, and is warranted in the belief, that if these are surrendered, all else will follow; and love being given, loyalty and service and repentance and hatred of self-will and of self-seeking will follow in her train. All the graces of human character which Christ seeks, and is ready to impart, are, as it were, but the pages and ministers of the regal Love, who follow behind and swell the cortege of her servants.

Christ asks for love. Surely that indicates the depth of His own! In this commerce He is satisfied with nothing less, and can ask for nothing more; and He seeks for love because He is love, and has given love. Oh! to all hearts burdened, as all our hearts ought to be-unless the burden has been cast off in one way-by the consciousness of our own weakness and imperfection, surely, surely, it is a gospel that is contained in that one question addressed to a man who had gone far astray, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou?’

Here, again, we have Jesus Christ, in His dealing with the penitent, willing to trust discredited professions. We think that one of the signs of our being wise people is that experience shall have taught us ‘once’ being ‘bit, twice’ to be ‘shy,’ and if a man has once deceived us by flaming professions and ice-cold acts, never to trust him any more. And we think that is ‘worldly wisdom,’ and ‘the bitter fruit of earthly experience,’ and ‘sharpness,’ and ‘shrewdness,’ and so forth. Jesus Christ, even whilst reminding Peter, by that ‘more than these,’ of his utterly hollow and unreliable boasting, shows Himself ready to accept once again the words of one whose unveracity He had proved. ‘Charity hopeth all things, believeth all things,’ and Jesus Christ is ready to trust us when we say, ‘I love Thee,’ even though often in the past our professed love has been all disproved.

We have here, in this question, our Lord revealing Himself as willing to accept the imperfect love which a disciple can offer Him. Of course, many of you well know that there is a very remarkable play of expression here. In the two first questions the word which our Lord employs for ‘love’ is not the same as that which appears in Peter’s two first answers. Christ asks for one kind of love; Peter proffers another. I do not enter upon discussion as to the distinction between these two apparent synonyms. The kind of love which Christ asks for is higher, nobler, less emotional, and more associated with the whole mind and will. It is the inferior kind, the more warm, more sensuous, more passionate and emotional, which Peter brings. And then, in the third question, our Lord, as it were, surrenders and takes Peter’s own word, as if He had said, ‘Be it so! You shrink from professing the higher kind; I will take the lower; and I will educate and bring that up to the height that I desire you to stand at.’ Ah, brother! however stained and imperfect, however disproved by denials, however tainted by earthly associations, Jesus Christ will accept the poor stream of love, though it be but a trickle when it ought to be a torrent, which we can bring Him.

These are the lessons which it seems to me lie in this triple question. I have dealt with them at the greater length, because those which follow are largely dependent upon them. But let me turn now briefly, in the second place, to-

II. The triple answer.

‘Yea, Lord! Thou knowest that I love Thee.’ Is not that beautiful, that the man who by Christ’s Resurrection, as the last of the answers shows, had been led to the loftiest conception of Christ’s omniscience, and regarded Him as knowing the hearts of all men, should, in the face of all that Jesus Christ knew about his denial and his sin, have dared to appeal to Christ’s own knowledge? What a superb and all-conquering confidence in Christ’s depth of knowledge and forgivingness of knowledge that answer showed! He felt that Jesus could look beneath the surface of his sin, and see that below it there was, even in the midst of the denial, a heart that in its depths was true. It is a tremendous piece of confident appeal to the deeper knowledge, and therefore the larger love and more abundant forgiveness, of the righteous Lord-’Thou knowest that I love Thee.’

Brethren! a Christian man ought to be sure of his love to Jesus Christ. You do not study your conduct in order to infer from it your love to others. You do not study your conduct in order to infer from it your love to your wife, or your husband, or your parents, or your children, or your friend. Love is not a matter of inference; it is a matter of consciousness and intuition. And whilst self-examination is needful for us all for many reasons, a Christian man ought to be as sure that he loves Jesus Christ as he is sure that he loves his dearest upon earth.

It used to be the fashion long ago-this generation has not depth enough to keep up the fashion-for Christian people to talk as if it were a point they longed to know, whether they loved Jesus Christ or not. There is no reason why it should be a point we long to know. You know all about your love to one another, and you are sure about that. Why are you not sure about your love to Jesus Christ? ‘Oh! but,’ you say, ‘look at my sins and failures’; and if Peter had looked only at his sins, do you not think that his words would have stuck in his throat? He did look, but he looked in a very different way from that of trying to ascertain from his conduct whether he loved Jesus Christ or not. Brethren, any sin is inconsistent with Christian love to Christ. Thank God, we have no right to say of any sin that it is incompatible with that love! More than that; a great, gross, flagrant, sudden fall like Peter’s is a great deal less inconsistent with love to Christ than are the continuously unworthy, worldly, selfish, Christ-forgetting lives of hosts of complacent professing Christians to-day. White ants will eat up the carcase of a dead buffalo quicker than a lion will. And to have denied Christ once, twice, thrice, in the space of an hour, and under strong temptation, is not half so bad as to call Him ‘Master’ and ‘Lord,’ and day by day, week in, week out, in works to deny Him. The triple answer declares to us that in spite of a man’s sins he ought to be conscious of his love, and be ready to profess it when need is.

III. Lastly, we have here the triple commission.

I do not dwell upon it at any length, because in its original form it applies especially to the Apostolic office. But the general principles which underlie this threefold charge, to feed and to tend both ‘the sheep’ and ‘the lambs,’ may be put in a form that applies to each of us, and it is this-the best token of a Christian’s love to Jesus Christ is his service of man for Christ’s sake. ‘Lovest thou Me?’ ‘Yea! Lord.’ Thou hast said; go and do, ‘Feed My lambs; feed My sheep.’ We need the profession of words; we need, as Peter himself enjoined at a subsequent time, to be ready to ‘give to every man that asketh us a reason of the hope,’ and an acknowledgment of the love, that are in us. But if you want men to believe in your love, however Jesus Christ may know it, go and work in the Master’s vineyard. The service of man is the garb of the love of God. ‘He that loveth God will love his brother also.’ Do not confine that thought of service, and feeding, and tending, to what we call evangelistic and religious work. That is one of its forms, but it is only one of them. Everything in which Christian men can serve their fellows is to be taken by them as their worship of their Lord, and is taken by the world as the convincing proof of the reality of their love.

Love to Jesus Christ is the qualification for all such service. If we are knit to Him by true affection, which is based upon our consciousness of our own falls and evils, and our reception of His forgiving mercy, then we shall have the qualities that fit us, and the impulse that drives us, to serve and help our fellows. I do not say-God forbid!-that there is no philanthropy apart from Christian faith, but I do say that, on the wide scale, and in the long run, they who are knit to Jesus Christ by love will be those who render the greatest help to all that are ‘afflicted in mind, body, or estate’; and that the true basis and qualification for efficient service of our fellows is the utter surrender of our hearts to Him who is the Fountain of love, and from whom comes all our power to live in the world, as the images and embodiments of the love which has saved us that we might help to save others.

Brethren! let us all ask ourselves Christ’s question to the denier. Let us look our past evils full in the face, that we may learn to hate them, and that we may learn more the width and the sweep of the power of His pardoning mercy. God grant that we may all be able to say, ‘Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee!’


Verse 18-19

John

YOUTH AND AGE, AND THE COMMAND FOR BOTH

Annual Sermon to the Young

John 21:18 - John 21:19.

The immediate reference of these words is, of course, to the martyrdom of the Apostle Peter. Our Lord contrasts the vigorous and somewhat self-willed youth and the mellowed old age of His servant, and shadows forth his death, in bonds, by violence. And then He bids him, notwithstanding this prospect of the issue of his faithfulness, ‘Follow Me.’

Now I venture, though with some hesitation, to give these words a slightly different application. I see in them two pictures of youth and of old age, and a commandment based upon both. You young people are often exhorted to a Christian life on the ground of the possible approach of death. I would not undervalue that motive, but I seek now to urge the same thing upon you from a directly opposite consideration, the probability that many of you will live to be old. All the chief reasons for our being Christians are of the same force, whether we are to die to-night, or to live for a century. So in my text I wish you to note what you are now; what, if you live, you are sure to become; and what, in the view of both stages, you will be wise to do. ‘When thou wast young thou girdedst thyself, and wentest whither thou wouldest. When thou shalt be old another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.’ Therefore, ‘Follow Me.’

I. So, then, note the picture here of what you are.

Most of you young people are but little accustomed to reflect upon yourselves, or upon the special characteristics and prerogatives of your time of life. But it will do you no harm to think for a minute or two of what these characteristics are, that you may know your blessings, and that you may shun the dangers which attach to them.

‘When thou wast young thou girdedst thyself.’ There is a picture easily translated, and significant of much. The act of girding implies preparation for action, and may be widened out to express that most blessed prerogative of youth, the cherishing of bright imaginations of its future activity and course. The dreams of youth are often laughed at, but if a young man or woman be faithful to them they are the prophecies of the future, and are given in order that at the opening of the flower nature may put forth her power; and so we may be able to live through many a dreary hour in the future. Only, seeing that you do live so much in rich foreshadowings and fair anticipations of the times that are to come, take care that you do not waste that divine faculty, the freshness of which is granted to you as a morning gift, the ‘dew of your youth.’ See that you do not waste it in anticipations which cling like mist to the low levels of life, but that you lift it higher and embrace worthy objects. It is good that you should anticipate, that you should live by hope. It is good that you should be drawn onwards by bright visions, whether they be ever fulfilled or no. But there are dangers in the exercise, and dreaming with some of you takes the place of realising your dreams, and you build for yourselves fair fabrics in imagination which you never take one step to accomplish and make real. Be not the slaves and fools of your imaginations, but cultivate the faculty of hoping largely; for the possibilities of human life are elastic, and no man or woman, in their most sanguine, early anticipations, if only these be directed to the one real good, has ever exhausted or attained the possibilities open to every soul.

Again, girding one’s self implies independent self-reliance, and that is a gift and a stewardship given {as all gifts are stewardships} to the young. We all fancy, in our early days, that we are going to build ‘towers that will reach to heaven.’ Now we have come, and we will show people how to do it! The past generations have failed, but ours is full of brighter promise. There is something very touching, to us older men almost tragical, in the unbounded self-confidence of the young life that we see rushing to the front all round us. We know so well the disillusion that is sure to come, the disappointments that will cloud the morning sky. We would not carry one shadow from the darkened experience of middle life into the roseate tints of the morning. The ‘vision splendid’

Will fade away Into the light of common day,’

soon enough. But for the present this self-reliant confidence is one of the blessings of your early days.

Only remember, it is dangerous, too. It may become want of reverence, which is ruinous, or presumption and rashness. Remember what a cynical head of a college said, ‘None of us is infallible, not even the youngest,’ and blend modesty with confidence, and yet be buoyant and strong, and trust in the power that may make you strong. And then your self-confidence will not be rashness.

‘Thou wentest whither thou wouldest.’ That is another characteristic of youth, after it has got beyond the schoolboy stage. Your own will tends to become your guide. For one thing, at your time of life, most other inward guides are comparatively weak. You have but little experience. Most of you have not cultivated largely the habit of patient reflection, and thinking twice before you act once. That comes: it would not be good that it should be over-predominant in you. ‘Old heads on young shoulders’ are always monstrosities, and it is all right that, in your early days, you should largely live by impulse, if only, as well as a will, there be a conscience at work which will do instead of the bitter experience which comes to guide some of the older of us.

Again, yours is the age when passion is strong. I speak now especially to young men. Restraints are removed for many of you. There are dozens of young men listening to me now, away from their father’s home, separated from the purifying influence of sisters and of family life, living in solitary lodgings, at liberty to spend their evenings where they choose, and nobody be a bit the wiser. Ah, my dear young friend! ‘thou wentest whither thou wouldest’ and thou wouldest whither thou oughtest not to go.

There is nothing more dangerous than getting into the habit of saying, ‘I do as I like,’ however you cover it over. Some of you say, ‘I indulge natural inclinations; I am young; a man must have his fling. Let me sow my wild oats in a quiet corner, where nobody will see the crop coming up; and when I get to be as old as you are, I will do as you do; young men will be young men,’ etc., etc. You know all that sort of talk. Take this for a certain fact: that whoever puts the reins into the charge of his own will when he is young, has put the reins and the whip into hands which will drive over the precipice.

My friend! ‘I will’ is no word for you. There is a far diviner and better one than that-’I ought.’ Have you learnt that? Do you yield to that sovereign imperative, and say, ‘I must, because I ought and, therefore, I will’? Bow passion to reason, reason to conscience, conscience to God-and then, be as strong in the will and as stiff in the neck as ever you choose; but only then. So much, then, for my first picture.

II. Now let me ask you to turn with me for a moment to the second one-What you will certainly become if you live.

I have already explained that putting this meaning on the latter portion of our first verse is somewhat forcing it from its original signification. And yet it is so little of violence that the whole of the language naturally lends itself to make a picture of the difference between the two stages of life.

All the bright visions that dance before your youthful mind will fade away. We begin by thinking that we are going to build temples, or ‘towers that shall reach to heaven,’ and when we get into middle life we have to say to ourselves: ‘Well! I have scarcely material enough to carry out the large design that I had. I think that I will content myself with building a little hovel, that I may live in, and perhaps it will keep the weather off me.’ Hopes diminish; dreams vanish; limited realities take their place, and we are willing to hold out our hands and let some one else take the responsibilities that we were so eager to lay upon ourselves at the first. Strength will fade away. ‘Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fail.’ Physical weariness, weakness, the longing for rest, the consciousness of ever-narrowed and narrowing powers, will come to you, and if you grow up to be old men, which it is probable that many of you will do, you will have to sit and watch the tide of your life ebb, ebb, ebbing away moment by moment.

Self-will will be wonderfully broken, for there are far stronger forces that determine a man’s life than his own wishes and will. We are like swimmers in the surf of the Indian Ocean, powerless against the battering of the wave which pitches us, for all our science, and for all our muscle, where it will. Call it environment, call it fate, call it circumstances, call it providence, call it God-there is something outside of us bigger than we are, and the man who begins life, thinking ‘Thus I will, thus I command, let my determination stand instead of all other reason’; has to say at last, ‘I could not do what I wanted. I had to be content to do what I could.’ Thus our self-will gets largely broken down; and patient acceptance of the inevitable comes to be the wisdom and peace of the old man.

And, last of all, the picture shows us an irresistible approximation to an unwelcome goal: ‘Another shall carry thee whither thou wouldest not.’

Life to the old seems to you to be so empty and ashen grey that you wonder they care to live. But life to them, for all its disappointments, its weariness, its foiled efforts, its vanished hopes, its departed companions, is yet life, and most of them cling to it like a miser to his gold. But yet, like a man sucked into Niagara above the falls, they are borne on the irresistible, smooth flood, nearer and nearer to the edge of the rock, and they hear the mighty sound in their ears long before they reach the place where the plunge is to be taken from sunshine into darkness and foam.

So ‘when thou shalt be old’ your fancy will be gone, your physical strength will be gone, your freshness will be gone, your faculty of hoping will work feebly and have little to work on; on earth your sense of power will be humbled, and yet you will not want to be borne to the place whither you must be borne.

Fancy two portraits, one of a little chubby boy in child’s dress, with a round face and clustering curls and smooth cheeks and red lips, and another of an old man, with wearied eyes, and thin locks, and wrinkled cheeks, and a bowed frame. The difference between the two is but the symbol of the profounder differences that separate the two selves, which yet are the one self-the impetuous, self-reliant, self-willed, hopeful, buoyant youth, and the weary, feeble, broken, old man. And that is what you will come to, if you live, as sure as I am speaking to you, and you are listening to me.

III. And now, lastly, what in the view of both these stages it is wise for you to do.

‘When He had spoken thus, He saith unto him, Follow Me.’ What do we mean by following Christ? We mean submission to His authority. ‘Follow Me’ as Captain, Commander, absolute Lawgiver, and Lord. We mean imitation of His example. These two words include all human duty, and promise to every man perfection if he obeys. ‘Follow Me’-it is enough, more than enough, to make a man complete and blessed. We mean choosing and keeping close to Him, as Companion as well as Leader and Lord. No man or woman will ever be solitary, though friends may go, and associates may change, and companions may leave them, and life may become empty and dreary as far as human sympathy is concerned-no man or woman will ever be solitary if stepping in Christ’s footsteps, close at His heels, and realising His presence.

But you cannot follow Him, and He has no right to tell you to follow Him, unless He is something more and other to you than Example, and Commander, and Companion. What business has Jesus Christ to demand that a man should go after Him to the death? Only this business, that He has gone to the death for the man. You must follow Christ first, my friend, by coming to Him as a sinful creature, and finding your whole salvation and all your hope in humble reliance on the merit of His death. Then you may follow Him in obedience, and imitation, and glad communion.

That being understood, I would press upon you this thought, that such a following of Jesus Christ will preserve for you all that is blessed in the characteristics of your youth, and will prevent them from becoming evil. He will give you a basis for your hopes and fulfil your most sanguine dreams, if these are based on His promises, and their realisation sought in the path of His feet. As Isaiah prophesies, ‘the mirage shall become a pool.’ That which else is an illusion, dancing ahead and deceiving thirsty travellers into the belief that sand is water, shall become to you really ‘pools of water,’ if your hopes are fixed on Jesus Christ. If you follow Him, your strength will not ebb away with shrunken sinews and enfeebled muscles. If you trust Christ, your self-will will be elevated by submission, and become strong to control your rebellious nature, because it is humble to submit to His supreme command. And if you trust and follow Jesus Christ, your hope will be buoyant, and bright, and blessed, and prolong its buoyancy, and brightness, and blessedness into ‘old age, when others fade.’ If you will follow Christ your old age will, if you reach it, be saved from the bitterest pangs that afflict the aged, and will be brightened by future possibilities. There will be no need for lingering laments over past blessings, no need for shrinking reluctance to take the inevitable step. An old age of peaceful, serene brightness caught from the nearer gleam of the approaching heaven, and quiet as the evenings in the late autumn, not without a touch of frost, perhaps, but yet kindly and fruitful, may be ours. And instead of shrinking from the end, if we follow Jesus, we shall put our hands quietly and trustfully into His, as a little child does into its mother’s soft, warm palm, and shall not ask whither He leads, assured that since it is He who leads we shall be led aright.

Dear young friends! ‘Follow Me!’ is Christ’s merciful invitation to you. You will never again be so likely to obey it as you are now. Well begun is half ended. ‘I would have you innocent of much transgression.’ You need Him to keep you in the slippery ways of youth. You could not go into some of those haunts, where some of you have been, if you thought to yourselves, ‘Am I following Jesus as I cross this wicked threshold?’ You may never have another message of mercy brought to your ears. If you do become a religious man in later life, you will be laying up for yourselves seeds of remorse and sorrow, and in some cases memories of pollution and filth, that will trouble you all your days. ‘To-day, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.’


Verse 21-22

John

‘THEY ALSO SERVE WHO ONLY STAND AND WAIT’

John 21:21 - John 21:22.

We have seen in a former sermon that the charge of the risen Christ to Peter, which immediately precedes these verses, allotted to him service and suffering. The closing words of that charge ‘Follow Me!’ had a deep significance, as uniting both parts of his task in the one supreme command of imitation of his Master.

But the same words had also a simpler meaning, as inviting the Apostle to come apart with Christ at the moment, for some further token of His love or indication of His will. Peter follows; but in following, naturally turns to see what the little group, sitting silent there by the coal fire on the beach, may be doing, and he notices John coming towards them, with intent to join them.

What emboldened John to thrust himself, uncalled for, into so secret an interview? The words in which he is described in the context answer the question. ‘He was the disciple whom Jesus loved, which also leaned on His breast at Supper, and said, Lord! which is he that betrayeth Thee?’ He was also bound by close ties to Peter. So with the familiarity of ‘perfect love which casteth out fear,’ he felt that the Master could have no secrets from him, and no charge to give to his friend which he might not share.

Peter’s swift question, ‘Lord! and what shall this man do?’ though it has been often blamed, does not seem very blameworthy. There was perhaps a little touch of his old vivacity in it, indicating that he had not been sufficiently subdued and sobered by the prospect which Christ had held out to him; but far more than that there was a natural interest in his friend’s fate, and something of a wish to have his company on the path which he was to tread. Christ’s answer, ‘If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou Me!’ gently rebukes any leaven of evil that there may have been in the question; warns him against trying to force other people into his groove; with solemn emphasis reiterates his own duty; and, in effect, bids him let his brother alone, and see that he himself discharges the ministry which he has received of the Lord.

The enigmatical words of Christ, and the long life of the Apostle, which seemed to explain them, naturally bred an interpretation of them in the Early Church which is recorded here, as I believe, by the Evangelist himself, to the effect that John, like another Enoch at the beginning of a new world, was to escape the common lot. And very beautiful is the quiet way in which the Evangelist put that error on one side, by the simple repetition of his Master’s words, emphasising their hypothetical form and their enigmatical character: ‘Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but if I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?’

Now all this, I think, is full of lessons. Let me try to draw one or two of them briefly now.

I. First, then, we have in that majestic ‘If I will!’ the revelation of the risen Christ as the Lord of life and death.

In His charge to Peter, Christ had asserted His right absolutely to control His servant’s conduct and fix his place in the world, and His power to foresee and forecast his destiny and his end. But in these words He goes a step further. ‘I will that he tarry’; to communicate life and to sustain life is a divine prerogative; to act by the bare utterance of His will upon physical nature is a divine prerogative. Jesus Christ here claims that His will goes out with sovereign power amongst the perplexities of human history and into the depths of that mystery of life; and that He, the Son of Man, ‘quickens whom He will,’ and has power ‘to kill and to make alive.’ The words would be absurd, if not something worse, upon any but divine lips, that opened with conscious authority, and whose Utterer knew that His hand was laid upon the innermost springs of being.

So, in this entirely incidental fashion, you have one of the strongest and plainest instances of the quiet, unostentatious and habitual manner in which Jesus Christ claimed for Himself properly divine prerogatives.

Remember that He who thus spoke was standing before these seven men there, in the morning light, on the beach, fresh from the grave. His resurrection had proved Him to be the Lord of death. He had bound it to His chariot-wheels as a Conqueror. He had risen and He stood there before them with no more mark of the corruption of the grave upon Him than there are traces of the foul water in which a sea bird may have floated, on its white wing that flashes in the sunshine as it soars. And surely as these men looked to Christ, ‘declared to be the Son of God with power, by His resurrection from the dead, ‘they may have begun, however ‘foolish and slow of heart’ they were ‘to believe,’ to understand that ‘to this end Christ both died and rose and revived, that He might be the Lord both of the dead and of the living,’ both of death and of life.

These two Apostles’ later history was full of proofs that Christ’s claim was valid. Peter is shut up in prison and delivered once, at the very last moment, when hope was almost dead, in order that he might understand that when he was put into another prison and not delivered, the blow of martyrdom fell upon him, not because of the strength of his persecutors, but because of the will of his Lord. And John had to see his brother James, to whom he had been so closely knit, with whom he had pledged himself to drink the cup that Christ drank of, whom he had desired to have associated with himself in the special honours in the Messianic Kingdom-he had to see him slain, first of the Apostles, while he himself lingered here long after all his early associates were gone. He had, no doubt, many a longing to depart. Solitary, surrounded by a new world, pressed by many cares, he must often have felt that the cross which he had to carry was no lighter than that laid on those who had passed to their rest by martyrdom. To him it would often be martyrdom to live. His personal longing is heard for a moment in the last words of the Apocalypse, ‘Amen! even so, come, Lord Jesus!’-but undoubtedly for the most part he stayed his heart on his Lord’s will, and waited in meek patience till he heard the welcome announcement, ‘The Master is come and calleth for thee.’

And, dear friends! that same belief that the risen Christ is the Lord of life and death, is the only one that can stay our hearts, or make us bow with submission to His divine will. He who has conquered death by undergoing it is death’s Lord as well as ours, and when He wills to bring His friends home to Himself, saith to that black-robed servant, ‘Go, and he goeth; do this and he doeth it.’ The vision which John saw long after this on another shore, washed by a stormier sea, spoke the same truth as does this majestic ‘I will’-’He that liveth and became dead and is alive for evermore,’ is by virtue of His divine eternal life, and has become in His humanity by virtue of His death and resurrection the Lord of life and death. The hands that were nailed to the Cross turn the keys of death and Hades. ‘He openeth and no man shutteth; He shutteth and no man openeth.’

II. We have here before us, in this incident, the service of patient waiting.

‘If I will that he tarry, what is that to thee? Follow thou Me.’ Peter is the man of action, not great at reflection; full of impulse, restless until his hands can do something to express his thoughts and his emotions. On the very Mount of Transfiguration he wanted to set to work and build ‘three tabernacles,’ instead of listening awed to the divine colloquy. In Galilee he cannot wait quietly for his Master to come, but must propose to his friends to ‘go a fishing.’ In the fishing-boat, as soon as he sees the Lord he must struggle through the sea to get at Him; whilst John sits quiet in the boat, blessed in the consciousness of his Master’s presence and in silently gazing at Him verily there. All through the first part of the Acts of the Apostles his bold energy goes flashing and flaming. It is always his voice that rings out in the front, whether preaching on the Pentecost Day, bringing healing to the sick, or fronting the Sanhedrim. His element is in the shock of conflict and the strain of work.

John, on the other hand, seldom appears in the narrative. When he does so he stands a silent figure by the side of Peter, and disappears from it altogether before very long. We do not hear that he did anything. He seems to have had no part in the missionary work of the Church.

He ‘tarried,’ that was all. The word is the same-’abide’-which is so often upon his lips in his Gospel and in his Epistles, as expressive of the innermost experience of the Christian soul, the condition of all fruitfulness, blessedness, knowledge and Christ-likeness. Christ’s charge to John to ‘tarry’ did not only, as his brethren misinterpreted it, mean that his life was to be continued, but it prescribed the manner of his life. It was to be patient contemplation, a ‘dwelling in the house of the Lord,’ a keeping of his heart still, like some little tarn up amongst the silent hills, for heaven with all its blue to mirror itself in.

And that quiet life of contemplation bore its fruit. In his meditation the deeds and words of his Master slowly grew ever more and more luminous to him. Deeper meanings came out, revealing new constellations, as he gazed into that opening heaven of memory. He reaped ‘the harvest of a quiet eye’ and garnered the sheaves of it in his Gospel, the holy of holies of the New Testament; and in his Epistles, in which he proclaims the first and last word of revelation, ‘God is love’-the pure diamond that hangs at the end of the golden chain let down from Heaven. Often, no doubt, his brethren thought him ‘but an idler in the land,’ but at last his ‘tarrying’ was vindicated.

Now, dear brethren! in all times of the world’s history that form of Christian service needs to be pressed upon busy people. And there never was a time in the world’s history, or in the Church’s history, when it more needed to be pressed upon the ordinary Christian man than at this day. The good and the bad of our present Christianity, and of our present social life, conspire to make people think that those who are not at work in some external form of Christian service for the good of their fellows are necessarily idlers. Many of them are so, but by no means all, and there is always the danger that the external work which good, earnest people do shall become greater than can be wholesomely and safely done by them without their constant recourse to this solitary meditation, and to tarrying before God.

The stress and bustle of our everyday life; the feverish desire for immediate results; the awakened conviction that Christianity is nothing if not practical; the new sense of responsibility for the condition of our fellows; the large increase of all sorts of domestic, evangelistic, and missionary work among all churches in this day-things to be profoundly thankful for, like all other good things have their possible dangers; and it is laid on my heart to warn you of these now. For the sake of our own personal hold on Jesus Christ, for the sake of our progress in the knowledge of His truth, and for the sake of the very work which some of us count so precious, there is need that we shall betake ourselves to that still communion. The stream that is to water half a continent must rise high in the lonely hills, and be fed by many a mountain rill in the solitude, and the men who are to keep the freshness of their Christian zeal, and of the consecration which they will ever feel is being worn away by the attrition even of faithful service, can only renew and refresh it by resorting again to the Master, and imitating Him who prepared Himself for a day of teaching in the Temple by a night of communion on the Mount of Olives.

Further, there is here a lesson of tolerance for us all. Practical men are always disposed, as I said, to force everybody else into their groove. Martha is always disposed to think that Mary is idle when she is ‘sitting at Christ’s feet,’ and wants to have her come into the kitchen and help her there. The eye which sees must not say to the hand which toils, nor the hand to the eye, ‘I have no need of thee.’ There are men who cannot think much; there are men who cannot work much. There are men whom God has chosen for diligent external service; there are men whom God has chosen for solitary retired musing; and we cannot dispense with either the one or the other. Did not John Bunyan do more for the world when he was shut up in Bedford Gaol and dreamed his dream than by all his tramping about Bedfordshire, preaching to a handful of cottagers? And has not the Christian literature of the prison, which includes three at least of Paul’s Epistles, proved of the greatest service and most precious value to the Church?

We need all to listen to the voice which says, ‘Come ye apart by yourselves into a solitary place, and rest awhile.’ Work is good, but the foundation of work is better. Activity is good, but the life which is the basis of activity is even more. There is plenty of so-called Christian work to-day which I fear me is not life but mechanism; has slipped off its original foundations, and is, therefore, powerless. Let us tolerate the forms of service least like our own, not seek to force other men into our paths nor seek to imitate them. Let Peter flame in the van, and beard high priests, and stir and fight; and let John sit in his quiet horns, caring for his Lord’s mother, and holding fellowship with his Lord’s Spirit.

III. Lastly, we have here the lesson of patient acquiescence in Christ’s undisclosed will.

The error into which the brethren of the Apostle fell as to the meaning of the Lord’s words was a very natural one, especially when taken with the commentary which John’s unusually protracted life seemed to append to it. We know that that belief lingered long after the death of the Apostle; and that legends, like the stories that are found in many nations of heroes that have disappeared, but are sleeping in some mountain recess, clustered round John’s grave; over which the earth was for many a century believed to heave and fall with his gentle breathing.

John did not know exactly what his Master meant. He would not venture upon a counter-interpretation. Perhaps his brethren were right, he does not know; perhaps they were wrong, he does not know. One thing he is quite sure of, that what his Master said was: ‘If I will that he tarry.’ And he acquiesces quietly in the certainty that it shall be as his Master wills; and, in the uncertainty what that will is, he says in effect: ‘I do not know, and it does not much matter. If I am to go to find Him, well! If He is to come to find me, well again! Whichever way it be, I know that the patient tarrying here will lead to a closer communion hereafter, and so I leave it all in His hands.’

Dear brethren! that is a blessed state that you and I may come to; a state of quiet submission, not of indifference but of acquiescence in the undisclosed will of our loving Christ about all matters, and about this alternative of life or death amongst the rest. The soul that has had communion with Jesus Christ amidst the imperfections here will be able to refer all the mysteries and problems of its future to Him with unshaken confidence. For union with Him carries with it the assurance of its own perpetuity, and ‘in its sweetness yieldeth proof that it was born for immortality.’ The Psalmist learned to say, ‘Thou shalt afterward receive me to glory,’ because he could say, ‘I am continually with Thee.’ And in like manner we may all rise from the experience of the present to confidence in that immortal future. Death with his ‘abhorred shears’ cuts other close ties, but their edge turns on the knot that binds the soul to its Saviour. He who has felt the power of communion with the ever-living Christ cannot but feel that such union must be for ever, and that because Christ lives, and as long as Christ lives, he will live also.

Therefore, to the soul thus abiding in Christ that alternative of life or death which looms so large to us when we have not Christ with us, will dwindle down into very small dimensions. If I live there will be work for me to do here, and His love to possess; if I die there will be work for me to do there too, and His love to possess in still more abundant measure. So it will not be difficult for such a soul to leave the decision of this as of all other things with the Lord of life and death, and to lie acquiescent in His gracious hands. That calm acceptance of His will and patience with Christ’s ‘If’ is the reward of tarrying in silent communion with Him.

My dear friend! has death to you dwindled to a very little thing? Can you say that you are quite sure that it will not touch your truest self? Are you able to leave the alternative in His hands, content with His decision and content with the uncertainty that wraps His decision? Can you say,

‘Lord! It belongs not to my care,

Whether I die or live’?

The answer to these questions is involved in the answer to the other:-Have you trusted your sinful soul for salvation to Jesus Christ, and are you drawing from Him a life which bears fruit in glad service and in patient communion? Then it will not much matter whether you are in heaven or on earth, for in both places and states the essence of your life will be the same, your Companion one, and your work identical. If it be ‘Christ’ for me to live it will be ‘gain’ for me to die.

END OF VOL. III.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on John 21:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/john-21.html.


Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, August 17th, 2017
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19
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