Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

John 21



[7. The Epilogue to the Gospel. The Link between the Past and the Future (John 21).

(1) THE DRAUGHT OF FISHES (John 21:1-8).




(a) By fellow disciples (John 21:24);

(b) By an amanuensis (John 21:25).]

Verse 1

(1) The impression that St. John would not die belongs to the period when the Second Advent was looked for as within the limits of lifetime. This period ceased with the first generation of Christians, and the mistake would therefore point to the close of the first century as a limit beyond which’ the date of the Gospel cannot be placed.

Verse 2

(2) The mistake having been made, the obvious correction after St. John’s death would have been simply to record that event. The correction of the text would place these words within his lifetime.

Verse 3

(3) Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing.—The words are the vivid representation by an ear-witness of what actually took place as they re turned to their ordinary work during the interval between the Passover and Pentecost. It does not express either an abandonment of their higher vocation, or an expectation of the presence of the Lord. The picturesque colouring of the whole scene is quite in St. John’s style, as is also the simple co-ordinate arrangement of sentences without connecting particles.

And that night they caught nothing.—Comp. for the fact Luke 5:5; but the words are different. The word here rendered “caught” occurs nowhere in the other Gospels, but is found again in this chapter (John 21:10), and six times in the earlier chapters of the Gospel (John 7:30; John 7:32; John 7:44; John 8:20; John 10:39; John 11:57). It occurs also in Revelation 19:20.

Verse 4

(4) Jesus stood on the shore.—Comp. John 20:19; John 20:26. The words express the sudden appearance without any indication of His coming. He was then standing in the midst, or on the shore, but no one knew whence or how.

The disciples knew not that it was Jesus.—Comp. John 20:14.

Verse 5

(5) Children, have ye any meat?—The word rendered “Children” (or, as the margin has it, Sirs), is used in addressing others only by St. John among the New Testament writers (1 John 2:13; 1 John 2:18). It is not the word used in John 13:33, where we have an expression denoting His affectionate tenderness for the disciples, which would not have been appropriate here, for He does not at once reveal His identity to them. It is a word which, indeed, may express His love for them (comp. John 4:49), but which appears also to have been used as an address to workmen or inferiors, not unlike our own words “boys” or “lads.” They seem to take it in this sense, as though some traveller passing by asked the question because he wished to purchase some of their fish.

The word rendered “meat” occurs here only in the New Testament. It means anything eaten with bread, and was used as equivalent to the fish which was the ordinary relish. (Comp. Note on John 6:9.)

Verse 6

(6) Cast the net on the right side of the ship.—Comp. Note on Luke 5:6. Here the special direction is to cast the net on the right side. We must suppose that the net was cast on the left side, and that they think the speaker who stands on the shore sees some indication of fishes on the other side, for He is still as a stranger to them, and yet they at once obey Him.

They were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.—That is, they were not able to draw it up into the boat. In John 21:8 they are described as dragging it to the shore.

Verse 7

(7) Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter.—Comp. Introduction, p 375. The traits of character which have before met us are exactly preserved here. John, true to the life of contemplation, is first to trace in the present draught of fishes an analogy with the earlier one, and to discern that the Master who spoke then is present now. Peter, true to the life of action, is first to rush into that Master’s presence when he is told that it is the Lord.

He girt his fisher’s coat unto him (for he was naked).—That is, as the words in the original clearly imply, he put on, and girded round his body the garment which workmen customarily used. This seems to have been a kind of linen frock worn over the shirt, and the Talmud has adopted the Greek word here used to express it. The word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, and the rendering “fisher’s coat” probably gives a correct idea of what is meant.

The common usage of the Greek and Hebrew words answering to the English word “naked,” makes it probable that St. Peter was wearing some under-garment, and that reverence for the Lord, into whose presence he is about to go, led him to add to this the outer frock. (Comp. Acts 19:12.)

Verse 8

(8) And the other disciples came in a little ship.—Better. . . . in the boat. The two words “ship” and “boat” ( πλοῖον and πλοιάριον) are interchanged here, as in John 6:17 et seq.

For they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits.—That is, about 100 English yards. The shortness of the distance explains how they were able to drag the net in tow. The Greek preposition used with “cubits” (literally, “two hundred cubits off”) is used of distance only by St. John (John 11:18 and Revelation 14:20).

Dragging the net with fishes.—Comp. Note on John 21:6. The Greek is more exactly,. . . . with the (literally, of the) fishes—i.e., those with which the net had been filled (John 21:6).

Verse 9

(9) They saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.—In the original the tenses are present, describing the scene as it was impressed on the mind of the writer. They saw a fire of coals and fish lying thereon, and bread, or, perhaps,. . . . and a fish lying thereon, and a loaf.

For “fire of coals” comp. Note on John 18:18.

For the word rendered “fish,” comp. John 21:10; John 21:13, and Notes on John 6:9; John 6:11. In this passage and in John 21:13 only it occurs in the singular, but it seems clear that it may be collective, as our word “fish.”

Verse 10

(10) Bring of the fish which ye have now caught.—Comp. Note on last verse. It is implied that they did so, and thus furnished part of the meal of which they are about to partake.

Verse 11

(11) Simon Peter went up.—The better reading inserts “therefore”: Simon Peter therefore went up—i.e., because of Christ’s command. He went up into the ship now lying on the shore with one end of the net fastened to it, and drew the remainder of the net to the shore.

Full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three.—The greatness and the number are dwelt upon because in any ordinary haul of fish a large proportion would be small and valueless, and be cast into the lake again (Comp. Matthew 13:47 et seq.). These were all “great,” and their size and number led to an exact account being taken of them. This would be talked of among the Apostles and their friends and fellow-craftsmen, and is, with the picturesque exactness which is characteristic of St. John, recorded here.

We have no clue to any mystical interpretation of this number, and it is probably not intended to convey one. The various meanings which men have read into it, such as that it represents one of every kind of fish known to the natural history of the day; or that one hundred represents the Gentile nations, fifty the Jews, and three the Trinity; or that there is a reference to the 153, 600 proselytes of 2 Chronicles 2:17; or that it expresses symbolically the name of Simon Peter, take their place among the eccentricities of exegesis from which even the latest results of criticism are not free. Still, as all the more spiritual interpreters, from St. Augustine downwards, have seen, the differences between this and the earlier miracle (Luke 5:1-11) are too striking to be unintentional. That represents the visible Church, containing good and bad; the net is cast without special direction as to side; the net was broken and many escaped. This represents God’s elect, foreknown by Him; all are good; the net is brought to shore, and none are lost. (See Notes on the parable of the Draw-net in Matthew 13:47-50, and comp. especially Trench, Notes on Miracles, §§ 3 and 33.)

Yet was not the net broken.—Comp. Note on Luke 5:6. This is again one of the details which point to an eye-witness as the writer.

Verse 12

(12) Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine.—Comp. Note on John 21:15 and Luke 11:37, which are the only other instances of the verb in the New Testament. The meal referred to was the early morning meal which we call breakfast (John 21:4).

And none of the disciples durst ask him . . .—Comp. John 4:27. They approach Him in reverent silence. Knowing it is the Lord, they yet desire the assurance in His own words, and still they do not dare to ask, “Who art thou?” The Greek word rendered “ask” means to “prove” “inquire.” It is found elsewhere in the New Testament in Matthew 2:8; Matthew 10:11 only. The word rendered “durst,” is also not found again in St. John, but its use in the Gospels is—except in the instance of Nicodemus, “who went in boldly unto Pilate” (Mark 15:43)—confined to the expression of the reverence which dared not question our Lord. (Comp. Matthew 22:46; Mark 12:34; Luke 20:40.) In all these instances it is used with a negative, and with a verb of inquiry, as here.

Verse 13

(13) Jesus then cometh—i.e., from the place where they had seen Him to the “fire of coals.”

And taketh bread, and giveth them.—Better, . . . the bread—i.e., the bread of John 21:9. Again (comp. John 20:22) we are reminded of the words used at the Last Supper. (Comp. Note on Luke 24:30.)

And fish likewise.—Better, and the fish likewise—i.e., the fishes of John 21:9-10.

Verse 14

(14) This is now the third time that Jesus shewed himself to his disciples.—Better, . . . that Jesus was manifested . . .—Comp. Note on John 21:1. The writer is giving his own witness. He passes over, therefore, the appearances to Mary Magdalene and others, and counting only those “to the disciples”—to the Ten on the first Easter day, and to the Eleven on its octave—gives this appearance as the third. (Comp. Note on 1 Corinthians 15:5-7.)

Verse 15

(15) Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas.—The better text here and in John 21:16-17, is, Simon, son of John. The contrast of the name by which the Evangelist denotes, and with that by which the Lord addresses Peter, at once strikes us as significant, and the more so because it comes in a context containing several significant verbal contrasts. Our Lord’s words would seem to address him as one who had fallen from the steadfastness of the Rock-man, and had been true rather to his natural than to his apostolic name. (Comp. Note on John 1:42, and Matthew 16:17.)

Lovest thou me more than these?—i.e., than these disciples who are present here with thee. It seems unnecessary to add this explanation, but not a few English notes on this verse explain the word “these” of the fishes, or of the boats and nets, as though the question was, “Lovest thou Me more than thy worldly calling? Art thou willing to give up all for Me?” The obvious reference is to Peter’s own comparison of himself with others in the confidence of love which he thought could never fail. (Comp. Matthew 26:33; Mark 14:29.)

The thrice-asked question has been generally understood to have special force in the restoration of him who had thrice denied his Lord, and now thrice declares his love for Him, and is thrice entrusted with a work for Him; and we feel that this interpretation gives a natural meaning to the emphasis of these verses. It may not be fanciful to trace significance, even in the external circumstances under which the question was asked. By the side of the lake after casting his net into the sea had Peter first been called to be a fisher of men (Matthew 4:19). The lake, the very spot on the shore, the nets, the boat, would bring back to his mind in all their fulness the thoughts of the day which had been the turning-point of his life. By the side of the “fire of coals” (see Note on John 18:18, the only other place where the word occurs) he had denied his Lord. As the eye rests upon the “fire of coals” before him, and he is conscious of the presence of the Lord, who knows all things (John 21:17), burning thoughts of penitence and shame may have come to his mind, and these may have been the true preparation for the words which follow.

Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.—Peter uses a less strong expression for love than that which had been used by our Lord. The question seems to ask, “Dost thou in the full determination of the will, in profound reverence and devotion, love Me?” The answer seems to say, “Thou knowest me; I dare not now declare this fixed determination of the will, but in the fulness of personal affection I dare answer, and Thou knowest that even in my denials it was true, ‘I love Thee.’”

He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.—More exactly, little lambs.

Verses 15-17

Love and Service

So when they had broken their fast, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again a second time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Tend my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.—John 21:15-17.

Who that takes any delight at all in the Bible does not take delight in the twenty-first chapter of St. John? Who has not felt the benignant spell of that narrative, in its indescribable simplicity and depth, its gracious beauty and its soul-penetrating power? Willingly we follow the last Apostle as he recounts to us, in his uttermost age, with the photographic precision of an old man’s recollection of his prime, that wonderful memory. He leads us as if into the very landscape of the Syrian lake. We embark with him in the boat, as if we heard the rattle of the oars, and the lap of the ripples on the sides. We “ply the watery task” with him and his comrades, as if we saw the vernal stars reflected under our eyes in the dusky mirror of the deep. Their weariness and disappointment, as the night wanes and they have taken nothing, are as if our own. And then comes up the morning over the dark hills of Moab, and there stands a Figure on the solitary beach, and there are callings to and fro between beach and boat; and the nets are full and heavy on a sudden, and the disciple plunges into the water, to swim and wade to his master’s feet. The whole group soon gathers round the fire of coals; the fast is broken; and then there is a colloquy about love, and labour, and martyrdom, and following. We have seen it, heard it, shared it all.

It was my happiness a few years ago to set eyes upon the Lake of Galilee, gazing with strange emotions upon the waters and the mountain-shores from the garden of the Scottish Mission Hospital (scene of a noble work for God) at Tiberias, and afterwards from a boat, built probably on lines unaltered for two thousand years, and worked by fishermen, clad probably in the very fashion of the Apostles. Wonderful was the charm of the thought that this was indeed the scene of the Gospels; the eyes of the Son of Man knew just those outlines of cliff, and field, and shore, and that snowy dome of Hermon looking on from the northern horizon. His feet trod this shell-wrought strand, aye, and the waves too into which those smooth waters can be tossed so soon. Somewhere yonder, on the further side (for surely it was on that more solitary margin), this last scene of St. John’s narrative was enacted; there was kindled the ruddy fire, there the water flashed into silver as Simon Peter wrestled his way through. Along that shore, whose line lies so distinct between lake and hills, he followed the steps of Jesus, and turned to see John following too. It was a moving thing to look thus with waking eyes on the region as it is. Yet, such is the power, the artless magic, of the narrative of the Apostle, that I know not whether the actual gain to realization was very great. The Gospel had created so visible a landscape that the eyes had less to add to the picture than I had hoped.1 [Note: H. C. G. Moule, The Secret of the Presence, 144.]

1. The occasion.—The time is morning; morning so full of memories, so full of hope and high resolve. The mists are clearing from the lake and shore: the darkness is passing away, stirred by the fresh breeze of dawn. There are together those whose names are so often found associated; Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the two sons of Zebedee. They are on the sea of Tiberias, fishing just as before Christ called them to be fishers of men. The fruitless night-toil, and their success when in obedience to Christ they cast their net on the right side of the ship, were fitted to remind them of His former miracle, and of their former call. John marks, as significant of a difference between this and the former miracle, that for all the fishes were so many, yet did not the net break—a hopeful difference, promising that their new mission should be better than the old. Called anew to draw men to Christ, they shall be better preachers than they were; they shall not “catch men” for the Kingdom, they shall be enabled to bring them all in and retain them in the Kingdom. The months that have gone by, seemingly so fruitless—months during which they made so many blunders, months which appeared to come to so entire a close in the death of their Master—have not gone by for nothing. Their past experience, their blunders and anxieties and sorrows, all will be seen to have fitted them for their new work, when again the Lord shall bid them to it. This, at least, we shall see to be true of St. Peter; three times reminded of his weakness, three times made to feel the pains of penitence, he is each time bidden to tend the flock. He will be better able to tend the flock because of what he has learnt of his feebleness and folly.

The narrative seems to me full of subtle suggestions. It illustrates our Christian life, which is ever new, yet ever old; full of strange events, the meaning of which becomes, as we muse upon them, familiar and intelligible. Every daybreak shows us the old world under new aspects; the objects which loom so strangely in the obscurity, we see, as we gaze on them, to be quite familiar. In the dim morning light, the disciples knew not that it was Jesus who stood on the shore; perhaps some mysterious change had passed upon Him in the grave, the risen Saviour not appearing quite like the Master whom they had followed; but the miracle revealed that it was He. It was a new call with which He presently bade them, but it was the fulfilment of His first bidding, “Follow me.” It was a new miracle He wrought, a new experience through which they were passing now; but how thoroughly was it the same as what had gone before! It is this constant freshness and changeless identity of life, this novelty of circumstance having in it the old meaning of love and grace, the new duty which is but a repetition of the old call, which makes us rejoice in the one purpose we perceive ever enlarging and fulfilling itself. It is as we recognize, “I am the same, and God is the same amid all changes,” that we rest amid ceaseless variation, and learn the lessons to which, day by day, God is opening our ears.1 [Note: A. Mackennal, Christ’s Healing Touch, 174.]

2. The language.—The passage is marked in the original by a variety of language which does not appear in the English translation. There are two different Greek words for each of the English words “love,” “know,” and “feed,” and three Greek words for “sheep” or “lambs.” And there is significance in other words besides these. Take them separately—

(1) “Simon, Son of John.” The Master’s use of the old name “Simon,” instead of the new name, “Peter,” was suggestive of much. It was not to imply that he had forfeited all right to the new name; but it was a gentle reminder to him of the weakness which had led to his denial; and it would recall to him the Master’s words before his fall, when He purposely abstained from giving him the name that implied firmness and strength, but used instead the old name, “Simon,” which bore to “Peter” the same relation as “Jacob” (the “supplanter”) bore to “Israel” (the “prince of God”)—“Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.” Very lovingly had Jesus already assured the penitent disciple of His forgiveness. One of the first messages He sent as the Risen One was a message specially to Peter. One of the first private interviews He gave to any disciple was given to Peter; and from that interview he must have come away knowing himself to be a fully pardoned man. Still, the use of the old name here again must have gone to Peter’s heart, making him think, with new shame and sorrow, of his old self-confidence and pride.

(2) “Lovest thou me?” The distinctions between the two Greek verbs used are various and delicate; but they may all be traced to the radical difference between them. It is not a difference in the warmth, but in the character, of affection. The one signifies the love based upon appreciation of another; the other simple personal attachment. The one word would express the love that would give itself up for another; the second word that which gives itself up to another. The one would be a confident, the other a confiding love. In this narrative the one might be represented if, in English, we said, “I am thy friend”; the other, if we said, “Thou art my friend.” It is the former of these words that Christ here uses: “Simon, son of Jonas, esteemest thou me more, art thou more my friend, than thy fellow disciples?” This was just what Peter had professed, “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.” “I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death.” “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee.”

We can now understand Peter’s reply. Once he would have said, “I know that I am Thy friend.” Once he did assert his knowledge of himself against Christ’s knowledge of him; he was sure he was to be trusted. But he has lost his self-confidence. He cannot compare himself with others now. He will not even assert himself to be a friend, ready to devote himself for Christ’s sake; he will not profess esteem for Jesus. He chooses the humbler, trustful word: “Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.”

Again, Christ asks him, “If not more than these, yet art thou my friend at all? Is there any of the active devoted love in thee? any of the passion that will assert itself on my behalf?” And still the same humble, clinging answer comes from Peter. Even this he will not affirm. How can he profess what he is ready for? How can he be confident who has so painfully learnt that there is nothing for him but meekly and gratefully to trust in Jesus? “Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.”

Now, Christ takes Peter’s own word: He will not wound him by reminding him of his past boastful professions; let it be as Peter would have it, the trusting affection of the disciple. “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” “Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me?” Surely Jesus cannot doubt that. He must know that the disciple clings to his Lord. Christ must know that He is all in all to Peter. He saith unto Him, “Lord, thou knowest all things; Thou seest my heart, Thou knowest what sort of a man I was and am, how vain my self-confidence; Thou knowest me to be weak, rash, changeful; but Thou knowest, too, that under all my boasting, all my mistakes, there was love for Thee, and that it remains. Lord, Thou knowest that I cannot make professions, that I am heart-sick of professions, but Thou knowest that this is true; thou knowest that I love Thee.”

And this confession Christ accepts; this confession He ever will accept. Distinguish between the profession of love to Christ and the confession of it. In profession the person most prominent in our thoughts is “I, who make it”; in confession, “He, whose name I am confessing.” The confession of love to Christ is the sweetest language that can fall from human lips; it shows that the life has found its rest and meaning. Christ is known, and He will keep faithful to all eternity; He will solace in all tribulation, and succour in all difficulty; He will guide with His counsel, and afterwards receive to glory, every meek soul that utters it. The profession of love to Christ is painful to hear. It is full of danger; it is boastful, self-confident. He who makes it will have, by many a sore trial, through many a bitter experience of failure, to come to a humbler mind. It is not in what we are to Christ, but in what Christ is to us, that our rest and security lie.

Observe the period of Peter’s life when this confession is made. It is not his earliest confession; he has been brought to it through painful self-knowledge; it is the utterance of a tried maturity. It is a custom among many Christians to demand this as a pass-word to Christian fellowship; to refuse the recognition of discipleship to all who cannot utter it. I cannot think that this is wise. To set young converts on an estimate of their feeling towards the Saviour, instead of encouraging them to trust in Him, is full of peril. Christian discipleship sometimes begins with love to Christ; and singularly blessed are they with whom it does. But in other ways souls are drawn to Christ: the weary go to Him for rest, the guilty for pardon, the helpless for succour; the dissatisfied, who long for a better life, seek the life that is in Christ. Such will say, “I trust in Christ,” “I have found Christ,” “I am following Christ”; but the words, perhaps, halt on their lips, “I love Christ.” It is not for us to insist on their utterance. They are not for our ears, but for His. And He knows how, from the trusting, the obedient, and the earnest, to draw at length the full confession, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.”1 [Note: A. Mackennal, Christ’s Healing Touch, 178.]

(3) “Feed my lambs.” There is variation in Christ’s thrice repeated charge—” Feed my lambs,” “Shepherd my sheep,” “Feed my little sheep.” All were to be cared for, and all modes of watchfulness and help were to be displayed. Fold as well as feed them; guide and guard and heal them; keep them from straying, strengthen the feeble, bind up the bruised, bring again that which is driven away, seek that which is lost.

3. Three questions, three answers, and three commands.—In this story St. Peter has been already three times the foremost. To him the Lord speaks, now not for the first time singling him out.

(1) The first question is, “Lovest thou me more than these?” These words refer to an earlier time, the time when He had said to the disciples, “All ye shall be offended because of me this night,” and St. Peter had replied, “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.” Yet he had fled with the rest. And when he came back to the house where his Lord was being tried, he three times denied Him. Was this like loving Him more than the rest? Yet, again, his recent act might be looked at as a sign of his character, his leaping from the ship into the sea, and dragging the net alone. These words therefore did not convey a real reproach, but a lesson: the love might be the greatest, yet also the least to be trusted. There was a good beginning, but it had not ripened into its proper nature. St. Peter had learnt something by those humbling days. He answers “Yea”; he could do that unflinchingly; but he dares not claim to be above his brethren; he drops, in answering, all allusion to them. Christ simply replies, “Feed my lambs.” He craved no personal cleaving to Himself, as man cleaves to man. He spoke only as the shepherd of the sheep, whose whole care was for the sheep for whom He had died. Such also must be the care of those who love Him. Henceforth St. Peter must show his love by his anxiety to sustain the life of other men; that was to be the test of his love.

(2) A second time Christ repeats the question; but now He needs not to recall the old boast; He leaves out the words, “more than these.” He would ask, putting aside all comparison with others, “Canst thou say that thou lovest me?” The answer is the same as before—a full acknowledgment that He is Lord, a firm persuasion that his Lord knows him. Again Christ replies, slightly altering the expression, “Tend my sheep.” Not only the lambs, the weak and ignorant, had to be fed, but even the strong and wise ones, the full-grown sheep, had to be ruled and guided. Mere pity for the helpless lambs was not enough. St. Peter must not think that there were any to whom he owed no duty.

(3) Once more Christ renews the question. Three times St. Peter had denied Him, and three times his love is to be proved. St. Peter’s impatience breaks out. He thought it enough that Christ should try him once or at most twice. “He was grieved”; he exclaimed at the seeming needlessness of the question: “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee”—Thou canst find out whether I love Thee or not. This is but a small thing, a part of the Lord’s all-embracing knowledge. But Christ will not let go the former command; He repeats, “Feed my sheep”; all alike need support as well as guidance.

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 to suggest to St. 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 thrice having said, “I know him not!” Jesus, with a gracious violence, forced him to say thrice, “Thou knowest that I love thee.”1 [Note: A. Maclaren, After the Resurrection, 78.]

How pleasant to me thy deep-blue wave,

O Sea of Galilee!

For the glorious One who came to save

Hath often stood by thee.

Fair are the lakes in the land I love,

Where pine and heather grow:

But thou hast loveliness far above

What Nature can bestow.

It is not that the wild gazelle

Comes down to drink thy tide:

But He that was pierced to save from hell

Oft wander’d by thy side.

It is not that the fig-tree grows,

And palms, in thy soft air,

But that Sharon’s fair and bleeding Rose

Once spread its fragrance there.

Graceful around thee the mountains meet,

Thou calm, reposing sea;

But ah, far more! the beautiful feet

Of Jesus walk’d o’er thee.

And was it beside this very sea

The new-risen Saviour said

Three times to Simon, “Lovest thou Me?

My lambs and sheep then feed”?

O Saviour! gone to God’s right hand!

Yet the same Saviour still,

Graved on Thy heart is this lovely strand,

And every fragrant hill.

Oh, give me, Lord, by this sacred wave,

Threefold Thy love divine,

That I may feed, till I find my grave,

Thy flock—both Thine and mine!1 [Note: R. M. M‘Cheyne.]

4. Thus Jesus thrice addressed the same question to St. Peter with apparently slight and yet significant variations. To that question he always received the same answer, only again with apparently slight modifications. And with equally slight changes the replies were followed up by seemingly the same injunctions. Yet, trifling as the variations appear to be—the questions slightly differing, the answers slightly differing, the counsels also slightly differing—there is a touching spiritual story in them, full of evangelical meaning and of deep spiritual interest.

The truths contained in the text are these—

I. Love is the Inspiration of Service.

II. Service is the Fulfilment of Love.


Love as the Inspiration of Service

Love, love to Christ, which is the one sure spring of love to men, is the foundation of service. It is the first condition of the Divine charge, and the second, and the third. It is the spirit of the new Covenant which burns not to consume but to purify. In the prospect of work for others or for ourselves we can always hear the one question in the stillness of our souls, “Lovest thou me?” Love may not, can not, be attained in its fulness at once; but the Person of Christ, if indeed we see Him as He is presented to us in the Gospels, will kindle that direct affection out of which it comes. If our hearts were less dull we could not study the changing scenes of His unchanging love, or attempt to describe them to others, without answering the silent appeal which they make to us in St. Peter’s words: Lord, thou knowest that I love thee; yes, and still more those who are Thine and not mine, those who fall under my influence in the various relations of life, for Thy sake.

1. Love is first and fundamental.—How significant and beautiful it is that the only thing that Jesus Christ cares to ask about is the man’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 desires from each of us, not obedience primarily, not repentance, not vows, not conduct, but a heart; and that being given, all the rest will follow. This 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.

No other religion presents anything which resembles this invitation to give God the heart. Give me thy observances, says the God of Pharisaism. Give me thy personality, says the God of Hegel. Give me thy reason, says the God of Kant. It remains for the God of Jesus Christ to say, Give Me thine heart. He makes it the essence and the glory of His doctrine. With Him to give the heart to God is not merely an obligation of piety; it is its root, its beginning, its middle, its end.1 [Note: Adolphe Monod.]

“Lovest thou me?” It is a question that goes down very deep; for it goes down to the eternal springs of all life. It is God’s and Nature’s great secret; and man’s only hope. Love is life, hatred is death. Love, in its essence, is attraction, combination, sympathy, blending. It is so even in what we call the unconscious world of matter. God’s immense laboratory, the Universe, so far as we know it, is the ceaseless arena of love-attractions and blendings. There is never an atom that is content alone; never a molecule that is at rest in its isolation; never a crystal that is not flashed into form by aspiration; never a leaf or bud or blade of grass that does not reach out after its beloved; never a throb that is not responded to throughout all space. Gravitation itself is like the ceaseless infinite breathing of an all-pervading Lover—attracting all things to itself. Throughout the Universe, so far as we can penetrate, every atom is crying to every other, “Lovest thou me?” Science calls it “affinity.” We might just as well call it “love.”

Everywhere, too, Nature—the great patient Mother—stands waiting for the lover’s appeal. It is true that we can capture many of her treasures without affection; but never her joys and benedictions so. She is very wonderful in her teachings, and very gracious in her consolations to her lovers; but there must be love if there is to be communion. You will only be miserable in her solitudes if you are without love. Night and day she whispers to the wanderer, “Lovest thou me?” Emerson was right. We get her stare—not her music—because we love her not. You accuse Nature of cruelty; you say,

Nature has miscarried wholly

Into failure, into folly.

Alas! thine is the bankruptcy

Blessed Nature so to see.

These young atheists

Who invade our hills

Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,

And all their botany is Latin names.

The old men studied magic in the flowers,

And human fortunes in astronomy,

And an omnipotence in chemistry,

Preferring things to names, for these were men,

Were unitarians of the united world,

And, wheresoever their clear eye-beams fell,

They caught the footsteps of the Same. Our eyes

Are armed, but we are strangers to the stars,

And strangers to the mystic beast and bird,

And strangers to the plant and to the mine.

The injured elements say, “Not in us”;

And night and day, ocean and continent,

Fire, plant and mineral say, “Not in us”;

And haughtily return us stare for stare.

For we invade them impiously for gain,

We devastate them unreligiously,

And coldly ask their pottage, not their love.

Therefore they shove us from them; yield to us

Only what to our griping toil is due;

But the sweet affluence of love and song,

The rich results of the divine consents

Of man and earth, of world beloved and lover,

The nectar and ambrosia, are withheld;

And, in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves

And pirates of the universe, shut out

Daily to a more thin and outward rind,

Turn pale and starve.

We praise the “strong men,” the empire-makers, the remorseless soldiers, the commercial pioneers; and, indeed, they have their mission, and some of them deserve their meed of praise; but these are not the great instruments of nature and of God. The poets, the artists, the moralists, the idealists, the Buddhas, the Christs, the lovers, are the saviours of the world.

“Lovest thou me?” is the question which determines every stage of evolution. From beast to man, and from the beast-man to the angel-man—all is a question of love. Until love comes, no high manhood comes, and, by so much as love lingers, the beast lingers. “Lovest thou me?” is the preliminary question which is the secret of that Divine Shekinah, that symbol of the Divine Presence—the Home. “Lovest thou me?” whispers about all the subsidences of family feuds, and tribal isolations, and clannish spite, and class pride, and national greed. It is the mightiest factor in true nation-making; it is the life and soul of sane and sober patriotism; it is the advance-guard, the evangel, of the great ideal—the Brotherhood of Man. In fine, it is that which determines all the upward evolutionary stages of the race.1 [Note: J. P. Hopps, Sermons of Life and Love, 7.]

In simple and homely ways see how true it is that love is life and joy and progress. It is nothing to accumulate treasure, and to surround yourself with splendid defences against the intrusions of the careworn world, if you have a loveless and careworn heart. There is profound truth in Hood’s quaintly humorous but pathetically serious lines concerning

Love that sweetens sugarless tea,

And makes contentment and joy agree

With the coarsest boarding and bedding;

Love that no golden ties can attach,

But nestles under the humblest thatch,

And will fly away from an Emperor’s match,

To dance at a Penny Wedding.2 [Note: Ibid. 12.]

It is amazing to find how Christ simplifies religion and morality and reduces them to their elemental terms. He deliberately stakes everything on this single qualification. “Lovest thou me?” is His sole test for discipleship. It seems as if nothing else seriously mattered in His judgment, compared with this one master passion of the soul. “Lovest thou me?”—will there be any other question for us to answer at the last assize?1 [Note: T. H. Darlow, The Upward Calling, 322.]

What is the beginning? Love. What the course? Love still.

What is the goal? The goal is Love on the happy hill.

Is there nothing then but Love, search we sky or earth?

There is nothing out of Love hath perpetual worth:

All things flag but only Love, all things fail or flee;

There is nothing left but Love worthy you and me.2 [Note: C. G. Rossetti.]

Let me take this as my Master’s question to myself; and see how deep it goes, not only into my feelings, but into my life. For it is not,” Believest thou Me?” or “Understandest thou Me?” or “Confessest thou Me?” or “Obeyest thou Me?” or even, “Servest thou Me?” It goes closer home. It is, “Lovest thou Me?”; and all these other things may be where love is not. Again, He does not ask, “Lovest thou My word?” or “Lovest thou My work?” or “Lovest thou My brethren?” He asks, “Lovest thou Me?” And yet again, He does not ask, “Art thou in the company of those that love Me?” He will not let me shelter myself by losing myself in a crowd who all profess to love Him. He brings me out into the light, to stand alone, and asks, “Lovest thou Me?”3 [Note: G. H. Knight, The Master’s Questions to His Disciples, 355.]

2. Love is a personal affection.—From our own experience we know that love, as the best and utmost expression of our own personality, can find a worthy object only in another personality. No person can really love a thing. In easy-going speech a man talks of loving his family or his country. But it is never strictly true. What he really loves is each individual person belonging to his family or nation. There is no more difficulty in loving six than in loving two. But he can by no possibility love even one, unless that one be, like himself, a living person,—or at least potentially such, as is the new-born babe,—capable first of appreciating and then of reciprocating the self which, as with outstretched hands, a person offers when he loves. Nothing else, nothing less than this, is meant by Christ’s doctrine of the love of God. Its true significance and expression are for ever found in what St. Paul said concerning Christ Himself—“Who loved me and gave himself up for me.” That Divine love should be thus truly focused, without mistake and without difficulty, in each individual human being, is the distinctive, wonderful, awful assertion of the Christian gospel alone of all the religions upon earth.

3. Love is reciprocal.—Jesus was not thinking only of Simon Peter when He asked him, “Lovest thou me?” He was as truly thinking of Himself, and He was revealing to His denying and yet true servant the longing his Lord and Master had for his love. Indeed, this yearning for a return of affection is of the essence of all true love. We cannot love any one very dearly without desiring that our love should find an answering response in the heart thus loved, and it is because Jesus loves His own disciples so deeply that He seeks for their love as the one sweet requital for His own to them. It is this longing of the loving heart for love that explains, in part at all events, the first great commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” The love of God for man goes forth to seek the answering love of man for God; and the sin and guilt of a cold and loveless heart are never fully and rightly felt until we realize that want of love to God is not only an injury to ourselves, but is an injury done to God.

Love that is centred in a personality can be satisfied with nothing less and nothing else than the reciprocating love of that person. On our own little human scale this is at once the glory and the tragedy of life. Its default is even more dreadful than death, as numberless poor pitiful suicides have testified. The old word is as true and tender, as fierce and insatiable as ever, “If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would be utterly contemned.” If, as we sit in peace and comfort at the sweetest feast, or the liveliest entertainment, or the most solemn service, a voice that we could not doubt whispered in our ear that the one we loved most felt towards us no love in return, then the poet would be bitterly, crushingly true who wrote—

The night has a thousand eyes,

And the day but one,

Yet the light of a whole world dies

With the setting sun.

The mind has a thousand eyes,

And the heart but one,

But the light of a whole life dies

If love be done.1 [Note: F. Ballard, Does it Matter what a Man Believes? 76.]

4. Love is unselfish.—“Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” I do not doubt your love. I did not doubt it even in the moment of your sad fall, but it was not that supreme affection to which I was entitled. You loved Me, but you really loved yourself better, and put your own desires before My will. Events, however, have been teaching you, experience has been leading you to truer views of Me and of yourself; tell Me now do you love Me? Is your love prepared now to sacrifice everything for Me, and in the event of others coming into a competition with Me, are you willing to give Me the preference, to yield to Me the first place in your heart? That is the only love Jesus can regard with complacence.

A German mystic in the fifteenth century, John of Goch, thus stated the relation between love and self. “What wings are to a bird, love is to us. They seem to add weight to the body: in reality, however, they elevate it into the air. In like manner the yoke of love, when imposed upon our sensuous nature, not only does not weigh it down, but lifts the spirit with the senses to heavenly things. Take from them their wings, and you take from birds the power of flying. Even so, separate love from the will, and the will is made incapable of every act that transcends nature.” Nevertheless how rarely we reckon those Christians to be in the front rank of the Church who are distinguished by nothing else except their immense power of affection. We still reserve the chief seats in our synagogues for the eloquent speakers, the munificent givers, the superior spiritual personages, who may fall far below others in simple, unwearying, self-forgetful tenderness.2 [Note: T. H. Darlow, The Upward Calling, 320.]


Service as the Fulfilment of Love

The presence or absence in us of the love of Christ is not only an index to our present state, but a prophecy of all that is to be. The love of Christ was that which enabled and impelled the Apostles to live great and energetic lives. It was this simple affection which made a life of aggression and reformation possible to them. This gave them the right ideas and the sufficient impulse. And it is this affection which is open to us all and which equally now as at first impels to all good. Let the love of Christ possess any soul and that soul cannot avoid being a blessing to the world around. Christ scarcely needed to say to Peter, “Feed My sheep; be helpful to those for whom I died,” because in time Peter must have seen that this was his calling. Love gives us sympathy and intelligence. Our conscience is enlightened by sympathy with the persons we love; through their desires, which we wish to gratify, we see higher aims than our own, aims which gradually become our own. And wherever the love of Christ exists, there sooner or later will the purposes of Christ be understood, His aims be accepted, His fervent desire and energetic endeavour for the highest spiritual condition of the race become energetic in us and carry us forward to all good.

1. Service is the natural outlet of love.—The right conduct of the life is a consequence and fruit of the Incarnation. Incarnation is a name for nothing at all unless it be the name not only of the historic event but also of a personal experience, the entry of the Divine into the human energies of the man who declares that he believes rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accordingly to say that a man has the love of Christ is to say, in humaner and more concrete speech, that the Incarnation has been actualized in particular life, that Christ is born in him, that the power of the life from heaven has been poured into this channel.

For him who would take on him the office of a pastor, the question is suggested, Why do you undertake the office? Is it from love of Christ, and from a sense of the obligation to show your gratitude for what He has done for you, in the way which He has commanded—namely, by services to His sheep? If any are actuated by lower motives they have reason to fear that they lie under the woe which, through the mouth of Ezekiel, God denounced against the shepherds who feed themselves and not the flock; who allow the flock to wander through the mountains, and on every high hill, and to be scattered on the face of the earth, while none searcheth or looketh after them.1 [Note: G. Salmon, Cathedral and University Sermons, 55.]

2. Service is love’s evidence.—In giving St. Peter the charge, “Feed my lambs; feed my sheep,” Christ was guarding him against a danger to which he was at this moment liable, the danger of sinking down into an indulgence of sentiment, of dwelling upon the words, “Thou knowest that I love thee,” and forfeiting in this sweet humiliation his calling as an Apostle, and its prize. There is a subtle charm in self-humiliation, an ensnaring luxury of penitence. We feel it in a self-assertive world. From the blare of trumpets, from the strife for mastery, from the restlessness of ambition, and the constant temptation to self-seeking, how blessed to retire to self-abasement before the Lord; how sweetly then from lowly lips falls the confession, “Thou knowest that I love thee.” To cherish this life alone is very dangerous. Hence comes the pride that apes humility; hence self-pleasing under the garb of lowliness. Worse than the hypocrisy which disfigures its countenance that it may appear unto men to fast is the subtle insincerity that disfigures itself that it may appear unto itself to fast. Christ sends St. Peter from confessing, as He sent Mary from adoring Him, to do His work. The world is the true sphere for lowliness; loving labour among others is the school of self-humiliation; love of Christ is perfected in the activities of a human sympathy.

What Christ wants from me is a practical expression of my theoretical love, an expression in act, as well as on the lip; and though it may be a hard, it will always be a blessed, answer, if I can give it, “Lord, thou seest all things, Thou seest that I love Thee.” And others ought to see it too. My love to Christ ought to be a visible love. Let me ask myself, therefore, what proofs of my love to Christ I am giving in my daily life. From my demeanour and conversation in my home would any one gather that I love my Lord and Saviour with an ardent love? If I never talk about Him as worthy of love, how can others believe that I regard Him so? If I never boldly take His part, when His laws are despised, or His authority is contemned; if I see, and do not rebuke, the sins that dishonour and grieve Him, how can I make good my profession of loyal love to Himself? If I never think of Him or speak of Him as a dear friend, who is gone away for a time, but is soon to come again; if my heart never thrills with joy in the hope of His “glorious appearing,” so that I am setting everything in order to meet His eye, how can I prove my possession of that love to which separation is a sorrow? Do I make my love to Him as plain and incontrovertible as He makes His love to me? I have never to ask Him, “Lovest Thou me?” If I did, He would answer in a moment, by pointing to the proof He gave of that, and say, “Behold my hands and my feet.” He bears in His glorifled body the “print of the nails,” proofs of His wonderful love to me. But what a contrast between that love and mine! His so strong, and mine so weak; His so changeless, and mine so fickle; His so active, and mine so indolent; His so open, and mine so secret; His so ardent, and mine so cold!1 [Note: G. H. Knight, The Master’s Questions to His Disciples, 357.]

3. While service is for all, it is also for each.—Let us recall the variety of words used—“lambs,” “sheep.” Under Divine Providence we have each a work to do for God, each a station and duties in the Divine society; some, sheep to feed, some, lambs to tend. The sheep must be fed individually—milk for the lambs and strong food for the sheep. One of the great intellectual pleasures of the ministry is preaching the same Gospel in many different ways; the boys’ brigade wants it put in one way, the men’s lecture in another, and the mothers’ meeting in another.

(1) The Lambs.—No other book recognizes the place of children so fully or so kindly as the Bible. The great books of the world are somewhat deficient in this. Their writers have had no time, found no occasion to dwell on children, and, perhaps, sometimes have been afraid to do so. The Bible does deal with children because of the infinite love of God, and His knowledge of human destiny. Our Lord Jesus Christ set the child in the midst of the stormy disputers, and made him the type of entrance into the Kingdom of heaven. How can any deeper interest gather around their life and their claim than that which is poured upon them by the words of the Risen Christ, “Feed my lambs”?

The Rev. Harry Venn has recorded this experience,—“The great danger is from surfeiting children with religious doctrines or over much talk. Doctrines they are too young to understand; and too frequent talking wearies them. Many parents err in expecting that the religion of a child should be the same as their own. I did not give mine formal instruction till they were eight years old, and then chiefly set before them the striking facts in the Old Testament, or the miracles in the New. I also laboured much to set before them the goodness of our God in things which they could understand, such as the comforts which we enjoyed together. Watching providential occurrences, I made use of them to give a body and substance to spiritual truth. One method used to affect them much—carrying them to see an afflicted child of God rejoicing in tribulation, and speaking of His love. To this day they tell of one and another whom they saw happy, though poor and in pain.”1 [Note: Memoir and Correspondence of Henry Venn, 429.]

It is a beautiful tradition of the Jewish Rabbis that when Moses was a shepherd under Jethro in the land of Midian, a little lamb went frisking from the flock and strayed into the wilderness. Moses, full of the spirit which loveth all things—both man, and bird, and beast—and faithful in little deeds as well as in great, pursued the lamb over rocks and through briars, and after long hours of weary search recovered it; and when he had recovered it he laid it in his bosom, saying, “Little lamb, thou knowest not what is good for thee; trust me, thy shepherd, who will guide thee aright.” And when God saw his tenderness, and the straying lamb, He said, “Thou shalt be a shepherd to My people Israel.”2 [Note: Dean Farrar.]

(2) The Sheep.—“Feed my sheep” comes next; feed the middle-aged, the strong, the vigorous; they also need to be directed in their Christian course, and to be guided to some field of earnest service for Christ, therefore shepherdize them. Do not try to govern these, but feed them. They may have far more prudence, and they certainly have more experience, than you have, and therefore do not rule them, but remind them of the deep things of God, and deal out to them an abundance of consoling truth. There is that good old man, he is a father in Christ; he knew the Lord fifty years before you were born; he has some peculiarities, and in them you must let him take his own course, but still feed him. His taste will appreciate solid meat, he knows a field of tender grass when he gets into it; feed him, then, for his infirmities require it.

Not to priests only is this said, but to every one of us also, who are also entrusted with a little flock. For do not despise it because it is a little flock. For “My Father,” He saith, “hath pleasure in them.” Each of us hath a sheep; let him lead that to the proper pastures.3 [Note: St. Chrysostom.]

We find the best interpretation of the three commands given by our Lord to St. Peter, by tracing their fulfilment in the Apostle’s life. In the early chapters of the Acts we find St. Peter standing forth as the spokesman and leader of the Church; yet the doctrinal content of his sermons is extremely simple, just such as we should teach to little children: St. Peter was feeding the lambs. Then another Apostle comes to the front; the Church needs a more developed doctrine, for the lambs have grown into sheep and now require the “strong meat” of the Word; St. Paul feeds the sheep, St. Peter aids the work by tending the sheep. In the First Epistle of St. Peter we find him again the leading exponent of Christian doctrine: it is now a fully developed doctrine, a great advance upon the simple teaching of his early days; now, under the guidance of God, he is feeding the sheep.1 [Note: H. O. Cavalier.]

Love and Service


Ballard (F.), Does it Matter what a Man Believes? 63.

Barrett (G. S.), Musings for Quiet Hours, 61.

Beeching (H. C.), The Grace of Episcopacy, 163.

Broughton (L. G.), Table Talks of Jesus, 85.

Campbell (J. M.), Bible Questions, 110.

Campbell (R. J.), The Making of an Apostle, 113.

Carpenter (W. B.), The Son of Man among the Sons of Men, 93.

Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 319.

Furse (C. W.), The Beauty of Holiness, 32.

Gibbon (J. M.), The Children’s Year, 261.

Gray (W. H.), The Children’s Friend, 17.

Hammond (E. P.), Early Conversion, 61.

Harris (J. R.), Memoranda Sacra, 61.

Harrison (W.), Clovelly Sermons, 62.

Hopps (J. P.), Sermons of Life and Love, 1.

Hort (F. J. A.), Village Sermons in Outline, 257.

Howatt (J. R.), Jesus the Poet, 278.

Jeffrey (J.), The Personal Ministry of the Son of Man, 288.

Knight (G. H.), The Master’s Questions to His Disciples, 353.

Lewis (Z. H.), Petros, 143.

Mackennal (A.), Christ’s Healing Touch, 171.

Maclaren (A.), After the Resurrection, 77.

Mortimer (A. G.), Jesus and the Resurrection, 236.

Moule (H. C. G.), The Secret of the Presence, 143.

Murray (A.), The Children for Christ, 328.

Rigg (J. H.), Scenes and Studies in the Ministry of our Lord, 178.

Roberts (W. P.), Law and God, 76.

Salmon (G.), Cathedral and University Sermons, 50.

Skrine (J. H.), Saints and Worthies, 1.

Skrine (J. H.), Sermons to Pastors and Masters, 192.

Smith (W. C.), Sermons, 295.

Stone (D.), The Discipline of Faith, 155.

Watson (J.), The Inspiration of our Faith, 167.

Verse 16

(16) He saith to him again the second time.—The question is repeated in exactly the same form, except that our Lord does not continue the comparison “more than these.” He uses the same word for the higher, more intellectual love, and Peter replies by the same declaration of personal attachment, and the same appeal to his Master’s knowledge of him.

Feed my sheep.—Better, be a shepherd of My sheep. The Vatican and Paris MSS. read “little sheep” here, and in the following verse. (See Note there.)

Verse 17

(17) He saith unto him the third time.—Again the question is asked, but this time the Lord uses Peter’s own word, and His question seems to say, “Dost thou, in personal affection and devotion, really love Me?” The third time, to him who had three times denied! and this time the love which Peter knows has ever filled his soul seems to be doubted. The question cuts to the very quick, and in the agony of the heart smarting beneath the wound, he appeals in more emphatic words than before to the all-seeing eye that could read the very inmost secrets of his life, “Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

Feed my sheep.—The better reading is, probably, little sheep. The difference is of one letter only ( πρόβατα and προβατία), and a mistake would therefore be easily made by a copyist. The diminutive word occurs nowhere else in Biblical Greek, and is almost certainly, therefore, part of the original text; but whether it was first written here or in John 21:16, or in both, must with our present knowledge be left undetermined. The order of the Received text is “lambs” (John 21:15), “sheep” (John 21:16), “sheep” (John 21:17). The Peshito Syriac must have read “lambs,” “little sheep,” “sheep”; and this is in part supported by the Vulgate, which has “agnos,” “agnos,” “oves,” and more exactly by the Latin of St. Ambrose, who has “agnos,” “oviculas,” “oves.” This would point to a three-fold gradation answering to the three-fold question, and committing to the Apostle’s care the lambs, the little sheep, the sheep of the flock of Christ. Still, it must be admitted that the more probable reading is lambs, little sheep, little sheep, and that the difference of thought is in the difference of the verbs. “Feed My lambs; be a shepherd to the weak ones of the flock; feed these weak ones.” He who loved Christ is to be like Christ, a good shepherd, giving his life for the sheep who are Christ’s. He who had been loved and forgiven, held up that he might not fall, restored after he had fallen, is to be to others what Christ had been to him—feeding men with spiritual truths as they can bear them, gently guiding and caring for those who are as the weak ones of the flock through ignorance, prejudice, waywardness. The chief work of the chief Apostle, and of every true apostle of Christ, is to win back the erring, helpless, sinful sons of men; and the power which fits them for this work is the burning love which quickens all other gifts and graces, and can appeal to the Great Shepherd Himself, “Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” As a remarkable instance of how the Great Shepherd’s words impressed themselves upon the Apostle’s mind, comp. 1 Peter 2:25.

Verse 18

(18) Verily, verily, I say unto thee.—This phrase is peculiar to St. John. (Comp. Note on John 1:51.) The remainder of the verse contains three pairs of sentences answering to each other:—

“Thou wast young,”. . . . “Thou shalt be old;”

“Thou girdedst thyself,”. . . . “Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee;”

“And walkedst whither thou wouldest,” . . . “And carry thee whither thou wouldest not.”

Thou wast young.—Literally, thou wast younger (than thou art now). Peter must have been at this time (comp. Matthew 8:14) in middle age.

Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee.—Do these words refer to the crucifixion of Peter? Tradition, from Tertullian downwards (Scorp. xv.; De Praescr. xxxv.), states that he was crucified, and, interpreting this prophecy by the event, asserts that they do. Tertullian himself so understood them, for he says, “Then is Peter girded by another when he is bound to the cross.”

But on the other hand, (1) the girding (with chains) would precede, not follow, the crucifixion; (2) it would be more natural to speak of another stretching forth his hands if the nailing them to the cross is intended; (3) the last clause, “carry thee whither thou wouldest not,” could not follow the stretching of the hands on the transverse beam of the cross.

It seems impossible therefore to adopt the traditional reference to crucifixion, and we must take the words, “stretch forth thy hands,” as expressing symbolically the personal surrender previous to being girded by another. To what exact form of death the context does not specify. We have thus in the second pair of sentences, as in the first and third, a complete parallelism, the stretching forth of the hands being a part of the girding by another, and the whole being in contrast to “Thou girdedst thyself.”

Verse 19

(19) This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God.—These words are a comment by the writer, and quite in St. John’s style. (Comp. John 2:21; John 6:6; John 7:39; John 12:33.)

“By what death,” or, more exactly, by what manner of death (comp. John 12:33; John 18:32), indicates generally the martyrdom of Peter as distinct from a natural death, without special reference to the crucifixion. (See Note on last verse.)

For the phrase “glorify God,” comp. John 13:31; John 17:1; and see also Philippians 1:20; 1 Peter 4:16. From its occurrence here in connection with St. Peter, it passed into the common language of the Church for the death of martyrs.

Follow me.—It may be, and the next verse makes it probable, that our Lord withdrew from the circle of the disciples, and by some movement or gesture signified to Peter that he should follow Him; but these words must have had for the Apostle a much fuller meaning. By the side of that lake he had first heard the command “Follow Me” (Matthew 4:19); when sent forth on his apostleship, he had been taught that to follow Christ meant to take up the cross (Matthew 10:38); it was his words which drew from Christ the utterance, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:23); to his question at the Last Supper came the answer, “Whither I go, thou canst not follow Me now; but thou shalt follow Me afterwards” (John 13:36); and now the command has come again with the prophecy of martyrdom, and it must have carried to his mind the thought that he was to follow the Lord in suffering and death itself, and through the dark path which He had trodden was to follow Him to the Father’s home.

Verse 20

(20) Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following.—We must suppose that St. Peter had retired with our Lord, and that St. John seeing this had followed at a distance. He had been the companion and friend of St. Peter (comp. Introduction, p. 371). More than any other—and this is made prominent here—he had entered into close communion with the Lord Himself. He was called the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (comp. John 20:2, and Introduction, p. 375); he had leaned on His breast at supper, and, at a sign from Peter, had asked who was the traitor; he may well think that for him too there was some glimpse into the future, some declaration of what his path should be; or in that mingling of act and thought, of sign and thing signified, which run all through these verses, his following may indicate that he too, though he had never dared to say so, was ready to follow wherever the Master went.

Verse 21

(21) Lord, and what shall this man do?—The motive prompting this question was probably that of loving interest in the future of his friend. It may well be that the two friends, in the sadness of the dark days through which they had passed, had talked together of what their Master’s predictions of the future meant, and had wondered what there was in store for themselves. They knew the world was to hate them as it had hated Him, and they never knew what its hatred for Him was. One of them had learnt that he was to follow his Lord in death as in life, and he now sees the other following them as they draw apart from the group, and would fain know the future of his friend as he knew his own.

Verse 22

(22) If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?—The answer must be taken as reproving the spirit which would inquire into another’s life and work, with the effect of weakening the force of its own. Here, as in all the earlier details of St. Peter’s life, his character is emotional, earnest, loving, but wanting in depth, and not without self-confidence. The words “Follow Me,” the meaning of which he has not missed, may well have led him to thoughts and questions of what that path should be, and the truth may well have sunk into the depth of his heart, there to germinate and burst forth in principle and act. But he is at once taken up with other thoughts. He is told to follow, but is ready to lead. He would know and guide his friend’s life rather than his own. To him, and to all, there comes the truth that the Father is the husbandman, and it is He who trains every branch of the vine. There is a spiritual companionship which strengthens and helps all who join in it; there is a spiritual guidance which is not without danger to the true strength of him that is led, nor yet to that of him who leads.

The word rendered “tarry” is that which we have before had for “abide” (see John 12:34, and comp. Philippians 1:25 and 1 Corinthians 15:6). It is here opposed to “Follow Me” (in the martyrdom), and means to abide in life.

The phrase, “If I will that he tarry till I come,” is one of those the meaning of which cannot be ascertained with certainty, and to which, therefore, every variety of meaning has been given. We have already seen that the Coming of the Lord was thought of in more than one sense. (Comp. especially Notes on Matthew 16:28 and Matthew 24; and see also in this Gospel, Note on John 14:3.) The interpretation which has found most support is that which takes the “coming of the Lord” to mean the destruction of Jerusalem, which St. John, and perhaps he only of the Apostles, lived to see. But the context seems to exclude this meaning, for the mistake of John 21:23 would surely have been corrected by a reference to the fact that St. John had survived, and wrote the Gospel after, the “coming of the Lord.” The interpretation which the next verse itself suggests is that our Lord made no statement, but expressed a supposition, “If I will,” “If it even be that I will;” and this both gives the exact meaning of the Greek, and corresponds with the remainder of our Lord’s answer. He is directing St. Peter to think of his own future. and not of his friend’s; and He puts a supposition which, even if it were true, would not make that friend’s life a subject for him then to think of. Had our Lord told him that St. John should remain on earth until His coming, in any sense of the word, then He would have given an answer, which He clearly declined to give.

Follow thou me.—The pronoun “thou” is strongly emphatic. “Thy brother’s life is no matter for thy care. Thy work is for thyself to follow Me.”

Verse 23

(23) Then (better, therefore) went this saying abroad among the brethren.—For the word “brethren” comp. Notes on Matthew 23:8 and Acts 9:30. As a general name for the disciples, it is not elsewhere found in the Gospels, but we have the key to it in our Lord’s own words to Mary Magdalene (John 20:17).

Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If. . . .—The mistake of the brethren arose from their not attending to the force of the conditional particle. They took as a statement what had been said as a supposition, and understood it in the then current belief that the Second Advent would come in their own generation. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:17.)

The mistake and its correction are both interesting in their bearing upon the date of the Gospel, and they furnish that kind of evidence which is perfectly natural as a growth, but which cannot possibly be made.

Verse 24

(24) This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things.—Comp. John 20:30-31. As we have there the formal close of what seems to have been the original Gospel, we have here the formal close of the epilogue. The words are, however, too wide to be limited to the epilogue, and clearly refer to all that has preceded. They identify the writer with the disciple just mentioned, i.e., the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the form of the sentence implies that he who wrote these things was still living, and bearing witness to their truth. He is still testifying to the things of which he wrote.

And we know that his testimony is true.—Our first and natural thought is that these are not the words of the writer of the Gospel, but the additional witness of persons knowing him and testifying to his writing. It is usual to explain the “we know” by referring to 1 John 5:18-20; but the plural of a letter ought not to be quoted to explain the plural in an historic document, and it is probable that the natural thought is the true one. But though the words are an addition, they are a contemporaneous addition present in every important MS. and version, and an undoubted part of the original text. We cannot tell who are the persons whose words we here read—Andrew it may be, or Philip, or some of the seventy disciples who had been witnesses of the work of Christ, or some of the Ephesian Church, as Aristion or John the Presbyter, who felt that the Apostle’s personal character gave the stamp of truth to all he said, and add here the conviction that all these words were true. (Comp. Introduction, p. 377.)

Verse 25

(25) And there are also many other things which Jesus did. . . .—The MSS. evidence for this verse is also so conclusive that almost every competent editor inserts it in his text, but it is not found in the famous Sinaitic Codex. The transference from the plural to the singular—“We know” (John 21:24), “I suppose” (in this verse)—has led to the supposition, which is in every way probable, that it is the individual testimony of an amanuensis who, from personal knowledge of the life of Christ, or from knowledge derived from the Apostle John or from others, feels that full beyond all human thought as this Gospel is, it is but a part of the greater fulness. No book could record, no words could tell, what that life was, or what things Jesus did. The disciples saw and believed, and wrote these things that we may believe, and in believing may have life in His name.

The word “Amen” is not found in the better MSS., and in no part of the written text. It is the natural prayer of some copyist, as it is the natural prayer of every devout reader that the writer’s purpose may be fulfilled.

The chief MSS. have a subscription appended to the Gospel. “According to John” (Vatican); “Gospel according to John” (Sinaitic [?], Alexandrine, Paris, Basle); “Gospel according to John is ended;” “Gospel according to Luke begins” (Cambridge).

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on John 21". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.