John 21:2. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, a word which designates a twin; and Nathanael, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples. Here are seven; the four absent ones might be Matthew, Jude, Simeon, and James. This college of apostles were men of honest trades. Let us talk no more of blood and noble birth: “the Lord hath regarded the lowly, and sent the rich empty away.” Rupert contends that Bartholomew was Nathanael, a man learned in the law.
John 21:3. And that night they caught nothing. The Lord reserved the best blessing till the morning.
John 21:5-6. Children, have ye any meat. Any bread, biscuit, or other food. Cast the net on the right, the starboard side of the ship, which is on the right hand of the man standing at the helm. The command was accompanied with a promise; ye shall find. It was the Lord of the deep that stood on the shore.
Quo minime reris gurgite pisces erit.
John 21:15-17. Feed my lambs — feed my sheep. The great and good Laurentius Valla, whom we all honour, though he speaks like the Vatican where he was secretary, has this note: Rege, et ut pastorem docet, guberna; quod superius βοσκε quasi pascua præbe quod iterum in commendandis ovibus repetitur. He instructs him as a shepherd to rule and guide, and as it were, to supply pasture, and which is again repeated in committing his flock to Peter’s care.
John 21:22. If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? A just rebut to unlawful curiosity. But the first promises of his advent referred to his coming to destroy Jerusalem, as in Matthew 16:28. “There are some standing here who shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” The same in Acts 2:20. “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come.” St. Peter did not live to see that dark day passing over his country, being martyred, as we understand, a year or two before the city was burned, but John outlived the age to tell the second and the third generation that he had seen the Lord in the flesh.
John 21:25. The world itself could not contain the books that should be written. This is a figure of speech called the hyperbolè, and is sometimes essential in painting and in oratory. The figure of a man in statuary, or in large cartoons, after elevation in a temple or hall, would look only like a boy. The artist therefore prefers a massive or colossal figure. So in the Hebrew poetry. Jehovah makes the clouds his chariots, and rides on the wings of the wind. Seas and rivers are afraid, and the mountains tremble at his presence. So also the tower of Babel, and the top of the tree in Daniel, reaching to heaven; and the ten spies were but as grasshoppers when compared with the giants. Cicero says, that the gulph of Charybdis was not equal to the gluttony of Mark Antony. Virgil represents Camilla, the virgin warrior of the Amazons, as leading a squadron of horse to battle, and in swiftness of foot outstripping the winds. Sed proelia virgo dura pati, &c. ÆNEID. 7. She
“Outstript the winds with speed upon the plain,
Flew o’er the fields, nor hurt the bearded grain;
She swept the seas, and as she skimmed along,
Her flying feet unbathed on billows hung.” DRYDEN.
The sad and interesting case of St. Peter was reserved for this place, because we here see him restored to the love of God, and commissioned to feed the flock. His disposition was open, his judgment acute, and his temper warm. His piety was honest and sincere. He left all and followed Jesus, and on account of his age and superior good sense, he seemed to take the lead of the twelve apostles. But after working miracles in the name of Christ, and seeing his glory on the mount, he seemed too much elated, too little conscious of his weakness, and less dependent on the keeping of grace.
When boasting of his willingness to die with his master, Jesus predicted his fall; for providence often humbles us after vain glory. But though Jesus foretold his fall, as is usual in prophecy, in positive words, “Thou shalt deny me thrice,” the prediction implied a condition. The sentence against Ahab, against Hezekiah, and against Nineveh was delivered in language equally positive, but in each case the conditions were concealed. Jesus said also, I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not. Peter therefore was not under any necessity to sin. — When Jesus was apprehended he was mindful of his disciples, and said, let these go their way. But Peter, instead of escaping, cut off the ear of the highpriest’s servant, and gave way to unhallowed warmth.
After this he ventured in the way of temptation; he followed Jesus afar off, entered the hall of the highpriest, and associated himself with the wicked, hoping he should pass unnoticed. There he heard the servants and officers talk after their master, and held his peace. He heard them slander, traduce, and execrate his blessed Lord, and never defended his cause. These were the defects which preseded his fall; for we seldom fall into gross sin without first giving way to lesser evils and defects, similar to those of Peter’s. Perhaps also the duties of the closet are either omitted or but superficially performed.
But before we enter on Peter’s fall, it is justice to premise that it was a sin of surprise, and not of habit. Sins of surprise are generally followed by immediate and deep repentance, and it is often better for the soul that those sins should fall under ecclesiastical censure; but sins of habit are serious indeed, and it is to be feared they are often followed with damnation. Of all evils next to hell, a habit of sinning is to be shunned and avoided. Let a man dig or beg for bread sooner than pamper his flesh with the bread of sensuality, and the riot of ungodly taverns.
Now, Peter who had boasted of dying for his Master, and had fought the multitude alone in the garden, was attacked at last on his weak side. A maid simply challenged him with being one of Christ’s disciples. Here all his boasted courage fled; here his whole soul felt the weakness of perturbation. Fearing to be put to the bar with his Master, which would have been to a faithful soul the highest laurel of glory, he replied in confusion, as though he had not understood her words. This was equivocation highly revolting to the Spirit of truth. But ah, why did he not like a cowardly soldier fly on receiving the first wound? Why did he linger in so foul a place. Satan is seldom vanquished on his own ground.
In about an hour after, another maid saw him, and said the same thing; and now he positively denied all knowledge of Jesus, simply calling him man! What, did he not know him who had preached on board his boat? Who had plucked him out of the sea, and whose glory he had so recently seen on the mount? These were sins which revolted the wicked, and made one of the company confront and confound him. Did I not, said a by-stander, see thee with him in the garden? Besides, thou art a Galilean, thy speech betrayeth thee. Peter now substituted anger for argument, and assertions for facts, averring with religious asseverations or oaths that he knew not the man. This was a great and complicated sin, a sin the more aggravated, because Jesus was now witnessing the truth: it was in fact a fall from the top to the bottom. And oh happy, thrice happy, that the hand of grace which had plucked him from the waves of the sea, now plucked him also from the mire of sin.
We next trace St. Peter’s repentance, and a repentance deeper, if possible, than the fault itself. This grace was conferred upon him by the kind regards of Jesus. He looked on Peter. Oh that expressive look! Oh the silent but piercing language of those pure and holy eyes, which Peter did not dare to meet again. Oh the grace of this silent rebuke. Jesus would not expose him to the dogs of hell. Oh kindness unutterable. Kindness in a most offending moment, kindness more than human, kindness which broke the heart of Peter. He remembered the prediction of his Master concerning the crowing of the cock, and went out, and wept bitterly.
Follow him with the eye of pity; follow him to the most retired place he could find, and there see him weep till the exhausted fountains refused their tears. Here he reviewed every act of his Master’s kindness, and every discovery of his glory to add new poignancy to his grief. Thus he wept in solitude, unpitied, and unexplored. Thus he sunk into the gloom of anguish, while his Master reposed in the tomb. Twice the sun rose on the earth, but brought him neither light nor hope. But grace and comfort dawned the brighter on the third day. Go and tell, said Jesus, my disciples, and Peter that I am risen. Tell Peter by name; otherwise, excommunicating himself for his sin, he will not receive the joy. This day the eyes of Peter and of Jesus met again, and all was made up, all was righted again. Oh wonderful and unutterable energies of grace. Yet though all was right with God, there remained a scruple, and justly too, on the minds of the ten apostles. Something would whisper, This Peter whom we thought the boldest was the first to flinch; we cannot trust him for the future, he will flinch again.
The pointed conversation addressed to Peter on the sea-shore, was therefore intended to confirm and strengthen him, and to convince the disciples of the genuineness of his restoration. Simon, son of Jonas, said Jesus, lovest thou me more than these thy brethren? Thou hast been bolder than they, and thou hast had more forgiven. Peter answered by a conscious appeal to the Lord’s omniscience, that he did indeed love; for nothing is proof of a backslider’s restoration but that love of God shed abroad in the heart, which by a reaction loves God, keeps his commandments, and is solicitous to abound in the constant love of souls. Hence Jesus said, Feed my lambs. No man should do this but he who acts from divine love, and who lives in the Spirit of the Lord. The question was repeated, and a similar answer returned, But Jesus now said, Feed my sheep. The whole flock must be fed; but the troubled in mind, the weak and afflicted lambs must be a minister’s first care. Jesus, who never falsely heals a wound, said to him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me; for he had three times denied his Master. Here Peter’s wounds all opened anew. He was grieved and pierced to the heart, and the pangs of repentance returned with all their former force. Feeling as though Jesus had doubted the sincerity of his attachment, he avowed his conscious love to Him who could not be deceived. From that day Peter and his brethren were all one in the bonds of purest love; he held on his way, and stood as a pillar in the house of God to be removed no more.
Let all men therefore, of every age and station, learn to watch. We may all be tempted, and all may sin. Christ warns us and prays for us, that our faith may never fail.
Let us also dread the snares of association with the wicked. How many professors stay and get the second, and the third glass on the market day: and yet never weep like Peter. How many hear their Master slandered, and yet hold their peace.
Let the man who falls shun that company, and shun that house, like Peter, and never enter it more. Let him never rest till he has wept bitterly, prayed fervently, and is again reconciled unto God.
When a man or minister falls by a sort of surprise, and does not continue in the habit of sin, the church should not be too severe in her censures. Peter was fully restored in less than six weeks. The period of expulsion and repentance should therefore have reformation, and the hope of restoration to favour and privilege for its object. Let hell, and not the church, be sprinkled with the tears of dire despair. It is godlike to restore, but with the caution of Jesus, Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee.
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Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on John 21". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week after Epiphany