Click here to join the effort!
The appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ after His resurrection, described in these verses, is a deeply interesting portion of the Gospel history. The circumstances attending it have always been regarded as highly allegorical and figurative, in every age of the Church. It may, however, be justly doubted whether commentators and interpreters have not gone too far in this direction. It is quite possible to spiritualize and filter away the narratives of the Gospels, until we completely lose sight of the plain meaning of words. In the present case we shall find it wise to confine ourselves to the great, simple lessons, which the passage undoubtedly contains.
We should observe, for one thing, in these verses, the poverty of the first disciples of Christ. We find them working with their own hands, in order to supply their temporal wants, and working at one of the humblest of callings,—the calling of a fisherman. Silver and gold they had none, lands and revenues they had none, and therefore they were not ashamed to return to the business to which they had, most of them, been trained. Striking is the fact, that some of the seven here named were fishing, when our Lord first called them to be Apostles, and again fishing, when He appeared to them almost the last time. We need not doubt that to the minds of Peter, James, and John, the coincidence would come home with peculiar power.
The poverty of the Apostles goes far to prove the divine origin of Christianity. These very men who toiled all night in a boat, dragging about a cold wet net, and taking nothing,—these very men who found it necessary to work hard in order that they might eat,—these very men were some of the first founders of the mighty Church of Christ, which has now overspread one-third of the globe. These were they who went forth from an obscure corner of the earth, and turned the world upside down. These were the unlearned and ignorant men, who boldly confronted the subtle systems of ancient philosophy, and silenced its advocates by the preaching of the cross. These were the men who at Ephesus, and Athens, and Rome, emptied the heathen temples of their worshipers, and turned away multitudes to a new and better faith. He that can explain these facts, except by admitting that Christianity came down from God, must be a strangely credulous man. Reason and common sense lead us to only one conclusion in the matter. Nothing can account for the rise and progress of Christianity but the direct interposition of God.
We should observe, for another thing, in these verses, the different characters of different disciples of Christ. Once more, on this deeply interesting occasion, we see Peter and John side by side in the same boat, and once more, as at the sepulcher, we see these two good men behaving in different ways. When Jesus stood on the shore, in the dim twilight of the morning, John was the first to perceive who it was, and to say, "It is the Lord;" but Peter was the first to spring into the water, and to struggle to get close to his Master. In a word, John was the first to see; but Peter was the first to act. John’s gentle loving spirit was quickest to discern; but Peter’s fiery, impulsive nature was quickest to stir and move. And yet both were believers, both were true-hearted disciples, both loved the Lord in life, and were faithful to Him unto death. But their natural temperaments were not the same.
Let us never forget the practical lesson before us. As long as we live, let us diligently use it in forming our estimate of believers. Let us not condemn others as graceless and unconverted, because they do not see the path of duty from our stand-point, or feel things exactly as we feel them. "There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:4.) The gifts of God’s children are not bestowed precisely in the same measure and degree. Some have more of one gift, and some have more of another. Some have gifts which shine more in public, and some which shine more in private. Some are more bright in a passive life, and some are more bright in an active one. Yet each and all the members of God’s family, in their own way and in their own season, bring glory to God. Martha was "careful and troubled about much serving," when Mary "sat at the feet of Jesus and heard His word." Yet there came a day at Bethany, when Mary was crushed and prostrated by overmuch sorrow, and Martha’s faith shone more brightly than her sister’s. (Luke 10:39-40; John 11:20-28.) Nevertheless both were loved by our Lord. The one thing needful is to have the grace of the Spirit, and to love Christ. Let us love all of whom this can be said, though they may not see with our eyes in everything. The Church of Christ needs servants of all kinds, and instruments of every sort; penknives as well as swords, axes as well as hammers, chisels as well as saws, Marthas as well as Marys, Peters as well as Johns. Let our ruling maxim be this, "Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity." (Ephesians 6:24.)
We should observe, lastly, in these verses, the abundant evidence which Scripture supplies of our Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Here, as in other places, we find an unanswerable proof that our Lord rose again with a real material body, and a proof seen by seven grown-up men with their own eyes, at one and the same time. We see Him sitting, talking, eating, drinking, on the shore of the lake of Galilee, and to all appearance for a considerable time. The morning sun of spring shines down on the little party. They are alone by the well-known Galilean lake, far away from the crowd and noise of Jerusalem. In the midst sits the Master, with the nail-prints in His hands,—the very Master whom they had all followed for three years, and one of them, at least, had seen hanging on the cross. They could not be deceived. Will anyone pretend to say that stronger proof could be given that Jesus rose from the dead? Can any one imagine better evidence of a fact? That Peter was convinced and satisfied we know. He says himself to Cornelius, We did "eat and drink with Him after He rose from the dead." (Acts 10:41.) Those who in modern times say they are not convinced, may as well say that they are determined not to believe any evidence at all.
Let us all thank God that we have such a cloud of witnesses to prove that our Lord rose again. The resurrection of Christ is the grand proof of Christ’s divine mission. He told the Jews they need not believe He was the Messiah, if He did not rise again the third day.—The resurrection of Christ is the topstone of the work of redemption. It proved that He finished the work He came to do, and, as our Substitute, had overcome the grave.—The resurrection of Christ is a miracle that no infidel can explain away. Men may carp and cavil at Balaam’s ass, and Jonah in the whale’s belly, if they please, but till they can prove that Christ did not rise again we need not be moved.—Above all, the resurrection of Christ is the pledge of our own. As the grave could not detain the Head, so it shall not detain the members. Well may we say with Peter, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." (1 Peter 1:3.)
The last chapter of John’s Gospel requires a few preliminary observations. Certain very objectionable theories have been propounded about it. (a) Some, as Grotius, maintain that the chapter was not written by John at all, that his Gospel ended with the last verse of the twentieth chapter, and that the twenty-first chapter is the work of another writer, perhaps one John an Ephesian presbyter! (b) Others do not go so far as this, and yet maintain that the chapter must be regarded as a postscript or appendix to the Gospel, and was probably added, as an afterthought, by John himself, some years after the rest of the Gospel. The chief ground on which these theories are built is the passage with which the twentieth chapter ends. Men tell us that the two concluding verses of that chapter were evidently intended to finish and wind up John’s narrative, and that the twenty-first chapter comes in awkwardly and abruptly.
From all these theories I entirely dissent, and repudiate them altogether. I see no proof whatever that the two last verses of the twentieth chapter were intended to be a winding up of the whole Gospel. To me they appear to be a characteristic comment of the Evangelist, such as he often makes, on the account he has given in the chapter of our Lord’s appearances to the disciples after His resurrection, and nothing more. To me it appears perfectly natural that he should go on writing, and give a further account of our Lord’s most instructive appearance at the sea of Galilee; and I see in the narrative no abruptness or awkward fitting whatever. On the contrary, I see a peculiar beauty in the selection of the matter which the twenty-first chapter contains. It seems to me a most fitting conclusion to the whole narrative of the Gospel, to tell us our Lord’s last sayings about two such Apostles as Peter and John.—Concerning Peter, it should be remembered that none of the Apostles had professed so much, and yet fallen so sadly as he had. John takes care to tell us how graciously and emphatically Jesus restores him to his commission, and specially bids him feed His Church, and foretells his end.—Concerning John, it should be remembered that he had been peculiarly mentioned, as the disciple whom Jesus loved. He meekly tells us that the only prediction about himself, if it can be called one, was that his future end was left in obscurity by his Lord. And thus he concludes his Gospel. If any one thinks that such a chapter comes in awkwardly, and is not a fitting conclusion to John’s narrative after the twentieth chapter, I cannot agree with him.
Of evidence, whether external or internal, that the theories I have referred to deserve consideration, there is a conspicuous absence. There is not the slightest proof that any trustworthy ancient writer ever regarded the last chapter of John’s Gospel, as less genuine and less inspired than the rest of the book. There is nothing in the language or style of the chapter, to create any suspicion that any other person than John composed it. Those who wish to see this subject fully investigated, are advised to study Wordsworth’s Appendix to John’s Gospel, in his Commentary.
When I add to this statement the fact that, in every age, the wisest and holiest commentators have seen in this chapter several singularly deep and interesting types of the history and position of Christ’s Church in the world, I think I shall have said enough to satisfy many readers, that they may approach the last chapter of John’s Gospel with as much reverence, and as much reasonable expectation of getting benefit from it, as any other chapter in the book.
v1.—[After these things.] This expression is indefinite. It only means that the appearance of our Lord, about to be described in this chapter, took place "after" His appearance on the eighth day following His resurrection. The time therefore, in the verse before us, is some day between the eighth and the fortieth day, when He ascended up into heaven. But what precise day we cannot tell. One thing at any rate we may be sure of. It was not the Sabbath day, or else the disciples would not have gone fishing. Even on the day following the crucifixion, Christ’s disciples "rested according to the commandment." (Luke 23:56.)
[Jesus showed Himself again...disciples.] A deep question naturally rises out of the expression before us. Where was our Lord on the days when He did not "manifest or show Himself" to His disciples? It is evident that He was not with them always, and that He only visited them at intervals. Where was He then in the mean time?—Not in heaven, we may be sure, because He had not yet ascended. But where was He on earth? I speak of course of His human nature. As God, He is everywhere. But where was He, as man? This is a mysterious matter, and one about which it is useless to speculate. Enough for us to know that our Lord was visible or invisible, and appeared suddenly in one place or another place, and assumed one form or another form, at His own will, after a manner that we cannot understand. But it is quite plain that, when we read the words in Acts, "being seen of them forty days" (Acts 1:3), we must not suppose them to mean that our Lord was seen every day. It only means that during forty days He was seen at intervals. Each appearance, we doubt not, had its own special purpose and intention.
Chrysostom remarks, "It is clear from the words "showed Himself," that Christ was not seen (after His resurrection) unless He condescended, because His body was henceforth incorruptible, and of unmixed purity."
[At the Sea of Tiberias.] Concerning this remarkable piece of water, sometimes called the Lake of Gennesaret, and sometimes the Sea of Galilee, I have already said something in my note on John 6:1. (Vol. 1, "Expository Thoughts on John," p. 329.) It is a fresh-water lake, through which the river Jordan runs, twelve and a half miles long and six and three-quarters broad, and remarkable in a geological point of view, as being six hundred and fifty-five feet below the level of the Mediterranean Sea. [Footnote: I give the above measurements from Tristram’s "Topography of the Holy Land," as I believe they are more trustworthy than those which I gave in the first volume of this work.] In a theological point of view it must always be most interesting to a Christian, because some of our Lord’s mightiest miracles were wrought on it, or close to it. Here our Lord walked on the waters, and came to the disciples toiling in rowing. Here He stilled the wind and waves with a word. Here He granted to four of His Apostles a miraculous draught of fishes. Here He provided payment of the tribute-money, out of the mouth of a fish which He commanded Peter to catch. On the banks of this lake He fed a multitude with a few loaves and fishes. On a high ground overhanging this lake He cast out the legion of devils, and allowed them to drive 2,000 swine into the sea. In the towns upon this lake, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, He did some of His mightiest works. Sitting in a boat on this lake, He delivered the parable of the Sower. In short, of all the districts in which our Lord preached and wrought miracles, there was none which saw and heard so much as the district round "the Sea of Tiberias."
Can we doubt, when we remember all this, that our Lord had a deep purpose and meaning, in appearing to His disciples at the Sea of Tiberias? Can we doubt that He meant to remind them of all they had seen in former days of his wisdom, love, and power, by the side of these well-known waters? He knew well the influence which scenery and places exercise over the mind of man. He would recall to the memory of His disciples all that they had witnessed in the early days of His ministry. Above all He would stir the hearts of Peter and James and John, by saying some of His last things to them, at the very place where He had first called them to leave their boats and nets, to follow Him, and to become fishers of men. Where He had begun with them, there He would have one of His last interviews with them, before leaving the world.
The exact spot where our Lord appeared at the Sea of Tiberias, is of course unknown. But when we remember that Bethsaida, at the north end of the lake, was "the city of Andrew and Peter," (John 1:44), we may safely conjecture that the scene of this chapter was somewhere near Bethsaida. The boat in which Peter went fishing would most probably either be his own boat, or the property of some relative or friend in his native city.
[And on this wise shewed He Himself.] This is a somewhat curious sentence. It does not, I think, only mean "The manner of His appearance was as follows." I suspect that it was inserted emphatically, in order to direct our special attention to all the little details of the occurrence, and to remind us that even the minutest parts of it have a deep spiritual meaning.
v2.—[There were together Simon Peter, etc.] This verse contains the names of the seven witnesses, before whom the remarkable appearance of Christ, about to be described, took place. Seven, we may remember, is the number of perfection, and the evidence of seven witnesses was regarded as the most complete evidence that could be given. Two of the seven, we shall observe, are not named, and we are left entirely to conjecture who these two were. Most commentators think they must have been Andrew and Philip,—Andrew because he was Peter’s brother, and Philip because he was an inhabitant of Bethsaida on the Lake. But we really do not know, and it is useless to guess.
Why these seven alone, out of the eleven, were here, we are not told. But we need not doubt there was good reason. All the company of the Apostles, we may believe, went into Galilee when the passover feast was over, according to our Lord’s command, and probably very soon after His appearance for the benefit of Thomas. But where Matthew, Simon, James the less, and Jude, were, on the present occasion, we do not know.
It is worth noting that this is the only place in John’s Gospel, where he mentions the name of his own father, Zebedee.
Why these seven disciples in particular were together is worth inquiry. The presence of Simon Peter, as he lived in Galilee, and had a special message from our Lord that He was going into Galilee, we can understand. Thomas, once convinced that Jesus had risen, would very likely take care to stick close to Peter and John. Nathaniel lived at Cana in Galilee, and was probably Bartholomew. Augustine, however, doubts this. The two sons of Zebedee were Simon’s partners, and are always found together with him on great occasions.
The message of our Lord about Galilee, we must remember, was, "Tell my brethren that they go into Galilee: there shall they see Me." (Matthew 28:10.) These were our Lord’s own words.—The angel also said to the women, "He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see Him." (Matthew 28:7.) We might reasonably expect to find the Apostles in Galilee after this.
On Thomas being one of the party, Henry remarks, "Thomas is named next to Peter, as if he now kept closer to the meetings of the Apostles than ever. It is well if losses by our neglect make us more careful afterwards not to let opportunities slip."
v3.—[Simon Peter saith unto them, etc.] Some worthy commentators have presumed to find fault with Peter for going a fishing. They say that he showed a disposition to return to the world, and to follow his worldly calling once more. From this view I entirely dissent. I see no harm whatever in Peter’s conduct on this occasion. He and his companions were poor men, and must needs work in order to provide for their subsistence. There was nothing wrong in the act of fishing, and it was only natural to take up the business with which they were most familiar. The great business of going out as our Lord’s messengers, to preach the Gospel, was not to begin until His ascension, and in the interval it was better to follow an honest calling than to be idle. Neither in Peter’s proposal, nor in the simple frank consent of his companions, can I detect a jot of proof that anything wrong was done. Idleness does Christians far more injury than work. Among the Jews every man, whatever his rank or position might be, was required to learn a worldly calling.
Chrysostom remarks, "Since neither Christ was with them continually, nor was the Spirit yet given, nor they at that time entrusted with anything, having nothing to do, they went after their trade."
Augustine observes, "The Apostles were not forbidden to seek their necessary subsistence by the exercise of their craft, a lawful and permitted one, if at any time they had no other means of subsistence." He also remarks that they were no more to blame than Paul was, when he wrought with his own hands as a tentmaker. (Acts 18:3.)
Calvin remarks, "Peter had not yet been enjoined to appear in public, for the discharge of his office of teaching, but had only been reminded of his future calling (John 20:21-23), that he and others might understand that they had not in vain been chosen from the beginning. Meanwhile, they were to do what they were accustomed to do, and what belonged to men in private life."
Ferus remarks that a lawful business is not sinful. If Matthew had gone back to a publican’s life it would have been a very different thing from Peter going to fish.
Stier remarks that this going to fish was only carrying out our Lord’s words. "But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one." (Luke 22:36.)
The expression "a boat" should have been translated "the boat." Does not the use of the article show that this was that well-known boat, which our Lord and His disciples had always used, when they went on the lake?
In the fact that "they caught nothing that night," there is nothing that would surprise a fisherman. Of all callings by which men earn their living none is more uncertain than that of a fisherman. (Luke 5:5.) "Night" is the time when most fish are caught, as all who are familiar with fishing know. That there was probably a deep typical meaning in all this, I shall hope to show when I reach the end of the passage. I think it better to reserve all remarks upon that point, until I can present them to the reader in one continuous form.—For the present, both here and throughout the passage, I shall simply comment on the facts as facts.
Burgon remarks, "One thing is certain, and the circumstance is full of interest. It must have been their necessities which sent forth the Apostles on this lowly errand of fishing. And yet these were they on whom the Church was to be built! These seven were among the names written on the twelve foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem."
Burgon also thinks that the words "went forth," point to the Apostles sitting together indoors, in the evening, and very likely on a Sabbath evening.
v4.—[But when the morning...come.] This probably means, "When the day began to break, so that an object at a little distance could be seen." As soon as there was enough light, through the grey dawn, the party in the boat saw the figure of a person on the shore. There is little or no twilight in countries so far south as Palestine. Night goes, and day follows, much more suddenly than with us.
[Jesus stood on the shore.] This reads like a sudden and instantaneous appearance, like that which took place when our Lord appeared the first time in the midst of the disciples. Just in the same manner, it seems to me, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, Jesus appeared standing on the shore of the lake. The risen body of our Lord, we must remember, appeared or disappeared,—was present or absent, according to His will, in a moment of time.
Grotius remarks that our Lord never went on the sea after His resurrection. (Comp. Revelation 21:1.) "There was no more sea."
[But the disciples knew not...was Jesus.] The disciples did not recognize our Lord, in my opinion, because He appeared in another form, just as He appeared to the two who were journeying to Emmaus. I reject entirely the idea that the dim light of the early morning was the reason why they did not know Him. It is evident to me that our Lord’s risen body did not, on any occasion, after He rose again, for some mysterious reason, look exactly like the body He had before His crucifixion. It was the same, and yet not the same, if I may so speak. Will it not be so with our own bodies when we rise again at the last day? We shall be the same, and yet not the same.
It is noteworthy that the Greek words here used, were exactly those that were used about Mary Magdalene, when she thought the gardener spoke to her, and "knew not that it was Jesus." (John 20:14.)
v5.—[Then Jesus saith unto them, etc.] We cannot suppose for a moment, that our Lord did not know whether the disciples had any meat, when He asked the question of this verse. It is clear to me that He asked it in order to raise attention in the minds of the disciples, and to put them at ease in conversing with them. He appeared as a stranger, who was graciously pleased to say something familiar and friendly. Does it not remind us of the way in which He began conversation with the woman of Samaria, and broke the ice, as it were, between Him and her? "Give Me to drink," He said. (John 4:7.) Nothing sets people so much at ease, when they meet as strangers, as courteous inquiries about the simple matters of daily life.
The word "meat" is a striking example of the change which comes over the meaning of English words in the course of time. It means literally "anything eatable."—Two centuries ago the word "meat" was a translation which no Englishman would misunderstand. Now, unfortunately, it is a word confined entirely to "flesh." No translation can ever be perfect. All require occasional reverent revision.
The context seems to me to show that our Lord’s inquiry was specially meant to apply to the success of the disciples in fishing. "Have ye caught anything that can be eaten?" The disciples evidently took it in this sense.
It is worth noticing that our Lord must have spoken in a very loud voice, when He addressed His disciples in this verse. We are distinctly told that the boat was two hundred cubits, at least one hundred yards, from land, in the eighth verse, and there is nothing to show that the disciples put out further into the lake, when our Lord told them to cast in their net again. I mention this, because some, as Gerhard, Henry, and Besser, think that there was something curt, rough, and rather abrupt in the answer of the disciples. But they seem to forget that a conversation carried on over a hundred yards of water, could only be carried on in very brief and abrupt phrases.
The word "children" in this verse, rendered "sirs" in the margin, is to my mind rightly rendered in the text. It is a familiar, friendly mode of address, like our English "boys" or "lads," not necessarily implying great youth in the persons addressed.
v6.—[And He said...cast...right side...find.] Our Lord now goes a step further in order to discover Himself to His disciples. He gives a command or counsel to cast their net, which they had apparently hauled into the boat, once more into the water, and upon the right side of the ship. Such advice, and such a confident promise of success from a stranger, could hardly fail to strike the disciples. Would it not raise in the quick mind of John a suspicion, that this was no common stranger who spoke? Would not he and Peter both remember a former occasion, when they "toiled all the night and took nothing," and, yet at the command of their Master, had let down their nets again with marvellous success? I think they would.
To me it seems highly probable that the disciples had finished their night’s work, had hauled up their net into the boat, and were rowing toward home, tired of their profitless toil, when our Lord appeared and spoke to them.
[They cast, therefore, and now...fishes.] In the fact that the disciples found a multitude of fishes in their net the moment they acted on our Lord’s advice, there is, in one point of view, nothing extraordinary. Many fish swim in shoals, and it is quite a matter of common experience among fishermen, that one boat may take nothing, while a few yards off another boat has an immense haul. The miracle consisted in the perfect knowledge that our Lord possessed, as to where the fish were, and on which side of the boat to cast the net. This alone proved that He was omniscient.
Whether it is likely that seven tired fishermen, after working all night, and hawling up their net and stowing it away, would stop on their way home at the advice of a stranger, and cast in their net once more in broad daylight, is a point which admits of question. My own impression is that a secret power and influence went with our Lord’s words, and, without knowing why, the seven disciples felt irresistibly constrained to do what the mysterious stranger advised.
v7.—[Therefore that disciple...the Lord.] The first to recognise Jesus was the disciple who first believed the resurrection,—the beloved disciple John, who as usual does not give his own name. With characteristic quickness and sensitiveness, he at once felt convinced that the mysterious stranger must be his beloved Master. Love is always keen-sighted. It suddenly flashed across his mind that the advice given by the stranger, and the result of following the advice, had been precisely the same three years before. The stranger must surely know what happened then, and must have been present! The stranger must be the Lord Himself! Thoughts such as these most probably passed through his mind far quicker then we can describe them; and at once he said to his friend Peter, who was most likely the leading man in the boat, "It is the Lord."
Rollock thinks it was the wonderful draught of fishes that made John know it was the Lord. "He saw in it not only miraculous power, but wonderful bountifulness and liberality," just like His Divine Master.
[Now when Simon Peter heard, etc.] The conduct of the Apostle Peter, here described, is eminently characteristic of the man. It is just what might have been expected from the disciple who went out of the ship to walk on the water on a former occasion, and drew his sword, and began to smite, when our Lord was surrounded by His enemies. Fervent, warm-hearted, impulsive, impetuous, affectionate, thinking nothing of consequences, acting on the spur of present feeling, he at once plunges into the sea, when he hears that his Lord is on the shore, and struggles to get close to Him. Whatever we may think of his hasty behaviour, we must all admire his love. Zeal for Christ deserves respect, even when it leads a man into hasty action. Enthusiasm, even when it runs to seed, is better than indifference.
We should note how Peter rushed into action, the very moment that he "heard" the words, "It is the Lord." He did not wait to see, like Thomas on another occasion, but was satisfied with a word from his brother John. A single spark is enough to kindle tinder, and a single word is enough to stir a heart, when its affections are deeply concerned.
The Greek word which is rendered "fisher’s coat," is only found here in the New Testament. Theophylact says it was the upper garment of a Syrian fisherman. The context seems to show that it was a sort of garment which a fisherman laid aside, when in the very act of handling his nets.
When we read that Peter was "naked," I see no reason why we should suppose that he was entirely without clothes. I think the meaning is, that he was comparatively naked, having laid aside all his looser garments, as a fisherman in that hot climate naturally would, in order to be able to handle wet nets and fish with greater convenience. And when we read that he girt around him his fisher’s coat, I think it simply means that he took up the loose outward garment that he wore when he went on the lake to fish, and girded it tightly round his waist before jumping into the sea.
When we read that Peter "cast himself into the sea," I see no reason for supposing that he swam to land. In order to swim it is not likely that he would put on more clothes!—I rather think that the water where he and his companions were was shallow, and that he waded to land. He knew that his large fishing-boat drew too much water to get near shore, and he was too impatient to wait for the slow process of launching the little boat, and coming ashore in it. I cannot doubt, as he jumped into the water, that he remembered going out of the same ship on a former occasion, and walking on the water "to go to Jesus."
It is only fair to say that Chrysostom thinks that Peter swam. On the other hand Brentius, Gerhard, and Archbishop Whately (see Bengel’s "Gnomon," English translation), think that he walked on the water, in a miraculous manner, as on the former occasion!
v8.—[And the other disciples came, etc.] Here we see, placed in strong contrast with Peter’s action, the way in which the six remaining Apostles came to land. They came in the boat ("a little ship" is a defective translation), which means the skiff or punt which most large fishing vessels have with them. The water was evidently too shallow for the large fishing vessel to get near shore. And they came slowly, we may be sure, because, for two hundred cubits, or one hundred yards, they had to drag behind their little boat a net full of fish. How heavy a drag such a net makes on a little boat’s progress through the water, those only know who have had experience.
It is noteworthy that we are not told that Peter got to shore at all sooner than his brethren. This point is, singularly enough, passed over in silence. But wading through deep water is slow work, and the fact that Peter put his coat on before plunging into the sea, is, to my own mind, strong indirect proof that he did not swim, but wade.
It is noteworthy that Peter forgot fish, and net, and boat, and everything else, in his anxiety to reach Christ. It was like the Samaritan woman who "left her waterpot." (John 4:28.)
v9.—[As soon then...fire...coals...fish...bread.] I cannot doubt that this verse records a miracle. Our blessed Lord made preparation for the bodily wants of His wearied disciples, and mercifully "furnished a table for them in the wilderness." (Psalms 78:19.) The burning fire, the fish lying on it, the bread, were all the creation of Him who had but to will a thing and it was done. Ever thoughtful, ever compassionate, our Lord thought good at this appearing, to show His poor toiling disciples that He cared for their bodies as well as their souls, and remembered that they were men. Who can tell but this miracle took place near the very spot where He had formerly fed five thousand men with a little bread and fish? I cannot doubt that the bread and fish thus miraculously created would remind the Apostles of "loaves and fishes" multiplied. Once more they saw the same miraculous food, bread and fish, provided by the same Almighty power of their Lord.
The Greek word rendered "fire of coals," is only found in two places in the New Testament, here and in the account of the scene in the High Priest’s hall at our blessed Lord’s examination before Annas. (John 18:18.) It was a "fire of coals" at which the servants of the High Priest warmed themselves, and before which the Apostle Peter denied his Lord. Some think that our Lord had a special object in view by having a "fire of coals" in this place, and that was to remind Peter of his fall. But perhaps the idea is far-fetched.
Stier argues strongly, but needlessly in my judgment, that this provision of bread and fish was made by the angels. In any case it was a miracle, and an act of creation.
Quesnel observes, "Here are miracles upon miracles. The same power which filled the net with fishes in the midst of the sea, created others upon land, to show His disciples that it was not from want of power to give them fish that Christ asked for some, and ordered them to fish for them."
v10.—[Jesus saith unto them, Bring, etc.] In this verse our Lord calls on the disciples to bring proof that, in casting the net at His command, they had not laboured in vain. It was the second saying that He spoke, we must remember, on this occasion. The first saying was, "Cast the net on the right side, and ye shall find." The second saying was, "Bring up the fish which ye have now caught," with a strong emphasis on the word "now." I believe our Lord’s object was to show the disciples that the secret of success was to work at His command, and to act with implicit obedience to His word. It is as though He said, "Draw up the net; and see for yourselves how profitable it is to do what I tell you." Fish for food they did not want now, for that was provided for them. Proof of the power of Christ’s blessing, and the importance of working under Him was the lesson to be taught, and as they drew up the net they would learn it.
v11.—[Simon Peter went up, etc.] I see no reason for supposing, in this verse, that Peter alone drew up the net. I think it reasonable to suppose that he is named as leader of the party, and captain of the boat. But I believe that all the others helped him. The "going up" must mean that Peter went on board the little boat.
Once more we see two miracles recorded in this verse. One miracle was the singularly large catch of fish which the net contained, a quantity evidently exceeding what was generally taken at one haul. The other miracle was the singular fact, that, in spite of this large quantity of fish, the net was "not broken." Miracle on miracle passed under the eyes of the astonished disciples.—Can we doubt that their minds recalled the miraculous draught of fishes on a former occasion, when "their net brake," and our Lord’s words, "Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men;" and also his original saying, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men"? And can we doubt that some of them remembered the parable of the Kingdom of Heaven being like to "a net cast into the sea," and finally drawn to shore? (Luke 5:10. Matthew 4:19; Matthew 13:47.)
Concerning the number one hundred and fifty-three, we know nothing, and it is useless to speculate. Some have thought that it refers to the languages, and some to the tribes or nations of the world,—each, it is alleged, about one hundred and fifty in number. But this is only guess-work. Yet it is worth remembering, that the strangers whom Solomon employed in building the first temple were precisely one hundred and fifty-three thousand and six hundred. Let the remark be taken for what it is worth. (2 Chronicles 2:17.)
Pearce calls attention to a remark of Jerome, that Oppian, a Greek poet of Cilicia, in the second century, who wrote on fishing, "has given an account of the number of fishes known to him in his time, being exactly one hundred and fifty-three." This, at any rate, is curious.
Scott makes the remark, that "this draught of fishes might be sold for a considerable sum of money, which the Apostles would have need of, on their return to Jerusalem before the day of Pentecost." There may be something in the idea.
v12.—[Jesus saith...Come and dine.] The object of this gracious invitation seems to me to have been two-fold. It was meant partly to show our Lord’s tender compassion for the weary bodies of His disciples. Though risen, He knew and felt for their wants, and would supply food for them when hungry and fatigued. It was meant partly to show that, though risen from the dead, with a glorified body, He would be on the same loving terms of familiarity and kindness as before with His disciples. They need not be frightened at Him. He had not forgotten them. He did not mean to keep them at distance. He was still one who would eat and drink with them, as a man eateth and drinketh with his friends. It is written, "I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with Me" (Revelation 3:20.) An old divine says, "Christ loveth to deal familiarly with men."
The Greek word, rendered "dine," does not necessarily mean a mid-day meal. Parkhurst shows, on the contrary, from Xenophon, that it may mean a morning repast. As things are in England now, the translation is a peculiarly unfortunate one. Two or three centuries ago, when people dined at eleven o’clock, the unfitness of it would not have been so remarkable. The meaning evidently is, "Come and partake of a morning meal."
[And none...durst ask...the Lord.] These words describe the state of mind in which the disciples were at this moment. They all felt convinced and satisfied that the Person before them was the Lord. They felt no doubt; and no one was the least disposed to say, "Who art thou?" Nevertheless they all felt awed and solemnized by His presence. A deep sense of the mysterious nature of their Lord, in consequence of His resurrection, filled their minds with an indefinable sensation of mingled embarrassment, reverence, and fear. Surely we can all understand this! Even when Joseph spoke lovingly to his brethren, and revealed himself to them, they were "troubled at his presence." (Genesis 45:3.) To sit, and eat, and drink, in the company with one who had risen from the dead, and appeared and disappeared after a supernatural manner, was no light thing. Who can wonder that they felt awed?
Chrysostom says, "Seeing that His form was altered, and full of awfulness, they were amazed, and desired to ask something concerning it. But fear, and their knowledge that He was not some other but the same, checked the inquiry; and they only ate what He, with greater exertion of power than before, created for them. For here Jesus no more looked up to heaven, nor performed those human acts, showing that those also which He did formerly were done by way of condescension."
v13.—[Jesus then cometh and taketh bread, etc.] This verse describes what took place at this meal, or as our Bible calls it, this dinner. Our Lord came forward, as the host and entertainer of the seven astonished disciples, and gave them bread and fish, as He had doubtless often done on former occasions, and perhaps at the same place. He doubtless meant to give the disciples one more plain proof that He had risen from the dead. Alone by the Sea of Galilee, in the open air, far from the fear of interruption, in broad daylight, He eats and drinks at a social meal. Could these seven men ever doubt from that day, if they had doubted before, that Jesus rose from the dead? He meant, furthermore, to encourage them to continue looking to Him, as they had done before, as a loving, familiar, sympathizing friend. Though risen, He would have them see practical proof that He could be touched with the feeling of their infirmities, and cared for their bodies as well as their souls. He meant, not least, to remind them of His great miracle of feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fishes. He would freshen their memory of that wondrous miracle, and show them that He would continue doing for them what He had formerly done for those who followed Him in the wilderness.
Chrysostom here remarks, that we are not directly told that Jesus ate with the disciples, but that it is probable from Luke’s words in Acts 10:41, that He did. "How," he remarks, "it is not ours to say. These things came to pass in too strange a manner. His nature did not even need food. It was an act of condescension in proof of the resurrection." (See Genesis 18:8.)
v14.—[This is now the third time, etc.] In this verse John winds up the wonderful story he has just told, by one of his peculiar parenthetical comments. Concerning the meaning of the expression "third time," there has been, in my judgment, much needless dispute. No doubt it is perfectly true that this was not literally the third time that our Lord was seen by any one after His resurrection. On the contrary, we know of at least six different appearances before this one: viz., (1) to Mary Magdalene, (2) to Joanna and other women, (3) to Simon Peter, (4) to two disciples going to Emmaus, (5) to ten Apostles together, (6) to the eleven, for the special benefit of Thomas.—But it is no less true that this is strictly and literally the third time that Jesus appeared to any number of the disciples gathered together.—And it is also the third day, as Augustine remarks, that our Lord was pleased to appear at all. The first five appearances were all on the very same day when He rose from the dead. The sixth was a week afterwards, when He appeared to rebuke the unbelief of Thomas. And the appearance recorded in this chapter, though the seventh in number, took place on the third day only, that any one on earth saw Him after He rose.
The question now remains to be considered. Has the narrative contained in these fourteen verses any deep spiritual and allegorical meaning? Were we intended to read the passage simply as a description of one of our Lord’s appearances after His resurrection, and an account of one of His miracles? Or is the narrative a typical one? Is the passage intended to convey, under figures and symbols, great prophetical truths concerning the work of the ministry, and the history of the Church in every age, until the Lord comes? The question is a serious one, and demands serious consideration.
(a) On the one hand, there is undeniable danger in the habit of seeking spiritual and allegorical meanings in the plain historical facts of God’s Word. We may go so far in this direction, that, like Origen, and too often Augustine, we may lose sight of the primary simple meaning of Scripture, and turn the Bible into a mere book of riddles, which is useless to any common man, and useful only to those who have very fertile and fanciful imaginations. In fact, if we are always extracting figurative meanings out of Scripture, we may destroy the usefulness of the Book altogether. There must be some limit to the system of figurative interpretation. As a rule, I shrink intuitively from putting any sense on God’s Word, which is not the obvious and plain sense of its language. Hooker’s words are weighty and wise: "When a literal construction of a text will stand, that which is furthest from the letter is commonly the worst."
(b) On the other hand, it is impossible to deny that all Christ’s miracles were meant, more or less, to teach great spiritual truths, under allegories and figures; and the passage before us is a miracle. In addition to this, we must remember that the occasion of the miracle before us was a peculiarly solemn one,—that the Apostles needed certain great truths to be impressed on their attention with peculiar force, by facts as well as by words,—and that, on the eve of His ascension into heaven, our Lord would be exceedingly likely to remind them of their duty, and their position as ministers, by things under their eyes as well as by instruction in their ears. Finally let us try to put ourselves in the position of the seven Apostles on the occasion before us, and try to imagine what they thought and felt about the incidents of this remarkable morning. It is very hard to imagine that they saw nothing but a simple miracle in all that happened. I cannot think so.—I think their hearts must have burned within them, and old spiritual truths, which they had heard before, must have revived in their minds with fresh power, and been written on their souls as with the point of a diamond, never to be effaced.
On the whole, then, I cannot avoid the conclusion, that the familiar verses before us probably contain, under symbolical facts, great spiritual truths. I think we are fairly justified in regarding the passage as a great parable, or vision, or allegory, intended to convey to the Church of Christ lessons for all time. And I am strengthened in this conclusion by the remarkable fact, that almost all commentators, of every school and in every age, have taken this view of the passage. Even Grotius, cold and rationalistic as his tone of exposition too frequently is, puts a figurative sense on several circumstances of the passage. Other expositors, of a more figurative and imaginative turn of mind, go into heights and depths, where I cannot pretend to follow them. I shall content myself with pointing out the more obvious spiritual lessons which I think the passage was probably meant to convey.
(a) I think that Christ’s remarkable appearance to the disciples, when they were in the act of fishing, was meant to remind them and the whole Church of the primary duty of ministers. They were doing work which was strikingly emblematic of their calling. They were to be "fishers of men."
(b) I think the want of success in catching fish which the disciples had, until the Lord appeared, was meant to teach that without Christ’s presence and blessing ministers can do nothing.
(c) I think the marvellous success which attended the cast of the net, when Christ gave the command, was meant to teach that, when Christ is pleased to give success to ministers, nothing can prevent souls being brought into the Gospel net, converted and saved.
(d) I think the drawing of the net to shore at last, was meant to remind the disciples and all ministers, of what will happen when the Lord comes again. The work of the Church will be completed, and the reckoning of results will take place.
(e) I think the dinner prepared and provided for the disciples, when the net was drawn to the shore, was meant to remind ministers that there will be the great "marriage supper of the Lamb" at last, when Christ Himself shall welcome His faithful servants and ministers, and "come forth and serve them." (Luke 12:37.)
(f) I think, beside this, that the respective positions of the disciples and Christ, when they first saw Him, may possibly be intended to represent the respective positions of Christ and His people during this dispensation. They were on the water of the sea. He was looking at them from the land. Just so Christ is in heaven looking at us, and we are voyaging over the troublous waters of this world.
(g) Finally, I think that our Lord’s sudden appearing on shore, when the morning broke, may possibly represent our Lord’s second advent. "The night is far spent, and the day is at hand." When the morning dawns, Christ will appear.
With these conjectures I leave the passage. They may not commend themselves to some readers. I only say that they appear to me to deserve consideration and reflection.
These verses describe a remarkable conversation between our Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostle Peter. To the careful Bible reader, who remembers the Apostle’s thrice-repeated denial of Christ, the passage cannot fail to be a deeply interesting portion of Scripture. Well would it be for the Church, if all "after-dinner" conversations among Christians were as useful and edifying as this.
We should notice first, in these verses, Christ’s question to Peter: "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?"—Three times we find the same inquiry made. It seems most probable that this three-fold repetition was meant to remind the Apostle of his own thrice-repeated denial. Once we find a remarkable addition to the inquiry: "Lovest thou Me more than these?" It is a reasonable supposition that those three words "more than these," were meant to remind Peter of his over-confident assertion: "Though all men deny Thee, yet will not I."—It is just as if our Lord would say, "Wilt thou now exalt thyself above others? Hast thou yet learned thine own weakness?"
"Lovest thou Me" may seem at first sight a simple question. In one sense it is so. Even a child can understand love, and can say whether he loves another or not. Yet "Lovest thou Me" is, in reality, a very searching question. We may know much, and do much, and profess much, and talk much, and work much, and give much, and go through much, and make much show in our religion, and yet be dead before God, from want of love, and at last go down to the pit. Do we love Christ? That is the great question. Without this there is no vitality about our Christianity. We are no better than painted wax figures, lifeless stuffed beasts in a museum, sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. There is no life where there is no love.
Let us take heed that there is some feeling in our religion. Knowledge, orthodoxy, correct views, regular use of forms, a respectable moral life,—all these do not make up a true Christian. There must be some personal feeling towards Christ. Feeling alone, no doubt, is a poor useless thing, and may be here to-day and gone to-morrow. But the entire absence of feeling is a very bad symptom, and speaks ill for the state of a man’s soul. The men and women to whom Paul wrote his Epistles had feelings, and were not ashamed of them. There was One in heaven whom they loved, and that One was Jesus the Son of God. Let us strive to be like them, and to have some real feeling in our Christianity, if we hope to share their reward.
We should notice, secondly, in these verses, Peter’s answer to Christ’s question. Three times we find the Apostle saying, "Thou knowest that I love Thee." Once we are told that he said, "Thou knowest all things." Once we have the touching remark made, that he was "grieved to be asked the third time." We need not doubt that our Lord, like a skillful physician, stirred up this grief intentionally. He intended to prick the Apostle’s conscience, and to teach him a solemn lesson. If it was grievous to the disciple to be questioned, how much more grievous must it have been to the Master to be denied!
The answer that the humbled Apostle gave, is the one account that the true servant of Christ in every age can give of his religion. Such an one may be weak, and fearful, and ignorant, and unstable, and failing in many things, but at any rate he is real and sincere. Ask him whether he is converted, whether he is a believer, whether he has grace, whether he is justified, whether he is sanctified, whether he is elect, whether he is a child of God,—ask him any one of these questions and he may perhaps reply that he really does not know!—But ask him whether he loves Christ, and he will reply, "I do." He may add that he does not love Him as much as he ought to do; but he will not say that he does not love Him at all. The rule will be found true with very few exceptions. Wherever there is true grace, there will be a consciousness of love towards Christ.
What, after all, is the great secret of loving Christ? It is an inward sense of having received from Him pardon and forgiveness of sins. Those love much who feel much forgiven. He that has come to Christ by faith with his sins, and tasted the blessedness of free and full absolution, he is the man whose heart will be full of love towards his Savior. The more we realize that Christ has suffered for us, and paid our debt to God, and that we are washed and justified through His blood, the more we shall love Him for having loved us, and given Himself for us. Our knowledge of doctrines may be defective. Our ability to defend our views in argument may be small. But we cannot be prevented feeling. And our feeling will be like that of the Apostle Peter: "Thou, Lord, who knowest all things, Thou knowest my heart; and Thou knowest that I love Thee."
We should notice, lastly, in these verses, Christ’s command to Peter. Three times we find Him saying, "Feed" my flock: once, "Feed my lambs;" and twice, my "sheep." Can we doubt for a moment that this thrice-repeated charge was full of deep meaning? It was meant to commission Peter once more to do the work of an Apostle, notwithstanding his recent fall. But this was only a small part of the meaning. It was meant to teach Peter and the whole Church the mighty lesson, that usefulness to others is the grand test of love, and working for Christ the great proof of really loving Christ. It is not loud talk and high profession; it is not even impetuous, spasmodic zeal, and readiness to draw the sword and fight,—it is steady, patient, laborious effort to do good to Christ’s sheep scattered throughout this sinful world, which is the best evidence of being a true-hearted disciple. This is the real secret of Christian greatness. It is written in another place, "Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister." (Matthew 20:26-28.)
For ever let the parting charge of our blessed Master abide in our consciences, and come up in the practice of our daily lives. It is not for nothing, we may be sure, that we find these things recorded for our learning, just before He left the world. Let us aim at a loving, doing, useful, hard-working, unselfish, kind, unpretentious religion. Let it be our daily desire to think of others, care for others, do good to others, and to lessen the sorrow, and increase the joy of this sinful world. This is to realize the great principle which our Lord’s command to Peter was intended to teach. So living, and so laboring to order our ways, we shall find it abundantly true, that "it is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35.)
v15.—[So when they had dined.] In the verses we now begin, we pass away from the region of allegory, parable, symbol, miracle, and vision, to a plain, unmistakable conversation between our Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostle Peter. It is a conversation of a deeply interesting character, of which every letter deserves to be written in gold. He that supposes that any "John," except John the Apostle, could have written these three verses, gives little evidence of possessing a sound judgment.
It is noteworthy that our Lord does not begin His conversation till the social meal was over. Trifling as this circumstance may seem, it deserves attention and carries a lesson. Nothing was so likely to set the Apostles at ease, and to prepare them to receive any word that fell from their Lord’s lips with love and affection, as to deal familiarly and intimately with them, and let them "eat and drink" in His company.
[Jesus saith to Simon Peter.] The object of our Lord in addressing Simon Peter in these verses should be carefully remembered, and not misunderstood. That there was a distinct object in singling him out from the seven disciples sitting round one Lord, and specially speaking to him, I cannot doubt. But what was that object? This question can only be answered by considering the peculiar character of Peter, and the peculiar circumstances of his history during the last day of our Lord’s ministry, before the crucifixion. None had made so high a profession. None had spoken so confidently of his own strength. None had shown such instability in the hour of trial. None had fallen so sadly, by denying his Master three times. Remembering all this, I believe that our Lord had a special object in addressing Peter on this occasion; and I see a special wisdom in the address and conversation being recorded, as taking place before six witnesses.
(a) I believe our Lord’s first object was to remind Peter of his sad fall, through over-confidence, and want of watchfulness and prayer. He would have him know that, though raised, pardoned, and forgiven, he must never forget what had happened. Three times he had denied his Master. Three times he must be publicly asked whether he loved his Master. Hengstenberg strongly holds that Peter’s fall was not at all in our Lord’s mind in this remarkable conversation. But I cannot agree with him.
(b) I believe our Lord’s second object was, as Cyril remarks, to restore Peter to his full position as a trusted Apostle and minister, in the presence of six witnesses. The thought might possibly come across the minds of some Christians, in future days, that Peter forfeited his claim to be an Apostle and leader of the Church, by his thrice repeated denial of his Master. Our Lord in mercy guards against this possibility, by publicly commissioning Peter once more to do the work of a pastor in the Church.
(c) I believe our Lord’s third object was to teach Peter what should be the primary aim of an Apostle and minister. The true qualification for the ministerial office, he must learn, was not high profession of more courage and zeal than others, not loud talk, or even readiness to fight; but loving, patient usefulness to the souls of others, and diligent care for the sheep of Christ’s flock.
Calvin remarks, "The Evangelist now relates in what manner Peter was restored to that rank of honour from which he had fallen. The treacherous denial, which has been formerly described, had undoubtedly rendered him unworthy of the apostleship; for how could he be capable of instructing others in the faith, who had basely revolted from it? He had been made an Apostle, but it was along with Judas; and from the time that he acted the part of a coward and traitor, he had been deprived of the honour of apostleship. Now therefore the liberty, as well as the authority of teaching is restored to him, both of which he had lost through his own fault. And that the disgrace of his apostacy might not stand in the way, Christ blots out and destroys the remembrance of it. Such a restoration was necessary, both for Peter and his hearers; for Peter, that he might the more boldly execute his office, being assured of the calling with which Christ had again invested him; for his hearers, that the stain which attached to his person might not be the occasion of despising the Gospel. To us also, in the present day, it is of very great importance that Peter comes forth to us as a new man, from whom the disgrace that might have lessened his authority, is removed."
The Roman Catholic theory, that our Lord specially addressed Peter, on this occasion, in order to mark him out as head of the Church, is one which I repudiate as preposterous, unreasonable, improbable, and utterly destitute of solid foundation. Neither here, nor elsewhere, is there a tittle of evidence to show that any primacy was ever intended to be given to Peter. On the contrary, the fact that our Lord specially appeared on one occasion to James alone, and that afterwards James was the presiding Apostle in the first Council at Jerusalem, would seem to indicate that, if He conferred primacy on any Apostle, He conferred it on James. But there is no proof that primacy was conferred on any one at all.
Burgon says, "The profane and ridiculous pretensions of the Church of Rome are based in great part on the words of our Saviour addressed to Peter in this passage. The Papists assume (1) that He hereby appointed Peter to be His vicar upon earth; (2) that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome; (3) that Peter transmitted to the Bishops of the same See, in endless succession, his own supposed authority over the rest of Christendom. Each one of these assumptions is simply unfounded and untrue; opposed alike to Scripture and to reason; to the records of the Early Church and the opinions of the primitive Fathers. With such fictions, nevertheless, do Romish writers distort the true image of Christianity; disfiguring their commentaries therewith, and betraying by a reckless eagerness to obtrude their ambitious and unscriptural theory on all occasions, their secret misgivings as to its real value."
[Simon, son of Jonas.] This mode of address, thrice repeated in this remarkable conversation, is only used by our Lord on this occasion, and when Peter first came to Him. (John 1:42.) I do not find that any Commentator gives a satisfactory explanation of it, and we are left to conjecture the reason, (a) Some think that our Lord purposely avoided the name Peter, in order to remind the Apostle how on a recent occasion he had shown himself not firm as a "rock," agreeably to his name, but weak as a reed. (b) Some think that our Lord meant to remind the Apostle of the memorable day when he first began to be a disciple, when Jesus said to him, "Thou art Simon, the son of Jona." (c) Some think that our Lord would remind the Apostle of the day when He said, "Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona," after the good confession which Peter had made. (Matthew 16:17.) (d) Some think that our Lord intended to remind Peter of the lowly origin from which he sprung, as son of one who, like Zebedee, in all probability, was only a humble fisherman, (e) Some think that the expression was only used to distinguish Simon Peter from the other Simon, who may possibly have been in company, as one of the two unnamed disciples. (John 21:2.) My own impression is, if I must give an opinion, that our Lord intended to carry Peter’s mind back to the day when he first began to be a disciple of Christ, and to all the three years that had elapsed. It is as though He said, "Simon, son of Jonas, thou rememberest the day when thou didst first come to Me, and believe on Me as the Lamb of God. (John 1:35-42.) Thou knowest all that thou hast been, and all that thou hast gone through since that day. Once more I address thee by the same name with which I began. Before sending thee forth, and commissioning thee once more, in the presence of these six brethren, as a restored and trusted disciple, I ask thee, Dost thou love Me?" I throw out the thought as a conjecture. I see more in it than in any other view.
[Lovest thou Me?] The question which Jesus asked of Peter was very simple, but very searching. It was simple, because it appealed to his feelings. Even a child knows what he feels, and whom he loves. If our Lord had asked,—"Dost thou believe? Art thou converted? Art thou elect? Hast thou faith? Hast thou grace? Art thou born again? Hast thou the Spirit? Art thou sanctified? Art thou justified?"—any one of these questions would have been perhaps very difficult to answer. But Peter could surely tell what he felt towards Christ.—At the same time the question was very searching. It is as though our Lord said, "Simon, I know all thy history. I know what thou hast done, and what thou hast been about, at the time of my betrayal and crucifixion, and I am ready to look over all, and pardon all. But one thing I must have in my disciples, and that is, a sincere and loving heart. I can look over want of knowledge and want of faith; but I must have love. Now, before these six brethren, before commissioning thee once more as an accredited and trustworthy Apostle, I ask thee solemnly, Dost thou love Me?"
Cyril thinks that Peter had received such special mercy, pardon, and forgiveness, that he might be reasonably required to feel special love.
[More than these.] This remarkable expression, which is only used in this verse, admits of three interpretations, (a) It may mean, Dost thou love Me more than thou lovest these thy brethren and friends around thee, and art thou willing to give them up for my sake, and follow Me alone, if need be? (b) It may mean, as Whitby says, Dost thou love Me more than these boats and fishing nets, among which thou hast spent so much of thy life, from which I did first call thee, and in the midst of which I find thee to-day? Art thou willing for my sake to give them all up, and devote thyself to preaching the Gospel? (c) It may mean, as the great majority of commentators think, Dost thou love Me more than thy brethren love Me? Thou rememberest a certain day when thou didst confidently say, "Though all men forsake Thee, yet will not I." Thou wast confident then, that thou wast more faithful than others. Will thou say that now? After all that has happened, art thou sure that thy heart is better than that of others?"—I decidedly prefer this last view to either of the others. I think it was meant to teach Peter, that the two grand qualifications for a faithful pastor were love and humility.
Musculus observes, that Jesus did not ask Peter this thrice-repeated question, as if He was ignorant and desired to learn, but in order to remind him before others of his future duty.
Bullinger suggests, that one reason among others why Jesus said, "more than these?" was Peter’s forwardness to spring into the water, and come to shore, before the other six Apostles, who were in the boat with him.
Rollock observes, on our Lord’s merciful and loving dealing with Peter, "Rebukers should be lovers. If thou rebuke a man, love him; otherwise speak not to him, but close thy mouth. If thou season not thy rebukes with ’love,’ then that which should have been as medicine will be turned into poison. They that would be instructors and admonishers should be lovers. Wherefore, whatever thou doest, do it in lenity and meekness. A bitter teacher is not worth a penny. This is what Paul requires when he says, ’The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle to all men.’ (2 Timothy 2:24.) All should be in gentleness: teaching in gentleness, admonishing in gentleness. Wherefore? Because, if gentleness be lacking, there will be no edification, no comforting, no instruction."
[He saith...Yea, Lord...knowest...I love Thee.] The answer of Simon Peter in this verse is a beautiful example of sincerity and humility. He appeals to our Lord’s knowledge of his heart: "I may be very defective in knowledge, faith, courage, wisdom. I am a debtor to mercy and grace above many. Yet, Lord, thou knowest that, with all my faults and infirmities, I do love Thee." He does not venture to say a word about others. He does not pretend to compare his love with that of his brethren. If he has done so in time past he will do so no more.—"I know not whether others love Thee more or less than I do. I only know my own heart; and I feel sure that I love Thee."
Let us carefully note that love to Christ is one of the simplest tests of a true Christian. He may not feel sure that he is converted, or that he repents or believes aright. But if he is real, he will be able to say that he loves Christ.
[He saith...Feed my lambs.] Having received from Peter a public profession of his sincere love, our Lord proceeds to tell him how that love is to be shown, and to give him his commission for the future. He bids him prove the reality of his love by "feeding His lambs."—When our Lord said "feed," I believe He meant that Peter was to feed souls with the precious food of God’s Word, to supply them with that bread of life which a man must eat or die, and to watch carefully and diligently over their spiritual interests, like a good shepherd watching his flock. When our Lord spoke of "lambs," I believe He meant the least, the weakest, and feeblest members of that flock which is His Church. It is as though Jesus said,—"Simon, if indeed thou dost love Me, know that the best proof of love is to devote thyself to the great work of shepherding souls. Live for others. Care for others. Minister to others. Do good to others. Seek out and search for my sheep in this wicked world, and think it not beneath thee to attend to the wants of the feeblest among them. Herein, remember, is true love. It does not consist in talking, professing, fighting, or seeking preeminence over others. It is best seen in walking in my steps. I came to seek and save that which was lost. I came not to be ministered unto, but to minister. Go and do likewise. He loves most who is most like Me."
I cannot think that "lambs" in this place was intended to apply to young children, as it is often interpreted. All such interpretations I regard as nothing better than pious accommodations. I believe that "lambs," in contradistinction to "sheep," mean those who are young and weak in spiritual experience. Peter was not to neglect and despise them because weak. Peter remembered these ringing words, we may be sure, when he wrote in his Epistle, "Feed the flock of God that is among you." (1 Peter 5:2.)
Augustine observes that Christ, both here and in the two following verses, says, "MY" and not "THY." The Church is His property, and not the property of ministers.
Bullinger observes that Christ passes from the calling of the fisherman to that of the shepherd, as representing, more than any other callings, the ministerial office.
v16.—[He saith to him again, etc.] This verse is simply a repetition of the preceding one, with three exceptions.—For one thing, the expression, "more than these," is omitted.—For another thing, the word which we render "feed," in the Greek is a wider, fuller word than the one employed in the preceding verse.—For another thing, our Lord speaks of His "sheep" instead of His "lambs." By "sheep" I believe our Lord meant those members of His flock who were of more advanced experience and strength in grace, than the class He had spoken of in the preceding verse. Both classes demanded the attention of a faithful pastor.
The repetition of the inquiry was doubtless intended to rouse Peter’s attention, and to impress the whole subject on his mind.
Lightfoot thinks that the "threefold repetition,—feed, feed, feed, may most fitly apply to the threefold object of Peter’s ministry: viz., the Gentiles, the Jews, and the dispersed ten tribes." But this seems to me fanciful. Bengel thinks it refers to the three periods of Peter’s ministry.
Whitby observes, "Those who argue for Peter’s supremacy above other Apostles, from this passage, are vain in their imagination. If by these words Christ required Peter to feed all His sheep and lambs, it is certain he was wanting in his duty. He never exercised an act of supremacy over the rest of the Apostles; but being sent by them, obeyed (Acts 8:14), and being reproved by Paul, held his peace (Galatians 2:11-16), and was so far from feeding all Christ’s sheep, that he never fed any of the province of Paul."
v17.—[He saith unto him the third time, etc.] This verse again is a repetition of the two preceding verses, but contains two points of difference. For one thing we are told that "Peter was grieved," on being asked the same question three times. For another thing, Peter uses stronger language when he appeals to our Lord’s knowledge of his heart. "Lord," he says, "Thou knowest all things."
I cannot for a moment doubt that our Lord asked Peter this remarkable question three times, in order to remind him that he had denied Him thrice. Our sins ought never to be forgotten by us, though they are wiped out of the book of God’s remembrance. The very "grief" which Peter felt at being thrice asked about his love, was intended to do him good. It was meant to remind him that if he was grieved to be asked thrice, "Lovest thou Me?" how much more must his Master have been grieved when he thrice denied Him!
Whitby observes, "Here is an argument that Christ, in Peter’s judgment, was truly God. He says, ’Thou knowest all things.’ It is to God alone that the secrets of all hearts lie open."
There are little nice distinctions in the original Greek of these three verses, in the words that are used, which the English language cannot convey. But they deserve notice, and are not without meaning. Two different words are used to express our one word "love." One of these two words means a higher, calmer, nobler kind of love than the other. This is the word which our Lord uses in the fifteenth and sixteenth verses, where He asks the question, "Lovest thou Me?"—The other of the two words means a more passionate and lower kind of love. This is the word which Peter always uses when he says, "I love thee!" and our Lord once uses it in the seventeenth verse.—Again: two different words are employed to express our one English word "feed." One means simply "provide food and pasture," and is used in the fifteenth and seventeenth verses. The other means not only "provide food," but "govern, lead, direct, and generally do the work of a shepherd."
Some of the Roman Catholic writers try to make out that "lambs" in this remarkable passage mean the laity, and "sheep" the clergy; and that supremacy over clergy and laity alike is intended, by these words, to be conferred on Peter and his successors at Rome! Archbishop Trench (on Miracles) justly condemns this interpretation, as "groundless and trifling." He observes, "The commission should at least have run, ’Feed my sheep and feed my shepherds,’ if any such conclusion could be drawn from Christ’s words, though an infinite deal would still remain to be proved."
The lessons which the whole passage is meant to teach the Church of Christ, are many and deep, and have been far too much neglected in every age. I can only indicate them, and then leave the reader to work them out in his own mind.
(a) Love to Christ’s person is one of the most important graces that can adorn a Christian, and specially a minister. Without it, correct doctrinal views, zeal for proselytizing, knowledge, eloquence, liberality, diligence in visiting the sick and relieving the poor, are worth very little, and will do very little good. With it, God is pleased to look over many infirmities. A minister may be somewhat defective in some of his views, and even in some of his proceedings, but if he loves Christ and has a warm heart, God will seldom allow him to lack a blessing.
Hengstenberg shrewdly remarks, that Christ’s emphatical question about love to Himself, and omission of any question about love to God, is strong indirect proof of Christ’s divinity.
(b) True love to Christ is chiefly to be seen in usefulness to others, in doing as Christ did, in walking in His steps, in labouring to do good in this bad world. He that talks of loving Christ, and idles on through life, never trying to do good to others, is deceiving himself, and will find at length that he had better never have been born.
(c) A vast amount of so-called Christianity is perfectly useless in the sight of God, and will only add to people’s condemnation. Church-goers and chapel-goers, who are content to attend services and hear sermons, but know nothing of fervent love to Christ’s person, and never lay themselves out to imitate Him, are in the broad way that leads to destruction.
Rollock observes, "A profane man or woman will say, ’I love God;’ but if it manifest not itself in an action, thou art but a liar, and lovest Him not. Faith and love must ever utter them selves in good actions. Hast thou gotten a heart, hands, and feet? Do some good. Otherwise, if thou doest never a good deed, thy profession of faith and love is vain."
He also says,—"The pastor is not worth a penny who strives not to get a sense of the love of Christ into his heart. There are so many difficulties and impediments cast before a pastor when he is about to discharge his duty, that he never can be able to overcome them, except he both love the Lord, and be sensible of the Lord’s love to him. If the Apostles and martyrs had not loved Jesus exceedingly, they would soon have fainted."
Leighton observes, "Love is the great endowment of a true pastor of Christ’s flock. He says not to Peter, ’Art thou wise? or learned? or eloquent?’ but ’Lovest thou Me?’ Then, ’feed.’ Love to Christ begets love to His people’s souls, which are so precious to Him, and a care of feeding them."
Scott observes, "Those who have been greatly tempted, and have had much humbling experience of their own sinfulness, and have had much forgiven them, generally prove the most tender, compassionate, and attentive pastors, of weak, bruised, and trembling believers."
(d) The true test of reality in our religion is to be able to appeal confidently to God’s knowledge of our hearts. It matters nothing what friends, and relatives, and fellow-worshippers, may think and say of us. They may praise us, when we do not deserve it, or condemn us, when we are innocent. It matters nothing. If we have the witness of our own hearts, that we can appeal to Jesus, the Searcher of hearts, and say, "Thou, who knowest all things, knowest that I love Thee," we need not be afraid.
(e) If we really and truly feel love to Christ, we may thank God and take courage. Of our own faith, and grace, and conversion, and sanctification, we are poor judges. But do we really and sincerely feel that we love Christ? That is the great question. The very existence of such love is a good sign. We should not love Christ, if we had not got something from Him.
Brentius remarks that Peter’s charge to the elders, in his epistle, clearly shows that our Lord’s thrice-repeated charge, "Feed," was not meant for him only, as the Romanists say, but for all ministers of the Church of Christ, without exception. "The elders which are among you, I exhort:—Feed the flock of God." (1 Peter 5:1.)
These verses form the conclusion of John’s Gospel, and bring to an end the most precious book in the Bible. The man is much to be pitied who can read the passage without serious and solemn feelings. It is like listening to the parting words of a friend, whom we may possibly not see again. Let us reverently consider the lessons which this Scripture contains.
We learn, for one thing, from these verses, that the future history of Christians, both in life and death, is foreknown by Christ. The Lord tells Simon Peter, "When thou art old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not." These words, without controversy, were a prediction of the manner of the Apostle’s death. They were fulfilled in after days, it is commonly supposed, when Peter was crucified as a martyr for Christ’s sake. The time, the place, the manner, the painfulness to flesh and blood of the disciple’s death, were all matters foreseen by the Master.
The truth before us is eminently full of comfort to a true believer. To obtain foreknowledge of things to come would, in most cases, be a sorrowful possession. To know what was going to befall us, and yet not to be able to prevent it, would make us simply miserable. But it is an unspeakable consolation to remember, that our whole future is known and fore-arranged by Christ. There is no such thing as luck, chance, or accident, in the journey of our life. Everything from beginning to end is foreseen,—arranged by One who is too wise to err, and too loving to do us harm.
Let us store up this truth in our minds, and use it diligently in all the days of darkness through which we may yet have to pass. In such days we should lean back on the thought, "Christ knows this, and knew it when He called me to be His disciple." It is foolish to repine and murmur over the troubles of those whom we love. We should rather fall back on the thought that all is well done. It is useless to fret and be rebellious, when we ourselves have bitter cups to drink. We should rather say, "This also is from the Lord: He foresaw it, and would have prevented it, if it had not been for my good." Happy are those who can enter into the spirit of that old saint, who said, "I have made a covenant with my Lord, that I will never take amiss anything that He does to me." We may have to walk sometimes through rough places, on our way to heaven. But surely it is a resting, soothing reflection, "Every step of my journey was foreknown by Christ."
We learn, secondly, in these verses, that a believer’s death is intended to glorify God. The Holy Ghost tells us this truth in plain language. He graciously interprets the dark saying, which fell from our Lord’s lips about Peter’s end. He tells us that Jesus spake this, "signifying by what death he should glorify God."
The thing before us is probably not considered as much as it ought to be. We are so apt to regard life as the only season for honoring Christ, and action as the only mode of showing our religion, that we overlook death, except as a painful termination of usefulness. Yet surely this ought not so to be. We may die to the Lord as well as live to the Lord; we may be patient sufferers as well as active workers. Like Samson, we may do more for God in our death, than ever we did in our lives. It is probable that the patient deaths of our martyred Reformers had more effect on the minds of Englishmen, than all the sermons they preached, and all the books they wrote. One thing, at all events, is certain,—the blood of the English martyrs was the seed of the Church.
We may glorify God in death, by being ready for it whenever it comes. The Christian who is found like a sentinel at his post, like a servant with his loins girded and his lamp burning, with a heart packed up and ready to go, the man to whom sudden death, by the common consent of all who knew him, is sudden glory,—this, this is a man whose end brings glory to God.—We may glorify God in death, by patiently enduring its pains. The Christian whose spirit has complete victory over the flesh, who quietly feels the pins of his earthly tabernacle plucked up with great bodily agonies, and yet never murmurs or complains, but silently enjoys inward peace,—this, this again, is a man whose end brings glory to God.—We may glorify God in death, by testifying to others the comfort and support that we find in the grace of Christ. It is a great thing, when a mortal man can say with David, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." (Psalms 23:4.) The Christian who, like Standfast in "Pilgrim’s Progress," can stand for a while in the river, and talk calmly to his companions, saying, "My foot is fixed sure: my toilsome days are ended,"—this, this is a man whose end brings glory to God. Deaths like these leave a mark on the living, and are not soon forgotten.
Let us pray, while we live in health, that we may glorify God in our end. Let us leave it to God to choose the where, and when, and how, and all the manner of our departing. Let us only ask that it may "glorify God." He is a wise man who takes John Bunyan’s advice, and keeps his last hour continually in mind, and makes it his company-keeper. It was a weighty saying of John Wesley, when one found fault with the doctrines and practices of the Methodists,—"At any rate our people die well."
We learn, thirdly, in these verses, that whatever we may think about the condition of other people, we should think first about our own. When Peter inquired curiously and anxiously about the future of the Apostle John, he received from our Lord an answer of deep meaning: "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou Me." Hard to understand as some part of that sentence may be, it contains a practical lesson which cannot be mistaken. It commands every Christian to remember his own heart first, and to look at home.
Of course our blessed Lord does not wish us to neglect the souls of others, or to take no interest in their condition. Such a state of mind would be nothing less than uncharitable selfishness, and would prove plainly that we had not the grace of God. The servant of Christ will have a wide, broad heart, like his Master, and will desire the present and eternal happiness of all around him. He will long and labor to lessen the sorrows, and to increase the joys, of every one within his reach, and, as he has opportunity, to do good to all men. But, in all his doing, the servant of Christ must never forget his own soul. Charity, and true religion, must both begin at home.
It is vain to deny that our Lord’s solemn caution to His impetuous disciple is greatly needed in the present day. Such is the weakness of human nature, that even true Christians are continually liable to run into extremes. Some are so entirely absorbed in their own inward experience, and their own heart’s conflict, that they forget the world outside. Others are so busy about doing good to the world, that they neglect to cultivate their own souls. Both are wrong, and both need to see a more excellent way; but none perhaps do so much harm to religion as those who are busy-bodies about others’ salvation, and at the same time neglecters of their own. From such a snare as this may the ringing words of our Lord deliver us! Whatever we do for others (and we never can do enough), let us not forget our own inner man. Unhappily, the Bride, in Canticles, is not the only person who has cause to complain: "They made me keeper of the vineyards; but my own vineyard I have not kept." (Song of Song of Solomon 1:6.)
We learn, lastly, from these verses, the number and greatness of Christ’s works during His earthly ministry. John concludes his Gospel with these remarkable words, "There are many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written."—Of course we must not torture these words, by pressing them to an excessively literal interpretation. To suppose that the Evangelist meant the world could not hold the material volumes which would be written, is evidently unreasonable and absurd. The only sensible interpretation must be a spiritual and figurative one.
As much of Christ’s sayings and doings is recorded as the mind of man can take in. It would not be good for the world to have more. The human mind, like the body, can only digest a certain quantity. The world could not contain more, because it would not. As many miracles, as many parables, as many sermons, as many conversions, as many words of kindness, as many deeds of mercy, as many journeys, as many prayers, as many warnings, as many promises, are recorded, as the world can possibly require. If more had been recorded they would have been only thrown away. There is enough to make every unbeliever without excuse, enough to show every inquirer the way to heaven, enough to satisfy the heart of every honest believer, enough to condemn man if he does not repent and believe, enough to glorify God. The largest vessel can only contain a certain quantity of liquid. The mind of all mankind would not appreciate more about Christ, if more had been written. There is enough and to spare. This witness is true. Let us deny it if we can.
And now let us close the Gospel of John with mingled feelings of deep humility and deep thankfulness. We may well be humble when we think how ignorant we are, and how little we comprehend of the treasures which this Gospel contains. But we may well be thankful, when we reflect how clear and plain is the instruction which it gives us about the way of salvation. The man who reads this Gospel profitably, is he who "believes that Jesus is the Christ, and, believing, has life through His Name." Do we so believe? Let us never rest till we can give a satisfactory answer to that question!
v18.—[Verily, verily, I say unto thee, etc.] In this verse our Lord forewarns the Apostle Peter, what death he must expect to be the conclusion of his ministry. After restoring him to his office, and commissioning him to be a pastor, He tells him plainly what his end will be. He holds out no prospect of temporal ease and an earthly kingdom. On the contrary, He bids him look forward to a violent death. If he shows his love by feeding his Master’s sheep, he must not be surprised if he is made partaker of his Master’s sufferings. And so it was. Peter lived to be persecuted, beaten, imprisoned, and at length slain for Christ’s sake. It happened exactly as his Master had predicted. Most ecclesiastical historians say that he suffered martyrdom at Rome, in one of the first persecutions, and was crucified with his head downwards.
Melancthon remarks that Peter, like most Jews, was probably expecting that, after our Lord’s resurrection, He would take to Himself His kingdom, and reign in glory with His disciples. Jesus warns him that he must expect nothing of the kind. Tribulation, and not glory, was the prospect before him in this world.
It is fair to say that some learned writers deny entirely that Peter ever was at Rome, and consequently deny the truth of the ecclesiastical tradition, that he was crucified there with his head downward. Calovius gives a long passage from Casaubon, maintaining this view. Whether it was so, or not, does not affect the passage before us. In any case, wherever he died, there is no reason to doubt that Peter died a violent death.
The expression, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee," is thoroughly characteristic of John’s Gospel. We cannot doubt that Peter would remember how solemn were the former occasions when our Lord used this phrase, and would see a peculiar solemnity in the words of this verse. Specially would Peter remember the night when our Lord was betrayed, when his Master said to him, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied Me thrice." (John 13:38.)
The expression, "When thou wast young," is commonly thought to indicate that Peter was now an old man, when these words were spoken. Perhaps too much stress is laid on the words, especially considering the context. I think the safer plan is to interpret it as meaning, "When thou wast a younger man than thou art now."
The expression, "Thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest," appears to me a general phrase, denoting the freedom from restraint and independence of movement, which Peter enjoyed, when he followed his calling as a young fisherman, before he was called to be a disciple and Apostle. I cannot, like some commentators, see any allusion to Peter’s recent action, when he put his "fisher’s coat about him," cast himself into the sea, and waded to the shore. I rather regard it as a proverbial phrase. A young Jewish fisherman, when inclined to go here or there, would, according to oriental custom, gird up his loins and Walk off upon his journey, at the pleasure of his own will. "This," says our Lord to Peter, "thou didst use to do when a young man."
The expression, "When thou shalt be old," seems to denote at any rate that Peter would be an older man than he then was, before he died, and would suffer martyrdom in his old age. It certainly condemns the idea entertained by many, that the Apostle Peter was an aged man, when our Lord left the world. Old age, in his case, is clearly represented as a thing future.
The expression, "Thou shalt stretch forth thine hands, and another shall gird thee," is regarded by almost all commentators, as an intimation of the manner of Peter’s death. He was to stretch forth his hands at the command of another, that is, of an executioner, and, in all probability, to be bound by that executioner to the cross on which he was to suffer. If this be a correct interpretation of the words, it certainly favours the idea that crucified persons were "bound," as well as "nailed," to the cross. The phrase "gird" may possibly refer to a custom of girding a person’s loins, and putting cords round his middle before crucifying him. The contrast would then be more natural between a man girding up his own loins to walk, and another girding him round the loins for execution.
The expression "carry thee whither thou wouldest not," must mean that the executioner having bound Peter to the cross, would carry him so bound to the place where the cross would be reared up, after a manner which would be repugnant and painful to flesh and blood. It cannot, of course, mean that Peter would object to his punishment and resist it. It can only mean that his punishment would be one which must needs be a heavy trial to his natural will.
Brentius thinks that "another," in this sentence, refers to "Nero," or the "executioner."
We should note, in this wonderful prophecy, the unhesitating positiveness and decision with which our Lord speaks of things to come. He knew perfectly all the circumstances of His Apostle’s death, long before it took place.
We should note how faithfully and unreservedly our Lord tells Peter what the consequences of his apostleship would be. He does not tempt him onwards by promises of earthly success and temporal rewards. Suffering, death, and the cross, are plainly exhibited before the eyes of his mind, as the end to which he must look forward.
We should note how even our Lord intimates that suffering is painful to flesh and blood. He speaks of it as a thing that Peter will most naturally shrink from:—"Thou wouldest not." Our Lord does not expect us to "enjoy" bodily pain and suffering, though He asks us to be willing to endure it for His sake.
Chrysostom observes, "Christ here speaks of natural feeling, and the necessity of the flesh, and shows that the soul is unwillingly torn away from the body. Though the will was firm, even then nature would be found in fault. For no one lays aside the body without feeling; God having suitably ordained this in order that violent deaths might not be many. For if, even as things are now, the devil has been able to effect this, and has led thousands (by suicide) to precipices and pits, had not the soul felt such an affection for the body, many would have rushed to this under any common discouragement."
Augustine observes, "No man likes to die: a state of feeling so natural, that not even old age had power to remove it from blessed Peter, to whom Jesus said, ’Thou shalt be led whither thou wouldest not.’ For our consolation, we may remember, that even our Saviour took this state of feeling on Himself, saying, ’Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me!’"—He also says, "Were there nothing, or little of irksomeness in death, the glory of the martyr would not be so great as it is."
Calvin observes, "This must be understood as referring to the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit, which believers feel within themselves. We cannot obey God in a manner so free and unrestrained, as not to be drawn, as it were, by ropes, in an opposite direction, by the world and the flesh. Besides, it ought to be remembered that the dread of death is naturally implanted in us; for to wish to be separated from the body is revolting to nature."—Again he says, "Even the martyrs experienced a fear of death similar to our own, so that they could not gain a triumph over the enemies of truth but by contending with themselves."
Beza remarks that on one occasion, when Peter and John had been beaten and threatened by the Jewish Council, "they departed, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name." (Acts 5:41.) The expression, "whither thou wouldest not," can therefore only refer to the natural will of flesh and blood. Flesh will feel. Holy Baxter in his last illness used to say, "I groan; but I do not grumble."
When Bishop Ridley was being chained to the stake, before he was burned, as a martyr, at Oxford, he said to the smith who was knocking in the staple, "Good fellow, knock it in hard; for the flesh will have its way."
Ambrose, quoted by Jansenius, mentions a legend that when Peter was in prison at Rome before his martyrdom, he escaped, and was going out of the city. Then Jesus Christ Himself appeared to him in a vision, and on Peter asking, "Whither goest thou?" replied, "To Rome, to be crucified again." On hearing this, Peter returned to prison. The whole story is apocryphal, and destitute of historical foundation. But it shows the current of feeling among early Christians.
v19.—[This spake He...what death...glorify God.] We have here one of John’s peculiar parenthetical comments, and one for which we may be specially thankful. Who can tell what Commentators might have made of our Lord’s prediction to Peter, if John had not been mercifully inspired to tell us that Jesus spoke of his death?
The expression "what death" means "what kind of death," and is generally considered to indicate that the preceding verse describes death by crucifixion.
The expression "glorify God" is peculiarly interesting, because it teaches that a Christian may bring glory to God by his death, as well as by his life. He does so when he bears it patiently, does not murmur, exhibits sensible peace, enjoys evident hope of a better world, testifies to others of the truth and consolation of the Gospel, and leaves broad evidences of the reality of his religion behind him. He that so ends glorifies God. The deaths of Latimer, Ridley, Hooper, Bradford, Rogers, Rowland Taylor, and many other English martyrs, in the days of Queen Mary, were said to have done more good even than their lives, and to have had immense influence in helping forward the Protestant Reformation.
[And when...this...saith...Follow Me.] The precise meaning of this short and emphatic phrase is not very plain.
(a) Some think that it must be interpreted literally, and that our Lord simply meant, "Follow Me in the direction where I am now going. We have tarried here long enough. Let us be going." At first sight this seems a thin and weak interpretation. But before we reject it entirely, we should carefully observe the language of the next verse.
(b) Some think that "Follow Me" must be interpreted spiritually, and that our Lord used the expression as a kind of watchword for Peter’s course in life from that day forward. "Walk in my steps. Do as I have done. Follow Me whithersoever I lead thee, even though it be to prison and death."
I see no reason why we should not adopt both views. There is such a depth and fulness in our Lord’s sayings, that I think we may safely do so. I therefore think it most probable that our Lord not only meant, "Arise, and follow Me now;" but also meant, "Always follow Me through life, whatever be the consequences." After all, Christ’s three great words to Christians are, "Come to Me,—Learn of Me,—and Follow Me." (Matthew 11:28-29.)
Is there not in the words, "Follow Me," a latent reference to the remarkable saying of our Lord to Peter, on the night that Peter denied Him thrice: "Whither I go, thou canst not follow Me now; but thou shalt follow Me afterwards." (John 13:36.)
v20.—[Then Peter, turning, seeth, etc.] This verse brings in the Apostle John himself, described with more than usual feeling and particularity, as "the disciple whom Jesus loved, and who leaned on his breast at supper," as if to prevent the possibility of mistake.
The expressions, "turning," and "following," seem to me to place it beyond doubt, that our Lord began to move away from the scene of the social meal, when He said, "Follow Me." No other view can explain them. There was a movement in a certain direction. As our Lord moved away, Peter followed Him. As he followed, Peter turned round, and saw John following also. After John, I believe, the other five disciples followed also, or else they could hardly have heard the remarkable saying about "tarrying till I come," which they evidently did hear.
Tittman suggests that "When Peter saw John following he was displeased, as Jesus had ordered Peter alone to follow, with the intention of saying something to him apart. He therefore asked why Jesus permitted John to follow unbidden."—He then thinks, if we adopt this interpretation, that the remarkable words of the following verse may only mean,—"If I wish him to remain with the other disciples until I return to them, that is no business of thine. Just follow Me."—This however seems to me rather a tame interpretation.
Stier observes, "There was something wrong at first in Peter’s act of turning himself. He was commanded to follow, and not to look round. Thus there was certainly an uncalled-for, and not artless, looking aside, a side-glance once more of comparison with others! After his deep humiliation here is still some light trace of the ancient Simon."
v21.—[Peter seeing...Lord...what...this man do.] The Greek words of Peter’s question would be literally rendered, "Lord: and this man what?" The precise meaning and object of the question are a point which has been much disputed.
(a) Some think that the question was entirely one of brotherly love, interest, and affection. They regard the inquiry as one which arose from Peter’s tender feeling toward John, as the disciple whom he loved most among the Apostles. He would fain know what was to be the future lot of his beloved friend and brother.
(b) Some think that the question was one of unseemly curiosity. They regard it as one which Peter ought not to have asked. If our Lord did not volunteer any prediction about John, Peter ought not to have made any inquiry.
(c) Some think, as Flacius, that there was a latent jealousy in Peter’s question, and that he seemed to suspect that John, not having denied Christ, would die an easier death than himself! I cannot think this for a moment.
My own belief is that there is truth in both the two first views. Our Lord’s reply to Peter, recorded in the next verse, certainly indicates to my mind that Peter ought not to have been so forward to ask. On the other hand, I should be sorry to say that Peter’s inquiry arose entirely out of curiosity, when I mark Peter’s unvarying connection with John on all occasions, and evident brotherly love towards him. In feeling concern about John’s future, after hearing about his own, Peter was not to blame. Grace does not require us to be cold and unfeeling about our friends. But in the manner of Peter’s inquiry there certainly seems to have been something to blame. Is there not about it a little touch of the old over-readiness to talk of others? It was once, "Though all men,—all others,—forsake Thee yet will not I." It is now, "If I am to die a violent death, what are others to do?"
It is certainly my own impression that Peter’s question had special reference to John’s end: "If I am to die a violent death, what is to be the end of my brother John?"
Leighton, quoted by Burgon, remarks, "This was a transient stumbling in one who, but lately recovered of a great disease, did not walk firmly. But it is the common track of most, to wear out their days with impertinent inquiries. There is a natural desire in men to know the things of others, and neglect their own; and to be more concerned about things to come than things present."
Henry remarks, "Peter seems more concerned for another than for himself. So apt are we to be busy in other men’s matters, but negligent in the concerns of our own souls,—quick-sighted abroad, but dim-sighted at home,—judging others, and prognosticating what they will do, when we have enough to do to prove our own works, and understand our own ways. Peter seems more concerned about events than about duty. John was younger than himself, and in the course of nature likely to survive him. ’Lord,’ he says, ’what times shall he be reserved for?’ Whereas, if God, by his grace, enable us to persevere to the end, and finish well, and get safely to heaven, we need not ask, ’What shall be the lot of those that shall come after us?’ Is it not well if peace and truth shall be in my days? Scripture predictions must be eyed for the direction of our conscience, not for the satisfying of our curiosity."
It is a curious fact worth remembering, that John was one of the only two Apostles, whose future lot had already been spoken of by Christ. "He shall drink of the cup that I drink of, and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with." (Mark 10:39.)
v22.—[Jesus saith unto him, If I will, etc.] Our Lord’s answer to Peter can only be taken, in my judgment, as a rebuke. It was meant to teach the Apostle that he must first attend to his own duty, mind his own soul, fulfil his own course, and leave the future of other brethren in the hands of a wise and merciful Saviour. He must not pry too curiously into God’s counsels concerning John.—What good would it do him to know whether John was to live a long life or a short one, to die a violent death or a natural one? Our Lord seems to say, "Leave off inquiring about thy brother’s future lot. Thou knowest that he is one of my sheep, and as such shall never perish, and is in safe keeping. What is the rest to thee? Have faith to believe that all will be well done about him. Look to thine own soul, and be content to follow Me."—I cannot help seeing a latent resemblance between this place and the well-known passage at the end of Daniel’s prophecy. "Then said I, O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things? And He said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end."—"Go thou thy way till the end be: for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days." (Daniel 12:8-9, Daniel 12:13.)
Theophylact suggests that our Lord saw that Peter was vehemently attached to John, and unwilling to be separated from him, and therefore meant to teach him that he must do his own work and follow Christ, wherever He might lead him, even though separation from John might be the consequence.
After all we must take care that we do not omit the special point of our Lord’s words. What our Lord rebukes is not general concern about the souls of others, but over-anxiety and restless curiosity about the future of our friends. Such over-anxiety indicates want of faith: we ought to be willing to leave their future in God’s hands. To know their future would, in all probability, not make us one jot more happy. I can imagine nothing more miserable than to see in the distance tribulation and sorrow coming on our friends, and not to be able to avert it. Of what use would it have been to Peter, to know that his beloved brother John would one day be cast into a caldron of boiling oil, at Ephesus, during a persecution? What good would it have done Peter, to know that John would spend years of weary captivity on the Isle of Patmos, and finally outlive all the company of the Apostles, and be left last and latest on the stormy sea of this troublous world? To know all this would not have done Peter the slightest good, and would more likely have added to his own sorrow. Wisely and well did our Lord say, "What is that to thee?" Wisely and well does He teach us not to be over-anxious about the future of our children, our relatives, and our friends. Far better for us, and far happier, to have faith in God, and to let the great unknown future alone.
Burkitt observes, "There are two great varieties in men with reference to knowledge. The one is a neglect to know what it is our duty to know. The other is a curiosity to know what it doth not belong to us to know."
In any case, the words "Follow Me" should always teach us that our first duty in religion is to look to our own souls, and to take heed that we ourselves follow Christ, and walk with God. Whatever others may do or not do, suffer or not suffer, our own duty is clear and plain. People who are always looking at others, and considering others, and shaping their own course accordingly, commit a great mistake. Of all weak and foolish reasons assigned by some for not coming to the Lord’s Supper, the weakest perhaps is that very common one,—the conduct of others who are communicants! To such persons the words of our Lord apply with emphatical force, "What is that to thee? Follow thou Me."
The words of our Lord, "If I will that he tarry till I come," are a deep and mysterious saying, and in every age of the Church have received different interpretations.
(a) Some, as Gerhard, Maldonatus, and Wordsworth, hold that Jesus meant, "If I will that he tarry a long time on earth, lingering here long after thou art gone, until I come for him at death, what is that to thee?"—I cannot, however, admit this interpretation for a moment. Death and the coming of Christ are two totally different things, and it is an entire mistake to confound them, as people often do (with very good intentions), in selecting texts for tombstones, as part of epitaphs. There is not a single passage in the New Testament, where the coming of the Lord means death. Moreover, the very next verse in this chapter seems to place the two things in strong contrast, as not the same.
(b) Some actually hold that Jesus meant that the Apostle John was never to die at all, but to remain alive until the second advent! This, however, is a wild and preposterous interpretation, which will satisfy no sober mind. Moreover, it is contradicted by the whole tenor of ecclesiastical history. All early writers, of any weight and authority, declare that John died a natural death in extreme old age.
Theophylact mentions a strange tradition that John is kept alive somewhere, and is to be slain, together with Elias, by Antichrist, when he appears!
(c) Some, as Grotius, Hammond, Lightfoot, Whitby, Scott, Alford, and Ellicott, hold that Jesus meant by His coming, not His second advent at the end of the world, but His coming spiritually in judgment, for the punishment of the Jews, the destruction of the temple, and the overthrow of the whole Jewish dispensation by the Romans. I cannot see this at all. I find no clear proof in the New Testament, that the overthrow of the Jewish dispensation is ever called the "coming of the Lord." Moreover, it is an awkward fact, that it is commonly agreed that the Apostle John lived for many years after Jerusalem was taken, and the temple burned by Titus. Gerhard declares positively, that there is not one instance in Scripture of the destruction of Jerusalem being called the "coming of the Lord."
(d) Bengel and Stier think it means that John was to tarry till the Lord came to reveal to him the visions recorded in the Book of Revelation.
(e) Some, as Hutcheson and Trench, think that Jesus did not mean to predict anything particular about John’s future, but only used a general hypothetical expression. "Supposing I do will that he stay till I come, what is that to thee? I do not say that I do will him to stay. But supposing it is my will, this is no affair of thine, and it becometh thee not to inquire."
The question is one that will never be settled, and the sentence seems purposely left under a veil of mystery. If I must give an opinion, I decidedly lean to the last of the five views which I have stated.
v23.—[Then went this saying, etc.] In this verse John carefully describes the rise of the earliest ecclesiastical tradition. He says that it became a common saying among the brethren, that he was not to die. Some very likely took it into their heads that, like Enoch and Elijah, he was to be translated, and never see death, but pass into glory without dying. The Apostle takes pains to point out that Jesus never said that he was not to die, and had only supposed the possibility of his "tarrying till He came." To my own mind his manner of stating the point is strongly confirmatory of the view I have already supported: viz., that our Lord only used a hypothetical expression, and did not at all intend to make a positive prediction.
We should carefully notice in this passage how easy it is for traditions to begin; and how soon, even with the best intentions, unfounded reports originate among religious men. Nothing is more unsatisfactory, nothing more uncertain, nothing more destitute of solid foundation, than that huge mass of matter which the Roman Catholic Church has heaped together, and professes to respect, called "Catholic tradition." The moment a Christian departs from God’s Word written, and allows "Catholic tradition" any authority, he plunges into a jungle of uncertainty, and will be happy if he does not make shipwreck of his faith altogether.
Flacius observes, that not observing our Lord’s "if" gave rise to a tradition! A single word omitted in a text may do harm.
Henry remarks, "Let us learn here the uncertainty of human tradition, and the folly of building faith upon it. Here was a tradition, an apostolical tradition, a saying that went abroad among the brethren. It was early; it was common; it was public; and yet it was false. How little then are those unwritten traditions to be relied upon, which the Council of Trent has decreed to be worthy to be received with a veneration and pious affection equal to that which is owing to Holy Scripture."
Henry also remarks, "Let us learn the aptness of men to misinterpret the sayings of Christ. The grossest errors have sometimes shrouded themselves under the umbrage of incontestable truth, and the Scriptures themselves have been wrested by the unlearned and unstable. We must not think it strange if we hear the sayings of Christ misinterpreted, and quoted to patronize the errors of antichrist."
The Greek phrase which we render "should not die," is literally, "does not die."
It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion, that the words which Jesus addressed to Peter were heard by the other five Apostles. Otherwise, the saying, or report referred to in this verse, could not have gone forth.
v24.—[This is the disciple, etc.] In this verse the Apostle John makes a solemn declaration of his own authorship of the Gospel which bears his name, and of the truth of the matters which the Gospel itself contains. As usual, with characteristic humility, he does not give his name, but modestly speaks of himself in the third person. It is as though he said,—"Finally, I, John the Apostle, who leaned on Jesus’s breast, declare that I am the person who here testifies of these sayings and doings of Christ, and who has here written them down in this book, and I know that I have told nothing but what is true, and that my testimony may be implicitly trusted."
The first person plural is here used by John, we should observe, just as it is in the beginning of his first Epistle.
The verse seem[s] written in order to assure all readers of John’s Gospel that they need feel no doubt whatever that they have in this Gospel a faithful and true record of things that Jesus said and did, and that this, the last of the four narratives of Christ’s history, is just as trustworthy, credible, and dependable as the books written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
v25.—[And there are also many other things, etc.] In this verse John seems to wind up his book, by breaking forth into a fervent declaration about the wonderful things which his Lord and Master had done. It is as though he said, "Though I finish my Gospel here, I have not told all the marvellous things that Jesus did while He was upon earth. There are many other things which He did, and many other words which He spoke, which are not recorded in my Gospel, nor yet in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Indeed, if they were written down every one, I suppose the world would not receive them, and could not comprehend their value."
The words which we render, "The books that should be written," would be more literally translated, "The books written."
Brentius calls attention to the very large number of miracles which, according to Matthew, were wrought by our Lord, of which we have no special record in any of the Gospels. (See Matthew 4:23-24; Matthew 11:5.) He justly argues that if these were all put down and described, it would greatly swell the Gospel narrative. What we have recorded is only a sample of what Jesus did.
Henry observes, that books might easily have been multiplied about Christ. "Everything that Christ said or did was worth our notice, and capable of being improved. He never spoke an idle word, and never did an idle thing; nay, He never spoke or did anything mean, little, or trifling, which is more than can be said of the wisest of men."—But he wisely adds, "If we do not believe and improve what is written already, neither should we if there had been much more."
The expression which John uses in this verse about "the world not receiving the books," is not without difficulty. It cannot of course mean that the material bulk of the books would be so large that the universe could not receive them. This would be absurd, as the "things" spoken of are only the things which Jesus did and said during the three years of His ministry. But what does the expression mean?
(a) Some, as Heinsius and Whitby, think that it means "the world, or unconverted portion of mankind, could not receive, take in, or comprehend more, if more was written. There is enough recorded for the conviction of sinners, and for the guidance of all who honestly want to be saved."—It is a grave objection to this view, that the text does not say "the world" simply, but "the world itself." Yet in fairness it must be allowed that in this sense the expression is rather like that in Amos: "The land is not able to bear all His words." (Amos 7:10.)
(b) Some think that the phrase must be taken as a strong hyperbolical description of the quantity and value of Christ’s works and words, during the period of His ministry, and that we must not press an excessively literal interpretation of the phrase. They argue that the figure called "hyperbole" is not at all uncommon in the Scripture, and that language is often used, when the idea to be conveyed is that of very great size, value, quantity, or number, which evidently cannot be interpreted literally. On the whole, I incline to think that this is the right view of the expression, and that it harmonizes well with the fervent, warm-hearted, loving character of the Apostle who lay on Jesus’ breast, and was commissioned to write the fourth Gospel. He ends with a heart full of Christ, and running over with love to Him, and zeal for His glory, and so he winds up just like himself.
The objection, sometimes made, that hyperbolical language is not consistent with inspiration, does not appear to me at all valid. No intelligent and careful reader of the Bible can fail to see that the inspired writers often use hyperbolical phrases,—phrases, I mean, that cannot possibly bear a literal interpretation, and must be regarded as a condescending accommodation to the weakness of man. For example; "Cities walled up to heaven." (Deuteronomy 1:28.) "A land that flowed with milk and honey." (Joshua 5:6.) "Camels as the sand of the sea for multitude." (Judges 7:12.) All these are phrases which cannot be interpreted literally, and which any sensible person knows to be figurative and hyperbolical. Our Lord Himself speaks of "Capernaum being exalted unto heaven;" and says, "If any man come after Me, and hate not his father and mother he cannot be my disciple." (Matthew 11:23; Luke 14:26.) In both cases His language evidently cannot be construed literally.
Calvin observes, "If the Evangelist, casting his eyes on the mightiness of the majesty of Christ, exclaims in astonishment, that even the whole world could not contain a full narrative of it, ought we to wonder? Nor is he at all to be blamed, if he employs a frequent and ordinary figure of speech for commending the excellence of Christ’s works. For he knew how God accommodates Himself to the ordinary way of speaking, on account of our ignorance."
This view is adopted by Augustine, Cyril, Bucer, Musculus, Gualter, Gerhard, Flacius, Ferus, Toletus, Maldonatus, Cornelius á Lapide, Jansenius, Pearson, Henry, Pearce, Scott, Tittman, Bloomfield, Barnes, Alford, Wordsworth, and Burgon.
Lampe protests strongly against the idea of any hyperbole being used, as barely reverent. But I cannot see any force in his argument.
The Greek word which we render "contain," is the same that is rendered in Matthew 19:11 "receive," and in the same sense that it appears used here: "All men cannot receive this saying."
The change from the plural "we know," in John 21:24, to the singular "I suppose," in this verse, is undoubtedly peculiar. But there are parallel cases quoted by Doddridge. (Romans 7:14, and 1 Thessalonians 2:18.) Euthymius notes it, and thinks the insertion of "I suppose" was meant to soften down the hyperbole.
It is noteworthy that the word "Amen" is the concluding word of each of the four Gospels. It is equivalent to saying, "In truth, verily, it is so." It is equally noteworthy that our Lord is the only person who ever uses the word at the beginning of a sentence.
I have now completed my Notes on John’s Gospel. I have given my last explanation. I have gathered my last collection of the opinions of Commentators. I have offered for the last time my judgment upon doubtful and disputed points. I lay down my pen with humbled, thankful, and solemnized feelings. The closing words of holy Bullinger’s Commentary on the Gospels, condensed and abridged, will perhaps not be considered an inappropriate conclusion to my "Expository Thoughts on John."—
"Reader, I have now set before thee thy Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ, that very Son of God, who was begotten by the Father by an eternal and ineffable generation, consubstantial and coequal with the Father in all things;—but in these last times, according to prophetical oracles, was incarnate for us, suffered, died, rose again from the dead, and was made King and Lord of all things.—This is He who is appointed and given to us by God the Father, as the fulness of all grace and truth, as the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world, as the ladder and door of heaven, as the serpent lifted up to render the poison of sin harmless, as the water which refreshes the thirsty, as the bread of life, as the light of the world, as the redeemer of God’s children, as the shepherd and door of the sheep, as the resurrection and the life, as the corn of wheat which springs up into much fruit, as the conqueror of the prince of this world, as the way, the truth, and the life, as the true vine, and finally, as the redemption, salvation, satisfaction, and righteousness of all the faithful in all the world, throughout all ages. Let us therefore pray God the Father, that, being taught by His Gospel, we may know Him that is true, and believe in Him in whom alone is salvation; and that, believing, we may feel God living in us in this world, and in the world to come may enjoy His eternal and most blessed fellowship." Amen and Amen.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on John 21". "Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent