Rev. Lubbers is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The threefold “Simon, Simon, Son of Jonas”—continued
Perhaps it might be beneficial to the reader that at this point we stop and consider briefly the terms wherewith Jesus designates His church to Simon. Such a study often gives opportunity to unfold some more of the riches of the words of life of Jesus.
To each of these questions we will now turn our attention.
In the question to Simon, Christ reminds him of his self-confident boasting! He had stated very boldly that “if all be offended in thee this night, I will never be offended in thee” (Matt. 26:33). We must remember that these words were uttered by Peter, and were also foolishly agreed to by the other ten disciples, in reply to Jesus’ quoting from Zechariah 13:7: “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow: smite the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered . . . .” Peter, as a spokesman, and all the others refused to believe the Old Testament Scripture’s prediction of the suffering and dying of the Shepherd of Israel, which Shepherd had power to lay down His life and had power to take it up again (John 10:18). They shall all be offended in such a powerful Christ who dies according to the Scriptures, and who is raised again on the third day according to these same Scriptures. They’ are confident that they will stand and that the Scripture’s prophecy of their being utterly scattered will not come to pass. In a word, they are offended at the word of the Cross! And, lest we forget, it was at this point that Christ specifically stated to Peter and to the rest of the disciples that “after I am raised up I will go before you into Galilee.” This word too they all had refused to believe. This doubt and unbelief became very apparent on the morning of the resurrection, when they refused to believe the report of the women (Luke 24:6-12).
Now it was in Jesus’ power to have come and asked this question very personally to Peter alone. He could have taken him aside and spoken to him privately. But such was not the divine wisdom of God in this case. Not only Peter must confess that horrible sin of unbelief in the words which Jesus had quoted fromZechariah 13:7, but the others here present at this breakfast must hear these questions directed to Simon. Although they did not need to answer audibly, John and the others too must be humbled in the self-humbling of Peter at Jesus’ feet. They too must have been pricked in their consciences. Had they too not forsaken their Lord? Had they not been offended in the Christ of God in the night in which Jesus was betrayed?
This first question makes every one naked and opened before the eyes of God with whom they had to do!
No, Simon had not loved Jesus more than the other disciples loved Jesus! Nor had he loved Him less than they had. He had fallen into the sin of denying his Lord. And, o awful moment, had he too been denied before the face of his Father in heaven in that awful moment in that well-known courtyard outside of Caiaphas’ hall? God alone be praised in the boundless mercy wherewith He smote that shepherd that night. For this smitten shepherd, who was wounded for our offenses, looked in infinite pity and love upon Peter and also the others; He loved Peter to the end. His petition to the Father that the faith of all these true disciples might not “fail” was heard for these tempest-tossed souls!
There was really infinite love and faithfulness in this heart searching question: Lovest thou Me more than these, Simon, son of Jonas? Simon does not deny outright that he loves Jesus more than does the beloved disciple John and the others. He leaves the question unanswered. He does not say, “No, I don’t believe that I do love Thee more than John does.” Neither does he dodge the question. He looks with pleading eyes to Jesus his “Lord.” He leaves it in the wise and loving judgment of his Savior—Lord. Thouknowest Lord that I have a deep affection for Thee! He is utterly silent concerning the love of the others. He leaves that judgment where it properly belongs.
There is something about the verb used in the Greek text which we ought to point out to the reader of these lines. For Peter employs the word for “to know” very wittingly. The term is oidas, in distinction from the verb ginooskein. Both verbs are translated in the English with the verb knowest. However, the former term refers to seeing clearly with the mind’s eye, while the latter refers to experiential knowledge, the knowledge of loving fellowship and life. Now Peter appeals in this first question, as well as in the second question of Jesus as we shall see, to the penetrating omniscience of Jesus who knows what is in man (John 21:15, 16). However, in his reply to Jesus in the third questions he expands the answer in acknowledging that Jesus knows what is in his heart in both senses of the terms. For he employs both the Greek verboidas and ginooskeis. Lord Thou dost not only know with a bare omniscience, but Thou tastest my love for Thee with spiritual apprehension of the fellowship of reciprocal love between the Savior and the saved.
We should also not overlook that each time when Peter answers Jesus he says, “thou, Lord” except the third time, when he speaks the very pleading and plaintive “Lord.” In the first two instances Peter emphasizes that not he must really answer this question, but that the Lord alone can and should answer it. Here is something of that basic and humble attitude which says that it is better to fall into the merciful arms of the loving knowledge of Jesus than to put up a great argument in self-defense. There is not one grain of the self-confidence of the men who put their trust in self here at all. It is the attitude of the penitent. Peter has found the mercy of forgiveness, and we taste in these words a complete and total looking away from self to the tender mercies of the Lord!
Finally, we must notice that Peter in utmostsensitiveness avoids saying, “I do love you,” in the sense that the Bible says that “God is love” (I John 4:8ff.). For Jesus truly, if I may so speak reverently of Jesus my Lord, pins Peter down in these questions. There is here not a hounding to terrify or to dismay Peter; but the full truth must be confessed, both of sin and of grace. For, mark you well, Peter is the prime candidate to be the chief-undershepherd of the Great Shepherd of the sheep! Of this one we read in Hebrews 13:20: “Now the God of peace, who brought again from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep with the blood of the eternal covenant, even our Lord Jesus, make you perfect in every good work, working in us that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Hence, there is here a very emphatic pedagogical stepping up of the questions to Peter. When he silently confesses that even his “affection” is not to be viewed in terms of greater or lesser than his peers, then Jesus asks the more basic question: Simon, do you love Me? Jesus will not allow the issue of the ethical love to be substituted by the lesser “warm and hearty affection.” Peter cannot escape. He must face the reality whether he really loves Jesus in that profound sense in which love is called the bond of perfection by the Holy Spirit in Colossians 3:14. Does Peter have such a love for Jesus? If not, then the tender affection really is empty of spiritual content. Do you love Me, that crucified Christ, the risen Lord, so that you will never be offended at the Word of the Cross, which is the only truth of the Gospel which you must go out to preach presently in all the world. For blessed is he that is not offended in Me (Matt. 11:1-6)!
Also here Peter casts himself upon his Lord who knows Peter’s heart better than what Peter himself does. For from this deep heart flows all the issues of Peter’s life. Christ alone knows the secret resources of love. He knows whether Peter will preach the Word of envy or of good will (Phil. 1:15, 16). “Peter, will this love for Me throb in every syllable of your preaching until your dying day?”
It is Jesus that takes the initiative here at this early morning meal. This too is part of His self-manifestation. Hear Him intone: Simon, Son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more than these? Is your love for Me greater and more intense in fervor than that of John and James? Jesus here does not question Peter’s love, nor the love of the others. He knows that Peter loves Him. But Peter is here being installed, and in a sense reinstated, into office of apostleship. This is a solemn hour in history, a great moment in the church. Here is a servant who can only be great when he is like his master. Do you still compare your love with that of others in your sinful, boastful, and self-confident manner, Peter?
Peter feels the full impact of this question in his sanctified conscience. This word is sharp and alive and goes into the marrow and bones of Peter, and it is a discerner of the intents of his heart. Yes, all things are naked and opened with God, with whom Peter has to do.
Simon now replies as a “Peter,” the rock. He humbles himself under the mighty hand of God, and replies, “Yes, Lord, thou knowest that I have a deep affection for Thee.” He avoids in holy sensitiveness employing that strong word “love” (agapein), which is the term used in the words “God is love.” That is the deep, ethical love which is the bond of perfection (Col. 3:14). How would he dare to assert that he loved God with the perfection of love in heaven, and that, too, more than all these other six lovers of Christ? Meanwhile, bear in mind that this was an appeal to the Lord Jesus, who knows all things in Peter’s heart. It is not any more what Peter thinks of himself in his own self-evaluation, but what the Lord thinks of him and knows of his heart which counts! Here Peter comes to his de profundus! He sings Psalm 139:23, 24 in minor key. He walks softly with his God amongst his fellow co-laborers in the gathering of the harvest.
But the Lord Jesus persists. No, He does not doubt Peter’s confession. For, even upon this first of the three answers, Peter is already admitted into office. Says Jesus to Peter, “Feed my lambs.” But this is still spoken as a “charge” to Peter, circumscribing the very delicate and high labor and toil to which he is called. Feed My lambs whom I loved so much that I laid down My life to free them from all sin and guilt—these lambs which none can or may pluck out of My hand! These lambs must be fed and nourished with spiritual food of the word of God.
We would think that this would now suffice.
But Jesus loves His sheep very dearly; and no hireling may from now on tend these sheep. For it is as Ezekiel had said: There shall be showers of blessings. This will be at the time when the Lord shall place one Shepherd over His flock, and will appoint faithful shepherds. Confer Ezekiel 24:11-16.