“So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord: thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. “
This now is the third time the Lord met with His disciples after His resurrection.
The first meeting was in the upper room in Jerusalem on the evening of resurrection day. On this occasion Thomas was not with them when the Lord showed Himself alive, revealing to them the signs of the crucifixion in His body, and disproving that He was a spirit by eating in their presence.
The second meeting was a week later, but in the same place. This time Thomas was present, and evidently the meeting was especially for his benefit; for not only did the Lord show to him that He was alive, but Thomas must learn not to be disbelieving but believing.
The third meeting took place a considerable time later and now at the Sea of Galilee. On this occasion the disciples had been fishing all night and had caught nothing. In the morning the Lord, first appearing as a stranger, called to them inquiring whether they had caught anything. To this question they replied, No! He then instructed them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. Now the net was full of great fishes, and it seemed the net would break. John then said to Peter, It is the Lord! And Peter, who was naked, girt on his fisher’s coat, jumped into water, and headed for shore. There the Lord had prepared for the disciples a hearty breakfast. After they had eaten, Jesus began His conversation with Peter in the hearing of all the disciples, as it is recorded in the text cited above.
This is also the second time the Lord addresses Himself to Peter after His resurrection.
The first time was on the day of the resurrection, when the Lord confronted him privately. We are not told concerning their conversation. Evidently the Lord saw fit to keep it a secret. If conjectures may be allowed, there were most likely especially two matters that entered into their conversation. Peter, the disciple who had fallen so deeply when he had denied his Lord, wept once more as he confessed his sin before Him. And the Lord, Who had prayed for him even before he fell, informing him that He had covered also Peter’s sin in His blood shed on the cross. Thus Peter as the child of God is restored, having been forgiven.
Now, on this second occasion, it is the Lord’s purpose to restore Peter also to the apostleship. That is why the meeting this time is not in secret, but in the presence of all the disciples gathered there. All were aware of what Peter had done, how boastfully he had declared that if all would forsake the Lord he would not, yea, that he would even lay down his life for the Lord. But when he had denied his Lord three times, he not only had committed a personal, dastardly deed, but he had willfully abdicated his apostolic office. It is therefore with a view to his restoration to that office that the Lord in our text confronts him. We are therefore concerned now with Peter’s restoration to the office of the apostleship.
Notice, first of all, the interrogation which the Lord conducts.
A probing question!
Directed to Peter three times, it is most likely to be understood on the background of his threefold denial. An interrogation it was, too, in the presence of all the disciples, because in their audience he had boasted that if they all would forsake the Lord, as the Lord had forewarned, he would not — thereby intimating that his love for the Lord was greater than that of all the other disciples.
O, how he had boasted before them all how he, in distinction from them, was devoted to the Lord! Thus he had become an offense not only to the Lord, but also to all the brethren; and by reason of this he had virtually separated himself from the disciple group. Naturally they could not easily forget what Peter had said when he had intimated that only he in distinction from them loved the Lord. And then to turn around and deny his Lord three times! Rash Simon, having been intimidated by simple questions and allegations, cursing up and down that he had no part with Jesus of Nazareth! Thus, he not only utterly forsook his Lord, but also separated himself from the office to which he had been appointed by the Lord. Such is the dark background from which the interrogation proceeds.
Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? We must notice here, first of all, how the Lord addresses him by his natural name, that is, the name he acquired at his birth — but also the name which revealed Peter according to his old nature. He was indeed Simon, son of Jonas, before the Lord on a memorable occasion had called him Peter, the rock. You remember the happy incident at Caesarea Philippi when the Lord inquired of His disciples as to His true identity, and Peter, speaking for the disciple group, had attested: Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. A confession it was which was prompted by the Father, and which would serve as the rock upon which Christ would build His Church, against which the gates of hell would never prevail. But now the Lord with intent omits to call him Peter, but reminds him that what he had done was nothing more than to reveal that old Simon, self-reliant, self-seeking, boastful Simon. Surely there must have been a sting in this address to that old Simon.
We might be inclined at this point to ask: Why didn’t the Lord let the matter rest, especially after this disciple had already confessed his sin privately, and that with bitter tears? Why did the Lord continue to probe into an old sore, and that, too, publicly, in the presence of all the disciples? If the Lord loved him (which He surely did), why must He undress him before all, and that, too, down to the revelation of the old man of sin? The answer to all these questions is simply this: this is precisely the nature of true love. It never seeks to hide sin, but to bring it out into the open, where all, including the sinner, may see how horrible sin is. And positively, it is the purpose of true love to correct and restore the sinner who is the object of that love. It wasnot the Lord’s purpose needlessly to humble Peter before the rest, but out of the pure motivation of love to restore him again — not only to his office, but also to a right relation to the other disciples.
Lovest thou Me more than these?
That is, more than do these my other disciples? The Lord means to say: Isn’t that precisely what you intimated Simon, son of Jonas, when you said, in spite of fair warning, that if all would forsake Me, you would not? Would you still say, Simon, son of Jonas, that you love Me more than these, in the light of the fact that you, in distinction from them, have denied Me three times?
Disconcerting, probing question, indeed!
But we must notice also here that the translation does not really do justice to the questions the Lord places before Peter, nor to the answers which Peter gives to these questions. The translation has the Lord asking three times: Lovest thou Me? And each time Peter replies: Thou knowest that I love Thee. However, according to the original text, we discover that the Lord uses the more profound term for love in the first two questions, and in the third instance changes the term to conform to Peter’s answers to all three questions, where he replies using a more superficial term, signifying emotional affection. It is difficult to express in the translation the difference, since both words are generally translated “love.”
It is apparent however from the original text that Peter senses the difference, while it also appears that at this moment he does not dare to reply to the Lord’s first two questions by using the profound, deep-seated, spiritual term for love. Though we cannot do justice in explaining the difference in the two terms used and translated “love,” it may be helpful to remind you that in our vernacular we also use two different words when we reflect on our relation to one another. When, for example, my wife or child asks me the question: Do you really love me? I do not reply: Yes, I like you very much; but I answer: Yes, from the bottom of my heart I love you. But when my wife asks me: What do you think of the neighbor lady? I do not reply that I love her from the bottom of my heart; but I say: I like her very much, because she is kind and understanding. So we use the terms “love” and “like,” to reflect, on the one hand, a deep-seated affection arising out of the love of God, and on the other, a lesser affection that arises out of a more superficial relation.
If we may apply this distinction to the conversation between the Lord and Peter, we would have something like this: Jesus asks, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more than these? Peter replies, Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I like Thee. Jesus asks, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me? Peter replies, Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I like Thee. Jesus asks, Simon, son of Jonas, likest thou Me? Peter replies, Lord, Thou knowest perfectly all things, Thou knowest that I like Thee.
As was said, this attempt to show the difference in the terms used cannot be interpreted as an explanation of the terms, but must be understood only as an attempt to show that different terms were used. What must become apparent, however, is the fact that Peter does not dare anymore to use the stronger term for love. He has been humbled to see that in his own strength he can no longer boast, but he must confess that the Lord must help his infirmity. If he is truly to love the Lord, that grace must be given unto him.
Also to be observed is the fact that Peter here makes no attempt to exonerate himself by pointing to extenuating circumstances. Sinners are liable to do that you know. Adam did it when he was confronted with his transgression. He pointed to the wife God had given him. And Peter, too, might have tried to excuse himself by pointing to the fact that under duress the thought entered his soul that the Lord’s cause was hopeless, and therefore it really didn’t make any difference to him what he said or did. Or, he might have said that when the enemy overwhelmed him he lost his head, and didn’t really know what he was doing. But nothing of this appears in his conversation now. He has nothing to say in reply to the Lord’s serious question, except what he implied when he answered, Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love Thee — that is, I cannot say now that I love Thee with that profound, spiritual love, and that I love Thee more than these, but thou knowest nevertheless that I am drawn to Thee with cords of affection. I will no longer boast that my love for Thee is greater than that of my brethren. And I humbly confess with my answer that I have sinned not only against Thee, but also against my brethren when I boasted. May they forgive me as Thou hast forgiven.
Indeed, a humble confession!
In his confession he casts himself on the mercy of his Saviour. Thou Lord art omnipotent and omniscient. Thou art my mighty Lord, and Thou knowest all things. Therefore Thou must know that, in my deepest heart I am drawn to Thee with cords of sincerest affection.
Upon this humble confession Peter is restored to his apostolic office.
Not to be bishop over the entire church, as the heresy of Rome would have it, for there is no indication in the text of such exaltation of Peter. But Peter is restored to his apostolic office, which, with the other apostles, consisted in feeding the church of Christ. This he, with them, will do by preaching the gospel, and by infallibly writing the Word of God. So he will feed the flock of God, purchased by the blood of Christ.
The great Shepherd of the sheep places this His under shepherd once more, and that, too, in the presence of all the apostles, in his holy office. And He mandates him to fulfill the requirement of that office by feeding His precious sheep.
All the sheep, and especially the lambs!
Notice how carefully the Lord expresses Himself here. First, My lambs. How tenderly the great Shepherd is mindful of them. Peter, He means to say, those little lambs of Mine will need your special care. Then, My sheep! That is, the whole flock must not be neglected, but you must see to it that all are grazed and fed. Always, Peter, you must be motivated in your apostolic calling by your love of me.
From this point on the old Simon is subdued. Now Peter, the rock, must tend Christ’s flock. The great Shepherd will not have His flock tended and fed by carnal, self-seeking under shepherds, but by those only who are principled by the love of God, so wonderfully exemplified by the love of the great Shepherd, Who laid down His life for His sheep. That Peter learned this lesson is plain from his First Epistle where he concludes: “Feed the flock of God which is among you taking oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind. Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.”
Such advice that apostle could not have given to Christ’s under shepherds if he had not first learned, be it the hard way, to apply it to himself.