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Sermon 13 - The Trial of Peter's love to Christ

By Andrew Lee


      John xxi. 15, 16, 17.

      "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 a 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 to 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 was the third time that Jesus shewed himself to the disciples after he was risen from the dead." But it was not the last time. "He often shewed himself alive: after his passion, being seen of them for forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God." Once he appeared to a Christian assembly--"was seen by above five hundred brethren" at the same time. When he had given to his disciples those infallible proofs of his resurrection, and those instructions, which their work required, "while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight." This visit was made to a part of the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; whither they had retired after the crucifixion; but whether to follow their former occupation, or in expectation of meeting there the risen Savior, who had promised to manifest himself to them in Galilee, we are not informed. They were however engaged in fishing, when after the fruitless labors of a night, they saw Jesus in the morning standing on the shore.

      God looks favorably on his people when he sees them employed in honest secular business; and sometimes manifests himself to them.

      This was a kind instructive visit, to these disciples; especially to Peter. Peter was of a bold, forward disposition, naturally eager and confident, and so strongly attached to his Lord, that he thought nothing could separate him from him--neither allurements, nor terrors. Therefore when Christ warned his family of his approaching sufferings, and the effect which they would have on them--that "they would be offended because of him--yea be scattered from him and leave him alone:" Peter did not believe him! He had such love to Christ, and felt so determined to adhere to him, in all extremities, that he dared to declare, "Though all shall be offended, yet will not I." And when his Lord, assured him that he would thrice deny him that very night, he was not convinced. It only served to draw from him a more vehement and positive assertion, "If I should die with thee I will not deny thee in any wise." But he soon found his mistake. Three times, before the next morning dawned, did he deny his Savior--with oaths and imprecations did he deny him!

      This sinner was soon renewed by repentance. And one design of Christ's visit at this time, seems to have been to assure the penitent, that his sin, in "denying the Lord who bought him," was pardoned, and that he was confirmed in the office to which he had been previously called. But the manner in which this was done carried in it a reproof, which must have called his sin to remembrance, causing his soul to be humbled in him. Let us turn our attention to the subject.

      'In the text we see Christ questioning Peter, and trying his love --Peter appealing to Christ for the reality of it--and Christ directing Peter how to manifest his love to him--by feeding his flock'.

      I. We see Christ questioning Peter and trying his love. 'Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these'?

      Simon was the original name of this apostle. Cephas and Peter, which signify a rock, or stone, were names given him of Christ, expressive of that firmness of character, for which he was remarkable. These though commonly used, after they were given him, were omitted on this occasion; probably as a tacit reproof of his denial of his Lord, a little before; which had been occasioned by the failure of his courage--by the deficiency of his firmness.

      The manner in which his divine master, here addressed this disciple, seemed to imply a doubt of his love; or of the supremacy of it. CHRIST knew the heart. Peter's love was not hidden from him. But while he dwelt with men, he treated people according to their apparent characters; thereby setting an example to his followers who can judge others only by appearances or that which is external.

      Jesus did not immediately address himself to Peter, as soon as he had made himself known; but after he had been some time in the company of these friends and followers, and they had made a friendly meal together, he turned to this disciple, and in the presence of his brethren, who had witnessed his high professions of love, and determination never to forsake or deny him, and the part he had acted soon after, addressed him, as in the text; 'Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these'?

      What had happened a little before, rendered this question highly proper. One of the twelve had fallen. One, whom the others had not suspected. Nothing had appeared, which marked out Judas for the traitor, during the time of his going out and in with the other disciples. Christ, though he knew him, and gave frequent intimations that there was a traitor among them, had never designated him. When they were told that one of them should betray their Lord, their eyes were not turned upon Judas, but each one appeared jealous of himself, "Lord is it I?" But his hypocrisy had now been made manifest and he had gone to his own place. Such had he been found who was the steward in Christ's family! That with respect to him, the other disciples had been deceived, now appeared. And Peter, who had been To forward and zealous, and professed such warm love to Christ, had lately denied him! And though he had returned, professing himself a penitent, his sincerity is questioned, and he is called on, to clear up his character.

      It was important that this matter should be determined, that the other disciples might know how to treat this late offender--whether he was to be received as a brother, or to be considered as deposed from his office, and to be succeeded by another. This was probably the reason of Christ's addressing him, as here in the presence of his brethren. 'Lovest thou me more than these'?

      If he had the love of Christ dwelling in him, and that love was supreme, Christ would forgive the past and continue to employ him as a shepherd to feed his flock. Therefore did he apply to this late offending pastor, and demand of him in the presence of his brethren, whether he really loved him, with such a love as was necessary to constitute him a disciple.

      This had been long before settled, and determined, to be love superior to that which is borne to the world, or the riches and honors, or friendships and relations of it, or even life in it. "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: He that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me: He that taketh not his cross and followeth after me, is not worthy of me: He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." *

      * Matthew x. 37.

      The purport of this and parallel declarations of the divine teacher, are not obscure; they plainly teach that we cannot be Christ's disciples, unless our love to him surpasseth that which we bear any thing terrestrial. Therefore the question put to Simon, agreeably to these prior definitions of that love to Christ which is necessary to constitute a person his disciple, marked particularly by the last clause of it, "more than these?"

      Expositors have generally put another sense on this question, and in our apprehension, a mistaken sense. They have considered our Lord as inquiring of Simon whether his love exceeded that of his fellow disciples. "Lovest thou me more than these thy fellow disciples love me?"

      This cannot be the sense of the question. This is a question which Simon could not have answered; and which it would have been wrong in him to have attempted to answer; a question therefore which Christ would not have put to put to him, or required him to answer. To have answered it, Simon must have known the heart of others; but to have pretended to the knowledge of them, would have been claiming a divine prerogative.

      But Peter had declared on Christ's forewarning them that "they would all be offended because of him, although all shall be offended, yet will not I."

      He had indeed made that declaration; but he had not judged others, or pretended to determine that they would or would not be offended because of him. Peter knew that he loved Christ--that the love of Christ was generally a governing principle in his heart. He felt the strength of it so sensibly at that time, that he did not conceive it possible that any dangers or sufferings could ever induce him to forsake his Lord; or in any respect, be offended because of him. Therefore his confident declaration, that he would stand by him in every extremity, though he should be left to stand alone. Leaving the future conduct of others, to determine the measure of their love to Christ, he spake only of his own. "Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will not I be offended." As though he had said;

      "I do not pretend to know the hearts of others; but I think I know my own; and that I have such love to thee my Lord, that nothing can separate me from thee." Jesus answered, "Verily I say unto thee, that this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice." Peter replied, "Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said all his disciples."

      They no doubt all spoke the language of their hearts; all expressed the determination of their souls at the time; though they were soon convinced of their mistake--that they did not sufficiently know themselves--their own weakness--the need they stood in of divine support.

      Peter, in particular, expressed the genuine feelings of his own warm and honest heart; but without the smallest intimation, that he suspected his fellow disciples; or pretended to judge them.

      And is there reason to think that Christ would put him upon this work? That he would require him to judge them, and compare his love with theirs? Especially when we consider Christ's former prohibition of judging others, which he had early made a law to his disciples. "Judge not that ye be not judged :" And remember that Christians are directed, "in all lowliness of mind, to esteem others better than themselves."

      Some have been disposed to think highly of themselves, and meanly of others--to say to others, "Stand by thyself; come not near me; I am holier than thou"--Some, to "compare themselves with others and exalt themselves above others." But not so the humble Christian--Not so the meek follower of Jesus. Nor is there any thing favorable to such temper and conduct to be found in the sacred volume. The spirit and tenor of the divine rule is opposed to it, and speaks persons of this character, objects of divine aversion.

      This temper, and its opposite, are exemplified in the pharisee and publican, who went up to the temple to pray. "God I thank thee, that I am not as other men--or even as this publican." Thus the pharisee. But "the publican standing afar off, would not lift up so much as" his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner." We know which of these met the divine approbation.

      Now, is it supposable, that the Savior would put a question to Simon, which would countenance the pharasaic disposition? Or that he would require him to judge the hearts of others? Or compare himself with others, in a matter which required the knowledge of their hearts?

      It seems strange that this should be thought by any one, to be the sense of Christ's question to Peter; much more that this should be the most common construction of it, by expositors.

      II. In answer to our Lord's question to Simon, we find him in the text appealing to our Lord, for the reality of his love. "'Thou knowest that I love thee--Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I that I love thee'."

      It is observable that Peter rests the whole matter on Christ's knowledge of the heart. Peter makes no plea--adduces no evidence-- mentions no circumstances, evidential of his love to Christ, but refers the matter back directly to him, as the searcher of hearts and leaves it with him. 'Thou knowest that I love thee'.

      The grieved, and distressed apostle, could have mentioned many things as proofs of his love to Jesus; yea of the strength of his affection for him. He might have pleaded his profession respecting Christ, at the time when he was honored with the name of Peter--an honorable distinction, and designed to recommend him to the acceptance of his fellow disciples. * He might have mentioned what passed, when Christ asked the twelve, whether they "would also go away?" When many offended at his doctrine forsook him, after having followed him, and professed themselves his disciples. Simon had on that occasion made a noble profession, shewing that he was a disciple indeed--"Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure, that thou art that Christ, the son of the living God?" He might have pleaded, that he had singly dared to draw his sword against the multitude, which came to apprehend his Lord--that he had resolutely attacked them, and maintained the conflict, with the whole band, till disarmed by a command from his divine Sovereign to put up his sword into its sheath--that he had followed Christ, when most of the others forsook him and fled--had ventured into the judgment hall to attend his trial and witness the event--that though there surprised and terrified into a denial of Christ, when he saw him contrary to his expectations, resign himself to death, by the wicked hands of unbelieving Jews, aided by heathen soldiers, yet that only one kind look from his captive Lord, had brought him to repent and mourn in the bitterness of his soul, that he had not agreeably to his former purpose, died with his divine master--He might have alleged, that he had not forsaken Christ's family and friends, even when Christ hung on the cross or slept in the tomb; though his most faithful followers, had then been ready to conclude, that they had been deceived, when "they trusted that it was he who should have redeemed Israel"--that he had watched Christ's corpse, and been with the first to examine the report of his resurrection, and among the first who believed it--and that even then, at that appearance of his Lord, he only of those present, when they saw him standing on the shore, could not wait till the boat should convey him to the land, but had thrown himself into the sea, leaving the fish which they had enclosed, to continue in their own element, and swam to the shore, not perhaps, without endangering his life, that he might not delay to receive and welcome his Lord.

      * Matthew xv. 12-19.

      These, and probably many other things, evidential of the reality and strength of his love to Christ, Simon might have alleged, notwithstanding his late defection--distinctions, which perhaps none of his fellow disciples could have pleaded; and which, had any share of the pharisaic spirit rested on him, might have induced him to claim that superiority to his brethren, which a certain church afterwards attributed to him.

      To have mentioned these, might have strengthened the charity of his fellow disciples towards him; but he knew that none of them were requisite, to convince Christ of his love. Though he had done, and suffered, and exposed himself for Christ, more than others, he put in no claim to a reward--he had done less than was his duty. His dependence was on grace. Therefore did he decline the mention, of what some would have boasted, and appealed directly to his Savior, as the searcher of hearts, to judge of the matter in question--of his love, and the measure of it--appealed to him who had put the question, 'lovest thou me more than these?' To clear up his character and bear witness to the reality and measure of his affection toward him--'Yea Lord, thou knowest that I love thee'.

      In this appeal he not only shewed his sincerity, but reflected honor on Christ, by an acknowledgement of his divinity. The knowledge of the heart is the prerogative of Deity. "I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, to give to every man according to his way, and according to the fruit of his doings. The Lord searcheth all hearts, and understandeth the imaginations of the thoughts." The exalted Savior, afterwards made himself known as possessing this power, and appointed to exercise it, in adjusting the rewards of another life. "All the churches shall know that I am he who searcheth the hearts and reins; and I will give to every one of you according to your works." But this had not been clearly revealed, when Christ paid the visit to his disciples at the sea of Tiberias. The Christian dispensation was then scarcely set up. Darkness still brooded on the minds, even of the apostles. It continued till the outpouring of the Spirit, on the day of Pentecost, when the promise of "the Comforter, to teach them all things, and bring all things to their remembrance," was fulfilled. But Simon seems to have anticipated these public manifestations and discoveries--to have at this time been convinced, that Christ was omniscient--THOU KNOWEST ALL THINGS; 'thou knowest that I love thee'.

      In this appeal, Christ was farther honored, by Simon's open, public reliance on his goodness. He had then lately dishonored Christ, by a shameful denial--a denial, when to have acknowledged him, would have done him the greatest honor. But such was his confidence in the goodness of his Lord, that he dared to trust himself with him--had no concern, that resentment of the part he had acted, would induce him, in whom he trusted, to overlook his penitence, and pass his humble confidence unnoticed--did not fear to trust himself in Christ's hands, and leave it to him to make known his character to his fellow disciples.

      In these things the faith of Simon, and the nature of his faith appeared. He not only believed Jesus to be the Christ, but he believed the divinity of Christ. His faith did not terminate in a bare assent, but convinced of his sufficiency, and of his justice, and mercy and readiness to forgive the returning penitent, he gave himself up to Christ and trusted in him to pardon his sins and save him by his grace. Though sensible of his own demerit, fear did not drive him away from the Savior, but induced him to return to him and put his whole trust in him.

      Such is the nature of justifying faith. Those who are subjects of it, deeply sensible of their sins, "look to the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world," and place all their dependence on him; and they are not disappointed--; "Whoso believeth shall not be ashamed."

      Thus Simon's faith and love were owned of Christ; and this late offender not only pardoned, but continued in his office; a pastor of Christ's flock. 'Feed my lambs--Feed my sheep', were the replies to the appeals made by the offender, that he loved the Savior. In this manner was he directed,

      III. To manifest his love to Christ.--It might have been thought that Simon had fallen from his office when he denied his Lord; with oaths and imprecations, denied his knowledge of him. If so, he was here restored; Christ entrusted him again with the care "of his flock --which he had purchased with his blood;" and reappointed him to "give them their meat in due season." His having had this charge here given him, argued the pardon of his offences, and his restoration to favor. He would not have been required to do the work of an apostle, had not his transgression been forgiven, and his sin been blotted out. Judas had no such trust reposed in him after his fall; no such duty required of him. "By his transgression he fell from his ministry and apostleship, that he might go to his own place, and another take his office." Judas repented; but not with repentance unto life. His repentance led to death by his own hand. Diverse was that of Simon, both in its nature and effects. His was "Godly sorrow, which wrought repentance unto life"--which caused him to devote himself wholly to the service of the Redeemer, and at last to lay down his life for his sake.

      REFLECTIONS

      I. Our subject teacheth the folly of felt dependence. Who ever appeared to have stronger confidence in himself than Peter? Yet few have fallen more shamefully than he.

      If we lean to ourselves, like things will probably befall us. Our strength is weakness. Our enemies are many and powerful; they are long versed in the arts of deception; well acquainted with our weakness; know how, and when, and where to attack us to advantage. Left to ourselves, we should doubtless be snared and taken by them.

      Simon was naturally bold and resolute; had great love to Christ, and zeal for his honor: Yet all did not enable him "to stand in the evil day." If Peter fell, who, left to himself, can stand? Not one. But God is able to make the weakest and most feeble stand, and will make them stand if they trust in him. "My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness." Blessed are they who trust in him.

      II. An high opinion of a person's own strength, or love to God and the Redeemer, is most commonly the prelude to a fall. When one thinks himself strong, and feels secure, he is soon taught weakness and dependence, and the need he stands in of a divine guardian, by some advantage gained over him by the enemy: Whereas, those who are sensible of their own weakness, and trust in God, are holden up, and made to stand. "Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon--me for when I am weak, then am I strong."

      III. As self knowledge is of great importance, unnecessary to our reforming that which is amiss, and to our trading in him who is able to keep us, we should often try ourselves, as in his presence--his, to whom our hearts are open. It becomes us often to retire inward, and examine whether the love of Christ dwelleth in us? 'Whether we love him more than these'? Than the world and the things of it? If Christ is not uppermost in our hearts, "we are not worthy of him." But if we can answer the question put to Simon, as he answered it, 'Lord thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee', happy are we. We remain in a state of imperfection--may often have occasion to mourn some practical denial of Christ; still, if 'he who knoweth all things, knoweth that we love him', our love to him will not he overlooked; he will own us before his Father, and reward us with eternal rewards.

      IV. Christ's disciples, while in the body, often err; if acquainted with ourselves, we must often know this of ourselves; do we then see our faults?

      If any who call themselves Christians live in neglect of self examination, and are consequently strangers to themselves, there is great reason to fear that they are strangers also to the Christian life. The Christian communes much with his own heart, and finds daily occasion to mourn before God, that his service is so defective, and that he so often denies his Lord, by heedless lapses, or by suffering temptation to have such power over him. When the Lord looked on Peter, and thereby brought to his remembrance the warnings which he had given him, his confidence in himself, and then his fall, he went out and wept bitterly.

      Every Christian hath a measure of this spirit, and is grieved at his heart, when he calls to mind his shameful denials of his Lord. If any, who think themselves his disciples are blind to their faults, or little affected with them--ready to excuse or extenuate them, especially if hidden from the world; or feel reluctant to take shame to themselves, when they have fallen, it nearly concerns them to examine the grounds of their hope toward God; there is reason to fear that they "hold a lie in their right hands." Those who are Christ's discern their faults; confess and forsake them. Their falls art made the occasion of greater watchfulness, and care to keep themselves from every wicked thing, and perfect holiness in the fear of God. May he grant this to be our temper, for his mercy's sake in Christ. Amen.

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