By J.G. Bellet
Thus have we seen life actually dispensed by the risen Lord to His brethren, and ministry committed to them as such; and we have seen life pledged to Israel in the person of Thomas. But this restored Thomas, or the Israel of God in the latter day, shall (like the Church now) get ministry as well as life, be used as well as quickened. And we get the pledge of this also now in due order.
In the opening of this chapter we see the apostles brought back to the condition in which the Lord at first met them. Peter and the sons of Zebedee are again at their fishing. Indeed, their former labour had come to nothing Their nets had broken. The Lord had proposed to use them, but Israel in His hand had proved but a deceitful bow, a broken net. But now they are in their toil again, and the Lord appears again, and gives them a second draught. And on this, in company with the Lord Himself, they feast; and their nets remain unbroken.
Our evangelist notices that this was "the third time" that Jesus showed Himself to His disciples after He was risen from the dead. At the first, as we saw, He met the brethren to give them, as the heavenly family, their fellowship and ministry. At the second, He restored Thomas, the representative of Israel's final conversion and life. And now, at the third, He gives the pledge of Israel's ministry and fruitfulness unto God.
These three distinct visits give us, after this manner, the full view of the Church and of Israel. But I must particularly notice another acting of the consciousness of love, which is very sweet. Peter knew, in spite of all that had happened, that there was a link between him and the Lord; and Peter therefore is not afraid to be alone with Him. It is true that, when they had been together on a previous occasion Peter had denied Him; and the Lord had turned and looked upon him. But Peter knew that he loved his Lord notwithstanding; and now he is not afraid to cast himself into the sea, and reach Jesus alone, before the rest of them. And there is something truly blessed in this. Law could never have brought this about, nor, indeed, have warranted it. The rod of the law would have beaten him off, and made him keep his distance. Nothing but grace could allow this; nothing but the cords of love could have drawn denying Peter the nearest to his slighted Lord, after this manner. But there is more still.
The dinner, as we read, was now ended--the purpose of this third visit was now answered. But in order to close all in wondrous grace and glory, and in a way also most suitable to, and characteristic of, our Gospel, the Lord turns to Peter, making him again his special object, and addressing him in such a way as could not, and does not, fail to call his sin to remembrance.
Here, however, again I would pause for a little moment.
The Lord had very much to do with Peter, beyond others of the disciples, while He was in the midst of them; and we find it the same after He had risen. Peter is the one who occupies the greater part of this twenty-first chapter of John.
The Lord here carries on with him the gracious work that He had begun ere He left him, and carries it on exactly from the point where He had left it.
Peter had betrayed self-confidence. Though all should be offended, yet would not he, he said; and though he should die with his Master, he would not deny Him. His Master had told him of the vanity of such boasts, but had told him also of His prayer for him, so that his faith should not fail. And when the boast is found to be indeed a vanity, and Peter denied his Lord even with an oath, his Lord looked on him, and this look had its blessed operation. The prayer and the look had availed. The prayer had kept his faith from failing, but the look had broken his heart. He did not "go away," but he wept, and wept bitterly.
At the opening of this chapter we find Peter in this condition, the condition in which the prayer and look of his divine Master had put him. That his faith had not failed he is enabled to have very sweet proof, for as soon as he hears that it is his Lord Who is standing on the shore, he throws himself into the water to reach Him; not, however, as a penitent, as though he had not already wept, but as one who could trust himself in His presence, the presence of his once denied Master, in full assurance of heart.
The prayer and the look had thus already, as we now see, done their work with Peter, and they are not to be repeated. The Lord simply goes on with His work thus begun, to conduct it to perfection.
Accordingly the prayer and the look are now followed by the word. Restoration now follows conviction and tears. Peter is put into the place of strengthening his brethren, as his Lord had once said to him, and also into the place of glorifying God by his death, a privilege he had forfeited by his unbelief and denial. This was the word of restoration following the prayer which had already sustained Peter's faith, and the look which had already broken his heart.
But further, as to this case, for it is one of deep interest to our souls.
In the day of John 13 the Lord had taught this same loved Peter that a washed man need not to be washed again, but only his feet. And exactly in this way He now deals with him. He does not again put him through the process of Luke 5, when the draught of fishes overwhelmed him, and he found out that he was a sinner; but He restores him, and puts him into his place again. That is, He washes Peter's feet, as one whose body was washed already.
Perfect Master! we may say, as with worshipping admiration--the same to us yesterday, and today, and for ever; the same in gracious skill of love, going on with the work He had afore begun; as the risen Lord resuming the service which He had left unfinished when He was taken from them; and resuming it at the very point, knitting the past and the present service in the fullest grace and skill!
The three denials of his Lord seem to be quite brought to mind, when Jesus, the third time, says to him, "Lovest thou Me?" But the Lord, as we have been observing, was only fully restoring the soul, and leading His saint to richer blessing. He restores him to his ministry, for another was not to take his bishopric; and then pledges him strength to serve his Lord in it, without a second denial or failure. He constitutes him His witness and servant in the full power of a martyr's faith. And having pledged this grace to him, that he should thus witness for Him faithfully even unto death, He says to him, "Follow Me."*
* Jesus knew all things, and that was Peter's comfort. Peter was sure that his Lord knew the depths as well as the surfaces of things, and thus that He knew what was in His poor servant's heart, though his lips had so transgressed.
This was a moment of sweetest interest. We know that if we suffer with Him, we shall reign with Him; and if we follow Him, where the Lord Himself is, there His servant shall be. Now, this call on Peter was a call to follow His Lord along the path of testimony and suffering, in the power of resurrection, to the rest in which that path ends, and to which that resurrection leads. Jesus had said to Peter before He left him, "Whither I go, thou canst not follow Me now, but thou shalt follow Me afterwards." John 13. And the Lord, as we know, was then going to heaven and the Father through the cross. This present call was, in spirit, making good that promise to Peter. It was a call on him to follow the Lord, through death, up to the Father's house. And, upon saying these words to him, the Lord rises from the place where they had been eating, and Peter, thus bidden, rises to follow Him.
John listens to this call, as though it had been addressed to him also, and, on seeing the Lord rise and Peter rise, he at once rises also. For he ever lay nearest the Lord. He leaned on His breast at supper, and was the disciple whom Jesus loved. He ever stood in the place of closest sympathy with Him - so, by a kind of necessity (blessed necessity!) on the Lord's rising, he rises, though unbidden.
In such an attitude we now see them. The Son of God has risen, and is walking out of our sight, and Peter and John are following Him. All this is lovely and significant beyond expression. We do not see the end of their path, for while thus walking the Gospel closes. The cloud, as it were, receives them out of our sight. We gaze in vain after them, and the path of the disciples is just as far removed from us as that of their Lord. It was, in principle, the path that leads to the Father's house, which we know is prepared for the Lord and His brethren, the presence of God in heaven.
Surely, we may say, the Bridegroom at our feast has kept the best wine until now. If our souls could enter into this, there is nothing like it. Mark, in his Gospel, tells us of the fact of the Lord being received up into heaven (Mark 16: 19); and Luke shows us the ascension itself, while the Lord was lifting up His hands, and blessing His disciples. Luke 24: 51. But all that sweet as it was, is not equal to what we get here. For all that left the disciples apart from their Lord. He was then going to heaven, and they were to return to Jerusalem; but here, they are following Him up to heaven. Their path does not stop short of the full end of His.
This is none other than the "gate of heaven" to which our Gospel conducts us, and whereat it leaves us. The Lord is in this place, in fullest grace to His chosen. The receiving of the brethren into the Father's house is here pledged to us. In this, Peter and John are the representatives of us all, beloved. Some, like Peter, may glorify God by death; and others, as is intimated here to John, will be alive and remain till Jesus come; but all are to follow, whether Peter or John, Moses or Elias, whether dead in Christ or quick at His coming, all shall be caught up together to meet the Lord in the air, and be for ever with Him. It will be to them like the ascension of Enoch before the flood. And being received unto Himself, they will go with Him into the prepared place in the Father's house, as He has said unto us.*
*We must not assert that any individual will remain till the Lord come. That is condemned by verse 23. But the same verse allows us to assert that the Lord may come before our death, if He please.
And I may observe this is the only view of our Lord's ascension which our Gospel gives us. But it is that view of it which is strictly in character with the whole Gospel, which gives us, as has been observed, our Lord Jesus in connection with the Church as the family of the Father, the heavenly household. For this ascension is not so properly to the right hand of God, or place of power, where He abides alone, but to the Father's house, where the children are to dwell also. Their path in that direction reaches as far as His, through His boundless grace; as here, as I have already noticed, wherever it was that Jesus went (some spot unknown and untold as to this earth), there did Peter and John follow Him. He is here acting as though He had gone and prepared the promised place in the Father's house, and had come again, and was now receiving them unto Himself, that where He is, there they might be also. And this will be really so at the resurrection of those who are Christ's at His coming, when the brethren meet their Lord in the air. The Son of God was now, at the end, as He had done in the beginning, showing His own where He dwelt (see John 1: 39); only, at the beginning, He was a Stranger on earth, and they abode with Him but one day; now He is returning to His proper heaven, and there they are to abide with Him for ever.*
*We have no mention in this Gospel of "the coming of the Son of man." That is spoken of in Matthew and the others, for that expresses the Lord's coming to the earth again, for judgment on the nations, and for deliverance to the remnant, and does not imply the rapture of the saints into the air."
Our evangelist then just lets us hear the full response of the believing hearts of all God's elect to those truths and wonders of grace which had now been told out. "We know that his testimony is true." They set to their seal that God is true. And all this is then closed with a simple note of admiration--for such, in principle, I judge the last verse to be. And indeed this is all he could do. Was it not beyond his praise! What heart could conceive the full excellence of His ways Whose name he had now been publishing?
Here the fourth section of our Gospel ends; and here the whole ends. And what a journey through it has that of the Son of God been! Having become flesh at the beginning, He walked on earth as the Stranger from heaven, save as He was occupied in ministering grace and healing to sinners. The prince of this world at length came to Him; but, finding nothing in Him, he cast Him out of the world. But this he could not do until, as the Saviour, the Son of God had accomplished the peace of all that trust in Him. Then He triumphantly broke the power of death; and, as the risen Lord, imparted the life which He had won for His people. And, finally, by a significant action, pledged to them that where He was going, thither they should follow Him, that they might be with Him where He was; and that, as we know, for ever.
Our Gospel began with the descent of the Son, and closes with the ascent of the saints. And the time of this ascent, or being taken into the air, I judge is altogether uncertain. It may be tomorrow, and will be when the fulness of the Gentiles has come in, when all the saints have been brought, in the unity of the faith, to a perfect man. It does not depend on a certain lapse of time. No prophecy which involves computation of time, I believe, belongs to it. Such belongs to the Lord's return to the earth, and not to the taking of the saints into the air to meet Him. At that return of the Lord to the earth, the saints will be with Him; and this earth will then be prepared to be their common kingdom and inheritance. And that return, I grant, must await its prescribed time, and the full spending out of the days and years announced by the prophets. But no days or years measure out the interval from the ascension of the Lord to that of His saints. The Holy Ghost, it is most true, has given us moral characters of certain times, thus defining "the latter times," and "the last days" (1 Tim. 4; 2 Tim. 3, etc.); but He tells us also that even then, the last time" had already come. 1 John 2: 18. So that faith is entitled to look for her joy in meeting the Lord in the air every hour; with patience, meanwhile, to do the will of God. And the prophecies that compute time (as far as they are still future) will not (I merely give my judgment) begin to be applied, nor will the times they notice begin to run, till this rapture into the air take place. Then, indeed; the suffering remnant in Israel may begin to number out the days for their comfort and for food of hope; and in their deepest sorrow lift up their heads, as knowing that their salvation draweth nigh.
After all this. beloved, our God may well claim our confidence, and be our title to full holy liberty, and our sure and constant source of gladness. This is to honour Him as the Father. And if we have a thought of Him that leaves a sting behind it, it is the thought of foolishness and of unbelief. All is brightness to faith. Such is God our Father. And in the Son of His love we are accepted. "He'll not live in glory, and leave us behind"--and the language of our hearts towards Him abidingly should be, "Come, Lord Jesus." And this confidence of present adoption, and this joy of hope, we have through the Holy Ghost who dwelleth in us, our Companion by the way, our "other Comforter," till the Bridegroom meet us.
To our gracious God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) be glory for ever and ever! Amen.
Section 1 of: The Evangelists, being Meditations upon the Four Gospels. (New Edition, Rouse, 1903)