Restoration and a New Commission

John 20‑21  •  26 min. read  •  grade level: 8
John 20-21
No part of the gospel narrative is perhaps more fraught with interest than the resurrection scenes, and the lessons they involve. The death of the Lord Jesus is the basis and groundwork of all blessing, but His resurrection is the evidence of His perfect victory over death, Satan, and the power of the grave. The testimony to His resurrection is very complete. He was seen certainly on not less than ten separate occasions after He rose from the dead; and, with singular grace on His part, we find that amongst the earliest to meet Him was the erring, and deeply penitent Peter.
The circumstances connected with the earliest of the Lord’s appearances are of thrilling interest, as they show how, above all things, He values the constancy of affection that misses Him from the scene, and cannot, so to speak, do without Him. This is specially manifest in the case of Mary Magdalene, to whom He first appeared. The next to see Him were the Galilean women, her companions; and then, next, clearly Peter was sought of the Lord. Next to the devoted heart that beats true to Him, and pines for His presence, and which He will always visit first, is the dejected and sorrowful backslider, whom, in His tender grace, He ever seeks to restore to a sense of His favor.
The Lord of glory was crucified between two thieves, and died, praying for His murderers, and atoning for their sins. Then His body was taken down by hands that loved Him, and they buried Him in a new tomb. The whole Sabbath-day He lay in the grave. But the resurrection morning comes, and Peter and John, told by Mary Magdalene that the Lord had been taken out of the sepulcher, run both together to the sepulcher, and Peter is outrun by John. I know some tell us that Peter was an older man than John, but I do not believe that was the reason that John came first to the sepulcher. I believe the remembrance of his denial of his Lord was what made Peter’s footsteps slack then. A bad conscience and an unhappy heart ever tell on the Christian’s pace.
It would appear that Mary Magdalene, accompanied by her friends, had gone out very early to the sepulcher. Finding it empty, she had fled to the city, and told Peter and John. As her less ardent sisters hang about the sepulcher, and finally enter it, they hear from the angel who yet guarded it, “Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: He is risen; He is not here: behold the place where they laid Him. But go your way, tell His disciples and Peter that He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see Him, as He said unto you” (Mark 16:6-76And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. 7But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you. (Mark 16:6‑7)).
Obeying these instructions, they depart, and at this juncture Peter and John, closely followed by the weeping Mary, arrive on the scene.
Reaching the sepulcher the two disciples find it empty, for an angel had come down and rolled away the stone from the door of the sepulcher. To let the Lord out? Far be the thought! Not so, but to let you and me look in, and see an empty tomb, and know that we have a risen, a victorious, a triumphant Saviour, who has taken the sting from death, and robbed the grave of its victory.
John did not at first go into the sepulcher, he only looked in; but Peter went right into it — as a Jew defiling himself — in his desire to know the full truth. He found everything in perfect order. There had been no haste. The napkin that had been about the Lord’s head was wrapped together in a place by itself. Furthermore, “he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass” (Luke 24:1212Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass. (Luke 24:12)).
Neither Peter nor John are held to the spot by the same attachment to the Lord as marked Mary, who had been the object of such a special deliverance on the Lord’s part. Out of her He had cast “seven demons” (Mark 16:99Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils. (Mark 16:9)), and personal love for her deliverer was her characteristic. The two disciples, on the other hand, “saw and believed,” and then “went away again unto their own home.” They saw, and thus, resting on visible proof, they believed, but their affections are not manifestly engaged. Satisfied that Jesus was risen, they go away to “their own home.” They had one, without Jesus; Mary really had none, save the spot where last she had seen her Saviour; and therefore, when the others had gone, she “stood without at the sepulcher weeping.” She could not do without her Saviour, and the way in which He now reveals Himself to her has a touching beauty that cannot be equaled.
Blinded by her love to the fact of the resurrection, which Peter and John seem to have believed, and led by affection rather than intelligence, she thought of Him as still dead, and only loved Him the more deeply because she had Him not. Accosted by angels, she turns her back on them. Most of us would have had a good look at them, — as they are not often seen — but she is supremely indifferent. Jesus alone entranced her soul. When He inquires of her why she wept, she, supposing Him to be the gardener, thinks that He must surely know the object she desired, as she says, “Sir, if thou have borne Him hence, tell me where thou hast laid Him, and I will take Him away.” She fancies everyone will be thinking of her Lord, so only speaks of Him as “Him” — giving no name. This is the highest point of love! Then the Lord in one word, “Mary!” reveals Himself to her. The sheep knows the Shepherd’s voice, and says, “Rabboni! my Master” (John 20:1616Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. (John 20:16)).
We can little wonder that the Lord Jesus, first of all, showed Himself to this devoted heart. He enjoyed and prized her love, we may rest assured.
The next whom He saw were clearly Mary’s companions, the Galilean women, who were on their way to Jerusalem carrying the angelic message to the disciples, and to Peter. He met them with “All hail! And they came and held Him by the feet, and worshipped Him. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell My brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see Me” (Matthew 28:9-109And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him. 10Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me. (Matthew 28:9‑10)).
The third to meet the Lord on this first day of the week was Peter, without doubt. Much as he may have desired to meet his wounded Lord, far deeper was the desire in His tender loving heart to have all put right in the conscience and heart of His failing, and, assuredly, sorrowing servant.
If any doubts still lingered in Peter’s mind as to the fact of the Lord being risen, they were shortly after fully dissipated by the touching message which the “young man” gave the Galilean women to carry to him. The Lord Himself, one feels assured, knowing His servant’s sorrow, inspired the heavenly communication: “Go your way, tell His disciples, and Peter, that He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see Him, as He said unto you” (Mark 16:77But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you. (Mark 16:7)).
In Luke 24 we read that two were going to Emmaus that same day, and “Jesus himself drew near and went with them,” as they talked about Him. Arrived at home, for I take it they were man and wife, they constrained Him to come into their house, and He then made Himself known to them “in the breaking of bread.” Although shortly before it was “toward even, and the day far spent,” so that they judged it too late for their wondrous companion and teacher to go farther that night, it was not now too late for them to return at once all the way they had come, right back to Jerusalem — some eight miles — to tell the disciples the wonderful news they had to impart. Like bees that have done a good day’s gathering, they return to the hive to share the spoil. They “found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them,” and had their joy confirmed, as they were met by the news, “The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon.” What passed that day between Simon and the Lord I know not. God has flung a veil over this interview in resurrection, between an erring servant, and a Master incomparable in grace. This I know, that confidence between Peter and the Lord was perfectly restored as the result of this meeting.
Do you ask me, How do you know? Because, in John 21, to which we will now turn, when the seven disciples had gone fishing, instead of simply waiting for Jesus, and, after a night of fruitless toil, saw Him in the morning standing on the shore, as soon as Peter knew it was the Lord he was in a very great hurry to get to Him. He could not even wait till the boat got to the shore, but cast himself into the sea, the quicker to get to Him; and he would not have been in such a hurry to get near the Lord again, if he had not been fully restored to Him in his conscience, with the full sense of perfect forgiveness. Luke 24:3434Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. (Luke 24:34) records what I should call his private restoration. John 21 gives us his public restoration, but I would not give much for the public restoration of any one to privilege, either in service, or at the Lord’s table, if there had not been full private restoration to the Lord Himself first. Communion and intimacy with the Lord are of the greatest importance for the saint. Nothing can make up for their lack.
The advocacy of Christ had been all-prevailing in Peter’s case. “I have prayed for thee” found its answer in deep contrition after his failure, and then, at the first opportunity afforded, confession was followed by full forgiveness, and restoration. We should ever remember that contrition and confession, real and genuine, must be the prelude to forgiveness and restoration. But “I have prayed for thee” was the procuring cause of Peter’s restoration, even as the Lord’s “look” was the means of producing the right moral state that led up to it.
Two exceedingly interesting interviews with His disciples follow the appearance of the Lord already referred to, at both of which Peter was present, but no reference was made by the Lord, in either case, to what had taken place in His servant’s history (see John 20:19, 2619Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. (John 20:19)
26And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. (John 20:26)
). But the Lord’s care of His servant will not allow all the failure of the past, so well known by all, to slide into oblivion without His giving him, in the presence of his brethren, the assurance of His forgiveness, and restored confidence. The way in which this is brought about is peculiarly lovely.
As we have seen, the Lord had bidden the disciples go into Galilee with the assurance that there they should see Him. Acting on this injunction they repaired to the Sea of Tiberias. The Lord kept them waiting a little. He would evidently test their hearts, as He does ours. In presence of old associations, old interests, and old occupations, that once commanded them, can they, can we, wait only and simply for the Lord to come? This really should be our position now, as outside the religious world, Judea, and finding themselves in Galilee, a despised place, was their position then. The disciple of Jesus has to occupy just a similar position now, as he waits for the return of his Lord. The test, however, seems to have been too great for them, and when the ever-active, impulsive Simon Peter said unto them,” I go a fishing,” the rest were not slow to reply, “We also go with thee.” It was very natural, but it was not what the Lord sent them there for. Waiting for Him, was trying work, so to while away the time, the old and long-since-abandoned business was resumed afresh. How easy, if our hearts are not full of Christ, to resume worldly relations, revive interests, drop into habits, and get beneath influences which we absolutely, rightly, and, as we supposed, forever had escaped from, when we at first came to Jesus, and were rejoicing in the greatness of His love, newly tasted.
Thus was it by the Lake of Galilee. “There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee, and the two sons of Zebedee, and two other of His disciples. Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing” (vss. 2, 8). It was not a simple coincidence that they caught nothing. If we are in a wrong pathway, lack of success is certain. Our God and Father has His eye upon us, and His mighty controlling hand is sure to be felt, though perhaps we see it not at the moment.
But the dark fruitless night of toil passes, and, in the morning, One stands on the shore, who says, “Children, have ye any meat They answered Him, No.” Again He speaks: “Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes” (vs. 6). Years before, on the same spot, had some of these men had a precisely similar experience, of toiling all night, and catching nothing, and, at Jesus’ bidding, had let down the net, and caught such a multitude of fish that the net brake. It was doubtless the recollection of this that led the intuitively perceptive John to say to Peter — “It is the Lord.” Of course it was Who else could it be? The effect on Peter was immediate. “He girt his fisher’s coat unto him .... and did cast himself into the sea.” His object is clear. He wanted to get near his Lord as quickly as possible, and his rapid action, in thus swimming to the shore, to effect this object, is the most absolute proof of how thoroughly he was restored to the Lord as far as his conscience was then enlightened. Had it been otherwise he would have taken the more deliberative route of his brethren, as they rowed the “two hundred cubits, dragging the net with fishes” (vs. 8).
The sight that met the eyes of the disciples, as they neared the shore, is very instructive. “As soon as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fish which ye have now caught. Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was, not the net broken. Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. And none of the disciples durst ask Him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise. This is now the third time that Jesus showed Himself to his disciples after that He was risen from the dead” (vss. 9-14).
This statement, as to the “third time,” refers only to the disciples as a whole. It was the seventh time, if individuals be regarded, but from John’s point of view it was the third. The first was on the day of His resurrection, the second a week after, when Thomas was there. These two occasions in figure present, first the Church, and secondly the godly Jewish remnant — who believe when they see the Lord. The scene of John 21 brings in the Gentiles. The throwing in of the net, and getting a mass without the net breaking, is just a little picture of what will be at the end. It is a millennial scene. In Luke 5 the net broke, and the ships began to sink. Not so here, and the Holy Spirit marks this as distinctive. Christ’s millennial work is perfect. He is there after resurrection — and what He brings to pass does not rest, in itself, on man’s responsibility — the net does not break. At the beginning (Luke 5) the disciples gathered a mass, but the net broke, the administrative order that contained the fish could not hold them according to that order. The presence of the risen Saviour here alters all that — the net does not break. Again, when the disciples bring of the fish which they have caught, they find that the Lord has already some there. So will it be at the end. Before His manifestation Christ will have prepared a remnant for Himself on the earth, and after He appears He will gather out of the sea of nations a multitude that no man can number.
After this mysterious scene the Lord publicly and fully restores Peter’s soul. And what sight could be more calculated to lead up to this than that which here meets his eye, namely, “a fire of coal, and fish laid thereon, and bread”? How Peter must have thought of that moment when he stood by “a fire of coals and denied his Master. And now, as he sees not only the fire of coals, but the fish and bread, would he not be feeling — “See how the Lord loves and cares for me”?
“Come, and dine,” says the Lord, but not a word about his failure is at that moment addressed to Peter. I daresay his brethren may have looked askance at him. There is a proverb among men” Never trust a horse that has once fallen;” but it is just the reverse in Divine things, and it is just when a man has been thoroughly broken down, that the Lord can trust him. This we shall now see beautifully illustrated in Peter’s history.
The Lord does not reproach him with his fault, nor condemn him for his want of faithfulness, but judges the source of evil that produced it — his self-confidence. He fully restores Peter by probing his heart to its very core, and making it known to himself, so that Peter is compelled to fall back on the very omniscience of the Lord to know that he, who had boasted of having more affection for Him than all the rest, had really any affection for Him at all. The Lord’s question, thrice repeated — though differing a little each time — must have indeed searched his heart to its depths. It was not until the third time that Simon says, “Thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee,” but Jesus did not let him go, till his conscience and heart alike were thoroughly exposed to himself. When the springs of self-trust are dried up, the heart is ready to trust the One who in love and grace only waits for such a moment, to deeply and abidingly bless the soul by revealing His unchanged grace to it.
When they had dined, the Lord says to Peter, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” referring, I suppose, to the other disciples, for Peter had said, “Though all should deny thee, yet will not I.” The word the Lord uses for “love” implies love in a general sense. Peter replies, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” Here Peter’s word for love implies special attachment to a person. The Lord thereupon gives him a charge, saying, “Feed my lambs,” but follows it by a second query not so comprehensive as the first. This time it is merely, “Lovest thou me?” and no comparison with others is suggested. Again Peter answers, “Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee,” still sticking to his word implying special affection. The Lord thereon says unto him, “Shepherd My sheep.” Then the Lord again changes the form of His question, and saying the third time, “Lovest thou me?” uses Peter’s own word for “love” — “Hast thou indeed this special affection for He?” is its meaning.
Three times Peter had publicly denied Him; three times the Lord asks him if he loves Him. And now Peter is broken down entirely, and replies, “Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” He, as it were, says, “Lord, Thou canst look into my very heart; Thou knowest whether I love Thee or not; though all else might doubt my love, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I do love Thee.” It was enough: the springs of self-confidence and self-esteem, so ruinous to us all, had been touched; and now the Lord fully restores him, and, as publicly as He had been denied by him, puts him in a place of confidence and approval, as He sweetly says, “Feed my sheep.” He says to him, as it were, “I can trust you now, Peter; I am going away, but I put into your care those I love best, My sheep and My lambs, to shepherd them, and to feed them.”
It was perfect grace that acted thus towards Peter, and for his good. Before he felt his need, or committed his fault, this grace had prayed for him, and now it shines in brightest perfection as it expresses its full confidence in him. Most would have thought that the utmost that could happen would be that he should be forgiven of the Lord, and be readmitted to the apostolic circle; instead of that, grace is lavished on him to the uttermost. Humbled by his fall, and restored to the Lord through His grace, that grace now abounds towards him, and commits to his care what it most prized. Such is grace! Such is God! Such is our Lord Jesus Christ! Truly His ways are not as man’s ways. Grace creates confidence just in proportion to the measure in which it acts towards us, and in us. It produces trust in Him who is its source. We cannot trust ourselves, but we can trust the grace that forgives our faults, and will trust us when we are broken down and humbled, as Peter was here.
How well Peter fulfilled that trust, his after-life proved. No greater proof of confidence could a friend show me, than to commit to my care, in his absence at the antipodes, those his heart loved best.
Jesus was going away. His sheep were most dear to Him. Where can He find a true, real, and loving shepherd, to whose care and guidance He can commit them! Peter is the chosen one. Infinite grace, matchless love I “Peter is the last man I should choose” — his fellow-man might say — “Peter is the very man I can implicitly trust” is Christ’s answer in grace.
This then was Peter’s public restoration; and not merely was it his restoration, but the Lord giving him a special charge, thus showing His full confidence in this now humbled, self-emptied, and restored man. What could be a fuller proof of the confidence the Lord had in him? Let us not forget that He is ever the same, so we may well sing:
“Astonished at Thy feet we fall,
Thy love exceeds our highest thought,
Henceforth be Thou our all in all,
Thou who our souls with blood hast bought;
May we henceforth more faithful prove
And ne’er forget Thy ceaseless love.”
It is important to apprehend the nature of Peter’s new commission in this scene. The lambs and sheep he was to feed and shepherd, would appear to be particularly the Jewish believers in Jesus. We can all profit by Peter’s ministry, but they specially are before the Lord’s mind, I doubt not. The links existing between Peter and Christ, known on earth, made him specially fitted to pasture the flock of the Jewish remnant. He feeds the lambs by showing them, as he does in the Acts, Jesus as the Messiah, and shepherds the sheep — the more advanced — by guiding them into the truth, and giving them suited food, as seen in his two epistles. It must be borne in mind that Peter was the apostle of the circumcision. He had committed to him the ministry of the circumcision. The earth was the scene of this ministry, and the promises its object, while at the same time leading individually to heaven. This testimony was to be rejected by the nation, and really terminated with Peter’s death. It was different with John. His ministry, in his writings, goes on to the end — to the Lord’s coming again.
But the grace of the Lord to Peter does not stop with giving him this new and most precious commission. Doubtless he still felt the sorrow of having missed a grand opportunity of, for a third time, again confessing the Lord, at a critical moment. Twice he had done this, as we have seen, but to save his life, in the high priest’s hall, he had thrice denied his Lord. What immense comfort, therefore, must it have been to his heart to hear the Lord now say to him, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girded at thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake He, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He saith unto him, Follow Me” (vss. 18-19). He had failed to follow the Lord in the energy of his own will; he should be allowed to follow Him by the will of God. This grace to an erring saint is not always granted. That which we have lost through want of faith and devotedness, is not always given back. Grace restored it to Peter. To go to prison and to death for Christ’s sake, which he had offered in his own strength to do, and utterly failed in, he would yet accomplish by the grace and will of God. The real effect of grace is to teach us that we have no strength. This Peter learned. Feeling his own inefficiency, and depending on the grace of Christ, he would eventually do what he pretended to be competent for, when the Lord told him the contrary. At that moment his fancied strength proved only to be weakness, before the power of the enemy; at some time to come, the grace of God would strengthen him to suffer, and die for his Lord. Then, however, it would be a matter of submission to others, and not a question of his own will, and as a result God’s grace would sustain him in faithfulness even to death. The truth is, that when we have no strength, and no will, we are in a state for God to take us up, and give us to follow the Lord, and to do His will.
But Peter is Peter right on to the end, and even here again he appears as we read, “Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved, following....Peter, seeing him, saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?” (vss. 20-21).
John, without doubt, is meant here, and having heard the call to Peter, himself follows Jesus. What Peter was bidden to do, John does. The Lord’s answer is enigmatical, but highly instructive — “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me.” It is enough to know our own path, we are not called on to inquire as to our brother’s. “What shall this man do?” is too often on our lips. The Lord’s reply is rather of the nature of a rebuke. It meant, “Leave your brother alone, Peter, and follow thou Me. You keep your eye on Me, not on your brother.” How good, how salutary, such a word One can hardly conceive that under such circumstances, with his fault just only forgiven, and his death foretold, that Peter could have put such a question about another. But as we read the record we can only say, “That is Peter to life.” No matter where you find him, he is always the same impulsive man. Discretion had little part in his composition, while warmth ever marked him, and I doubt not it was his affection for John that led to his last indiscreet question. All his others we have seen elicited valuable truth from the Lord, and this is no exception.
The Lord’s reply, “If I will that he tarry till I come,” did not mean, I judge, what the disciples drew from it, namely, that John should not die. The Lord did not say so, hence it is important not to impute a meaning to His words, instead of receiving one therefrom. This latter the Holy Spirit alone can afford, for taken literally such a meaning might be drawn as the brethren then drew. I apprehend the meaning of the Lord’s words to be that, in his ministry John went on to the end — to the coming of Christ personally to judge the earth.
The assembly, the Church, as the house of God, is, in the Acts, formally recognized as taking the place of Jehovah’s house at Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem ended the history of the assembly as thus being an earthly center, and also ended the Jewish system connected with the law and promises. With this Peter’s special ministry closes, and what is left is the heavenly assembly, of which Paul is the minister. He treats of God’s counsels in Christ, and of His work which introduces us into heavenly glory. John’s ministry reveals, in his gospel and Epistles, the Person of the Son of God, and of eternal life come down from heaven, and then in the Apocalypse the government and judgment of God at the manifestation of the Lord. He remains after Paul, and he has linked the judgment of the assembly, as the responsible witness on earth (see Rev. 2; 3), with the judgment of the world, when God, in government, shall resume His relations with the world, and send back His now rejected Son.
The “till I come,” therefore, of which the Lord speaks here is not His coming for the Church — the rapture of the Saints — I apprehend, but His public manifestation, or appearing on earth in glory, and John, who lived in person until the close of all that the Lord saw fit to introduce in connection with Jerusalem, continues here in his ministry, until the manifestation of Christ to the world. As a saint and servant he evidently lived a long while, and served the Lord, and his latest writing — the Revelation — carries us up to the return of the Son of Man in glory. It is in this sense, I judge, that he fulfilled the Lord’s word: “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?”
Whether the explanation of this be clear to our minds or not, the last word of the Lord to Peter, “Follow thou me,” is abundantly plain. May our hearts, each one, heed it to the full, and so please and serve Him, fully and untiringly, till He come!