The Dealings of God With Peter: 9. In the Gospels

John 21  •  15 min. read  •  grade level: 6
John 21
Well, then, we find a further step in the twenty-first chapter. “Jesus showed himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and on this wise showed he himself. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples.” Now, I do not say that the work was very deep. It was real, but there was a want of depth. “Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee.” The ways of one who has a pre-eminent place, and his words too, are surely of great moment to us here. How readily saints fall in with the word of any one who takes the lead! “They went forth and entered into a ship immediately, and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore.” He turns this to his own account. “But the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No. And he said unto them, 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. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord” —always prompt of action— “he girt his fisher's coat unto him (for he was naked), and did cast himself into the sea. And the other disciples came in a little ship (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits), dragging the net with fishes. As soon then 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.”
Now I have no doubt that all this was a typical scene—that it was in direct connection with the wonderful effects of the work of the Lord in a day that is coming, but not yet come—that, in short, it is the picture of the millennial scene when there will be no failure whatever as far as the work of God is concerned. There will be failure in man outside, but not as far as the work of God is concerned. It will be one of the peculiar characteristics of that day. And so, you observe, for all the great catch of fish the net is not broken. It is in contrast with the picture of the work now, and with that which had been said to Peter. You may remember that, in the Gospel of Luke, there is the picture of Peter and the rest called to be fishers of men. Well no doubt they catch fish and plenty of them; but the nets are broken, whereas in that day there will be nothing of the kind; there will be no breach. The work of God will be fully accomplished, not merely grace overruling as now, not merely God doing it as far as His own secret purpose is concerned. I am speaking now of the public work in the world. Well, that will be an immense change, but there is another thing that comes before us here of more importance for my present purpose, and that is, the dealings of God still more fully pursued with Peter's soul—the restoring dealings of the Lord.
“When they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” Now that was a very searching question. It told the whole tale. “Lovest thou me more than these?” That was the root of his failing. Peter did not give the other disciples credit for being willing to go to prison and to death for Jesus' sake; but he believed himself. He was confident that he loved the Lord as nobody else did, and now the Lord turns upon Peter. He had carried the work on in his soul. He had looked upon him and sent him out to weep when he remembered the word. He had seen him alone, but now He would carry on the work at the same time that He would publicly reinstate His servant; for the very point here was that, while the work was carried on more deeply than in others, it was in presence of others, that they might know the entire restoration of communion between Peter and the Lord—nay, more than that, that they might know the confidence which the Lord reposed in Peter now. He had never done it before.
He had never entrusted his sheep to Peter before.
Oh, what grace! The very time when men would have said, “Never trust Peter again! A man that has so denied the Lord he may be a saint! I hope he will get to heaven—but never you trust that man! Why, did any one ever hear of such flagrant, repeated denial? “Well now, you see the Lord does it all before them, and the first question really probed the heart, though He carries it still deeper every time. “Simon, son of Jonas,” for that was the point—he trusted himself “lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.” What does the Lord say? “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.” Peter had denied Him thrice, and it is in the most pointed reference to this that He puts it the third time; yet Peter did not feel how deeply the Lord was going, for He had not alluded to his denial; but now he understands. He thought it was all settled, but the Lord would have it settled not only publicly, but divinely. And you see here was the thing that was wanting. He had judged his failure, but had he got to the cause of the failure? Had he detected the root of it? I do not believe he had. We may be very, very grieved because of our sin, and feel it deeply before God; but have we really reached what exposed us to sin? What was it in Peter? His confidence in his own loving the Lord—that he could go where nobody else could—that he loved the Lord more than any one more than these.
Well now, you see he feels that the Lord was alluding to his threefold denial. “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.” How humiliating! Peter is reduced to cast himself upon the Lord's perfect knowledge—what the Lord Himself knew. Everybody else in the world would have said that Peter could not have loved the Lord to deny Him so, and that unless the Lord knew to the bottom of his heart he could not have given him credit for love. “Lord, thou knowest all things.” Oh, beloved friends, what a comfort it is to have to do with One that knows all things, and, in consequence of knowing all, can see a love that nobody else could see—can give credit to that which all appearances might contradict; so that, instead of the Lord's perfect knowledge of all being a thing that we have need to be afraid of, it is the very thing that is in our favor where there is reality; and there was reality in Peter. It was not that there was any question of love: the failure was not there. It was not that there was not love, but that he considered that his love would preserve him in the hour of danger. It never does—nothing does. But the self-judgment that comes out in prayer to God and in total distrust of self before God. It is not, therefore, the protective power of the love of Christ that keeps people. There must be that, but there is more than that wanted, and the more than that is the very last thing that a man lacks: it is to believe his own badness, to believe that he is such a poor, weak, unworthy creature; and Peter had never got a deep sense of it before. Now it is brought to him. “Lord, I admit that all the rest would say that I do not love you a bit, but you know everything to the bottom of my heart, and you know, after all, that it requires divine knowledge to know that I love Thee.” Not a word now of loving more than anybody else. That was furthest from Peter's heart. You may depend that he never said it again, never thought it again. I do not mean that he did not fall in other ways, but he was thoroughly broken, at any rate, in this conceit of himself. “Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.”
Now you see there is a distinct word of the Lord, for it is not merely that the Lord was thus bringing Peter to judge the root of the evil that had exposed him to fall, but the Lord was now reposing public confidence in Peter—in His servant—for the work that He was about to open to him. He was about to have a very special charge, and I suppose that the sheep which are referred to here refer rather to the Jewish ones. It would seem so from the context and from the fact. We know that the circumcision were handed over to Peter, as the uncircumcision to Paul; and it would appear that this is what the Lord refers to here. At the present time you must remember the only sheep that were accredited were the sheep that were there. Others no doubt there were, but that does not seem to enter into the special line of this part of the Gospel of John.
However, that may not be of so much importance. The great thing I wish to press is the evidence that scripture gives us here of God, in His wonderful way, restoring our souls fully only when we have got at that which exposed us to sin, and not merely the sin itself. This is of so practical a nature that I must dwell upon it, therefore, at more than usual length. But it is not all, for the Lord, when He restores, always restores what was not taken away—gives more than was ever possessed.
Now there was one thing in which Peter had expressed his confidence—that is, to go to death or judgment or prison—anything for the Lord. Well now, the Lord takes this up. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst 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.”
Thus then, I think, we have the unspeakable grace of our Lord Jesus Christ meeting the desire of Peter's heart. He had done wonderful things for him already, when He committed what was most precious to the man that had failed so publicly and so repeatedly; but He goes farther. Had not Peter desired to follow the Lord to prison and to death? Certainly. “Well now,” says the Lord, “I will give you all the desire of your heart.” And look at the Lord's way! Look at the way of grace! When he was comparatively young he failed. When there was all the fervor and impetuosity, I must add, of his natural character, he completely broke down. The Lord puts no honor upon that; rather the contrary. He must bring it to nothing. It is what flesh would glory in. “But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” And so the Lord gives him good ground for it, for He tells him, “When thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands.” It was not only that he was to die, but, “This spake he signifying by what death he should glorify God.” Peter was to have his wish gratified to the very fullest. Peter was to suffer like his Master. I am not referring now to the tradition. I do not know whether there is any truth in his being crucified with his head downwards. Scripture says nothing of that kind. We are told so. It is a pretty story, and that is all one can say about it. It may be true; it is more likely to be false. You never can trust the stories of men in the things of God. I have never known a true story told by men in what concerns God, and where the spirit of man reigns. There is a fatality of error of the most extraordinary kind in the old ecclesiastical historians that touch upon these matters. Why, they cannot even tell correctly what is in the Bible, still less what is not. I say, therefore, that I do not believe that these stories are to be trusted. But this is to be trusted: he is to die like his Master, at any rate. He is to be crucified, so that the Lord would not only give him then to be led away a prisoner, but to suffer upon the cross. Peter would have what he desired, and more than he desired; but he would have it in pure grace; there was no strength. He would have it given him by the Lord; nay, farther than that, to “glorify God.” No longer Peter's love; no longer glorifying Peter in any way. “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”
I do not know, then, beloved friends, a more touching proof of the way in which grace not only restores, but triumphs. And, remember, that is the measure for us. We are put in this wonderful place of glorifying God. Is that only for Peter? Nay, for all the redeemed. “We are bought with a price; therefore,” he says, “glorify God in your body.” So it was in Peter's case. It was not the cheap and easy way of thinking that it is a mere matter of feeling. It is all-important that our affections should be right, but God does give opportunities that the feeling shall be a manifested one. God does give opportunities that the heart shall have its desire. Where we have wrong desires, it is the greatest mercy of God that He crosses them, but when we have a holy desire, though it may be taken up in a spirit of self-confidence, and comes to naught for the time, yet what is divine always survives. This is what we find here. Peter, when he was broken, therefore, in all his own power, finds the power of God strengthening him even beyond what he had thought, for I do not suppose that when Peter spoke about following the Lord to prison and to death he thought of the death of the cross. None of them could say that till the cross came. They never contemplated such a thing as their Master suffering so, although the Lord had intimated it. But it is astonishing how the disciples forgot the word of the Lord, and how little impression it made. Are you surprised at that? You ought to know it from yourselves. I ought to know it from myself, and I do know it too well—how we slur over the word of God, how we are caught continually in the midst of a chapter that we have read ever so often and never understood before—expressions, even those that we have cited, it may he, and used; and yet suddenly the light of God shines through them. Well, how is this, beloved friends? Why, it is just because there has been a hindrance in self. There has been something of our own that has been an obstruction to the Spirit of God, but God brings down the self and causes the light and grace of Christ to shine, and all is clear.
And now, beloved friends, I have desired to help you to follow to the end all the dealings of God with Peter in the Gospels. If the Lord will, perhaps there may be another opportunity of tracing him in the Acts of the Apostles, or the Epistles of Peter; but I do not hope for that just now. May the Lord bless what we have said. May He give us more simplicity to read that we may understand; for simplicity, after all, is exactly what the deepest understanding brings us to. If we are growing rightly, we are growing more simple. I am sure, beloved friends, that that is the true lesson for all our souls—to appreciate the word and to apply it, to learn how to use it, not only for others, but for our own souls.
[W. K.]