The Living Grace of Christ

John 21  •  19 min. read  •  grade level: 8
There are two great objects, in regard to man, for which Scripture has been written. In regard to- man, I say, because the display and accomplishment of His own glory in Christ, is surely God's highest object in His word, as well as in all His ways. But, as to man, Scripture has been written, first, for the communication to dead sinners of eternal life in the knowledge of the Son of God; and, secondly, the ministration to that life, where it has been received, of all the fullness of Christ Himself, He being the object on which that life is exercised, as well as the source whence it proceeds. We have the formal statement of the first object in John 20:30,3130And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: 31But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. (John 20:30‑31), " And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples which are not written in this book: but these are written, that y-e might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, ye might have life through His name." How blessedly simple! So simple that even a child may, by the teaching of the Spirit, understand it-understand that to which the greatest human learning is a hindrance rather than a help. Numberless deeds and words of the Lord Jesus had not been recorded by the apostle, "but these are written"-for what end? "That ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God." "Well," says the reader, "I do unfeignedly believe this-not because parents, or teachers, or ministers have said it, but because God has written it in His word, and all He says is true." You, then, dear reader, are a partaker of eternal life! The fact is, that the believing on the Son of God is the first pulsation of this life. The natural life received by an infant from its parent declares itself in various sounds and motions; and even if it be but the beating of the pulse, the life is thus surely manifested. Now, truly to believe in Christ is, so to speak, the pulse of the new life; so that, when any one believes on the testimony of God Himself, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, he has life through Christ's name. " This is the record," as we read elsewhere, " that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son," so that " He that hath the Son hath life."
Every one knows, however, that a new-born babe is the most helpless creature in the world; it can neither feed itself, nor defend itself, nor go by itself, nor care for itself in any way. It has to 'be fed, and tended, and cared for till, as the life is gradually developed, it grows up from infancy to childhood, and from childhood to man's estate. So does the new life through the name of Jesus need to be nourished and ministered unto. And what is its nutriment? " As new-born babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby, if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious." Here we have the first pulsation of the new life somewhat differently expressed, "If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious." We cannot fail to know in natural things whether we have tasted any given flavor. We may not understand the composition of the substance in which the flavor is found; but if it be salt, or sweet, or bitter, there can be no question about our knowing its taste, supposing we have tasted it. So in the things of God: we have all heard that the Lord is gracious, but have you, dear reader-have I-tasted that He is so? Do we know the divine relish of the Lord's grace, which, to be known, must be spiritually tasted? If we have, then are we -born of God; for it is the 'new life alone which is possessed of this spiritual taste. It is through the Word that the Lord has made known to-us that He is gracious, and it is in the reception of 'the Word that we have both received the new life, and become conscious of its tastes. "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever." And how else should the life thus received be nourished, but by the same Word? By the same Word, moreover, still further unfolding-"that the -Lord is,-gracious"? It is in our first tasting this that we receive, life; and it is as we taste it more and more that the new life is developed and grows.
The great subject of John 21 is the living grace of the risen Savior-grace, which having met our need as sinners in the blood shed upon the cross, now meets all our necessities as saints in the fullness here seen to reside in Jesus as risen from the dead. These records of the intercourse between the risen Christ and His disciples, have thus a peculiar interest and charm. Who can fail to be touched by the tenderness, the sympathy of Jesus in all His relations to His disciples till the hour of His death? But death and resurrection might have been supposed to change all this. How blessed, that when, as here, we find the risen Jesus in the midst of His disciples, it is the same Jesus-tender, compassionate, full of sympathy and love, which, if it wield the arm of omnipotence, can yet enter into the most minute circumstances of the disciples' condition and wants!
At the opening of the chapter, we find a cluster of the disciples gathered together. On the night of His betrayal they had all forsaken Him and fled; and they all needed the restorings of His living grace as risen from the dead. Peter had, it is true, by his rashness, placed himself in circumstances which made his fall more conspicuous than that of the rest; but all had forsaken their dying Lord and Master, and lad proved, that though the spirit was willing the flesh was weak. And though Jesus had already appeared to them once, and again after His resurrection, we find them here, in ver. 2, in such a state of soul as readily to respond to the proposal of one always the most forward to act-" I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee." They go, and spend the whole night in fruitless toil.
Three years and a half before, they had been called from that very employment by the Lord Himself. Jesus called them to follow Him, and to such of them as forsook their nets He said, "I will make you fishers of men." From that time they had either accompanied Him, or gone at His bidding to preach the Gospel and cast out devils, He caring for all their wants, so that they lacked nothing. Now they supposed that His care over them was at an end, and that they had become dependent on their own resources and endeavors. They go a fishing: but to what purpose was their toil? " That night they caught nothing." In the morning, however, Jesus, who was cognizant of all their need, though they knew it not, stood on the shore, and said, "Children, have ye any meat?" They knew not that it was Jesus, for such was the manner of His intercourse with them after His resurrection; but there He was, with all the interest in their minutest cares which He had been wont to manifest in the days of His flesh. He bids them cast the net on the right side of the ship, and now they are not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.
In all this there was, no doubt, instruction both for them and for us, beyond the circumstances of the moment. It is surely the happy privilege of all who know Jesus to testify of Him far and near; setting Him forth, according to the ability given to poor perishing sinners, as their only hope and refuge. But while it is happy, and of all importance, that the heart be ready for this service anywhere and at all times, let us never forget that success depends entirely on our being in the current of God's workings. The disciples might spread the net, and cast it in the sea, but if not in the current where the fishes were, what advantage in it all? It is only in proportion as we individually walk with God, depending entirely upon Christ, and guided by Him, that blessing will attend our labors. It is not on the amount of labor that success depends, but on our being near enough to Christ to have His directions in casting the net on the right side of the ship.
Nor is the same service assigned to all. " There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of services, but the same Lord." The vessels, moreover, of the several gifts differ from each other, according to the wisdom of Him who doeth all things after the counsel of His own will. All have not the promptitude of Peter, or the tenderness of John. We, in the narrowness of our hearts, would often seek to have every vessel cast in the same mold, while, as has been said by another, " Unity in diversity is God's principle, both in creation and in the church." In the chapter before us, we find in John the tenderness and delicacy of spiritual affection which was the first to perceive that it was the Lord Himself who stood on the shore; while in Peter there is the promptitude in action, in which he no sooner understands that it is the Lord, than he girds his fisher's coat about him, and casts himself into the sea. What is recorded of each is beautifully characteristic. It was for the disciple who lay in Jesus' bosom to be the first to discern who He was, and cry, " it is the Lord!" while it was for Peter, forward, energetic, and impetuous, to plunge into the sea, and swim to shore. Neither the Johns nor the Peters can be spared; each has his place and service; and we do well to remember that "all things are ours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, all are ours, and we are Christ's, and Christ is God's."
It was not only that after they had spent their night in fruitless labor Jesus appeared to them, and directed them so to cast the net as to find a full supply, but when they reach the shore, what awaits them there? A repast ready prepared to their hands! "As soon, then, as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread." Who was it that had thus been caring for them while they were toiling hard and without result? True, indeed, we are not told who it was that had kindled the fire and dressed the food; but the silence of Scripture is often as impressive as its language, and the heart needs no testimony as to whose service of love this was! But how could so touching a proof have been afforded of the Savior's changeless, living love and care? To guide the unconscious tribes of the deep to the disciples' net was an act of almighty power, which might well impress them as it did; but for their risen Lord to be thus personally the servant of their humblest wants, was an answer to their unbelieving fears which none but He could give! And what a testimony to us that nothing which concerns us can be beneath His notice! " The very hairs of our heads are all numbered."
When, at their Lord's invitation, they had dined on what was prepared to their hand; and on some of the, fish they had caught, the Lord addressed Himself to Peter. But if we are to understand the bearings of the conversation which ensued, we must glance for a moment at what had previously occurred. Nothing can be more important than: the restoration of a soul which has fallen into sin; and in Peter's case this precious work may be traced from beginning to end. His restoration was provided for, indeed, before he fell. Else how could he have been restored? Jesus knew the danger which awaited all His disciples, and to which Peter, by his, impetuosity and self-confidence, was peculiarly exposed: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted (or restored) strengthen thy brethren." Peter knew not his danger; but the Lord knew it, and thus graciously interceded for him, even before his fall was consummated. What a comfort that we have One who ever lives to make intercession for us! One who intercedes in anticipation of our failing; and not only when we have actually failed!
The circumstances of Peter's fall are well known, and need not be retraced. When self-confidence had betrayed him into rash zeal, distance from his Lord, and companionship with His enemies, warming himself at their fire, the last step, the outward fall, was but the natural result of all that had occurred. Alas! what poor nothings we are when left to our own strength. There may be life-divine life; but if we do not realize that we have no strength to follow out the impulses and tendencies of this life, and so lean entirely on the strength of Jesus; we may be left, like Peter, to learn by experience the bitter but wholesome and needed truth. But the Lord remembers His unfaithful disciple. "The cock crew, and the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter." That look broke Peter's heart. He "went out, and wept bitterly." Such is the first stage in the restoration of a soul. To be heart-broken under the look of Jesus, recalling to the conscience of Peter the words by which he had been forewarned of the very sin which he thought it impossible he could commit; but in which the eye of Jesus now rests upon him-to taste the bitterness of sin in the presence of the very grace which had thus fore warned, and which now reminds-and penetrated with shame and grief, to go out and weep bitterly, such is the commencement in a lapsed soul of the work by which, in the grace of Christ; that soul is to be restored.
In John 20 we find Peter in company with the disciple whom Jesus, loved. Mary informs them that she has been to the sepulcher, and. that the body of Jesus has been removed. " Peter, therefore, went forth, and that other disciple, and. came to the sepulcher. So they ran both together; and the other disciple, did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulcher." How was this? In ordinary circumstances, Peter was not a. man to be outrun, and especially by one so gentle as the beloved disciple; and even in this instance he was as ready to set out towards the sepulcher. What thought had suddenly occurred to him to cause the slackening of his pace, and lead him to give back, and suffer John to outrun him? Ah! does not the question of itself suggest its only answer? Who can doubt that it must have been the remembrance of the last look he had from Jesus: that now occurred to him, producing results so unlike the general character of the man? But between this journey to the sepulcher and the events of our chapter, an interview-a personal interview-had taken place between Peter and his risen Lord. In Mark 16.7, the angel says to the women, while announcing the resurrection of Jesus, " But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that He goeth before you into Galilee." Lest Peter in his despondency should deem himself excluded from a general message to the disciples, his name is thus specifically mentioned. But in Luke 24:3434Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. (Luke 24:34), the two, on their return from Emmaus, find the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them; "saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon:" In 1 Cor. 15:55And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: (1 Corinthians 15:5); moreover, Paul, witnessing of Christ's resurrection, says, "He was seen of Cephas." Need it be asked what the object of this separate interview with Peter can have been? Ah! there are questions in the soul of a saint who has fallen as Peter did, which can only be settled between that soul and Christ. There can be no third party present at such a moment. The presence of a third party would be felt to be an intrusion. The soul needs to hear from Christ's own mouth the assurance of His unchanged and unchanging love, and to receive from Himself the seal of full forgiveness. This is needed, not because of arty change in the blessed Savior, but to reassure the soul of His repentant disciple, restoring thus the confidence which sets the heart free and at ease in His presence. Such had evidently been the result of this interview of Peter with his risen Lord. At the sea of Tiberias there is none of the shrinking back which we have noticed on his way to the sepulcher. No, as soon as John says, " It is the Lord," Peter plunges into the sea, that he may the more quickly be at His feet, or by His side.
Was, then, the restoration of his soul complete when be thus swam to shore on healing that it was the Lord? No, there needed a further process still. Bitterly had he mourned his sin in denying his Lord: fully was he now assured of his Lord's forgiveness and unchanged affection; but he had not yet been led to discern and judge in himself the secret root of the evil into which he had fallen. The process of restoration is not complete as long as this is unaccomplished; and it was to this, accordingly, that the Lord now addressed Himself Most tenderly, yet unsparingly, does Jesus go to work with His disciple. Not when they were hungry and faint, but " when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?" He first refreshes his heart with all the manifested love and care we have been tracing in this narrative, and then He puts this searching inquiry. It is not, " Lovest thou me more than thou lovest these?" but " Lovest thou me more than these love me?" It is as though the Lord had said, " You did think, Peter, that you loved me more than any one besides loved me. You said, Though all men forsake thee, yet will not I. Are you still of the same mind? Lovest thou me more than these do?" But Peter understands Him not. His confidence, indeed, in the love of Him who was thus probing him was not at all disturbed, nor did Jesus wish that it should be. Nay, He does everything to encourage and strengthen it. He confides to his care the precious lambs of His flock as the most tender pledge of His confidence and love; but still the probing must be completed. A second time the question is proposed; then a third; and now, as though the number recalled the thrice-repeated denial of his Lord, and the warning which his self-confidence had previously received, all seems to flash upon his conscience. He is "grieved," not surely with his Lord, but with himself; while his third answer evinces that the probe had reached the bottom of the wound. The root of his sin was now laid bare to his conscience; and in appealing, as he does, to Christ's omniscience, he makes plain that he bows entirely to the warning called forth, not by his sin, but by the self-confidence which was sure to betray him into sin. Instead of protesting now that his love to Christ is greater than that of any one besides, he, in effect, acknowledges, that any one judging by his con-duct would not suppose that he loved Christ at all; but, as the Lord knew his heart, he could appeal to Him. "Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee." He can be trusted now; for he has learned his own weakness, and the only secret of real strength; and so he is again commanded, " Feed my sheep."
Nor was this the whole. As has been remarked else-where by another, there might still have remained one sting-one subject of bitter self-reproach-in the review by Peter of this epoch in his history. One can well understand how he might have said, "Ah! I once had the opportunity of dying for my Master-of actually sharing His cross-but now that opportunity is gone. In my weakness and willfulness, I have thrown it away, and it can never be restored." "Yes," it is as though the Savior said, "it can and shall he restored." Grace can restore what sin has forfeited; and surely this is what was implied in the words of Jesus, " Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thy-self, 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." Once the apostle had been within view of death, with and for his Master, and in the energy of his own will he had vowed to go through it. He girded himself, and walked whither he would-and, alas! as we all know, he failed. To will was present; but to perform required a strength, the lack of which Peter had now fully proved. But still he was to have the honor and privilege of being crucified for Christ. Not, as before, through any energy of his own will, but in the complete renunciation of himself, and meek submission to the will of another, he should by death, and that, too, the death of the cross, glorify God! " And when He had spoken this, He said unto him, Follow me."
Is not this grace, beloved? What can compare with this living grace of our risen, living Lord? And it is He who says to us, as He said to Peter, "Follow me." Not in the restless endeavor to live up to a certain standard of attainment; but the heart drawn onward by the attraction of this perfect grace, this living love! A love which, while it reaches to the lowest depths of our saddest failures, pardoning, probing, restoring us, sets us again on our feet in the path. which He Himself has trod, and says, "Follow me." Shall we not follow Him indeed? Can we decline to follow if His grace, as thus made known, has really touched our hearts?