Feed My Sheep

Easter 3C

John 21: 1 19

Introduction

Our reading comprises two parts:

1. Verses 1 14

At Galilee — getting back into the old, secure, routines, followed by breakfast with the Lord. Our text notes for this section come direct from Bishop Ryle's commentary (c.1908): "Expository Thoughts".

2. Verses 15 19: Peter's reinstatement: verse by verse commentary.

 

A. Back At Galilee - Breakfast With The Lord: Verses 1 14

The appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ after his resurrection, described in these verses, is a deeply interesting portion of the Gospel history. The circumstances attending it have always been regarded as highly allegorical and figurative, in every age of the Church. It may, however, be justly doubted whether commentators and interpreters have not gone too far in this direction. It is quite possible to spiritualise and filter away the narratives of the Gospel, until we completely lose sight of the plain meaning of the words. In the present case we shall find it wise to confine ourselves to the great, simple lessons, which the passage undoubtedly contains.

We should observe, for one thing, in these verses, the poverty of the first disciples of Christ. We find them working with their hands, in order to supply their temporal wants, and working at one of the humblest of callings, — the calling of a fisherman. Silver and gold they had none, lands and revenues they had none, and therefore they were not ashamed to return to the business to which they had, most of them, been trained. Striking is the fact, that some of the seven here named were fishing, when our Lord first called them to be Apostles, and again fishing, when He appeared to them almost the last time. We need not doubt that to the minds of Peter, James, and John, the coincidence would come home with peculiar power.

This poverty of the Apostles goes far to prove the divine origin of Christianity. These very men who toiled all night in a boat, dragging about a cold wet net, and taking nothing, — these very men who found it necessary to work hard in order that they might eat, — these very men were some of the first founders of the mighty Church of Christ, which has now overspread one third of the globe. These were they who went forth from an obscure corner of the earth and turned the world upside down. These were the unlearned and ignorant men, who boldly confronted the subtle systems of ancient philosophy, and silenced its advocates by the preaching of the cross. These were the men who at Ephesus, and Athens and Rome, emptied the heathen temples of their worshippers, and turned away multitudes to a new and better faith. He that can explain these facts, except by admitting that Christianity came down from God, must be a strangely credulous man. Reason and common sense lead up to only one conclusion in the matter. Nothing can account for the rise and progress of Christianity but the direct interposition of God.

We should observe, for another thing, in these verses the different characters of different disciples of Christ. Once more, on this deeply interesting occasion, we see Peter and John side by side in the same boat, and once more, as at the sepulchre, we see these two good men behaving in different ways.

When Jesus stood on the shore, in the dim twilight of the morning, John was the first to perceive who it was, and to say, "It is the Lord;" but Peter was the first to spring into the water, and to struggle to get closer to his Master. In a word John was the first to see; but Peter was the first to act.

John's gentle loving spirit was quickest to discern; but Peter's fiery, impulsive nature, was quickest to stir and move. And yet both were believers, both were truehearted disciples, both loved the Lord in life, and were faithful to Him unto death. But their natural temperaments were not the same.

Let us never forget the practical lesson before us. As long as we live, let us diligently use it in forming our estimate of believers. Let us not condemn others as graceless and unconverted, because they do not see the path of duty from our standpoint, or feel things exactly as we feel them. "There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit."

(1 Cor.12: 4.) The gifts of God's children are not bestowed precisely in the same measure and degree. Some have more of one gift, and some have more of another. Some have gifts which shine more in public, and others have gifts which shine more in private. Some are more bright in a passive life, and some are more bright in an active one. Yet each and all members of God's family, in their own way and in their own season, bring glory to God. Martha was "careful and troubled about much serving," when Mary "sat at the feet of Jesus and heard His word." Yet there came a day, at Bethany, when Mary was crushed and prostrated by over-much sorrow, and Martha's faith shone more brightly than her sister's. (Luke 10: 39 - 40; John 11: 20 — 28.) Nevertheless both were loved by our Lord. The one thing needful is to have the grace of the Holy Spirit, and to love Christ. Let us love all of whom this can be said, though they may not see with our eyes in everything. The Church of Christ needs servants of all kinds, and instruments of every sort; penknives as well as swords, axes as well as hammers, chisels as well as saws, Marthas as well as Marys, Peters as well as Johns. Let our ruling maxim be this, "Grace be with all them that love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity." (Ephes 6: 24.)

We should observe, lastly, in these verses, the abundant evidence which Scripture supplies of our Lord Jesus Christ's resurrection. Here, as in other places we find an unanswerable proof that our Lord rose again with a real material body, and a proof seen by seven grown-up men with their own eyes, at one and the same time. We see Him sitting, talking, eating, drinking, on the shore of the lake of Galilee, and to all appearance for a considerable time. The morning sun of spring shines down on the little party. They are alone by the well-known Galilean lake far away from the crowd and noise of Jerusalem. In the midst sits the Master, with the nail-prints in His hands, — the very Master whom they had all followed for three years, and one of them, at least, had seen hanging on the cross. They could not be deceived. Will any one pretend to say that stronger proof could be given that Jesus rose from the dead? Can any one imagine better evidence of a fact? That Peter was convinced and satisfied we know. He says himself to Cornelius, We did "eat and drink with Him after He rose from the dead." (Acts 10: 41.) Those who in modern times say they are not convinced, may as well say that they are determined not to believe any evidence at all.

Let us all thank God that we have such "a cloud of witnesses" to prove that out Lord rose again. The resurrection of Christ is the grand proof of Christ's divine mission. He told the Jews they need not believe He was the Messiah, if He did not rise again the third day. The resurrection of Christ is the top stone of the work of redemption. It proved that He finished the work He came to do, and, as our Substitute, had overcome the grave. The resurrection of Christ is a miracle that no infidel can explain away. Men may carp and cavil (split hairs or be pedantic) at Balaam's ass, and Jonah in the whale's belly, if they please, but till they can prove that Christ did not rise again we need not be moved. Above all, the resurrection of Christ is the pledge of our own. As the grave could not detain the Head, so it shall not detain the members. Well may we say with Peter, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." (1 Peter 1: 3.)

B. Peter's Reinstatement: Verses 15 19

Some Notes On Our Text

Verse 15

After the meal (see Verses 12 14) our Lord gets down to unfinished business. A short conversation follows. Many of the great scholars disagree as to the importance of the words used for "love" in the original Greek text. There is however, a sequence, a flow, which we need to appreciate.

Jesus opens up this section of the conversation: "Simon bar Jonah", ie. son of John. Nowhere else is our Lord recorded as having addressed anyone in this way. It seems that in this brief incident our Lord takes Peter's mind back to the day when he first began to be a disciple of Christ, and to all that had happened in the past three years. In particular this would remind Peter of the day he first came to Jesus, and how he believed Jesus was the Lamb of God.

Jesus continues: " Do you truly love (agapao) me more than these?" Our Lord knows perfectly well how much Peter loves him, but it is Peter who must have no doubt in himself. He is ashamed, after all his talk of what he would do for the Lord, that he denied Jesus three times and ran away when he was most needed. Our Lord understands Peter, why he acted as he did, and how he is feeling at the present time. But Peter cannot be left in this state if he is to fulfil his role in the Church. The Lord begins taking him through a most beautiful process of inner healing. Peter is not asked, "Do you believe?" — or — "Are you converted?" — or — "Have you been born again?" These are complex questions and entirely inappropriate. Instead, mercifully, the Lord asks Peter to tell him how he feels about him.

Our Lord's question has a little challenge in it. Peter had once asserted that he loved Jesus more than the other disciples did. The question therefore before him is something like, "Do you still think you love me with the purest love (agape): purer than anyone else's love?"

Peter replies, Yes Lord, you know I love you (phileo)". Peter is being humble and replies with respect, meaning, it may not be the highest and purest form of love (agape), but it is love just the same. Jesus says, "Feed my lambs".

Verse 16

Jesus again asks about Peter's love, leaving the others out of it. Just for the moment the spotlight is on Peter alone. "Do you really love me?" says Jesus, implying 'as I love you (agape)'. Peter repeats the same reply, words to the effect: "I have very great love (phileo) for you, though I admit — it may not be as pure as it might". He does not venture to say a word about the others. He no longer compares the love in his heart with the love in the hearts of the other disciples. "I only know my own heart, and I feel sure I love you." Jesus replies, "Take care of (or feed) my sheep".

We note the great St Augustine observes that Christ, throughout this dialogue says "my" sheep or lambs, not "your".

Verse 17

Yet again Jesus asks, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?" He is, by this means bringing Peter closer to him. Peter understands the question very well — "Do you really love me even to the degree you have just said?"

Peter is hurt, and now falls back on truth that cannot be refuted or diluted, or for that matter, held back. "Lord, you know all things. You know what sort of love I have for you, and I cannot hide it. My love is far from perfect, but I do love you." 

At that moment, Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Lord who knows all things. As with Thomas, the Lord has patiently drawn out Peter's confession and proclamation. There is no doubt that Peter was recalling Psalm 139:

"Lord, I lie open to your scrutiny;

You know me, know when I sit down and when I rise up again,

Can read my thoughts from far away…..

Scrutinise me O god, as you will, and read my heart;

Put me to the test, and examine my restless thoughts.

See if on any false paths my heart is set,

And yourself — lead me in the ways of old."

(Note: We have used the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament here, as this is the version, rather than the Hebrew, which was used by the early Church and by the writers of the Gospels.)

This will be Peter's prayer for the rest of his life. Peter is healed of all self-doubt and haunting guilt. He is now fully restored by the One he acknowledges as his Lord.

Jesus quietly repeats: "Take care of my sheep."

Three times Jesus has commanded Peter to take up the holy work of caring for the Shepherd's flock. Relying on Christ's strength he regains his courage and inner confidence. With those qualities he can be a good shepherd without being authoritarian, or lording it over the others.

Verse 18

For his humility and obedience, Jesus explains, he will be given the honour of dying in the same way as his Master, by crucifixion.

Calmly and without fuss Jesus concludes this time of renewal with the first message he ever addressed to Peter: "Follow me."

In other words: "Now there is nothing in the way. You are ready to serve as I have prepared you for. Simply lead my flock by following me!"

Conclusion

We have been privileged to observe another very special moment in the relationship of Christ and his Apostles. After all the drama of the crucifixion, Peter has returned home thoroughly depressed. He couldn't sit around talking about it, so he went fishing to take his mind off everything. But our Lord has other plans. Patiently he awaits Peter's return to shore, attends to his bodily needs and then proceeds to confront Peter very gently with his problem. Without realising it, Peter, in his usual style, engages with the Lord honestly and openly, holding nothing back. Peter is very tender at this time, but our Lord knows how to restore him without destroying him. The outcome is indeed impressive, as the history of the early Church records. For that we will need to begin reading the Book of Acts.

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