"When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon son of John, do you truly love Me more than these?' 'Yes, Lord,' he said, 'you know that I love You.' Jesus said, 'Feed My lambs.' Again Jesus said, 'Simon son of John, do you truly love Me?' He answered, 'Yes, Lord, you know I love You.' Jesus said, "Take care of My sheep.' The third time He said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love Me?' Peter was hurt because Jesus asked Him the third time, 'Do you love Me?' He said, Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.'" John 21:15-17

The Feast we considered in the preceding chapter is followed by a solemn and touching interview between the Lord and one of the Apostle-guests.

We can almost surmise, before the name is mentioned, which of the apostles it was. They had all been guilty of unkind desertion, when their sympathy would have been greatly valued; but one, who had been pre-eminent in professions of ardor, zeal, and devotedness, had proved, in the hour of trial, the first to fail. Peter's downfall had, indeed, been humiliating. We would not have wondered, if, covered with confusion at the thought of his recent treachery, and refusing ever again to meet the glance of his injured Master's eye, he had fled back in terror to Galilee, and hid himself, for very shame, in one of its most secluded hamlets.

But what will not the consciousness of devoted love brave and overcome? Never more convinced than now of attachment to that Lord he had deeply wounded, he is the first of all the seven to throw himself at His feet and implore His forgiveness. It would have been strange, too, had it been otherwise. A special message had been sent to him by Mary Magdalene, which might well have brought burning tears to the eyes of one of sterner mold than he. "Go," said the angel-guardian at the sepulcher, "go your way, tell his disciples, AND PETER."

We may imagine the interview between this messenger of reconciliation and the trembling Apostle on the Resurrection morning. When Mary rehearsed to him the angel's words, would he not, at first, listen to them as idle tales—as a message too good to be true? 'What!' may he not have said to her, 'have you not mistaken the name? John or Andrew, James or Matthew, it may have been, but I am the last, surely, who would have been singled out with this special remembrance of a love I so basely requited.' Yet it was all true. A new testimony that God's "thoughts are not as man's thoughts, and God's ways are not as man's ways!"

"AND PETER!" How these two little words would linger like undying music in his soul. How they would follow him every step in his way back to his native Galilee, haunt his sleeping and waking hours, and prove like a bright gleam in his lonely watches on the midnight sea!—And now, when He who dictated them is standing before him in peerless majesty in the morning light, can we wonder that, unable to repress the outburst of his grateful feelings, he is seen plunging into the water, cleaving the waves with his brawny arms that he might be the first to reach the shore! The Feast, we found, was partaken of in solemn silence—but when concluded, the Risen Lord is the first to speak, and Peter's name is the first on His lips.

We have already explained the significant symbolism of the miraculous Catch of fish, and of the Banquet which followed—how the Fishermen-apostles were addressed figuratively through the trade with which from youth they had been familiar—their nets being taken as typical of the Gospel Church, and the fish enclosed, of the living souls they were to capture. Our Lord now, however, changes the metaphor. He passes to one with which these Villagers of Bethsaida, amid the abounding green slopes and pasture-lands which bordered their lake, must have been equally familiar. Perhaps where they now were, a flock of sheep might have been seen browsing on one of the adjoining mountains: they may, at the moment, have attracted the eye of the true "Shepherd of Israel," as they emerged at that early hour from their nightly fold.

Be this as it may, the old figure which David loved so, well, when he sang of the Shepherd-love of God, is now taken by the Good Shepherd to instruct His own Disciple. The figure of the net spoke emphatically of the magnitude of the ministerial work—the vast and glorious ingathering of the family of God, which was to take place previous to the Heavenly Feast. Now He proceeds to unfold the principle or motive by which that work could alone be successfully prosecuted, and the method of attaining the great final recompense.

How does our Lord address the erring, but penitent, Apostle—"Simon, Son of John." Simon! He had surnamed him after his noble confession at the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, Peter, "the Rock." But the Rock that should have manfully braved the storm had become the brittle reed, shattered by the first blast of temptation. His conduct had belied his loud protestations, and forfeited the nobler title. His Lord, therefore, goes back to the simple name of his old fisherman life—that which He employed on another occasion when the same disciple was tottering to a fall, "Simon! Simon! Satan has desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat." Or again, when he was found slumbering at his post, instead of being, as he should, the wakeful attendant and guardian of the Great Sufferer—"SIMON, why are YOU sleeping?"

And while there is a thrice-repeated name, there is also a thrice-repeated question, "Do you love Me?"

There can be no doubt as to the Lord's intention in the thrice-repeated question. He wished, by reminding of the threefold denial, to convey to His servant a gentle threefold rebuke. He could not have done so more impressively; while in the addition He makes to the first query, "Do you love Me more than these?" there is an equally manifest reference to that occasion when, in a self-sufficient boastful comparison of his own moral heroism with that of his fellow-disciples, Peter had said, "Though all should be offended because of You this night, yet will not I."

Simon heard the first two questions unmoved; but when for the third time it was uttered—implying, as it did, a secret mistrust as to his sincerity, and reminding with such marked significance of his threefold sin—the questioned apostle "was grieved." He began to suspect there must be some good reason for these implied doubts. He knew that the loving heart which so interrogated would not unnecessarily wound him; that his gracious Lord would not utter a needlessly unkind word or question. Could it be that He, who knew all things, might see foreshadowed some future denial, which led Him to receive these ardent protests with such significant caution? Could it be that his heart, which had so deceived him in the past, was to prove a traitor-heart again, and that he would have to renew his bitter weeping over the humiliations of a still sadder fall?

It was, however, the very grief his Lord desired. He wished to humble him, to annihilate his self-confidence and self-sufficiency. He would teach him that the very love he was tempted to boast of was not an innate, self-generated principle, but, like all his other gifts, divinely imparted and nurtured. He would lead him in future to be ever drawing supplies, not from his own frames and feelings, which were fitful as the changing sand, or apt to fail as the summer brook, but from the exhaustless fountainhead, God Himself!

That our Lord's reiterated appeal had the intended effect we cannot doubt. It read a lesson the Apostle never forgot until his dying hour. We may regard this interview, indeed, as a crisis in Peter's history—the date of a new development in his inner life. The proud self-sufficient Disciple becomes from this day onwards a little child. He comes forth from the furnace into which his Lord had cast him, purified as gold—humbled, but really exalted. We see in his very reply to the present threefold question the germ of this new grace of future poverty of spirit. His answer in former times would probably have been, "I know that I love You." But Jesus has taught him a different estimate of himself. He appeals from his own truant, untrustworthy heart, to that of the great Heart-searcher, "Lord, You know all things; you know that I love You."

His Lord had asked him as to the relative intensity of his love, whether it was now according to his former boasting estimate of it—"more than these." The humbled Apostle takes no note of the comparison. His silence is its own interpreter. There was once a time when he would have been arrogant enough to say, "Yes, Lord; none can love you as I do." But the memories of the past, and the rebukes of the present, have seated him in the dust. He can only make the confident appeal to Him who knew the heart, as to the sincerity of present resolutions, and the depth of present attachment. "I am done," he seems to say, "judging others—I have done judging myself. I once imagined I was bold enough to walk with undaunted step the raging water; but faith failed, and I began to sink. I once drew my sword, with what I thought a hero-heart, against an armed band; the next hour I was a coward trembling with guilty fear. I once said I was ready to go to prison and to death, and that though all should deny and grow faithless, I would never be one of them. Yet, I was the first to be ashamed of that Lord to whom I had sworn unswerving allegiance, and my sin was blackened with aggravations I shudder to recall. Now, I dare boast no more. I can say nothing as to the dependence to be placed on my devotedness. Fitful in the past, it may be fitful still, but at present, Lord, it is with no false lips that I declare, with Your scrutinizing glance upon me, YOU know that I love You."

Jesus forthwith proceeds to reinstate him in the Apostolic office, which, by his unworthy conduct, he had for the time forfeited. Anew he affixes the seal on his previous high commission, "Feed My lambs"—"Feed my sheep."

His Lord had listened to his protestations of love. He accepts them; and in token of acceptance He tells His disciple to go and act a Shepherd's role to His purchased flock. His words are equivalent to saying, "Simon, if you indeed love Me, make proof of the reality of your love, not by your words but by your acts. Prove by newly baptized zeal and unremitting labor that I have not unworthily confided in your resolute assertions."

And in this, Jesus would proclaim to His Church in every future age, that the grand qualification for the feeding of the Sheep is the love of the Great Shepherd in the heart of the under Shepherds. Nothing can be done acceptably but what proceeds from this paramount Christian motive—LOVE TO CHRIST. Peter could not fail, surely, at this moment peculiarly to feel its constraining influence. He was standing within the shadow of the Cross and the Tomb—that blended memory of love and anguish was fresh on his soul—the hand that had just broken the bread still bore upon it the print of the nails. Formerly he loved his Lord as a Heavenly Friend—now he loves Him as a gracious Savior. Formerly he could say with Paul, "Who LOVED me"—now he can add, "Who GAVE HIMSELF for me!"

It is the same paramount gospel claim which is, or ought to be, all-powerful, as an incentive for duty and action with ourselves. We have all the old claims of God's love remaining in undiminished and unaltered power—God our Creator; God our Preserver; God our Bountiful Benefactor; but to these is superadded the culminating claim of all—God our REDEEMER! If you wish to learn the secret of obedience—of active service or passive suffering—come and seat yourselves at Calvary's Cross—listen to the thrilling words—the pathetic appeal coming from these dying lips: "All this I have done for YOU—What do you do for ME?" Or, as this has been translated by one who knew well the sovereign power of that love—"you are not your own, you are bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your bodies and in your spirits, which are His." Depend upon it, nothing will nerve the soul for high, and holy, and pure, and self-sacrificing deeds, but this great principle—"The love of Christ constrains me!" Sinai, with its thunders, says, "You SHALL love God." But Calvary says, "We love Him, because He first loved us!"

How does OUR LOVE stand to that Great and Gracious Redeemer? Were He to prompt the question at this hour, "Do you love Me?"—could we reply in honest earnestness, "Yes, Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You."

Perhaps some who read these pages may be Backsliders. Like Peter, you may have forsaken your first love. You may have become as bruised reeds and smoking flax. You may think that return is hopeless to that Savior, whose grace you have despised, and whose loving heart you have so grievously wounded. Look for your encouragement to Peter's gracious reception by his Lord on these shores of Tiberias. Had he obeyed, perhaps, his own first impulses, he would have fled frightened from that Presence, and fearing a withering glance he felt he dared not face. Ah! if ever there was one who might have been spurned away, it was that poor despicable waverer in Pilate's judgment hall, who, with oaths and curses, denied the Lord who bought him. But Jesus sent a special message of love to him, as He does to us. And what was the Penitent's resolve? It was to cast himself imploringly at his Master's feet, and seek that loving mercy he had never yet sought in vain! As the loving child cannot close his eyes in sleep, until he has received his father's forgiveness; so this erring Apostle feels that joy must be a stranger in his heart, until he receives from his Lord's own lips the cheering assurance that the past is all pardoned—that his crimson and scarlet sins are buried in the depths of forgetfulness!

And Jesus not only receives him, but even in rebuking him, what tenderness, what unutterable gentleness is mingled with that rebuke! We quite expect, after so black a catalogue of guilt, a reprimand of corresponding severity. When the words are first uttered "Simon, son of John"—we expect to hear the enumeration of his former sins—his arrogance—his presumption—the oaths and curses and cowardly desertion. But we see "the end of the Lord, that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy." He knew well that that wounded spirit did not require to be needlessly lacerated. There is no direct reference, therefore, to the past—no catalogue of former sins dragged afresh to the light of day. Like the Shepherd in the parable of the lost wanderer, in silent love "He lays him on His shoulders rejoicing," saying, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep which was lost!"

Reader! are you overwhelmed at the thought of some past sins—some deep dark blots disturbing your peace, and darkening your spiritual prospects—deterring you from the mercy-seat—leading you to restrain prayer before God? Delay no longer! Flee to that same unchanging Lord of love. He is waiting now to be as gracious as He was to the penitent Apostle at Gennesaret. He is as willing now as then to say, "I will be merciful to your unrighteousness; your sins and your iniquities will I remember no more."

And learn once more from this subject, that it is by GRACE you stand. Why was Peter not a Judas? Why do we not find him, like his brother apostle, a vessel (once freighted with noble resolves) lying a wreck on the desert shore? It was grace which made all the difference. Grace called him—grace restrained him—grace rescued him. He was a commentary on the words, "kept by the power of God." Jesus Himself tells, that at one time there was truly but a step between Peter and death. There was but one link that prevented the chain of his spiritual life from snapping, but it was the golden link of His own ever-living intercession—"Satan has desired to have you, BUT I have prayed for you that your faith fail not!"

It is the same with us. We can boast of no grace that we have. We are dependent every hour on the upholding arm of a gracious Savior. That arm removed, and we sink like lead in the waters. Distrust yourselves. Feel that your own strength is utter weakness. Let your cry be, "More grace! more grace!"—ever traveling between your own emptiness and Christ's infinite fullness.

And with His grace sustaining you, seek to have His love constraining you. Seek to have more and more a realizing sense of the paramount claims of that amazing mercy! Seat yourselves often under Calvary, and gaze on Him who spared not His own life's blood, that He might rescue you from the waves of destruction, and spread for you a Feast on the Heavenly shore. Oh! with such a miracle of stupendous condescension in view, can we wonder that He should ask, regarding all else that may be competing with His paramount claims—wealth, friends, home, children—"Do you love Me MORE THAN THESE?" Give Him henceforth the throne of your best affections, and be able to say in the spirit of the old martyr, "If I had a thousand hearts, I could love Him with them all. If I had a thousand lives, I would lay them down for His sake!"