He said to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, love you me? He said to him, Yes, Lord…
TEXT: JOHN xxi.16. "He saith to him again a second time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me? He saith unto Him, Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee. He saith unto him, Tend my sheep."
THERE is no more important charge than that which the Lord gave to His apostle in these words. He calls Himself the Shepherd of His flock; therefore what He here committed to the charge of the apostle was to do the Lord's own work in His name, and under His oversight and ruling direction as Chief Shepherd. But this is a charge committed by no means exclusively to the Apostle Peter, nor exclusively to the rest of the apostles, nor to those alone who now in a special and official way serve the Lord as teachers and overseers in His Church: it is the duty of all Christians without exception; we are all to be labourers in His vineyard. But in this vineyard, the plants of which are none other than redeemed souls, its fruits none other than the fruits of the Spirit, what can any one find to do that would not be included in the expression, Tend My sheep? Co-operation and help in the work which the Lord has to do on the souls that God has given Him, this and nothing else can we supply to Him, and He can make use of nothing else. If therefore we are to present our whole life to Him as a living thank-offering; if we are bound to show that He has sanctified our souls, by our making some use of the powers we owe to Him, then we must all certainly take part in the work which, in the words of our text, He commits to the apostle. But He connects this charge with Peter's answer to His question, Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me? And thus it appears to us that in an examination to which, as it were, the Lord subjects Peter, this love to Christ is the one thing He requires of him, with a view to his feeding Christ's sheep. But we find among Christians in all ages very different opinions about this. Some adhere strictly to this word of the Lord, and say that there is absolutely no other spiritual qualification for this duty; that a man has no need to acquire anything else beforehand in order to render to the Lord the service to which all are called; that he only needs to be growing ever stronger in love to the Saviour, and to be able ever more joyfully to answer with the apostle, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee. Others, on the contrary, maintain that of course the Lord knew everything else that was in the apostle; what spiritual faculties were awakened, what light of knowledge was kindled in him; but because Peter had fallen and denied Him, He may have stood in doubt about just this one point; or rather, though He, knowing what was in all hearts, could not doubt, the rest of the disciples might have doubted whether love to the Lord was still quite as lively in his heart as it had been. And therefore, they say, the Lord addressed this question to him, not as if there were nothing else required in order to tend His sheep, but because all the other disciples knew quite well the kind and measure of everything else in the soul of Peter, but on this one indispensable point it was necessary for him to come out clearly. In response to these different views, whether love to Christ is sufficient qualification for the fulfilment of the Christian's calling, or something more is required, let us consider more closely the words pf our text. First, and most necessary, let us try rightly to understand the Saviour's words in this connection; and secondly, let us go further back and inquire together how those different views may be supposed to have arisen among Christians, in order still more fully to assure ourselves as to what has been the mind and will of the Lord.
I. First, then, if we wish to ascertain which of those two meanings the Saviour may be supposed really to have had, it will be necessary for us to begin by asking what, according to the nature of things, is implied in the commission with which the Lord here charges His disciple, Tend My sheep. Confining ourselves to the figurative expression which the Saviour uses, it unquestionably includes very specially two things: first, that the sheep of the flock must be protected; then, that they must be fed. The shepherd's care takes in both of these parts; therefore the Lord expects from His disciple and entrusts to him both kinds of work. Well, now let us next ask by what means and in what manner the souls of men are protected, so that they may not again withdraw or wander from the Lord's flock, and that in the flock no danger may approach or evil befall them? Certainly, we answer unanimously, love to Him is the first requisite; that love must call forth in each of us the strong desire to keep our own soul and the souls of others in living fellowship with Him; it must make us quick to notice whatever might be adverse to that fellowship. But now if we are asked to go a step further, and assert that this love to the Saviour is sufficient by itself for the work, then, it seems to me, we must say No. What a knowledge of the human heart in its obduracy and in its despondency is needful in order to protect the soul in spite of these; with what clear spiritual insight must we penetrate its most hidden recesses if we wish to note and trace out, before it be too late, anything in men's own souls that endangers their fellowship with the Saviour if we are to detect the first stirrings of evil, and make those aware of it in whom we see it, so that if possible they may turn before they have fairly entered on a wrong course! What a knowledge we need to have of the ways of sin, and of the various snares that are prepared by those who are still sunk in earthly cares and sensual pleasures, for those who are just beginning to show a desire to struggle towards the higher, spiritual life! What experiences of the ways of the world are needful -- experiences always dearly bought -- to know how to bring flattery and dissimulation to light by the truth, and to distinguish them by their fruits; to be able to warn the inexperienced, and dispel for them the illusive semblance of kindness and goodness behind which those only too often conceal themselves who are trying to entice others into the way of ruin. When we think of all this, we must indeed admit that besides love to Christ, true wisdom also belongs to the work of tending His sheep. And now let us look at the second point -- that the souls belonging to the Lord's flock are also to be fed. What other food for souls is there but the Word of God? None, certainly; for the Word that became flesh and came into the world is also the true bread of life that came down from heaven. And Christ Himself said that the flesh profits nothing, but that His words are spirit and life. He therefore who means to feed redeemed souls must know how to dispense and portion out to them the divine Word. Now it is certain that if we are to partake of this food ourselves and dispense it to others, in the first place, our love to Christ must be a well-founded love which recognises that He alone has the words of life. But, in the next place, how needful it is on the one hand that we be able to form a correct judgment on the various relations and conditions in which men are found, to decide in each case what kind of food is most necessary and suitable for the soul, and with true wisdom to select from the great abundance and the infinite fulness of the divine Word that which is best fitted to nourish each one and strengthen him for good in every emergency. But then, on the other hand, still more, what is needful in order to be able rightly to divide the Word of God, although we know how it ought to be distributed to every one? Well, certainly this, that we first clearly and fully understand it ourselves. But the interval of a long course of centuries lies between us and the first utterance of those words; they are written in a foreign and now dead language: and yet the true and perfect under standing of the divine Word can only be that which corresponds most nearly to the way in which all those who heard it from the living lips of the Lord and His apostles -- those whose minds were most awake, most favourably disposed and best prepared -- understood it and applied it to themselves. Therefore a power of transporting our thoughts to distant times and into conditions of society strange to us, a knowledge of foreign tongues and customs, is a part of the qualification for rightly dividing the Word of God. And so, if we are to approach our brethren with the divine words, and thus tend Christ's sheep, love to Him is, no doubt, the first condition; for this is the same thing as our own pleasure and joy in the divine Word, and it is love to Him alone that can constrain us to this whole work, for he who does not love Christ Himself, does not love His flock. But if it is asserted that love alone suffices, we shall again deny it, and certainly still more truly in our case than in that of His first disciples, and feel bound to say that, besides love, a right perception is also needful for the work. And thus when we consider the subject on this side, those persons seem to be right who think, that when the Saviour meant to commission His disciple to tend His sheep, He asked especially about his love to Him, because there might have been room to doubt whether that remained unchanged; but everything else that he needed for the work -- the wisdom and knowledge -- He took for granted in him as already known.
But that justice may be done to all parties, let us now study the subject from another side. Suppose that love to Christ is a living principle in us; must we not, in that case, necessarily take a deep interest in the whole great work of the Lord? Must we not burn with desire to become acquainted according to the full measure of our powers, both with the Lord Himself and with the whole great work of God which is committed to Him? The reverse of this would indeed betray evident indifference. But if we wish to be acquainted with the Saviour, with Him who alone is pure and good, the one perfect Man of God, must we not at the same time go on looking into the sinful heart of man, in order that we may be able exactly to distinguish in it that which is the work of the Saviour and bears the features of His likeness, from what proceeds from human corruption and has no part in His character; so that our idea of the object of our love may be kept pure and holy, and nothing extraneous be mixed with it. And thus we see that love to the Saviour really produces in us, as a matter of course, that knowledge of the human heart, with all its depths and errors, which is necessary in order to our tending the Lord's sheep with wisdom, and fulfilling our work in His kingdom. And in the same way, could we suppose it possible that we should love the Lord without listening most eagerly to every word from His own mouth, as well as to every word which the Spirit, who took of the fulness of Christ and glorified Him, has spoken by the lips of His disciples? Can there be that living love to the Saviour, without our occupying ourselves diligently with His Word? And though every part of it is not equally available, seeing that some parts need more and some less of those helps that depend on all kinds of human wisdom and historical knowledge; yet do we not feel that in the Christian community, where no one buries his talent, every one has sufficient means at command for attaining to a knowledge of the divine Word, such as will enable him, in so far as can be expected of him, to feed the souls of his brethren, and at the fitting time to offer them the bread of comfort and truth out of the abundance of this divine teaching?
Yes, I will even go further. In this world each of us has his own particular calling in the civil community, according to the place in which the Lord has set us; and in order to carry on that calling wisely and with good results on behalf of his family, each one needs to acquire by practice, skill and sagacity about various everyday concerns, as well as much knowledge of the world and of men. Now do we mean to say that all this business activity is a thing apart from love to the Saviour, so that all our pleasure and joy in it comes from a different source? Do we mean to say that when we expend our time and put forth the powers of our mind on this, it must be some other motive that inspires us; and that every one who is engaged in any earthly calling must necessarily have a heart divided between love to it and love to the Saviour, and must take away from the one what he gives to the other? By no means; on the contrary, every thing that can justly make demands on the powers of Christians is closely connected with the great work of the Saviour on earth. And when His apostles recommended to their congregations that every one should work with his hands to some good purpose, and should seek after all things lovely and of good report, those exhortations were just suggested, like all others, by the love of Christ which constrained His apostles; and this same love is to be the motive power by which Christians are to carry out such directions. For he who truly loves the Lord will do Him honour in the presence of men; he will help to glorify the spiritual presence of the Lord to the utmost; he will show that his whole soul is thoroughly pervaded by love to Him; all its emotions will be sanctified by His presence; and love to Him will be a power that helps the believer more effectually in all the concerns of everyday life, and that is able more thoroughly to overcome obstacles than any other incentive that could be set before him.
But this is equally true; that all those various kinds of human knowledge and insight which, when directed by the love of Christ, are a help to us in every part of our work, if they proceed from any other source, can only be injurious. A knowledge of the world and of the human heart, if it is only, as it were, a surreptitious means of carrying out more successfully schemes of selfishness, or of indulging ambition, will not only effect nothing in the kingdom of God and help no human soul, but in the end it will cheat its very possessors of their foolish aims. If all knowledge of past times and of dead languages, and of everything that belongs to a deep and thorough understanding of the different parts of God's Word, is only acquired in order to make a show before the world, or because a man, having missed his highest end, seeks to satisfy the cravings of his spirit in another direction; and if one should nevertheless set himself to use it in investigating God's Word as he would in any ordinary matter; oh, be sure he will never thus attain to a correct and living understanding of it: and so far from one who enters on the work of dividing the Word of God with only this equipment being fit to feed the Lord's sheep; his doing so is much more likely to tend to his own ruin.
Therefore, my friends, after all, it is nothing but love to Christ alone! If we consider it in connection with all that it leads to, we see that it does suffice for the fulfilment of the great work which the Lord, in the words of our text entrusts to all His disciples, in the measure that He expects from each. If one has been thoughtlessly dreaming away his time and has cared little about seeking out and employing the treasures hidden in every soul; it is love which first awakens him and impels him to take up and gather about him, according to the position in which the Lord has placed him, everything that can make him more capable of fulfilling in the world the great calling of all the servants of the Lord. Or if a man, before he is brought into the living fellowship of faith and love with the Saviour, has been eagerly following some other course, and from some other motive has been enriching his mind with knowledge and cultivating its faculties; what a change is made on such a person by love to the Saviour, as soon as it takes possession of his soul! It pervades his whole being, transforms every thing in him, gives a new direction to everything that has been used in the service of vanity, and sets it free to be a living power for good; so that he stands forth a new creature; all the powers of his soul united in active obedience to the motive that inspires him, and obeying no other. The first apostles of the Lord seem to us to resemble the first mentioned class. He found them plain men, longing and hoping in their honest piety for better times; but feebly furnished, and far from having any deep understanding of the word of God and therefore also far from knowing the human heart and the world in which they were placed. But they received everything from Him; love to Him and the joyful belief that in Him they had found the promised Saviour, and heartfelt gratitude that He had chosen them to be His instruments -- these motives impelled and constrained them to receive and hold fast in their inmost hearts all the words of wisdom from His mouth; and thus they were able afterwards to come forward and teach differently and more efficiently than they who from their youth up had been instructed in the Scriptures and in the commandments of the fathers. And on the other hand, those who had previously been wandering in some opposite way are represented to us by that apostle whom the Lord won to Himself when he was in the very act of persecuting His Church. He had sat at the feet of great teachers, and was equipped with all the wisdom of his people which concerned itself especially with the earlier divine relation; and thus he was well practised in everything that could in any way be necessary to ensure success in the profession he had chosen of scribe and teacher of the law. But how was everything transformed from the moment when he perceived that the Way he was persecuting was God's way; when he was arrested by the voice, It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks! from the moment when the question, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? sank into his soul; when his heart recognised the Lord and received from Him the great vocation to go and proclaim the gospel among all nations. From that moment every thing was made to serve the one end, everything in his soul subordinated to the love of Christ, controlled and pervaded by it, and thus fitted to contribute to the work of the Lord; so that however much use Paul might make of what he had been taught from his youth, he could nevertheless say with truth that he did not come with the wisdom of men; for everything in him was changed into a really divine wisdom, learning and skill.
But if we were inclined to suppose from this that, because love to Christ produces everything that really carries on the work of His kingdom, therefore each individual should be fit for every kind of work, in proportion as he is inspired and constrained by that love; and if therefore each one tried to take a part in everything that was to be done in the kingdom of God this would be both a false representation of human affairs, and a vain delusion. If we think of our selves apart from all that has most to do in determining our work in this world and giving it for the first time a fixed direction, we see that we have got no further, with all our love to Christ, than to resemble those of whom the Lord speaks in His parable, who stood waiting in the market-place for some one to hire them; and then the Master comes, and as often as He finds any, leads them into His vineyard, and appoints to each his work, according to his powers and circumstances. And so with us; if only we have love to Christ this will not fail to occur; the Master calls us, some in this direction, some in that; whither and when is decided by the circumstances in which each of us is placed, and which are more favourable to some and more adverse to others; but all of us will certainly have experience of both. But whatever lot has been cast for any one, he becomes a labourer in the Lord's vineyard only in so far as love to Christ constrains him and teaches him what it is fitting for him to do in the place where the Lord has set him. This is what each one must see to; but for everything else, let him build nothing on the skill of man, or what he may choose to do. For all the rest is the mysterious dealing of God, who certainly often directs things so wonderfully just that no man may fancy that he himself is able to manage events, but that all may acknowledge that the Lord has reserved it to Himself in the secret course of His counsel, to appoint to each the place in His vineyard in which he is to tend the sheep of the flock according to his knowledge and capacity.
Hence then, my friends, it appears as if there could really be no dispute among Christians as to how far love to Christ does or does not suffice for the fulfilling of the work which the Lord has committed to us.
II. Let us, therefore, inquire shortly, in the second place, whence this dispute has nevertheless arisen, and on what it is founded. On this, of course, that alongside of the highway of truth run two opposite byways, one on either side, such byways as men are apt to wander into, even in the kingdom of God. The person who teaches that love to Christ is sufficient and that a man needs nothing in addition, warns us against one of these byways, and the person who says that love to Christ is indeed the foundation, the first and indispensable thing, but that we need much besides if we are really to bring forth fruit and be useful in the Lord's work; this one, in his turn, sots himself in opposition to the other byway. The first error arises from this, that many, even devout men, do not sufficiently remember what the Lord means when He says, My kingdom is not of this world. The Lord's Church still lives in perpetual warfare with that which, in contrast with it, Scripture calls the world; the conflict of light with darkness is still going on. For clearly as the light shines in the darkness, there is still a portion of the darkness that has not admitted it; and so the long struggle goes on, the struggle of good against evil, of simple, heavenly truth against the perversity of the children of men, the struggle with which we are all acquainted. But because this struggle is not always easy, and the Church of God still often meets with hard usage here and there; many, out of an ill-advised though really living and hearty love to Christ and His kingdom, still hold the opinion that if the world oppresses the Church by the employment of outward means, by power and authority, the Church would, on her side, do well to provide herself with all kinds of means of defence similar to those with which she is attacked. They think that if the opponents of the gospel seek to take ad vantage of its simple-hearted professors by human wisdom and skill, we ought also to try by a judicious use of our knowledge and skill to intimidate and perplex those opponents. And thus we very easily lose sight of that great word of the Lord, If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would fight for it with the weapons of this world; and so men do fight for the kingdom of God with the weapons of this world, and thereby only produce in it more confusion and uncertainty; they dim the light and increase the darkness. Now when such things occur it is time to remember that when Christ commissioned His disciple to tend His sheep, He questioned him about nothing but his love to Him. Whatever resulted from this love, therefore, was to be used for the profit of the Lord's flock, but everything else, not allied to it, could produce no beneficial effect in His kingdom, and could neither protect nor help His flock. But such things have occurred, and the Christian Church has many times strayed into this byway, since from being a persecuted and much-enduring Church she has be come a ruling power; but above all since she was called in a distinctive sense, the Church of Rome. For now she was honoured and glorified by the powers of the world and her self invested with authority, and every powerful weapon was placed in her hands to be used for her own purposes. And as worldly power uses speech in various ways to attain its ends, so here also an art of speech was adopted and practised, often flattering and treacherous enough, in order to carry out designs which so much worldly effort made impure and base. And indeed it took much more than love to Christ to accustom His flock to the oppressive yoke under which they were to be held prisoners. And so it came that, instead of a true temple of the Spirit of God, there arose a building in which it must have become ever more impossible for those to dwell who had learned to know for themselves the spiritual union with the Saviour, and desired to find their salvation in that alone; until at last the Lord brought about the time for which we so often thank Him in our meetings in our morning prayer; the time when the clearer light of the gospel was able to shine for us anew. Then we returned to the Christian's living and profound conviction that the Lord's kingdom is not of this world; that no worldly power or skill can ever protect or defend it; that spiritual power alone can enable it to stand against all storms and attacks; and that in all the concerns of that kingdom, no power must bear rule but love to the Saviour, and all that it begets in the souls of men.
Now as to the other byway; what leads to it is this, that there are really a great many Christians who would like to turn their love to the Saviour into something that they enjoy quietly and all by themselves. They wish to be absorbed in the sense of His spiritual presence and nearness; they reverence and love Him as the source of every good and lovely emotion of their hearts, and as taking a lively pleasure in them all. Now this is all beautiful and right, and is certainly no byway. But if they desire to know nothing but this kind of enjoyment, and thus virtually forget the whole world around them; what can be the result but a life whose aims terminate on itself, and which is therefore utterly inefficient for the great aims of the Saviour? For it is evident that a man is selfish if he allows himself to be satisfied with merely his own salvation, and so becomes always more indifferent to the whole outward duty of a Christian, and to the great work of the Saviour in the world -- of that Saviour to whom we owe deepest love and exclusive reverence very specially on this account, that He did not live for Himself, but came to serve, to seek and save the lost, and to invite the weary and heavy-laden to come to Him. Now if a man truly enough feels himself lost and gone astray, and is glad of the coining of Christ to save him; if he feels himself weary and heavy-laden, and follows, not in vain, the path that leads to Him who alone can refresh his soul; and if yet it never enters his mind that the refreshed soul ought to bring forth all good and beautiful fruits; that he is to set himself, in the strength of love to the Lord, to save and refresh others; and that each one is not only to be a sheep of the flock, but is called to take his own part in tending the Lord's sheep, then he has got into a byway. And the greater the number is of those who follow this course, even though each does not mean to be for himself alone, and though they rejoice together by hundreds, but still only in. this self-centred enjoyment of love; just so much the more numerous are those who are withdrawing themselves from supporting the kingdom of God, and from carrying forward His work. And when things come to this state it is high time for a voice from the opposite side to make itself heard by those secluded souls, buried in slothful love to Christ, and to say to them, Such a love as that is not enough; more than that is needful for meeting rightly the call which Christ addresses to you as to others: if you really wish to live with Him you must also act for Him; if spiritual gifts have been developed in you, you must put them to use in the kingdom of God. In this sense, then, it may no doubt be said that something in addition to love to Christ is wanted for the tending of His sheep; and yet the full truth is this, that such a love is not true love, but an impure and selfish substitute for it. For the Lord did not come in order to dwell in souls in an isolated way, and to begin His life mysteriously and specially in each; the blessings of His presence are to reach to all by means of fellowship and communion; and this ought never to cease until all the sheep are gathered from every quarter of the world, till all have come to the maturity of a perfect man in Christ, till His Church stands before Him blameless in regard to the whole duty of man on earth. Now he who does not labour in this work of the Lord, does not love it; and he who does not love the Lord's work would boast in vain of loving the Lord Himself. And if it is a poor, pitiful love like this we are thinking of -- a love that will certainly always be impure and false as long as it is confined to mere personal enjoyment -- then we are right in saying that for the fulfilment of a Christian's whole duty, more than love is necessary. But if we mean the real and vigorous love to Christ, such as it was in the apostles, and such as it has always been in all faithful, actively-working Christians, whose hearts are set on the common weal; then we must say, we need nothing beyond that. That love will produce everything that can in any way be useful to us as labourers in the Lord's vineyard, it will develop every faculty that each of us needs in order to exercise an influence wherever the Lord has placed us; and thus we shall be able with our whole being to praise the Lord, when everything that is lovely and commendable and of good report among Christians proceeds from no other source than love to the Lord.
It is just the same here as with the dispute whether faith is sufficient to justify and save a man, or whether works must be added to faith. As this is always only an empty strife about words -- for faith which is not active by works is no true faith, but dead, and the works that do not come from faith are only dead works -- in the same way the dispute as to whether love is enough to fit us for tending the Lord's sheep, or whether something more is needed, is only a vain strife of words: for that is not real love to the Saviour which has not the effect of making us devote and sanctify all our powers to Him, and use them in the work of His kingdom. If it does this, then we need nothing more. All occupation about earthly affairs, to which Christians, as men, are called, all knowledge of what is needful for the furtherance of Christ's cause on earth -- all these things come rightly to us if only, in every moment and every part of our life, we are inspired by the right kind of love to Christ, if we regard everything that comes to be done only in the light of its being something belonging to His holy kingdom.
If then, my friends, we have concluded that one thing alone is needful, let us seek to experience in its glorious fulness, and to keep clearly before our minds, what is included in this one thing. Let us put out to interest this talent committed to us, and by means of it obtain whatever tends to the glorifying of God's kingdom, so that if the Lord asks in our inmost hearts the question he put to Peter, we also may be able, with a good conscience, to answer, "Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee." Then shall we all, with joy, and with gladsome hope that the word has not been spoken in vain, hear from Him the call, Go, then, and tend My sheep. Amen.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.