Pastors are commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ to care for the spiritual welfare of the flock. Yet pastors are themselves fallen and frail sinners, with many disappointing missteps in their past. When they have themselves slipped up so badly so many times, can Jesus really have any more use for them in His ministry? Looking at the case of Peter, George Hutcheson says that restoration after a terrible fall is difficult, yet certainly possible. In the following updated exposition of John 21, Hutcheson shows how Christ’s prime requirement in His ministers is that they love His flock, the little lambs and older sheep who He loves and wants fed. The love of a restored believer for Christ does not erase the memory of their painful falls, but the memory of what they have been rescued from gives shape and depth to their love for Christ and His people as they move forward in humble service.
In John 21:15–17, on profession of his love to Christ, Peter is restored to and confirmed in his apostolic office which he had forfeited by his foul and gross fall. Christ’s threefold question about Peter’s love is only intended to draw out a threefold answer from Peter, so that his professed repentance would be as frequent as his denial. Consequently, we are not to look on Christ’s threefold injunction to Peter as three distinct commands requiring diverse things, but only as one command three times repeated.
Restoration to ministry is difficult
In general, this teaches that apostacy and denial of Christ, though even out of weakness in a time of strait, is full of hazard. It brings disciples to a loss not easily recovered. Peter, by reason of his fall, needs a kind of restitution, and a confirmation anew in his office and dignity.
At the same time, when Christ puts His people on service, and calls for evidences of their love to him, He first goes before them with proofs of Himself – His power, love and care – in order to engage them to their duty. His enquiry about Peter’s love, and His engaging him to service, was not till after He had given proof of Himself by the miracle, “when they had dined,” and after their bodies were refreshed by Him.
Love is essential in the servants of Christ
Christ’s question to Peter, and the triple way of propounding it, teaches that love to Christ is the Christian’s badge. Anyone who deserts that standard is a runaway. This is what Christ tests Peter by: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?”
Ministers who are called to take charge of Christ’s children and flock need much love to Him. No service they may offer can be approved, if instead of flowing from love to Christ, it is undertaken for some hidden agenda. Nor, without this love, is there any possibility of enduring the many blasts they will meet with in their calling, or the much toil they will have, even with and from the flock itself. The inquiry, “Lovest thou me?” is premised as a needful qualification for discharging the trust committed to the minister.
Yet whatever love for Christ people may warrantably claim to have, it does not allow them to swell in their own eyes because of it, or because of any dignity conferred on them as those who love Christ. Saints, in their repenting for their failings, should look back to the low estate from which Christ has raised them, so that they will see all the more clearly their ingratitude, in back-sliding or forsaking Him. That is why He guards all these questions with this designation, “Simon” (not “Peter,” the name He gave him; John 1:42), and “son of Jonas,” a poor fisherman. It is so that Peter, as he professes his repentance and renewed love, will let his heart be affected with thoughts of the low estate from where he was exalted, and to which Christ might justly debase him again, and leave him as He found him, “Simon, son of Jonas.” In professing his love, and embracing this charge, he should still remember his origins.
Our love should not exclude but be enhanced by the memory of what we have done
The sense of the Lord’s people’s backslidings should be a whet-stone to sharpen their love to Christ, and to make them not content to return to a formal way of profession after their foul slips, but to move forward with a new edge on them, to recover their losses, and prevent falling again in a similar way in the future. This is why Christ enquires particularly at Peter, “Lovest thou me?” because if he has been truly recovered, he ought to be eminent in love, and have it more deeply rooted in his heart, partly so that he will not slide again, and partly in testimony of his sense of Christ’s kindness, who looked on him after his fall.
True repentance should, and will, not only be sincere and real, but just as eminent in its effects as the sinner’s fall was. Peter’s threefold profession of love to Christ corresponds to his threefold denial of Christ.
Those who have fallen grossly in the time of temptation, and have through mercy been recovered again, should still be suspicious of themselves, as having grossly given the lie to their former professions. Christ wants for Peter not to easily trust himself, considering what big claims he had made before, when he gone and fallen so badly.
Christ initially puts the question in comparative terms. “Lovest thou me more than these?” That is, “more than any of the rest love me?” He is not so much saying that someone who has fallen and been restored should strive to out-strip the next one in the grace of love. Rather He wants Peter to reflect on his former conceit of himself, and his unique undertaking (Matt. 26:33), and maybe also his recent forwardness in coming out of the ship (John 21:7) and testing whether, because of that, he would boast of any unique love to Him. And so, with the offer of accepting his sincere love, and calling for it, He rips up Peter’s former conceit of himself.
This teaches us, partly, that the evil of a saint’s apostasies and defections will never be thoroughly cured by any returning out of one particular evil course, unless the fountain, cause and root of their evils is cured, and continually abhorred and watched over. Christ presents Peter with what had occasioned his former fall, to see what he thinks of it, and if it continued with him. Partly too it teaches us that Christ allows His people to season their bitter thoughts of their own evils with the offer of His love and acceptance of what is good and sincere in them. He propounds this indirect challenge in such a way that He also guards it with an offer of His present acceptance of Peter’s love.
Peter modestly declines in his answer to make any comparisons. So in the second and third questions, Christ omits the comparison, and puts the question simply, “Lovest thou me?” He covers and passes by infirmities when He sees us convinced of them.
The connection between restoration, humility and love
We need not curiously distinguish between the different Greek words that Peter uses in his answers to Christ’s questions, signifying greater and lesser degrees of love. If any distinction should be made between these expressions, the fact that Christ uses both shows us that He takes notice of, and is willing to accept of, lesser degrees of sincere love as well as greater. He interrogates concerning both, implying (a) that He will accept either, and also (b) that those who are sober and dare not profess an eminent measure of love to Christ still need to examine if they are sincere and real even in the weaker degree they profess.
Whatever the exact signification of these words, yet there are several things we may learn from Peter’s answers.
- It is very possible for fallen saints to recover their feet, and attain to love again.
- Someone who truly loves Christ may humbly avow his love before Him as often as He enquires about it. “Yea, Lord, I love thee.”
- If we sincerely love Christ, our falls will teach us sobriety, and not to boast of ourselves above others. Peter makes no comparisons in answer to Christ’s first question, but simply ranks himself among those who do love Him.
- Those who want to prove themselves to truly love Christ must not only satisfy themselves in the matter, but should appeal to His knowledge, and be sure that He knows and approves of them as such. “Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.”
- Those who want to approve themselves to Christ should think of Him as knowing all things, and remember that therefore He will not be deceived with performances. “Thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee.”
- Our sight of the grace of God in us, after our back-slidings, should be joined with the sense of our falling. When Peter was grieved, Christ puts him in mind of how his former sliding had justly rendered him suspect, so that the awareness of this would accompany his profession of love.
Service includes the memory of what we have done
Christ commissions Peter, repeating it three times. Christ is able to make good use of saints who fell foully in a time of temptation, and can raise them up again, to do Him eminent service in their generation. Fallen Peter is again entrusted with the charge of Christ’s sheep and lambs.
The moment a saint loves Christ, Christ extends that love to all His people, so that anyone who truly loves Him will show kindness to them. As soon as Peter professes love to Christ, He directs him, “Feed my lambs.” A great evidence of reality of love to Christ is to have a care of Christ’s lambs.
Ministers ought to think of Christ’s people as very seriously recommended to them, and therefore they should very seriously mind their work for them. The threefold charge signalled this for Peter.
Those who want to be faithful in a ministerial charge ought to look on the people of their charge as really Christ’s people, and people who Christ is in a close relationship with. Christ calls them “My lambs, my sheep.” These people are loved by Christ, committed to the minister’s charge by Christ, and Christ wants the minister to win them to Christ.
Ministers ought to keep in mind the variety of personalities, and degrees of strength, which are in the people committed to their charge, so they may interact with them and care for them accordingly. There are both weaker lambs, and stronger sheep. Remember Isaiah 40:10–11, “Behold, the Lord God will come with strong hand …. he shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”
Feeding is a major part of the minister’s work. Ministers are to feed Christ’s people with sound and wholesome doctrine, and to dispense it in such a way that reaches the capacity of the weakest. Christ’s first command is to give food, and specifically to the lambs.
Yet it is not sufficient that ministers be able to feed the people in their charge unless they also govern and rule them, and do every other duty of a good shepherd unto them. And even the strongest ought to subject themselves to this government. In Christ’s second repetition of the charge the word is different from the previous one, “Feed, or govern, and play the shepherd, and that even for the sheep.”
Not even the strongest believers will ever come to a time when they have reached such a height of perfection and sanctity that they have out-grown Christ’s ordinances, which include the ministry. Ministers are obliged to deal with them accordingly. In the third repetition of the charge, Christ goes back to the word He first used, “Feed, or provide food,” and that even to “my sheep,” as well as to lambs.
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