Thrice "Lovest Thou Me?"
by Henry Dyer
It is remarkable that whereas in John xx. the Master gave three times to His little band that word, "Peace be unto you," He should again, to one of that band, and in the presence of all, thrice say, "Simon, lovest thou Me? "Turn now, if you please, to chapter xxi., while we read together its earlier verses. "At the sea of Tiberias." Far away from the place of the previous occasion, we find them now in distant Galilee. "Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a-fishing." We are not told what led this leading apostle (for he is elsewhere spoken of in the gospels as the first of the twelve) in his usual energy to be thus prompting the others; but we may remark this, that in going back to their own country it was a more difficult task to preach the new faith and the Name, and more easy to be there with some earthly occupation. This may have been one of their temptations. But the main reason will appear as we read the narrative. "Therefore, that disciple whom Jesus loved." Love is quick-sighted. "As soon as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread." Fish that never swam in Galilee's lake; bread that never was baked in earthly oven. It was divinely provided, Jesus himself preparing it—no angel even, but His own holy hands, willing and delighted to get ready the meal for them, hungry as they would come from their night of fishing toil. ''Jesus saith unto them, bring of the fish which ye have now caught." And this was as much His providing as the other. The same One who provided that fish with the coin in its mouth of the exactly required amount, guided all these great fishes into their net. “And none of the disciples durst ask Him, Who art Thou?" The solemnity of the Divine Presence gets felt in all our souls. "Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise. No hasty eagerness, even with their hungry appetites.
One other remark I would make, as to this being the third time of the Lord's showing Himself to His disciples (verse 14). That is to say, the third time John makes any record of; not that there were no other occasions, but these three are divinely selected. Each one of these appearings of the heavenly Master—in His resurrection, glorified Body (for "He raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory")—was to meet some form of our natural unbelief". First in Jerusalem, in that upper room, against the unbelieving fear of what man could do; eight days afterwards, to meet unbelief as to the vital subject of the resurrection, to feed our hearts with Himself as the evidently risen One, bearing the marks of His atoning death; thirdly, unbelief as to their temporal supplies in the carrying out of the work which He had given them to do—"I go a-fishing," and "we also go with Thee"—when He had called them away from it years before. It was a lucrative profession, and an honourable one, but they had been called away from it. And now they were going back to the country where their Master's miracles were wrought, and where, when He was with them, they lacked nothing. But now He was murdered, and they cast out, without the prestige that His presence had carried, and, instead, the present reproach of His Name. Then came the moment of temptation. We must needs have some occupation to provide for our wants.
"So when they had dined." And what a dining was that! "Is this fish of my catching?" would Peter say. Not a bit. And the very food he ate went to kill his unbelief and to feed his faith; every morsel of the meal is instruction to our souls whenever we sit at Wisdom's table. Peter had such a dining as gave him wisdom, as well as earthly, passing bread. "Jesus saith, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more than these? He saith unto Him, Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. 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." Shepherd, or herd, My sheep. The difference is between giving food and giving exercise to the flock, leading them along the paths. "He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?" Peter was grieved because He said unto him the third time, Lovest thou Me? And he said unto Him, Lord, thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed My sheep." I would explain that two entirely different words are here used for our English word ''love." Each time the Master uses a word expressive of calm, deep, God-taught affection. Peter, on his side, in the ardour of natural affection, uses an excitable, strong, bubbling-up, emotional word, that almost implies a caressing kiss. Presently the Lord turns round and uses Peter's own word—gives it him back again. And Peter is grieved because the third time the Lord gives him his own word, as if He would say, "Do you stand by your own word? Do you really mean you love Me enough to put your arms around Me, and give your all for Me?" Therefore Peter was grieved because the Lord had said something different, and questioned his sincerity. Ah! there was another man who kissed Jesus, and then sold Him; so little are mere words, even with kisses, to be depended upon. But Peter still keeps to his own impassioned language.
Now, I have said the chief introductory things I wished to say. I have reminded, you of the solemnity of the dealing of the Lord with our souls. May He so reveal Himself as that we may learn three things: 1st, No fear of man; 2nd, No unbelieving eyes to dim the words of the risen One; 3rd, No distrust, but that wheresoever He sends us, He will provide for our need. All sent ones of the Lord have a warranty from Himself to say: "All my wants shall be supplied." Oftentimes by our own work, for there is always a place alongside of faith for the activities of obedience.
Now, next I would consider the effect of this dining hour upon the twelve. All their wants being supplied, what had they to do? To rush off into the busy activities of work? First of all: Has the heart got warmed? The Lord would say: “Lovest thou Me?” That comes before action. But consider the first of these three a moment. "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more than these?" It is to be remarked that Peter had said in Matthew xxvi., "Though all shall be offended, yet will not I." Now the Master brings up to him his own words. "Is it really true that you love me more than the rest? You said that though all should be stumbled you would not be; now you have come up to the old spot in Galilee with an empty scrip, and faith has failed you. But who was it led on this chilly action? Is it true you love me more than the rest? Did John first make the proposal? Was it James who said, I go a-fishing? Who did?" The first lesson I have to learn is; never let me think I love Him more than some other, or the Lord may show me how soon I may stray away from Him. What if Peter had gone on? He wouldn't have been an apostle worthy of the name. He would only have been a respectable Christian fisherman. Who led them? The very one who boasted, "I love you, if none else does." And the point of the answer is this: He indulges in emotional language, says caressing words, but each time the Lord bids him do loving actions. "Lord, Thou knowest I passionately love Thee." "Let Me see it then by your feeding My own." How simple are the four Gospels, but what an ocean of love is contained in them, and not in words, but in deeds! Peter was trusting to his passionate language, but the Lord bids him to war with deeds. Perhaps you may be heard praying with the deepest emotion, with most impassioned language, but when it comes to action, you are not found more impassioned than others. And what if I myself war against the snare, and be found doing the very thing? 'Tis deeds; that is the great answer to our subject. "Dost thou love Me with distinguishing love? Show it with actions. Can you feed My lambs and tend My sheep on Galilee's lake? I took you away that you might give yourself to pastoral work, and that is not words, but deeds—toiling for others."
Now, one other thing I want to say, and that is, the Lord puts this service in three different shapes. First, "Feed My lambs;" next, "Shepherd My lambs," that is, walk in and out among them; and then, "Feed My sheep." Now mark the distinction between the first two. Turn to Paul's labour among the Thessalonians as a specimen of one who with love to his Master was also full of love for them, for whom his Master died. 1 Thess. ii. 7-8, "But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children; so, being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the Gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us." "Not the mere language of our lips; for so difficult is it to get from town to town, that we do it at the risk of our lives." That is what I call feeding the lambs. Now read verses 11-12: “As ye know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, that ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto His kingdom and glory." He Himself going in front to lead them. The one, the feeding, the other, the shepherding. When they were grown up a little, then would He lead them' into the paths of testimony and service, into endurance of reproach, lead them in the "paths of righteousness." I would have you remark what Psalm xxiii. says as to what the shepherd does. "He causeth me to lie down in the green pastures;" this is the feeding. "He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness;" this is the shepherding, the exercising of the saints. And though it be "through the valley of the shadow of death," He is with me as He leads me. And as this is the action of the Chief Shepherd, so let it be the action of those who serve under Him. Not words, but actions; let the business of our lives be to think of the flock for whom He died. When Paul parted with the Ephesian elders, he enjoins them to feed the flock, or to shepherd the flock. But a person may feed so far as word is concerned, and yet not be much of a pattern to those whom he feeds for them to follow. He says: "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God, which He hath purchased by His own blood." Won't you give your love? Didn't Jesus give His? Yet how little do we know what it is to deny ourselves for the sake of those for whom Jesus died. Perhaps not even willing to give up eating flesh, some little indulgence, lest we destroy one for whom Christ died. "Peter, I don't want language, caressing words. You have come into Galilee towns, and you are not following in the steps in which I led you when I was with you; but I find you on that lake, and from that you gave the emotional words." And the Lord gently rebukes him by giving him back his own language. "Do you really fondly love Me? Then be willing to suffer for the flock for which I suffered." And the flock would thrive if there were more of this truly shepherd care. Not just getting them baptized and to come to the Lord's table, and then off to our varied occupations; but we need those who fill all the interstices of their time in weeping with mourning saints, and seeking backsliding saints.
First, then, we have "Feed My lambs"; secondly, “Shepherd My sheep"; and then "Feed My sheep." The feeding comes twice; what is the difference? I wound remind you that very different help is needed for young saints than for those more experienced. All through Scripture we find that the saints are to be treated with different kinds of food. In Psalm xxiii., we have first the green pastures, and then the table spread in the presence of our enemies. The green pastures are good, but there will be hours of conflict and of ever-deepening experience, when stronger food will be required, and then there is the table spread in the presence of our enemies. Paul says to the Hebrew saints that he is not able to give them the strong meat, but must feed them with the milk of the Word. "For strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." But he found them of an age when they needed the elementary things of God's great love, and were not able to take in the Melchizedek food. For when did Melchizedek feed Abram? Not when first he came from Mesopotamia, but when he had been fighting for his brother Lot; then it was that he brought forth bread and wine. When I get into Church trials and toils for souls, what is to requite me? The Lord giving the approval of Melchizedek bread and wine. "Forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord." So the simpler, elementary work is always needing to be done; but there is work further on than that.
Next, the passage shows us that all Church work we do is to spring from the warmth of Christ's love to us, and our love back again to Him. "Lovest thou Me?” "Yes, Lord.” Then "feed My sheep." I am to carry into every assembly that I visit the love wherewith I myself am loved. If I go to the north, or if I go to the south, it is not to be because I like it, but because Jesus died for those saints there; and not for the sake of the saints only, but for Jesus' sake, to whom the saints are dear. If I see Jesus in any one, what cannot I do for that soul? Are there not members of Christ whom I may serve as if it were the Master Himself, and doing all unto the Lord in every action of my life? How sweet then the joltings of an omnibus, the weary toil of a hot walk, if I know that it is carrying me nearer to a member of His. "Bestow the love upon My lambs, and upon My sheep." Not indiscriminately, but feed them with the marrow and fatness of Scripture, and lead them in the path their feet should tread. "Lovest thou Me?" "See My people, and pour the love upon them." We cannot bring our alabaster box of ointment, for He is in resurrection now; but I know of others for whom something may be done. Let your love be such as may be expended upon them; carry back your minds to John xiii., and go, wash their feet. I ask grace for each of us to go away hearing these words ringing in our ears, and that we may hear them ever, "Lovest thou Me?" And give back, not swelling words, but loving actions, expended upon those whom He loves.