Are you overcome by sin? Peter was ...

The Love that Restores

D. C. Mitchell: In those Evangelistic Missions in which I have taken part, I have always borne in mind that the Christian Religion is a Religion with a Book. I feel that, if I can get my listeners confronted by the Christ of the New Testament, everything else that the Evangelist desires will follow.

[S. T.] Coleridge says somewhere that the great virtue of the Bible is that it finds a man, and [John] Bunyan in his great allegory [Pilgrim's Progress] emphasizes the same idea, for his pilgrim is a man with a Burden and a Book. Indeed, it is the Book that makes him realize that he has a Burden, and that gives Evangelist an opportunity to direct him on the road to the place where he can lose his Burden forever.

To magnify the Bible, therefore, to reveal its attractiveness and power and modernism to my hearers is one of my chief endeavors. It may be that through the warm and hearty Christian Spirit of a Revival gathering or an Evangelistic Campaign a man may be started out on a new life of deeper faith and nobler endeavor, but unless the Evangelist has contrived to give him something of an abiding interest in the Book of his religion it is most unlikely that the young believer will have stamina enough to hold on his way.

The Evangelist must take long views and build up, all through his work in the week or weeks that he is in any district, an interest in and love for the Bible, and especially the New Testament, which will last.

I have said that the Bible finds a man. I have seen it do so again and again, and I need no other proof of its inspired nature than just that. But the trouble with so many people is that they have not yet found the Bible! Unconsciously they think of it as antiquated and out of date. So I make it one of my aims in Evangelistic work to link it up with contemporary events and discoveries and needs, and thus to prove its suitability for the present day.

[William] Cowper sings:

"A Glory gilds the Sacred Page,
Majestic, like the sun,
It gives a light to every age,
It gives, but borrows none."

In that noble statement, there is only one line which is false, and it is the last. From his own experience, from the longings and discoveries and achievements of his generation the Evangelist can always bring new light to bear on the Sacred Page and so reveal it as living and life-giving. This is the principle that I have tried to work out in the Address which follows.

"So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, 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. {16} 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. {17} 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. {18} Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. {19} This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me." John 21:15-19

D. C. Mitchell: I wonder what your favorite chapter in the Bible is? Mine is the last chapter in John's Gospel. I have a Bible which I could not bring to this meeting because it is beginning to fall to bits. And in it there is no part which is so thumb-marked and yellow with usage as the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel by John.

Mr. A. C. Benson [1862-1925, author of "Land of Hope and Glory"] in one of his books, I think it is the House of Quiet, likes this chapter for literary reasons. And well he may, for it is full of delightful touches. Take, for instance, the verse which tells us of the number of fishes which had been caught. Sometimes it is argued that this chapter was not written by the same man as wrote the rest of the Gospel. All we can say is, that he was a man who had the same spirit and the same outlook as the author of the first twenty chapters, and that he must have been, like John, the son of Zebedee, a member of the fishing fraternity. Who but a fisherman would have noticed the precise number of the fish captured, one hundred and fifty and three?

Or take that phrase of Jesus', "Feed my Lambs." You [Scot] mothers who are here to-night sometimes speak of your children as your "lambies." But Jesus used the word before you. Isn't it good to know that your bairns [children] are His lambs as well as yours?

In the private journal of [social reformer] Lord Shaftesbury you find this phrase, "Feed my Lambs," quoted again and again. He uses the words in two ways, first as a command from Jesus, impelling him to struggle on, in Parliament and out of it, in his efforts for the emancipation of the children in the factories and the mines, and in the second place he uses it as a prayer on these children's behalf, daring to look up into the face of the Good Shepherd and to say, "Feed my Lambs."

These considerations make us feel that this last chapter of the Gospel by John is very modern and very much alive. It belongs to the class of literature that lives.

But it is not for literary reasons that I like this chapter best, but because of its deep spiritual insight. And in that connection there is no part of it so fascinating as that which describes the interview between Simon Peter and our Lord by the lake side.

There are two people in the picture, and in considering them, we may adopt one of two methods. We may put Simon Peter in the middle and allow the figure of Jesus to pass to the margin. Or we may set Christ in the midst and allow Simon to pass to the margin, using him as a kind of foil to show forth the Saviourhood of the Master. I propose to adopt the second method now.

1. In the first place, think of the Saviour's severity. "So, after they had breakfasted." Try to imagine the feelings of Peter during that morning meal. I fancy that he would eat little. I fancy that his mouth was so full of his heart that there would be little room in it for anything else. It may be that he had had one brief private interview with Jesus since he had denied him in the House of the High Priest. But still his heart would be torn two ways in the intensity of his anxiety. He would be wanting Jesus to speak to him in the hope that His words would contain a message of pardon. And yet he would be fearful lest Christ should speak, in case the words uttered would be words of condemnation and rebuke.

And the first thing Jesus did say scarcely reassured him. "Simon, son of Jonas." That was the old name, the name which belonged to Peter's unregenerate days. After Jesus called him to His services He had rechristened him, "Thou shalt no longer be called Simon, but Cephas" (John 1:42). The name was at once a prophecy and a promise. The shifting sands of Simon's nature were to be converted into solid and reliable rock. But here Christ uses the old name, and it stabs Simon to the heart to hear it. It means that he has failed and gone backwards, that he has to begin all over again in His discipleship.

And the words which follow do not help him either. "Lovest thou Me?" To Peter, in view of what had just taken place, the question seemed unnecessary. For whenever John, with his usual spiritual insight, had recognized the stranger standing on the shore in the pale grey morning light as "the Lord," Peter, with his customary impulsiveness, had cast himself into the water, eager to be the first to reach the Master's side. After that, how could Jesus doubt that His disciple loved Him still? But the Master puts this question to Simon not once only but thrice, "Lovest thou Me?" We are inclined to sympathize with the disciple when we read, "Peter was grieved because He said unto him the third time, `Lovest thou Me?'"

Now how are we to account for this very real severity on the part of our Lord? The answer is, that it was the one way in which Jesus could at once save His disciple from himself and restore him to His service. If Simon Peter, after his fall, was to be of any use again then the sin in him had to be plucked out root and branch. There are some diseases which are susceptible to treatment by a physician [i.e., by drugs and therapy]. But there are others which can only be dealt with by a surgeon. The festering sore must be probed even though it hurts, for otherwise it will only spread and destroy. The secret cancer must be cut out.

Now Jesus is the Great Physician. Although the actual term is not to be found in the New Testament, no one can doubt that it describes one aspect of Jesus' saving work. To many souls in pain He brings His anodynes [pain-killing drugs], His soothing and His succor. But we make a great mistake if we imagine that that is the only or even the chief way in which Jesus works. He is also, as Robert Louis Stevenson puts it, "The Celestial Surgeon." Many a time He woundeth, in order that His hands may make whole.

And indeed I will even go further and say that no man can be a true and full disciple of our Lord who has not been so treated by Him. Some years ago a noted living scientist said, "The higher man of to-day is not worrying about his sins." There is a very real sense in which these words were true. No Christian, and he is the highest man of all, can worry about his sins. He knows that unto the Lord belongeth forgiveness. But in another sense the words are not true, for no man can become a "higher man," unless he is made to "worry about his sins," unless he has passed through bitter sorrows and genuine contrition on their account, and only thus has come to peace and power. It is only down the dark avenue of our repentance that the Angel of God's forgiveness can come to meet us, and a man has to say with David, "I will be sorry for my sin" (Psa. 38:18) before he can know the full pleasure and inspiration of Divine pardon.

My Brother, my sister, have you passed through that stage yet? If not, I wish that I could bring you into it to-night. It was the way that our Lord used with Simon Peter, and most of us, perhaps all of us, need the same treatment. Peter betrayed himself by his tongue. His rough Galilean accent showed him up. And we, too, though in a different way, often betray ourselves and our Master also by our tongues, which are often only the too willing instruments of our tempers. Do you remember Jesus' terrible word "of every idle word that man shall speak he shall give an account in the Day of Judgment?" (Matt. 12:36) The Saviour had listened to the idle tittle-tattle, the silly, stupid, unkind gossip of the Eastern bazaars, and knew what deadly mischief it could work. Have you and I never been guilty of that, yes, and of worse?

Or think of the lack of balance and proportion in our life. Have we never, as [Blaise] Pascal says, "made an eternity of nothing and a nothing of eternity?"

Or what about the grosser sins? For you never know. You never know when outward respectability may only be of the nature of the Sepulchre, which masks foulness within. Let no man here be ashamed of tears of penitence and remorse such as Simon Peter must have wept, for "the soul would know no rainbow, had the eyes no tears." Bow your heart now before the righteous sternness of your Lord, for it is thus and thus only that you may come to know the full joy and strength of His forgiveness.

But there is another aspect to the Saviour's attitude in His interview with Simon Peter by the Sea of Tiberias. If He bowed down, it was only that He might lift up. And so I would ask you to notice now His love.

Take that very question, "Lovest thou Me?" Who but a lover would ever ask that question, who but one that desired that the answer would be in the affirmative? That was one thread of hope, to which for all his Master's severity. Peter could cling.

Or think again of this. How many times had Peter denied His Master in the House of the High Priest? Three times over. So now our Lord gives His follower three opportunities to restate his loyalty, and so to cancel out his three denials. Was it not love that lay behind that politic and kindly plan?

The disciples all knew by this time of Peter's failure. The knowledge of it was common property. So, to meet the case, Jesus gives His disciple the opportunity to make honorable amends in public and publicly reinstates him. Was that not love?

Further, although unfortunately our authorized version does not make it clear, there is an evolution or upward progress in our Lord's searching questions to Simon.

There are two Greek verbs, which are both translated by our one English word "love." The first expresses the love which is associated with the emotions and affections [agapao "love based on esteem" (Abbott-Smith)]. But the second, while it includes that, has a deeper implication [phileo "spontaneous natural affection"]. It involves a settled and strong purpose of the will. "True love," says George Macdonald, "must dwell not only in the heart, but in the will." Now Jesus in dealing with Simon Peter uses the first word first, and then the second. To put it another way, He so lifts the whole heart and mind of Simon Peter up as to enable him to say, "Hitherto my love has been an uncertain and a fickle thing, like sunshine on a cloudy summer's day. But after this it will never fail again. I shall love Thee with all my strength as well as with all my heart, with all my mind as well as with all my soul. I shall love Thee to the level of every day's most quiet need." Once again, I ask, was it not love, regal love, on the part of Jesus to give His fallen disciple a chance to make this noble avowal.

Or think again of that Royal Command to Simon Peter, "Feed my Sheep." Think of the honour of it. Think of the trust it implied, and therefore of the self-respect it must have restored. What had Jesus said about Himself "I am the Good Shepherd" (John 10:11). That means that, now He is about to pass out of sight He virtually asks Simon Peter to take His place [? - surely to become an "assistant shepherd"], and to feed His sheep on His behalf. Surely there was no lack of love in conferring on a man who had once denied Him such a privilege and such a responsibility.

But, above all, take the wonderful words with which the interview closes, "Follow Me." These caused a bell to ring in Peter's memory and joy to sing within his heart. For they reminded him of that great day when, perhaps on this very spot by the Sea of Tiberias, a shadow had fallen upon him, as he busied himself with the cleaning and the mending of his nets, and he had turned round to gaze into the most kindly, as well as piercing, eyes that he had ever looked on, and to hear the tenderest, as well as the clearest, voice that he had ever listened to, a voice which said precisely this "Follow Me" (Matt. 4:19).

Do you see what all that meant for Simon Peter now? It meant that he was completely taken back. It meant to him the Gospel of the Second Chance.

In the [First World] war there was a remarkable case of a middle-aged private, who gradually worked his way up, until he came to occupy the highest non-commissioned rank [in the British army] of Regimental Sergeant-Major. Then some one discovered that he was passing under an assumed name, and that he had once been a commanding officer, but had been cashiered for disgraceful conduct and drummed out. The result was that since he had "made good" his commission was restored to him, his sword was given back.

Peter must have felt like that. When our Lord said to him once again, "Follow Me," he must have felt that his commission to be the leading apostle was restored to him. And so we realize clearly and beyond all dispute that when our Lord seems most severe he is in reality most loving. "He woundeth, but His hands make whole." (Job 5:18)

Now, my friends, I want you to believe that this may be true in your case to-night. I want you to believe that to you, too, Christ is saying, "Follow Me," and that to you also He is giving a Second Chance.

[Charles] Spurgeon tells us of a man who, on the weathercock on the top of his house, had these words printed in huge flaring letters, "God is Love." "I suppose," said a friend, "that means that God's love is as fickle as the breeze." "Not at all," was the answer. "It means that, whichever way the wind is blowing, God loves us still." So is it, my brother, with you to-night. He loves you still.

I remember speaking upon this subject when I was a chaplain in the army to a crowd of men who had succumbed to the languorous atmosphere of the East, "where there ain't no Ten Commandments." Afterwards in the dusk, a young fellow whose sin had brought him physical disease came to me and said, "I know that what you said to us is right in theory, but will it work, Padre, will it work?" "Try it," I answered, "try it and see." And that youth, he was only nineteen, left that compound cleansed and restored in body and soul. I admitted him to the fellowship of the Christian Church, and I understand that from that day to this he has never looked back. He found that God's love was a love that restored.

I know not in what plight you may be to-night. It may be that you have wandered far away over the mountains of sin, or that in secret thought and desire you may have climbed down to the lowest pit. Or it may be that you have been guilty of what is perhaps the worst sin of all - cherishing the churlish spirit of the elder brother, who was "angry and refused to go in" (Luke 15:28). But there is a sense in which I do not care. For I have a message to give you to-night, and that is that God loves you in Christ and can restore you to moral health and happiness and usefulness.

There is still a life of joy and adventure and glad free service before you, if you will turn to Him and trust in Him, who once more says to you "Follow Me."

"Though deep in mire, wring not your hands and weep,
God lends His Arm to all who say, `I can.'
No shame-faced outcast ever sank so deep
But he may rise again and be a man." (Opportunity by Walter Malone, 1866-1915)

A sermon preached by D. C. Mitchell, Aberdeen, Scotland. 1925.


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