Monday, May 23, 2016

The Nature of the Bible (John 21:24-25)

I recently had the opportunity to give Bibles to a group of people who had never had one before. These individuals come from a religious background in which written scripture is regarded very highly. According to their customs, a copy of their scriptures can never touch the ground. It would be highly offensive to their god for them to read their scriptures in certain situations – for example, in the bathroom. No one would ever dare to write in or fold down the corner of a page of these scriptures. They also have a belief that their scriptures should not be left sitting open, for fear that evil spirits will come along and corrupt them or read them and know what they say, and therefore be able to distort them in the minds of the people. In that culture, scripture is only scripture if it is written in one particular language – a language that many adherents of their religion do not know how to read. These beliefs and practices result in a superstitious regard for the object of their written copies of scripture that outweighs their regard for the actual content of those scriptures. So, as I handed them their very first copies of the Bible, I told them that they needed to understand something about how Christians view the Bible. First of all, they need to understand that we believe that the Bible is God’s Word. It was written down by human beings, but the words were inspired by God Himself. Second, they need to understand that the contents of the Bible are what we hold sacred, not the physical object of the Bible. That means that if we set our Bibles on the ground, or read them in the bathroom, or underline words in them, or make notes in them, God is not offended. It is not a sin to misplace or lose one’s Bible, because we can get another copy of it if necessary. What is most important is not how carefully we protect our Bibles, but how thoroughly we read and understand them.

As I thought about my interaction with those people afterward, I couldn’t help thinking that many Christians are just as confused about the nature of Scripture as those of this other faith. There is a superstitious – almost idolatrous – regard for the physical object of the Bible that surpasses the regard for the verbal content of the Bible. The Bible is viewed as something of an amulet or good luck charm by many who will go to great lengths to protect their Bibles – including not reading or studying them. And this is the greatest disservice we can do to the Word of God: to set it in a place of prominence and security and otherwise disregard the truth that it contains. That Bible will never change anyone’s life. It is only as it is handled, read, studied, and interacted with that it becomes transformative within us.

In the closing words of his magnificent account of the words and works of Jesus, the Apostle John makes a few remarks concerning what he has written. These words are his personal testimony and commendation of this Gospel. Moreover, according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these words become for us a lesson in understanding the nature of all Scripture – the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. As we study John’s words here, we find several characteristics of what he has written, and by extension of the whole Bible as well.

I. The Source of Scripture (v24) 
I suppose everyone enjoys a good Christmas gathering, until someone has the audacity to bring up Jesus. I mean, what does Jesus have to do with Christmas anyway? I can remember one Christmas gathering when the subject of the Bible came up, and one family member said to me, “You don’t believe everything in the Bible do you?” When I responded that I did, the look on the other person’s face was one of utter dismay! The reply came back quickly, “But people wrote the Bible, not God!” I suppose that is how many people view the Bible – the product only of human composition. So, was the Bible written by men or by God? The answer is, “Yes!” It was written by men who were inspired by God to write the words that they wrote.

Notice in verse 24 how John makes this point. He says, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things.” Now, who is this disciple? This is the disciple who is referred to in the preceding verses as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” In verse 20, he is referred to as the one who also had leaned back on Jesus’ bosom at the supper. He is the one who had asked, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” He is the one whom Peter observed during his conversation with Jesus recorded in verses 18-23. He is the one of whom Jesus said to Peter, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you.” And he is the one who became the subject of a rumor saying the he would not die. From these things, we can infer that this disciple was an eyewitness of the life and ministry of Jesus, including His resurrection appearances. We can also infer that this disciple must have lived a very long time – long enough to give credence to the rumor that he would not die. We know from church history that John outlived all the other apostles, dying of natural causes at a very old age near the end of the first century AD. We also know from careful study that this Gospel is the only one of our four which does not mention the Apostle John by name, which is odd considering the major role he plays in the other Gospels. It is also the only Gospel which speaks of “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Therefore, it is conclusive that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is how this Gospel refers to the Apostle John. It is not a boastful statement, as though to say “I’m the one Jesus loved more than, or instead of, the others.” Rather it is a humble confession of the intimacy of his personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. John anchors his identity in that relationship alone, as all followers of Jesus should! And this is the disciple who has written these words.

So, this portion of Scripture, like all of the Bible, comes from a human writer. John says here that it is his “testimony.” This is his personal account of the things which he saw Jesus do and heard Jesus say. He writes with eyewitness detail and reliability. But then John says something rather strange at first glance. He says, “and we know that his testimony is true.” This raises two questions. The first one is “Who are we?” This is something of a custom for John in his writings, to speak from what is known in literature as an “editorial ‘we’.” He uses this quite frequently in his epistles (1, 2, and 3 John), and even elsewhere in this Gospel. For example, in 1:14, he says concerning Jesus, “we saw His glory.” In First John 1:1-2, he speaks of Jesus, saying, “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands … we have seen and testify and proclaim to you.” So, for John, to say “we” implies that the words he speaks are in unison with those of all the Apostles of the Lord Jesus. As writings began to circulate through the early church, one of the first tests of whether or not it was credible and authoritative was the test of apostolicity. Does it come from an apostle or someone who is a known close associate of an apostle? If so, then it was accepted as genuine Scripture.

But, why is this apostolicity a guarantee of a writing’s trustworthiness? That is related to the second question that John’s statement in verse 24 raises. John says, “we know that his testimony is true.” That seems a bit self-serving, does it not? If we were to say, “John, why should we believe what you have written?”, he responds, “Because I am the one who has written it.” Under most ordinary circumstances, this would be a preposterous claim. But when an Apostle of Jesus Christ makes this claim it is not preposterous. Why is that? Because these are men to whom Jesus made some very specific promises, which are recorded for us in Chapters 14 and 16 of this Gospel. To His Apostles, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit, whom the Father would send in His name, would teach them all things and bring to their remembrance all that He said to them (14:26). He said that the Spirit would guide them into all truth, and disclose to them what is to come (16:13). So, when these men wrote, they were being led by the Spirit of God to write true and trustworthy words. They were, in the words of Peter, “men moved by the Holy Spirit” who “spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:21). Therefore it can be said of their writings that they are actually the divinely inspired Word of God. Did men write it? Sure. Did God write it? Yes. God wrote these words through the process of inspiration, as the people of His choosing wrote the exact words of His choosing. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” Therefore, we can say not only of John’s Gospel but of all Scripture, “We know that his testimony is true.”

Now, having considered the source of Scripture, we move on to consider next …

II. The Selectivity of Scripture (v25)

There’s a hymn that is not sung much anymore that talks about heaven and says essentially that of all that has been written about heaven, “not half of that city’s bright glory to mortals has ever been told.” In the final stanza, the hymnwriter turns his attention to the Lord Jesus and says,

I have read of a Christ so forgiving, that vile sinners may ask and receive
Peace and pardon for every transgression, if when asking they only believe.
I have read how He’ll guide and protect us, if for safety we enter His fold;
But not half of His goodness and mercy to mortals has ever been told.

This is exactly what John is saying here in the final verse of his Gospel. Of all that has been told about the Lord Jesus, not the half has ever been told. He says, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” Now, people often ask me if I interpret the Bible literally, and I say, “I interpret the Bible literally unless the Bible tells me not to interpret it literally.” In other words, we interpret the Bible using the same sort of “ground rules” that we use instinctively as we read any other kind of literature. Now, when I read this verse, I have to understand that John does not have exhaustive knowledge of how many square inches of space there is in the world, or how high books can be stacked before they escape the earth’s atmosphere. I understand instinctively that John is using a literary device known as hyperbole, in which a statement is creatively exaggerated for emphasis. It is not that facts are being misrepresented. Hyperbole is when a statement is made that is obviously an exaggeration in order to express something in a figurative way. So, in daily conversation, we might say, “I have tons of work to do.” Well, unless our job is measured in pounds, it is not likely that tons are an accurate measurement of the amount of work we have to do, and we understand that as we read it. A man may say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” We do not expect that man to walk out into a pasture and try it. And just as we instinctively get that in every day conversation and as we read other literature, so we should instinctively get it when the Bible uses hyperbole.

That said, let’s allow the hyperbole to have its full effect here. John isn’t saying, “If we wrote it all down, we’d have written two or three more books.” John is saying, “It would be impossible to write down everything that Jesus has done.” And that is something that we can interpret quite literally! It would be impossible! For every miracle that is recorded from Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, there are many more that are not recorded. In some cases, we find miracles of healing recorded in great detail; in other cases, we are told something like, “They brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them” (Mt 4:24). Each of those stories would be just as fascinating as the ones we have in detail, but their stories are not told for whatever reason, nor could they all be told! And then we also have to remember what John says about this Jesus. In the first verse, he asserts that Jesus, the Word of God which has been made flesh, existed in the beginning – that is, He has existed from eternity past. And John says in those opening verses that Jesus, the Word of God, created everything that exists. So, would it ever be possible for anyone to write an exhaustive record of everything that Jesus has done? No! He was at work long before mankind came onto the scene of history, and He is always at work, doing things that no human eye can behold or human mind can fathom. If it all could be written (and it can’t), then it is very likely that the whole world indeed could not contain the books.

This brings us back to John’s statement, and what it teaches us about the nature of Scripture. All Scripture, by necessity, is somewhat selective in what it records. It has to be. Even if you were to journal every day, you would pick and choose what details to include and what to omit, would you not? But you would make sure you included the things that were most important. And that is what the biblical writers have done. Unable to tell the whole story, they told the most important elements of the story to make the points that they set out to make. John tells us what that point is for him as he writes this Gospel. In John 20:30-31, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” So John admits rather candidly, “Listen, I didn’t and cannot tell you everything I saw, but I am going to tell you what you need to know to make an informed decision on who Jesus is, and whether or not He is the Christ, the Son of God, so that you may believe in Him and have life in His name.”

Every writer of Scripture does the exact same thing. So, Scripture is selective by necessity. Does it tell us everything there is to tell or everything we may want to know? No, and it cannot. But does it tell us enough? Yes it does, and that brings us to final characteristic of the nature of Scripture.

III. The Sufficiency of Scripture

I believe that a thorough knowledge of the Bible is essential for any and every pursuit in life. All wisdom is rooted in the truth of Scripture, and I honestly do not know how I ever made it through a day of life without leaning on the firm foundation of God’s Word. I think that a thorough knowledge of Scripture would help one succeed in anything he or she sets out to do. No set of information is complete without the illumination of what the Bible says about those things setting the right framework and context for it all. That said, we must be honest about what the Bible is not. Take, for example, the field of science. The Bible makes reference to scientific things, and where it does, it is true and trustworthy. But this does not make the Bible a science book. If one wants to be a chemist and shows up to apply for a job in the laboratory, he or she might be asked, “What qualifications do you have for the job?” He or she may say, “Well, I’ve read the Bible.” Commendable as that may be, the Bible is not sufficient by itself to make one a credible scientist. The Bible can provide a framework for doing scientific work, but if one wants to be a chemist, one must study more than just the Bible. This is but one example of a realm in which the Bible does not tell us all we want to know or need to know. There are other realms, however, in which the Bible may not tell us all we want to know, but it definitely tells us all we need to know. It is sufficient in what it reveals in order for us to know God, to have a relationship with Him that is eternal beyond this life in this world, and for us to live with and for Him here and now. And since these are the things which are of surpassing importance to all others, the Christian can hold his or her Bible close to heart and say of it, “It is enough.”

Wayne Grudem writes, “The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended His people to have each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting Him perfectly, and for obeying Him perfectly.”[1] We are born in sin, separated from God. That separation from God will be eternal if we are not reconciled to Him at some point during our lives. So, how are we to know the way of being reconciled to Him? He must reveal it to us, and He has done so in the Bible. As John says in the previous chapter, “these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” In other words, “What I have written is enough for you to believe upon Christ, and by believing in Him, you will have life.” This is affirmed elsewhere in Scripture as well. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:15, “the sacred writings … are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ.” James 1:18 says that God has “brought us forth by the word of truth.” 1 Peter 1:23 says that “we have been born again … through the living and enduring word of God.”

Nowhere is it spelled out more clearly than in Romans 10:9-17. There Paul begins by saying that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (v9). He says, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v13). But then Paul raises a series of questions: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (v14). So, in order to call on Christ to be saved, they must believe in Him; and in order to believe in Him, they must hear of Him; and in order to hear of Him, someone must tell them. Therefore, Paul says in verse 17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” The Word of God is the means by which the Holy Spirit moves upon the heart of an unbeliever and calls him or her forth to believe upon the Lord Jesus and be saved.

Once a person becomes a believer in Christ, the journey is not over. It is just beginning. Conversion marks the starting line of life, not the finish line. So, how is a person to walk in faith and trust in relationship with God? Again, the Word of God is sufficient for this. We cannot trust someone we do not know, and in order to know God, we must turn to the truth He has revealed about Himself. He has revealed Himself to us in the pages of His Word. It is common to hear someone say, “I like to think of God as ….” My response to that is, “Have you ever considered what God thinks of you thinking of Him that way?” When we view God as whatever we imagine Him to be, we are not relating to the God who made us in His own image, but rather we are creating a god who is made in our image, and this is idolatry and blasphemy. God has made Himself to known to us in the Bible. Do you want to know what God is like? Then turn to the Bible. Here we find the God who is there, the God with whom we have to do. Here we find Him revealed in the glory of His manifold attributes, and as we come to know Him as the God who is revealed in Scripture, we come to trust Him more and love Him more as we walk with Him.

This leads us to live in obedience to Him. We obey God because we trust Him and love Him. But how are we to know what He requires of us? What are we to obey? Again, this is spelled out for us in His Word. Again, 2 Timothy 3:16 – “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” and verse 17 continues, “so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” We are trained in righteousness and equipped to live and serve God by immersing ourselves in the Bible. The Psalmist asks, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word” (Psa 119:9). Jesus prayed that the Father would sanctify (that is, set apart as holy) the followers of Christ. He prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (Jn 17:17). So again we find that when it comes to obeying God, the Word has told us all we need to know.

So, what we have seen as we have considered John’s closing words is that the Scriptures come to us from men who wrote under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that the Bible is true and trustworthy. The information we have in the Bible is selective by necessity, and therefore it may not tell us all that could be told about a matter, or all we may want to know. However, the Bible is sufficient – what it tells us is all we need to know in order to know God, to trust and love Him, and to walk in obedient faith with Him. Now, there are some practical applications that flow out of this for us.

1. Because the Bible is sufficient in all matters of Christian faith and practice, we should give it preeminence over all other sources of information, and not add to or take away from it by ignoring its plain teachings for other information which is not in harmony with it.
2. God does not require us to believe anything or do anything that is not revealed in the Bible. If it is not commanded, explicitly or implicitly, in Scripture, then it is not essential. Likewise, if it is not forbidden, explicitly or implicitly in Scripture, then it is not sin. As we wrestle with sin in our lives, we can expect the Holy Spirit to give us victory over those sins which hinder our faith and obedience. However, the Holy Spirit will not empower us to obey rules that are not contained in Scripture, nor will He convict us to believe anything about God that is not revealed in Scripture.
3. The “secret” to discovering and experiencing the will of God in our lives is no secret at all. It has been revealed to us clearly in Scripture. The Bible has told us how God wants us to live in relationship with Him. That means that He has given us a great deal of freedom to make decisions on matters that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture. God is not hiding Himself or His will from us. He wants us to know Him and to know His will and do it! That is why He has made it known to us in the Bible.
4. Finally, when it comes to knowing God and living for Him, we can hold our Bibles close to our hearts and give thanks to God that He has given these words to us, and that they are true and trustworthy, and that they are sufficient. We do not need more revelation. We need to grow deeper in our understanding and application of what we have, as we seek to live in faith and obedience to the Word we have as the Spirit of God empowers us.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 127. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Following Jesus Into Future Glory (John 21:18-23)

In the 1944 film, “It Happened Tomorrow,” Dick Powell plays the role of Lawrence Stevens, a downcast journalist whose career takes an unexpected turn when he gains access to tomorrow’s newspaper containing news stories about things that have yet to happen. As one might expect, knowing the future turns out to be more of a burden than a blessing as the story unfolds. It is an appealing plotline that resurfaces often in television, movies, and novels. We are drawn to this idea because there is something inherent in all of us that longs to know what the future holds. The Bible tells us clearly of some things will definitely happen in the future, though the specifics of when and how those things will take place are often not spelled out in great detail. But, for the most part, the specific details of what the future holds for each of us individually have been hidden from us. This is something for which we can thank God! Imagine if, ten years ago, you had been told all that would take place over the next decade. You may have been overwhelmed to consider the circumstances that would transpire. God, in His wisdom, has not revealed the future to us in detail; but in His providence, He prepares us day by day to face the future as we walk with Him by faith. He gives us just enough light for the next step we take as we follow Him.

In our text today, Peter becomes an exception to this general principle. In a private conversation with the Risen Lord Jesus, Peter is told of his own future. Jesus tells him in verse 18, “When you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” Some have understood this to be a proverb about the nature of human life. In our youth, we are free from care and live independently, doing whatever we want to do; but in our old age, we become frail and have to be helped along and cared for by others. However, this interpretation sorely misses the obvious point of the statement. For one thing, John tells us plainly that the statement was intended to signify “what kind of death” Peter would experience (v19). The place “where you do not wish to go” is death. In the first century Roman world, the phrase “stretch out your hands” referred euphemistically to crucifixion, as the condemned criminal would have his hands stretched out and tied to the horizontal beam of the cross, before being compelled to carry it on one’s shoulders to the place of execution. There it would be fastened to the upright beam, and the hands would be nailed in place before the cross was raised and positioned in the ground. John knew that is what these words meant. Peter knew it too. Likely all those who originally read these words would have understood it plainly, even without John’s explanation in verse 19.

As the text unfolds, we find truths which are applicable, not just to Peter but to all of us. All of us are called to follow Jesus into a future which we may not know, but which He does. And as we follow Him into that future, He is able to bring glory to Himself. Understanding these truths here and now enable us to follow Jesus into future glory.

So, we begin with the first of these truths …

I. Only Jesus knows our future (v18)

I’m sure many, if not most of us, have been in a situation where we were giving care to a loved one who was drawing near to death. During those times, we hear professionals tell us how many days, weeks, or hours we may expect our loved one to live. For four months following my stepfather’s stroke last December, nearly every day, a different doctor would come in and tell us something different. One would say, “I think we are looking at a few days here.” Another would say, “In six weeks, I believe the worst of this will be behind us.” Back and forth they would go, and with every report, emotions in our family swung like a pendulum between grief and hope. But, with every report, as soon as the doctor left the room, I would remind our family members of this one truth: “There isn’t anyone in this hospital who knows what tomorrow holds. That is only known by God.” In the end, he lived longer than many expected, and died faster that many predicted. But God was not taken by surprise at any point in the journey. He knows our future.

The Psalmist said, “In Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (Psa 139:16). That means, before we ever lived the first day of our lives, the Lord already had the final day marked on His calendar, and He knew the details of every day in between. Jesus said, “Who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” (Mt 6:27). It is impossible to do anything that will add more days to our lives. The Lord already knows them all. I believe it is possible to add life to our days, so that we have strength and energy to serve the Lord and walk with Him all the days that we have, but He already knows what the future holds for each of us. He could tell Peter in exact detail how he would die. He would face a death by crucifixion, just as the Lord Himself endured.

Now, we need to be very clear about something. Just because the Lord knows our future does not mean that He has any intention of telling us about it. That He told Peter does not mean that He will tell anyone else. In fact, if we rightly understand the book of Job, we will see that the Lord may allow terrible things to happen to us without warning or explanation. And it goes along with this that just because the Lord hasn’t disclosed details about our future to us does not mean that He does not know. He knows. He has planned it all by His sovereign design, causing or allowing various things to come into our lives to accomplish His purposes which are known only to Him.

Before we think it unfair of God that He has disclosed Peter’s future to him, but does not normally do this for us, we need to consider the ramifications of such knowledge. Notice what Jesus did not tell Peter. He told him how he would die, but He didn’t tell him when or where, or even why. According to tradition, Peter died under the persecution of Emperor Nero in Rome around 67 AD. That being so, it means that Peter lived for over 30 years with this knowledge hanging over his head. But this knowledge did not cause Peter to waver from his faith as he followed Jesus. He continued to live for Him and serve Him, to shepherd the Lord’s flock and proclaim the Lord’s message, never knowing if any particular day might be his last, but knowing that he would suffer in the same manner as his Master at some point when the end of his life came. He knew what the future held, and we do not, but in either case, it is more important that we know the One who holds the future, and who knows it perfectly because He is choreographing our lives to accomplish His purposes in and through us.

Peter’s knowledge of how he would die does not really give him that much advantage over the rest of us. After all, we all know that, unless the Lord hastens His return, we will all die. Hebrews 9:27 tells us that it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment. We may not know how (as Peter did), but like Peter we do not know when, where, or why. Therefore, we must not be hindered in our efforts to live for Christ and to serve Him. The English Puritan Richard Baxter lived most of his life in ministry at the center of controversy. He was persecuted and imprisoned for his convictions, and forbidden from continuing on in his pastoral role of his church. But he never ceased proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ. He famously said, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” This is how we must all live. We never know which day will be our last, but we know that there will be a last one. The Lord is the only one who knows when, where, or how it will happen. It is not our responsibility to know the details of our own deaths, but rather to live each day of our lives faithfully in His service.

This brings us to the second truth disclosed in this text:

II. Jesus is able to bring glory to Himself through our lives and our deaths (v19a)

God is always relentlessly pursuing His own glory. The Westminster Catechism opens with the familiar statement that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The chief end of man is to glorify God because there is no greater aim in life than to bring glory to God. This is man’s chief end because it is God’s chief end. The greatest thing God can do in the world is to bring glory to Himself. And, in so doing, He graciously chooses to use the likes of us. Just as the Lord Jesus harnessed every moment of every day of His earthly life as an opportunity to bring glory to His Father, so we too can bring glory to God as we walk with Jesus through the ordinary and extraordinary moments of life. But as Jesus drew near to His own death, He spoke of even death as an occasion through which His Father would be glorified in Him. At the Last Supper, after Judas left the room to go out to set the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in motion, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him” (Jn 13:31). In His High Priestly Prayer, which He prayed just hours before His death on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You” (17:1). And here as the Risen Lord speaks privately to Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, He speaks of how Peter himself will be crucified. John says, “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God” (v19).

Throughout his life, Peter had glorified God in many ways. Walking away from a lucrative career as a fisherman to follow Jesus was a God-glorifying step of faith. When Jesus asked His disciples who they understood Him to be, Peter spoke up saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” and that confession of faith brought glory to God. Though he would falter and fail the Lord in his denials and defection, his restoration to Christ by his threefold confession of his love for Him in the previous passage brought glory to God for His matchless grace. Today is the Day of Pentecost, which commemorates that day recorded in Acts 2 when God poured out His Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus. And on that day, Peter preached boldly to the gathering of those from many nations in Jerusalem, and God was glorified as thousands were saved under Peter’s preaching. And as the days of Peter’s life played out, he continued to bring glory to God, serving Him faithfully as a pastor and a preacher. But as Peter’s death drew near, God was not finished using Peter as a vessel of His glory. Through the horrendous ordeal of crucifixion, God would bring glory to the Lord Jesus through the death of Peter. His steadfast faithfulness to Christ in the face of persecution and death brought glory to Christ, who empowered and enabled Him to endure this suffering while holding on to Jesus by faith without wavering. What Peter had promised to do earlier, to lay down his life for Christ, he was powerless to do in his own strength. But, endued with power from on high by the indwelling Holy Spirit, Peter was able to live up to his words and glorify God by remaining faithful unto death.

The words of Jesus stayed with Peter over the next three decades. He lived to see oppression and persecution arise against the Christian faith. He saw local skirmishes, regional uprisings, and the first of many imperial pogroms. The Roman historian Tacitus records the maniacal rage that Nero poured out on the Church, saying that the execution of them became something of a sport. They were wrapped in the hides of animals and thrown to wild dogs to be eaten. They were set on fire and impaled in Nero’s garden to illuminate a festive chariot race, with Nero himself participating in the games. And of course, they were nailed to crosses, as even Peter himself would be, according to the Lord’s own word. Peter saw the build up over the decades, and saw his friends – his brothers and sisters in the faith, from his fellow apostles to the members of his own church – suffering through these horrific ordeals. He wrote to suffering Christians in his first epistle,

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or a thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. (1 Pet 4:12-16)

He knew that the Lord’s word would be soon fulfilled in his life. In his last epistle, he said “[I know] that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.” How it must have encouraged those who suffered alongside of Peter, and who suffered for Christ after his death to know that he remained faithful to Christ and that his death was used to bring glory to Jesus! And it has this effect on those who suffer for the sake of Christ today, and who endure in faithfulness until death.

Matthew Henry said, “it is the great concern of every good man, whatever death he dies, to glorify God in it …. When we die patiently, submitting to the will of God,--die cheerfully, rejoicing in hope of the glory of God,--and die usefully, witnessing to the truth and goodness of religion and encouraging others, we glorify God in dying: and this is the earnest expectation and hope of all good Christians.”[1]

Death may come by natural causes, or it may be precipitated by persecution of our faith, but however it comes, may we be found faithfully clinging to Christ in that moment, that our deaths may glorify God as much or more than our lives have. When we look at a map of the most unreached people in the world today, we see that the greatest concentration of them are found in hard places where the Gospel is suppressed and Christians are persecuted. Someone asked me recently about the safety of traveling to a country that the State Department has listed on its “Do Not Travel” list. I responded that I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a country which was not on that list. But my prayer, and my confident assurance, is this: that God is able to bring at least as much glory to the Lord Jesus through the deaths of His people as He can through their lives, and if He should will that my death be used to bring Him glory, then I cannot ask for more in life. We will not all die as martyrs, but we can all bring glory to Jesus – whether we live or whether we die – by holding fast to Him in faith and having a ready testimony on our lips to share with others in life and in death. As Paul says in Romans 8:13, “If we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”

We come now to the third truth here in this text:

III. The task of every Christian is to follow Jesus (vv19b-23)

The first recorded words in the Gospels that Jesus spoke to Peter are found in Matthew 4:19. The words were simple: “Follow Me.” The last recorded words in the Gospels spoken to Peter by Jesus are the same: “Follow Me.” The Christian life is most often described in the New Testament by verbs and not nouns. It is to follow Jesus, it is to walk, to go, to serve, to do. The New Testament is clear that we do not become Christians by what we do, but once we have been saved by grace through faith, our lives in Christ are described in terms of action. We are on a mission with Christ and for Christ. We follow Him, come what may, in good days and bad days. The present imperative tense of this verb in our text indicates that we are always to be following Him, going where He goes, doing what He does. It was the first calling of Peter, and the last calling of Peter, and it is the same for each of us as well.

Now, at a young age, I suppose most of us learned to play a game called “Follow the Leader.” When you are following the leader, you have to keep your eyes on the leader so you will know where the leader is going, and you keep moving forward in step with the leader. Take your eyes off the leader for a moment, and you miss the next step, and you lose. We all know how that game goes. Now, notice here in our text that in verse 19, Jesus tells Peter, “Follow Me,” and what does it say next? “Peter, turning around.” No, Peter, you lose. You took your eyes off the Leader. You would think he would’ve known better. Remember when Jesus walked on the water – it was actually this same body of water where they now stood – and Peter said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And Jesus said, “Come!” And so Peter did, and he walked on the water too. But the Bible says, “seeing the wind, he became frightened,” and he began to sink. He took his eyes off of Jesus and started going under. But here, it was not the wind that caught Peter’s attention.

Verse 20 says, “Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them.” This is John’s customary way of referring to himself throughout this Gospel. Rather than fixing his gaze unflinchingly on the One who commanded him to follow, Peter became distracted by another follower of Jesus, and asked, “Lord, and what about this man?” In other words, “OK, Lord, so I’m going to die a horrible death later, but tell me, what is Your plan for John?” Isn’t that the way it so often goes? Jesus has given us very simple instructions: “Follow Me.” But we get distracted wondering and worrying about what someone else is doing, measuring ourselves against them and making comparisons. Notice Jesus’ answer in verse 22: “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” That is a very polite way of saying, “None of your business!” And that is what the Lord would say to any of us when we become overly concerned with what He is doing with any other Christian.

There are times when we become envious of the blessings of others. There are times when we get discouraged because we see another Christian receiving the applause of men and having dramatic results and fruitfulness in their ministries. We may drift away from what the Lord has called us to do and begin to imitate and emulate their methods and try to copy them. There are also times when we get distracted from following Jesus by the faults and failures of other Christians. We may be tempted to give up on following Jesus because so many others seem to be disingenuous hypocrites. But notice that Jesus never said that we should follow anyone else but Him. We are not to let the successes and failures of other followers deter us from this task. It is none of our business what He does with them, for them, through them, or in spite of them. It is our business to follow Him, no matter what others do. Stop with the comparisons, the competitions, and the copying. Just follow Him.

Here on the day of Pentecost, it is appropriate for us to remember that every follower of Jesus has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit and gifted for service in unique ways. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul tells us that there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; varieties of ministries, but the same Lord; varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But he says, “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” We do not all have the same gifts, the same ministries, or the same effects, but we all have the same Spirit, empowering us for service to the same Lord Jesus, with varying effects, all of which bringing glory to the same God who uses each one uniquely as He sees fit according to His perfect will. That is why we need one another in the church, and why there can be no Lone Ranger Christians. Where one is weak, another is strong; where one lacks ability, another is granted ability. We help one another follow Christ as we follow Him in the way that He has called and equipped each one of us. If another has a different gift, a different ministry, or a different effectiveness, it is none of our business! We should give thanks to God, and keep on following Jesus in the way that He has gifted, called, and blessed us.

Peter’s calling is to serve the Lord for the next three decades, and then embrace the cross. John’s calling is different. Jesus says, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” John is careful to point out that Jesus did not say that he would not die, but only “If I want him to remain until I come.” That little word “if” is very important. How many Christians have fallen into erroneous belief or practice due to a sloppy handling of God’s Word, by which they overlook important little words, or assume a meaning of the Scriptures that God never intended? Following Jesus demands that we keep our eyes on Him, and the best way for us to do that is with an open Bible, giving careful study to exactly what He has said, taking notice as well of what He has not said. His word is our guide as we follow Him, but it will only guide us as we give careful study to it, ensuring that we understand it correctly.

Follow Me. It is a pretty simple thing, isn’t it? There is no promise that it will always be an easy road. The road of Jesus’ earthly life was not free from troubles and suffering, and He has not promised that ours will be either. He alone knows what the future holds, and that fact should enable us to entrust our future into His hands. He knows what our lives will entail, and He knows how they will end. And in either case, He is able to use us to bring glory to Himself if we will but follow Him, come what may. Follow Him on the good days. Follow Him on the bad days. Follow Him no matter what others may be doing. Follow Him, and He will use you in life, and in death to bring glory to Himself.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Do You Love Me? (John 21:15-17)

(Due to a technical difficulty, the recording begins after the reading of the Scripture and the beginning of the introduction)

Today is Mothers Day, and for some of us, that will mean that we do special things for our mothers or those who have been like mothers to us. Others perhaps will be on the receiving end of that, as children (young or adult) show appreciation and affection. Imagine for a moment how those conversations or gatherings might feel if, at some point, a mother says to her child, or the child to the mother, “Do you love me?” The other may say, “Of course I love you! That is why I’ve made time for you today!” And then a moment later, suppose the question arises again: “Yes, and I’m grateful for this time together, but what I want to know is, do you love me?” And again the response may come, “You know that I love you, don’t you?” And a third time the question comes: “Listen, what I really need to know from you right now is this: do you love me?” It would be troubling, would it not? It would cause us to wonder if something had happened, or not happened, to cause a problem in the relationship, and what could be done to remedy it.

However unsettling that uncomfortable interaction might be, it was infinitely moreso for Peter here on the shore of the Sea of Galilee on that morning so long ago. The One who asks him, not once or twice, but three times, “Do you love Me?” is none other but the Lord Jesus Christ. And in Peter’s case, he did not need to wonder what had happened to cause the question to arise. It had not been many days before this that Peter had found himself hovered over a charcoal fire, warming himself in the courtyard of the High Priest, when three times he was asked about his relationship with Jesus Christ, and three times he denied that he even knew the Lord. Now, here in the early morning, with the familiar smell of a charcoal fire in the air, he is asked three times again about his relationship with Jesus – this time by Jesus Himself.

Though Peter had three times denied the Lord, and here in the immediate context seems to have defected from the Lord’s service by returning to his career as a fisherman, the Lord had not given up on Peter. He sought him out, He calls him by name, and rather than condemning him for his failures or questioning him about his reasons for denying Him, Jesus asks the same question three times: “Do you love Me?”

Love is one of, if not the primary, motivating factor of our lives. If we were to set out to compile a list of songs, books, movies, and other works of art that have love as their theme, we would find it easier to list the ones which are not anchored in love. It is love that makes us do what we do, and love that makes us refrain from doing the things we do not do. In the thrice repeated question to Peter, we discover that love is the key to both our failures and our successes in life. There are three of these discoveries that we want to examine here from our text.

I. Misdirected loves can lead to spiritual failure (v15).

In order to understand the first question that Jesus asks Peter in our text, we need to remember what happened prior to this moment. On the evening that Jesus was betrayed, when the disciples were gathered together for the last supper, Jesus told them, “You will all fall away because of Me this night.” And Peter boldly proclaimed, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” To this Peter said, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You” (Mt 26:31-35). Of course we know what happened. Just as Jesus predicted, Peter did deny the Lord three times.

Following the resurrection of Jesus, Peter had investigated the empty tomb personally, and had seen the Risen Jesus in the company of his fellow disciples on more than one occasion. He had perhaps even had a private encounter with the Risen Jesus, as some New Testament passages seem to imply. But there was another encounter that had been promised. Jesus had told them, “After I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee” (Mk 14:28). When the women came to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, they were met by angels who told them, “Go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you” (Mk 16:7). Peter knew that he had an appointment with the Risen Lord awaiting him in Galilee. Perhaps he feared that encounter in which he would surely have to give account for his three-fold failure in the High Priest’s courtyard. For reasons unknown to us, as the disciples waited in Galilee, Peter made the announcement that he was going fishing (Jn 21:3). By this, it seems not that he just wished to bide the time as he waited for the Lord, but rather that he was abandoning the mission to which Christ had called him, to be a fisher of men (Mt 4:19), and was returning to his former career as a fisherman.

These things all preceded the encounter that we find here in our text. After coming ashore and having breakfast with the Christ whom he had denied, Peter finds himself in a private conversation with Jesus. The first question Jesus asks is, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” Now, biblical scholars are divided as to what the word “these” refers to here. There are many who believe that Jesus is asking, in light of Peter’s bold claims at the last supper, “Peter, do you really think you love Me more than the rest of these guys do, now that you have failed by denying Me repeatedly?” That is certainly a strong possibility. However, it is just as likely that “these” refers to the immediate surroundings – all the trappings of fishing, including the 153 large fish that Jesus miraculously provided for Peter and the others. So, the question would be, “Peter, do you love Me more than you love fishing, more than you love boats and nets, more than you love these smelly fish or the money that they will bring you in the market?” I tend to think that the argument is stronger for the latter interpretation, given the immediate context. However, in either case, the point is somewhat the same. On the first interpretation, what is in view is Peter’s denials. On the second, what is in view is His defection. Either way, it comes down to an issue of misdirected love.

When it came time for Peter to boldly declare his faith in the Lord Jesus in the High Priest’s courtyard, he was prevented from doing so by a misdirected love. In that instance, it seems that he loved his own life more than he loved Jesus. It was for fear of what danger may befall him that Peter denied knowing the Lord. He boasted of being willing to die for Jesus, but when the screws were tightened in the moment of opportunity, he chose to live for himself rather than risk dying for Jesus. Remember that Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35). He calls us to love Him first and foremost with a depth of affection so great that it makes all other loves in life appear as hatred in comparison. He said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26). In the book of Revelation, the faithful martyrs are said to be those who overcame by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death (Rev 12:11). But Peter’s failure in his denials was that he loved his own life, rather than loving the Lord Jesus, when faced with danger and potential death.

Then, knowing that the Risen Lord was intent on a private encounter with him in Galilee, Peter opted rather to retreat to his former line of work as a fisherman. It hadn’t turned out well. First day of business, and the nets were empty after a night of fishing. Had the Lord Jesus not showed up and provided a miraculous catch, the entire enterprise would have failed immediately. Jesus was reminding Peter by that provision of His words in John 15:5 – “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” But Peter’s love for fishing and love for the worldly comforts that fishing afforded him threatened to usurp his love for Jesus. That misdirected love led to his failure in the defection from the Lord’s mission.

We will find the same thing to be true in our own lives. When we love our own lives, or any other thing in life, more than we love the Lord Jesus, it will lead to spiritual failure every time. And in those moments, Christ in His grace, will confront us with the hard question. Whatever “these” are in our lives, He will ask us, “Do you love Me more than these?” And if the answer is an honest, “No,” then we have fallen into idolatry and spiritual failure is inevitable.

II. Love for Christ is the qualification for spiritual service (vv15-17)

Imagine all the things that could have been said or asked in this encounter between Jesus and Peter. “Peter, why did you deny Me? Peter, I told you that you would do this, and you didn’t listen to Me. Peter, why did you feel the need to walk away from serving Me, and return to fishing? Peter, you let Me down.” I hope you noticed that none of these things were said. Instead, just as Peter had three times denied the Lord, so the Lord Jesus three times asks him to reaffirm the relationship that he had denied. Three times the question comes, “Do you love Me?”

Often we hear much made of a nuance here in the Greek text in the exchange between Peter and Jesus. As many of you will know, there are four Greek words that can be translated as “love,” three of which occur in the New Testament. Two of them occur here in this text. When Jesus asks Peter the first and second time, “Do you love Me?”, the word He uses is agape, which is often described as the highest form of love, unconditional love, a divine love that has its source in God. In response to these questions, Peter’s response is, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You,” and the word that Peter uses here is phileo. That word has the sense of the love between friends, or brotherly love. Hence the city of Philadelphia is called the “City of Brotherly Love.” It comes from this word phileo. So, the observation is often made that Jesus is asking Peter, “Do you love Me in the highest and truest sense?” And Peter’s response is said to be something of a reluctant confession, like, “Well, Lord, you know I really like you; I mean we are friends and all.” It is like an adolescent boy who pours his heart out to the girl of his dreams, only to hear back from her, “I like you, but not in that way; I think I’d rather us just be friends.” And so, then the third time that Jesus asks, He uses the same word, phileo, and it is said the He intends to say, “Peter, do you really love me like a friend and a brother?” And to this, Peter again responds with phileo, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love you like a friend or a brother.” I can’t tell you how many sermons and Bible lessons I have heard that make much of this sort of exegetical ping-pong between Peter and Jesus.

I’m going to suggest to you that this is not what is going on here in the text. It is accurate enough to observe that these alternating words are used, and to point out there can be subtle differences in the kind of love that they describe. But, I think the point is pressed further than the text allows. In fact, what we find in study of the New Testament and other Greek literature is that these words are often used interchangeably. John seems to have something of a penchant for using a variety of words. In this text alone, he uses two different words for sheep or lambs; two different words for tending or shepherding; two different words for knowing. If the point of the two different words for love is accurate, then we should also press the meaning of these other pairs of words, but we don’t because we know it is drawing more from the text than is really there. We recognize that the words used are synonyms in these other cases, but the sermons and lessons come out better when we overlook that in the “love” words. Furthermore, notice that when Jesus asks Peter if he agape-loves Him, Peter’s response is not, “No,” but, “Yes.” It seems that Peter is saying phileo almost as a descriptor of his agape-love for Jesus. “Peter, do you agape-love Me?” And the response is, “Of course, Lord! You are like my brother and my best friend. You know that I love You!” Finally, it would be rather out-of-character for Jesus to lower the bar of His expectations to say, “Well, Peter, I guess if I can’t get agape-love from you, I will settle for phileo-love instead.” No, friends, Jesus never lowers the bar.

So, having ruined a good many sermons and Sunday School lessons, some of which I have preached and taught, what exactly is going on here? It is simply this: If Peter is to be restored from his three-fold failure in his denials of the Lord, there must be a reaffirmation of his undeniable love for Christ. If Peter is going to be of any use to Jesus in the furtherance of His Kingdom, then the first criteria and qualification for service is that he must love the Lord Jesus above all else. As Gaebelein put it so well long ago, “He says not to Peter, ‘Art thou wise? Or learned? Or eloquent?’ but, ‘Lovest thou Me?’” In spite of all of Peter’s faults and failures, there is room for Him in the service of King Jesus if only this criteria can be found in Him.

There is not a different criteria for any of us. What qualifies a man to be a pastor? Is it a seminary education or mastery of certain academic disciplines? What qualifies a person to be a deacon, a Sunday School teacher, a member of a committee? What qualifies one to be a witness for Christ, a volunteer on a mission trip or a ministry project? Is it reading the right books, going to the right conferences, or achieving certain accomplishments? Friends, it is possible to do all of that – read the right books, go to the right conferences, get the right degrees, and so on, and not even be saved! So, while certain ministry tasks may require varying skills or competencies, there is no substitute for this baseline qualification of loving the Lord Jesus first and foremost.  

Whether you are a new believer, a lifelong follower of Jesus, or one who is recovering from a spiritual failure, if you want to serve the Lord, there is one question on the entrance exam: “Do you love Me?” I must be honest with you. There are days when it is hard to love ministry. Hard as it is to believe, I’m sure, there are actually days when people hurt you and disappoint you, and it is hard to love them. So, if our service to the Lord depended on our love for the task or our love for others, more often than not perhaps, we would walk away from the opportunity. But service to Jesus is not anchored in the love of service, though that is important. Neither is it anchored in love for others, though that is necessary as well. But those things are secondary, and can only flow out of love for Christ. Before asking any other question to qualify someone for service to Christ’s Kingdom, the first question has to be, “Do you love Jesus?” If the answer to that question is “NO,” then nothing else matters. And this brings us to the third discovery in our text.

III. Love for Christ is manifested in concern for His people (vv15-17).

Three times Peter denied the Lord. Three times, Jesus gave him the opportunity to reaffirm his love. And three times, the Lord Jesus recommissioned Peter to serve Him. That service is described with verbs, not nouns. And they are active verbs, not passive verbs or verbs of being. If you love Christ, there is something to be done from the overflow of that love. And the service that Peter is called to do is to give care to the Lord’s people. In verse 15, the Lord Jesus says, “Tend My lambs.” In verse 16, He says, “Shepherd My sheep.” In verse 17, “Tend My sheep.” The word translated by the NASB as “tend” is a word that means to feed, as a shepherd feeds his sheep. Feed them, tend to them, lead them, care for them. If we say we love the Lord, this is how He expects us to show that love.

In this commission, we are reminded of how the Lord views His people. They are a flock of sheep, of little lambs that He loves and for whom He promises to care. And they belong to Him. Jesus calls those who follow Him by faith, “My sheep,” and “My lambs.” He said of Himself in John 10, “I am the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. … I am the Good Shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me. … My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me, and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (10:11, 14, 27-29). Those words help fill these words to Peter with great significance and meaning. He is saying, “Peter, carry on My work, and allow Me to do My work through you. I have died for this flock, and I entrust them now to you. I will preserve them for all eternity, and I will use you in that work. Feed them, but remember that they do not belong to you. They belong to Me. They are not yours to do with whatsoever you choose. They are mine, and you are to do for them only what I will for them. They hear My voice, so when you feed them, ensure that you are feeding them My words, because these are the words that they are to follow.”

I heard the late Howard Hendricks of Dallas Seminary say on one occasion, “There are only two things on this planet that will last forever: the souls of men and the word of God. So why would you invest your life in anything else but the nurture of souls on the Word of God?” That is what the Lord calls Peter to do here, and it is what He calls us all to do as well. Care for those for whom He cares. Tend to His own sheep out of love for Him and in His love that flows through us. And how shall we tend to them? By nurturing their souls on His Word. We are not all preachers, and we are not all teachers, but we are all fed by His Word, and thereby we feed others on this same Word. It is the most caring thing we can do for another Christian when we come alongside of them and direct their hearts and hopes to the Word of God. In good times, we rejoice with one another and share together in the promise that He has brought these good circumstances to pass by His kind providence and unfailing love. In bad times, we weep with one another and comfort one another by the promises of His faithfulness to us and His sovereign control over all that transpires in our lives. That is something all of us can, and must do for one another. Love for Him fuels us in the task. The sheep belong to Him. We are called to feed them because we love Him. And because He loves us, He calls others to come alongside of us to nurture our souls on the satisfying food of His Word as they care for us in His name.

Are you a new Christian with a burning desire to serve the Lord? Have you been walking with the Lord a long time, and want to spend your days doing something that will matter for eternity? Maybe you’ve failed the Lord significantly – we all have, and we all will. Thinking we may have become useless to Him, maybe we have gone off mission and retreated to our own agenda, as Peter did with his fishing. Friends, in whatever you state you find yourself as a follower of Jesus today – fledgling, faithful, failure – He comes to you where you are with a singular question: Do you love Me? If the answer to that question is yes, then there is no limit to how He might use you to serve Him by giving care to others in His name.

Do you love Him? Maybe the answer is no. Maybe you have yet to come to know Him. We began this service today with a reading from Isaiah 40 – “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.” This He will do for you, and more, if you turn to Him as your Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who laid down His life in death for you that He might save you from sin and reconcile you to the God who made you, who knows you better than you know yourself, and loves you anyway. You might ask, “Does He love me?” The Bible says that God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). He has already proven His love to you, and longs for you to live in that love in a relationship with Him, and to show His love to others as you come to know Him, to love Him, and serve Him.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Daybreak on the Beach (John 21:1-14)

On the Sunday morning when I planned to preach
this sermon, I did a final check of Facebook before
leaving my house for church. The first post I saw was
this picture, posted by Rev. Jay Pollan, of sunrise over
the Sea of Galilee! It was a scene much like this in which
this text takes place.

I don’t know about you, but I love watching the sun come up on the beach. In fact, would say it is my favorite thing to do at the beach, and my favorite way to watch the sun rise. C. S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Just as the risen sun dispels the darkness and makes everything else come into clearer view, so the Risen Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, makes all things visible to those who walk with Him by faith. And here in our text, we find the Risen Son of God standing on the beach of the Sea of Tiberias as the morning sun rises over it. As He stands there on the shore, He brings to light important realities for His followers. Though we are inclined to see Peter and the other disciples as the key figures in this narrative, the Apostle John tells us in verses 1 and 14 that the Lord Jesus should occupy our attention as we examine this text.

The chapter begins with the words, “After these things.” What “things” are “these”? “These things” are the things recorded in Chapter 20, and more specifically, the appearance of Jesus in the locked room with His disciples on the first Easter Sunday, and the appearance of Jesus on the next Sunday when He confronted Thomas’s unbelief. In verse 14, John says, “This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.” There had been other resurrection appearances, but this was the third time that He appeared to the disciples as a group. It is that word manifested that we should take careful note of here in the passage. It is used three times: twice in verse 1, and once in verse 14. In the original language, the word means “to make known,” “to make visible,” “to reveal,” or “to show.” And what is it that the Risen Jesus “makes known” or “reveals” here in this text? Each of the three times the verb is used in our text Jesus Himself is both the subject and the object. That is, He is the One who reveals, and the One who is revealed. So, the point of the passage is that He showed Himself to the disciples there on the beach at daybreak, and through this account of it, He shows Himself to us. So, how do we see Him manifested here in this encounter? That is the question that the text answers, and we will see four aspects of this manifestation as we look at these verses.

I. Jesus manifests Himself as the Promise Keeper (v1) 

Verse 1 tells us that this scene unfolds at the Sea of Tiberias. This body of water went by several names. In the Old Testament, it is called the Sea of Chinnereth. In various places in the New Testament, it is called the Sea of Gennesaret, and more commonly the Sea of Galilee. More a lake than a sea, measuring about 12 miles by 7 miles at its widest points, it was the site of so much of Jesus’ ministry. Capernaum, the city where Jesus spent much of His time, was on the shores of the lake. As one writer said, “The Sea of Galilee is indeed the cradle of the gospel.”[1] It was here on the shores of this lake that Jesus spoke profound words and did miraculous deeds. It was here that He first called His disciples to follow Him. Most of them were natives of this area, so it is natural that they would have returned to it after leaving Jerusalem following their encounter with Jesus after the resurrection.

Of course Jesus knew that is where that is where they would go. In fact, twice before He had promised them that He would meet them there. Once was before His crucifixion, when He foretold of how the disciples would all forsake Him in the moments leading up to His death. He said in Matthew 26:28, “But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Again, in Mark 16:7, following the resurrection, the angels at the tomb told Mary Magdalene and the other women, “Go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you’” (Mark 16:7). And here in our text, the promise is kept. Jesus has come to Galilee to meet His disciples in those familiar surroundings where they had spent so much time together since the day He first met them.

It is of the utmost importance for each of us that we come to know this Christ as a promise keeper! The Bible is filled with promises that affect us both here and now and in eternity. There will come times when it seems that the Lord is slow in delivering on His promises, or that He has forgotten us or the promise He made to us, or has had some change of mind. That can never be! When He says He goes before us, we can expect Him to, and when He says He will meet us in Galilee, we best be on the lookout for Him there. He has never, will never, and can never break any of the promises that He has made! He may not deliver on the promise when or how you think He should, but that doesn’t mean that He will not make good on it in His time and in His way.

That brings us to the second way in which we see the Lord Jesus manifesting Himself here in our text.

II. Jesus manifests Himself as the Gracious Seeker (vv2-5)

Sometimes when the Lord does not fulfill His promises to us in the way or time that we think He should, we are tempted to give up on waiting for Him to do so. It may be that Peter and the other disciples had done just that as we find them here in our text. Verse two tells us who was there. There was Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee (James and John), and two others who are not named. Of the ones named, we know that James, John and Peter were all fishermen by trade. They were fishing when Jesus first encountered them. We also know that Peter’s brother Andrew was a fisherman as well. Additionally, we know that Philip was from the same hometown as Andrew and Peter, and was also a friend of Nathanael before they began following Jesus. So it is not out of reach to suggest that the two unnamed disciples here in our text may have been Andrew and Philip. So, for sure three, and maybe four or more of those mentioned in our text had been professional fishermen before Jesus first approached them and called them to follow Him that He might make them “fishers of men” (Mt 4:19).

We do not know how much time had elapsed since they had last seen Jesus on that Sunday a week after the resurrection. John only says it was “after these things,” so it could have been a few days or a couple of weeks. They had made their way back to Galilee, their home region. Of course, Jesus knew they would go there, hence His promise to meet them there. But at this point, for reasons that are not clearly stated in the text, Peter says to the others, “I am going fishing,” and they responded, “We will also come with you.” Now, the question I want to pose is, “Why did they decide at this moment to go fishing?”

Several answers have been proposed to that question. Some have suggested that they merely sought to find some way to occupy themselves until they met with Jesus. Others have suggested that economic reasons for going fishing. The disciples needed money to live on. Still others have said it was perhaps for more personal and practical reasons. Risen Jesus or not, a man still has to eat, and these men were fishermen. They catch their food in nets.

Still others have suggested that the motives for this fishing excursion were more serious than all these. Though the text does not explicitly tell us why Peter wanted to go fishing, there are clues in the text. The first one concerns a detail found in Matthew 28:16, where we read that they were to meet Jesus in Galilee at a designated mountain. They weren’t on a mountain here, they are in a lake! Second, we find a clue in Jesus statement to the disciples before His death in John 16:32 – “Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home ….” The word home is not represented in the Greek text, and has been supplied by the translators. The idea is not just going to one’s own house. It carries the idea of “one’s own affairs,” or as used in 1 Thessalonians 4:11, “attend to your own business.” Peter’s entire life before he met Jesus was fishing. It was all he’d ever known. The third clue concerns their fishing vessel. Verse 3 says that they got into the boat, and the definite article is important. It wasn’t just any boat, it was the boat, likely the one Peter had used in his career as a fisherman. The final clue comes in the next passage, in verse 15, when Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” The “these” to which Jesus refers is not explained, and is often assumed to be the other disciples. But this would be entirely unsuited for this context. It is just as likely that when Jesus said, “Do you love Me more than these,” the “these” to which He referred was these boats, these nets, these fish.  

So, from all these contextual clues, it is reasonable to suggest that Peter has decided to return to the fishing business and give up on the mission that Jesus has given to him. Perhaps still despondent from his previous failure when he denied the Lord, or desperate to find a way to make ends meet now that Jesus is no longer physically present with him, the decision seems like an easy one to make, humanly speaking. What is perhaps more surprising is how quickly the others (including Thomas, who has just uttered one of the most profound confessions of faith in Jesus recorded in Scripture!) decide to follow him! Though not the primary lesson of this passage, it is a lesson nonetheless concerning leadership. Leaders lead, and people follow them. It is easy to spot a leader – he is the guy with people following him. A leader who has no followers is not a leader; he’s just a guy taking a walk. Peter had been a leader of the disciples during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and these men followed him. Now they follow him still, in spite of his failures, and in spite of the tragic error of this decision. So there is a lesson here for leaders to be careful stewards of our leadership and realize that others are watching our decisions and basing their own decisions on ours. And there is a lesson here for followers as well. Before just blindly following someone we consider to be a leader, we must ask ourselves if following them is going to lead us into or away from a closer walk with Jesus. But as I said, this is not the main lesson of this passage. The focus here is not on how Peter or anyone else manifests themselves. The focus is on how Jesus manifests Himself, and we see Him doing so as the Gracious Seeker here in this passage.

All night long, the disciples have been fishing, and they have nothing to show for it. In one sense, I am sure this came as quite a surprise to them. After all, they were experienced fishermen. They knew the lake, they had the right tools, and the right expertise. But their nets were alarmingly empty. In another sense, however, this should have come as no surprise to them. After all, Jesus had told them in John 15:5, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” It is not that fishing is bad, or that Christians can’t fish. But when Christians abandon the mission to which Christ has called them, we should not expect to find success or satisfaction in any other endeavor. The Lord does not promise to bless us in our disobedience or defection from Him or His mission for us. When we go off mission, we can expect the same results that these disciples found: empty nets.

Now, if Jesus were to stand up on the mountain where He had promised to meet them, looking down and laughing at them, and determining in His heart and mind to turn away from them and round up a new group of followers, it would have been understandable to a certain degree. But, this is the Jesus who does not go back on His Word, and He has promised to not lose any that the Father has given Him. This is the Shepherd who leaves the 99 to go seeking for the one who has wandered off from the fold. And that is what He does here. As the sun rises, the Risen Son stands on the beach coming after and calling out to His wayward followers.

They did not know that it was Jesus. Rarely did anyone ever recognize Him after the resurrection until He made Himself known to them. But, perhaps the darkness, or the fog rising from the lake obscured their view of Him. For all they knew, He was just a stranger on the beach. And the Stranger on the beach asked them the one question that no unsuccessful fisherman wants to hear: “Are you catching anything?” Actually, the question is a bit more condescending than that: “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?”

That they were not amused by His question is seen in how curtly they respond: “No!” But the reply is honest, is it not? And that is all Jesus is looking for from us when He comes graciously seeking after us: an honest confession. He isn’t looking for carefully nuanced explanations or excuses or our feeble attempts at self justification. They might have tried to say something like, “Well, we aren’t really catching anything, but fishing is just as satisfying as catching, so we don’t mind so much.” Or they could have tried to get into a prolonged discussion about whether or not the conditions were favorable or not. Jesus wasn’t interested in any of that kind of discussion then, and He isn’t now. When He comes after us as the Gracious Seeker, and asks us those probing questions (and He will, and He does), He is looking for an honest confession. “Are you content? Are you satisfied? Are you finding what you were looking for? Are you so much better off now that you have gone off mission and wandered away from Me?” You might fool some people with your carefully couched defenses and justifications. “Well, I’m on a personal journey. I’m still trying to find myself you know. I’m learning to become content with discontentedness.” Whatever we may try to say, the answer He is looking for is the honest one: “No.”

So, we see that Jesus manifests Himself as the Promise Keeper and the Gracious Seeker. Now thirdly we see …

III. Jesus manifests Himself as the Sovereign Lord (vv6-7)

A few weeks ago, Solomon and I were running on a lakeside trail, and just off the shore there was a guy fishing in a boat. I like to talk to people when I run long distances; it takes my mind off of the fact that I chose to run a long distance without being chased. So I said to the guy, “Catching anything?” He said rather matter of factly, “No!” And I gathered that he wasn’t interested in a prolonged conversation. The disciples probably weren’t either when the Stranger on the shore asked them about their catch. But Jesus does not give up. That is something we must know about Him. He never gives up. So he probes deeper.

He said, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” I don’t know about you, but I would have been significantly aggravated by that statement. It’s really easy for the guy on the shore to tell the guy in the boat how to fish. I might have said, “Why don’t you come out here and do it yourself!” Now, in fairness to the fishermen here, there is evidence that fishermen sometimes used a man on the shore to help guide them. Sometimes, the man on the shore can see disturbances in the water that the man in the boat cannot, so he can help guide the fishermen to find the fish.[2] Perhaps relying on this sort of information, or else in sheer exasperation, the disciples did just what the Stranger on the shore commanded. The results were astounding! The Bible says that they cast, and then they were not able to haul in the catch because of the great number of fish! As a result, there was no longer any doubt about who the Stranger on the beach was. He was no stranger after all. John could hardly contain himself as he acknowledges, “It is the Lord!”

Indeed. Jesus is the Lord. He is the One with all authority. He has complete, sovereign authority over our circumstances. The Lord who supernaturally provided the abundant catch of fish is the same Lord who providentially arranged the circumstances of the entire evening, including the lack of fish until that moment. We are often quick to acknowledge the Lord’s hand when we are blessed and amply supplied for our needs and desires. Are we as quick to acknowledge His sovereign control over our circumstances when things are not going well? How often have considered that the things that we have encountered – the bad as well as the good – have been orchestrated by the hand of the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-loving God? Whether in His provision, or in His withholding of provision, He is always choreographing the affairs of our lives for our good and His glory. Here, with these fishermen, He was bringing them to the end of themselves; causing them to realize the futility of trying to live apart from Himself; making them to discover that He is never going to leave or forsake them; and forcing them to realize their desperate dependence upon Him. Those are good things by which He is glorified in and through us! And He is doing the same things in our lives. When things do not work out as we desire or plan, we need to see the Sovereign Lord there in those moments as clearly as we do when all works out just as we hoped they would. What is He doing? He is deepening our dependence upon Him. He is bringing us to repentance of our futile self-efforts. He is drawing us near to Himself and bringing us back to the place of worship and service. He is directing us to find our satisfaction and contentment in Him and in Him alone. And those are good, God-glorifying things that He is doing in our lives.

At the realization that it was the Sovereign Lord speaking to them from the shore, notice what happens to Peter. Here, the one who proposed the idea of the fishing trip in the first place, put on his garments and jumped into the sea in order to get to Him. I will be the first to admit that there are some puzzling details here. The Greek wording implies that he was naked or at least nearly so, and I don’t know if that was customary for fishermen in that day or not. I also don’t understand why a person puts on more clothes before jumping into a lake. I’ve read various interpreters supply suggestions on these matters, but in the end, I have to confess that I do not know. But I think what is most important here is that Peter was overjoyed to know that the Sovereign Lord, whom He had denied three times before the crucifixion, and from whom he had defected in his attempt to return to the commercial fishing industry, had stopped at nothing to come after him and restore him. And friends, when we ourselves come to that realization that the Sovereign Lord will divert and detour all of the paths that we travel trying to get away from Him in order to redirect us back to Him, we will be overcome with joy as well. Throw down the nets, gird yourselves, and run to Him – swim to Him, splash your way to Him if you have to, but let this joy settle into your hearts that the Sovereign Lord has not given up on you, even if you have given up on Him, and He has purposely orchestrated the events of your life to bring to this place where you just jump overboard to return to Him in worship and obedient service!

Now we come to the final aspect of this manifestation of Jesus in our text.

IV. Jesus manifests Himself as the Abundant Provider (vv8-14)

In the Book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus rebukes one of His own churches saying, “you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev 3:17). Oh Peter had this idea – we need food, and we need money, and we have better things to do than stand around here all day waiting for Jesus to show up, so let’s go out in our boat and catch some fish like we know how to do! But the text uses remarkable eyewitness detail to show us the futility of attempting to live apart from the Lord’s purposes. They are miserable, having fished all night and caught nothing, and only managing to get about 300 feet off the shore. They are poor, which is probably why they went fishing in the first place, and is highlighted by the fact that their boat is called a “little boat” in verse 8. They are blind, unable to see or recognize the Lord Jesus on the shore, or the school of fish swimming just on the other side of the boat. They are naked, and it appears nearly quite literally so at that. But when the Lord speaks, provision comes in abundance.

I’ve never known a fisherman yet who could not tell you what he caught, how many, what kind, how big, etc. And John is no different. He said in verse 11 that there were 153, and they were large. Before the Lord provided: ZERO. After the Lord provided: so many that they were unable to get the net in the boat, and amazed the net didn’t break. And once they came ashore, He is standing there with the fire already lit, ready to serve them as He always had.

It is a wondrous thing about the Lord’s provision. He has unlimited resources at His disposal. And yet He invites us to participate in His work by giving back to Him a portion of what He has given to us. He doesn’t need it, but He wants us to know the joy and blessing of investing in the work of His kingdom. We see that illustrated here as Jesus says, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.” But what is already on the fire? Fish! He didn’t need their fish, but He allowed them to take part in what He was doing. It was an invitation into the fellowship of His service. And that is what we do when we take offerings every Sunday. We aren’t saying that God needs your money. God is the One who gave you that money. But, He always provides more than enough, so that a portion of it can be given back to Him for His use in accomplishing His purposes. Just like with these fish.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says in verse 12. Still dumbfounded by the entire encounter, apparently the disciples could not move. So in verse 13, John says that Jesus came to them. He provided the meal, cooked it, delivered it, and served it. There was nothing more to be done that what He had done for them. And in this we see that He is our Abundant Provider. All that we have, all that we need, comes from His hand. You say, “No, I earn what I got. I work hard and get paid for what I do.” Right, and the Lord gives you the ability and the energy and the skill and the opportunity and so on. It all comes from His hand. Without His provision, it would just be empty nets and frustration. Everything we have, and everything we need, comes from Him.

And of course what we need most is Him, because He is the One who can save us from our sins and reconcile us to God by His grace. As the disciples came ashore, John tells us what they saw. But before they saw what they saw, they had to smell something. John says that they saw a charcoal fire, and charcoal fires have a very distinct smell. This word for “charcoal fire” in the Greek text is only used in one other place in the New Testament. That is in the courtyard of the high priest, where Peter stood warming himself by a charcoal fire, and where he denied the Lord Jesus three times. They say scent is the strongest sense tied to memory. The smell of that fire would take Peter back in his mind to that moment of great failure. And here, the One he denied stands with outstretched hands offering to serve him breakfast. The failures of Peter’s past had been dealt with in the death of Jesus, and defeated by His resurrection. And the same is true for all of us. The death He died was for us, so that He bear the divine wrath our sins deserve as our substitute and sacrifice. In His resurrection, He overcomes that sin and its penalty by everlasting and indestructible life, which He offers to us by faith in Him. It is that Risen Jesus who manifested Himself on the beach at daybreak that morning as the Sovereign Lord, the Abundant Provider, the Gracious Seeker, and the Promise Keeper. And it is this same Risen Jesus who manifests Himself to us time and again in the same ways.

If you have never come to know Him as your Lord and Savior, I pray you would even this day. For those of us who have, let us examine our hearts as to our faithfulness to the mission and purposes to which Christ has called us. Are we waiting in faith and hope for the fulfillment of His promises? Are we serving Him in the strength of His power and in faithful obedience? Are we trusting Him to provide for our every need? Or, if Jesus should come around to meet with us, would He find a sign on the door of our hearts that reads simply, “Gone Fishin’”?

[1]Galilee, Sea of.” M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition. Public Domain. Accessed online at; April 27, 2016.
[2] H. V. Morton, In the Steps of the Master (London: Rich & Cowan, 1935), 199.