Giant of the Bible


Peter's Conversion

We must now turn to that 13th chapter of the gospel of John which furnishes the text, so to speak, of which Peter's "conversion" is the significant illustration. It is evident that here, as in connected chapters of this gospel, the Lord is anticipating the results of His death, and looking on to His service in resurrection. He is teaching in acts and words whose true significance is not upon the surface, but must be sought for deeper. "What I do thou knowest not now," He says to Peter himself, "but thou shalt know afterwards." The prefatory words of the chapter carry us on to the time when He "should depart out of this world unto the Father," and expressly connect the lowly and tender ministry recorded here with the place taken with God as possessing all things. If love uses its wealth in behalf of His disciples, it is their need before a holy God which dictates this form of service. A "part with" Christ, of which He speaks to Peter, necessitates cleansing according to and in the power of that Word which is so often symbolized by water: "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me."
Part in Christ is not at all the question, though here also the Word it is which acts and must act; but this is that primary washing which the Lord distinguishes from the washing of the feet. For when Peter, passing from one extreme into the opposite, from refusing the Lord's condescending grace, would have his hands and head washed as well as his feet, the Lord replies : "he that is washed (or "bathed") needeth not, save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit; and ye are clean, but not all."
The first washing is of the whole man, and sets its indelible seal upon the soul, not needing and not allowing repetition. "Whosoever is born of God doth not practice sin; for his seed remaineth in him, and he cannot be sinning, because he is born of God." Such is the real force of the apostle's words, which shew us on the one hand the indelible character of the washing, and how at the same time there may be needed such a cleansing from defilement contracted by the way as is expressed in the Lord's action in this chapter.
The washing is "water-washing by the Word;" not as the blood cleanses, therefore, from the guilt, but from the defilement, of sin. The foundation of all is the precious blood of Christ. "Without shedding of blood" there could be no more the one than the other. Being delivered from wrath, our moral purification is necessitated and assured. The "washing" here is of the feet, the purifying from defilement contracted in the walk: it is the application of the Word to set right what has been wrong, and deliver from the effect of it morally. But there is much more than this to be considered. There is the One who washes, as well as the washing, and the style and manner of its being done also. It is Peter who, beside the Lord Himself, is prominent in all this scene; that Peter whom we have already seen specially mentioned in the prayer of the Advocate. All have need of the cleansing, and all, no doubt, are remembered in His prayer; but Simon Peter it is who in both cases illustrates the Saviour's care of His own. We have remarked too that the tenor of the prayer is that Peter's faith may not fail, and Peter it is who is found in this chapter demurring to the Lord's taking that lowly place in which here we find him. All this is in harmony with the self-confidence which we have seen to be the root of failure, and which lurked under the form of love to his Master in the words: "Though all shall be offended, yet will not I." But the same self-confidence in no dissimilar shape showed itself in his words at this time: "Thou shalt never wash my feet;" in answer to which the Lord presses upon him his necessity and helplessness: "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me."
Self-confidence and faith are contradictory things; and as the former would lead into the open failure, so it would tend to separate the soul, in the time of its need, from Christ,- to make faith fail in view of the break-down. And still (and that is why Peter is kept so steadily before us in all this) the same cause everywhere brings about the same results. Under the plea of the holiness of God Satan will seek to cast the failing one away from Him in whose hand alone is power to help; and sin too clouding the soul, it will be led into some legal means of self-help in order to set itself right with God, rather than betake itself to Christ in simplicity for cleansing.
It is here that the misuse of such a passage as i John i. x1 works so injuriously. Applying this to cases of this kind as the Divinely prescribed remedy for such, the soul falls back upon a process of what it deems self-judgment, hoping by this to restore itself to the communion it has lost. To be forgiven and cleansed, the sins have to be confessed: a very simple condition, it may seem, indeed; but he who has learned himself aright will easily recognize that the simplest conditions to one away from God are absolutely impossible. Two ways the endeavor to perform this condition works, according to the actual state of the soul in question, as it is either light and careless at bottom, or really distressed and legal; but either way restoration to communion is not in fact attained. A careless soul will naturally make most disastrous use of such a passage. The confession of sins may become with such really very much what it would be with a Romanist, a means of readily wiping off (only here without even a penance) what has never caused it much trouble, and what will cause little in again contracting. The sins that such an one feels are gross enough at least for an unspiritual person to recognize without much difficulty. He has only to confess these, and forgiveness and cleansing are. assured. I believe many and many an one is thus deceiving himself with the belief that he is thus again all right with God, nay, must be, because he has fulfilled the condition, and that it is a matter of duty, against the plainest evidences, to believe this, because has not the apostle said, " If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness"? Carelessness may in this way be taken for the spirit of one who has apprehended the gos-pel, and is free from the gloomy shadows of an oppressive legality. On the other hand the person who is not thus indifferent will indeed become a prey to legality, to find, as always, that the law is the strength, not of holiness, but of sin, If confession of sin is to be made before there can be forgiveness or cleansing, he will not find it so easy to know if he has performed the condition. Occupied with himself, with his confession and self-judgment, he has no security but that a treacherous heart will deceive him here, as it has so often deceived him elsewhere; and what right has he to happiness or forgiveness, until he has performed the requirement?
But, with Peter, he has missed seeing that the cleansing water is in Christ's hand alone; and the needed word for him is, "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me." Still the Lord waits upon His own, girded, and with the basin and towel, ready Himself to do the work so needful to be done, so impossible for self-accomplishment. "If Iwash thee not." So that He expects, not clean feet, but feet to be cleansed; and the cleansing is what He has undertaken to perform, with whom we may safely (not carelessly) rest it. The needed thing on our part is then to be with Him, our feet in His blessed hands in the confidence of faith. There He assumes the responsibility. But what is implied in our being thus with Him? This, in the first place, and above all, that distance between us and Him is of our putting, not of His putting; and of our keeping also, not of His. There is no possible place in which we can be, where we may not turn to Him, and find Him with us. The contrary thought is really unbelief. It reveals that tendency against the fatal effects of which the Lord had prayed for Simon Peter, that his faith might not fail. How often do His people dishonoringly speak of. God hiding His face from them, when, if there be hid-ing, it must be they who are doing it, not He. God who looks ever upon His Beloved with unchanging complacency, sees us ever in Him, and cannot turn away. The clouds that obscure the sun are not from the sun but from the earth; and so with what failure and unbelief produce as to our state. The Father shuts no door behind His prodigals, but runs forth to meet them. The Shepherd of the sheep is always He who seeks them out. Nor could His withdrawal be needful for them in order to self-judgment: it would be withdrawing the light that we might better discern. For in His light alone we see light.
But of course turning to Him must be a real thing. It is not the mere seeking of joy from Him, or seeking com-munion with Him in indifference to evil. Indifferent He cannot be, and thus His words fully apply: "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me." True turning to Him must be for cleansing, and cleansing according to His mind. There can be no bargaining with Him, no reserve. The honest desire must be to be with Him at all costs; the prayer of the heart, "Search me, 0 God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me." Here, alas, is apt to be the real difficulty. Days, months, years of unhappiness and evil are passed while we are fruitlessly endeavouring to induce Him to make terms with what indeed we may not choose to consider sins, but what we feel nevertheless a scrupulous strictness would oblige us to give up. Thus "little communion" means almost always, "little integrity of heart with Him." Joy we want, no doubt, and rest of heart, and many another thing; and we are very sincere in the desire for self-gratification: but, alas, we would have these upon terms incompatible with His bestowment of them. We offer the blind and the lame and the sick and sacrifice, and wonder why we have not the tokens of His acceptance. In this application how many of us have yet to learn thaf "a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump."
Here then is the decisive point. The Lord is abundantly desirous to have us with Himself, and is ready with His basin and towel to cleanse us after His thought of it, that we may have part with Him. Are we as willing to submit ourselves into His blessed hands, that love may have its perfect way with us? Or is He too severe a taskmaster, and can a "part with Him" be purchased at too great a cost?
If not, we shall find love's girded Servant ready to take our feet into His hands,- soiled, not clean,- and for that we must be with Him to begin with, in the faith that admits no distance, the faith that (whatever we are) should never fail. If now our hearts would value, above all that the world can give, a part with Him; if we will let Him shew us what evil, what defilement is, as meas-ured by His word, and not our thoughts nor the thoughts of those around us; then we are welcome to Him without any preparatory work to make us so. Coming to Him without reserve, we shall find Him meeting us without reserve also, and in His presence learn self-judgment, as we can nowhere else.
We shall now be prepared to see in Simon Peter the Scriptural illustration of this perfect way of a perfect Love.
"I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not." Such words from the lips of the great Advocate, the more they are pondered, the more will they assure us how important that must be which forms in fact the whole purport of His prayer. Repentance, restoration, and all that is implied in these, are evidently connected with this maintenance of Peter's faith. And it is not so difficult to understand how. A ship at anchor will ride out the storm, and, however tossed, recover herself, if only the anchor holds. If it does not hold, she drives before the storm. And as it is just such a time that tries the anchor, as well as the ground it holds in, so it is with us in seasons of failure such as this with Simon Peter; only of the goodness of the ground there is no question here, and all the strain is upon the anchor.
How naturally apt faith is to fail, may be better understood if we consider how little, with the mass even of true Christians, it is at all in lively exercise. How many sharp decisive statements of the Word are pared down to almost meaningless nothings because there is not faith to entertain them! How many blessed promises which should cast all care out of our hearts, leave them yet weary and burdened, for the self-same reason! It will be a not unprofitable work, perhaps, to search ourselves out honestly by such questions, and take stock of our faith, even when perhaps not where Peter's self-confidence placed him, and where our deficiency would be so apparent.
Now, if we consider also, we may be easily aware that faith and self-confidence - trust in another and in self - are ever opposed. Any deficiency in the one implies a corresponding increase in the other. What but a real confidence in our own superior knowledge could make us refuse, as we so often do, the guidance or the comfort of the inspired Word? Peter could contradict his Lord up and down, and so can we, without realizing, no doubt, what is implied in this. Our self-ignorance is lamentable. Little do they, often, who can talk well about the deceitfulness of the human heart, imagine what is in their own. And thus we must needs so constantly expose ourselves, in lesser ways, but as really as Simon Peter. Thus it is no wonder that the Lord's prayer for Peter should be that his faith might not fail.
Moreover, in this failure of faith, it is first of all implied, that where man failed at the beginning he fails again. It is divine love that is in question first, and which brings divine truth into question; and thus man, slipping away from confidence in God's love and care, becomes a weary worker on his own account. Lust, which is nothing else than this self-seeking away from God-lust thus entered, and all "the corruption which is in the world" is "through lust."
Hence the preservative and remedy for a soul that is slipping away from God must be in the careful strengthening of its confidence in God's love. This will not exclude, surely, the maintenance of divine holiness, for grace is ever linked with truth, and introduces it to the soul; but it will give character to it. It will he the basin and towel in the hands of One meek and lowly in heart, who will stoop at our very feet to wash them. Wonderful and blessed picture, which is given us too, not for our comfort and admiration only, but for our imitation also, in our dealings with one another: "Ye call Me Master and Lord, and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done unto you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, the servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them."
But how little yet do we understand that mere righteous dealing - absolutely righteous as it may be - will not work the restoration of souls; that judgment, however temperate and however true, will not touch and soften and subdue such hearts to instruction, as by the very facts of the case are shown not to be in their true place with God. Man is not all conscience; and conscience reached, with the heart away, will do what it did with the first sinner among men, drive him out among the trees of the garden to escape from the unwelcome voice. The whip and the scourge may be righteous, but there is no winning the heart of man with these. Nor is it righteousness that reigns among the saints of God, but grace that reigns, through righteousness, unto eternal life. Alas, how many sins that might have been washed away have been retained! How many brethren alienated for all time that might have been won back to God and to us, because we have hammered at the conscience merely with the heart ungained - with the heart, I may say, almost unsought! We have not overcome evil, because we have not overcome it with good. We have taken readily the judge's chair, and have got back judgment; but the Master's lowly work we have little done.
But let us return to Simon Peter, and see how, (where it is the perfect work of the Master Himself, instead of the work of His failing disciples,) Divine love steadfastly manifests and asserts itself towards him. How much pains taken that his faith might not fail! What careful, tender dealing until Peter learns, what he had not really learnt before, to put his feet into the hands of One who in love had set Himself to serve him in such a fashion. The Lord's forewarning words must first be considered. They were not merely a warning; indeed, as that, they were not accepted, nor availed to keep Peter's feet out of the snare that was laid for them. Surely they availed much more, when recalled to Peter's mind by their fulfillment, to bring home the sense of His love who had not only warned of the failure, but prayed for the failing one, and predicted the restoration along with the failure itself.
When we look at the prediction too, as the apostle John records it, at the end of that thirteenth chapter to which we have made such constant reference, we find (if disregarding the artificial division of the chapters we read on without a break), that it is immediately followed by familiar words of comfort, but which in this connection may appear new to us :-" Jesus answered him, wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, I say unto thee, the cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice." And then come the words: "Let not yourheart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me." How Peter's soul, as the circumstances of that solemn night were recalled to him, must have drunk in the words! Who can doubt the design all through? He who had prayed for him that his faith might not fail, had enjoined him to believe, in the very presence of his sin. In the high priest's palace we know too that, at the very time of his denial, "the Lord turned and looked on Peter." We may not imagine what that look conveyed, but we are told that it brought to remembrance the Lord's word: "And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said unto him, Before the cock crow thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out and wept bitterly."
All this was not enough for the object of the Lord's care. The next thing we read is, after His resurrection, when the angels say to the women at the grave: "But go your way; tell His disciples and Peter, that He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see Him, as He said unto you." Thus an angelic message assures Peter of his place still among those other disciples, with whom it might be thought he could no snore be numbered. No notice is taken of any breach; no repairing of any therefore attempted. It is the Master of former days, and the old words to be fulfilled, and the disciple as of old. There is no breach: He will not allow one.
And this too is only a message to prepare Peter's heart for the Master Himself. He will not see him with the rest merely. Might he not shrink back if first met with the rest? No: his heart must be yet more effectually prepared by a private meeting before the public one. What a lesson for the heart of any poor wanderer, who is misreading the Lord's by his own! Peter is the object of special care and love at this time. A John even may wait, but Peter cannot wait: "The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared unto Simon." "He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve." Again we have no account of what took place there. It is just the fact itself that is left to impress us. And it is evident that the aim is still restoration of heart. The searching comes by-and-by. But oh, how much pains taken, and how much needed, to assure the soul of a poor wanderer like this!
When the Lord meets the twelve, Peter is in his place with the rest, and no special notice is taken of him. He hears, as others, that "Peace be unto you." and looks once more at the wounds in His hands and side. And so after this, how many times we know not. The last scene takes us to the sea of Tiberias, and Peter is seen in his old foremost place among the disciples. They follow him fishing, and all night catch nothing. But with the morning Jesus stands upon the shore, but they know not that it is Jesus. He says to them, speaking in the intimacy of affection: "Children, have ye any meat? They answered Him, no. And He said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes." How it must have recalled the time past, when a similar draught of fishes was made the means of awakening Simon Peter's conscience, and of making him cry at Jesus' knees, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, 0 Lord." Yet it is not Peter but John, very noticeably, who says, "It is the Lord." But then Peter's warmth is again manifested: "Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher's coat unto him (for he was naked), and did cast himself into the sea."
He is in full restoration of heart back with the Lord, and ripe for closer dealing. But notice again, how gently he is prepared for it. "As soon then as they were come to land, they saw fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread." A striking thing upon the shore there, that fire of coals! The only other place we find it in the gospels, is in that other well-remembered scene in the high priest's palace. How that fire must have spoken to Simon Peter! But the Lord says nothing. Their food is prepared there, and He says simply, "Come and dine"; and Peter dines with his Lord in the presence, so to speak, of his sin. Face to face with it, he is with his Lord as he had ever been. No more than that? Aye, nearer than ever surely! with a deeper, tenderer gladness; knowing better, fully known, distance impossible again! Surely that fire of coals robbed Peter's heart of no element of gladness there as he sat and dined!
And after they had dined, and not till then, the Lord, still on the old terms with His disciple, but those terms now fully understood, the Lord had a question for Peter's conscience, which it was time to ask.
Then, and not till then!
We have now seen Peter fully restored in heart to God. The full searching out of his conscience is yet to come; but the time for it is reached when that strange dinner by the fire of coals is ended. "So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more than these?" We cannot but recall, and see that the Lord is recalling, Peter's fervent yet boastful words; "Though all shall be offended, yet will not I." His answer to this, "Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love Thee," declines the comparison which he is thus reminded of. But the Lord does not allow it to rest there. Again he asks, "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?" and when Peter again affirms his love, He once mnore repeats the question. Not once too often surely, as we know, and as the result proves; for then only do we read, "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." This threefold repetition connects Peter's first boastful affirmation with the threefold denial in the high-priest's palace. Root and fruit are connected together, and Peter's answer testifies of the omniscience that has scarched him out, "Lord, Thou knowest all things;" if that only deepens the conviction that where he had sig-nally failed to manifest his love in outward act, yet He who knew all could read it in his heart.
The Lord's questions vary, however, somewhat in their form, as often noticed. In the first two He uses a different word for "love" from that which He uses the third time, but which is that which Peter uses all through. This latter is the term for affection, ardent and heartfelt, but it may be unintelligent and unappreciative also; the former is a love guided and sanctioned by a deliberate judgment also. Both terms are used in a bad sense as well as a good, and the more discriminating and deliberate love is, the worse it is if set upon evil. Yet this intelligent love which can give a reason to itself is otherwise the higher quality. It is the love of the Spirit, as Scripture would put it, as Peter's word expresses the love of the soul; and although the Father in both ways is said to love the Son, yet when it is said, "God is love," the word used is necessarily the former.
The Lord then uses this higher term first, and descends to the lower, thus searching out Peter more and more.
In the first place, too, he adds, "more than these" (the other disciples); then asks, "lovest thou Me" at all? And when Peter urges still his, "Thou knowest I have affection for Thee," He takes him up lastly even there, and asks, "Hast thou affection for Me?" Then the disciple's heart gushes out. Even this poor "affection," alas, might be questioned now ;- yes, but thank God, not by Him, who knowing all things, could discern what others could not. He dare not say, "I love Thee more than these," dare not claim for himself the possession of love in its higher quality at all; but be it what it may, he has "affection." Thus his self-judgment is complete. Searched out by the Divine eye, he is found and owns himself, not better but worse than others; so self-ignorant that he cannot claim quality for his love at all, nothing more than something that he feels and is conscious of, and which (he has so failed in showing it) omniscience alone might see.
And now the needed point is reached. 'I'he strong man "converted" to weakness, is fit to "strengthen his brethren:" as Peter step by step descends the ladder of humiliation, step by step the Lord follows him with assurances of the work for which he is destined. "Feed my lambs." "Tend my sheep." "Feed my sheep." He, the faithful Shepherd, who could give his life for the sheep, could give those sheep, so dear to Him, into the hands of this humbled, ruined man. How sweet and.assuring this grace to Peter, and to us. When brought to nothing, He can use us in our nothingness, and when He can use us He will.
But the Lord does not even stop here. He takes Peter back once more to his first zealous protestation, "I will go with thee to prison and to death," and He says, Peter, you shall have this honour also: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, when thou wast young thou girdest 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. This spake He, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when He had spoken this He said unto him, Follow me."
Thus in that path in which human energy had broken down, and the strength of flesh availed nothing, Peter was henceforth to walk indeed as having proved this. The Lord takes up that prompting of affection for his Master, separates it from the mixture of self-sufficiency that had spoiled it, and now gratifies the affection itself. Peter had lost the opportunity of mnanifesting his love just now; but he shall have it nevertheless, and it shall be patent to every eye at last as surely as omniscience could read it in him now. Blessed Lord! He knows how to take forth the precious from the vile, and will lose not even the fragments that remain of what is true and of Himself, out of the shipwreck which may seem to have shattered hopelessly all we had. May these last words linger in our ears to whom as much as to this beloved disciple He says, "Follow Me." Yea, Lord, we follow: who would not follow? "Draw us; we will run after Thee," sustained by that grace, as sufficient for us as for Simon Peter. The path will soon end in glory,- with Himself

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