John 21

It is impossible fairly to sever the manifestation of Jesus at the lake of Tiberias from the two previous scenes of which it is the complement; as, indeed, verse 14 warrants us to say with decision. It is, therefore, quite improper to speak of John 21 as an Appendix, still more so to speculate on its being written at an interval of some length after the rest of the Gospel: an inference due chiefly, if not altogether, to a misunderstanding of the two closing verses of John 20, as has been already pointed out.

The reader will notice that the connection is immediate and marked with the two previous manifestations of the risen Lord. First, we have seen Him (after making Himself known to Mary of Magdala and sending by her a most characteristic message to His disciples) standing in their midst when gathered together, without seeing Him enter, on the first or resurrection day of the week, in their enjoyment of peace and the mission of peace in the power of the Spirit to remit and retain sins in His name. Secondly, we have seen Him eight days after meeting His disciples again when Thomas was there, representing saved Israel of the latter day who only believe by the sight of Him risen. Now we have the beautiful picture of the millennial ingathering from the sea of Gentiles, which follows the Jews returning as such to the Lord, as all prophecy leads us to expect. The third scene follows in due order the second, on which the future truth conveyed by it hangs as a consequence, as here said to be “after these things.”

John 21:1-14.

“After these things Jesus manifested Himself377 again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and He manifested (Himself) thus. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus (that is, Twin), and Nathaniel from Cana in Galilee, and the (sons) of Zebedee,378 and two others of His disciples.379 Simon Peter saith to them, I go away to fish. They say to him, We also come with thee.379a They went forth, and entered408 into the boat, and that night took nothing. But when early morn was now breaking409, Jesus stood on410 the shore: however, the disciples did not know that it was (lit. ‘is’) Jesus. Jesus therefore saith to them, Children [lads], have ye anything to eat? They answered Him, No. And He said to them, Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and ye will find. They cast, therefore, and were no longer able411 to draw it from the multitude of fishes” (verses 1-6).380

Peter, with his usual energy, proposes to go a-fishing, and six others accompany him. But the result is no better than when some of the same disciples with the same Peter essayed to catch fish before his call and theirs. Even in the days of the kingdom the power must be manifestly of the Lord, not of man nor of the saints themselves; and Peter must, and would, learn the lesson, if the Roman Catholic sect falsely claiming Peter refuse it in pride. It is not yet the kingdom manifested in power and glory, but in mystery for such as have ears to hear. And although grace works its wonders, the nets break, and the boats threaten to sink, even when their partners come to share in taking the great multitude of fishes.

Here Jesus is not aboard, and there is no putting out into the deep, but with the early morn just breaking He stood on the beach, and still unknown put a question which brought out their confessed lack of success. Then comes the word, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and ye will find.” And so it was; for so casting they were now unable to draw the net for the multitude of fishes. It is the figure of the great millennial haul from among the nations, when the salvation of all Israel will prove to be incomparably blessed to the Gentiles. If their “fall” has been so fraught with good in Divine grace, how much more their “fulness” (Rom. 11:12), of which these seven Israelites may be the pledge?380a The once rejected but now risen Christ is to be the head of the heathen, not only of the Church now on high, but by and by of the nations on the earth, owned by previously unbelieving Israel to be their Lord and their God. Then will the Jew sing, “God shall bless us; and all the ends of the earth shall fear Him”; (Ps. 67:6ff.) and again, “Princes shall come out of Egypt: Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God, Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth; O sing praises unto Jehovah. (Ps. 68:31ff.) In the figure of that day the nets do not break, nor is there any thought of putting the fishes into the boat, still less of gathering the good into vessels and casting the bad away. The weakness of man and of earthly circumstances wanes before the present power of the Lord Who directs all.

Augustine may be safely regarded as the ablest and most enlightened of the early writers on this sign, which he compares with that which preceded the call of Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee. He is right in distinguishing the take of fish which followed the resurrection from the miraculous draught before it. Nor does any other among the ancients add to the truth of his observations, Gregory the Great rather darkening the force of our Scripture by his effort to make much of Peter’s part in order to help on the Papal pretensions then in course of rapid growth. The earlier miracle he regards as significant of the good and evil in the Church, as it is now; the later, of the good only which it is to have for ever when the resurrection of the just is accomplished in the end of this age (Serm. ccxlviii.-cclii., etc.).

Enough, perhaps, has been said already which anticipatively corrects so erroneous an interpretation of the sign before us. There is no thought of a fishing scene in the resurrection either of just or unjust, no truth in the employing of Jews or men for gathering in the risen righteous to their heavenly and eternal rest. The fathers saw nothing of the future restoring of the kingdom to Israel, nor of the general blessedness of all nations as such under the reign of the Lord in the age to come. The moderns are in general no less uninstructed; for though some see and allow the restoration of Israel to their land and the accomplishment of the glory promised so largely throughout the Old Testament, they somehow, with strange inconsistency, merge all into this age. They do not perceive that these are among the constituents of the age to come, before the eternal state when there will be no difference between Jew and Gentile absolutely, as there is none even now for the Christian and the Church.

But here is another source of this deep, long-lasting, and widespread misconception. Men, and even good men, fail to see the true nature of the Church, as they do not believe in the special features of the millennial age. How much error would be avoided if they discerned the peculiar character and unexampled privilege of the body of Christ in union with its heavenly head, since redemption, while He sits at God’s right hand! How much more, if they looked for His return with His bride, already complete and caught up to be with Him on high, to make His foes His footstool, and Judah His goodly horse in the battle which introduces Jehovah-Jesus King over all the earth-one Jehovah, and His name one in that day! It is as egregious to confound with the Church wherein is neither Jew nor Greek all this distinctive blessing of Israel and the nations on the earth under the reign of the Lord, as it is to merge both in the end of the age or in the eternity which, they assume, is to follow. They blot out the new age to come, which is to be characterised by the reign of the second Man, the Lord Jesus, the absence of Satan, the exaltation of the glorified saints in power on high, and the blessedness of all the families of the earth here below.

But these all stand indelibly written in the Scriptures; and no strugglings of unbelief can get rid of a truth which may be, and is, offensive to the pride of nature and the worldly mind, as it would prove full of help and value to Christian men often perplexed by their own misreading of revelation and their misconception, consequently, of what is to be sought or expected at this present time. For there is no error which does not bear its own baneful fruits; and the error in question, though not assailing fundamental truth, affects most extensively the right understanding of the past, the present, and the future. Thus are the chief characteristic differences blurred, and an undistinguishable vague is presented; whereas the word of God affords the fullest light on the various dispensations, as well as on that mystery in regard of Christ and of the Church which comes in between and is superior to either.

The love which is of God makes the eye single, and thereby the whole body is full of light. John was quick to discern the Lord. “Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith to Peter, It is the Lord. Then Simon Peter, hearing that it was (lit. ‘is’) the Lord, girt his overcoat about (him)-for he was naked-and cast himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat (for they were not far from the land, but about two hundred cubits off), dragging the net of the fishes. So when they had got off to the land, they see a coal-fire laid, and fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus saith to them, Bring of the fish which ye took just now. Simon Peter (therefore)412 went up and drew the net to land413 full of great fishes, a hundred (and) fifty-three: and, many as they were, the net was not rent. Jesus saith to them, Come, dine. And none of the disciples durst inquire of Him, Who art Thou? knowing that it was (lit. ‘is’) the Lord. Jesus414 cometh and taketh the bread and giveth to them, and the fish likewise. This already (was the) third (time) Jesus was manifested to the disciples415 after having risen from (the) dead” (verses 7-14).

But if John was the first to perceive Who He was that spoke to them,381 Peter, with characteristic promptness, is the first to act so as to reach His presence, yet not naked, but in seemly guise. He had failed miserably and profoundly and repeatedly, but not his faith; even as the Saviour had prayed for him that it should not fail. Despair because of the gravest failure is no more of faith than the indifference which hears not the Saviour’s voice, and, never knowing His glory or His grace, never has the consciousness of its own guilt. In the Lord he thus learns experimentally to confide, after having too much trusted his own love for his Master; and Christ must be all to the heart of him who is to strengthen his brethren.

The Lord, however, despises none, and the other disciples follow in the small boat, dragging the net full of the fishes; for He had not given such a haul to leave it behind. Grace makes to differ, never to behave oneself unseemly. Peter carried himself suitably toward the Lord; so did they in their place; for, indeed, they all had one heart and purpose to please the Lord.

Thus will it be when the abundance of the sea shall be converted to Zion. What will not be the effect of all Israel being saved? “If their fall is the riches of the world, and their loss the riches of the Gentiles, how much more their fulness? What shall the receiving of them be but life from the dead?” (Rom. 11:12, 15.) Jehovah will destroy the veil that is spread over all nations; and Israel will not only be the instrument of Divine vengeance on their enemies, but of God’s mercy and blessing to all the families of the earth. “And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples as dew from Jehovah, as the showers upon the grass, that tarrieth not for man, nor waiteth for the sons of men. And the remnant of Jacob shall be among the nations in the midst of many peoples as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks of sheep: who, if he go through, both treadeth down, and teareth in pieces, and there is none to deliver” (Micah 5:7, 8).

It is remarked and remarkable that, when the disciples landed, they see a fire laid, and fish thereon and bread. The Lord had wrought before them and without them, though He would give them communion with the fruits of the activity of His grace. He will have got ready a Gentile remnant Himself before He employs His people to gather the great millennial catch out of the sea of Gentiles. The grace of God will work after a far more varied and vigorous sort than men think; and while He deigns to use His people, it is good for them at that very time to learn that He can, and does, work independently. Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! How verified both in Israel and in the Gentile!

Yet the Lord would have His own enter into the fellowship of what He has wrought as well as enjoy their own work. “Jesus saith to them, Bring of the fish which ye just now took. Simon Peter, therefore, went up and drew the net to land, full of great fishes a hundred and fifty-three;382 and, as many as there were, the net was not rent. Jesus saith to them, Come, dine.”

The contrast with all that characterises the actual work of His servants is very plain. The parable in Matt. 13:47 shows us that even up to the close of the age good and bad fish are contained in the net, and that it is the marked call of the fishermen just then to put the good into vessels as well as to cast the bad away; whilst the angels, as we know, do the converse work, when judgment comes at the Lord’s appearing, of severing the wicked from among the righteous. The miraculous draught in Luke 5:4-9, descriptive of present service, shows us the nets breaking and the boats into which the fishes were put beginning to sink. Nothing of this appears here where the days of the kingdom are set forth, when the Lord is with His own on earth. There are many great fishes named, but none bad; the net is expressly said to be unrent; there is no thought of the boat sinking, and the net was dragged along instead of the boat being filled. Thus a wholly different and future state of things is pictured after this age closes and before eternity begins.

The Lord will surely yet and thenceforward renew His associations with His people on earth: I speak not of the Father’s house on high and its heavenly relations, but of those to be blessed and a blessing on earth. It is an unquestionably scriptural prospect, and most cheering, that this very earth is to be delivered from its present corruption and thraldom into “the liberty of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:21.) For the revelation of His sons the earnest expectation of the creation waits, though, as we know, the whole of it groans and travails in pain till now. But it will not be so always. The Lord Himself is coming, and the day of His appearing will see creation delivered, not, of course, as we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit are now into the liberty of grace by faith, but the creation itself also by power shall be freed into the liberty of glory. It will be the kingdom of God, no longer a secret to faith, but displayed in power and in all its extent of blessing, with its earthly things and its heavenly, as the Lord intimated to Nicodemus, and as we are taught in Eph. 1 and Col. 1 in connection with the headship of Christ and His reconciliation.

Here the Lord on that day was giving the pledge of the future widespread blessing, when the Gentile world will afford common joy, and the occasion of the manifestation of His risen power and presence, to His people. None but He could or would act after such a sort. His grace is unmistakable. “And none of the disciples durst inquire of Him, Who art Thou? knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus cometh and taketh the bread and giveth to them, and the fish likewise.383 This already (was the) third (time) Jesus was manifested to the disciples,384 after being risen from the dead.” It is the day, prefigured in prophecy and awaited by the saints from of old, when they shall all know Him from the least of them to the greatest of them, none more needing to say, Know the Lord. “At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of Jehovah; and all the nations shall be gathered unto it, to the name of Jehovah, to Jerusalem; and they shall no more walk after the stubbornness of their evil heart. In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel; and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I caused your fathers to inherit” (Jer. 3:17, 18).

There would be an utter gap for this world and God’s glory in it, a gap which nothing else could fill up for him who takes a large and observant view of God’s dealings with the world, if there were not a period of Divine blessedness here below for Israel and the nations through the grace and to the praise of the risen Lord Jesus. This does not in the least interfere with the deeper and higher things above the world to which the Christian and the Church are now called. On the contrary, when the reality and the true character of the kingdom at Christ’s appearing are not seen, there is a confusion of it with the proper hopes of the Church, which is ruinous to the distinctive blessedness of the Church on the one hand and of Israel with the Gentiles on the other.

But our Gospel, while fully revealing God in Christ on earth, and in these closing chapters tracing His ways in Christ risen, first for the Christian and the assembly, next for Israel, and lastly for the Gentiles, never loses sight of grace working with the individual soul. Thus Peter must be thoroughly restored and publicly reinstated; so would the Lord have it. He had been already singled out specially (Mark 16:7) at a moment when such a distinction was of all moment, both to himself and before his brethren, who would naturally have regarded with deep distrust the man who had so grievously, and spite of full warning, denied his Master. And before the eleven had the Lord standing in their midst, He had appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5). But He would carry on the gracious work profoundly in Peter’s heart, and let us into the secrets of this truly Divine discipline.

“When, therefore, they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon (son) of Jonah (or, John),416 lovest thou Me more than these? He saith to Him, Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I dearly love Thee. He saith to him, Feed My lambs. He saith to him again a second time, Simon (son) of Jonah,417 lovest thou Me? He saith to Him, Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I dearly love Thee. He saith to him, Tend My sheep. He saith to him the third time, Simon (son) of Jonah,418 dost thou dearly love Me? Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, Dost thou dearly love Me? and he said to Him, Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I dearly love Thee. Jesus saith to him, Feed My sheep (or, little sheep) (verses 15-17).385

The Lord goes to the root of the matter. He does not speak of Peter’s denying Him, but penetrates to its cause. Peter fell through confidence in himself, at least in his love to his Master. He judged that he might go where others could not safely, and that he would stand to the confession of His name in the face of prison and death. The result we all know too well. The greatest of the twelve denied the Lord repeatedly, and swore to it, notwithstanding fresh and solemn warning. But restoration is not complete, though we own the fruit ever so fully. In order to thorough blessing the Lord would have us, like Peter here, to discern the hidden spring. This he had not reached yet: the Lord makes it known to His servant. There is no haste; He waits till they had broken their fast, and then He says to Simon Peter: “Simon (son) of John, lovest thou ( ἀγαπᾳς) Me more than these?” He calls him by his natural name; for well He knew wherein lay the secret which gave a handle to the enemy; and He would awaken a true sense of it in the Apostle’s soul. Through assurance of his own superior affection he had not merely trusted in himself, in comparison with others, but slighted the word of the Lord. Had he laid His words to heart with prayer, he had not fallen when tried, but endured the temptation and suffered. But it was not so. He was sure that he loved the Lord more than all the rest; and if they could not stand such a sifting, he would; and this confidence in his own surpassing love to Christ was precisely the cause, as the interrogation of the bystanders was the occasion, of his fall. And now the Lord lays the root bare to Peter, who had already wept over the open fruit.

Yet at first Peter does not discover the aim of the Lord. He does avoid unwise comparison with others; he simply appeals to the Lord’s inward conscious knowledge: “Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I dearly love ( φιλῶ) Thee.” Far from denying his profession of tender affection, the Lord proves His own value for it, and His confidence in Peter. For He, the Good Shepherd, about to quit the world, entrusts to His servant that which was unspeakably precious in His eyes and most of all needed His care: “Feed My lambs.” Thus does He prove our love by answering to His love for the weakest of saints. “Whosoever loveth Him that begat, loveth him also that is begotten of Him.” We love because He first loved us; but it is not that we love Him only, but those that are His, not those that love us naturally, but those that He loves as divinely. “He that saith, I know Him and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him”; and “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God Whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.”

Did not Peter deeply and increasingly feel the Lord’s loving trust thus reposed in him, more than even before he fell? The administration of the kingdom of the heavens, the keys (not of the Church nor of heaven, but) of the kingdom, had been promised to Peter, and made good in due time. Here it is more tender and intimate, though there is no ground to extend the flock here committed to him beyond those of the circumcision (cf. Gal. 2). Did he not remember Isa. 40:11, in communion with the blessed Messiah in His work of feeding that flock like a shepherd, gathering the lambs with His arm, and carrying them in His bosom, while gently leading the nursing ewes?

The Lord appeals once more, but drops all reference to others. “He saith to him again a second time, Simon (son) of John, lovest thou Me? He saith to Him, Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I dearly love Thee. He saith to him, Feed My sheep.” It is painfully instructive that even such a ripe scholar as Grotius should commit himself to an opinion so unworthy as that these marked changes of expression represent no weighty distinctions of truth.419 But Peter, though he no longer thinks disparagingly of others, cannot give up his assurance that the Lord was inwardly aware of his true affection for Himself. And the Lord now bids him tend or rule His sheep, as before feed His lambs.386 So Peter at a later day impresses the same on the elders among the Jewish Christians he was addressing. sojourners of the dispersion in Pontus and other districts of Asia Minor: “Tend the flock of God which is among you, overseeing not of constraint, but willingly; nor yet for filthy lucre, but readily; nor as fording it over your possessions, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2, 3).

In the Lord’s words, as in the apostle’s, it will be noticed to our profit how carefully the lambs and the sheep are said to be Christ’s, not the elders’, nor even the apostle’s. The flock is God’s flock. He who treats Christians as his congregation is guilty of the same forgetfulness of Divine grace and Divine authority as the congregation in regarding the minister as their minister, instead of Christ’s. If any think these to be slight distinctions, it is clear that they have no right apprehension of a difference which is as deep in truth as it is fraught with the most momentous consequences for good and ill in practice. Only this gives moral elevation, as it alone springs from faith; this alone delivers from self and gives the true relation and character, even Christ, whether to those that minister or to those ministered to.

But the Lord speaks to him yet again. “He saith to him the third time, Simon (son) of John, cost thou dearly love Me?” Here the probe reached the bottom. Not a word of blame or reproach; but the Lord for the third time questions him, and for the first time takes up his own word of special affection. Did not his threefold denial appear in the light of the threefold appeal, and, above all, of that word expressive of endearing love? “Peter was grieved, because He said to him the third time, Dost thou dearly love Me? and he said to Him, Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I dearly love Thee. Jesus saith to him, Feed My sheep,” or, if the reading of the Alexandrian, the Vatican, and the Paris palimpsest, etc., be preferred, My “little sheep,”420 a diminutive of tenderness and endearment.

The work of restoration was now fully done. Peter abandons every thought of self, and can find refuge only in grace. Only He Who of Himself knows all without an effort, only He could give credit to Peter’s heart, spite of his mouth and all appearances; yet did not He know that His poor denying servant dearly loved Him? The answer of the Lord, committing afresh what was dearest to Him on earth-the gift of the Father’s love to Himself-seals Peter’s restoration, not in soul only, but in his relation to the sheep of His pasture. Feed them, says the Lord. To tend or rule pastorally is not forgotten; but positive nourishment, as of the lambs at the beginning, remains to the last the abiding task of the shepherd, the habitual need of the sheep; but it demands enduring and deep love, not to scold, perhaps, or govern, but to feed, and not least of all the least of all Christ’s sheep. Only the love of Christ can carry one through it.

But this is not all. It is not enough for the Lord to restore fully the soul of Peter and to more than reinstate him in his relation to the sheep which might have seemed otherwise compromised. Grace would give him in God’s due time what he had not only lost, but turned to his own shame and his Master’s dishonour, the confession of His name even to prison and death.

“Verily, verily, I say to thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself and walkedst whither thou wouldest; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. And this He said, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And having said this, He saith to him, Follow Me” (verses 18, 19).387-389

In this, as in what precedes and in what follows, actions and words are veiled yet significant. There was the intention to convey important and interesting truth, but only to such as weighed all and went not beyond the just hearing of the Lord’s sayings or doings. Peter was then in his prime of natural vigour. In his youth (and he was still far from being an old man) he was ready for energetic action, and disposed to use his liberty with too little distrust of himself. He had just ventured to go whither he would, into the high priest’s house; and as far as doughty words promised, one might have thought he had girded up his loins like a man to do great feats of valour, or to endure a great fight of afflictions for his betrayed and insulted Master. The issue we all know too well; and Peter had been led more and more to see and feel it, till he had now got down to the root and judged it thoroughly before God. But now also the Lord lets him know that grace would give him back what had seemed for ever lost to him, the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and conformity to His death, far more, in fact, than Peter in his own too confident love and strength had proffered before he miserably broke down.

See how grace shuts out all ground for boasting while it secures honour beyond what we in our most sanguine desires ever anticipated. Is not this worthy of God and suited to His saints? When Peter went forward according to his own words, he came to worse than nothing; he a most favoured servant, denying the Holy and Righteous One, his own most gracious Master. It was the deepest humiliation, yet was he a true saint and a loving disciple; but so it was because he entered into temptation at his own charges, instead of enduring it, when tried by it, according to God. Thus his fall was inevitable; for none can endure save in faith and self-judgment. To be a believer and fervently to love the Lord will not preserve in the least under such circumstances, however strange this may sound to many, who little think how often and deeply they deny the Lord practically, in great matters and small to which He attaches His name. We must be put to shame in whatever thing we are proud; and how much better is even this gain, than to be let go on in unrebuked self-complacency?

But the Lord promises Peter that, when he should be old, he should stretch forth his hands, and another gird and carry him whither he would not. Thus, when it was no longer possible to boast of his own strength or courage, as a helpless old man, Peter would enjoy from God the singular privilege, not only of death for Christ’s sake which in younger days he had essayed to face and most ignominiously failed in, but of that very death which the Lord had suffered with its prolonged agony and shame. For the Lord, as we are expressly told, said as He did, signifying not death so much as “by what” sort of death Peter was to glorify God; and after saying this, He saith to him, Follow Me.

The allusion was scarcely mistakable. In those days, when such a punishment was common enough for the lowest slaves and guiltiest criminals, every one understood the meaning of being “lifted up,” or outstretching the arms by the force of another. Again, the illustrative act of calling Peter to follow Him as He walked some paces on the shore made plain its grave intent. Yet even then and thus, another carrying him whither he would not proves how little of self was to be in Peter’s death on the cross in contrast with those who, at a later day and a day lower incomparably, sought a martyr’s death to win this crown. No! Peter’s close on earth was to be suffering and death for Christ, Who would give him to endure at the fit moment. Not heroism nor asceticism is the Christian badge, but obedience.

The lesson of its surpassing grace abides for us who love the same Saviour, and have a nature no better than the disciple’s. Have we been taught it? Can one learn it safely and surely, save as following Christ? “If any man serve Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there shall also My servant be; if any man serve Me, him will My Father honour.” Peter when called should follow the Master; and so he did. May the same grace strengthen and guide us in the same path for life or death! To follow Christ as He calls is our best service.

The ardent mind of Peter, kindled by the solemn intimation of the Lord, seizes the opportunity to inquire about one so closely linked with him as the beloved disciple. It is hard in this question to discern the jealousy of the active for the contemplative life, of which early and mediaeval writers say much. But the Lord gives him the correction he needed.

“Peter421 turning round seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following (who also at the supper leaned on his breast, and said, Lord, who is he that delivereth Thee up?); Peter, therefore,422 seeing him, saith to Jesus, Lord, and what (of) this man? Jesus saith to him, If I will that he abide till I come, what (is it) unto thee? Follow thou Me. This saying, therefore, went forth among the brethren that that disciple doth not die; yet Jesus said not to him, that he doth not die; but, If I will that he abide till I come, what (is it) to thee?”423 (verses 20-23).390-392

It was really loving interest concerning one more closely associated with himself than his own brother Andrew by the bond of a common affection for Jesus and of Jesus. This made Peter curious to learn about John now that his own earthly destiny was just revealed. But the gracious Lord, if He reproved in His own gentleness the prying spirit of His servant, did furnish ample matter for thought in the riddle He sets before Peter. One can readily see how shallow is the notion of Augustine and many since his day, that the Lord meant no more than John’s living to a protracted and placid age, in contrast with Peter slain violently in old age, as with his own brother James in youth. Peter emphatically was to follow the Lord even in His death as far as this could be. Not so John, who was to abide hanging on the will of the Lord till He came. “If I will that he abide,” etc.

Needless to say that there is evident and intentional mystery in the manner it was spoken of; and some have supposed that the destruction of Jerusalem and the judgment of the Jewish polity are here alluded to; as there is certainly more in such a thought than a merely peaceful death in advanced age. For death is in no true sense the Lord’s coming, but rather the converse, our going to Him.393 We know, at any rate, that to John it was given to see the Son of man judging the churches, and to have visions not only of God’s providential dealings with the world whether Jews or Gentiles, but of the Lord’s return in judgment of the apostate powers of the earth and of the man of sin, in order to the establishment of the long-predicted kingdom of God and the times of the restitution of all things, with the still higher glory in the New Jerusalem.

Out of the Lord’s words, perverted as they speedily were, the synagogue seems to have had its fable of the wandering Jew, and Christendom its Prester John, to entertain minds which had lost the truth either through rejecting Christ or by turning to superstition.

But this we learn of great practical moment from verse 23, how dangerous it is to trust tradition, even the earliest, and how blessed to have the unerring standard of God’s written word. The saying that went forth among the brethren in apostolic times seemed a most natural, if not necessary, inference from the words of our Lord. But we do not well to accept unreservedly an inferential statement, still less to be drawn into a system built on such deductions. We have the word of the Lord, and faith bows to it for its joy and rest to God’s glory. Error easily insinuates itself into the first remove from what He says, as the Apostle instructs us here that the Lord did not affirm that that disciple was not to die, but “If I will that he abide till I come.” Yet those who let in this primitive mistake were not enemies, were not grievous wolves, or men speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them. It was “among the brethren” that the tradition, unfounded and misleading, got spread. Miracles did not hinder, nor gifts, nor power, nor unity. The mistake arose from reasoning, instead of cleaving to the word of the Lord. The brethren, through lack of subjection to God and of distrust in themselves, gave the words a meaning, instead of simply receiving from them their true import. No wonder another great Apostle commends us to God and to the word of His grace; for if we may fully profit by His word in simple dependence on Himself, we cannot duly honour Him if we slight His word. And though it is by the Holy Spirit that we are thus kept and blest, even He is in no sort the standard of truth (while He is power in every way), but Christ as revealed in the written word.394

Last of all comes the personal seal or attestation of the writer. “This is the disciple that beareth witness of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his witness is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they were written one by one, I suppose that not even the world itself would contain the books that should be written” (verses 24, 25).424 It was John, and no other.394a Every inspired writer preserves none the less his own style and manner, and none more unmistakably than he who wrote the fourth Gospel. Yet what was written is but a sample, selected in Divine wisdom, and with a specific plan subserving the grand scope and purpose of Divine revelation. If everything which Jesus did were written out, well might the adoring evangelist suppose that the world itself would be too small for the needed books.395

It may be noticed how strikingly the close of the Gospel answers to the beginning, or at least the latter part of John 1 and 2. For though the subject be the Person of the Son manifested on earth, and then sending the Holy Spirit on His going to the Father, while thus beyond all others consisting of eternal truth and the highest privilege, yet is there care, before and after this is done historically, to show that the dispensational ways of God are in no way slighted. The latter part of John 20 and the beginning of John 21 are the counterpart of the early notice. We may add that the Epistles of John are, of course, devoted to the deeper task of tracing eternal life and the fellowship it gives with the Father and the Son, of which the word, through the Apostles, is the revelation, and the Holy Spirit is the power. The book of the Apocalypse, on the other hand, is the full and final unfolding of the dispensational ways of God; but it also reveals that which is above them all, and their connection with heaven and eternity brought before us far more completely and vividly than anywhere else in the testimony of God.

407 [Cf. “Introductory Lectures,” p. 566 ff.]

408 The Compl. rightly gives ἐν-, Erasmus wrongly ἀν-, with Steph., Be., and Elz., though not without uncials ( ΔΛ) and other support; but the Compl. is as wrong as the rest in adding εὐθὺς with many more MSS.

409 γεν. Text. Rec., [Blass] early read in uncials, and most copies; γιν. ABCpmEL, ten cursives, etc. [Tisch., W. and H., Weiss]. The MSS. also differ as to ἐπὶ [Tisch., Blass] and εἱς [W. and H., Weiss].

410 Ibid.

411 The more correct form ἴσχουν is given by BCDL ΛΠ, more than ten cursives, many Latin copies, Syriac, etc.

412 BCLL Πpm, etc., add οὖν [W. and H.], contrary to most uncials and cursives [Tisch., Weiss, Blass].

413 Most, with Text. Rec., read ἐπὶ τῆς γ., but the best εἰς τὴν γ., a few ἐπὶ τὴν γ.

414 οὖν is added by most, but BCDLX, etc., do not warrant it.

415 Text. Rec., against ABCL, etc., adds αὐτοῦ, “his.”

416 “John” is supported by a few of the oldest authorities [Edd.], “Jonah,” or Jonas, too, being perhaps only an abridged form of the name Johanan or Jehohanan.

417 Ibid.

418 Ibid.

419 “Promiscue hic usurpavit Johannes ἀγαπᾶς et φιλεῖν, ut mox βόσκειν et ποιμαίνειν. Neque hic quaerendae subtilitates.”

420 [So W. and H., but Blass follows Syrsin reading πρόβατα.]

421 Text. Rec., which DX ΓΔΠ2 and others support, adds δὲ, “but,” not the other ancient manuscripts.

422 The highest authorities add οὖν, “therefore,” but most oppose.

423 pm is alone in omitting τί πρός σὲ ”what is it to thee?” [so Cod. Vercellensis of Old Lat., and Syrsin hier].

424 Verse 25 is omitted in Tischendorf’s eighth edition on the slender omission of the Sinaitic copy [prima manu], supposed to be confirmed by “Scholia,” edited by Matthæi. The Ἀμήν at the end (Text. Rec.) is not in ABCD, etc. [Blass brackets the verse; see W. and H., “Select Readings,” p. 90 f].396