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Online Text Sermon - Lovest Thou Me?, John ch.21 v.15

PreacherRev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon TitleLovest Thou Me?
TextJohn ch.21 v.15
Sermon ID1319

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"So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs" (John 21, 15)

I especially take for my text these words: "lovest thou me". It's a matter of interesting discussion which you may wish to take up some time in fellowship, what he means by the words, "lovest thou me more than these". I shall not, however, consider that subject now.

These words of Christ were spoken after our Lord's resurrection. This, as you see from one of the verses here, is a resurrection appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ. So the order of events was this. Our Lord had died on the Friday of the Passover day, and he had remained in a state of death for three days, until the first day of the following week. We now call it Sunday or the Christian Sabbath; then of course it was not the Sabbath because the Jewish Sabbath was on the last day of a week - Saturday as we call it. But now our Lord rose on the first day of the week, having been dead those three days. And in the resurrection state he made appearances to His disciples and to others. These are recorded in the Gospels - not all of them probably, but some of them are. We are told that this is the third such appearance to His disciples. You will find those words are written in the passage that we have just read together.

As a matter of fact, these words do not mean that this is the third appearance of our Lord altogether; this was probably the seventh appearance of our Lord. He appeared, for instance, to Mary Magdalene, to some women and perhaps others too, but now this is the third time our Lord had appeared specifically to His disciples gathered in a group. I won't spend time on this but in John 20, just before the passage we have read, our Lord appears first of all to the ten in the upper room - ten disciples - Judas Iscariot having of course committed suicide and was now dead, and, as it happened, Thomas was absent and our Lord appeared to the ten. Then the following Lord's Day, as we call it - the first day of the week, the Christian Sabbath - our Lord appeared to the eleven, including Thomas - that very famous appearance in which He told Thomas, "Reach hither thy fingers and put them into my hand, and reach here your hand and put it into my side" where the spear wound was, and he said, very wonderfully, "My Lord and my God!" That was the second of these appearances to the disciples. This is now the third, and it was up in the north, in Galilee. The Sea of Tiberias in verse 1 is another name for the Sea of Galilee, right up in the north. Peter and these other disciples had gone fishing, and our Lord appears to them.

It was that period of 40 days between our Lord's resurrection and His ascension, an amazing period of time, during which, as I say, our Lord revealed himself to His disciples and to some of the women. As far as we know, He never appeared to any unbeliever but only to his own people, which indeed is a foretaste of heaven itself. No unbeliever will see Him in glory when the Day of Judgment is over. They will never ever see His face again. They will be banished from the whole universe into outer darkness. But our Lord will smile upon His people for ever in that state of glory at last.

I have to explain: the state of Christ's body and human nature was unusual, as you would expect. He was alive from the dead, and He could appear and disappear at will, as we see in the case of the two on the road to Emmaus. He joined them and held a conversation but at the breaking of bread, after giving thanks, He disappeared and He appeared in the upper room, as you know - and then disappeared. So His body was a real body, it was not a phantom body. It was not that He was merely with His spirit or His soul. He had His body with Him, truly, but evidently His body had new and unusual powers. I would add to that, it seems to me that our Lord did not need to eat or sleep at this time. I won't be dogmatic but that's the way it appears to me. He did eat, but not I think to sustain His bodily strength but simply to prove to His watching disciples that what they saw was not a spirit or ghost but His body. That's how our Lord was for these 40 days. In that period, more importantly than some of the things I've mentioned, He was teaching His disciples the things they needed to know before they scattered throughout the world preaching the Gospel. I may say, just about every one of these disciples was martyred. They were, just about all of them, killed, sooner or later - just about every one of these beloved friends of Christ were stoned, cudgelled to death, or else in some other way brought to death. How much we owe to God for these faithful men!

The Lord Jesus Christ appears at the edge, or on the shore, if you like, of the Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberias, on this morning, when the disciples had been fishing. They'd been fishing all through the night and they had caught nothing. In the morning Jesus calls to them. You see this other strange feature about our Lord. They didn't so easily recognise Him. We can't perhaps explain how. His appearance must have been somewhat different from what it had been before his death. But they very quickly recognised who it was, no doubt from His absolute authority. He spoke with words of absolute authority. There was no disguising and no failure to recognise that. Jesus calls to them as they are about 100 yards out at sea, fishing, having caught nothing, and He says, "Children, have you caught any meat, any fish?" and they called back, "No." And our Lord says, "Well, cast your net on the other side of the ship." When they do, they can hardly draw the net in - 153 fish are caught, just like that. This of course was a miracle. We refer to this as the 'miraculous draught of fishes'. Most of the Bible dictionaries give it that title - the miraculous draught, or catch, of fishes. They pull it to shore and Peter knows now who it is. Probably just wearing a loin cloth in his task as a fisherman, he now throws on his fisherman's coat and casting himself into the sea, swims the 100 yards to the shore. The others come and drag the fish up to the shore. There's a fire there and our Lord invites them to come and dine. They take a meal, and nobody dares to say to Him, "Who art thou?" or "Who are you?" They knew very well who He was. What a mystery all this is! Anyway, that's the way things were.

Our concern is with the text. They've dined in verse 15; they've had their food. After the meal Jesus says to him, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?" He says it three times, as you see. Let's take that as our text. I want to give you a little bit more background which will help us to understand these words. Three questions - or the same question three times - very obviously hearkens back to Peter's three denials. Do you remember, in the high priest's courtyard when Jesus was being placed on trial on the Thursday night, Simon Peter had been warned and yet he had followed Christ afar off? He had come into the courtyard below where there was a fire. He was warming his hands at the fire, and there were other people there. Christ was in one of these rooms being tried, again and again and again and again, as we know. There were six trials in total - not all of them in the high priest's palace, but some of them were. You remember, he thrice - or three times - denied that he knew Jesus Christ. It happened like this. First of all there was a maid, as she's called, a maid of the high priest's family - possibly a girl just doing ordinary domestic work in the palace of the high priest whose name was Caiaphas. She came over and looked at this man's face in the flickering light of the fire. She said to him, "Surely, you're one of His disciples?" "No, no," he said, "I don't know the man." A little bit later another woman came along, a young woman - a maid, she's called, which might just mean that she's a young unmarried girl - and she said, "Surely you're one of those because your speech indicates that; you have a Galilean accent." It's the difference I suppose between a London accent and a Scottish accent - you'd tell the difference quite quickly. "Oh no," he said, "I don't know the man. I never met the man." Then a man comes along - one of the persons who is a bystander - and says to Peter, again, "Surely you know this man?" With oaths and curses Peter says, "I tell you! I do not know this man!" And immediately the cock crowed, and Peter remembered and oh, the shame! Can you imagine the rush of emotions to his conscience, the flood of feeling? He went from the courtyard, and we are told he wept bitterly. That is what he is being reminded of and is being brought to his attention by these circumstances. I think our Lord, as it were, set up a scenario - as we call it these days: the fire, on which the food is cooking, was a reminder to him of that other fire at which he'd warmed his hands; and the threefold question which is put to him here in my text, in verses 15, 16 and 17, "Lovest thou me?" is a poignant reminder to him of the threefold denial which he had been so guilty of.

Let me remind you, my friends, how it is that Peter fell. You must understand this is a very wonderful Christian man. He was no unbeliever when he denied Christ. He was a good, godly, Christian man. But he sinned and fell as a Christian I think we can say at least for two reasons. First of all, he did not listen sufficiently to Christ's warning. Our Lord had prophesied, do you remember, and said to him, "You will deny me this night three times." Peter had not believed it. Peter had said, with terrible over-confidence, "Lord, I am ready to go even to prison and to death for you. I'm ready to lay down my life for you!" he said. "Simon Peter, the cockerel shall not crow this night before thou deny me thrice." That was one of the mistakes he made, he was too confident.

When we come a little bit later to Gethsemane we see another mistake he made. He was asleep when he should have been in prayer, as indeed we're all so guilty of, and Jesus had to say to him, "Simon, are you sleeping? Are you so sleepy you cannot watch with me one hour? Watch and pray. The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak." Peter hadn't taken heed to those warnings.

He went out and wept bitterly, and I think, my friends, we can say about Simon Peter that those three days, between denying our Lord and having the comfortable knowledge of His resurrection, must have been the most terrible days of his life. I say three days but it's perhaps more than three days, but certainly the days between his denying of Christ on the Thursday night and the knowledge of the resurrection of Christ, when our Lord showed him His glorious resurrection condition. It must have been a terrible, terrible time. Can you imagine how he felt? If he were alive with us today, Peter would say, "Those were the worst days of my life." Yet, my friends, we see Christ prepares this fire now for Peter, and He prepares this question for Peter. He knew Peter's heart. He knew very well of course that Peter loved Him but He was in the gentlest, kindest, most affectionate way drawing out from Peter what was tantamount to a confession of his own guilt and shame, and forces Peter to say, "Thou knowest all things, Lord. Thou knowest that I love thee."

There's something for us to learn here, surely, is there not? - Many things to learn. One of them is surely this. It is possible for good, godly, and Christian people to deny the Lord Jesus Christ. In moments of weakness we can, all of us, do terrible things. Either with our lips or with our lives we can behave very inconsistently. We have all done so. You have done so, and so have I - very inconsistently. Yet there is comfort here. Oh, what mercy! Jesus Christ knows our heart and He can forgive the sins of those who are His people, who commit sin against Him. My friends, let us remember that. What's the difference, you may say, between what Simon Peter did and what Judas Iscariot did, after all, Simon Peter denied him, and Judas Iscariot betrayed him. They both committed great sins. 'What's the difference?' you might say. 'It's the difference between heaven and hell.' Simon Peter denied our Lord Jesus Christ as somebody who was a believer, somebody who loved Christ but through weakness of his flesh he let our Lord and himself down and he brought shame upon himself. You and I can so easily do the same.

Oh, is there a lesson here? Yes, I say, every day we live, let us watch and pray. Let us not place ourselves in situations which are full of danger. Let us not run into situations where temptation of one kind or another will be possibly too great for us, whatever that temptation may be. When we find ourselves in a situation of temptation, oh, let us hear the cockerel sounding in our consciences! Let us flee - flee from all the dangerous temptations which may beset us in this life. These are lessons I believe we are to learn from this passage. Another one is this. My friends don't be too hard on a Christian when they have fallen and done something wrong, because next time round it could be you. Remember we're all frail and we all do wrong things. Remember Christ is ready to forgive and we should be as ready to forgive, surely, as He is.

The second thing I bring to you from these words is this. What a challenge they were to Simon Peter. Notice what it is in particular that Christ is looking for in Simon Peter. He doesn't say to Simon Peter, "Simon, are you still a disciple of mine?" No. He could have said that but He didn't say that. He could have said, "Simon, do you still believe in me?"; "Simon, are you still an orthodox theologian?" All of this is very important, of course - I'm not being dismissive of orthodox theologians. "Simon, are you still prepared to work for me?" All of these things our Lord might have said, but He doesn't. What He does say is, "Do you love me?" - "Lovest thou me?" three times. Why? Obviously, you know the answer before I give it to you. It's because the main thing is love for Christ. That is everything. Just as in marriage, love is the main thing. So in our relationship with one another as Christians, love is the main thing. Above all, when it comes to God and to Christ, love is the main thing. Where love is, everything else will be. Where love is not, the rest matters little. That's what our Lord challenges: He looks for love in the souls of His people.

My dear friends, this is to us a reminder that love is the highest grace in existence, it is the spirit of heaven. Where people have love then the spirit of heaven comes down. Our Lord touches this, which is the golden factor in the Christian life, the love which the believer has for the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you remember how Paul puts this, in that very famous chapter in 1 Corinthians 13: "Now abideth faith, hope, charity [or love], these three, but the greatest of these is charity [or love]." Love is the greatest grace. Love is the spirit of God. God is love. Christ is love. All the three Persons of the Godhead can be characterised like that - filled with divine love - and that's what they most desire. What is the commandment? Well, it can be summarised like this: "To love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and strength and mind, and to love thy neighbour as thyself." This is true, pure religion. You can have all the other things, but if love is missing, the main thing is missing. That's why Jesus speaks to a certain church, you remember, in one of the early epistles in the Book of Revelation, and He says to them, "Thou hast left thy first love." He said, you're doing a lot of good things; you've got all these meetings and conferences and outreaches and are busy and doing many things - I know that, He said, "But I've got something against thee; thou hast left thy first love." What our Lord is looking for most of all in your life, and my life, is this: it is our love for Him - "Lovest thou me?" He says. That's the main thing of all. He's reminding us there, of course, that where love is amongst people in any society upon earth then the spirit of heaven comes down. Which is the best church in the world? The answer is: where there is most love. What is the best family in town? It's the family where there's the most love. What is the happiest work place? It's the one where there is the most love. Where do you get the most job satisfaction? In a community or society where there is the most love. Love is what makes everything work. It lubricates every aspect of life. And our Lord says, "Lovest thou me?"

My dear friends, we cannot too often remind ourselves of this great teaching of the Bible. God looks not on the outward part, but He looks upon the heart. "The Lord looketh not upon the outward appearance." The Lord is looking at your heart. Do you love God? Do you love Jesus Christ? Do you love His Word, His day, His house, His people, His work? That's the question. "If you love me, keep my commandments." Our Lord puts it in many different ways.

Our Lord comes to Peter and He challenges Peter with a question dealing with his failure. He's now in the boat fishing, and our Lord calls - beside the fire - He calls across these 100 yards or metres. He calls across to the boat where Peter's fishing. They've caught nothing and He says, "Do you have any meat?" Have you caught any fish? - in other words. He says, "No." Our Lord confronts Peter with his failure. He was in a state of failure. Then, when he summons them to the meal, He confronts Peter with this fire. I don't think that was accidental. He had kindled a fire, and this fire was a very pungent reminder to Peter of another fire at which, as I said earlier, he was foolishly, carelessly, prayerlessly, warming his hands. All of this was preparatory. Then we have this threefold question - another reminder, "Lovest thou me? Lovest thou me? Lovest thou me?" - A reminder to Peter of his threefold denial. You see, my friends, our Lord will challenge the love of His people's heart.

I put it to you, my dear friend, do you - sitting here tonight - do you love the Lord Jesus Christ, or is he just another name, just a famous man, just a great person? That's not enough. I say, "Do you love him?" That's the thing that He's looking for. Not that you should praise Him, simply, or that you should claim to have some allegiance to Him in some way or other - all of that is good enough - but what He most challenges in you tonight is: Do you love Him? "Lovest thou me?" Do you love Him for what He is, the everlasting Son of God? Do you love Him for what He has done - lived for us, and then died for us, and risen for us? Do you love Him for what he's still doing - making intercession for us at the right hand of God? Do you love Him because He is spiritually in union with you, and you with Him, and you couldn't live without Him? It couldn't happen, but speaking for the sake of argument in a theoretical way - supposing now it could be proved in some imaginary way that the whole Christian faith was nonsense, and all was vain, you know what would happen to the Christian? His life would just collapse like a great house falling in ruins, because Christ is everything to the Christian. Other things have their place, but Christ is everything, because the Christian loves the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let me go on and say that it's very interesting to see the words that He used here in this conversation. It's not so obvious in a translation. That's why our students have to learn Greek. It's because there are nuances and there are shades or meanings which you can't get, really, in a translation. I'm going to explain - it's an interesting one, this - I've always found it very fascinating myself. (We're talking about verses 15, 16 and 17.) Three times our Lord says to Simon Peter, "Lovest thou me?" Let me explain how this is done. In verse 15, Christ says to Peter, "Simon Peter, do you love me?" Simon Peter answers, "Lord, you know that I like you." - it's a lesser word, it's a less potent word, a less powerful word. Our Lord's word for love is there, and then Peter's reply uses the word which is there - I think you could translate it like this: "You know, Lord, that I like you, I have affection for you." - not quite such a high word. So our Lord, the second time, in verse 16 says, "Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?" - using the high word again - love - the highest thing. Peter says, "You know, Lord, that I like you." I suppose he was using this lesser word for a very obvious reason; he was deeply ashamed of having denied our Lord three times, deeply ashamed. You can understand it. He felt it was too much, surely, to use this high word, so he uses a lower word. "Lord, you know that I like you." But now, verse 17, in the third question, our Lord comes down to his level. "Simon, son of Jonah, do you like me?" Let me read verse 17: "He saith unto him a third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?" Peter was grieved because he said to Him the third time, "Lovest thou me?" You see, in that verse (17) He comes down from the high word to a low word. "Simon, son of Jonah, do you like me? Are you fond of me?" That was what our Lord says in the third question. No wonder it hurt Peter. No wonder it stung him. It was because if you don't love Christ you have no relationship with Him. If any man love not our Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema! Love is everything between Christ and the soul. You can't simply 'like' Christ. That's nonsense! You either love Him, or you hate Him. "He that is not for me is against me." You can't be in between. You can't have some sort of minor or lesser affection for Christ. That's a contradiction, bearing in mind who He is - God the Son, the Saviour of the world, the Lord of glory, the everlasting Son of God! You can't just like Him! You must love Him! And if you don't love Him, you hate Him. One or the other - there's no standing in between. So that's why Jesus says, surely, to Simon Peter, "Do you like me?" It must surely have been like a sharp knife in the conscience and mind of Peter.

Oh, my friends, our Lord knows how to humble His people when they sin against Him. You've all had experience of that, all of you who are Christians. You've all had experience of that. Our Lord can put us in our place very quickly. He knows when we go astray. He can make us smart for our sin. What a thing for Simon Peter to hear: "Do you like me?" And this is what he says, "Lord, thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love thee." - or, he uses this lesser word again, this lower word, "Thou knowest that I like thee." His conscience wouldn't allow him, I think, to use the higher word. But of course Simon Peter did love our Lord, and he gave his whole life to our Lord and preached the gospel with great power on the Day of Pentecost and for the rest of his life. He was put to death by crucifixion, according to tradition. When Simon Peter came to be brought to the cross, he said, "Don't crucify me in the ordinary way." According to tradition, he said "Crucify me upside down. I'm not worthy to be crucified like my Lord," he said. "Crucify me upside down," he said. You see, he loved his Lord with passion. But even those who love Christ, and are genuine Christians, at times through weakness, they can let the Lord down. Oh, how many times have I done it! And, perhaps, how many times have you!

The last and third thing before I close, is this. There's a lesson here which I think is of great help to us. When the Lord is about to question Simon Peter, He calls across to those in the boat, and He says to them, "Children, have you any meat, have you caught anything?" And we're told at the end of verse 3, "that night they caught nothing": it was a failure. But then our Lord says, "Cast the net to the other side of the boat." Now, look at verse 6, "They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes." Look at the contrast; I want to draw a lesson from that.

My friends, this pointed forward to the day of Pentecost. It was a kind of enacted parable. They themselves were a failure, but then when they cast their net to the side of the ship where they were told by Christ to cast it - immediately, success! That's what we call revival. That's what happened on the Day of Pentecost. The Gospel net caught a huge shoal of fish on the Day of Pentecost and Peter was the fisherman. His sermon was a net for catching 3,000 men, and many more that followed on. How do you explain that? It was the Holy Spirit. There's something for us all here. This is what explains the early church which grew and multiplied phenomenally, all over the Mediterranean world, and then into the pagan world by Britain, as it was then. That's how you explain what's happened in the eastern world in the last hundred years. The Gospel has gone phenomenally - in China, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and all these other nations too - with tremendous power. Millions of people are worshipping Jesus Christ! How do you account for it? Was it political things which favoured the Gospel? Not at all! It was in spite of the political opposition in Russia, in China and elsewhere. A dear friend of mine who was a missionary in Mongolia - he and I used to be students together, nearly 50 years ago - he was giving me this letter just the other day, talking about a man he met in Mongolia. This man, he said, has now got a congregation after just a few short months, or years, of labour there - 600 or 700 people! In Mongolia, of all places!

Where are we today, in our country? Well I'll tell you. We're in verse 3, that's where we are. "All that night they caught nothing." That's where the Christian church is in Scotland today - "All that night they caught nothing." That's where the church is. Let's face the facts. Let's face reality. That's where you and I are, and others like us in other churches - catching nothing! Who's being saved? Well, thank God there are some. One here, and another there but, mainly, the churches in our country are dead so far as conversions are concerned. Other religions are gaining ground all the time. Immorality is rushing in like a flood - you don't need me to tell you that. What's the answer? Is there any answer? Yes, thank God, there is. We need to wait on the Lord and seek his face. When He commands, then the net of the Gospel will be filled with fish again.

There's a wonderful story in Wales, from 1817 - I love the story. It's one of very many I could give you. The preacher was a man called Richard Williams. He was preaching in a farmhouse in Wales, in one of the beautiful valleys there in 1817. He wasn't a great preacher. He was an exhorter, not a preacher. He was not a famous preacher. There were great preachers in Wales at that time, notably John Elias who was a gigantic preacher. People would flock in thousands to hear John Elias. This was just a farmhouse with a few people in it, and Richard Williams was there; there was a cold, hard atmosphere. That can happen in churches - a cold, hard atmosphere - and that's what this man had. Well, he did his best. He began with prayer - it wasn't very exciting. Then he had his other duties - reading and so on - very dull. The people settled down to sleep. He began his sermon on his text - very dull. They were sorry they'd come. But then... they couldn't explain it - something happened! Something happened in that farmhouse. The Spirit of God came down upon the people. They were filled with a new sense of the presence of God. The people sitting in that farmhouse cried out from of a sense of sin and a need of Christ! They were awakened. When the service was over, this is what they said, "We never saw it on this fashion before." How do we explain that? Well, I'll go on - just one thing further. In five weeks, the whole valley was affected - scarcely a house where there were not conversions and blessing. It wasn't oratory was it? It wasn't gimmickry was it? My friends, this is the only answer to the problem in Britain today - the Holy Spirit, the power of God, coming down upon our churches and upon our preachers! You and I are called upon to pray and to believe that God can do it again! The Gospel net is empty today. But oh, let us pray to God in faith that He would command in the words He gives us here, "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." Would God He would speak like that again, and you and I would be able to rejoice!

O blessed God, forgive us that we cannot answer as we should when thou dost challenge us with this question, 'Lovest thou me?' Our consciences tell us that we have not even begun to love thee as thou deservest of us all. Grant us thy Holy Spirit. Oh, improve that within us which thou hast begun. Rend the heavens, and come down and show to this nation what manner of God thou art. Oh, let thy glory appear in our land! Now may grace, mercy and peace from Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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