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Christ Tests our Love for Him

Scripture:  John 21:1-25
Text:  John 21:17

Sermon by Rev. Cornelius Bronsveld
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Listowel, Ontario, 1985
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 2, No. 8

This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.

Congregation, beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ:

“Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?” What a strange question to ask, we would say. But is it, people of God? Is it such a strange question, taking into consideration all that had occurred to Jesus? He was forsaken by His disciples at the most difficult time, and particularly by Peter, who had said that he would die with Christ.

Speaking of love for Christ in times of prosperity, peace, health, and freedom, when everything is going your way, is not so difficult, is it beloved? We would get very upset if anyone would question our sincerity, our love for Christ. How would we react at this very moment if the Lord Himself would test our love for Him, if he would ask us: “Do you really love Me?’

He does, people of God. Christ Himself stands before us, speaking to us through His Holy Word, and He directs this question to each one of us personally. Do you really, really love Me? He demands a personal answer, a profession.

This account, well known to all of us, must have been a painful event for the apostle Peter. Oh, he knew the reason why Christ directed that question to him. He had said that he would never forsake Christ, even if all the others would. When it really came to the test, he had denied his Lord, his Master, swearing with an oath before a simple woman that he didn’t know the Man. She had said, pointing to Peter, “This fellow was also with Jesus of Nazareth.” That had been enough for Peter to fear for his life.

His faith in Christ faltered, for he saw Christ standing there, seemingly without any might or power. He was powerless, mocked by the soldiers. At that moment he feared for his life.

How well we can understand this. What he saw with his natural eyes was defeat. It seemed that Christ had lost the battle. Christ would be killed. He remembered the words which Christ had spoken just some hours before. “Before the cock crows, thou shall deny Me three times.”

He must have also remembered Christ’s words. “Simon, Simon! Behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.” He left that court house and having come outside, he cried bitterly for his sin. How could he have done this? Simon Peter, — the rock as Christ had called him — honestly loved Christ with his whole heart. He dared to say it. His love for Christ was greater than that of the others.

But who would believe that after what had happened? Peter carried a heavy burden in his soul — his denial of Christ before men. What a marvelous, all-knowing Master Peter had, for Christ Himself would restore him. He began by humbling and testing him, so that he might see that it is not his work or his faithfulness, but all Christ’s work. We will look together at this scripture passage, with the theme, Christ tests our love for Him.

I. Its Testing
II. Its Knowing
III. Its Possessing

I. Its Testing

Is it not true, people of God, that we all have the idea that our love for the Lord is so great that we could stand beside the apostle Peter? We look at others (and perhaps we don’t say it), but think, “He or she certainly does not love the Lord as much as I do. Look how he lives, or what she does, or what they dare to say. It certainly does not show much love for Christ.” The apostle Peter also had that idea, that somehow he was better and stronger in faith than the others. He was so sure of himself that he even dared to rebuke Christ, as we can read in Matthew 16.

He also thought that they were much better because they had left all and followed Christ. We read in Matthew 20, “Then answered Peter and said unto Christ; behold, we have forsaken all, and followed Thee, what shall we have, therefore?” Then Christ told him what the reward would be, but at the same time there was a warning. “Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.” We could also say with the apostle Paul, “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed, lest he fall.”

We know from scripture that the apostle Peter found this out in a very bitter, grievous way. How deep he fell! It is indeed Christ Himself who must hold His children one by one from falling away forever. That is the concept of infinite grace and mercy, as Christ also clearly stated to Peter, “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.

Christ is going to restore Peter in front of all his fellow disciples; but at the same time it will be a reminder to Peter not to boast, nor to go in his own strength. Notice how the Lord begins, making a special remark on Peter’s previous claim to be better than the others, of having more love for Christ than the others. “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more then these?” The name Peter is not used, which means rock, but the name given him at his natural birth. It is intended to show that with his sinful nature, there is no difference between Simon and the other disciples in the eyes of Christ. His love for Christ was tested, not even under the greatest fire, yet he failed miserably. How could he be used to teach others? How could he even fulfill that special office in the church of Christ if his love for Christ was not everything — worth his life? The confession which the apostle Paul would later make, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” is the only true confession for all God’s people.

Christ is going to test once more if Peter really loves Him. Three times he had denied his Lord. Three times the Lord asked him the question, “Do you love Me?” There is a certain pattern in this which we should not overlook. First of all, in the original language, there are two different words used for the word love in our language. Twice Christ used the word agape, meaning profound, intimate love. The apostle Peter answered with the word phileo, less emphatical, meaning affection. Peter does not dare to use this word agape which Christ used for love.

It is the same word which is used in the gospel of John chapter 3, where we read: “The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into His hand.” It is a love so great that is surpasses all human understanding. Peter understood and had learned his lessons. Therefore he knows that he doesn’t possess in himself the love that Christ is speaking of and requiring from him.

How could he answer that question? The love of which Christ is speaking demands everything, the person himself. Does he really know what love is? Is it not a complete self-denial, a whole sacrifice of oneself? Does he love Christ that much? Yes, he does, but he cannot claim this for himself, for it is not of himself. So he gives the proper answer. “Yea Lord, Thou knowest that I love thee.” Notice that he uses the word phileo — affection, in reply to the word agape which Christ used, meaning profound, intimate love.

Christ’s answer is “Feed My lambs.” Peter, with his love for Christ, could not have fed or even strengthened the faith of the feeble ones, for Peter had failed, but Christ shall give him His love. He will hold him and strengthen him with His Spirit. It is the Lord’s work in Peter. It is Christ living in him, and therefore the mandate was given, “Feed My lambs.” How can he do that? It is only in Christ, not in himself.

That must become very clear to Simon Peter. Therefore Christ asked him the second time, using the same word for love, agape. “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?” Again the apostle answered with the same answer, “Yea Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee,” using the word phileo.

Christ’s answer is “Feed My sheep.” In other words, Christ said to him: I have given you the oversight of My flock again — My lambs and My sheep. I restore you in your office to take care of My flock. But, Peter, you must love Me with your whole heart whatever the cost. Do you have that love?”

So Christ asks him again the third time. There is a change however, in the question directed to Peter. This time Christ used the same word for love, phileo which Peter had used in answering Christ. “ Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?” Christ has stooped down to Peter’s level, in his understanding of love. For that love Christ was speaking of is not in man’s possession. It comes from above, from God.

We read, “And Peter was grieved because He said the third time, ‘Lovest thou Me?’” Keep in mind that now Christ had used the same word for love which Peter had used in answering the Lord three times, meaning affection.. In his New Testament commentary on the “Gospel of John,” Dr. W. Hendriksen writes, “The Lord seems to doubt whether Simon really had even such humble affection as he was claiming.”

The fact that Jesus had now asked the question in this context using this word phileo grieved Peter even deeper. He asked him if he even had affection for the Lord. Oh, how well can we all understand this when our love for Christ is questioned. Peter is convinced that he possesses that kind of love. Then he replied, “Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

II. Its Knowing

Peter is grieved. Can you understand this, beloved? How can he prove to the Lord that he really loves Him? Indeed, the Lord had all reason to question his love, his affection for Him. The Lord knew that Peter had denied his Master, even with swearing an oath. Is there anything he can do to prove to Christ that he yet loves Him? Is there anything that would make it believable? Can you trust the word of sinful man as he clearly had shown that he was not to be trusted? How will Peter be able to have Christ believe him, as Peter himself had experienced the weakness of his own sinful flesh?

Church of Christ, those people who have seen themselves in their awful sin and self-love, who know the power of the sinful flesh and their weakness, do know that they have nothing to offer Christ. They know that they have nothing to stand on, not even their so-called love. They know — as the Spirit has revealed to them — that they would not be able to say “But I love the Lord so much that these things can never happen to me. I am strong, and firm in my faith, and therefore Christ can count on me. He can be assured of my love.”

No beloved, they know better. They would no longer dare to say just like the apostle Peter once did, “Lord, you can count on me. I am even willing to die with you.” Just the opposite — they will look at Christ, as Peter did at this very moment, with tears in their eyes, being grieved, for how will they ever be able in their lives to show their love to Christ? Is it not true that they grieve the Spirit of God time and again with their everyday, daily sin?

Christ has all reasons to ask us that question today, and instead of the name of Peter, Christ mentions our name…“Lovest thou Me?” How often have we denied our Lord in our lives, as children, young people, or adults? Why should the Lord believe us — as He came to us in infinite love and mercy — or our words? We have shown to be, not one little bit better than Peter.

Do you really love Me? You, who always think of yourself first? Your life has not even been in danger for My sake as Peter’s was, and how often have you denied Me? What would our answer be, beloved? Could we answer our Lord and Master, who gave His life for us sinners, with a self-assured and proud: “Sure Lord, we love You intimately”? Could we use that word of love which Christ used? Having seen ourselves as we really are, would we honestly dare to give a quick-answer affirmation?

Peter no longer could, and therefore he placed all his assurance, confidence, and trust in Christ’s love for him. Christ knew him better than Peter knew himself. Therefore, Peter said, “Lord Thou knowest all things.” In other words, “Lord, nothing is hidden from You. You know everything — my failures, my pride, my self-love, my struggles with my own sinful flesh, the confidence which I always had in my own ability, trusting in my own works. I have even told You how it should be done, but Lord, it is all fallen apart.” People of God, do we see ourselves in Peter?

“Lord, Thou knowest all things.” “Thou did renew my life, which should have ended in death. All things Thou dost know and therefore, I cannot give any assurance of my love to Thee. I failed. I failed in Adam. I failed in myself, and will continue to fail, if I go in my own strength. But Lord, Thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee. For it is Thy love for me.”

Peter’s so-called great love for Christ no longer existed. As a matter of fact, he knew now that it never was there. He didn’t even dare to use that word love as Christ used it, but he knew one thing, as it was the Spirit of God that made him plead on it. He knew the promises of Christ. “I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not.” He might be grieved and hurt, for he is still Peter, but Christ knows that he cannot live without his precious Lord. So it flows jubilantly out of his heart: “Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee.” It is not his love; it is Christ’s love in him. It is all, totally and completely God’s work.

Christ had said it once. “Flesh and blood has not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven” revealed who Christ was, the Son of God. In the same way, it is the Spirit of God the Father; of Christ the Son; the Spirit Himself, that assures Peter of that blessed knowledge that Christ loves him, and that therefore, in that love, Peter loves Christ. The Lord knows that, for He gave Peter that love. That is what we confess, isn’t it, people of God? Man by his sinful nature is apt to hate God and his neighbor. If a man loves God, then it must come from God, for sinful man doesn’t have it.

III. Its Possession

What a grace, what a mercy! “Thou knowest that I love Thee.” It is only possible to make such a confession when the love of Christ is in the heart of man, when His Spirit has taken hold of the sinner. It is only when that heart is cleansed with the blood of Christ, when it is sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

You young people can only give this answer and make confession of faith when you can say as Peter did: “Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee.” It is not when you think you are ready, for confession of faith is the beginning of that road in which Christ completely rules your life. He knows you. He must dwell in your heart. You must be possessed by His Spirit to be able to respond to this question as it was directed to Peter, “Lord, Thou knowest.”

The very fact that the apostle Peter could answer Christ “Lord Thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee” was the substantiation, the unmistakable proof, that the love of Christ did dwell in his heart. He was the Lord’s own possession. He belonged, body and soul to His faithful Savior Jesus Christ. The Lord remained faithful.

The same faithfulness of our gracious, glorious God was seen in the life of King David, who fell so terribly deeply into sin. Yet we hear his confession of sin and guilt when he said: “I have sinned against the Lord.” There also was forgiveness, as the prophet Nathan answered, “The Lord hath also put away thy sin.” He was restored in his office; he remained king. So also the apostle Peter, having confessed his sin, was by Christ Himself — before all the other disciples — restored in his apostleship when the Lord said “Feed My sheep.”

People of God, there is nothing that can be expected of sinful man, unless the love of Christ and His Spirit gets hold of such a person. Not one of us, with our sinful nature in Adam, loves God. We have seen that scripture is very clear on that. “There is none that doeth good, no not one. There is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way; they are together become unprofitable.” Let us not look at King David or the apostle Peter as special cases. We are all like them. To us it must be said “Thou art that man,” that woman, that child.

When that love for Christ and His kingdom is found in our hearts, let no one boast of it over against the other. It is so easy to point fingers. If we do, then we are in very great danger, for our love shall be tested, of what sort it is. The apostle Paul was very careful in this. Therefore he said, “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” It is sovereign grace and mercy for all God’s children.

Only when our faith is built on the rock, when Christ’s love and His Spirit dwells in us, we shall be able to answer this question which we must all answer as the apostle Peter did, “Lord Thou knowest.” It is Thy love for me. Church of Christ, remember what we read in the letter of John, “We love Him because He first loved us.” We often sing it in that beautiful hymn, “I sought the Lord and afterward I knew. He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.”

That was exactly what the apostle Peter said to Christ, for Christ had sought him. In an instant, Peter saw how his love could turn to hate, rejection and indifference; when with an oath, he swore that he didn’t want his name associated with Christ as he said, “I know not this man of whom ye speak.” How often, people of God, do we say the same thing when we keep quiet as His name is blasphemed or misused? Or perhaps we show it in the way of our living, in work or entertainment?

Once, Christ stood before Peter, and now before us, and the question comes to us, as it came to Peter: “Are you one of Mine? Do you love Me, truly love Me?” This disciple had discovered that he did not possess this perfect love of which Christ spoke; not of himself, anyway. Have you discovered that, my brother and sister?

Indeed, there is much spoken of love for Christ, but that will not do. It will not stand up in the fiery test, when it seems that the Lord is powerless, as Peter saw Christ standing before His enemies, seemingly defeated. “I have prayed for you that your faith fail not,” said Christ. That is the love which we need — the perfect love of Christ. The victorious Christ who conquered death and hell stood before the apostle Peter. He also possessed the heart of this disciple who fell so deeply. Christ kept him. Peter’s answer showed this possession, “Lord Thou knowest.”

Christ and His Spirit had to dwell in Peter’s heart, to be truly one with him. Therefore the Lord knew that he possessed that love. He had to show that love to the brethren in humbleness and self-denial, being a true disciple of Christ. He had to suffer with Christ to follow in His Master’s footsteps. “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” As you can read in verse 18, they would carry Peter “whither he wouldest not.”

Not his love for Christ, but Christ’s love for him would make him a true disciple of his Lord. Church of Christ, even at this very moment the Lord proves and tests His followers. What does He find? True love? His love? His perfect love in us? Let us be fully aware that our love, that which we call love for Christ, shall not keep us close to Christ, for it is not able to withstand the fire of God’s holy wrath on sin.

Only Christ’s love in giving Himself as a sacrifice for sin, even for the apostle Peter’s and for our denials, can keep us from the wrath of God. There was no love in us for God. It is the love of the obedient Son, Jesus Christ, who truly loved even when it cost Him His precious blood and His life, that will restore us in our discipleship. Then nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” “Thou knowest, Lord.” How true are His covenant faithful promises! “And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

People of God, Christ’s love shall keep us. That alone will be able to make us truly confess our love for Him. A very personal question was asked — “Lovest thou Me?” By the grace of God, a very personal profession of that love in Christ is possible. The answer is, “Lord Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” Amen.


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