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John 6:68-69:—Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
The first impression made on us by this response of Peter’s to our Lord’s pathetic appeal, “Surely ye too will not wish to go?” is the nobility of the confession which it contains. We are not surprised to find one of the commentators, therefore, speaking of it as “this immortal reply”; nor are we surprised that it is commonly treated by commentators and expounders alike from this point of view. Thus, for instance, one expounder develops it as a “serious answer” to our Lord’s “searching inquiry”; and finds in it, (1) a “reverential address”—“Lord”; (2) a significant inquiry,” which is only a “strong way of asserting not alone that our Lord’s disciples intended to adhere to Him, but that they reckoned Him the only Teacher, Messiah, Saviour, to whom they could adhere”; (3) a “confidant avowal”—viz., that He had the words of eternal life; and (4) a “simple confession,” that they saw in Him none other than “the Holy One of God,”—God’s own incarnate Son.
Now, we should certainly be sorry to miss this side of the matter. Surely, the verse does contain, fundamentally, a confession of Peter’s and through him of the apostles’ faith; and assuredly this confession is, in contrast with the thought of Jesus entertained by the crowds which had been flocking to Him, a very noble confession, which explains why the twelve cleaved to Him in the midst of the general defection that had now set in. At bottom, this confession does mean that these men were seeking in Jesus satisfaction for spiritual and not carnal wants; and that they, therefore, understood Him incomparably better than the crowds of carnal men which had hitherto surrounded Him; and that, finding satisfaction in Him for their spiritual needs, they could not leave Him as the others left Him, however puzzlingly He spoke, but could not fail to recognize in Him the very consecrated messenger from God whom their hearts craved.
To mean this was, at that time and in those circumstances, to mean almost incredibly much. But it is not to mean everything. There is another side to the declaration, and this other side is obviously the side that was in John’s mind when he recorded it. For clearly he does not put it forward as a supreme confession, marking a complete appreciation of Jesus’ person and claims, and standing out, therefore, in startling and instructive contrast with the unbelief of others, to the manifestation of which the whole preceding chapter is consecrated—as exhibiting in a word the immense contrast of the fullness of the apostles’ faith and appreciation with the slowness or rather grossness of heart of the lesser followers of Christ. On the contrary, he presents it evidently as standing in contrast, indeed, with the unbelief and incapacity to believe of the others, and therefore marking out the apostles as Christ’s especially faithful followers; but as, nevertheless, exhibiting more fully the great crisis that had come into our Lord’s life by showing how, even among His closest companions, there existed no full appreciation of Him in His work and claims. When Jesus, out of the midst of the scenes that lay about Him, turned to this innermost circle of His followers with the sorrowful inquiry: “Surely ye too will not go away!”—Oh, the pathos of it!—He obtained no doubt a reassurance. No, they would cleave to Him. And this reassurance must have been a balm to His wounded human spirit. But the reassurance He obtained was so little to His mind, that He felt it necessary to meet it with a rebuke: “Was it not I that chose you—the twelve; and of you, one is diabolical!” This very confession was an element, thus, in the crisis through which He was passing, the manifestation of how little even those who were nearest to Him really understood Him or were ready to carry on His work.
Surely it will not be without its lessons to us to seek, without derogating from the essential nobility of the confession, to trace out also the elements of incompleteness that enter into it, and that make it less than what a confession of Christ ought to be.
First of all, then, we notice that there seems to be an element of boastfulness in this confession. This suggests itself by the obtrusion of the personal pronoun. We might read our English version and think of the emphasis falling on the believing and knowing which is asserted. We cannot so read the Greek. The emphasis falls rather on the “we.” “And as for us,” says Peter, “we at least” have believed. Peter is contrasting himself and his fellow apostles with others and priding himself on the contrast. We will remember that our Lord had just said. “The words that I have spoken unto you are spirit and are life; but there are of you some who do not believe.” Peter seems to swell with pride to think that he is not of these. Repeating his Master’s words, he says, “Thou hast words of eternal life, and as for us, we at least have believed!” You see Peter is Peter himself in this confession. How often do we find him pushing forward with his rash and boastful words. “That be far from Thee, Lord,” he cries on a similar occasion—to receive the sharp rebuff, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” “Although all shall stumble,” he had yet to boast on still another occasion, “yet will not I. If I must die with Thee, I will not deny Thee.” We all know with what sorrowful sequence. And so here; “As for us, we, at least, have believed.” We perceive the pride in his faith which dictated the words. And now we understand the sharpness of our Lord’s rebuke, with its emphasis on the personal pronoun. “You boast yourselves,” replies Jesus, “that you at least have believed—was it after all you that believed in Me, or I that chose you—the twelve? And even so, of you, one at least is a devil!” Poor Peter—always boasting and always getting the “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
How plain the lesson to us is. A warning, clear, sharp, overwhelming, against all spiritual pride. I am afraid that we too are prone to pride ourselves on what we have only received, as if by our own power we had done these things. There is nothing more unlovely than pride in spiritual things. Do we not feel it moving in us sometimes, however, in the precise form in which it attacked Peter here? Are we not inclined, not merely to felicitate ourselves, but also to boast ourselves that we have believed in Jesus, as if it were the mark of some peculiar excellence in us? But, brethren, if we do indeed believe, who, who is it that has made us thus to differ? Is it that we have believed, or that He, our Lord and Master, has chosen us? Surely it is not we but He who deserves the glory. Let the “Soli Deo Gloria” ring ceaselessly in our breasts. For, we may well believe it, not pride but humility is the root of the Christian life; not boasting of ourselves but glorying in God the Saviour is becoming in, us. God give us that small measure of humility which will be willing to acknowledge that it is of Him and not of ourselves that we are partakers of Christ. So shall we learn Peter’s lesson: “It is not ye that have believed, but I that have chosen!”
We notice in the second place that Peter’s confession in its form looks very much like what we may perhaps call a counsel of despair. “Lord, to whom shall we go,” he asks, “Thou hast words of eternal life?” Here, too, our English version may lead us astray as to the tone of the remark. There is no emphasis on the “Thou”; there, indeed, is no “Thou” at all in the Greek. Christ’s person, in other words, is not put prominently forward. It is rather conspicuously kept in the background. Neither is there any article to give significance to “words of eternal life.” We do not read “the words of eternal life” as if Peter recognized in Jesus’ words their supreme peculiarity, that they were themselves spirit and life. The phrase is purely general; Peter has found “words of eternal life” in Jesus’ talk; that is all. In fact, there is little more here than an echo of our Lord’s words a few verses earlier. Our Lord had declared that the words He had spoken were words of spirit and life; Peter echoes that Jesus’ words were words of eternal life. It is to his credit that he recognizes them as such; it shows that he is really at bottom spiritually-minded. But we cannot help feeling that—like echoes in general—there is some lack of substance in this. There appears to be exhibited acquiescence rather than intense conviction. Peter was, as a spiritually minded man, in search of spiritual nourishment; his heart was keyed to and set upon eternal things—the everlasting welfare of his soul rather than the temporal pleasure of his body. He finds satisfaction in Christ. He finds such satisfaction in Him as he had found in no one else. He cannot look with anything but dismay at losing Him. He recognizes Him as unique among the teachers of Israel and rejoices in Him as such. But there he seems as yet half inclined to stop. And to stop there is to stop fatally short of a true appreciation of Jesus. For there is something negative rather than positive attaching to this position. It would, doubtless, be going too far to say that it all amounts to no more than satisfying oneself with Jesus in the absence of a better. But there is a suggestion of such a state of mind in it. “Will you too leave me?” Jesus asks. “Why to whom should we go?” is the reply; “Thou hast words of eternal life.” There is no adequate entering into the supremeness of Jesus’ claims here; there is only a recognition that none better than He could be found. Now, it is not its uniqueness that makes a thing really precious to us. That is a negative attribute. It is the appreciation of the positive content of preciousness in anything which makes the thing unique—because nothing conceivable could surpass it or take its place.
It is well worth our while, brethren, to ask ourselves seriously to-day if we are perhaps ourselves adhering to Christ only because, and so far as, and while, we have no one else to go to? Is our reason for enrolling ourselves His summed up only in this—that we know no better? Well, it is certain that we shall never know a better. For a better does not and cannot exist. Because He is the Supremely Best. Better recognize this at once, however, and feel the uplift of His glory! “Christ and other Masters”—in collocation—is derogatory to Him. His uniqueness is absolute, not relative; and our attitude to it must be a positive and not a negative one. There is enthusiasm demanded here. Let us be bound to Christ by a true appreciation of what He actually is, and we will never question whether perchance we may not some time discover a better; and will never feel an impulse to express our devotion to Him in such words as these, “We must cling to Him because we know not to whom else to go.” No, no, we must cleave to Him because He is such that to separate from Him would be to separate from all that makes life worth living, all that gilds this world or blesses the next. This is the attitude that does justice not to what we would fain find in Him but to what He really is.
And this leads us to notice an element of (shall we say?) selfishness in Peter’s confession. Peter adheres to Jesus because—so he says—he does not know where else to find the blessings which Peter wants. Now Peter was a spiritually-minded man and he was not seeking earthly but heavenly good. This is great to his credit. It shows a high and noble nature, with high and noble aspirations, living on a high and noble plane, above all the dross which satisfies so many men. But it is possible to be selfish even on this high plane, and a dash of this selfishness seems to show itself in Peter’s confession. He cleaves to Christ, for what reason? Because his longing for words of eternal life is satisfied by Christ. It would be going too far to say that Peter clung to Christ for what, as the coarse saying goes, he could get out of Him. But this coarse language hints at the true state of the case. Surely we will feel that there is something lacking in this attitude, the attitude which cleaves to Jesus because we do not, know where else to go to obtain what we want, even though we want the highest good—eternal life itself. Does it not place it on a distinctly lower plane than that fine self-abandonment which cleaves to another, like Ruth to Naomi, out of pure appreciation and love? Think of Ruth and think of Peter: do not we feel that Ruth was living on a higher plane?
Now, I am not going to preach to you the gospel of “disinterested love” in the sense of the mystics. You all know the fine story of the vision of a woman going forth with fire and water, to burn up heaven and put out hell, that men may hereafter love God neither for fear of hell nor for desire for heaven, but for His Lovely Self alone. We feel the inspiration of it. But we feel doubtless that there is something a little too absolute in its antithesis. There is a proper self-seeking—a proper place for self-love—to which Jesus Himself appeals, and which should be operative to draw us to Him. It is not wrong, but distinctly right, to long for heaven and to fear hell. And that we find all the higher wants of our souls satisfied in Christ is surely no mean commendation of Him to us. The desire for eternal life is no low longing. He who can supply this desire is worthy of our adherence and love.
There is assuredly a place in life for all these things. But after all, they are not quite the highest things. They are the things with which we should begin, not those with which we should end. Let us come to Christ for our own sakes—for our own sakes how can we not come to Him!—but when, having come to Him for our own sakes, we find all that He is, let us learn to love Him and, cleave to Him for His own sake. For His own sake, because He is altogether lovely and One to be desired above our chief joy. Why, even in these earthly unions, which we call marriage, we take the loved one “for better, for worse.” Shall we take Jesus only for better? And should the worse come to the worst, are we to leave Him and seek some other one who seems to us to have words of eternal life? There is a sense, let us try to understand that, in which it would be better, infinitely better, to perish with Jesus, than to live without Him. Thank God, such an alternative can never occur. With Him is life, and nothing but life; life ever more and more abundantly. But it is well worth our while to distinguish and to see that we love Him and cleave to Him, not merely for the life that is in Him for us, but for all the glorious perfections that are in Him Himself.
To do this we must, of course, know Him as He is and in all that He is. And here we see the final flaw in Peter’s confession. He had not yet come to know Christ fully. And that is, doubtless, the ultimate reason of all the other shortcomings we have found in it. Had he known Christ fully, he never would or could have confessed Him only thus—with a boastful spirit as if he had found Christ out instead of having been found by Him; with half-hearted zeal as if He were only the best he had yet found; and with a somewhat selfish outlook as if it were only because he could obtain from Him satisfaction for his felt needs. I am not blaming Peter for not yet knowing Christ better. It rather is wonderful, when all is considered, that he knew Him actually so well, and was ready boldly to declare Him, in the face of all, to be “God’s Holy One.” It was a great thing for Peter to have seen this clearly; and a great thing for him to have been ready to announce it in the presence of the great defection which was going on at the moment. Herein lies the nobility of this noble confession. But there is a great deal more than this to be known and confessed about Jesus, and Peter afterward learned it.
The point of importance to us is, Have we learned it? We may be quite sure that our whole attitude to Christ will turn on the fullness and the intimacy with which we know Him. We have no such excuses as Peter had for not knowing Christ in all the fullness of His Being and all the splendor of His Nature. Surely, He must, for instance, be something more to us than “the Holy One of God”—“God’s saint”—that is to say, no doubt, by way of eminence, the one whom God has chosen and consecrated and endowed for His service. We have seen how in Peter’s case even, such a knowledge of Him did not suffice to make a full confession. And surely He must be something more to us than “the historical Christ”—especially if we begin to doubt or bicker over what history it is that we will accept as a trustworthy account of this “historical Christ.” Christ the Teacher, Christ the Example, Christ the Founder of the Kingdom of God, Christ the King—surely He must be something much more than even all these to us if we are to confess Him aright. The historical Christ, yes, but also the exalted Christ. Christ our Prophet, yes, and Christ our King; but also Christ our Priest and Christ our Sacrifice. Christ that died and also Christ that rose again. The Son of Man and also the Son of God. To Peter as yet, He was not all these things, though Peter was feeling His way towards them. To us, He is all these things, and more, even Christ, the All in All. Ah, brethren, if we could only see Him in His beauty, how our hearts would go out to Him! No boastful, half-hearted, selfish confession then! Only adoration and joy and unspeakable satisfaction in Him! Let us see and know and confess Him, as He is, and in all that He is!
By Benjamin B. Warfield