Augustine of Hippo
ON THE SAME WORDS OF THE GOSPEL OF JOHN XXI. 15, "SIMON, SON OF JOHN, LOVEST THOU ME MORE THAN THESE?" ETC.
1. YE remember that the Apostle Peter, the first of all the Apostles, was disturbed at the Lord's Passion. Of his own self disturbed, but by Christ renewed. For he was first a bold presumer, and became afterwards a timid denier. He had promised that he would die for the Lord, when the Lord was first to die for him. When he said then, "I will be with Thee even unto death," and "I will lay down my life for Thee;" the Lord answered him, "Wilt thou lay down thy life for Me? Verily I say unto thee, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny Me thrice." They came to the hour; and because that Christ was God, and Peter a man, the Scripture was fulfilled, "I said in my panic, Every man is a liar." And the Apostle says, "For God is true, and every man a liar." Christ true, Peter a liar.
2. But what now? The Lord asketh him as ye heard when the Gospel was being read, and saith to him, "Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me more than these?" He answered and said, "Yea Lord Thou knowest that I love Thee." And again the Lord asked this question, and a third time He asked it. And when he asserted in reply his love, He commended to him the flock. For each several time the Lord Jesus said to Peter, as he said, "I love thee;" "Feed My lambs," feed My "little sheep." In this one Peter was figured the unity of all pastors, of good pastors, that is, who know that they feed Christ's sheep for Christ, not for themselves. Was Peter at this time a liar, or did he answer untruly that he loved the Lord? He made this answer truly; for he made answer of that which he saw in his own heart. Whereas when he said, "I will lay down my life for Thee," he would presume on future strength. Now every man knows it may be what sort of man he is at the time when he is speaking; what he shall be on the morrow, who knows? So then Peter turned back his eyes to his own heart, when he was asked by the Lord, and in confidence made answer of what he saw there: "'Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee.' What I tell Thee, Thou knowest; what I see here in my heart, Thou seest also." Nevertheless, he did not venture to say what the Lord had asked. For the Lord had not simply said, "Lovest Thou me?" but had added, "Lovest thou Me more than these?" that is, "Lovest thou Me more than these here do?" He was speaking of the other disciples; Peter could not say ought but, "I love Thee;" he did not venture to say, "more than these." He would not be a liar a second time. It were enough for him to bear testimony to his own heart; it was no duty of his to be judge of the heart of others.
3. Peter then was true; or rather was Christ true in Peter? Now when the Lord Jesus Christ would, He abandoned Peter, and Peter was found a man; but when it so pleased the Lord Jesus Christ, He filled Peter, and Peter was found true. The Rock (Petra) made Peter true, for the Rock was Christ. And what did He announce to him, when he answered a third time that he loved Christ, and a third time the Lord commended His little sheep to Peter? He announced to him beforehand his suffering. "When thou wast young," saith He, "thou girdedst thyself, and wentest whither thou wouldest; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thine hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not." The Evangelist hath explained to us Christ's meaning. "This spake He," saith he, "signifying by what death he should glorify God;" that is that he was crucified for Christ; for this is, "Thou shalt stretch forth thine hands." Where now is that denier? Then after this the Lord Christ said, "Follow Me." Not in the same sense as before, when he called the disciples. For then too He said, "Follow Me;" but then to instruction, now to a crown. Was he not afraid to be put to death when he denied Christ? He was afraid to suffer that which Christ suffered. But now he must be afraid no more. For he saw Him now Alive in the Flesh, whom he had seen hanging on the Tree. By His Resurrection Christ took away the fear of death; and forasmuch as He had taken away the fear of death, with good reason did He enquire of Peter's love. Fear had thrice denied, love thrice confessed.
The threefoldness of denial, the forsaking of the Truth; the threefoldhess of confession, the testimony of love.