18.Verily, verily, I tell thee. After having exhorted Peter to feed his sheep, Christ likewise arms him to maintain the warfare which was approaching. Thus he demands from him not only faithfulness and diligence, but invincible courage in the midst of dangers, and firmness in bearing the cross. In short, he bids him be prepared for enduring death whenever it shall be necessary. Now, though the condition of all pastors is not alike, still this admonition applies to all in some degree. The Lord spares many, and abstains from shedding their blood, satisfied with this alone, that they devote themselves to him sincerely and unreservedly as long as they live. But as Satan continually makes new and various attacks, all who undertake the office of feeding must be prepared for death; as they certainly have to do not only with sheep, but also with wolves. So far as relates to Peter, Christ intended to forewarn him of his death, that he might at all times ponder the thought, that the doctrine of which he was a minister must be at length ratified by his own blood. Yet it appears that in these words Christ did not speak with a view to Peter alone, but that he adorned him with the honourable title of Martyr in presence of the others; as if he had said, that Peter would be a very different kind of champion from what he had formerly shown himself to be.
When thou wast younger. Old age appears to be set apart for tranquillity and repose; and, accordingly, old men are usually discharged from public employments, and soldiers are discharged from service. Peter might, therefore, have promised to himself at that age a peaceful life. Christ declares, on the other hand, that the order of nature will be inverted, so that he who had lived at his ease when he was young will be governed by the will of another when he is old, and will even endure violent subjection.
In Peter we have a striking mirror of our ordinary condition. Many have an easy and agreeable life before Christ calls them; but as soon as they have made profession of his name, and have been received as his disciples, or, at least, some time afterwards, they are led to distressing struggles, to a troublesome life, to great dangers, and sometimes to death itself. This condition, though hard, must be patiently endured. Yet the Lord moderates the cross by which he is pleased to try his servants, so that he spares them a little while, until their strength has come to maturity; for he knows well their weakness, and beyond the measure of it he does not press them. Thus he forbore with Peter, so long as he saw him to be as yet tender and weak. Let us therefore learn to devote ourselves to him to the latest breath, provided that he supply us with strength.
In this respect, we behold in many persons base ingratitude; for the more gently the Lord deals with us, the more thoroughly do we habituate ourselves to softness and effeminacy. Thus we scarcely find one person in a hundred who does not murmur if, after having experienced long forbearance, he be treated with some measure of severity. But we ought rather to consider the goodness of God in sparing us for a time. Thus Christ says that, so long as he dwelt on earth, he conversed cheerfully with his disciples, as if he had been present at a marriage, but that fasting and tears afterwards awaited them, (235) (Mat_9:15.)
Another will gird thee. Many think that this denotes the manner of death which Peter was to die, (236) meaning that he was hanged, with his arms stretched out; but I consider the word gird as simply denoting all the outward actions by which a man regulates himself and his whole life. Thou girdedst thyself; that is, “ wast accustomed to wear such raiment as thou chosest, but this liberty of choosing thy dress will be taken from thee.” As to the manner in which Peter was put to death, it is better to remain ignorant of it than to place confidence in doubtful fables.
And will lead thee whither thou wouldst not. The meaning is, that Peter did not die a natural death, but by violence and by the sword. It may be thought strange that Christ should say that Peter’ death will not be voluntary; for, when one is hurried unwillingly to death, there is no firmness and none of the praise of martyrdom. But this must be understood as referring to the contest between the flesh and the Spirit, which believers feel within themselves; for we never obey God in a manner so free and unrestrained as not to be drawn, as it were, by ropes, in an opposite direction, by the world and the flesh. Hence that complaint of Paul,
“ good that I would I do not, but the evil that I would not, that I do,”
Besides, it ought to be observed, that the dread of death is naturally implanted in us, for to wish to be separated from the body is revolting to nature. Accordingly, Christ, though he was prepared to obey God with his whole heart, prays that he may be delivered from death. Moreover, Peter dreaded the cross on account of the cruelty of men; and, therefore, we need not wonder if, in some measure, he recoiled from death. But this showed the more clearly the obedience which he rendered to God, that he would willingly have avoided death on its own account, and yet he endured it voluntarily, because he knew that such was the will of God; for if there had not been a struggle of the mind, there would have been no need of patience.
This doctrine is highly useful to be known; for it urges us to prayer, because we would never be able, without extraordinary assistance from God, to conquer the fear of death; and, therefore, nothing remains for us but to present ourselves humbly to God, and to submit to his government. It serves also to sustain our minds, that they may not altogether faint, if it happen at any time that persecutions make us tremble. They who imagine that the martyrs were not moved by any fear make their own fear to yield them a ground of despair. But there is no reason why our weakness should deter us from following their example, since they experienced a fear similar to ours, so that they could not gain a triumph over the enemies of truth but by contending with themselves.
(235) “Mais qu’ faloit puis apres qu’ se preparassent, pleurer et jeuner;” — “ that afterwards they must be prepared to weep and fast.”