The smiting of the Shepherd was to be the signal not only of the momentary scattering of the sheep, but of the birth of persecution down all the Christian ages.  So our Lord, who was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, and "was moved with compassion because they were distressed and scattered as sheep not having a shepherd" (Matt. 9: 36), quotes the great prophecy of Zechariah (13: 7) - "Awake, O sword, against my shepherd" - on the threshold of Gethsemane; and couples with the quotation His own absolute prophecy of the coming fall of all the Apostles:- "All ye shall be offended in me this night" (Matt. 26: 31).  Christian persecution was born that night.




Simultaneously, our Lord, as recorded in Luke, discloses the deeply buried reason of all persecution, and at once singles out the one character whose career was to be the Church’s lesson in persecution for all time.  He says:- "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan asked to have you [apostles]" - and it has been granted to him - "that he might SIFT YOU AS WHEAT" (Luke 22: 31). Persecution is deliberately sanctioned by God, in order that Satan, acting as a winnowing-fan, may so shake the wheat in the sieve as to separate ripe grain from chaffy grain; and our Lord puts Peter on record as for ever the embodiment of a sifted soul. A chief apostle; a believer in prophesied calamity; passionately set on distinguishing himself in the coming crisis; struck by the storm; a public apostate; a glorious martyr.




First, therefore, Peter embodies for all time the colossal blunder of self-confidence, in an extraordinary revelation for us all, for we are all potential Peters.  He replies:- "Even if I must die with thee, yet will I not deny thee" (Matt. 26: 33).  The Lord says:- "I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, until thou shalt THRICE DENY THAT THOU KNOWEST ME" (Luke 22: 34): before this day has gone, you publicly, deliberately, have become a triple apostate.  Peter is without question a sample of myriads of believers down the Christian centuries: no higher Apostle existed in the morning; a public, self-confessed apostate before the cock crew.




But Calvary is now over; the lesson of self-distrust been burnt in by fire; and now our Lord takes the unique course of disclosing a future martyrdom to complete the picture.  Christ, who had so explicitly foretold the apostasy, as explicitly now foretells a peculiarly glorious martyrdom.  "When thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands" - they shall be stretched upon a cross - "and another shall gird thee" - with binding ligatures - "and carry thee whither thou wouldest not" (John 21: 18); for even our Saviour, before His cross said:- "Remove this cup from me." Tertullian says that both Paul and Peter were martyred at Rome, and both by Nero - the coming Antichrist, who will be re-embodied for the last persecutions; and Origen tells us that Peter - saying that he was not worthy to die as his Lord died - was, at his own request, crucified head downwards. So the Lord foreshows crucifixion, signifying by what manner of death he should glorify God.  A boy was seen walking home after a martyr had been burnt at Smithfield.  Someone said to him:- "boy, why were you there?" "Sir," he replied, "I want [to] learn the way."




Now we get our golden lesson.  Our Lord, embodying in Peter a concrete case for the Church of all time, by his three piercing, probing questions not only discloses the antidote to the threefold denial, but reveals that which alone can carry us through martyrdom.  He plugs home this one question - "LOVEST THOU ME?" - three times to find what rank we give to His love; for all your collapse, Peter, arose from a lack of sufficient love for your Saviour and it is love, and love alone, which will carry us through.  "Lovest thou me?"  The Lord does not ask, "Simon, how much hast thou wept, or, how bitterly?" or, "How much hast thou fasted, or afflicted thy soul?" but, what exactly is the depth of your love for your Lord?  The lesson for us is beyond rubies.  Not mastery of theology, not a passion for reward, not a hatred of sin, not evangelistic or missionary fervour, not love for our fellow believers - not in these, lovely as they are, is the root of martyrdom: the master-anchor of the martyred soul is a deep, personal love for Christ.*


[*It is extremely valuable that our Lord Himself has defined who it is that loves Him:- "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me" (John 14: 21).  This discloses the gravity of the teaching that Christ’s commandments, in the Gospels and the Apocalypse, are ‘Jewish’ and not for us at all.]




The first of our Lord’s three questions is acutely important.  Lovest thou me MORE THAN THESE? Do you so love Me that you can follow Me alone?  Can you sacrifice all other love for mine?  "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10: 37).  Strong men, mature believers, can tremble and grow white when confronted with a choice between some shibboleth of their group and Scripture - that is, Christ.  So Paul had exactly our Lord’s experience: of Christ we read - "They all forsook him and fled" (Mark 14: 50); and of Paul, just before his martyrdom - "All forsook me" (2 Tim. 4: 16).  There is not an ecclesiastical group in the world to-day, whether Roman or Greek or Protestant, to break - or be broken - from which for conscience’ sake is not one of the sorest trials a child of God can experience.  Simon, lovest thou me more than these, the nearest and dearest you have on earth?




So now we have the deeply sanctified character emerging out of persecution.  What a profoundly different Peter we behold! Before his fall, it was a proud confidence - "If all shall be offended in thee, I shall never be offended:" now it is a heart-cry - "Lord, thou knowest all things" - I cannot hide my heart from Thee even if I would, and I rely on Thy omniscience rather than on my own feelings - "Thou knowest that I love thee."  He is silent on everything now, except his love.  Christ can forgive us sins for which we can never forgive ourselves.  The Lord is so perfectly contented with the answer, He so completely admits the appeal to His omniscience, that without the giving assent by a word, He draws the veil from the only martyrdom ever revealed years, nay, decades, beforehand; * and so deeply has He forgiven Peter, so dearly does He love him, so thoroughly does He now trust him, that He gives into his hands the greatest treasure God has on earth, "the flock of God which he purchased with his own blood".


[* Peter was crucified in A.D. 64]




So now we reach the final staggering word: "FOLLOW ME."  What a religion is ours!  Christ lifts up a cross before Peter’s eyes, and says, Follow me, and Peter follows him.  Who then is this that gives such commands?  A phrase which the Lord omitted to quote answers:- "Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against THE MAN THAT IS MY FELLOW, saith the Lord of hosts" (Zech. 13: 7)*  Peter was right when he said :- "Lord, thou knowest all things": for Christ had known that before a cock crew the apostle would deny Him thrice: and He knew, thirty years before it happened, Peter’s martyrdom by an extremely rare death.  Follow Me for thirty years more of golden service: follow Me in the production of letters which shall enrich the Church for nearly two thousand years: follow Me up the Hill of Golgotha: follow Me into the only class which, as such, is distinguished in the Kingdom (Rev. 20: 4) - the martyrs.  The love of Christ triumphs over every conceivable difficulty.  Samuel Rutherford, writing from prison in Aberdeen three centuries ago, languishing there, persecuted for his faith, ended one of his letters with this sentence:- "Jesus Christ came into my prison cell last night, and even stone in it glowed like a ruby."


[* "Jewish commentators themselves have admitted that the word amithi (my fellow) implies equality with God; only, since they own not Him who was God and Man, they must interpret it of a false claim on the part of man, overlooking that it is God Himself who thus speaks of the Shepherd of His text" (David Baron).]