Peter started to reach Jesus before the rest, disdaining, as it appears, to go by boat, because of the incomparable fervour and admirable zeal of his love towards Christ. Therefore He comes first to land, and draws up the net; for he was always an impressionable man, easily excited to enthusiasm both in speech and action. Therefore, also, he first made confession of faith when the Saviour put to them the inquiry in the parts of Caesarea Philippi, saying: Who do men say that I the Son of Man am? And of the other disciples some said Elijah, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. But when Christ put the further question to them: But Who say ye that I am? Peter took the lead, and becoming spokesman for the rest, hastened to reply: Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. Moreover, when the band of soldiers came, together with the officers of the Jews, to take Jesus away to the rulers, the rest all left Him and fled, but Peter struck off Malchus’ ear with a sword. For he thought it right by every means in his power to defend his Master, though the attack that he made was in fact altogether displeasing to Him. As, therefore, he came more impetuously than the rest, Christ puts to him the question whether he loved Him more than they, and repeated it three times; and Peter answers in the affirmative, and confesses his love for Him, saying that Christ Himself was a witness to his state of mind. And, after each confession, he heard Christ telling him in different words to take thought of His sheep, as He calls mankind in the parable.
And I think (for I say that we ought to search out the hidden meaning that is here implied) that these words were not written without a purpose, but the saying is pregnant with meaning, and the sense of the passage contains something more than meets the eye. May not someone reasonably ask, Why is it that Christ only asks Simon, though the other disciples were present? And what is the meaning of the words, Feed My lambs, and the like? We reply, that the inspired Peter had indeed already been elected, together with the other disciples, to be an Apostle of God (for our Lord Jesus Christ Himself named them Apostles, according to the Scripture), but, when the events connected with the plot of the Jews against Him came to pass, his fall came betwixt; for the inspired Peter was seized with uncontrollable fear, and thrice denied the Lord.
Christ succours His erring disciple, and elicits by divers questions his thrice-repeated confession, counterbalancing, as it were, his error thereby, and making his recovery as signal as his fall. For a transgression which was verbal, and only in mere words supplied ground of accusation against him, could surely be wiped out in the same fashion as it was committed. He requires him to say whether he loved Him more than the rest. For in truth, as he had enjoyed a greater measure of forgiveness, and received from a more bountiful Hand the remission of his transgression, surely he would be likely to feel greater love than the rest, and requite his Benefactor with the extremity of affection. For although all the holy disciples alike betook themselves to flight, the inhumanity of the Jews inspiring them with a terror that they could not overcome, and the ferocity of the soldiers threatening them with cruel death when they came to take Jesus, still Peter’s transgression by his thrice-repeated denial was special and peculiar to him.
Therefore, as he had received a greater measure of forgiveness than the rest, he is asked to tell Christ whether he loved Him more; for, as the Saviour Himself said, he to whom most is forgiven will also love much. Herein, also, is a type given to the. Churches, that they ought thrice to ask for a confession of Christ from those who have chosen to love Him by coming to Him in Holy Baptism. And, by dwelling on this passage, instructors in religion may arrive at the knowledge that they cannot please the Chief Shepherd, that is Christ, unless they take thought for the health of the sheep of His fold, and their continuance in well-being.
Such was the inspired Paul, who shared the infirmities of his weak brethren, and called those who through him believed, and chose to gain repute by the glory of their deeds, the boast, and joy, and crown of his apostleship. For he knew that this was the visible fruit of love for Christ. And this, if he reason well and justly, any one may perceive. For if He died for us, surely He must esteem the salvation and life of us all as deserving of all care. And if they who sin against the brethren, and wound their conscience when it is weak, in truth sin against Christ; surely it is true to say, that they are doing the Lord Himself service who take, as it were, by the hand the mind of those who have been admitted to the faith, and who are expected to be called to perfection therein, and are eager to stablish them firmly in the faith, by every help that they can offer.
Therefore, by his thrice-repeated confession the thrice-repeated denial of the blessed Peter was done away, and by the saying of our Lord, “Feed my lambs,” we must understand a renewal as it were of the apostleship, already given unto him, washing away the disgrace of his fall that came betwixt, and obliterating his faint-heartedness, that arose from human infirmity.