18 Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” 19 This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.”
20 Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper, and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” 21 Peter, seeing him, said to Jesus, “But Lord, what about this man?”
22 Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”
What would you do if you could see the future? If you knew how many years you had to live in this life, how would you spend them?
This information is something that each of us desires in some way or another. If you knew–were guaranteed–that you would live into old age, you would doubtless spend your time on this earth in a bold and exciting manner. You would view risk differently seize opportunities to better your life and the lives of those you love. This, in many ways, would be anyone’s ultimate dream.
Now suppose that along with this wonderful, empowering news that you would make it to a ripe old age, you were also given the details of your fate.
A fate worse than death.
There would be no peaceful deathbed passing with beloved family members gathered around you to share memories and to bid you goodbye as you drift off into glory.
Instead you are given a description of your death by slow torture. The agony and the pain of which is fresh in your mind–for you have just witnessed your closest and dearest friend suffer and die in exactly the same manner.
How would you handle this news? Maybe you would panic. Perhaps you would simply deny it, put it out of your mind, and determine this will not really happen. Somehow, in some way to change the course of the future for a happier ending.
This is the information that Peter receives in the last chapter of the Gospel of John. The One delivering the news is none other than the Lamb of God who has Himself suffered and died in the same manner as he foretells to Peter–and yet walks the earth once again in flesh and bone.
For Peter, the news comes along with some of the sweetest words he has ever heard, for even after he denied his Lord three times, he has just been restored by the One whom he had betrayed. For the believer, pain can be mixed with the sweetest joy of all–the joy of being in the presence of Christ from now through all eternity.
Jesus has met His disciples on the shore after a night of fruitless fishing and a miracle and a hot breakfast later Jesus turns His attention on Peter.
Peter, the impetuous, passionate disciple. In one thrilling moment he will lie to a young girl about knowing Jesus and then in another moment, leap from a boat into the water to swim to his savior.
This bright morning on the lakeshore, Jesus restores Peter:
“Peter, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.”
This is more than an attempt at reconciliation between two friends. This is a look at the rest of Peter’s life. Now that Peter has professed his love for Christ not once but three times–once for each denial–Jesus lays out what the cost of this love will mean for the plain-spoken fisherman He loves so dearly:
18 Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.”–John 21:18
Jesus does not mix words with Peter here. He is blunt in telling him what a life of following Him will mean. He is telling Peter that to be a light-bearer in a world darkened by sin will mean that the forces of darkness will seek to extinguish that light–and any who carries it.
As the evil Saruman boasts to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, the Black Riders will go forth to “…find the Ring… and kill the one who carries it.”
It is no secret that Satan desires no less for those who bear Christ in their hearts and the gospel on their lips–and he has a special hatred for the Galilean fisherman:
31 And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat.–Luke 22:31
I have an old “Hoosier cabinet” in the kitchen. This tall white cupboard was a popular piece of American furniture in the 1930’s. One feature is a metal bin it contained for sifting the roughly–refined flour of its time. Within the bin, steel parts grind when a crank is turned, and flour is forced through a wire mesh in fine powder.
It is not hard to imagine the joy the Devil gets when a believer is put through the turmoil of this sinful life. He rejoices on Calvary as the darkness gathers and the Son of God breathes His last–and then quails when he knows that the tomb has opened and his victory dissolves like morning mist.
Jesus’s words on verse 18 seem odd to us. It is strange that Jesus, who is plain spoken to His plain–spoken disciple, takes a moment to seemingly speak in riddles. But Peter knows what the words “…you will stretch out your hands…” mean. One commentator reveals that this phrase is a euphemism for crucifixion in the Roman world.
Jesus is telling Peter that one day his rough fisherman’s hands will be “stretched out” on a cross–just as His carpenter’s hands were stretched and nailed to cross not two weeks before.
Peter’s hair stands on end. He remembers the agony, the screams of his Teacher–the tearing of His flesh and the dripping of His holy blood. The group of disciples eating breakfast by the fire has fallen silent. There is nothing but the small whisper of waves lapping at the shore.
Later, John would ponder and remember these words:
19 This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God.–John 21:19a
When these words are penned it is some thirty years after Peter’s martyrdom. John remembers his dear friend and the accounts of the events leading to his murder by the state–for proclaiming the Gospel.
Tradition has it that Peter, upon being arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Emperor Nero asked to be crucified upside down, lest his death seek to overshadow that of his Lord. There is no biblical evidence for this account, only the writings of early church fathers.
One of these, Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215 A.D.), writing a century after Peter’s crucifixion, offers another sobering bit of information: that Peter’s wife may have been executed with him, with Peter being forced to see:
They say, accordingly, that the blessed Peter, on seeing his wife led to death, rejoiced on account of her call and conveyance home, and called very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, "Remember thou the Lord." Such was the marriage of the blessed and their perfect disposition towards those dearest to them.–Clement, Stromata, Book 7
The rough-hewn Galilean fisherman, who had seen his Saviour put to death in the Roman way, may have also later witnessed the death of his own beloved wife for believing in the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Jesus knows all of this. He sees the look in His friend’s eye:
And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.”–John 21:19b
And so Peter gets up and follows Jesus–figuratively and literally. A stroll down the beach together become the first steps of a lifetime of service, service even unto death.
Could you do this? I shudder when I think of what it can really mean to follow Jesus in this world. I feel certain that in my soft world I will never be called upon to consider following Jesus just to die–or witness my own wife or children enduring death as followers of Christ.
Christians in the west have it so good. Most churches struggle over issues like which music to play during worship or how to make the budget balance for next year if new carpeting needs to be installed. Modern Christians can often be more concerned with the petty jealousies and slights that come from associating together than for the spiritual or even physical well being one another.
There is a moment of this on the beach that morning:
20 Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper, and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” 21 Peter, seeing him, said to Jesus, “But Lord, what about this man?”–John 21:20-21
John has begun to follow Jesus and Peter and Peter appears to become annoyed by this. Maybe he is jealous of Jesus’s and John’s closeness. An old rivalry between friends and fishermen, perhaps now rears its head among disciples.
Jesus will have none of this. He is abrupt and brings Peter’s attention back into focus:
22 Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”–John 21:22
“Never mind him,” Jesus is saying, “you and I have our own work.” You follow me.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? Peter gets a glimpse of the ultimate price he will pay for doing so–but you are not given that deep of knowledge about your own future. Peter receives that wonderful, terrible news and goes on to become a leader in the early church. Peter is not a perfect disciple. He makes many mistakes in years to come, including yielding to legalists over eating with Gentiles–until the Apostle Paul confronts him publicly (Galatians 2:11-12).
Following Jesus does not mean that you must be perfect or to try to stand out as the best believer in church. The lesson that Jesus is teaching the headstrong Peter is that his own towering confidence in himself is a fleeting, worldly thing. In time the self-confident, ego-driven disciple would have to rely on others–even to the point of being led to a martyr’s death.
Peter’s desire to control his world, his fate and even his service to Jesus is really an illusion.
Time travel books and movies are a favorite subject in our culture. As I prepare to publish this it is November 5th or “Back to the Future Day.” In the movie Back to the Future, Marty McFly travels back in time from 1985 to November 5, 1955 and inadvertently changes the course of history when he bumps into his future parents. An adventure amid time paradoxes ensues as Marty races the clock to ensure that his parents meet–lest he and his siblings cease to exist in the future.
Is this not how you sometimes see the Christian life? You scramble through your days, making plans and trying to get things "just right" so that the future will work out perfectly.
Peter chooses not to fight the future. Perhaps he tucks this knowledge into the back of his mind so as to not dwell on the fear of such a death–or perhaps Peter sees in this the incredible, humbling gift that it is. No matter his mistakes–his slow wit, his lack of conviction, and passionate clumsiness–he is assured of his home in heaven.
What a glorious thing! This then is your true hope in this passage: that no matter your own errors, mistakes and sinful struggles, if you believe and trust in Jesus then your home too will be found in heaven–even if it means the price of your very life. In the words of the martyr, Jim Elliot:
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.–Jim Elliott
Can you give up what you cannot keep, to gain what you cannot lose? Can you give up your jealousy of other believers to gain a better understanding of how God may be using you? Can you give up your own desire to control your life, your family–or even your own safety–to seek to go where He may lead you? Even if it meant your own death?
There is a scene in the movie 300, an account of the Spartan defense of Thermopylae against the vast Persian army in 400 B.C. King Leonidas and his men are eventually betrayed by a fellow Greek, the hunchback, Ephialtes and surrounded by the enemy. Ephialtes implores Leonidas to surrender so that he and the lives of his men will be spared. To Leonidas, the proud warrior-king of Sparta, death is preferable to the dishonor of surrender to a godless enemy. He looks at his betrayer and says:
This is the ultimate Spartan insult: that Ephialtes would live with the guilt of his actions for the rest of his life rather than receive the glorious death on the battlefield that all Spartans desire.
Peter's death too, would be a glorious victory in Christ: a life of faith until the very end. He knew from that day on that he would not live forever in the sense in which most people aimlessly move through their lives with little thought of death. For Peter, death was always somewhere on the horizon. Perhaps this thought energized him to greater service, so that the death of Jesus would live in him so that others could have eternal life.
As John MacArthur writes:
Peter’s life could be summed up in the final words of his second epistle: “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) That’s exactly what Simon did, and why he became Rock–the great leader of the early church.–John MacArthur, “Twelve Ordinary Men”
You will not live forever. Will you do as Peter did? Will you live your days growing in grace and in the knowledge of Christ? Your forever life with Jesus begins today, until He calls you home.
The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:
The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:
Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.
the knowledge of Christ? Your forever life with Jesus begins today, until He calls you home.