A New Look at John 21 (and being led where one doesn’t want to go)

Text for contemplation:  John 21

Jesus appears again to the disciples

21 Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. This is how it happened: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus[a] ), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”

They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing. 4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus.

5 Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”    They answered him, “No.”

6 He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. 7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.

9 When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” 11 Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Jesus and Peter

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.” 19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”

Jesus and the disciple whom he loved

20 Peter turned around and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. This was the one who had leaned against Jesus at the meal and asked him, “Lord, who is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw this disciple, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”

22 Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain until I come, what difference does that make to you? You must follow me.” 23 Therefore, the word spread among the brothers and sisters that this disciple wouldn’t die. However, Jesus didn’t say he wouldn’t die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what difference does that make to you?” 24 This is the disciple who testifies concerning these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. 25 Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.

Reflection:

I happened to be directed to this chapter after a friend and I had a conversation as we sat for the better part of 7 hours last week for her mother to have a procedure at the hospital.  She and I both find ourselves increasingly in caregiving roles with our aging mothers.  She asked me about the scripture that mentioned growing old and being led where one doesn’t want to go.  I had my computer and was able to quickly look it up on a popular Bible search website.

We discussed the scripture in the context of the chapter, but noted how its words, taken at face value,

 

18  I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.  19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” (verse 18-19)

 

 

could absolutely reflect the way that our mothers probably both would feel, if we discussed it with them.  Furthermore, we affirmed that there will likely come a day when we will feel that way as we, too, are led to things that we would not have chosen for ourselves. 

And so, my pondering of this verse and this chapter began………

The footnotes in my Wesley study Bible say that this verse is prophetic in describing Peter’s death as a martyr. 

As I have read and re-read this chapter, I am led to believe that this is not the case.  Jesus is, in fact, describing the kind of death that will glorify God, but it is not the death of the body, I believe, to which Christ refers.  Jesus is, I believe, describing the death of Peter’s strong and rebellious will…..which has often been a problem for him in his discipleship.  

Peter’s will has to absolutely come under complete authority of Christ….described as a mature faith that “stretching out” its hands and having a belt tied around him and being led where he didn’t want to go.  This is a disciple totally in bondage to the will of Christ.

As one called to full time ministry, I know this requirement that Christ has made in my life and I believe that all of us, when we are called to meaningful vocational ministry in Christ’s name, must surrender completely our will to the point of being “led where we don’t want to go.”  It is this kind of death of the individual’s will, trusting entirely in Christ’s leading, however uncomfortable it may be, that will ultimately glorify God most greatly, not the ignominious physical death of martyrdom, even upside down on a cross. 

In this chapter, Jesus restores Simon Peter, the disgraced, unfaithful, betraying disciple and re-issues his call to him to take up the task that Christ is leaving in the disciples’ hands…..that of shepherding the flock.  But Christ is also making it clear that Peter will be under orders, apprenticed to Christ Himself, the Chief Shepherd, in the task, required to surrender completely to Christ’s will in the work.

John’s words “He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me,”  fit much more coherently into this chapter’s message when interpreted in the light of a spiritual “death” to self-will and the immediate call to “follow me”, which is the second time Christ has given the opportunity to Peter to come into Christ’s service   (John 1: 40-42).  This time Peter is much more aware of exactly what is to be required of him…..full and complete surrender,  leading  him to places he doesn’t want to go, even unto death, for the cause of Christ.  It is the full measure of surrender of Peter which glorifies God, not the martyr’s death itself. 

Jesus’ words are often rich with depth of meaning which, if viewed only from the literal and superficial sense, leaves one wondering about such sayings, but if viewed in the larger thematic context and from a spiritual sense, make immensely more cohesive sense. 

 

 

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