“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”” (John 21:18–19, ESV)
Jesus lays out for Peter here what following him will cost Peter. In short, it will cost him everything, even his life. “When you were young, “says Jesus, “you did what you wanted to and made your own choices, when you are old, other people will make choices for you and ‘carry you where you do not want to go.'” Lest generations of commentators to follow miss the point, John writes clearly what Jesus meant: “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.”
Some thoughts here:
- Peter would die a martyrs’ death. This is the gist of Jesus’ words. Christian tradition says that Peter did indeed die a martyr’s death. Whether or not he was actually crucified upside down as later tradition says, we simply don’t know, but the earliest tradition was that Peter was killed because of his commitment to Christ. Can you imagine living with this knowledge for the next 25 or so years before Peter was martyred? Peter is a radically changed man. He is not happy that he is going to die as a martyr, but he does not shrink from it. He follows Jesus and feeds Jesus’ sheep from this time until he is martyred.
- The health and wealth gospel dies on the stake of John 21.18. Whatever else one can say about this interaction between Jesus and Peter and the prophecy of his martyrdom, a life of health and wealth is emphatically not what Jesus prophesies for Peter, quite the opposite.
- If we are to follow Christ, we must die to ourselves. No doubt Peter, had he been able to choose his future, would not have chosen a life of difficulty in ministry, danger in life, and death at the hands of Nero. Jesus doesn’t give him any options, nor offer him any choices. We who follow Christ from two millennia away are no different. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has rightly pointed out “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
- Christian leadership is about serving Christ’s sheep, not making a following for ourselves. “Feed my sheep,” Christ tells Peter. The sheep are not Peter’s, they are Christ’s and Peter has a solemn obligation to tend them and to care for them and to shepherd them. It’s easy, especially in our celebrity-obsessed culture to assume just the opposite, that those we serve are here for us, rather than we are here to honor Christ by serving them. The New American Commentary says: “Leadership in the Christian church should not be a matter of obligation or oughtness but of a willing desire. It should likewise not be from a goal of achieving personal gain but from a sense of calling to serve others. And it should not be because one wishes to dominate others but because one is willing to model the way of Christ in serving God’s flock (cf. 1 Pet 5:3).”
Jesus’ call to you, dear reader, is exactly the same as it was to our dear brother, Peter: “Follow me,” he says, “come and die.”