Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Having told Peter what his ministry will be, Jesus told the Apostle how his work would end. Discipleship always demands a high price. Love for Jesus would make Peter a good Pastor, and also bring him a cross. Feeding sheep would not be the only way Peter would demonstrate his love for Jesus.
John 21:18a (Holman) “I assure you: When you were young, you would tie your belt and walk wherever you wanted. . .”
Tying your belt kept the long flowing robe in place, thereby making movement easier. It signified preparation for action. In the past, Peter had performed ordinary tasks of life as he pleased, without help or hindrance from others. He did what he wanted to do, and went where he wanted to go.
Jesus certainly knew His Apostle well. Peter was his own master, self-willed, independent. He liked to manage his own affairs. Simon wanted a free, impetuous life. He did not plan to be inhibited by anyone. Peter wanted to be the leader. He was a free spirit, intending to take the lead with his own will and in his own way.
No one ever enjoyed being master of his own destiny more than Peter did. However, Jesus had something else in store for His impetuous disciple.
John 21:18b “But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will tie you . . .”
Peter was used to guiding his own hands and preparing himself for action. But eventually he will have to stretch forth his hands as one helpless to resist. He will be girded by another, meaning he will be tied and bound as a criminal.
A major part of serving Christ is voluntarily yielding up one’s independence. Caring for Jesus’ sheep is not a life of ease. Those who care for God’s flock must be prepared to deal with wolves, the enemies to His sheep.
Peter is to expect a life of trouble and persecution. He will give his life to doing good, and shall receive pain and trials in return.
John 21:18c “. . . and carry you where you don’t want to go.”
Peter will someday be lead to execution. Jesus predicted martyrdom for Peter. Peter now knew he would suffer violent death at the hands of executioners. Most people look forward to retirement, rest, and repose. They trust their final days will be tranquil, but Peter, as long as he lived, knew his ministry would be ratified by his blood.
He would have never chosen this fate on his own. He was going to be forced to do something he did not want to do. Peter was human. Pain is always repugnant to flesh and blood. Peter did not look forward to suffering martyrdom.
Many martyrs have expressed natural feelings of fear as they approached their death. Latimer, facing the stake, wrote in a letter, “Pray for me, I say, pray for me, I say; for I am sometimes so fearful that I could creep into a mouse-hole.”
When Bishop Ridley was burned, he turned to the blacksmith that was about to nail his chains to the stake, and requested, “Good fellow, knock it in hard, for the flesh will have its course.”
Rawlins White bravely went to a martyr’s stake, but when he saw his wife and children, the sight of them so pierced his heart that the tears began streaming down his cheeks. Upset with himself for faltering, he began beating his chest, saying, “Ah flesh, stayest thou me so? Would you fain prevail? Well, I tell you, do what you can, you shall not, by God’s grace, have the victory.”
John 21:19a He said this to signify by what kind of death he would glorify God.
Peter’s death would provide him opportunity to bring resounding honor and glory to his Lord. The cross would henceforth be the guiding principle of his life, and in that way he reflected well on Jesus.
Peter had said, “Lord, I’m ready to go with You both to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33). Jesus now told him his words were not false, just premature. Peter had missed the opportunity once to stand firm for Jesus, but someday his commitment would match his resolve.
When it was Peter’s idea, Peter’s will, and Peter’s time, he failed. But when it was God’s idea, God’s will, and God’s time, Peter stood true.
Tradition says Peter was crucified in Rome by Nero 35 years later. Feeling unworthy to die in the same posture as his Master had died, Peter asked to be crucified upside down. It was a death he neither looked forward to nor desired, but it was one which gave crowning proof he loved Jesus.
The blood of the martyrs has ever been the seedbed of the Church, leading to the conversion of many. Calocerius, a heathen, having watched one of the early Christians patiently and victoriously die a martyr’s death, reacted with an exclamation, “The God of the Christians is a great God indeed.”
John 21:19b After saying this, He told him, “Follow Me!”
Three years earlier, on this same shore, Peter had first heard this command (Matthew 4:19). It had been hard to obey the command then. Now it would be even harder. He now knew it meant a willingness to accept a violent death.
What right does Jesus have to ask us to go to death for Him? He went to death for us. Peter himself would later write, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps” (I Peter 2:21). Expect to be treated as He was treated, to walk the same bloody path He walked before us.
An awe-inspiring feature of Christianity is its blunt honesty. A recruiting officer often speaks of the glories of a soldier’s life, making no mention of life in a trench, the marches under a blistering sun, and the agonies of battle. Christianity comes to us speaking of trials, persecutions, and conflict. Nothing is concealed. “Follow Me,” Jesus says, and everyone knows where the path led Him.
Our consolation is, all who follow Him to a cross also follow Him to resurrection. Glory follows shame. Even death is not all that terrible a thing for the believer. When we come to the end, we can slip our hand into His, assured He will lead us on to something better. Follow Jesus. This is the key to success. The way may look dangerous and dark, but His footsteps mark the safest path.
Francis I of France was not yet twenty when he fought in the two-day battle of Marignan. With reckless abandon, Francis fought more like a soldier than like a king. Seeing his standard-bearer surrounded by the enemy, he risked himself to assist the lad, though in the midst of lances and battle-axes. He was immediately surrounded by the enemy. His horse was pierced with several wounds, and the blows came so close to him that his helmet lost all its plumes. His life was spared solely because some of his nearby troops saw his plight and came to his rescue. His men began to reprove him for his rash actions, but he cut their words short by heading toward the battle and crying aloud, “Let him that loves me follow me.”
This is the test Peter confronted. If he loves Jesus, he will do two things: feed His sheep, and walk in His footsteps. It is the same test our love faces.