You Follow Me – The Conclusion of John’s Gospel

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Tomorrow morning it is my aim to conclude a three year long study of the book of John. I leave the study with over 500 pages of notes, a few piles of books and commentaries on the gospel of John, and a mind and heart that have been changed for the better by studying these passages.

It is a very humbling thing to get to the end of such a large book and feel you’ve still got a lot to learn. The depth of John’s gospel is just astounding – it is made all the more astounding when you read how he ends it!

I hope you enjoy these final notes on the 4th Gospel.

PJW

You Follow Me

 Introduction to the End of John’s Gospel

In the final scenes of John’s gospel we find that the author does not follow a strict chronological timeline. John isn’t concerned to give an exact timeline of events in proper sequence, but to give a theological and spiritual conclusion to his book.

This makes sense when we remember that his aim was spelled out like this:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; [31] but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

The pleasure of reading this gospel has been that Jesus is front in center in John’s writing. John displays Jesus in such a way that His teachings speak for themselves. Yet John also adds editorial comments in here and there, guiding the reader toward a fuller understanding of both the circumstances and Jesus’ teaching.

This same modus operandi holds true for the final few verses of John’s gospel.

21:18-19 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.” [19] (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.”

It seems that Jesus is speaking here to Peter about the fact that he will one day be crucified. It took quite a long time (3 decades) for this to materialize, but eventually Peter did die a martyr’s death just as Jesus had predicted (and ordained!).

Carson probably has the best explanation on this and says Bauer had it right long ago:

Bauer proposed long ago that this ‘stretching’ took place when a condemned prisoner was tied to his cross-member (the patibulum: cf. notes on 19:17) and forced to carry his ‘cross’ to the place of execution. The cross-member would be placed on the prisoner’s neck and shoulders, his arms tied to it, and then he would be led away to death. Despite the fact that many reject this explanation (Carson note on Schnackenburg), the most detailed study of crucifixion in the ancient world describes just such horrible variations on this grisly form of execution (Carson footnote on M. Hengel, Crucifixion).

21:20-22 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” [21] When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” [22] Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

Here Peter wants to know his end, and why it is that He should suffer a death that is horrific – why not someone else? What about the other guy?

The first thing of importance in this passage is that Jesus’ power and authority is made manifest when He says, “if it is my will.” Remember Christian that it is the will of this Man that rules the universe. The word of Jesus upholds the universe (Hebrews 1:1-3) and, like the Father, all that He wills to do comes to pass.

Job acknowledged this, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).

And certainly this puts the words of Isaiah in mind (these are what I first thought of when I read this):

“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (Isaiah 46:8-10)

Therefore Jesus begins His response to Peter with a reminder of his own authority.

Secondly, He is blunt with Peter, in affect telling him to “butt out!”

I think that John Piper’s blog post on this is just terrific. Below is extended excerpt of his words:

Jesus’ blunt words—“None of your business, follow me”—are sweet to my ears. They are liberating from the depressing bondage of fatal comparing. Sometimes when I scan the ads in Christianity Today (all ten thousand of them), I get discouraged. Not as much as I used to twenty-five years ago. But still I find this avalanche of ministry suggestions oppressing.

Book after book, conference after conference, DVD after DVD—telling me how to succeed in ministry. And all of them quietly delivering the message that I am not making it. Worship could be better. Preaching could be better. Evangelism could be better. Pastoral care could be better. Youth ministry could be better. Missions could be better. And here is what works. Buy this. Go here. Go there. Do it this way. And adding to the burden—some of these books and conferences are mine!

So I was refreshed by Jesus’ blunt word to me (and you): “What is that to you? You follow me!” Peter had just heard a very hard word. You will die—painfully. His first thought was comparison. What about John? If I have to suffer, will he have to suffer? If my ministry ends like that, will his end like that? If I don’t get to live a long life of fruitful ministry, will he get to?

That’s the way we sinners are wired. Compare. Compare. Compare. We crave to know how we stack up in comparison to others. There is some kind of high if we can just find someone less effective than we are. Ouch. To this day, I recall the little note posted by my Resident Assistant in Elliot Hall my senior year at Wheaton: “To love is to stop comparing.” What is that to you, Piper? Follow me.

  • What is it to you that David Wells has such a comprehensive grasp of the pervasive effects of postmodernism? You follow me.
  • What is it to you that Voddie Baucham speaks the gospel so powerfully without notes? You follow me.
  • What is it to you that Tim Keller sees gospel connections with professional life so clearly? You follow me.
  • What is it to you that Mark Driscoll has the language and the folly of pop culture at his fingertips? You follow me.
  • What is it to you that Don Carson reads five hundred books a year and combines pastoral insight with the scholar’s depth and comprehensiveness? You follow me.

That word landed on me with great joy. Jesus will not judge me according to my superiority or inferiority over anybody. No preacher. No church. No ministry. These are not the standard. Jesus has a work for me to do (and a different one for you). It is not what he has given anyone else to do. There is a grace to do it. Will I trust him for that grace and do what he has given me to do? That is the question. O the liberty that comes when Jesus gets tough!

I hope you find encouragement and freedom today when you hear Jesus say to all your fretting comparisons: “What is that to you? You follow me!”

I find Piper’s analogy or paraphrase or what-have-you, to be perfect – especially in light of the fact that Driscoll just this week resigned in shame from his own church. We often put people on pedestals and puff them up in our minds, but they are just men. They are just as human as we are.

We could all no doubt substitute the names “driscoll or wells” for our own friends and contemporaries. For we often look at our Christian friends and see the grace God has bestowed on them and perhaps feel somewhat inadequate comparatively. Yet this is the very thing Jesus is correcting in Peter.

Carson says that Jesus’ reply to Peter is basically to say, “mind your own business.” Calvin says, “Christ intended to put his hand on his disciple, in order to keep him within the limits of his calling. ‘It is no concern of yours,’ says he, ‘and you leave that to my disposal’ think only about yourself, and prepare to follow where you are called.’”

Herman Ridderbos says, “What applies to both disciples is the call to follow Jesus, each with his own destiny. For Peter it means he will complete his life like the “good Shepherd” in self-offering for Jesus’ flock. For the beloved disciple this means his continuing witness until the coming of his Lord in glory.”

We who are God’s children are dealt with individually. In fact, this says something of the individuality of the Christian walk. We often rightly emphasize the need for corporate worship, corporate sermons, and fellowship. But there is also a part to Christianity that is very individual, very personal. That is what we are seeing between Peter and Jesus here.

Personal Reflection

It is not easy to leave this section without reflecting on God’s call on our own lives, and how often we find ourselves in comparative moments where perhaps we would rather be someone else. Yet God calls us each to walk our own individual walks, and endure our own trial, not coveting those without similar ordeals or circumstances.

But more than this is the great comfort that in our trials, and indeed in every circumstance, it is Jesus who wills these things. It is not left to us to guess whether or not Jesus is allowing this or that, or whether He knows of our trials. There is no room for that loose of an interpretation. Jesus is presented here (indeed He presents Himself by His own words) as the One who “wills” all that comes to pass.

Indeed as Paul has said:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17)

21:23-24 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” [24] This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

Who is this “We”?

A quick textual note is necessary before beginning the final look at these verses. In verse 23 the author seems to be taking some corrective action in order to mitigate the misnomer that Jesus had meant the beloved disciple would not die. Rather, Jesus just said he would “remain” (meno), and in this context it didn’t mean he wouldn’t die, but that he would continue in his work on earth until he died in the way God had thought best.

Many scholars dispute the identity of who the “we” refers to in verse 24. Ridderbos thinks its people who made up those around John, but not John himself (or at least to include John and the apostles with him). But Carson goes through every option and notes that it must refer to John himself, the author and also the “beloved disciple” as included in this and as the one writing it.

Even though this seems awkward, it’s no more awkward than John referring to himself in the third person the entire time! I am convinced that this is the most likely reading of the passage, most especially because in 1:14 John is says, “We have seen his glory.” That seems to fit the same writing style/motif.

More can be read of the comparative views in Carson (pages 681-685).

The Purpose of This Gospel

All of this gets back to the reason John wrote this – to show the greatness of Jesus, and give those who read this book an opportunity to believe and find life – eternal life – with Him.

This is why the author has taken such pains to explain, comment, rebut, and go in-depth in many areas where the other gospel writers did not. John’s mission dominates his narrative and the choice of his excerpts from Jesus’ life and ministry.

21:25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. 

The Greatness of Jesus

To end his commentary on the gospel of John, D.A. Carson frames the last verse as containing matter related to “The Greatness of Jesus” – a very apt header. Carson says:

The Jesus to whom he (John) bears witness is not only the obedient Son and the risen Lord, he is the incarnate Word, the one through whom the universe was created. If all his deeds were described, the world would be a very small and inadequate library indeed.

It is as if John has identified himself (vs. 24), but is not content to focus on himself, not even on his veracity. He must close by saying his own work is only a minute part of all the honours (sic) due the Son.

John’s gospel is truly unique. It is a theological gospel – and perhaps no one captures that theological (and even philosophical) thrust better than Ridderbos in his own summary of the book:

What we are confronted with in this Gospel, as a matter of faith, is the salvific breaking down from above of the boundaries by which our thinking and acting are circumscribed (cf. 3:5). The confrontation, however, is not with a “higher reality” as such, one that would merely relativize our reality. The confrontation is with the entry into our reality of the glory (“the name,” 17:6, 26 etc.) of God and with the “signs” of the “life” for which God once created and still continues to destine the world (1:4) – just as he who was “in the bosom of the Father” revealed that name and that life to us by his words and deeds (1:18) so that “by believing in that name” we may have life (20:31).

Surely this is the case. The breakthrough, indeed the “invasion”, if you will, of the kingdom of God in the lives of mankind is significant in John’s gospel. It is the telling of the sovereign God breaking into our reality/our consciousness in a way He had not done to fore. He physically walked and dwelt among us. Not as a pillar of fire, a burning bush, an angelic vision, but as a man born of a virgin, growing up as a boy under the law, and coming to maturity as a human being.

The wonder of this increases ten-fold when we realize the goal of God was to save men. The lengths He went to do this, and the wonder we feel when these truths come into focus is the permeating reality that soaks every sentence, every graph, and every chapter of John’s gospel.

He began by ushering us into the presence and purpose of God:

The Word Became Flesh In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:14-18)

And left us to worship:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25)

William Hendricksen ends his own commentary by quoting the familiar words written by a Jewish poet named Meir Ben Isaac Nehorai in 1050 A.D. and later put to music by F. M. Lehman:

Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made; Were every stalk on earth a quill, And every man a scribe by trade: To write the love of God above Would drain the ocean dry, Nor could the scroll contain the whole Though stretched from sky to sky.

Calvin says God used men to make a careful selection of the material from Jesus’ life in order that (He) “might make known to us all that God knew to be necessary for us, who alone is wise, and the only fountain of wisdom; to whom be praise and glory for ever. Amen.”

I hope your study of this gospel has been as profitable as mine. It has left me humbled, and appreciative of all God has given us in His word.

 

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