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Lesson 107: Trusting the Sovereign Lord (John 21:18-25)

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October 18, 2015

It’s not news that we live in troubled times. The atrocities committed by ISIS in the Middle East, the resulting refugee crisis, and the ongoing terrorism in Africa and around the world are enough to spawn anxiety in even the calmest people. Closer to home, the recent shooting death on the NAU campus showed how quickly and unexpectedly life can end, even for the young. And even if we never encounter terrorists or gun violence, we aren’t exempt from accidents, cancer, or other deadly diseases! As has often been said, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die.”

The only way that I know how to live calmly in such an anxiety-producing world is to trust in the Sovereign Lord, who even uses the wicked for His own righteous purposes before He judges them. It gives great peace to know that He has numbered all our days, even before we were born (Ps. 139:16). There are only two choices: either God is sovereign over everything, including Satan and his evil forces, or He is not. If He is not, then the alternatives are atheism, where impersonal random chance rules the world; or dualism, where Satan and God are fighting for control, but we don’t know for sure which side will win. Either one would be a scary world in which to live!

But if God is sovereign, even over all the evil in this world, then we have a basis for peace, comfort, and hope when we face difficult trials. We can affirm with Paul (Rom. 8:28), “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

As John brings his “Gospel of Belief” (as Merrill Tenney calls it, John: The Gospel of Belief [Eerdmans]) to a close, he mentions several things which seem thematically unconnected: In verses 18 & 19, Jesus predicts Peter’s future, including how he will die. Then (John 21:20-22), Peter asks Jesus about John’s future and receives a polite, “It’s none of your business!” reply. In verse 23, John corrects a misunderstanding that was circulating regarding Jesus’ reply to Peter. And in the final two verses, there is a testimony to John’s trustworthiness as a witness and an acknowledgement that John has left out of his Gospel many things that Jesus did.

I puzzled over how to tie all of these seemingly disparate strands together. It seems to me that the theme of trusting the sovereign Lord unites this final section. Twice (John 21:19, 22) Jesus repeats to Peter the command that He gave Him when He first called him as a disciple, “Follow Me!” (Matt. 4:19; see, also, Jesus’ initial command to Philip in John 1:43). But to follow Jesus, we have to trust in Him as the sovereign Lord, who both knows what is best for us and controls the events of our lives in line with His good purpose. So we can sum up our text:

We can trust the sovereign Lord and follow Him in everything, even when we don’t understand it all.

Jesus has just asked Peter three times, “Do you love Me?” Peter has replied three times, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You,” to which Jesus replied three times by commanding Peter to feed or shepherd His sheep. But here the Lord lets Peter know that his professed love for Him will be tested. As Peter grows old, rather than playing golf or driving around to all the National Parks in his RV, Peter will face martyrdom. Thus we learn first …

1. We can trust and follow the Lord for our future, including trials and the time and manner of our death.

John 21:18-19: “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.’ Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’”

Here, Jesus proves true what Peter has just said (John 21:17), “Lord, You know all things.” Jesus knew Peter’s future, including when and how he would die, and He sovereignly determined that future. He tells Peter this, introducing it with the solemn, “Truly, truly,” so that Peter will be ready by counting the cost of following Jesus. Peter had to live the rest of his life, probably at least 30 years, with this prediction hanging over him! I’m not sure that I would want to know in advance, “You’re going to die by having your head cut off by ISIS”!

We don’t know whether Peter instantly understood Jesus’ words as a reference to his future death, but John (21:19) explains that that is what Jesus meant. The phrase, “stretch out your hands,” was commonly understood in the ancient world to refer to crucifixion (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 679). It referred to the prisoner stretching out his hands to be bound with ropes to the crossbeam before he was forcibly marched away to execution. Clement of Rome (AD 96) reports Peter’s martyrdom, although he doesn’t mention how he was executed. Later less reliable sources claim that he was crucified upside down, because he felt unworthy to die as his Lord did (Carson, p. 680). But whether Peter understood specifically how he would die, he couldn’t have missed the point of contrast that while his youth was relatively “footloose and fancy free,” his old age would be difficult and unpleasant.

We can learn four practical lessons: (1) While we are commanded to give thanks always and to count our trials as joy, we shouldn’t pretend that trials are pleasant at the time. Jesus tells Peter that others would gird him and bring him where he did not wish to go. In other words, Peter wasn’t seeking martyrdom and gladly marching to it thinking that it would be pleasant. He didn’t want to go there.

Some of the early Christians sought martyrdom as their goal in the Christian life. Eusebius (Church History [8:9]), describes how when one believer was condemned, many others would rush forward and declare themselves as Christians, so that they, too, would be condemned to torture and death. They would receive their death sentence with joy, laughter, and cheerfulness, going to their deaths singing praises to God.

As I’ll point out in a moment, we should seek to glorify God by our death. But that doesn’t mean that we should seek torture and death as a better way to die. God’s will for Peter was martyrdom, but His will for John was to live a long life and die a natural death. Hebrews 12:11 acknowledges, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” So by faith we can and should give thanks even in trials as we trust in our sovereign, loving Father. But we don’t need to seek trials and we should be honest in admitting that the trial itself is not pleasant. We can count it as joy, knowing that God is using it to produce maturity in us (James 1:3-4), but that doesn’t mean putting on a happy face through it all.

(2) Following Jesus does not guarantee an easy life or a peaceful death. The Bible has many examples of faithful saints who suffered short, difficult lives, terrible persecution, and painful deaths. Hebrews 11:36-37 testifies that by faith some were mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, and put to death by the sword after a life of being destitute, afflicted, and ill-treated. But, they received eternal rewards in heaven. I’ve told you before about the Coast Guard recruiter who told a guy that boot camp was on an island and that you could fish and water ski there. Technically, true, if they let you, you could do those things! But they wouldn’t let you! Well, the Lord is an honest recruiter: He tells you up front to count the cost of following Him.

(3) Our aim should be to glorify God by our death. We all have to die (unless Jesus returns before then), so we need to determine in advance to glorify God. Paul’s aim was (Phil. 1:20) “that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” John Wesley said with reference to his Methodist disciples, “Our people die well.” John Calvin’s friend and successor, Theodore Beza, who was with Calvin as he painfully died, wrote, “We can truly say that in this one man God has been pleased to demonstrate to us in our day the way to live well and to die well” (Theodore Beza, The Life of John Calvin [Evangelical Press], p. 118).

(4) The way to glorify God in our death is to follow Him while we live. Twice (John 21:19, 22), Jesus commands Peter, “Follow Me!” To follow Jesus means bowing before Him as the rightful Lord of all that you are and have. It means seeking His will for the direction of your life and submitting to that will even before you know what it will be. And it means prompt obedience to His commands. If we yield our lives to Jesus as Lord, seek His will for how we spend our lives, and develop the habit of daily obedience to His Word, we’ll be prepared for death when and however it comes.

2. We can trust and follow the Lord for how and where we serve Him, without being concerned about how He uses others (21:20-22).

John 21:20-22: “Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, ‘Lord, who is the one who betrays You?’ So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, ‘Lord, and what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!’”

We don’t know whether Peter asked out of curiosity or concern for John or the need to compare himself with John. But whatever his reason, Jesus in effect replies, “It’s none of your business what I do with John. Your business is to follow Me!” We can learn three practical lessons from these verses:

(1) Jesus is the rightful Lord of every person and He has the authority to determine how each one serves Him and how and when each one dies. Jesus bluntly tells Peter (John 21:22), “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” He determined how Peter would serve Him and when and how Peter would die. He did the same for John; and, He does that for all who follow Him. And so one of the most important lessons to learn in the Christian life is what Paul states (Rom. 12:1), “to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual [or, rational] service of worship.” You can’t know God’s will for your life until you first yield yourself totally to Him, being willing to do whatever He wants you to do with your life.

(2) The Lord uses the different personalities of each person for His purpose and glory. Peter and John had very different personalities, but God used them both. Peter was the natural leader of the twelve. He often spoke when he should have held his tongue and thought more carefully before he opened his mouth. On the Mount of Transfiguration, he felt the need to say something, so he suggested building three tabernacles, only to have God say (Luke 9:35), “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, Peter was the one to protest. He was a man of action, again, often without thinking carefully first. He whacked off Malchus’ ear without considering that the Roman cohort there easily could have taken off his head. But that was Peter.

John, on the other hand, was more contemplative and introverted. Granted, at first Jesus called him and his brother James the sons of thunder (Mark 3:17), but he often referred to himself, as he does in our text, as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He was close to Jesus in a more quiet manner than Peter was. We see these two men’s personalities when they went to the empty tomb. John stood outside, peering in, but Peter brushed by him and went inside. John saw the grave clothes laying there and believed, whereas Peter went away wondering about what he had seen. Then, when the risen Jesus provided the miraculous catch of fish, John was the first to recognize Him, but Peter impetuously jumped in the water to get to shore first. So they were very different men, but God was pleased to use both men in His service.

While God sanctifies our personalities, knocking off the rough edges as we mature in Christ, He doesn’t change our basic bent. Introverts grow into godly introverts, extroverts grow into godly extroverts, and both are okay. Before Paul met Christ, he was a zealous man of purpose, persecuting the church. After he met Christ, he was a zealous man of purpose, boldly preaching the gospel, even after he had been stoned or imprisoned. Paul’s dedicated zeal caused him to reject Barnabas’ desire of giving Mark a second chance. But later, Paul mellowed and said that Mark was useful to him for service (2 Tim. 4:11). So you don’t have to deny your personality to serve the Lord, but you do have to allow Him to build the fruit of the Spirit into your personality as you grow in Him.

(3) While it’s helpful to learn from those who are different than we are, it’s not profitable to compare our ministries to theirs. After the Lord told Peter that he would die a martyr’s death, Peter asked about John, “What about this man?” The Lord basically says, “That’s My business, not yours. You follow Me!”

As a pastor, it’s easy to compare myself to other pastors and wonder, “Why does God bless their ministries as He does, but not mine?” I’d love to have a tenth of the impact that men like John MacArthur and John Piper have! While I’ve learned much and can learn much more from these men and others, including the great pastors of past centuries, the bottom line is: I’m not who they are. They have unique gifts and abilities that I lack. While I rejoice at how God has used these men and I pray that He would use me, He is sovereign over whom He uses and how He uses them.

Over 30 years ago, I had been reading the autobiography of the famous British preacher Charles Spurgeon. As I was out jogging, I prayed, “Lord, bless my ministry like You blessed Spurgeon’s!” Since Spurgeon is often held to be the greatest preacher of the 19th century, that was a “hail Mary” kind of throw-for-the-goal line prayer! But as soon as I prayed that, the Lord put into my mind, “Which Spurgeon? Charles, or John?” The thought hit me so forcefully that I stopped jogging to let it sink in.

John Spurgeon was Charles’ father. He was a godly, faithful pastor, but he would have lived and died in obscurity, except that he had a famous son. In God’s purposes, the famous son was plagued with health problems and only lived to be 57, whereas the obscure father outlived his son and died at 90. But God used both men. The Lord was saying to me, “Your job is to be as faithful as John Spurgeon. My prerogative is to use you as I see fit. Learn all you can from Charles Spurgeon, but if I want to use you as I used John Spurgeon, that’s My business!”

3. We can trust the Lord concerning His promise to return, even when we don’t understand the details of it.

John 21:22-23: “Jesus said to him, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!’ Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?’”

John wrote this to correct a mistaken rumor circulating among the early church, namely that he wouldn’t die before the Lord returned. John clarifies, “That isn’t what Jesus said. He only said, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?’” Some scholars argue that John didn’t write this, but it was a postscript added, perhaps by the Ephesian elders (where John spent his last days) to clear up confusion among those who thought that Jesus should have returned before John died. I think it’s more likely that John knew about this rumor before he died and wrote this to correct it before the faith of some would be shaken after he died, because they thought that Jesus had to return before John’s death.

Even so today, people get carried away with mistaken claims that Jesus will return by a certain date. The late Harold Camping made several such wrong predictions. Back in the mid-80’s, I received a booklet titled, “88 Reasons Why Jesus Will Return in 1988.” Obviously, the author was mistaken! Peter predicted that in the last days, scoffers would mock believers, saying (2 Pet. 3:4), “Where is the promise of His coming?” But twice in our text (John 21:22, 23), John assures us, Jesus is coming!

I’m sometimes asked why I don’t preach through the Book of Revelation, and my honest answer is, “Because I don’t understand the details well enough to preach it.” I’ve read many books from many different perspectives, but none of them answer all my questions. But even though I don’t understand the details, I don’t doubt for a minute that Jesus will return! He must, or else He is a liar!

4. We can trust the Lord concerning the reliability of His Word, including what it contains and what it omits.

John 21:24-25: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.”

Some conservative scholars think that the plural pronoun we indicates that this was added after John’s death, perhaps by the Ephesian elders, as their testimony to John’s trustworthiness. Or, it could be John himself using an editorial we, as he often does in 1 John (e.g. 1:4-9). In John 19:35, the apostle assured us of his eyewitness account of blood and water coming out of Jesus’ side after the soldier thrust in his spear. Here, John is testifying to the truthfulness of all that he has written in his Gospel concerning Jesus. He wants us to believe his testimony and put our faith in Jesus Christ.

John concludes by repeating his selectivity in what he has written. In John 20:30-31, he stated, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” Here, he says that if he had written all that Jesus did, even the world would not contain the books. He’s using hyperbole, of course. But as Dr. Carson points out (p. 686), if Jesus truly is the incarnate Son of God, as John claims in the prologue, then John 21:25 is not really an exaggeration.

And, while we may wish at times that Scripture had given us more details about some things (as in Luke 24:27!), we have to trust that the Lord gave us all that we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3-4). His Word is sufficient for us to come to salvation and to grow in holiness. We need to work at applying the Scripture that we have, not wish for Scripture that we don’t have!


So John leaves us with the crucial question: Have you believed in Jesus as your Savior and Lord? If so, are you trusting Him for your future, including the trials you’re now facing and the ones you will face? Are you faithfully serving Him? Are you living in light of His promise to return? And, are you trusting the reliability of His inspired Word? John wrote these things so that we would trust in Jesus, the sovereign Lord.

Application Questions

  1. How can a believer who is fearful about the future get over it?
  2. When is it helpful and when is it harmful to compare yourself with other believers? What are the limits?
  3. Discuss: If you put on a conference on prophecy, a thousand will come; if you put on a conference on prayer, a dozen will come. Why is this? What does it reveal about us?
  4. Are there areas where you struggle with what Scripture contains or doesn’t contain? How can you work through these issues?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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