Eyewitness Testimony to the Greatness of Jesus
Passage: John 21:18–25
Sermon on John 21:18-25 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on May 24, 2015
We're covering some of the same verses again this week. Last week, we ran through verse 19, but I’d like us to step back a bit and begin with Jesus’ words to Peter in verse 18. It will give us a bit of context; and there’s encouragement in these words that I missed last week but want to leave it with you this morning, along with two more encouragements from John’s final words. So, we’re ending our trek through John’s Gospel on three notes of encouragement. So be listening for those today.
If you’re wondering what we’re doing after John, the plan is to spend the Summer on a few topics that we hope will equip you in studying the word and making disciples. And then eventually, I’d like to walk you through the book of Zechariah. So that’s what’s on the horizon. But today, we finish John 21. Let’s jump in at verse 18. Jesus speaks again to Peter.
18“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 [Peter] was to glorify God.) And after saying this [Jesus] said to [Peter], “Follow me.” 20Peter 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?” 21When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23So 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?” 24This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. 25Now 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 Cost of Following Jesus
Before I get to our three encouragements, it would help us to grasp once again the weight of Jesus’ words to Peter. Earlier in the Gospel, Peter had promised that he would die for Jesus (13:37). He wanted to give his life for his Master. But when it came to enduring the shame of a cross, Peter ‘chickened out.’ While he witnessed his Master weak and going to the cross like a helpless lamb led to its slaughter, Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times over. In those moments as his Master suffered, Peter decided that the Calvary road was not going to be his road.
If following Jesus publicly meant hanging scandalously from a cross, Peter preferred to keep his allegiance a private matter. It was one thing for Peter to follow Jesus, while Jesus was changing water into wine and feeding five thousand and raising the dead; but it was a whole other thing for Peter to follow Jesus when the blood started flying and the flesh started tearing and the nails and hammer started clanking. So Peter, living for himself, doing what he wanted to do, walking wherever he wanted, forsook the cross.
But now things are going to be different. Jesus comes to Peter, and—having died as Peter’s substitute, having bled for Peter’s sins, having drank the cup of God’s wrath against Peter’s man-fear—Jesus comes to Peter, restores him as an apostle, and says, “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.” And then John tells us, “This [Jesus] said to show by what kind of death [Peter] was to glorify God.” He will be crucified (cf. 12:33; 18:32).
In other words, “Peter, you used to go and do whatever you wanted, but when I stretched out my hands for you, I bought you with precious blood. I took ownership of your life. Your old self that preferred comfort over a cross, I took it to the grave and crucified it, so that it’s no longer you who live, but Christ who lives in you. When you are old, you will stretch out your hands like I did.”
Jesus has purchased everything Peter now needs to follow him on the Calvary road. Jesus is risen as Peter’s ongoing help to walk the same path of suffering-love that his Master already walked. Jesus is now giving Peter the ability to follow him to the cross, even if it’s still not a place that Peter wants to go: “another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”
The way of the cross isn’t pleasant. It’s suffering for the sake of Christ; it’s death to self, in order to serve others who don’t like you; it’s even martyrdom for some, as John tells us is the case for Peter. Jesus is telling Peter, you’re not going to have a booming fishing business any more. You’re not going to see your fortieth wedding anniversary. You’re not going to see some of your grandchildren born. You’re not going to live to marry off all your children. You will stretch your hands for me. As Russell Moore once put it, Jesus interrupts Peter’s life-plan with a cross.
And it’s not just a cross that Peter must bear; it’s a cross we’re all called to bear. We may not stretch out our hands in a martyr’s death, as Jesus promises that Peter will do, but the cross will characterize all Jesus’ disciples. As Jesus put it elsewhere, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Or as Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:15, “[Christ] died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” Jesus’ call on Peter’s life is the call on all of us, who hold Jesus to be so dear.
The call to follow is the call to die, to crucify all that is earthly in us, that our bodies might be a living sacrifice for the Lord in saving others (cf. John 12:24-25; Col 3:5; Rom 12:1). It’s why I said last week that loving Jesus and feeding his sheep are costly. When you give yourself over to loving Jesus, you’ve given yourself over to dying to see all his sheep—all his people—alive with Christ. Dying to see others live isn’t easy. It’s not convenient. It’s costly; all true love is costly—just look at the cross of Christ. Jesus has called Peter to a cross, and he has called us to a cross.
Three Encouragements in Following Jesus
But not without encouragement in himself. Listen now to three encouragements that help us carry that cross. They are encouragements that keep you going when the suffering comes and people hurt you and death draws near, as you spend yourself for Jesus.
1. Jesus Holds Our Future in His Hands
Encouragement number one: Jesus knows the future of his disciples. Or, to put it differently, nothing comes to us apart from Jesus. This is the encouragement I said that I overlooked last week, and it’s precious beyond words. Jesus knows Peter’s future: “you will stretch out your hands…another will dress you…Jesus said this to show by what kind of death Peter was to glorify God.” Jesus knows Peter’s future. He created Peter’s future. Peter’s suffering isn’t catching Jesus by surprise.
This shouldn’t surprise us. On numerous occasions in John’s Gospel, Jesus reveals that he knows the future and he controls it, so that all of God’s purposes come to pass (e.g., 2:4; 4:21; 5:28-29; 12:32; 14:26). The clearest example of this comes out in John 13:19. Jesus tells the disciples about Judas’s betrayal before it happens and then says this: “I’m telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I AM.” Jesus’ knowledge of the future is meant to produce faith—faith that he is God, that he is in control, that he is wise and sovereign and good.
This even comes out in relation to the disciples’ suffering. 16:2-4, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.”
In other words, Jesus’ knowledge of the future plays itself out practically like this: when you start suffering, remember he’s still in control. Your enemies only get an hour. Nothing will be coming to you apart from Jesus, just like the cross didn’t come to Jesus apart from the will of his Father. Jesus knows the future of his disciples, and that should give us courage to follow him. How does Jesus say it elsewhere? “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt 10:29-31). Translation? The Father is so intimately acquainted with you that he plans the life-span of every hair follicle on your head.
Folks, assertions like this bring so much encouragement when we take up our cross daily. Please get this—because if we don’t get this, we will be consumed by complaining and doubt and despair. I’m not saying that to dismiss your pain; I’m saying that to help you, through your pain, cling to Jesus. Not one ounce of suffering comes to you apart from Jesus knowledge and design to bring God glory with your life. And that changes your outlook on everything. Evil isn’t in control, God is…Your suffering isn’t meaningless, God has a purpose for it all; you will not shed a single tear in vain when you’re living for Jesus…Jesus isn’t disconnected from your sufferings, he knows them better than you do and how to provide perfectly in the midst of them; so you can cry out to him for help…It means you’re not alone in your cross-bearing, Jesus is with you always in life and in death.
As J. C. Ryle once put it, “Everything from beginning to end is foreseen—arranged by [Christ] who is too wise to err, and too loving to do us harm.” How do we know that Jesus is too loving to do us harm by the sufferings he ordains for us? We know that Jesus is too loving to do us harm, because of what he suffered for us. Every ounce of suffering the follower of Jesus experiences isn’t because God is still angry with us. Jesus satisfied God’s anger on the cross, as he stood condemned in our place.
Therefore, we know that everything he has planned for us—even when the journey is rough and leads to sorrowful days and may even kill you—we can receive them as first filtered through his sovereign hands of love. That’s true whether you suffer long days of hardship as a mom serving your children in Jesus’ name, or you spend the rest of your days on earth battling cancer with Jesus, or you suffer a martyr’s death for preaching the gospel—Jesus knows all your pain, and we can take great comfort, that if he knows it and planned it to bring God glory, then he’ll give us every grace necessary to get us through it, and reward us with himself at the end.
Isn’t this what Jesus promises the churches in the book of Revelation? He tells them of their future suffering and then promises reward when it’s over; and the reward is himself.
2. Jesus Calls Us to Contentment in Following Him
Encouragement number two: Jesus calls us to contentment in following him. In verse 19, Jesus calls Peter to follow him. Even though Jesus has just told Peter that his life will end in martyrdom, Peter isn’t to preoccupy himself with worrying about what’s going to happen and when that’s going to happen and how that will happen. No, no, Peter is to have just one daily concern: Follow Jesus.
Now, in the immediate context, Jesus has literally called Peter to follow him as he gets up to walk on the beach. They just finished breakfast on the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus restores Peter, says, “Follow me,” and it seems like they start walking down the beach with Peter following Jesus, because Peter then turns and sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. Jesus didn’t have to tell John, “Follow me.” John is already following Jesus, and Peter discovers this as he turns around.
In short order, Peter takes his sights off Jesus and begins to concern himself with John: “Lord, what about this man,” he says? Peter wants to know what’s in store for John. The Lord just outlined Peter’s destiny in martyrdom. Peter will suffer a painful death. So, Peter says, “What about this guy?” Peter’s first move is one of comparison: “Is he going to stretch out his hands, too? Is he going to have to die like this, too? If I’m going to die following you, will he get to live longer than me? What’s he got coming?”
You may know some of the same kinds of comparisons. We start following Jesus—our focus is set on him—but then we take our sights off Jesus, we turn, and start comparing ourselves to others: “Why aren’t we like that church over there? We’re preaching the same gospel; why hasn’t the Lord given us more “success”? I’ve been serving my tail off, what about him? I’ve been sacrificing everything to love my sisters; what about her? It doesn’t look like she’s suffering as much as I am.” Or maybe the comparisons take a different form: “How come he can read a hundred books a year and memorize every page, and I average six minutes per page with little comprehension? How come he can preach without notes, and my mind goes blank without them? Why am I still single, but they aren’t? Why do all my friends have happy marriages, but I struggle? Why do they get another kid and I don’t right now? Why has my past left me with such hard consequences to deal with and theirs hasn’t?”
And on and on the comparisons could go. If we’re not careful, we live by these comparisons; we become enslaved to them. Jesus’ next few words are blunt and piercing, but they are full of liberating encouragement: “If it’s my will that [John] remain until I come [and he means at his Second Coming], what is that to you [Peter]? You follow me!” In other words, “What happens to John is my business, not yours. Your business is to follow me.”
Obedience Takes Different Forms
Why’s that so liberating? It’s liberating for two reasons. One way it’s liberating is that it teaches us that obedience to Jesus will take different forms in the kingdom of God. In his sovereign wisdom, God has allotted his people with different gifts, different responsibilities, different sacrifices, different vocations, different local churches, and different outcomes to their individual ministries. Peter’s going to be martyred; John will live a while longer and write a Gospel. Both called to follow Jesus, but with different outcomes. God has given different disciples different ministries. You don’t have to compare yourself to each other. There may be ways you learn to imitate them, as they imitate Jesus. But you don’t have to be them or pretend to be like them. You need only to follow Jesus with all the grace you’ve been given by Jesus.
I still remember sitting in the office of my advisor, and receiving a pointed rebuke that turned out to be one of the most liberating encouragements in my walk with Christ. Rachel and I were well into our second year of marriage. I was in seminary, now pursuing a PhD, and really more than a PhD in my mind. You see, there were certain Christian leaders in the academic world that I had grown to love a bit too much, even to the degree that I begin embracing their calling as my own. I wanted to be just like them, be proficient in as many languages as they were, write books as often as they did, be able to speak like them, read like them, teach like them.
My love for these men and the roles these men served in had become so consuming, that I had forsaken following Jesus without even knowing it. I had begun comparing myself to others, and everything about myself and my calling was deficient until I looked just like these other respected men and I could perform just as they performed. Regardless if their situation in life looked different than my own—which it absolutely did—regardless if their gifts were different than my own—and they absolutely were—I wanted their life and their calling. I wanted it so bad that even the wife God blessed me with and told me to love as Christ loved the church—I would leave Rachel in tears, neglecting her while pursuing becoming these men. I stayed up late and woke up early to try to obtain what these other men had.
My advisor saw right through what I was doing, sat me down, and said, “Bret, you are not D. A. Carson, and you never will be. The Lord has gifted him in ways that he hasn’t gifted you. And your lack of contentment in what the Lord has given you is killing you and your family.” He was right, and at the moment, the rebuke stung. It was a blow to my pride. But his rebuke served as one of the most liberating encouragements in my Christian walk. A weight lifted when I left his office; and gradually the Lord lifted that weight off my marriage, too. It was liberating, because it freed me from all the comparisons I had been making before and shaping my life around. Only one thing was necessary: follow Jesus, Bret, with what he’s given you.
Following Jesus is having everything
Jesus’ words are also liberating, because in them, he’s not only calling Peter away from preoccupying himself with comparisons. He’s also calling Peter to the joy of his life, found in the person of Christ. The rebuke turns Peter back around to open his eyes to the One he is following. To follow him is to have everything. Why make comparisons when you have Christ in all his resurrected glory? Isn’t it Jesus that is great?
3. Jesus Gives Us Abiding Eyewitness Testimony to His Greatness
That leads me to one last encouragement John leaves us. Encouragement number three: Jesus gives us abiding eyewitness testimony to his own greatness. John has to correct a misunderstanding on the part of the brothers in verse 23. They have taken Jesus’ words way too literally. Jesus wasn’t saying that John himself would survive until his return. John was eventually going to die, too. But that doesn’t mean that John’s testimony would die. No, John’s testimony would actually abide until Jesus returns. That’s what we hold in our hands this morning.
And that’s exactly how he presents it in verse 24: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things”—that is, who is still bearing witness about these things. And how is he still bearing witness about these things? Well, he’s written them down for us to read: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things.”
Now, in terms of ancient historiography, that’s one of the strongest statements you can find. Everybody knew in the first century that the most trustworthy historiography was based on the testimony of real eyewitnesses. The more eyewitnesses you had, the stronger your historiography. And if you were really good, you’d write your account within the living memory of those other eyewitnesses. That way, others could go ask the eyewitnesses whether you were writing the truth—and that’s precisely the sort of thing we find with Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
John ‘ups the ante’ one better than that. His testimony isn’t just based on other eyewitnesses, he is the eyewitness to everything he writes about. John is both witness and author, which makes his account all the more trustworthy, and why he adds, “and we know that his testimony is true.” That’s a strange way of putting things: “we know that his testimony is true.” I think John could mean one of two things.
One option is to read the “we” as another way John refers to himself. It’s like he’s saying, “I” but with “we.” This is a common practice among ancient and modern writers, and it even seems that John uses “we” the same way in other places. It’s found on the lips of Jesus in 3:11: “we speak of what we know…” but he’s talking about himself (cf. John 3:32). John seems to use it this way later in 1 John 1:4, “we are writing these things,” yet the rest of his letter plainly says, “I am writing these things (cf. 1 John 2:1, 7-8, 12-14, 21, 26; 5:13). And then again in 3 John 12, “we also add our testimony,” and he seems to be referring to himself as an authoritative eyewitness to Jesus.
So that’s one option. But as I reread John’s Gospel this week, I’m inclined to think a bit differently. Test it for yourself. You see, as John lays out his story, he’s building a case for why you should trust in Jesus (20:30-31). He’s trying to convince you that Jesus really is the Christ the Son of God, and that you should believe in him. And so throughout the Gospel, he’s called several witnesses to the stand—so to speak—and they are as follows: John the Baptist (1:7, 8, 15, 32; 3:28; 5:33), Jesus himself (3:11, 32; 4:44; 5:31; 13:21; 18:37), Jesus’ works (5:36; 10:25), the Father (5:37; 8:18), the Old Testament Scriptures (5:39), the crowd who witnessed Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead (12:17), the Holy Spirit (15:26), and the eleven disciples as a group (15:27). Eight witnesses, and now John continues adding his own to say, “and we know that his testimony is true”—meaning John and the others bearing witness with him (19:35; 20:30-31; 21:24).
Regardless of which way you go, the point is that John has left us with an abiding, trustworthy eyewitness testimony. And what he has born witness to is the greatness of Jesus Christ. That’s what he means by the last words in verse 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.”
I was talking to Bryan Walker this week, and Bryan described John’s Gospel as a black hole of sorts. Its depth and weight and density suck you inside and won’t let you out. There’s just too much glory packed within it. And just to think, John is saying that, in comparison to who Jesus is and what he’s done, even John’s contribution is small. It’s certainly sufficient, but it’s small: “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
Jesus is that great to John. John has seen Jesus’ glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father full of grace and truth (1:14). He knows the unending breadth of what it means for the eternal Word to become flesh and dwell among us (1:1-3, 14). You see, you can’t read John’s statement and just think of a few miracles Jesus did here and there, with each one as its own contained revelatory event. No, for Jesus to be God means that his entire life as God-man on earth is constant revelation of the glory of God—of which there is no end. Jesus’ person, Jesus’ words, Jesus’ works all give constant revelation of God to the world.
And not only that, everything about Jesus’ life on earth is in some fashion or another linked with God’s prior self-revelation in Scripture. And so even within John’s Gospel you can’t hardly read a paragraph without seeing some link to how Jesus’ person and work aligns with the testimony of the Old Testament; and that creates its own development as well. You can’t hardly hold all of them in your mind at once when you read John’s Gospel.
You want to know who you should worship? Jesus is God (1:1). You want to know where you came from? Jesus created you (1:2-3). You want to know how to have life? Jesus is the Life (1:4). Are you trapped in darkness right now? Jesus is the Light of the World (1:5). Do you have a sin problem? Jesus is God’s Passover Lamb that takes away your sins (1:29). You need a man full of the Spirit to lead you? Jesus is God’s Anointed One (1:33). How will we ever get out of the sin Adam put us in to begin with? Jesus is the Son of God, a new Adam (1:34). Who will stand as your representative before God and bring the kingdom of peace? Jesus is the King of Israel (1:49). How are you supposed to meet with God? Jesus is the new and better temple (2:18-21). Who’s going to remove my curse of death? Jesus is the Son of Man who becomes a curse in your place (3:14). Who can clothe me with new garments of righteousness? Jesus is the Bridegroom who’s come to purify his Bride (3:29). Where can I find true love? Jesus (3:16). What about my adultery? Jesus will give you living water (4:1-14). And I’m only to chapter three, folks. Jesus is great!
You could write volumes upon volumes on each of these subjects and never exhaust the depth of their glories. And not only that, John doesn’t just pick each of them up and set them down, he keeps them going throughout his Gospel adding more and more, so that they’re all held together as he races to the cross and resurrection, showing how each relate to one another in one and the same person of Jesus, bringing your salvation. And we can’t even stop there, because the first deed Jesus did in this Gospel was create the world. His deeds go all the way back to creation. And John even presses us back before the foundation of the world in chapter 17, where Jesus’ prayer reveals the Son’s mission to die for his people before creating that world. Indeed, if it was humanly possible to write about all that Jesus did, and tease them out in relation to all he created, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
Jesus truly is that great, and John’s testimony about Jesus’ greatness still abides, it continues today in the words written here. You see the call to follow Jesus in taking up our cross isn’t a call to lesser greatness, to lesser joy, to lesser pleasure. The call to take up our cross is a call to true greatness found in Jesus, to greater joy found in Jesus, to endless pleasure found in Jesus—because Jesus is truly great.
In our passage, Jesus commands Peter outside of himself to find something infinitely greater in following Jesus. It’s as if he’s saying, “Come on, Peter. Don’t toy around with silly comparisons to John. Follow the one who is incomparably great. Follow me!” And then John turns to you and me and points us in the same direction.
It’s as if John is saying, “Stop boring yourself with your comparisons, and come follow greatness. Stop striving after empty ambitions in this world, and come satisfy yourself with Jesus’ joy. Stop finding your life in the lesser pleasures of the world, and come find true pleasure in following Jesus. I was with him for three years, and I know that his worth is beyond all comparison. Come with me and find life in following him. Read my testimony and let it transform your mind about what is truly great, because I have seen what is truly great—his name is Jesus.” The only God at the Father’s side, he has made him known (1:18).
So how are we encouraged to take up our cross daily for Christ? We can take up our cross daily, because Jesus knows our future. Nothing will come to us apart from his loving hands. We can trust him. We can take up our cross daily, because Jesus is enough for us—we can rest content in him. He is our reward. And we can take up our cross daily, because Jesus is great. There are no competitors to his greatness. And we can take every confidence—based on this abiding eyewitness testimony—that he will satisfy our souls.
More in The Gospel According to John
May 17, 2015Loving Jesus & Feeding His People at All Costs
May 10, 2015Believing the Apostle's Testimony When Not Seeing Jesus
May 3, 2015Christ & The Church’s Mission, Power, & Authority