Monday, May 16, 2016

Following Jesus Into Future Glory (John 21:18-23)

In the 1944 film, “It Happened Tomorrow,” Dick Powell plays the role of Lawrence Stevens, a downcast journalist whose career takes an unexpected turn when he gains access to tomorrow’s newspaper containing news stories about things that have yet to happen. As one might expect, knowing the future turns out to be more of a burden than a blessing as the story unfolds. It is an appealing plotline that resurfaces often in television, movies, and novels. We are drawn to this idea because there is something inherent in all of us that longs to know what the future holds. The Bible tells us clearly of some things will definitely happen in the future, though the specifics of when and how those things will take place are often not spelled out in great detail. But, for the most part, the specific details of what the future holds for each of us individually have been hidden from us. This is something for which we can thank God! Imagine if, ten years ago, you had been told all that would take place over the next decade. You may have been overwhelmed to consider the circumstances that would transpire. God, in His wisdom, has not revealed the future to us in detail; but in His providence, He prepares us day by day to face the future as we walk with Him by faith. He gives us just enough light for the next step we take as we follow Him.

In our text today, Peter becomes an exception to this general principle. In a private conversation with the Risen Lord Jesus, Peter is told of his own future. Jesus tells him in verse 18, “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.” Some have understood this to be a proverb about the nature of human life. In our youth, we are free from care and live independently, doing whatever we want to do; but in our old age, we become frail and have to be helped along and cared for by others. However, this interpretation sorely misses the obvious point of the statement. For one thing, John tells us plainly that the statement was intended to signify “what kind of death” Peter would experience (v19). The place “where you do not wish to go” is death. In the first century Roman world, the phrase “stretch out your hands” referred euphemistically to crucifixion, as the condemned criminal would have his hands stretched out and tied to the horizontal beam of the cross, before being compelled to carry it on one’s shoulders to the place of execution. There it would be fastened to the upright beam, and the hands would be nailed in place before the cross was raised and positioned in the ground. John knew that is what these words meant. Peter knew it too. Likely all those who originally read these words would have understood it plainly, even without John’s explanation in verse 19.

As the text unfolds, we find truths which are applicable, not just to Peter but to all of us. All of us are called to follow Jesus into a future which we may not know, but which He does. And as we follow Him into that future, He is able to bring glory to Himself. Understanding these truths here and now enable us to follow Jesus into future glory.

So, we begin with the first of these truths …

I. Only Jesus knows our future (v18)

I’m sure many, if not most of us, have been in a situation where we were giving care to a loved one who was drawing near to death. During those times, we hear professionals tell us how many days, weeks, or hours we may expect our loved one to live. For four months following my stepfather’s stroke last December, nearly every day, a different doctor would come in and tell us something different. One would say, “I think we are looking at a few days here.” Another would say, “In six weeks, I believe the worst of this will be behind us.” Back and forth they would go, and with every report, emotions in our family swung like a pendulum between grief and hope. But, with every report, as soon as the doctor left the room, I would remind our family members of this one truth: “There isn’t anyone in this hospital who knows what tomorrow holds. That is only known by God.” In the end, he lived longer than many expected, and died faster that many predicted. But God was not taken by surprise at any point in the journey. He knows our future.

The Psalmist said, “In Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (Psa 139:16). That means, before we ever lived the first day of our lives, the Lord already had the final day marked on His calendar, and He knew the details of every day in between. Jesus said, “Who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” (Mt 6:27). It is impossible to do anything that will add more days to our lives. The Lord already knows them all. I believe it is possible to add life to our days, so that we have strength and energy to serve the Lord and walk with Him all the days that we have, but He already knows what the future holds for each of us. He could tell Peter in exact detail how he would die. He would face a death by crucifixion, just as the Lord Himself endured.

Now, we need to be very clear about something. Just because the Lord knows our future does not mean that He has any intention of telling us about it. That He told Peter does not mean that He will tell anyone else. In fact, if we rightly understand the book of Job, we will see that the Lord may allow terrible things to happen to us without warning or explanation. And it goes along with this that just because the Lord hasn’t disclosed details about our future to us does not mean that He does not know. He knows. He has planned it all by His sovereign design, causing or allowing various things to come into our lives to accomplish His purposes which are known only to Him.

Before we think it unfair of God that He has disclosed Peter’s future to him, but does not normally do this for us, we need to consider the ramifications of such knowledge. Notice what Jesus did not tell Peter. He told him how he would die, but He didn’t tell him when or where, or even why. According to tradition, Peter died under the persecution of Emperor Nero in Rome around 67 AD. That being so, it means that Peter lived for over 30 years with this knowledge hanging over his head. But this knowledge did not cause Peter to waver from his faith as he followed Jesus. He continued to live for Him and serve Him, to shepherd the Lord’s flock and proclaim the Lord’s message, never knowing if any particular day might be his last, but knowing that he would suffer in the same manner as his Master at some point when the end of his life came. He knew what the future held, and we do not, but in either case, it is more important that we know the One who holds the future, and who knows it perfectly because He is choreographing our lives to accomplish His purposes in and through us.

Peter’s knowledge of how he would die does not really give him that much advantage over the rest of us. After all, we all know that, unless the Lord hastens His return, we will all die. Hebrews 9:27 tells us that it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment. We may not know how (as Peter did), but like Peter we do not know when, where, or why. Therefore, we must not be hindered in our efforts to live for Christ and to serve Him. The English Puritan Richard Baxter lived most of his life in ministry at the center of controversy. He was persecuted and imprisoned for his convictions, and forbidden from continuing on in his pastoral role of his church. But he never ceased proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ. He famously said, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” This is how we must all live. We never know which day will be our last, but we know that there will be a last one. The Lord is the only one who knows when, where, or how it will happen. It is not our responsibility to know the details of our own deaths, but rather to live each day of our lives faithfully in His service.

This brings us to the second truth disclosed in this text:

II. Jesus is able to bring glory to Himself through our lives and our deaths (v19a)

God is always relentlessly pursuing His own glory. The Westminster Catechism opens with the familiar statement that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The chief end of man is to glorify God because there is no greater aim in life than to bring glory to God. This is man’s chief end because it is God’s chief end. The greatest thing God can do in the world is to bring glory to Himself. And, in so doing, He graciously chooses to use the likes of us. Just as the Lord Jesus harnessed every moment of every day of His earthly life as an opportunity to bring glory to His Father, so we too can bring glory to God as we walk with Jesus through the ordinary and extraordinary moments of life. But as Jesus drew near to His own death, He spoke of even death as an occasion through which His Father would be glorified in Him. At the Last Supper, after Judas left the room to go out to set the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in motion, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him” (Jn 13:31). In His High Priestly Prayer, which He prayed just hours before His death on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You” (17:1). And here as the Risen Lord speaks privately to Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, He speaks of how Peter himself will be crucified. John says, “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God” (v19).

Throughout his life, Peter had glorified God in many ways. Walking away from a lucrative career as a fisherman to follow Jesus was a God-glorifying step of faith. When Jesus asked His disciples who they understood Him to be, Peter spoke up saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” and that confession of faith brought glory to God. Though he would falter and fail the Lord in his denials and defection, his restoration to Christ by his threefold confession of his love for Him in the previous passage brought glory to God for His matchless grace. Today is the Day of Pentecost, which commemorates that day recorded in Acts 2 when God poured out His Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus. And on that day, Peter preached boldly to the gathering of those from many nations in Jerusalem, and God was glorified as thousands were saved under Peter’s preaching. And as the days of Peter’s life played out, he continued to bring glory to God, serving Him faithfully as a pastor and a preacher. But as Peter’s death drew near, God was not finished using Peter as a vessel of His glory. Through the horrendous ordeal of crucifixion, God would bring glory to the Lord Jesus through the death of Peter. His steadfast faithfulness to Christ in the face of persecution and death brought glory to Christ, who empowered and enabled Him to endure this suffering while holding on to Jesus by faith without wavering. What Peter had promised to do earlier, to lay down his life for Christ, he was powerless to do in his own strength. But, endued with power from on high by the indwelling Holy Spirit, Peter was able to live up to his words and glorify God by remaining faithful unto death.

The words of Jesus stayed with Peter over the next three decades. He lived to see oppression and persecution arise against the Christian faith. He saw local skirmishes, regional uprisings, and the first of many imperial pogroms. The Roman historian Tacitus records the maniacal rage that Nero poured out on the Church, saying that the execution of them became something of a sport. They were wrapped in the hides of animals and thrown to wild dogs to be eaten. They were set on fire and impaled in Nero’s garden to illuminate a festive chariot race, with Nero himself participating in the games. And of course, they were nailed to crosses, as even Peter himself would be, according to the Lord’s own word. Peter saw the build up over the decades, and saw his friends – his brothers and sisters in the faith, from his fellow apostles to the members of his own church – suffering through these horrific ordeals. He wrote to suffering Christians in his first epistle,

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or a thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. (1 Pet 4:12-16)

He knew that the Lord’s word would be soon fulfilled in his life. In his last epistle, he said “[I know] that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.” How it must have encouraged those who suffered alongside of Peter, and who suffered for Christ after his death to know that he remained faithful to Christ and that his death was used to bring glory to Jesus! And it has this effect on those who suffer for the sake of Christ today, and who endure in faithfulness until death.

Matthew Henry said, “it is the great concern of every good man, whatever death he dies, to glorify God in it …. When we die patiently, submitting to the will of God,--die cheerfully, rejoicing in hope of the glory of God,--and die usefully, witnessing to the truth and goodness of religion and encouraging others, we glorify God in dying: and this is the earnest expectation and hope of all good Christians.”[1]

Death may come by natural causes, or it may be precipitated by persecution of our faith, but however it comes, may we be found faithfully clinging to Christ in that moment, that our deaths may glorify God as much or more than our lives have. When we look at a map of the most unreached people in the world today, we see that the greatest concentration of them are found in hard places where the Gospel is suppressed and Christians are persecuted. Someone asked me recently about the safety of traveling to a country that the State Department has listed on its “Do Not Travel” list. I responded that I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a country which was not on that list. But my prayer, and my confident assurance, is this: that God is able to bring at least as much glory to the Lord Jesus through the deaths of His people as He can through their lives, and if He should will that my death be used to bring Him glory, then I cannot ask for more in life. We will not all die as martyrs, but we can all bring glory to Jesus – whether we live or whether we die – by holding fast to Him in faith and having a ready testimony on our lips to share with others in life and in death. As Paul says in Romans 8:13, “If we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”

We come now to the third truth here in this text:

III. The task of every Christian is to follow Jesus (vv19b-23)

The first recorded words in the Gospels that Jesus spoke to Peter are found in Matthew 4:19. The words were simple: “Follow Me.” The last recorded words in the Gospels spoken to Peter by Jesus are the same: “Follow Me.” The Christian life is most often described in the New Testament by verbs and not nouns. It is to follow Jesus, it is to walk, to go, to serve, to do. The New Testament is clear that we do not become Christians by what we do, but once we have been saved by grace through faith, our lives in Christ are described in terms of action. We are on a mission with Christ and for Christ. We follow Him, come what may, in good days and bad days. The present imperative tense of this verb in our text indicates that we are always to be following Him, going where He goes, doing what He does. It was the first calling of Peter, and the last calling of Peter, and it is the same for each of us as well.

Now, at a young age, I suppose most of us learned to play a game called “Follow the Leader.” When you are following the leader, you have to keep your eyes on the leader so you will know where the leader is going, and you keep moving forward in step with the leader. Take your eyes off the leader for a moment, and you miss the next step, and you lose. We all know how that game goes. Now, notice here in our text that in verse 19, Jesus tells Peter, “Follow Me,” and what does it say next? “Peter, turning around.” No, Peter, you lose. You took your eyes off the Leader. You would think he would’ve known better. Remember when Jesus walked on the water – it was actually this same body of water where they now stood – and Peter said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And Jesus said, “Come!” And so Peter did, and he walked on the water too. But the Bible says, “seeing the wind, he became frightened,” and he began to sink. He took his eyes off of Jesus and started going under. But here, it was not the wind that caught Peter’s attention.

Verse 20 says, “Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them.” This is John’s customary way of referring to himself throughout this Gospel. Rather than fixing his gaze unflinchingly on the One who commanded him to follow, Peter became distracted by another follower of Jesus, and asked, “Lord, and what about this man?” In other words, “OK, Lord, so I’m going to die a horrible death later, but tell me, what is Your plan for John?” Isn’t that the way it so often goes? Jesus has given us very simple instructions: “Follow Me.” But we get distracted wondering and worrying about what someone else is doing, measuring ourselves against them and making comparisons. Notice Jesus’ answer in verse 22: “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” That is a very polite way of saying, “None of your business!” And that is what the Lord would say to any of us when we become overly concerned with what He is doing with any other Christian.

There are times when we become envious of the blessings of others. There are times when we get discouraged because we see another Christian receiving the applause of men and having dramatic results and fruitfulness in their ministries. We may drift away from what the Lord has called us to do and begin to imitate and emulate their methods and try to copy them. There are also times when we get distracted from following Jesus by the faults and failures of other Christians. We may be tempted to give up on following Jesus because so many others seem to be disingenuous hypocrites. But notice that Jesus never said that we should follow anyone else but Him. We are not to let the successes and failures of other followers deter us from this task. It is none of our business what He does with them, for them, through them, or in spite of them. It is our business to follow Him, no matter what others do. Stop with the comparisons, the competitions, and the copying. Just follow Him.

Here on the day of Pentecost, it is appropriate for us to remember that every follower of Jesus has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit and gifted for service in unique ways. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul tells us that there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; varieties of ministries, but the same Lord; varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But he says, “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” We do not all have the same gifts, the same ministries, or the same effects, but we all have the same Spirit, empowering us for service to the same Lord Jesus, with varying effects, all of which bringing glory to the same God who uses each one uniquely as He sees fit according to His perfect will. That is why we need one another in the church, and why there can be no Lone Ranger Christians. Where one is weak, another is strong; where one lacks ability, another is granted ability. We help one another follow Christ as we follow Him in the way that He has called and equipped each one of us. If another has a different gift, a different ministry, or a different effectiveness, it is none of our business! We should give thanks to God, and keep on following Jesus in the way that He has gifted, called, and blessed us.

Peter’s calling is to serve the Lord for the next three decades, and then embrace the cross. John’s calling is different. Jesus says, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” John is careful to point out that Jesus did not say that he would not die, but only “If I want him to remain until I come.” That little word “if” is very important. How many Christians have fallen into erroneous belief or practice due to a sloppy handling of God’s Word, by which they overlook important little words, or assume a meaning of the Scriptures that God never intended? Following Jesus demands that we keep our eyes on Him, and the best way for us to do that is with an open Bible, giving careful study to exactly what He has said, taking notice as well of what He has not said. His word is our guide as we follow Him, but it will only guide us as we give careful study to it, ensuring that we understand it correctly.

Follow Me. It is a pretty simple thing, isn’t it? There is no promise that it will always be an easy road. The road of Jesus’ earthly life was not free from troubles and suffering, and He has not promised that ours will be either. He alone knows what the future holds, and that fact should enable us to entrust our future into His hands. He knows what our lives will entail, and He knows how they will end. And in either case, He is able to use us to bring glory to Himself if we will but follow Him, come what may. Follow Him on the good days. Follow Him on the bad days. Follow Him no matter what others may be doing. Follow Him, and He will use you in life, and in death to bring glory to Himself.


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