Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “To follow Christ is to obey Christ.” The apostles had the privilege of literally “coming after” Jesus. For them, following Jesus meant geography, physicality, and proximity. But after Jesus’ resurrection their following of him became more like ours. Obedience outstripped physical presence.
The lesson text today picks up where we left off last week, and we transition from catching fish to herding sheep. The last breakfast set the stage for the shoreline stroll. One can only imagine what that breakfast was like. Fresh fish and fried bread had to be intoxicating. But to be in fellowship with the resurrected Christ and stroll with him down the beach had to make Peter and John feel like they were in the Garden of Eden.
Following Christ Means Caring for Others
It looks as if Jesus and Peter broke away from the other six disciples and walked alongside the Sea (even though the text does not say that specifically)—and John was evidently not far from this rather private conversation (v. 20). Evidently Peter’s favorite number was three: three denials, three affirmations of love, and three instances of the sheet let down from Heaven in Acts 10. Jesus was not trying to get Peter to grouse about pleading for grace for his denials. Instead he wanted to set Peter on a new course of service.
To love God is to take good care of people. So Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. Each time Peter responded in the affirmative. Each time Jesus challenged him with pastoral duties. Three sets of words float around in this passage. There are different words for love, and feed and take care as well as lambs and sheep are seemingly used interchangeably. The different Greek words for love (agapao and phileo) might have a slight nuance of difference, but if there were an intended difference, it probably was not a matter of Jesus adjusting his word (which he did), but rather Peter thinking that Jesus was using the stronger term (indicating love within family).
Peter was not hurt (grieved) because Jesus used a less family-oriented word. He was hurt that Jesus asked him a third time about his love. Biblical love is not stoic and cerebral. It has some emotion in it. But its accent is benevolent good will toward another. It shows up in caring for peoples’ needs. The metaphor of shepherding is the main image of taking care of God’s people in both testaments. To follow Christ means to care for people.
Following Christ Means Laying One’s Life on the Line
Both Peter and John had to lay their lives on the line for Jesus. Peter did it with martyrdom, and John did it by living a long life of service. Some die early (Acts 12:2). Some die late (Genesis 5:27). We must be prepared to die, but we must also be prepared to live. Following Christ means being faithful in either circumstance. Jesus addressed Peter directly and John indirectly.
Jesus underlined the seriousness of Peter’s impending martyrdom by using the formula, “Very truly.” Jesus used this rhetorical device when he wanted to emphasize the truthfulness of something. Literally it means, “So be it; so be it.” In Peter’s youth he was free in regard to his dress and his movement. There would come a day, though, when he would not be in charge of his own destiny. Tradition says that years later, at Peter’s request, he was crucified upside down. But through that death he would glorify God. This is the only occasion in John’s Gospel where glorified is not used of the triune God.
John was evidently close by, and Peter asked Jesus about him. John used this occasion to tell us that he was the one who sat next to Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:24-26). Peter seemed to want to play the comparison game (see 2 Corinthians 10:12). Evidently others took Jesus’ statement to mean that John would not die before Jesus’ return, but John set the record straight by saying that Jesus did not say that. That became a rumor (word).
Following Christ Means Being Continually Enamored by him
John concluded his testimony about Jesus by giving an apologetic statement (v. 24) and a hyperbolic statement (v. 25). John claimed to have written the truth but also to have written about only a portion of the life of Jesus. Today there are whole libraries filled with books about Jesus. Maybe part of following Jesus is to be continually enamored by him.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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