We hear some Scripture passages more than others over the course of our Christian lives, especially the Gospel stories surrounding Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. One of these is the account of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples, cooking them fish on the beach, and restoring His relationship with Simon Peter after Peter’s denial.
Follow Me into Death
I’m familiar enough with the story that I could probably recite it from memory (153 fish!). But the Holy Spirit works through even familiar Bible passages to show us something new. This time, God focused me on these verses.
[Jesus] said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” and he said to Him, “Lord, You know everything; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep. 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.” (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.”
Here in John 21: 17–19, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls Peter for a second time. The first time (see Matthew 4:18–19), Jesus promised to make him a “fisher of men,” with no other indication of what was ahead. Now, Jesus tells Peter what is to come. Peter is called to care for the “sheep,” the followers of Jesus, and at the end, to suffer a painful and humiliating death—the death Jesus Himself endured.
In this moment, Jesus invites Peter to count the cost of following Him. “Follow Me into death,” Jesus says, with no apology, with no softening of the pain of what is to come. Jesus is perfectly confident that loving and following Him is worth the price. He makes no promise here other than death—no mention of reward in this life or in the life to come.
A Sense of Injustice
Then Peter turns and sees “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and perhaps a sense of injustice creeps in. In verse 21, Peter says, essentially, “Hey, what about him? Will he also meet a terrible end?” Unspoken, perhaps, is some insecurity: “Jesus, do You love him more than me?
I confess that I’ve asked similar questions of God when I’ve faced troubles in my life. It seems unfair to us when we’re suffering and other people are not. Years ago, while we were struggling with infertility, I saw a news report about a mother arrested for child abuse. My heart ached as I flung out angry prayers—prayers that sounded a lot like, “Hey, what about her? This is unfair!”
Jesus gives Peter advice that applies to all of us: focus on following Jesus, not on what anyone else does. And in fact, these words are the last direct quote of Jesus in John. Jesus’s last recorded words in this Gospel are, basically, “What is that to you? You follow Me!”
Suffering and Joy
Jesus calls Peter into a life of caring for others as an expression of his love for Jesus, and he speaks with confidence that this life will be worth the painful death. For Jesus did not call Peter to a life or a death that Jesus had not already experienced. Consider Hebrews 12:1-2:
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Jesus already knew that the joy was worth the pain. Jesus suffered for the joy of redeeming us and drawing us into a relationship with him. In John 21, He calls Peter to a similar suffering and a similar joy.
As we read this story, we too are called to count the cost of following Jesus. We know from the rest of the New Testament that Peter answered the call of Jesus that day, going on to shepherd the growing movement of Jesus’ followers. And according to Church tradition, Peter was crucified for his faith, just as Jesus said.
“Follow Me,” Jesus said to Peter and still says to us today. For Peter, even martyrdom was not too high of a cost for the joy of following Jesus. As we read this story, Jesus invites us, too, to follow Him into a life of sacrifice, love for others, and the joy of knowing our Savior better and better each day.
Learn about Peter’s calling to suffer and live in the joy of Christ with the LifeLight: 1 and 2 Peter Study Guide