“Follow Me”
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“Follow Me”

John 21:20–25  (ID: 3667)

When the resurrected Jesus appeared to Peter, recommissioned him, and told him what the future held, the restored disciple had to confront the task before him. Initially, his attention was focused on his friend John—perhaps in empathy or concern, or perhaps in jealousy. Yet Jesus redirected Peter and echoed His initial invitation to follow Him. While Peter and John were different men with different instincts and convictions, they shared the same hope: that one day, after He had gone, Jesus would return to bring His people home.

Series Containing This Sermon

“Truly, Truly, I Say to You…”

Twenty-Five Divine Declarations from John’s Gospel John 1:1–21:25 Series ID: 29001

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn again to the Gospel of John, first of all to 1:35 and then to 21:20.

John 1:35:

“The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?’ And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’ So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We[’ve] found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).”

And then in chapter 21 and in verse 20:

“[This same] Peter 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?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’ So 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?’

“This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

“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.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Well, let’s just pause and pray together once again:

Our Father in heaven, who made us that we might serve you and follow you, we need to acknowledge with sorrow and contrition of heart that we do tolerate the faults and failures of our lives, and even in this day that is now past. Too long, Father, we have tried your patience. Too often we have betrayed your sacred trust—the trust that you’ve given us to keep. And yet you’re still willing that we should come to you—come to you in lowliness of heart, as we seek now to do, beseeching you to drown out our transgressions in the sea of your own infinite love. Our failure to be true even to our own accepted standards, our self-deception in face of temptation, our choosing of the worse when we know the better, Lord, forgive us—our failure to apply to ourselves the standards of conduct we demand of others; our blindness to the suffering of others and our slowness to be taught of our own; our complacency towards wrongs that do not touch our own case and our oversensitiveness to those that do; our slowness to see the good in our brothers and sisters and to see the evil in myself; our hardness of heart toward our neighbor’s faults and our readiness to make allowance for our own; our unwillingness to believe that you have called us just to a small work and one of our brothers and sisters to a greater work. Create in us clean hearts, O God. Renew a right spirit within us. Cast us not away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of our salvation, and give to us the strength of a willing spirit through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Well, before we share in a song and then in Communion together, we come back to where we were this morning, where we left off. We essentially begin where we ended, and we pick it up at the twentieth verse here, with Peter turning and seeing the disciple. Peter has been recommissioned by the Lord Jesus, and Jesus has informed him very clearly about what awaits him at the end of his earthly journey. His martyrdom awaits him; it will come in due course. But in the meantime, the direction for Peter is absolutely clear.

What Peter Heard

And I want just to walk through this passage, noticing it as it comes, noticing first of all what Peter heard. What did he hear? What was it that he heard said to him?

If you look back up to verse 19, it was a straightforward statement: “Follow me.” And as we noted this morning, this is, of course, how it all began in Peter’s life and in the life of his fellow disciples: a call to follow Jesus and the promise that Jesus would make of those who became his followers “fishers of men.”[1] And you have that wonderful picture there that we read in the first chapter. It’s as though he says to Peter, “So, you are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas.”

And if you noticed—as I’m sure you probably did—in the examination of Peter this morning that took place, Jesus does not refer to him as Peter, but he refers to him as Simon. Simon essentially means “shaky.” In Jesus, Peter was to become rocklike. And yet in his denials, he was anything but rocklike. And I think Jesus very pointedly is making that statement to him as he addresses him, “Simon, son of John.”

He had explained to Peter, back in chapter 13, that he was going away. He told him that he couldn’t come with him. Peter challenged him on that: “Why can I not come?”[2] And Jesus said, “Where I[’m] going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow [me] afterward.”[3] And, of course, little did Peter know just what was going to be involved in following Jesus afterward.

And the path that he was to walk between that statement, then, and where we find him now was not a straight path. He was, by personality, created by God. He was an adventuresome soul, he talked a lot, he was a leader, he was an initiator, and all of those things under God. And yet he had the capacity to be unbelievably audacious, to mark himself out as distinct from the company of those who were his brethren.

And there can be little doubt that that temptation, succumbed to on his part, led in large measure to his collapse. But that collapse, as we said this morning, was not the end. With God, failure need never be final. And he gives him the opportunity for reaffirmation, and in humility of heart he explains to Jesus, “I really do love you, and you know me, Jesus, and you know that I love you.”[4]

With God, failure need never be final.

And then, of course, with that having been said, this little scenario unfolds. And what he’s now hearing is the echo from the shoreline, the call to follow him. He hears this now through different ears, we might say. He hears this through ears that have been quickened and renewed by an understanding, now, of where he had been and how gracious Jesus had been, understanding that all of the teaching of Jesus was now unfolding in a way that he’d never fully grasped, understanding that all that Jesus was saying about not being able to come had to do with the death of Jesus, and also in the awareness of the resurrection of Jesus.

And I think this is really a huge turning point, pre-Pentecost, in the life of Peter—that he now is able to say that he wants to do what Jesus wants him to do, but he’s not going to try and fish for people in his own strength. There’s a wonderful hymn; it’s a baptismal hymn for many. It begins, “O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end.” And in the second or third verse it reads,

O let me see your footprints
And in them plant my own;
My hope to follow duly
Is in your strength alone.[5]

And so, at this point, Peter is beginning to grasp what Paul would later write to the Galatians: “The life I now life in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”[6] That’s what he’s hearing.

What Peter Saw

In verse 20, we discover what it is that he saw: “Peter turned and saw the disciple”—“turned and saw the disciple” that is identified here. I found it quite interesting—I hope you do too—that John plays this important role in the life of Peter so many times. We know from back in chapter 13 that when they were reclining at the table, John, because of his intimacy with Jesus, was closest to Jesus. And when Jesus had said that someone was going to betray him, Peter actually says to John, “Hey, can you find out who it is?”[7] And so Peter was then on the receiving end of the response that came from the lips of Jesus, but actually via John himself.

The same thing happened this morning, as you will perhaps have noticed. The stranger on the shore is then identified by John.[8] Peter finds out who this stranger is because John has a spirit of discernment—a spirit of discernment that I think was not necessarily granted to Peter. They’re very different characters. John is a writer; Peter is a preacher. John is a thinker; Peter is an initiator. They’re different people, put together by God’s design in order to serve God in the way in which he has made them. And it is this individual, this John fellow, that Peter turned and saw.

You’ll notice it says, “[And he] turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and [he] said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’” The fact is that he sees him. He sees him. And I think he sees him, and he sees him.

You know how when you see somebody, and then you see somebody? And I imagine that he looks at him, and he sees him. I thought that it said in my text that he saw him twice. Does it say that? Yes, it does say it twice! I was looking for it, and I couldn’t see it. I interrupted myself. Notice, verse 20: “Peter turned and saw the disciple.” Then verse 21: “When Peter saw him…” We already knew that he saw him! Why’d he tell us a second time that he saw him? Because I’m suggesting to you that he saw him. He looked at him. He looked at him, a familiar figure, a companion, a friend, a fellow disciple. And when he looked at him, it stirred something in him.

What Peter Said

Because notice what he said. That’s verse 21. What he heard: “Follow me.” What he saw: “The disciple.” What he said: “When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’”

It’s fascinating that he calls him “this man” as well, isn’t it? Why didn’t he just say, “What about John?” “What about this man?” Why is he asking? Is he asking out of a sense of empathy? Is he asking because he is the beneficiary of so much that John has done for him, and so, now that Jesus has explained to him what’s going to happen to him in the end, he’s concerned about what will happen to John? That would be an empathetic response, wouldn’t it? A concern for his well-being.

If it’s not empathy, is it simply curiosity? Is it just an understandable reaction? He looks at him, and he finds himself saying, “You know, you’ve told me that I am going to die, and I’m going to die in a particular way. Is what you’ve told me about me also what’s going to happen to this man?” That would be curiosity.

Or is it perhaps a hint of jealousy? After all, how long can you hang about with people, and the fellow that you’re with a lot of the time is known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”? “Well, what about me? Does he love me?” Well, he seems to have a certain intimacy. In fact, it goes the whole way through the letter, doesn’t it? It could be jealousy. After all, Peter could say, “This fellow John, he seems to have an inside track. He gets closest to Jesus. He’s the one who identified that it was Jesus on the shore. He was in the courtyard too! How did he get in the courtyard and get out, and I got in the courtyard and got myself in a royal mess?” Answer: You have a big mouth, Peter! John doesn’t—at least in part, right? Jealousy: “Am I being singled out?” Peter, you already singled yourself out by denying Jesus three times. But there it is.

I don’t know. Make your own choice. “When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’”

Now, here’s Jesus’ response in verse 22. I take it that it isn’t empathy, because I think this is something of a rebuke. It sounds that way, doesn’t it? “Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’” That does sound like that, doesn’t it? I think Jesus would have known if he was being empathetic, if he was trying to outdo him by showing him honor.[9] “If it’s my will that he remains until I come…”

Basically, he’s saying, “Listen, Peter, stay in your lane. Mind your own business. Just follow me.” He might have added, “You know, which part of this clear directive are you failing to understand? You’ve got to understand it. It must be the application that is a challenge to you. If you would pay attention to yourself, if you would fulfill the assignment that I’m giving to you, then you won’t have any time for curiosity, and you certainly won’t have any reason for jealousy.”

Now, this is long ago and far away, and these are two fellows out of a larger band. We know that. They are essentially what we might refer to in contemporary terms as partners in the gospel. They’re gospel partners. They’re different from each other. All of them were different from each other. And it was very important for me to think about the fact that we are prone, I am prone—I can be honest, if you would like—I’m prone to neglect what is my calling, to neglect that, and to interfere in the calling that’s been given to somebody else: “What about her? What about him? I mean, what’s going on over there, in that situation?”

And this is not something that’s unique to the Gospels, because when Paul writes, for example, to the Thessalonians, he says to them, “You … have been taught by God to love one another …. We urge you … to do this more and more”—listen—“and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs.”[10] Busybodies in any context—in an office, in a church—create absolute havoc. And part of the answer to that—and every schoolteacher knows it: they have to say constantly to the class, “Brenda, just you concentrate on your own material. Don’t you worry about her. Don’t you worry about him. You take care of this.” It’s a very simple and obvious thing.

But Jesus is essentially saying, “Listen, Peter: John is not your concern. He’s not your concern.” You see, the intimacies of a person’s relationship with Jesus are essentially that: intimacies. There are intimacies, there are intricacies that are part and parcel of a person’s awareness of God and walk with God and following of God. It’s a shared experience in that the call is the same to us, but the experience of it is different. And we have different people who are partners in the gospel.

Bruce Milne helped me when, in writing on this, he actually said we need to remember that we, in serving the cause of Jesus, serve alongside those whose “calling[s] and gifts may be,” will be, “different” from our own. Even “their instincts,” and their “convictions in certain matters, may not coincide with our own.”[11] Fact! Fact!

Sinclair Ferguson was here. I esteem him in the Lord. He has a strange view of baptism, as far as I’m concerned. He doesn’t think that for a minute, because he’s convinced that I have a distinct view of baptism. It’s two very different ways of going at things. We’re partners in the gospel—unless, of course, you’re going to make a view of baptism the distinguishing feature of your relationships with other people. No, we do differ from them, and we thank God for them, and we thank God that often we are inspired and encouraged by them.

I remember years ago, I was with Dick Lucas in London, and we were having coffee. And I asked him about a particular person who was very influential and well-known throughout the community of faith, and I had a question for him. And in the course of the conversation, I remember he said to me, in his distinctive tones, “You know, brother, he is a problem, but he is our brother in Christ.” “He’s a problem, but he is our brother in Christ.”

I think there’s a lesson here for us at this point in the church. I just came back from Europe to see how the importation of divisions in America are funneled into the European context. The people that can’t get on with one another in the North American continent go into Europe and offer to them the same kind of isolated commitment that knows very little of gospel partnerships across the divisions of various secondary matters. It is really quite disturbing.

You remember the somewhat humorous anecdote about the man who was converted, healed by Jesus. He was blind. Jesus put mud on his eyes and healed him. Sometime later on, he met another man who had been healed from his blindness, and the man said to him, “And so I take it that he put mud on your eyes?” “Oh, no,” said the man. “No, there was no mud in my case.” And that then gave rise to two new denominations: the Muddites and the Non-Muddites. They were unable to rejoice in the fact of what Jesus had done in their lives. It had to be done in my way, in a certain way.

And there is a lesson here beyond what we’re seeing. And you’ll notice that Jesus’ statement here in 22 is then clarified by John in verse 23: “So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die.” And John says, “But Jesus didn’t say he wasn’t going to do die, but just ‘If it is my will that he remain…’” And so John is explaining this was hypothetical.

But that’s the way that rumors start, isn’t it? “So the saying spread abroad among the brothers.” It was wrong, and somebody had to make it clear that it was wrong—the danger of traditions that begin to take hold that are not actually with biblical foundations at all. Bishop Ryle, commenting along those lines, says, you know, “The moment a Christian departs from God’s Word written, and allows “… tradition” [and] authority” to take the place alongside Scripture, “he plunges into a jungle of uncertainty,” and such an individual “will be happy if he does not make shipwreck of his faith altogether.”[12] Only the Bible, sola scriptura.

We will never, ever exhaust our discovery of the unsearchable riches of Christ.

Verse 24, John is now signing off. He’s coming to the end of the letter. And once again he introduces himself in the third person: “This is the disciple.” “This is the disciple who[’s] bearing witness about these things.” “I have told the truth. I’ve tried to do so with great clarity. There are also many other things, but we know that this testimony is true.”

Who’s the “we”? Maybe the elders in the church in Ephesus. Maybe it’s kind of the royal “we,” almost, which is there at the beginning: “We have seen and we know.” That’s how the letter begins, the Gospel begins.[13] Now he says, “And we know that this testimony is true, and we are going to see the things that we have had described to us.” Because you will notice that little phrase that I passed over: “If it is my will that he remain until I come…” “Until I come.” Jesus had made it clear to them that he was going to leave, but he was going to come back. He told them that a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice, and they will arise.[14] He told them very tenderly at the beginning of 14, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled; you believe in God,” and so on; “I’m going, but I will come back for you”[15]—that there is a crowning day that is coming.

Paul, as he comes to the end of his second letter, is addressing it; he says, “I am being poured out now like a drink offering. The time for my departure has come. And there is laid up for me a crown—but not only for me,” he says, “but for all who long for his appearing.”[16] And what a wonderful privilege it is to anticipate that!

One more insight from Bruce Milne that just was such a gem that I have to pass it on to you—and it’s the reason why I read those opening verses in chapter 1. This never occurred to me, but it’s so good that I want to pass it on to you. Milne says as this ends, we follow Jesus—we follow Jesus—until, either before or after our earthly death, he will turn around and look at us, and we’ll see him face to face, and we’ll ask him where he’s staying.[17] Isn’t that fabulous? I mean, that’s so good. I just wish I’d thought of that. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Come and see.” And they went to see where he was staying. And Milne says there will come a day when he’ll turn around, and we’ll say to him, “Teacher, where do you stay?” And he’ll say, “You come and join me.” And on that occasion, he will actually be inviting us to come and to see, to take us to the place that will be in fulfillment of his own prayer in John 17: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”[18]

Now, John says, “There’s actually so much more. There’s no book that can tell it all. The Gospel points us in the right direction. I suppose that the world itself couldn’t contain the books that could be written”—all the things that Jesus did, all the things that Jesus said, without even thinking about the preincarnate reality of Christ within the framework of the Trinity. You just think about that for a moment; it’ll make your head spin. We’re going to be able to spend the whole of eternity thinking these things out, and we will never, ever exhaust our discovery of the unsearchable riches of Christ. But for now: Eyes forward. Stay in your lane. Don’t get distracted. This is basic stuff. Jesus says, “Follow me.” “Follow me.”

Father, thank you. Thank you for the clarity of the Bible. Any lack of clarity is mine. Thank you for the straightforwardness and kindness of Jesus. Thank you for the way we see in the lives of these men their humanity, the fact that you chose these very different individuals—Thomas the doubter, Nathanael, the Sons of Thunder, Philip with all of his follow-up questions. And we look around on one another, and we realize what a wonderful panorama we have of your amazing grace. And how good that we can acknowledge that we belong entirely to you and that it is as we follow close to you that we live in proximity with one another! And how good that we can end our day breaking bread together and receiving from your hand that which you provided for us, just as you did on the shoreline on that morning! So, prepare our hearts for the moments that lie ahead. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17 (ESV).

[2] John 13:37 (paraphrased).

[3] John 13:36 (ESV).

[4] John 21:17 (paraphrased).

[5] John Ernest Bode, “O Jesus, I Have Promised” (1868). Language modernized.

[6] Galatians 2:20 (ESV).

[7] See John 13:23–24.

[8] John 21:7.

[9] See Romans 12:10.

[10] 1 Thessalonians 4:9–11 (ESV).

[11] Bruce Milne, The Message of John: Here Is Your King!, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 319.

[12] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. John (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1878), 3:469

[13] See John 1:14; 1 John 1:1.

[14] See John 5:28–29.

[15] John 14:1–3 (paraphrased).

[16] 2 Timothy 4:6, 8 (paraphrased).

[17] Bruce, Message of John, 320.

[18] John 17:24 (ESV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.