Notes on John 21:20-25

John 21:20‑25  •  5 min. read  •  grade level: 10
The ardent mind of Peter, kindled by the solemn intimation of the Lord, seizes the opportunity to inquire about one so closely linked with him as the beloved disciple. It is hard in this question to discern the jealousy of the active for the contemplative life, of which early and mediaeval writers say much.
“Peter1 turning round seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following (who also at the supper leaned on his breast and said, Lord, who is he that betrayeth thee?); Peter therefore2 seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what [of] this man? Jesus saith to him, If I will that he abide till I come, what [is it] unto thee? follow thou me. This saying therefore went forth among the brethren, that that disciple was [lit. is] not to die; yet Jesus said not to him, that he was [lit. is] not to die; but, If I will that he abide till I come, what [is it] to thee?” (Vers. 20-23.)
It was really loving interest, concerning one more closely associated with himself than his own brother Andrew by the bond of a common affection for Jesus and of Jesus. This made Peter curious to learn about John, now that his own earthly destiny was just revealed. But the gracious Lord, if He reproved in His own gentleness the prying spirit of His servant, did furnish ample matter for thought in the riddle He sets before Peter. One can readily see how shallow is the notion of Augustine and many since his day that the Lord meant no more than John's living to a protracted and placid age in contrast with Peter slain violently in old age, as with his own brother James in youth. Peter emphatically was to follow the Lord even in His death, as far as this could be. Not so John, who was to abide hanging on the will of the Lord till He came. There is evident and intentional mystery in the manner it was spoken of; and some have supposed that the destruction of Jerusalem and the judgment of the Jewish polity are here alluded to; and there is certainly more in such a thought than a merely peaceful death in advanced age, for death is in no true sense the Lord's coming but, rather the converse, our going to Him. We know at any rate that to John it was given to see the Son of man judging the churches, and to have visions not only of God's providential dealings with the world, whether Jews or Gentiles, but of the Lord's return in judgment of the apostate powers of the earth and of the man of sin, in order to the establishment of the long predicted kingdom of God and the times of the restitution of all things.
Out of the Lord's words, perverted as they speedily were, the synagogue seems to have had its fable of the wandering Jew, and Christendom its Prester John, to entertain minds which had lost the truth, either through rejecting Christ, or by turning to superstition.
But this we learn of great practical moment from verse 23, how dangerous it is to trust tradition, even the earliest, and how blessed to have the unerring standard of God's written word. The saying that went forth among the brethren in apostolic times seemed a most natural if not necessary inference from the words of our Lord. But we do not well to accept unreservedly an inferential statement, still less to be drawn into a system built on such deductions. We have the word of the Lord, and faith bows to it for its joy and rest to God's glory. Error easily insinuates itself into the first remove from what He says; as the apostle instructs us here that the Lord did not affirm that that disciple was not to die, but “If I will that he abide till I come.” Yet those who let in this primitive mistake were not enemies, were not grievous wolves or men speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them. It was “among the brethren” that the tradition, unfounded and misleading, got spread. Miracles did not hinder, nor gifts, nor power, nor unity. The mistake arose from reasoning, instead of cleaving to the word of the Lord. The brethren through lack of subjection to God and of distrust in themselves gave the words a meaning, instead of simply receiving from them their true meaning. No wonder another great apostle commends us to God and to the word of His grace; for if we can feebly profit by His word without dependence on Himself, we cannot duly honor Him if we slight His word. And though it is by the Holy Spirit that we are thus kept and blest, even He is in no sort the standard of truth (while He is power in every way), but Christ as revealed in the written word.
Last of all come the personal seal and attestation of the writer. “This is the disciple that beareth witness of these things and wrote these things: and we know that his witness is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that should be written.” (Vers. 24, 25.3) It was John and no other. Every inspired writer preserves none the less his own style and manner; and none more unmistakably than he who wrote the fourth Gospel. Yet what was written is but a sample, selected in divine wisdom, and with a specific plan subserving the grand scope and purpose of divine revelation. If everything which Jesus did were written out, well might the adoring evangelist suppose that the world itself would be too small for the needed books.