During my devotional time this morning, I finished the Gospel of John. I have studied that entire gospel during a class at Princeton Theological Seminary, I taught the Gospel of John a number of times in various Bible studies and classes, and I have heard many sermons on this text. Denominations in the United States have guidelines on how long their sermons should be—the Roman Catholic homily is about 8 minutes, the Presbyterian sermon about 16 minutes, and the Baptists preach 25-30 minutes. Because the sermonic time is limited, most preachers focus on just one part of John 21: the question Jesus asks Peter after he betrayed Him three times. Jesus asks if Peter loves Him. Peter answers in the affirmative, and this section is known as the Restoration of Apostle Peter.
However, there is another main idea in that section which is often left out of sermons. I call this part the Promotion of Peter. In fact, the so-called restoration of Peter is barely three verses. Things get more complicated when Jesus tells Peter, “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” John gives us an authorial interpretation and writes, “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
In the next section John tries to squelch a rumor about himself that he will not die until Christ returns. Then he writes that he is the disciple who testifies to these things and wrote them down, so we can know that his testimony is true. The reason for this testimony and its emphasis on truthfulness is that this chapter reveals something that the other gospel writers do not report. John wants us to know that this was one of those conversations that took place just between the three of them – Jesus, Peter, and John.
Jesus has asked Peter three times if he loves him, and Peter has vowed three times that he does. How does this love story between Jesus and Peter end? It started when Jesus called his disciples with these words: Whoever wants to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me. It concluded in the earthly life of Jesus when he was bound, taken before government officials, and crucified. Church historians place the crucifixion of Jesus in 33 AD and the crucifixion of Peter by Nero’s decree no later than 64 AD. The Gospel spread to all corners of the Roman Empire in 30 years, but by the time it reached Rome all the apostles except John had been martyred.
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After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we can summarize the commandments of Jesus in two phrases – testify about Jesus throughout the whole world and make disciples. Jesus tells us to go into the world, make disciples, and teach all the things that He did. We are told to testify about what God has done through Jesus and make disciples who will continue to tell this story across generations.
When churches closed due to COVID-19, many organizations took the time to do some research about the health of the contemporary church. As we are opening our church buildings again after the worst of the pandemic, we can read many analyses that find us wanting in two areas – testifying about Jesus and making disciples. According to these studies, more than 90% of church members have never testified to anyone about Jesus. We have created church buildings to testify in our stead, but they are silent. If we do not have a testimony about Jesus, does it mean that we have no relationship with Jesus? We often tell people about the church, but not about Jesus. Jesus left a small group—just 12 disciples—but the numbers grew to 120 (Acts 1:15) and then, when Pentecost came, the number rose to 3,000. (Acts 3:41) They were willing to talk about Jesus, and the church grew because of their testimonies.
Jesus came preaching about the Kingdom of God. It is true that Jesus also did lots of healing, but the healing came out of his teaching and preaching. The church has switched its focus from preaching the Gospel to doing good work in our society. That was the first temptation for the apostles in the Book of Acts, when they started taking care of widows in their community. They delegated the administration and care for widows to deacons because, in the words of Peter, they would give their “attention to the prayer and the ministry of the word,” namely giving testimony about Jesus. We have to take care of each other and our communities, but the job of the church is to preach the Gospel and glorify God.
When people today are asked why they do not testify about Jesus, they answer that they are afraid of being rejected, marginalized, or even persecuted. When Jesus told his followers to spread the Gospel, he started with the worst thing that can happen to us – persecution and death. If we understand the potential cost, we can still follow Jesus with joy because we love him so much. “Born like him, like him we rise, hallelujah!”
The world around us has drastically changed in this pandemic. Will the church have a solid testimony about Jesus because they have lived with Jesus in this pandemic? Will believers confront the evil of the world while making new disciples, confident that hundreds and thousands will step up in their place if they suffer death? We are not looking for church members, we are looking for disciples who can testify about what Jesus did for us and know that the greatest thing that we can do in this world is love Jesus and follow Him wherever He leads. He may lead us to sing this song along with generations of Christians: “Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free? No, there is a cross for everyone, and there is a cross for me. The consecrated cross I will bear, ‘till death shall set me free, and then go home my crown to wear, for there is a crown for me.”
It is by bearing his cross like Jesus that Peter gets the promotion to his heavenly glory, and we can do the same.