20 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?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 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?” 24 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. 25 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.
— John 21:20-25, ESV
The word “Christian” is not found in the Gospel of John, even though followers of the Lord Jesus Christ were called Christians by the time it was written. It is just as well, for the term has lost its meaning in modern times. Most Americans and a large part of the world call themselves Christians, but only in national or nominal terms, not in spirit and truth.
The same can be said of the term “believer.” John does not use it, as a noun. He does, however, use the verb about a hundred times. His aim is to show that belief, in true believers who truly believe, is an active, ongoing trust and obedience to the claims and commands of the Lord Jesus Christ. When this definition is applied, the percentage of Christians in our country and the world shrinks rapidly.
Another name John does not use in the Gospel is his own. The only mentions of then name “John” speak of John the Baptist, mostly, and an occasional reference to Simon Peter’s father. The human author of the Gospel prefers to refer to himself as “the disciple.” That’s a word he likes, and you can find “disciple” in this Gospel a total of seventy-eight times, including three critical instances in this closing text.
Speaking of names, the three persons identified in the finale of the Gospel of John are “Peter,” “the disciple,” and “Jesus.” Together they teach us what it means to be a disciple, which is of utmost importance. For those who are not real disciples cannot really claim to believe, nor can they rightly call themselves by the name of Christian.
Disciples are a work in progress.
For a perfect definition of a disciple, let me begin by saying a disciple is not perfect. He or she is a work in progress. Disciples are newborn children of God who have to learn to walk with God, where stumbles and falls are all part of the process.
Simon Peter is the poster child for this aspect of discipleship. He was one of the first, brought to Christ by his brother, Andrew. He soon became the first among equals, the leader of the pack of gospel preachers and church Apostles. Even though he achieved a prominent place among the Christians of history, Simon Peter’s walk with God was full of pitfalls and potholes.
The Gospels speak of Peter’s willingness to be a spokesperson for Jesus, and of the many times he put his foot in his mouth. All four Gospels tell of his denials of Christ, and John has just given us his restoration. Up, down, and up goes the great disciple, and this continues even through the book of Acts.
In this final passage in the final Gospel, the recently restored Simon Peter steps out of bounds once again. After being told how much he will suffer for Christ one day, Simon Peter looks back at the beloved John, perhaps with a tinge of jealousy, certainly with a complaint over equality, and says, “Lord, what about this man [John]?”
Jesus could have answered Peter with one, terse word, “noneya,” or, none of you business. Jesus had to put the once again wayward disciple in his place because Peter put one eye on himself, one eye on John, then had no eye left to follow the Lord. So, Jesus gets his attention and reprimands him, “You follow Me!”
Envy and jealousy are the easy offramps from the highway to Heaven. Even those of us who are genuine disciples, those eternally secure by grace thorough faith in Jesus, dive into these detours during our Christian life. When earthly comforts are more important than the cost of discipleship, when comparisons with others take over comparing ourselves with Christ, we will stumble, we will fall, we will sin.
And we all do it, from time to time. We are works in progress. We need to focus on Jesus, upon the claims and callings the Lord has placed upon us, and follow Him.
Disciples have distinguishing characteristics.
John was not perfect either, what with the “Sons of Thunder” episode (ref. Luke 9:53-56) and the fact that he was in the courtyard, too, when Jesus was tried, and though he did not deny the Lord, he did not speak up, either. But while Peter had to be told again, “Follow Me,” John was already following, faithfully.
Forgive me for making this comparison, but it is clear from the words of Peter and the words that describe John that the latter is the better disciple at this stage of the game. Again, John humbly chooses not to use his name, but rather three times in this passage refers to himself as “the disciple.” What kind of disciple was he, and what kind should we be?
First of all, he was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Notice he did not call himself the disciple who loves Jesus, although I’m quite sure he did. He would go on to elaborate in his first epistle, “We love [Jesus], because He first loved us” (ref. 1 John 4:19). John put the emphasis, the center, on God. True disciples are God-centered, reveling in God’s sovereignty and God’s gift of grace, relishing God’s mercy and God’s gift of faith, and rejoicing in God’s love and God’s gift of God’s Son. When you know you are chosen and loved by the supreme being of the universe, who has proved His love and provided a way to Heaven, it is not hard to love Him back and follow Him faithfully.
Secondly, he was “the disciple who leaned [on Jesus].” Faith equals trust. Discipleship equals dedication. To trust in Jesus and be a dedicated disciple one must lean on the Lord, always and especially when the times are tough. Judas’ betrayal was a tough time for the young disciple, John, and the times in his Christian life seemed to only get tougher. It was supposedly the legendary football coach Knute Rockne who said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Nominal Christians and false disciples eventually walk away from Christ, usually when a rough patch or an easy temptation gets in their way. Real disciples lean on the Lord, lean on His word, the Bible, and persevere until the end of this life and beginning of the life to come.
Third, he was “the disciple who is bearing witness.” Does your life point people to Jesus Christ, repel them away from Him, or have no gospel effect upon others at all? John was a classic disciple, always pointing people to the Lord Jesus Christ, with his words, actions, and lifestyle. We will not be called upon to write a Gospel, but we are all called to share the gospel. Doing so, with our lips and lives, is the defining characteristic of genuine disciples, true believers, real Christians.
Disciples follow Jesus.
These two prominent disciples, Simon Peter and John, were made disciples by the preeminent disciple maker, Jesus Christ. They were very different from one another, but they loved the Lord who loved them first, and they learned to love one another. We want to join them in their walk with God, along the narrow way of discipleship, thus proving our belief in Jesus Christ, and proving worthy of the name Christian.
Hear Jesus’ words. “Follow Me.” Christianity is a commandment, an imperative, a taking over of one’s life by the one who gave life in the first place. It is an irresistible grace that only those with true faith can hear. Disciples hear it, obey it, and follow, and the only way to follow is fully.
Heed His call. “Follow Me.” Christianity is a calling, a way of life. It is no mere hour on Sundays. It is no compartmentalization of your life into the Christian and the secular. It is no buffet to pick and choose which areas of your life belong to God. And yet, such total surrender is the greatest freedom a person can ever know.
Help others to know Him. “Follow Me.” Christianity is a commission, to love others as we have been loved by God, to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God, to compel others to follow Christ, as we are following the Lord Jesus Christ. And if we are disciples, if we are following Him faithfully and fully, others will be drawn to walk in the way, the truth, and the life.
For two thousand years, this is what disciples have done, beginning with Simon Peter, John, and the ones we have met in the Gospel of John. So much more happened than what John wrote. So much has happened since John wrote. That’s why, if you wrote down everything that Jesus did, and what Jesus continues to do through true disciples, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
The Gospel of John is written, but the book of Christianity is still being published. Be a verse, be a page, be a chapter. Be a Christian, be a believer, be a disciple.