John 21:15-25 - Beyond Belief

What lies beyond belief? Surely believing is not the end of the story – meeting Jesus cannot leave us unchanged. Now, in this final section, John gives us a glimpse of what our lives will be like beyond the threshold of belief.

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, 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 else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

24 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.


At the end of chapter 20, John tells us why he wrote this gospel: verses 30 and 31 say:

“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

John says plainly he is writing so that we may believe. All along that has been his reason for writing down his account of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. From the start, it has been, “Come and see” – “Come and see” Jesus, come and see the wine at the wedding, come and see the woman at the well, come and see the tables overturned in the temple, come and see the man who was blind from birth and received his sight, come and see the living water, the light of the world, the dead raised … one account after another inviting us to come and see – in order that we might believe.

John has done his job well, and many have come to believe through his witness – including myself, who started reading this gospel as a skeptic and by the end had surrendered to Christ. 

But what lies beyond belief? Surely believing is not the end of the story – meeting Jesus cannot leave us unchanged. Now, in this final section, John gives us a glimpse of what our lives will be like beyond the threshold of belief.  To summarize, he shares these elegantly simple – yet most radically challenging – words of Jesus which lay out our duty once we have believed: Jesus says to those who now believe, two words “Follow me.” 

Jesus used those same words before, didn’t He? Early in John’s gospel, in chapter one, as Jesus encounters Philip, he says “Follow me!” When Peter is called away from his fishing trawler, Jesus says, “Follow me!” Matthew, burdened by the moral debt of his job, is set free when Jesus says, so simply, “Follow me.”

And this is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: to simply follow Him.

For a moment, let us set aside our academic formulas and rigid disciplines, our rote prayers and religious lather – to be a real disciple means only one thing – to hear and heed the master’s call: “Follow me.”

“Follow me.” Never have such simple instructions been given; never have such impossible instructions been given. Even the weakest child knows how to follow someone. Even the strongest adult strains to keep up.

“Follow me.” That’s what it's really all about, isn’t it? Follow Jesus… go where He goes, love whom He loves, exhort whom He exhorts, pray as He prays, give as He gives, live as He lives. 

This is the whole of discipleship, isn’t it? To simply follow Him. 

Oh, I’m not knocking academic study and spiritual disciplines. In fact, I believe we each have been given varying degrees of capacity, whether intellectual, social, psychological… even physical. And to follow Jesus properly, we must give Him all we’ve got in whatever capacity we have received. But it looks different for each of us. For a childlike mind, following Jesus may appear more emotional than intellectual. For a body that is broken, following Jesus may appear more social than physical. For an introvert (don’t raise your hands because I know it would kill you) following Jesus may appear more inward than outward. For an extrovert (go ahead and raise your hands because I know it would kill you not to), following Jesus may appear more outward than inward. 

Each of us follow Jesus differently. Our lives beyond belief together make up a wonderful bouquet, an arrangement so diverse and colorful and rich that it pleases God very much when we each simply follow Him as best we know how. 

And yet, there are some aspects of following Jesus that we all share in common.

Here, in Peter’s “beyond belief” conversation with Jesus, we see some of those common elements.

The following five features that I see of life beyond belief are not exhaustive, there are certainly more responsibilities we share in common. But as we each set out anew today to follow Jesus, I think we have much to learn from what Jesus said to Peter.

First, each of us will have lines to untangle. When I was a child fishing with friends, invariably our lines would get tangled with one another’s. When we were little, a parent would have to come and rescue us, to untangle the lines. As we grew older, we learned to untangle the lines ourselves. And as we grew older still, we learned finally not to tangle our lines in the first place. 

Peter had gotten His line tangled terribly with Jesus. Peter, who rashly proclaimed, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Matthew 26:33), had cursed and denied Jesus three times on the day He was crucified. 

For Peter, there was a searching and fearless moral inventory to be made of himself. There were direct amends to be made with Jesus. If Peter was to fulfill his call to be the mouthpiece of the disciples, he would need to be restored after his inglorious failure as a leader.

And Jesus created the space to do that. Graciously. Honest, but without judgment. Jesus, instead of making a case to shame Peter, confronts the fisherman lovingly with the truth of his betrayal, yet giving Peter an opportunity to back out of the ditch. Three times, Peter said, “I don’t even know Him”. Three times, Jesus gives Peter a second chance.

“Do you love me, Peter, even if all these should fall away? Do you love me? Do you really love me?” 

“Yes, Yes, Yes, you know I do.”

And by God’s grace, the line is untangled. Peter is not so much made to feel shame as made right, not so much chastised as chastened, not so much restrained as restored.

And so must we approach our entanglements with God and with one another if we are to follow Jesus. Forgive with all grace, restore with all hope, grant opportunities to make things right with one another. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, neighbors and friends.

First, if we follow Jesus, each of us will have lines to untangle. 

Second, each of us will have lambs to love. Jesus says to Peter, “If you really do love me, feed my sheep.” In so many words, the Master says to Peter: “If you love me, you will love my people.” 

Notwithstanding the special gift and calling of “pastor,” it cannot be denied that according to the Bible each one of us has an obligation to care for each other. John makes it plain as day in 1 John 4:11, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

For those who may have fallen prey to the grave mistake of thinking that discipleship is a solo act – that following Jesus can be done without involving another single soul – I remind you this is not a suggestion but a command. Jesus himself said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13.34).

And we are not talking about conceptual, imagined love –  love that looks down on others from some lofty tower of pity or detached empathy. It isn’t love to merely noodle on someone else’s need. Real love comes down from the tower, transcends human divisions, and walks alongside those who are hurting. Experience teaches us that to care for someone requires that we must be WITH them. Feeding his sheep means getting close to others. It entails getting our hands and feet dirty. If we don’t feel like we need a good hand washing after caring for His lambs, we probably haven’t gotten close enough.

No love for His lambs; no love for The Lamb. 

So, if we follow Jesus:

First we will have lines to untangle. Second, we will love His lambs.

And third we will have a cross to carry. 

“Very truly I tell you, 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 else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)

Jesus explains to Peter that following Him means that he will be crucified too. By all accounts, Peter was crucified like Jesus – only Peter asked to be crucified upside-down because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus. 

Jesus said we must take up our cross daily to follow Him. But the crosses we bear may not necessarily be made of wood. Peter was not only required to give up his life, he also surrendered his will (“when you were young … you went where you wanted”). Peter also gave up his pride (“someone else will dress you”) and his ambition (“you will stretch out your hands”).  

So, too, it goes for all of us who believe and follow Jesus. We must also stretch out our hands and submit to God’s design as our will, our pride, and our ambition are staked to the cross of surrender.  

As Paul puts it so potently in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

Following Jesus means we have a cross to carry.

Fourth, if we follow Jesus, we have a lane to stay in.

Peter was naturally curious about John’s calling, turning to notice John, and asking Jesus, “Lord, what about Him?”

Few things are more perilous in an organization or a family than comparing ourselves with one another. Sadly, it is rarely enough to simply love and be loved – oh no. We want to know where we stand in relation to one another. 

Rather than let Peter devolve into the devil’s game of competing with one another, Jesus would have none of it. “Nunya, Peter. John’s calling is none of your business … stay in your lane, stop competing with him, and you follow me.” 

This need to compete with and compare ourselves with others is one of the most stubborn remnants of human nature that must be abandoned. Competing and comparing ourselves with others is a sure way to erode fellowship rather than preserve it. 

God makes it clear that none of us is in any way closer or farther away from Him than anyone else. In Christ, we all have direct access to the throne of God. There is no mediator between us and the Father besides Jesus. The organizational structure of God’s kingdom looks like this: God on top, all of us one step below. There is only one person who fulfills all the roles of prophet, priest, and king in God’s kingdom – Jesus. 

Yet it is so tempting to fall into the self-destructive spiral of competing and comparing ourselves with others. 

In Christ we each have equal status and standing – we are all beloved children, each of us an heir to the throne. 

We may have different races to run, but those callings are sacred and are between us and God. In the end, it is not our business what race God is calling anyone else to run; what matters is the race he has marked out for you. We must not be distracted by comparing ourselves to others. 

If anything, our duty is not to question one another’s callings, but to spur one another on in the individual callings we have received. If we have any role to play in the races being run by our sisters or brothers, it is to be their cheerleader. To encourage them as they run with perseverance, and celebrate what God is doing through each one called according to His purpose.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 reminds us of our obligation not to compete with, but to encourage one another. “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”

So, to recap: If we follow Him,

First, we will have lines to untangle. Second, we will love His lambs. Third, we will have a cross to carry. Fourth, we will have a lane to stay in. 

And finally, fifth, if we follow Him, our hearts will be in phase with the future. 

Theologians call the study of the end of the age “eschatology”.  

Some of the most challenging and intriguing portraits of Biblical eschatology come from John. We should bear in mind that John the Gospel Writer is also John the Revelator. And John goes out of His way to remind us that we are following Jesus, not aimlessly, but with a bright and beautiful destination in mind.

Jesus hints at that beautiful future to come when he rebukes Peter, saying “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

“Until I return…” 

Now, to be fair, John’s eschatology is both anticipated – coming in the future – and realized – here today in our hearts. The second advent of Christ promises light then, cleansing then, restoration then, wedding then, supper then… But the first advent of Christ also brings us light now, living water now, new wine now, unlimited love now, the kingdom of God in our hearts … now. 

We live in this constant tension where our hearts are in phase with the future of God’s kingdom to come, but our hands and feet still ache with anticipation today.  

Yes, we who follow Jesus have realized heaven in our hearts even now, but at the same time we long for its fulfillment then. 

If we follow Jesus, our hearts will constantly beat in phase with the future glory of the new heaven and the new earth.

And that’s as good a place as any to draw this message to a close. We will be talking about those concepts – eschatology, the end times, the book of Revelation, dying, and heaven in the series starting next week, “I’ll Take You There.” 

Until then, I’ll leave you with this: Jesus is calling. He is saying to each one of us, follow me. Can you hear his voice? Will you answer the call?

Let us pray:

Father in Heaven, we are thankful for the witness and the testimony of John. Thank you for the journey you have taken us through as we have studied this gospel closely. Thank you for inviting us to “come and see” Jesus for ourselves. And we have seen his glory, and we testify to it today. The same God who raised Lazarus from the dead raised John’s truck from the dead on Friday. The same God who rained manna in the desert rains daily bread on our food pantry. The same God who held back the sun for Hezekiah’s sake held back the rain until 1:15pm yesterday for the sake of hungry men, women and children who came through the food distribution at Joseph’s Storehouse. The same God who met the woman at the well continues to meet us right at our point of deep soul thirst. 

Yes we have come, and we have seen, and we believe.

Now, Lord, we ask that you would take us beyond belief and into a life where we recommit ourselves to simply follow you. Untangle the lines we have crossed and help us, by your grace, to make amends with you and with others. Teach us to love your lambs. Give us strength of spirit to carry our cross each day. Teach us to encourage our brothers and sisters as we stay in our lanes to follow you. And most of all, Lord, keep our hearts in phase with the rhythms of your eternal glory, which is being revealed both now and will be revealed in full in the age to come. 

Wherever you lead, Lord, we will follow.

In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

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