John 21:20–25: Jesus and the Beloved Apostle
Chapter 21 started with Jesus appearing to some of his disciples, and then continued on with Peter confirming his love for Jesus (three times). The chapter—and the entire book—now ends with mention of John himself.
After his conversation with Jesus (see the previous post), Peter notices that John—“the disciple whom Jesus loved” (verse 20)—has been following them. Jesus has just predicted what the rest of Peter’s life is going to look like, so Peter now asks Jesus what’s going to happen to John. But Jesus essentially tells Peter that it’s none of his business:
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?” (verses 22–23)
All along in the book, whenever John refers to himself in the story he does so the way he has in this passage, calling himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved” or something similar. He now makes this connection explicit:
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. (verse 24)
And finally, John ends his book with this:
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. (verse 25)
Although the book of John has been very intense—John often packs a lot of theology into a short amount of text—I don’t actually have much to say about the ending of it.
A Lot of Books
There is sometimes confusion among Christians as to what it means to take the Bible literally. Some who say they take the Bible literally push it to extremes; verse 25 is an example where it just gets kind of silly. If every action Jesus ever took had been written down, would it actually be so much material that “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”? Or… would it just be a lot of books? John doesn’t mean this as a literal statement; he just means that there was a lot of stuff he didn’t include in his book. It’s a figure of speech.
We should take John “literally” by following his figure of speech, to mean that there was a lot of stuff he didn’t write down. It’s what he meant. To not consider what he said as a figure of speech is not taking John “literally,” it’s ignoring his intent.
Is that an important point? No, not in this particular case. If someone out there believes that writing down every action Jesus ever took would overflow the entire world with paper… so be it, I guess. It’s not hurting anything; there’s no theological point that’s being misunderstood. But if a figure of speech can’t be understood as a figure of speech, what other parts of the Bible aren’t being understood properly, because people choose to take something “literally” instead of reading it as the author intended?
Changing the Subject?
I don’t know if I’m reading too much into it—and there’s always some amount of nuance lost when you’re translating from one language to another, so there may be things in the Greek that don’t come out clearly in the English—but it always seemed to me like Peter was trying to change the subject when he asked Jesus about John.
Jesus has just given Peter some pretty heavy information, has then given him some instructions on leading the Church (in a way that was painful to Peter, reminding him of his betrayal of Jesus), and finally has told Peter he was going to be crucified, just like his Lord was. When Peter notices John and says, “Well… what about him?” it kind of feels like maybe he wants to change the subject.
Jesus’ response, of course, is that John’s life is John’s business and Peter’s life is Peter’s business. I’ve heard lots of Christians generalizing this advice, that we should be more worried about what God has in store for our lives and not others’, and I think that’s valid.
“If it is my will that he remain until I come…”
Another thing that has always struck me about this passage is that John, when he wrote this, didn’t know how or when he was going to die. When he calls out this statement by Jesus, and the confusion it caused among the disciples, and he says that Jesus never said John was going to live until the Lord’s return, He was just making a point… it would have been only human for John to be wondering: “Am I going to live until He returns, though?”