Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
According to most scholars, John’s gospel was written last among the gospels, well into John’s old age. John, the youngest of the disciples, had developed from the firebrand he was in his youth (Jesus had called him and his brother James the “Sons of Thunder”) to the fatherly, gracious, and gentle “Apostle of Love.”
The other gospels were written by younger men, men who stood at the precipice of life, at those times in their lives when years of potential service stretched before them. They could, as Christ said of Peter, dress themselves and walk wherever they wanted – euphemistic language for the potential of self-determination. But by the time that John wrote his gospel, his youth had long since faded.
The Spirit brought to mind this conversation between Jesus, Peter, and, somewhat, himself. He seemed to be listening in, but in his old age it all came flooding back. His physical condition was weakened. The young man had become an old man, possibly by this time the last survivor of those original Twelve. He had seen others fade, had seen their lives of dedication, and saw the indignities of age descend upon their bodies. He had also witnessed the increase of their spiritual confidence, and as their body aged, for many, their spirits seemed to gain strength.
Peter’s earthly life had been snuffed out too soon by his martyrdom. The day came when he knew it was time for this prophecy to be fulfilled and he willingly submitted himself to his own martyrdom. Other took him to where he did not want to go and stretched his hand forth upon a different cross and crucified him. According to tradition, Peter refused to be crucified right side up, as his Lord was, and requested to be placed upside down, which his persecutors were willing to do.
But then John’s life had a different ending. He served for many years longer than the others, was imprisoned for several of those on the Isle of Patmos, but did not die until he was an old, old man. He saw the things that all older people will see – the rise of younger people, the loss of freedom of movement, and the waning influence in the affairs of his day. I am sure that he rejoiced in the spread of the faith, in the rising to prominence young and dedicated Christ-followers.
Yet this conversation between Jesus and Peter seems to be placed in the gospel to remind us all of our role, if God allows us to live so long. Self-determination will fade for us all. The time will come when we will be unable to even dress ourselves or go where we want to go. Others will need to care for us. Perhaps it was in reflection of such realities that John changed, that the firebrand in him died. It is probable that Paul was in heaven for a full generation before the Spirit inspired John to write anything we have in our Bibles, and in that time John learned more about trust and love and gentleness.
The goal of all of life, of every stage and season, can be summed up in the words of Christ, “Come, follow Me.” Jesus of Nazareth never lived to be very old, but He is still the Lord to follow all of our days. A gentleness of spirit should grow in us as we age. Kindness and forgiveness should flow from our hearts. Left to nature’s course alone, we will become more grumpy, impatient, and perhaps angry. But if through the Spirit we may put to death the misdeeds of the body we will find, I believe, a continual growth in grace.
Our task as followers of Christ is to greet each day surrendered to Him, to let His love dwell within us and to shine through us, and to follow His leading to where He wants us to go. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer man is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).