In these verses, we have,
I. The conference Christ had with Peter concerning John, the beloved disciple, in which we have,
1. The eye Peter cast upon him (John 21:20): Peter, in obedience to his Master’s orders, followed him, and turning about, pleased with the honours his Master now did him, he sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following likewise. Observe here, (1.) How John is described. He does not name himself, as thinking his own name not worthy to be preserved in these records; but gives such a description of himself as sufficiently informs us whom he meant, and withal gives us a reason why he followed Christ so closely. He was the disciple whom Jesus loved, for whom he had a particular kindness above the rest; and therefore you cannot blame him for coveting to be as much as possible within hearing of Christ’s gracious words during those few precious minutes with which Christ favoured his disciples. It is probable that mention in here made of John’s having leaned on Jesus’s breast and his enquiring concerning the traitor, which he did at the instigation of Peter (John 13:24), as a reason why Peter made the following enquiry concerning him, to repay him for the former kindness. Then John was in the favourite’s place, lying in Christ’s bosom, and he improved the opportunity to oblige Peter. And now that Peter was in the favourite’s place, called to take a walk with Christ, he thought himself bound in gratitude to put such a question for John as he thought would oblige him, we all being desirous to know things to come. Note, As we have interest at the throne of grace, we should improve it for the benefit of one another. Those that help us by their prayers at one time should be helped by us with ours at another time. This is the communion of saints. (2.) What he did: he also followed Jesus, which shows how well he loved his company; where he was there also would this servant of his be. When Christ called Peter to follow him, it looked as if he designed to have some private talk with him; but such an affection John had to his Master that he would rather do a thing that seemed rude than lose the benefit of any of Christ’s discourse. What Christ said to Peter he took as said to himself; for that word of command, Follow me, was given to all the disciples. At least he desired to have fellowship with those that had fellowship with Christ, and to accompany those that attended him. The bringing of one to follow Christ should engage others. Draw me and we will run after thee, Song 1:4. (3.) The notice Peter took of it: He, turning about, seeth him. This may be looked upon either, [1.] As a culpable diversion from following his Master; he should have been wholly intent upon that, and have waited to hear what Christ had further to say to him, and then was he looking about him to see who followed. Note, The best men find it hard to attend upon the Lord without distraction, hard to keep their minds so closely fixed as they should be in following Christ: and a needless and unseasonable regard to our brethren often diverts us from communion with God. Or, [2.] As a laudable concern for his fellow-disciples. He was not so elevated with the honour his Master did him, in singling him out from the rest, as to deny a kind look to one that followed. Acts of love to our brethren must go along with actings of faith in Christ.
2. The enquiry Peter made concerning him (John 21:21): “Lord, and what shall this man do? Thou hast told me my work-to feed the sheep; and my lot—to be carried whither I would not. What shall be his work, and his lot?” Now this may be taken as the language, (1.) Of concern for John, and kindness to him: “Lord, thou showest me a great deal of favour. Here comes thy beloved disciple, who never forfeited thy favour, as I have done; he expects to be taken notice of; hast thou nothing to say to him? Wilt thou not tell how he must be employed, and how he must be honoured?” (2.) Or of uneasiness at what Christ had said to him concerning his sufferings: “Lord, must I alone be carried whither I would not? Must I be marked out to be run down, and must this man have no share of the cross?” It is hard to reconcile ourselves to distinguishing sufferings, and the troubles in which we think we stand alone. (3.) Or of curiosity, and a fond desire of knowing things to come, concerning others, as well as himself. It seems, by Christ’s answer, there was something amiss in the question. When Christ had given him the charge of such a treasure, and the notice of such a trial, it had well become him to have said, “Lord, and what shall I do then to approve myself faithful to such a trust, in such a trial? Lord, increase my faith. As my day is, let my strength be.” But instead of this, [1.] He seems more concerned for another than for himself. So apt are we to be busy in other men’s matters, but negligent in the concerns of our own souls-quick-sighted abroad, but dim-sighted at home-judging others, and prognosticating what they will do, when we have enough to do to prove our own work, and understand our own way. [2.] He seems more concerned about events than about duty. John was younger than Peter, and, in the course of nature, likely to survive him: “Lord,” says he, “what times shall he be reserved for?” Whereas, if God by his grace enable us to persevere to the end, and finish well, and get safely to heaven, we need not ask, “What shall be the lot of those that shall come after us?” Isa. it not well if peace and truth be in my days? Scripture-predictions must be eyed for the directing of our consciences, not the satisfying of our curiosity.
3. Christ’s reply to this enquiry (John 21:22), “If I will that he tarry till I come, and do not suffer as thou must, what is that to thee. Mind thou thy own duty, the present duty, follow thou me.”
(1.) There seems to be here an intimation of Christ’s purpose concerning John, in two things:—[1.] That he should not die a violent death, like Peter, but should tarry till Christ himself came by a natural death to fetch him to himself. The most credible of the ancient historians tell us that John was the only one of all the twelve that did not actually die a martyr. He was often in jeopardy, in bonds and banishments; but at length died in his bed in a good old age. Note, First, At death Christ comes to us to call us to account; and it concerns us to be ready for his coming. Secondly, Though Christ calls out some of his disciples to resist unto blood, yet not all. Though the crown of martyrdom is bright and glorious, yet the beloved disciple comes short of it. [2.] That he should not die till after Christ’s coming to destroy Jerusalem: so some understand his tarrying till Christ comes. All the other apostles died before that destruction; but John survived it many years. God wisely so ordered it that one of the apostles should live so long as to close up the canon of the New Testament, which John did solemnly (Rev. 22:18), and to obviate the design of the enemy that sowed tares even before the servants fell asleep. John lived to confront Ebion, and Cerinthus, and other heretics, who rose betimes, speaking perverse things.
(2.) Others think that it is only a rebuke to Peter’s curiosity, and that his tarrying till Christ’s second coming is only the supposition of an absurdity: “Wherefore askest thou after that which is foreign and secret? Suppose I should design that John should never die, what does that concern thee? It is nothing to thee, when or where, or how, John must die. I have told thee how thou must die for thy part; it is enough for thee to know that, Follow thou me.” Note, It is the will of Christ that his disciples should mind their own present duty, and not be curious in their enquiries about future events, concerning either themselves or others. [1.] There are many things we are apt to be solicitous about that are nothing to us. Other people’s characters are nothing to us; it is out of our line to judge them, Rom. 14:4. Whatsoever they are, saith Paul, it makes no matter to me. Other people’s affairs are nothing to us to intermeddle in; we must quietly work, and mind our own business. Many nice and curious questions are put by the scribes and disputers of this world concerning the counsels of God, and the state of the invisible world, concerning which we may say, What is this to us? What do you think will become of such and such? is a common question, which may easily be answered with another: What is that to me? To his own Master he stands or falls. What is it to us to know the times and the seasons? Secret things belong not to us. [2.] The great thing that is all in all to us is duty, and not event; for duty is ours, events are God’s-our own duty, and not another’s; for every one shall bear his own burden—our present duty, and not the duty of the time to come; for sufficient to the day shall be the directions thereof: a good man’s steps are ordered by the Lord, (Ps. 37:23); he is guided step by step. Now all our duty is summed up in this one of following Christ. We must attend his motions, and accommodate ourselves to them, follow him to do him honour, as the servant his master; we must walk in the way in which he walked, and aim to be where he is. And, if we will closely attend to the duty of following Christ, we shall find neither heart nor time to meddle with at which does not belong to us.
4. The mistake which arose from this saying of Christ, that that disciple should not die, but abide with the church to the end of time; together with the suppressing of this motion by a repetition of Christ’s words, John 21:23. Observe here,
(1.) The easy rise of a mistake in the church by misconstruing the sayings of Christ, and turning a supposition to a position. Because John must not die a martyr, they conclude he must not die at all.
[1.] They were inclined to expect it because they could not choose but desire it. Quod volumus facile crediumus—We easily believe what we wish to be true. For John to abide in the flesh when the rest were gone, and to continue in the world till Christ’s second coming, they think, will be a great blessing to the church, which in every age might have recourse to him as an oracle. When they must lose Christ’s bodily presence, they hope they shall have that of his beloved disciple; as if that must supply the want of his, forgetting that the blessed Spirit, the Comforter, was to do that. Note, We are apt to dote too much on men and means, instruments and external helps, and to think we are happy if we may but have them always with us; whereas God will change his workmen, and yet carry on his work, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of men. There is no need of immortal ministers to be the guides of the church, while it is under the conduct of an eternal Spirit.
[2.] Perhaps they were confirmed in their expectations when they now found that John survived all the rest of the apostles. Because he lived long, they were ready to think he should live always; whereas that which waxeth old is ready to vanish away, Heb. 8:13.
[3.] However, it took rise from a saying of Christ’s, misunderstood, and then made a saying of the church. Hence learn, First, The uncertainty of human tradition, and the folly of building our faith upon it. Here was a tradition, an apostolical tradition, a saying that went abroad among the brethren. It was early; it was common; it was public; and yet it was false. How little then are those unwritten traditions to be relied upon which the council of Trent hath decreed to be received with a veneration and pious affection equal to that which is owing to the holy scripture. Here was a traditional exposition of scripture. No new saying of Christ’s advanced, but only a construction put by the brethren upon what he did really say, and yet it was a misconstruction. Let the scripture be its own interpreter and explain itself, as it is in a great measure its own evidence and proves itself, for it is light. Secondly, The aptness of men to misinterpret the sayings of Christ. The grossest errors have sometimes shrouded themselves under the umbrage of incontestable truths; and the scriptures themselves have ben wrested by the unlearned and unstable. We must not think it strange if we hear the sayings of Christ misinterpreted, quoted to patronise the errors of antichrist, and the impudent doctrine of transubstantiation—for instance, pretending to build upon that blessed word of Christ, This is my body.
(2.) The easy rectifying of such mistakes, by adhering to the word of Christ, and abiding by that. So the evangelist here corrects and controls that saying among the brethren, by repeating the very words of Christ. He did not say that the disciple should not die. Let us not say so then; but he said, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? He said so, and no more. Add thou not unto his words. Let the words of Christ speak for themselves, and let no sense be put upon them but what is genuine and natural; and in that let us agree. Note, The best end of men’s controversies would be to keep to the express words of scripture, and speak, as well as think, according to that word, Isa. 8:20. Scripture language is the safest and most proper vehicle of scripture truth: the words which the Holy Ghost teacheth, 1 Cor. 2:13. As the scripture itself, duly attended to, is the best weapon wherewith to wound all dangerous errors (and therefore deists, Socinians, papists, and enthusiasts do all they can to derogate the authority of scripture), so the scripture itself, humbly subscribed to, is the best weapon-salve to heal the wounds that are made by different modes of expression concerning the same truths. Those that cannot agree in the same logic and metaphysics, and the propriety of the same terms of air, and the application of them, may yet agree in the same scripture terms, and then may agree to love one another.
II. We have here the conclusion of this gospel, and with it of the evangelical story, John 21:24, 25. This evangelist ends not so abruptly as the other three did, but with a sort of cadency.
1. This gospel concludes with an account of the author or penman of it, connected by a decent transition to that which went before (John 21:24): This is the disciple which testifies of these things to the present age, and wrote these things for the benefit of posterity, even this same that Peter and his Master had that conference about in the John 21:15-25—John the apostle. Observe here, (1.) Those who wrote the history of Christ were not ashamed to put their names to it. John here does in effect subscribe his name. As we are sure who was the author of the first five books of the Old Testament, which were the foundation of that revelation, so we are sure who were the penmen of the four gospels and the Acts, the pentateuch of the New Testament. The record of Christ’s life and death is not the report of we know not who, but was drawn up by men of known integrity, who were ready not only to depose it upon oath, but, which was more, to seal it with their blood. (2.) Those who wrote the history of Christ wrote upon their own knowledge, not by hearsay, but what they themselves were eye and ear witnesses of. The penman of this history was a disciple, a beloved disciple, one that had leaned on Christ’s breast, that had himself heard his sermons and conferences, had seen his miracles, and the proofs of his resurrection. This is he who testifies what he was well assured of. (3.) Those who wrote the history of Christ, as they testified what they had seen, so they wrote what they had first testified. It was published by word of mouth, with the greatest assurance, before it was committed to writing. They testified it in the pulpit, testified it at the bar, solemnly averred it, stedfastly avowed it, not as travellers give an account of their travels, to entertain the company, but as witnesses upon oath give account of what they know in a matter of consequence, with the utmost caution and exactness, to found a verdict upon. What they wrote they wrote as an affidavit, which they would abide by. Their writings are standing testimonies to the world of the truth of Christ’s doctrine, and will be testimonies either for us or against us according as we do or do not receive it. (4.) It was graciously appointed, for the support and benefit of the church, that the history of Christ should be put into writing, that it might with the greater fulness and certainty spread to every place, and last through every age.
2. It concludes with an attestation of the truth of what had been here related: We know that his testimony is true. This may be taken either, (1.) As expressing the common sense of mankind in matters of this nature, which is, that the testimony of one who is an eye-witness, is of unspotted reputation, solemnly deposes what he has seen, and puts it into writing for the greater certainty, is an unexceptionable evidence. We know, that is, All the world knows, that the testimony of such a one is valid, and the common faith of mankind requires us to give credit to it, unless we can disprove it; and in other cases verdict and judgment are given upon such testimonies. The truth of the gospel comes confirmed by all the evidence we can rationally desire or expect in a thing of this nature. The matter of fact, that Jesus did preach such doctrines, and work such miracles, and rise from the dead, is proved, beyond contradiction, by such evidence as is always admitted in other cases, and therefore to the satisfaction of all that are impartial; and then let the doctrine recommend itself, and let the miracles prove it to be of God. Or, (2.) As expressing the satisfaction of the churches at that time concerning the truth of what is here related. Some take it for the subscription of the church of Ephesus, others of the angels or ministers of the churches of Asia to this narrative. Not as if an inspired writing needed any attestation from men, or could thence receive any addition to its credibility; but hereby they recommended it to the notice of the churches, as an inspired writing, and declared the satisfaction they received by it. Or, (3.) As expressing the evangelist’s own assurance of the truth of what he wrote, like that (John 19:35), He knows that he saith true. He speaks of himself in the plural number, We know, not for majesty-sake, but for modesty-sake, as 1 John 1:1; That which we have seen; and 2 Pet. 1:16. Note, The evangelists themselves were entirely satisfied of the truth of what they have testified and transmitted to us. They do not require us to believe what they did not believe themselves; no, they knew that their testimony was true, for they ventured both this life and the other upon it; threw away this life, and depended upon another, on the credit of what they spoke and wrote.
3. It concludes with an et cetera, with a reference to many other things, very memorable, said and done by our Lord Jesus, which were well known by many then living, but not thought fit to be recorded for posterity, John 21:25. There were many things very remarkable and improvable, which, if they should be written at large, with the several circumstances of them, even the world itself, that is, all the libraries in it, could not contain the books that might be written. Thus he concludes like an orator, as Paul (Heb. 11:32), What shall I more say? For the time would fail me. If it be asked why the gospels are not larger, why they did not make the New Testament history as copious and as long as the Old, it may be answered,
(1.) It was not because they had exhausted their subject, and had nothing more to write that was worth writing; no, there were many of Christ’s sayings and doings not recorded by any of the evangelists, which yet were worthy to be written in letter of gold. For, [1.] Every thing that Christ said and did was worth our notice, and capable of being improved. He never spoke an idle word, nor did an idle thing; nay, he never spoke nor did any thing mean, or little, or trifling, which is more than can be said of the wisest or best of men. [2.] His miracles were many, very many, of many kinds, and the same often repeated, as occasion offered. Though one true miracle might perhaps suffice to prove a divine commission, yet the repetition of the miracles upon a great variety of persons, in a great variety of cases, and before a great variety of witnesses, helped very much to prove them true miracles. Every new miracle rendered the report of the former the more credible; and the multitude of them renders the whole report incontestable. [3.] The evangelists upon several occasions give general accounts of Christ’s preaching and miracles, inclusive of many particulars, as Matt. 4:23, 24; 9:35; 11:1; 14:14, 36; 15:30; 19:2; and many others. When we speak of Christ, we have a copious subject before us; the reality exceeds the report, and, after all, the one half is not told us. St. Paul quotes one of Christ’s sayings, which is not recorded by any of the evangelists (Acts 20:35), and doubtless there were many more. All his sayings were apophthegms.
(2.) But it was for these three reasons:—[1.] Because it was not needful to write more. This is implied here. There were many other things, which were not written because there was no occasion for writing them. What is written is a sufficient revelation of the doctrine of Christ and the proof of it, and the rest was but to the same purport. Those that argue from this against the sufficiency of the scripture as the rule of our faith and practice, and for the necessity of unwritten traditions, ought to show what there is in the traditions they pretend to be perfective of the written word; we are sure there is that which is contrary to it, and therefore reject them. By these therefore let us be admonished, for of making many books there is no end, Eccl. 12:12. If we do not believe and improve what is written, neither should we if there had been much more. [2.] It was not possible to write all. It was possible for the Spirit to indite all, but morally impossible for the penmen to pen all. The world could not contain the books. It is a hyperbole common enough and justifiable, when no more is intended than this, that it would fill a vast and incredible number of volumes. It would be such a large and overgrown history as never was; such as would jostle out all other writings, and leave us no room for them. What volumes would be filled with Christ’s prayers, had we the record of all those he made, when he continued all night in prayer to God, without any vain repetitions? Much more if all his sermons and conferences were particularly related, his miracles, his cures, all his labours, all his sufferings; it would have been an endless thing. [3.] It was not advisable to write much; for the world, in a moral sense, could not contain the books that should be written. Christ said not what he might have said to his disciples, because they were not able to bear it; and for the same reason the evangelists wrote not what they might have written. The world could not contain, choresai. It is the word that is used, John 8:37; “My word has no place in you.” They would have been so many that they would have found no room. All people’s time would have been spent in reading, and other duties would thereby have been crowded out. Much is overlooked of what is written, much forgotten, and much made the matter of doubtful disputation; this would have been the case much more if there had been such a world of books of equal authority and necessity as the whole history would have swelled to; especially since it was requisite that what was written should be meditated upon and expounded, which God wisely thought fit to leave room for. Parents and ministers, in giving instruction, must consider the capacities of those they teach, and, like Jacob, must take heed of over-driving. Let us be thankful for the books that are written, and not prize them the less for their plainness and brevity, but diligently improve what God has thought fit to reveal, and long to be above, where our capacities shall be so elevated and enlarged that there will be no danger of their being over-loaded.
The evangelist, concluding with Amen, thereby sets to his seal, and let us set to ours, an Amen of faith, subscribing to the gospel, that it is true, all true; and an Amen of satisfaction in what is written, as able to make us wise to salvation. Amen; so be it.