One of the more poignant scenes for us to read in the gospel accounts is Peter’s “restoration” following Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Peter’s threefold declaration of his love for Jesus acts as a counterpoint to his threefold denial of Jesus during the trials. The part of this scene that we don’t talk about nearly as much is what happens immediately after, in John 21.18–23.
[Jesus said,] “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.”
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?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 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?”
In this text, Peter has been given an insight that few others have received. Jesus indicated to him the manner of his death, something that Peter himself would mention in one of his letters (cf. 2 Pet 1.14). But notice here that even after Peter has declared his love for the Lord and been told this, he looked around, saw John (the disciple whom Jesus loved), and asked, “What about him?” The text doesn’t tell us what was going on in Peter’s mind at this moment, but from Jesus’ response, we see that Peter allowed himself to be distracted by John and what John’s fate might be. Perhaps Peter wanted to know whether John would get a “better” death or a longer life than Peter (as it turned out, it is generally understood that John lived 40+ years after Peter was martyred, and was the only one of the twelve to die of natural causes). Perhaps he was just curious. Regardless, Jesus’ point to Peter was that John’s fate didn’t really matter insofar as Peter’s ability to follow Jesus was concerned. Peter needed to focus on his own walk.
There is a very real sense in which our walks as Christians are interconnected. We can read passages like Galatians 6 that speak of restoring those caught up in trespasses and bearing one another’s burdens. We are all part of the body of Christ, and our strength and maturity in the body is derived, in part, from the connections and joints that exist between us as members of the body (Eph 4.16). But there is also the possibility for us to focus so much on one another—and particularly where we “rank” relative to one another, that we neglect our individual responsibilities in the body. Just as Paul said that we are to bear one another’s burdens, he also said that each must bear his own load.
What does this have to do with Jesus’ admonition to Peter? We, like Peter, often want to look around and evaluate how everyone else is doing in their walk as Christians. It might happen when we see what situations others are in. Does it seem like others are having greater success? Or when we see how someone else deals with a situation, we want to evaluate whether we would (or did) do something differently. Do we perceive that others are receiving some particular favor or are being given opportunities that we feel shuld be ours?
In the broader religious world (but even among God’s people) this shows up frequently in discussions about gender roles. The question is raised why women aren’t allowed to fill certain roles (such as preaching), when some women in the church have more knowledge of the Scriptures than some preachers (and better ability to communicate such knowledge). The pattern that has been given to us in these matters is what it is; our desire for it to be different will not make it so. Jesus’ response to Peter in this instance tells us that rather than focusing on what someone else might be doing, we need to focus on following Jesus in the capacity that we can.
We might see others being asked to serve in particular ways within the local group of Christians. We might wonder why we weren’t included. Or why we weren’t asked to do something. Or why someone else was given preference over us for something. These are all very natural reactions. But rather than devoting our energies to those things, we ought instead to focus on following Jesus in the opportunities that we have.
Conversely, though, if we are in what might be a more “privileged” position, we ought to be careful about thinking it a sign of our own greatness or a sign that we are better or more useful than another. Consider Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians. He pointed out that we each serve unique roles in the body of Christ, and accordingly we cannot be dismissive of another part of the body because of the role we think it does or doesn’t have. In 1 Corinthians 12.21–26, Paul wrote,
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and are unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Satan wants us distracted. He wants us looking around at everyone else, rather than fixing our eyes on Jesus and following Him. He wants us to see someone else’s “greener” grass and be envious of them. He wants us to see someone else’s less green lawn so that we can feel good about our own and make no effort to maintain it. Both of these things keep our eyes off Jesus and keep us from reaching forward to what lies ahead.
In the parable of the talents, one servant was given five talents, another two, and a third one. It wasn’t the two-talent servant’s job to wonder why he wasn’t given five talents, or to crow over being given more than the third servant. It was his job to make good use of the two talents he had. The same with the five-talent servant and the one-talent servant. Each servant was judged on what they did with their talents.
The same is true of us. Each of us will be judged by God on the basis of what we do with the opportunities we are each given. At a very fundamental level, Jesus’ words to Peter when he was preoccupied with John’s fate are the same as His words to us when we become preoccupied with others: “What is it to you? You follow me!