“Following Without Foreknowledge”
May 9, 2021
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
We come this morning to the end of John’s gospel.
With only a few brief breaks we have been in this book for over two years now. This will be my 81st sermon on the Gospel of John.
We have learned, I hope, a number of things from John. And now John leaves us, here, at the end of the epilogue to his Gospel, with what we need to consider as we take what we have learned, and go forward and try to follow Jesus, as John has told us about him.
With that said, let’s hear from our text, John 21:18-25.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
21:15 Jesus said to Simon Peter […] “18 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.” 19 (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.”
20 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?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 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?”
24 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.
25 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.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Lord, we rejoice at your word,
like one who finds great spoil.
We hate falsehood,
but we love your commandments.
We know that those who love your law have peace,
and nothing can make them stumble.
And so help us now to keep your testimonies from the heart,
and to love them exceedingly.
Help us to pursue a life of faithfulness,
knowing that all our ways are before you.
Grant this, we ask, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:162-163, 165, 167-168]
As we come to the end of John’s gospel, a very natural question begins to arise: What happens next? Now what? What should we expect to happen as we, both as individuals and as the Church, go out and seek to do what Jesus has called us to do?
This is a natural thing for the Church to ask as we come to the end of John’s gospel. And in the words we find here, we see four ways that Jesus and John answer it.
In these verses we see:
• The human quest for foreknowledge
• The divine call to follow
• The gracious provision for faith
• And the Messiah’s assurance of a finale
Sorry … I got into the alliteration thing again.
So, once more, we see:
• The quest for foreknowledge
• The call to follow
• The provision for faith
• And the assurance of a finale
The Human Quest for Foreknowledge
So, the first thing we see is the human quest for foreknowledge.
And we see this come out in a couple different ways here in our text.
It begins, maybe, with a misunderstanding of what Jesus was providing for Peter in verse eighteen.
There Jesus, as John explains in verse nineteen, tells Peter how he will die. He says: “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.”
Jesus is here describing the process leading up to a crucifixion. In that process, the one condemned would have their arms stretched out and tied to the horizontal beam of the cross, which they would then be forced to carry to the place of crucifixion – the place where, as Jesus puts it here, they do not want to go. [Carson, 679]
Thus Jesus tells Peter that he will die a martyr’s death by crucifixion. But it seems as if Peter misunderstands Jesus’s point.
Because those words really form the conclusion of the verses that preceded them – which we looked at last week. There Jesus called on Peter to be a shepherd to Jesus’s sheep, and thus to follow him. The conclusion of that would be that Peter would one day lay down his life for the sheep just as Jesus did. [Carson, 679; Wright, 165]
Peter seems to take this more in terms of the idea that Jesus is now providing his followers with divine foreknowledge of what is to come. And so, as he hears Jesus’s prophecy regarding his end, in verse twenty-one Peter turns and looks at the Apostle John – the author of this gospel who identifies himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved – and he asks Jesus “Lord, what about this man?”
Now, some automatically read Peter’s question as if it’s kind of antagonistic towards John – as if Peter has just gotten some bad news about his future and wants to make sure that John will have a difficult time as well. But that’s not the only other way to read the question.
D.A. Carson points out that John describes himself in verse twenty by highlighting his intimacy with Jesus as well as his relationship to Peter. Peter’s question about John might have actually been a question of concern for John – Peter may have effectively been asking Jesus that if the cost of discipleship would be so high for him (for Peter), then how high would it be for John who was even more intimate with the Lord? [Carson, 681]
In any case – whatever sentiment lay behind Peter’s question, Jesus immediately shuts the question down. The heart of Jesus’s answer is “What is that to you?” Jesus makes it clear that his purpose here, and his intention for his followers, is not to provide them with divine foreknowledge.
And as we think about it, the facts about the future that Jesus had already revealed to Peter were not particularly detailed either. Jesus told Peter how he would die … but not when … and not what would transpire in between. The apostles would be arrested many times, but Peter is not told which arrest would lead to his crucifixion. Peter, in other words, knows a detail about one chapter of his life – his death. But he did not know what would happen in the chapters between that moment and his death, or even how many chapters there would be. Jesus had not given Peter a map of his future so much as one piece of data.
Far from Peter’s initial assessment, Jesus makes the point that he will not be providing his Church with foreknowledge of what is to come next.
But often that is what we really want as human beings.
And, in fact, that is what we want so badly that we can turn even statements against foreknowledge into imagined statements of foreknowledge. And Carson points out that that may be exactly what had happened with Jesus’s words here in the early Church.
We see this in verses twenty-two and twenty-three. In verse twenty-two Jesus says “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” And then in verse twenty-three John writes: “So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple [that is, John,] 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?”
John is here correcting a misunderstanding. But what is that misunderstanding? Well, the likely explanation is that Jesus’s words there had been spread around by word of mouth in the early Church. And at some point, some began interpreting it as meaning that Jesus would come back before John died – a result of which would be that John would never die. And so, as John got older, these Christians got more and more excited that Jesus would be coming back soon. But John has to make the point that that’s not what Jesus meant. And the irony of it is that those Christians had taken a statement of Jesus denying that he would give them foreknowledge of the future, and tried to make it provide foreknowledge of the future. [Carson, 681]
And we still do this in our own ways, don’t we? We want foreknowledge of the future. And we find ways to convince ourselves we can obtain it. In a variety of settings Christians seek some sort of wisdom that will tell them what to expect next – whether in their own lives, in the lives of those around them, or in the life of the Church as a whole.
In some circles Christians look for fresh prophecy to tell them such things. In others, they look to historical examples they can use to predict what will happen next in their day. In still others they dive into cultural analysis to map out what to expect in the future. And in yet others they chart out detailed end-time scenarios and try to place themselves at some point in the timeline they have come up with.
Now, we should seek wisdom, and we should desire the guiding of the Holy Spirit, and we should look to history, and we should analyze the culture, and we should take Scriptural prophecy seriously … but we would be mistaken to think that these things will give us foreknowledge of what exactly is to come next in our life, or in the lives of those around us, or even in the life of the Church in general.
And this is a point that J.I. Packer makes so well in his chapter “God’s Wisdom and Ours” in his book Knowing God (a chapter I’ve quoted from before). Packer writes this – he says:
“If you stand at the end of a platform at York station, you can watch a constant succession of engine and train movements which, if you are a railway enthusiast, will greatly fascinate you. But you will only be able to form a very rough and general idea of the overall plan in terms of which all these movements are being determined (the operational pattern set out in the working timetable, modified if need be, on a minute-to-minute basis according to the actual running of the trains).
“If, however, you are privileged enough to be taken by one of the higher-ups into the magnificent electrical signal-box that lies athwart platforms 7 and 8, you will see on the longest wall a diagram of the entire track layout for five miles on either side of the station, with little glowworm lights, moving or stationary, on different tracks to show the signalmen at a glance exactly where every engine train is. At once you will be able to look at the whole situation through the eyes of those who control it: you will see from the diagram why it was that this train had to be signaled to a halt, and that one diverted from its normal running line, and that one parked temporarily in a siding. The why and the wherefore of all these movements becomes plain once you can see the overall position.
“Now,” Packer writes, “the mistake that is commonly made is to suppose that this is an illustration of what God does when he bestows wisdom: to suppose, in other words, that the gift of wisdom consists in a deepened insight into the providential meaning and purpose of events going on around us, an ability to see why God has done what he has done in a particular case, and what he is going to do next.”
“Christians,” Packer continues, “[…] may drive themselves almost crazy with this kind of futile inquiry. For it is futile: make no mistake about that. […] So far from the gift of wisdom consisting in the power to do this, the gift actually presupposes our conscious inability to do it.” [Packer, 102-103]
Seeking to understand why God has done what he has done, and what God will do next, is a futile inquiry, Packer says, and yet one we so often try to pursue – just like Peter did.
Peter wasn’t satisfied knowing just what the Lord had called him to – after all, Jesus had made Peter’s calling clear already: he was to act as a shepherd to God’s people. Instead, Peter wanted to know God’s plan. He wanted to know what was coming – not only for himself, but for those around him as well. And when he asks for that, Jesus tells Peter that he has missed the point. Because even what Jesus did reveal of Peter’s future was not meant to give him foreknowledge of what was to come as much as it was to make clear the extent of the calling that Jesus had placed on Peter as a disciple and as a shepherd.
But Peter wanted the foreknowledge. And so do we.
We want it in our own lives. We want to know what challenges we may face before we set out. We want to know what the consequences may be before we take a risk for our faith. We want to know what fruit will come from something before we commit ourselves to sacrificially doing it. But Jesus will not give us such things.
And we want something similar in the lives of those around us. For those we especially care about, we want guarantees on their future. We want an assurance that they’ll be successful, we want a commitment that they’ll be safe, we want certainty that they will be secure in their faith. Or at least we want to know exactly what challenges will come into their lives, so we can prepare them for it beforehand. But Jesus will not give us such things.
And, of course, we also want foreknowledge of the future the Church will face. We want to know what the trials and temptations of the Church will be in the years ahead: what the culture will think of us, how the unbelieving world will respond to us, what the temptations will be for us … and despite book after book claiming to give detailed answers to those questions … Jesus will not actually tell us such things.
In each of these areas we can be tempted toward either naïve overconfidence or anxious despair. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we really do know the future. We know how our lives will go, or we know what will happen to others, or we know what our culture will look like in ten years. But we don’t know. The Church never has. And when we tell ourselves that we do know, it is neither wisdom nor faith. It is arrogance and self-deception.
Other times, when that truth sinks in, we begin to despair. We become hopeless, or fearful, or distressed. We think maybe something is wrong with us. We think maybe we’re not close enough to Jesus – otherwise we’d know. But Peter stood right next to Jesus, and looked him in the face, and asked him to tell him what was to come. And Jesus said no. That wasn’t Peter’s business. And it’s not ours either.
We need to acknowledge that whether in our lives, in the lives of others, or in the life of the Church, Jesus has not given us foreknowledge. He has not revealed to us what is to come.
Instead, J.I. Packer says, the truth is this. He writes:
“The real basis of wisdom is a frank acknowledgement that this world’s course is enigmatic, that much of what happens is quite inexplicable to us, and that most occurrences ‘under the sun’ bear no outward sign of a rational, moral God ordering them at all.” [Packer 104-105]
We cannot make sense of most things that happen even after they occur. How would we expect then to understand and anticipate them beforehand?
And our confusion is not because God is not sovereign – he is sovereign. Our confusion is because he has chosen to hide his purposes both before they come to pass, and often even afterwards.
“The truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives.” [Packer, 106]
So that is the first thing we see. We see the futility of our quest for foreknowledge.
The Divine Call to Follow
The second thing we see is the divine call to follow.
And that comes up twice in this text. First, we see it in verse nineteen. Jesus has explained his calling to Peter – he is to serve God’s people as a shepherd. And then he tells Peter how much that will cost him – that in the end it will cost Peter his life. And finally he says “Follow me” in verse nineteen.
Then, in the next two verses Peter asks Jesus about John’s future. And it’s worth noticing that Jesus does not only respond to Peter by denying his request for information. He also responds by re-emphasizing the call to follow. He says to Peter in verse twenty-two “What is that to you? You follow me!”
In those words Jesus sets up something of a contrast between foreknowledge and following. Foreknowledge means we have the big picture, so that we know what to expect. Following, by definition, means we don’t know where we are going. We only follow others when we don’t know the way ourselves – when we don’t know the journey ahead, or even the next step. Following means responding faithfully to what comes one step at a time. And that is what Jesus calls Peter to do – to follow him, without foreknowledge.
J.I. Packer gives us another analogy to help explain what this looks and feels like. He says that far from getting the overall view of the whole system in the control box at the train station, so that we know what the tracks look like ahead of each train, the actual call to faith, and following, and wisdom in our lives “is like being taught to drive. What matters in driving” he says, “is the speed and appropriateness of your reactions to things and the soundness of your judgment as to what scope the situation gives you. You do not ask yourself why the road should narrow or screw itself into a dogleg wiggle just where it does, nor why that van should be parked where it is, nor why the driver in front should hug the crown of the road so lovingly; you simply try to see and do the right thing in the actual situation that presents itself.” [Packer, 103]
Think of your own experience of driving – and as you do, don’t think about the familiar roads you routinely drive today to well-known destinations – think instead, as Packer urges us, of what it was like when you were first learning how to drive – when the twists and turns of the road were not so familiar to you … when you were not following familiar mental maps in your mind, but following where the road led, and obeying the directions of a trusted parent or an experienced driver sitting next to you. Your focus was completely on how to handle the challenges before you – the car whose brake lights suddenly flashed in front of you, the road that suddenly took a sharp turn, the light that changed faster than you thought it would. You didn’t think primarily about where you were going or to what would lie a mile down the road. Of course, to whatever extent you had the mental space to anticipate those things, that would be good. But for the most part you had to deal what was before you, you had to trust the guide sitting next to you, and you had to assume that you’d deal with the obstacle a mile down the road when you got to it and could see it.
That, it turns out, is a better picture for what it looks like to live the Christian life, and to follow Jesus.
Peter and John would each have to do that. They would have to move ahead in their lives. And to do that in a way that followed Jesus meant that they were obedient to the callings and the claims that he had placed on their lives each step along the way. But it also meant they did it without knowing what to expect – without knowing what the route of their lives would look like. Sure, they could prepare for the challenges ahead … but they never knew exactly what those challenges would be, and many (if not most) of the challenges they’d face would be unexpected. Sure, they could and should make plans for how to best pursue their callings, but they needed to hold those plans loosely, with the knowledge that it was very unlikely that everything would go according to plan. Following Jesus into their future meant placing his calling on their lives above everything, heading out on the journey, and then taking the challenges, the setbacks, and the trials as they came.
It means the same thing for each of us. And it means the same thing for the Church.
Our calling in our own lives is not to control, or guarantee, or even to know our future. Of course we should make plans and we should be responsible as we anticipate future possibilities. But we should remember how often our plans are overturned in life, and how many times we’ve missed the mark in our anticipations. And then we should reorient ourselves to the fact that the core of our calling is to follow Jesus – to be faithful to the callings the Lord has placed on us now – in the commands of his word, and in the specific situations and relationships he has put us in.
Our calling in other people’s lives is not to tell them what God has planned for them in this life, or to claim to know the exact challenges they will face. Of course there may be wisdom in trying to anticipate likely challenges and temptations, and to help them know what kind of things they might face. But we must remember that such things are always fallible. And then we must reorient ourselves to the fact that our main calling is to encourage those we love to pursue the Lord in a way that will equip them for the unknown. And when the unknown occurs, we are to be there to help bear their burdens and build them up in Christ.
Similarly, our calling as the Church is not to come up with a detailed plan for what we know the challenges for the Church will look like in ten or twenty years. Of course there may be wisdom in trying to discern the points of pressure and temptation that may develop in the future. But we should remember that for every man-made prediction about the future that the Church has gotten right in its history, there have been so many more that it got wrong. And our efforts are probably no different. And so we must reorient ourselves to the fact that our core calling as the Church is to faithfully keep doing what Jesus has called us to: to worship God, to nurture and grow one another in the Body of Christ, and to go into the unbelieving world to make disciples.
That is the second thing we see here. Though we are not given foreknowledge, we are called by Christ to follow him.
The Gracious Provision for Our Faith
But the third thing that we see here is that the call to follow is not a naked one. It doesn’t come to us alone, as a groundless command. Because third, God gives us a gracious provision for our faith.
John reminds us of this at the end of his Gospel. He points to the testimony he has given us, and beyond that testimony as well.
First, he points us to the testimony he gives us. We see that in verse twenty-four. He writes: “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.”
John there asserts the truth of his words in the Scripture – a truth which others have affirmed as well. And that is the first thing we have – we have the truth of the Scriptures themselves.
Jesus does not simply call us to follow him and give us no grounds to trust him. No, he provides a reasonable basis for us to trust him. He has his apostles record what they have seen and heard. He guarantees the truth of what they have written. And he has their testimony come to us, that we might read of, and be assured of, who he is and what he has done. Jesus does not call us to a blind leap of faith. He provides testimony to us that he is trustworthy, and that though we do not know the big picture ourselves, though we do not know exactly where we are going next or what the future may hold around the corner, still we know that the one we follow is faithful and powerful. If we have paid attention to everything that came before these verses in John’s Gospel, then we have heard testimony to Jesus’s power, and to his sacrificial love for his people. He is not just a great teacher, but he is almighty God, and nothing, not even death or hell, can stand against his power. And he is not a distant God, but he is a good shepherd. He loves his sheep and is willing to lay down his life for them. And so how can we doubt that if we follow him, he will care for us?
But the foundation for our faith does not stop there. John points us to his own testimony recorded for us here, but he also acknowledges that even this is just a fraction of the evidence that exists for Jesus’s power and love.
He writes in verse twenty-five: “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.”
What does John mean here?
For one thing, John must be referring at least in part to the other work and teaching Jesus did in his earthly ministry. In the period of the early church other stories must have circulated – some contained in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but also others even beyond that, as people shared what they had seen and heard.
But John likely meant more than that. For at the beginning of his Gospel John boldly proclaimed that Jesus did not begin acting in the first century. John begins by saying that Jesus – who is the Word, the logos –Jesus existed already at the beginning of time. And in the beginning he was with God. And not only that, but he was God. “He was in the beginning with God.” And “all things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” [John 1:1-4]
The deeds of Jesus did not begin with the days when he walked the land in Palestine in the first century. The deeds of Jesus began before the creation of the world, and Jesus has been active ever since.
But again, we might suspect that John’s reference doesn’t end there either. For Jesus also had not ceased to act after he ascended into heaven. As Luke put it, any Gospel account of Jesus’s earthly ministry did not tell all that Jesus did and taught. It only contained what Jesus “began to do and teach.” [Acts 1:1] For after his ascension, Jesus’s deeds and teaching continued through the work of his Church, and in the lives of his people. Even today, the deeds of Jesus continue.
Jesus did so much more in his earthly ministry. Jesus has been at work from the beginning of creation. And Jesus continues to be at work in the lives of his people today.
And in all those ways, in the past, the present, and into the future – in deeds that would be recorded in the Scriptures and in deeds that would simply be observed in the lives of others – Jesus had given sufficient proof of his power and his faithfulness, that those who received such testimony had a generous provision for their faith – more than sufficient grounds to place their trust in him.
Have you appreciated the provision that Jesus has given to you for your faith? When your faith falters … when you struggle to follow … when you find yourself doubting God’s power or his love … do you attend then to his provision for your faith? Do you make yourself focus on the testimony of his Word in the Scriptures? Do you read them? Do you listen carefully to them being preached? Do you put yourself in front of the Biblical testimony, so that it might strengthen the foundation of your faith?
And with that, do you attend to the other provisions the Lord has given you? Do you listen to the testimony of others, of how the Lord has worked in their lives? Do you look over the course of your own life and see God’s faithfulness? Do you look out at the world, and see how it testifies to the creative and sustaining work of God?
God has given us a gracious provision for our faith. It is in front of us and all around us. We must receive it.
So, first we see the futility of our quest for foreknowledge. Second, we see the divine call to follow. Third, we see the gracious provision for our faith.
The Messiah’s Assurance of a Finale
Fourth and finally we see the Messiah’s assurance of a finale.
And that assurance is easy to miss in our text. Because it shows up in just three little words in our English translation (two in the Greek): “until I come.” You can see it in verse twenty-two.
We have said that Jesus will not give us foreknowledge. And that is true, to a point … but not entirely. Jesus will not tell us the future of our lives. He won’t tell us what is to come in the decades or even the centuries or the millennia ahead. That is true. There are chapters and volumes of the future that Jesus will not reveal to us – he merely assures us that he is trustworthy, and then he calls us to follow him.
But Jesus does actually give us one crucial piece of foreknowledge. He tells us that he is coming back. He tells us that this period of trials, and sacrifice, and difficulty, and unknowns – this period where we must walk by faith and not by sight – this period will not last forever. There will be a finale to this period of history. It will only last, Jesus says, “until I come.” And then, everything will change.
When Jesus returns, faith will become sight. Uncertainty will become certainty, and though we will still be finite creatures, there will be no more fear or anxiety about what comes ahead, because God will wipe away every tear from his people’s eyes. And “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away.” [Revelation 21:4] And God will make all things new, and all who have trusted in him will dwell with him forever.
That is the finale that Jesus promises to his people – a finale that is not so much an end as a true beginning … as everlasting joy and gladness stretches out before us for all eternity.
That is the final hope that Jesus holds out for his people. But it only comes to those who will turn to him now, trust in his power and his love, and follow him.
That is the call Jesus places on you this morning – on each of us as individuals, and as a church. He calls on you to give up on your own self-serving quests for control and foreknowledge. He calls on you to hear his word and to place your trust in him. He calls on you to obey his command, and to follow him, going out to do what he has called you to do in life. And he calls you to do that in confidence of the finale to come, when he will raise you up from the dead, and then, if you have trusted in him, you will dwell with him, and all his people, for all eternity.
That is the promise of the gospel. And it is why John wrote this Gospel which we have considered for the last two years. And if we take nothing else from it, we must take that.
For John writes: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples […] but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” [John 20:30-31]
You have heard John’s testimony.
Now believe his word.
And have life in Jesus’s name.
This sermon draws on material from:
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Packer, J.I. “God’s Wisdom and Ours” in Knowing God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 1973.
Wright, N. T. John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004.
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