Did Jesus Say John Would Live To See His Coming?

Did Jesus Say John Would Live To See His Coming?

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The Gospel of John ends with an interesting twist. It ends with Jesus directing the gaze of Peter and John off into their futures and to how their deaths “would glorify God”. Peter, who denied Jesus,  would be crucified and die a martyr’s death. John, the Beloved disciple, the only one at the foot of the cross, would also be the only disciple not to die a martyr’s death. He would live to a ripe old age. Better yet, John’s Gospel ends with Jesus saying He wants John to live to see His coming!

I take this to mean that Jesus is saying John would live to see his coming at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. And of course Jesus meant what he said, otherwise, why would he say it? And why would John choose it – of the countless things he said he had to choose from – to record for all of history? Coincidentally, John was the only disciple to live to see Jesus’ 70AD coming! All other disciples died either in or before the Neronic persecution leading up to it. So, it seems they were on to something.

The passage under consideration reads like this:

John 21:18-19 “Truly, truly, I say to you [Peter], when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow OLD, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.”  Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God

John 21:21 So, Peter, seeing him [John] said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?”  [as in, “WHEN will John die?”]

John 21:22 Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come [erchomai] , what is that to you? You follow Me!”

John 21:23 Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come [erchomai] , what is that to you?”

What time frame is under discussion here? Jesus says that Peter will live until he is “very old” and intimates John will outlive him. According to early church writers, Peter died in Rome in AD 67-68. So the time frame in discussion is at least 35 years off into the future. Notice also that the disciples misunderstood Jesus to say that, not only would John outlive everyone, but he would live forever! So judging from the context, the time period under discussion in the disciples minds is the coming Jesus mentions, which would be after Peter’s death, but before John’s death.

John would be rewarded with a longer life than the others. He would actually live to see the coming of Jesus into his Kingdom! But are we sure that Jesus meant to say that John would be alive until Jesus’ Second Advent return? Or could he have meant that John would remain alive until his ‘return’ to the Father, namely, at his Ascension, a few days later?

There is agreement among commentators that when Jesus says he wants John to remain alive until he comes [erchomai] or returns, Jesus is talking about his return to them at his coming [erchomai]. It becomes clear why they agree on this once we take a comparative look at the Greek words used, but first let’s look at some commentary.

About this verse, NIV Bible notes say, “Clearly Jesus is referring to his Second Advent”. And Matthew Henry’s Bible Commentary concurs that Jesus is saying about John, “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.”

The term “return” in English is ambiguous. So let’s look at the more specific words used in Greek. Is there a consistently differentiated use of words for “return”, as in, coming to them, and “return”, as  in, departing from them, or returning to the Father, in the Greek? Thankfully, YES! This makes things easier to understand.

The Greek word “erchomai” means “to come” or “arrive”. This is the word Jesus uses to describe his Parousia or his coming into his Kingdom on earth. It is the word that describes the coming of the Son of Man into his Kingdom.

John 21:22 Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, [erchomai] what is that to you? You follow Me!”

Here is a cross reference my Bible gives regarding how the same word is used regarding the same topic.

Mt 16:28 Truly I say to YOU, there are some of YOU who are standing HERE who will NOT taste death until YOU SEE the Son of Man coming [erchomai] in His Kingdom.

Mt 10:23 “But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to YOU, YOU will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes [erchomai].

Mt 23:39 “For I say to YOU, from now on YOU will not see Me until YOU say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES [erchomai] IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’ ”

So then, what words does Jesus use to describe returning to the Father? When Jesus talks about departing, going or ascending to the Father, he uses three different words:
1) poryuo, which means to GO, DEPART, or return
2) hypago, which means to GO AWAY or DEPART
3) anabaino, which means to ASCEND, as in, His ascension.

Sometimes the word erchomai, arriving, is used in direct contrast with poryuo, departing, to describe Jesus’ return to his Father. Here are two examples that bring the opposite meaning of these terms into sharp focus.

Jn 14:28 “You heard that I said to you, ‘I go away [hypago] and I will come [erchomai] to you.’ If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go [poryu] to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.

Acts 1:11 They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking intothe sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come [erchomai]  in like manner as you have watched Him go [poryu] into heaven.”

So you can see, it’s pretty clear that when Jesus says he is going to the Father, he uses hypago and poryu. When Jesus says he is coming back to his disciples he uses erchomai. The use of these terms is consistent. Therefore, we have every reason to believe Jesus is using these words in the same usual way when he says he wants John to remain alive until he comes – as in, until he comes to them.

Indeed, it is a great confirmation of Jesus’ words to John that this actually happened! When Jesus arrived in his Kingdom on earth – to be with US! – in 70AD, Jesus’ words were fulfilled. Afterall, another theme in John’s Gospel is how John keeps saying that Jesus did something, “so that Scripture would be fulfilled”. It is important to John that Jesus’ prophecies be shown to be fulfilled. This seems to be one more example of that fulfillment theme.

It also makes sense that John would end his Gospel on this high note, looking off into the future toward one of the most important events that Jesus forestold, the consummation of the Kingdom and completing of our atonement at his second coming. How exciting that John got to live to see this – and to write about it in his Revelation of Jesus Christ.

So you can see that, indeed, Jesus honored John in front of the others by saying that he wanted him to be one of the lucky ones who would remain alive until he saw Jesus’ coming. Jesus had hinted at this several times before.

Up to this point in the story the disciples had heard Jesus say, cryptically, that only “some” of them would live to see his coming [erchomai]. Earlier,  in response to them asking when His coming would be, Jesus made the Generation Promise to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mt 24:34).

What a way to cause a stir! You can understand why Peter would ask more specifically whether or not he would ‘make the cut’ and be one of the lucky ones who would live to see His coming.  So, although Jesus didn’t name names before regarding who would live to see his coming, John reveals that Jesus singled him out with this honor.


Last but not least, there is an interesting parallel between the message given to John in his Gospel and the message given to Simeon in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth story, the Holy Spirit tells Simeon he will not die before seeing the Messiah.

Lk 2:25-26 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

Just like Jesus revealed to John that he would be one of the lucky ones who would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s return. So it is not at all unusual that Jesus told John he would live to see the return of the Messiah. In fact, it was a bit of non-identical repetition.

4 Responses to Did Jesus Say John Would Live To See His Coming?

  1. Good article. But I did not understand this part:

    “How exciting that John got to live to see this – and to write about it in his Revelation of Jesus Christ.”

    Do you believe that the book of Revelation was written after 70 AD?

    •  Riley says:

      Hi, thanks for your question. Perhaps that sentence needs some re-working for clarification. I believe John wrote Revelation before 70AD, but that he lived well past it. He lived to see that his prophecy came true, that Jesus did what he said he would do, when he said he would do it, thus validating his authenticity as Messiah. Does that make more sense?

  2.  Ryan says:

    I don’t get what you mean by Jesus’s 70AD coming as he hasn’t come back yet & if he had come back in 70AD we would no longer be here?

    •  Riley says:

      Ryan I encourage you to read a few articles on my site like “What did Jesus say?” And “What is a coming of God?” Yes. Jesus came when he promised he would come. What he promised us was his presence, his spirit, and citizenship in his invisible Kingdom of God that was spreading out over the earth for those who had eyes to see its spiritual reality. He did not promise to take Christians out of the world. But to be with us and in U.S. And among us as our comfort through all our ups and downs IN this world. Keep asking, seeking and reading Ryan. Keep an open mind and ask God to open your eyes so you can see the incredible gift of him here and now. And you will understand! Blessings.

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2 thoughts on “Did Jesus Say John Would Live To See His Coming?

  1. Jesus also told Caiaphas that he would be alive to see His return. It was when He was before him and He told him then that he would be around to see His return. But most do not understand that passage that way.

  2. Here is an article I wrote some years ago:

    John 21:23 – A Textual and Explanatory Note

    In the last chapter of the gospel of John we have the interaction between Jesus and Peter, where Jesus allows Peter to confess his love for him three times, just as Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times. Then Jesus reveals that Peter would fulfill that love for Jesus in going to his death for Jesus. Peter then turns the discussion to John who was following them. John 21:21-23 RSV 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? Follow me!” (23) The saying spread abroad among the brethren 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?” This RSV translation demonstrates the text as most translations have it.
    In verse 23 the Nestle-Aland and UBS Greeks texts enclose the words “ti pros se”(“what is that to you”) in brackets, indicating that the words enclosed are of doubtful authenticity with regard to the original text. In the first edition of A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament by Bruce M. Metzger the reasons are given as to why the UBS included the text with a {D} rating (the most doubtful):

    Several witnesses, including Aleph* C2 f1 565 syrs ita,e arm, lack the words “ti pros se” Although Tischendorf (8th ed.) and von Soden regarded the shorter text as original (the evangelist often varies the wording in a repeated phrase), it is also possible that copyists omitted the clause in order to draw attention to what was taken as the primary element in Jesus’ reply (codex Bezae accomplishes the same effect by omitting “ti”). In view of the close balance of probabilities a majority of the Committee preferred to retain the clause, but to enclose it within square brackets to indicate doubt that it belongs in the text. (Page 257)

    In the second edition of the Commentary the notes are the same but the rating was changed to {C} because in the fourth revised edition of the text the committee decided to use the {D} rating very sparingly.

    The internal canons of textual criticism would weigh heavily against the words being original to the text. Generally speaking, the shorter reading is to be preferred. It was more likely that the scribes would add words to the text, whether it would be from a gloss, or on the principle that where you have a shorter and longer text, it would be better to have an extraneous word in scripture than to leave one out. Another important canon is: the original text is the text that explains how the other came to be. Now with John 21:23 we can see that it was much more likely that a scribe would repeat the complete saying of Jesus in verse 22(“what is that to you”) than it would be for him to omit it in verse 23. If the original text read, The saying spread abroad among the brethren 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”, then the meaning is different and more difficult for the scribes to understand what the meaning of the text is. Admittedly, the shorter text is the more difficult text to understand (which is another reason it is to be preferred). There really is no good reason for a scribe to omit the phrase and every reason for him to add it. What is interesting is the short text did circulate, and obviously it meant something to the readers.
    How has the text been understood? Generally the emphasis has been on the last phrase, meaning that it was none of Peter’s business. Jesus was not saying that John would remain till he came back, but that it was not any concern of Peter’s what Jesus had in store for John; Peter’s business was to follow Jesus wherever it might lead. Albert Barnes is typical for this understanding:

    John 21:22 –
    That he tarry – That he live. The same word is used to express life in Phi1:24-25; 1Co_15:6.
    Till I come – Some have supposed this to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem; others to the day of judgment; others to signify that he would not die a violent death; but the plain meaning is, “If I will that he should not die at all, it is nothing to thee.” In this way the apostles evidently understood it, and hence raised a report that he would not die. It is remarkable that John was the last of the apostles; that he lived to nearly the close of the first century, and then died a peaceful death at Ephesus, being the only one, as is supposed, of the apostles who did not suffer martyrdom. The testimony of antiquity is clear on this point; and though there have been many idle conjectures about this passage and about the fate of John, yet no fact of history is better attested than that John died and was buried at Ephesus.
    What is that to thee? – From this passage we learn:
    1. That our main business is to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
    2. That there are many subjects of religion on which a vain and impertinent curiosity is exercised. All such curiosity Jesus here reproves.
    3. That Jesus will take care of all his true disciples, and that we should not be unduly solicitous about them.
    4. That we should go forward to whatever he calls us to persecution or death – not envying the lot of any other man, and anxious only to do the will of God.

    This interpretation has Jesus presenting a strong contrary to fact hypothetical. “If I wanted him to remain until I come back (which I don’t), what business is it of yours?” The question arises, why would Jesus do such a thing, especially when it could so easily be misunderstood? Was Jesus one who would pose such a false premise? The form of the sentence is what is called a third class conditional sentence in the Greek. As J. W. Roberts in his Greek grammar states, “The anticipatory is the condition undetermined but with prospect of fulfillment. It states what is likely to happen based on a condition yet to be determined or known to be true.” (A Grammar of New Testament Greek for Beginners, p. 143.) Frank Pack in his commentary on John admits such but says, “If it is my will introduces a third class conditional sentence, which could point to something that might happen in the future, but verse 23 corrects that misunderstanding. It is to be considered merely a hypothetical statement and not a prophecy concerning the future.”(The Gospel of John: Part II, p.173) But this understanding is necessarily based upon the long text.
    There have been those who have seen in the text as generally accepted (the long text) that Jesus was foretelling that John would remain till Jesus came back in the judgment on Jerusalem. Dr. John Gill (1690-1771) opined:

    if I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? meaning, that if it was his pleasure that he should live, not till his second coming to judge the quick and dead at the last day, but till he should come in his power and take vengeance on the Jewish nation, in the destruction of their city and temple by the Romans, and in dispersing them through the nations of the world; till which time John did live, and many years after; and was the only one of the disciples that lived till that time, and who did not die a violent death; what was that to Peter? it was no concern of his. The question was too curious, improper, and impertinent; it became him to attend only to what concerned himself, and he was bid to do:

    Likewise John Wesley in his comments on the verse: “If I will that he tarry – Without dying, till I come – To judgment. Certainly he did tarry, till Christ came to destroy Jerusalem. And who can tell, when or how he died? What is that to thee? – Who art to follow me long before.”
    But these commentators were working from the long text. If the short text is original, and I hold that it is, the meaning is very strong. The saying spread abroad among the brethren 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.” The emphasis on the saying of Jesus was not on the last phrase, “what is that to you?” but on the first, “If it is my will that he remain until I come.” This would practically force an interpretation that John would remain till Jesus came again, but Jesus’ coming would not end physical life on earth, and John would eventually die. This indeed points to the return of Jesus in A.D. 70.

    J. A. Davis

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