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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.
INTERESTING NON-IDENTICAL REPETITION
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.