by Matthew Bassford
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me…” (Matt 4:18-19)
“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 [Jesus] said to show by what kind of death [Peter] was to glorify God.) And after saying this Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” (John 21:19)
When we read the account of John 21, we can’t help but be struck by the similarity between the narrative of the chapter and the accounts recorded in Matthew 4 and Luke 5. Both stories take place by the Sea of Galilee. Both involve an enormous catch of fish. Both conclude with a call from Jesus to Peter: “Follow Me!”
Bible skeptics love to seize on these similarities and claim they are different versions of the same poorly remembered (extremely poorly remembered, given the miraculous catch) event. Those poor dumb disciples! It’s a good thing the skeptics know much better than the disciples what happened, even though they were eyewitnesses and the skeptics aren’t, and the skeptics live thousands of years later.
Of course, the Evangelists didn’t get their facts wrong. Instead, they have recorded a display of the wisdom of Jesus. He is the One driving events both in Luke 5 and John 21, and the narrative in both cases is so similar because He makes it so for the benefit of His disciples, in particular, for the benefit of Peter.
Consider Peter’s emotional ups and downs over the past couple of months. During the Triumphal Entry, he, along with the rest of Jesus’ disciples, is convinced that Jesus is about to re-establish God’s kingdom on earth. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, he proudly declares his willingness to die for and with his Lord.
However, when he begins to fight, Jesus tells him to put up his sword. In fear and confusion, he denies his Master three times, as Jesus had told him he would. He watches the One he thought was the Messiah die a painful, shameful, public death.
And then, against all expectations, on Sunday morning the tomb is empty. Jesus is indeed the Christ, though a different kind of Christ than Peter had ever imagined He would be. It is this Christ, mocked, beaten, crucified, and raised, who tells Peter for a second time, “Follow Me.” The words and setting are the same, but what Peter hears is very different.
So too for us. As any of us who have been disciples for any length of time know, discipleship has its twists and turns. Sometimes we ride high spiritually; sometimes we struggle. Sometimes we blow it as completely as Peter blew it.
Through it all, though, unless we give up entirely, we continue to learn. We understand better what it means to follow Jesus, to die to ourselves as He died that we too might attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Even more encouragingly, through it all, Jesus continues to invite us to follow. In His vast mercy, He gives us all second chances, like He gave Peter a second chance, and third, fourth, and fifth chances—as many as necessary. Our understanding will be different, but His call always is the same: “Follow Me,” until the day when no more following is necessary because we have joined Him where all of us always will be.