Paul tells us: “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (1 Cor. 14:3). True Christian prophecy, he also stresses, is an act of love (1 Cor. 13:2).
There is no better illustration of all these aspects of prophecy than Jesus’ prophecies to Peter, starting with the one recorded in all four gospels, regarding his betrayal of Jesus. John reports it this way:
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times. (John 13:36-38)
On first glance the consolation, the encouragement, the upbuilding, and the love are not readily apparent. Love, however, is exactly what this exchange is about.
John begins that chapter with a statement that seems to have eluded adequate translation:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13:1)
As the ESV renders it here, it sounds as if it were a chronological point John is making: Jesus continued to love them up to the moment of His death. With John’s proclivity for multiple meaning of a phrase, it probably includes that idea, but there is far more here.
The NIV captures a different nuance:
“…he now showed them the full extent of his love.”
This has something to commend it, since the word the ESV translates “the end,” telos, indicates not just a stopping point, but the goal, the purpose, completeness, even perfection. Also the statement does have immediate relevance to what follows: Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (vv. 3-11). This act of loving service he instructs his disciples to imitate:
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. (vv. 14-15)
Following in the steps of the Teacher, doing His same works, are of the essence of discipleship, as Jesus indicates here:
Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. (v. 16).
He had made this point before:
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. (Matt. 10: 24-25)
He most specifically means it in terms of love:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (vv. 34-35)
So since we are called to love as he loved we must understand more fully John’s point in verse 1 that that Jesus loved his disciples eis telos, “to the end.” Jesus will make the point explicit shortly afterward in chapter 15:
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13).
John’s wording here will prove significant: “love” is a rendering of agape, “friends” of philos. Though the distinction between these word groups is frequently overstated, John will later employ the contrast between them in an important way. At this point in the narrative, though, Jesus is demonstrating agape, “love,” and that eis telos, “to the end.”
John understood what this love meant, as he made clear in his first epistle:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (1 John 3:16).
Peter understood immediately, too, and he was ready to proclaim his love for Jesus:
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” (John 13: 36-37)
This was Peter’s prediction, though not by prophecy. It was the statement of his intent, of the love he felt. There is no question but that he meant this passionately, but if there was passion he felt, it was another kind of “passion” he feared. When the Lord’s Passion, His suffering, began, Peter’s courage, his boast failed him. He failed to love as he had promised. He failed to find this agape in himself so that he would truly lay down his life. He felt it there, but did not find it there. It happened, of course, precisely as Jesus had predicted, for his prediction was true prophecy.
Jesus said of His predictive prophecy:
I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he (John 13:19).
But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you (John 16:4).
This is exactly what did happen; Peter remembered Jesus’ words when the prophecy was fulfilled:
Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. (Matt. 26:74-75).
Not that he could ever forget those words, but neither did he forget what else Jesus had told him, as Luke records:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32).
Peter’s love failed, his passion failed, his boast failed, but his faith did not fail, because Jesus had prayed for him and prophesied his return.
And so even in the shame of his failure, he ran toward Jesus (even swam toward Him) and not away from Him.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea (John 21:4-7).
This brings us to a second prophecy Jesus made to Peter. He began by dealing with Peter about his failure, and about his boast.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15a)
This was precisely a confrontation about his boast to greater love for Jesus than the other disciples, as Matthew recorded it: “Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” (Matt. 26:33).
So John makes it clear that Peter will now no longer make such a boast. He shows this by very particular wording, Jesus’ question asks about Peter’s love, using the verb agapao. Peter, however, answers using the verb phileo, which is cognate to the word for “friends” we saw earlier.
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you.” (John 21:15b).
What is John telling us? First, that though Peter did not have the love to die for Jesus, he knew he was one of Jesus’ friends, and that Jesus had the love to die for him. More to the point here though, Peter would not deny the love he felt for Jesus, though his words admitted not living up to his aspirations. I think we can capture the force of the exchange with the following paraphrase:
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord; you know how I feel about you.”
This exchange happens three times, though with differences each time. Each time, Jesus recommissions Peter:
- “Feed my lambs” (v. 15)
- “Tend my sheep” (v. 16)
- “Feed my sheep” (v. 17).
Moreover, on the third time, Jesus condescends to Peter’s wording and asks His question in terms of Peter’s previous responses, employing the word phileo. This disturbs Peter greatly.
Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love (phileis) me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (v. 17b)
It is at this point that Jesus pronounces his prophecy:
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. (John 21:18)
Peter could have no doubt whatever that Jesus’ prophecy would be fulfilled. In fact, it seems clear that when John wrote these words, Peter had in fact died (by crucifixion we are told by extrabiblical sources) just as Jesus said.
This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God. (v. 19)
What does this all mean? Jesus was saying he knew Peter’s works: he had a passion for Jesus, yes, but not one that was adequate for the task, though it was a starting point, and evidence of the spirit’s work, to will though not yet to do. Jesus accepted this reality by accepting Peter’s confession of love (phileo), inadequate though that be. Yet He promised Peter that He would finish by loving Jesus eis telos (to the end), by having that greater love, because He when that day would come, he would not fail again, but in his own passion in the likeness of Christ’s Passion, he would love Jesus to the end, and bring Him glory. Jesus was now boasting for Peter, because He Himself would give Peter the power to succeed, to love, to stand firm to the end.
So he consoles, so he upbuilds, so he encourages. So much so that in days to come when Peter stood again in peril of his life, just after James, John’s brother, had been beheaded as the first apostolic martyr, and Peter was slated for the same fate, he could sleep securely (Acts 12:6).
Peter had encouragement from Jesus prophecy in two ways. First, if he were to die the next day, it meant success where he had failed before, he would live out in dying, the boast that Jesus had made of him, and this had to be sweetness itself for Peter.
Second though, in this and doubtless in many other perilous situations, Peter knew until that day Jesus had prophesied, he would be indestructible. Pondering the words of Jesus’ prophecy, he may well have realized he would not die by beheading. Furthermore, Jesus had said it would happen “…when you are old…” This event happened in about A.D. 44, and if Peter was roughly Jesus’ age, he was hardly old. Still one can imagine in any such situation Peter considering any gray hair, what wrinkles he had on his face (talk about interpreting prophecy by looking at head lines!)
Jesus demonstrated His love for Peter most of all by laying down His life for him, but also in building Him up in love, in no small part through the prophecies He gave Him. And he commands us to love one another as He has loved us. The author of Hebrews reminds us:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:23-24)
Prophecy does this, as Paul says, as Jesus shows. Has its purpose, then, passed away?
Not if we believe the Lord, who said of His words and His works (such as prophecy):
The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:10-12)