Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume VII/Gospel According to St. John/Part 124
Chapter XXI. 19–25.
1. It is no unimportant question why the Lord, when He manifested Himself for the third time to the disciples, said unto the Apostle Peter, “Follow me;” but of the Apostle John, “Thus I wish him to remain till I come, what is that to thee?” To the discussion or solution of this question, according as the Lord shall grant us ability we devote the last discourse of this work. When the Lord, then, had announced beforehand to Peter by what death he was to glorify God, “He saith unto him, Follow me. Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; who also leaned on His breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that shall betray Thee? Peter, therefore, seeing him, saith to Jesus, Lord, and what [of] this man? Jesus saith unto him, Thus do I wish him to remain till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me. Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple dieth not: yet Jesus said not unto him, He dieth not; but, Thus do I wish him to remain till I come, what is that to thee?” You see the great extent in this Gospel of a question which, by its depth, must exercise in no ordinary way the mind of the inquirer. For why is it said to Peter, “Follow me,” and not to the others who were likewise present? Surely the disciples followed Him also as their Master. But if it is to be understood only in reference to his suffering, was Peter the only one that suffered for the truth of Christianity? Was there not present there amongst those seven, another son of Zebedee, the brother of John, who, after His ascension, is plainly recorded to have been slain by Herod?  But some one may say that, as James was not crucified, it was properly enough said to Peter, “Follow me,” inasmuch as he underwent not only death, but, like Christ, even the death of the cross. Be it so, if no other explanation can be found that is more satisfactory. Why, then, was it said of John, “Thus do I wish him to remain till I come, what is that to thee?” and the words repeated, “Follow thou me,” as if that other, therefore, were not to follow, seeing He wished him to remain till He comes. Who can readily believe that anything else was meant than what the brethren who lived at the time believed, namely, that that disciple was not to die, but to abide in this life till Jesus came? But John himself removed such an idea, by giving a flat contradiction to the report that the Lord had said so. For why should he add, “Jesus saith not, He dieth not,” save to prevent what was false from taking hold of the hearts of men?
2. But let any one who so listeth still refuse his assent, and declare that what John asserts is true enough, that the Lord said not that that disciple dieth not, and yet that this is the meaning of such words as He is here
recorded to have used; and further assert that the Apostle John is still living, and maintain that he is sleeping rather than lying dead in his tomb at Ephesus. Let him employ as an argument the current report that there the earth is in sensible commotion, and presents a kind of heaving appearance, and assert whether it be steadfastly or obstinately that this is occasioned by his breathing. For we cannot fail to have some who so believe, if there is no want of those also who affirm that Moses is alive; because it is written that his sepulchre could not be found, and that he appeared with the Lord on the mountain along with Elias, of whom we read that he did not die, but was translated. As if Moses’ body could not have been hid somewhere in such a way as that its position should altogether escape discovery by men, and be raised up therefrom by divine power at the time when Elias and he were seen with Christ just as at the time of Christ’s passion many bodies of the saints arose, and after His resurrection appeared, according to Scripture, to many in the holy city. But still, as I began to say, if some deny the death of Moses, whom Scripture itself, in the very passage where we read that his sepulchre could nowhere be found, explicitly declares to have died; how much more may occasion be taken from these words where the Lord says, “Thus do I wish him to stay till I come,” to believe that John is sleeping, but still alive, beneath the ground? Of whom we have also the tradition (which is found in certain apocryphal scriptures), that he was present, in good health, when he ordered a sepulchre to be made for him; and that, when it was dug and prepared with all possible care, he laid himself down there as in a bed, and became immediately defunct: yet as those think who so understand these words of the Lord, not really defunct, but only lying like one in such a condition; and, while accounted dead, was actually buried when asleep, and that he will so remain till the coming of Christ, making known meanwhile the fact of his life by the bubbling up of the dust, which is believed to be forced by the breath of the sleeper to ascend from the depths to the surface of the grave. I think it quite superfluous to contend with such an opinion. For those may see for themselves who know the locality whether the ground there does or suffers what is said regarding it, because, in truth, we too have heard of it from those who are not altogether unreliable witnesses.
3. Meanwhile let us yield to the opinion, which we are unable to refute by any certain evidence, lest we stir up still another question that may be put to us, Why the very ground should seem in a kind of way to live and breathe upon the interred corpse? But can so great a question as the one before us be settled on such grounds as these, if by a great miracle, such as can be wrought by the Almighty, the living body lies so long asleep beneath the ground, till the coming of the end of the world? Nay, rather, does there not arise a wider and more difficult one, why Jesus bestowed on the disciple, whom He loved beyond the others to such an extent that he was counted worthy to recline on His breast, the gift of a protracted sleep in the body, when He delivered the blessed Peter, by the eminent glory of martyrdom, from the burden of the body itself, and vouchsafed to him what the Apostle Paul said that he desired, and committed to writing, namely, “to be let loose, and to be with Christ”? But if, what is rather to be believed, Saint John declared that the Lord said not, “He dieth not,” for the very purpose that no such meaning might be attached to the words which He used; and his body lieth in its sepulchre lifeless like those of others deceased; it remains, if that really takes place which report has spread abroad regarding the soil, which grows up anew, though continually carried away, that it is either so done for the purpose of commending the preciousness of his death, seeing it wants the commendation of martyrdom (for he suffered not death at a persecutor’s hand for the faith of Christ), or on some other account that is concealed from our knowledge. Still there remains the question, why the Lord said of one who was destined to die, “Thus I wish him to remain till I come.”
4. And who, besides, would not be disposed, in the case of these two apostles, Peter and John, to make this further inquiry, why the Lord loved John better, when He Himself was better loved by Peter? For wherever John has something to say of himself, in order that the reference may be understood without any mention of his name, he adds this, that Jesus loved him, as if he were the only one so loved, that he might be distinguished by this mark from the others, who were all of them certainly loved by Christ: and what else, when he so spake, did he wish to be understood but that he himself was more abundantly loved? and far be it that he should utter a falsehood. And what greater proof could Jesus have given of His
own greater love to him than that this man, who was only a partner with the rest of his fellow-disciples in the great salvation, should be the only one that leaned on the breast of the Saviour Himself? And further, that the Apostle Peter loved Christ more than the others, may be adduced from many documentary evidences; but to go no further after others, it is plainly enough apparent in the lesson almost immediately preceding the present, in connection with that third manifestation of the Lord, when He put to him the question, “Lovest thou me more than these?” He knew it, of course, and yet asked, in order that we also, who read the Gospel, might know Peter’s love to Christ, both from the questions of the One and the answers of the other. But when Peter only replied, “I love Thee,” without adding, “more than these,” his answer contained all that he knew of himself. For he could not know how much He was loved by any other, not being able to look into that other’s heart. But by saying in the earliest of his answers, “Yea, Lord, Thou knowest,” he stated in clear enough terms, that it was with perfect knowledge of all that the Lord asked what He asked. The Lord therefore knew, not only that Peter loved Him, but also that he loved Him more than the others. And yet if we propose to ourselves, in the way of inquiry, which of the two is the better, he that loveth Christ more or he that loveth Him less, who will hesitate to answer, he is the better that loveth Him more? If, on the other hand, we propose this question, which of the two is the better, he that is loved less or he that is loved more by Christ, without any doubt we shall reply that he is the better who is loved the more by Christ. In the comparison therefore which I drew first, Peter is superior to John; but in the latter, John is preferred to Peter. Accordingly, we have a third to propose in this form: Which of the two disciples is the better, he that loveth Christ less than his fellow-disciple [does], and is loved more than his fellow-disciple by Christ? or he who is loved less than his fellow-disciple by Christ, while he, more than his fellow-disciple, loveth Christ? Here it is that the answer plainly halts, and the question grows in magnitude. As far, however, as my own wisdom goes, I might easily reply, that he is the better who loveth Christ the more, but he the happier who is loved the more by Christ; if only I could thoroughly see how to defend the justice of our Deliverer in loving him the less by whom He is loved the more, and him the more by whom He is loved the less.
5. I shall therefore, in the manifested mercy of Him whose justice is hidden, set about the discussion, in order to the solution of a question of such importance, in accordance with the strength which He may graciously bestow: for hitherto it has only been proposed, not expounded. Let this, then, be the commencement of its exposition, namely, that we bear in mind that in this corruptible body, which burdens the soul, we live a miserable life. But we who are now redeemed by the Mediator, and have received the earnest of the Holy Spirit, have a blessed life in prospect, although we possess it not as yet in reality. But a hope that is seen is not hope; for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. And it is in the evils that every one suffers, not in the good things that he enjoys, that he has need of patience. The present life, therefore, whereof it is written, “Is not the life of man a term of trial upon earth?” in which we are daily crying to the Lord, “Deliver us from evil,” a man is compelled to endure, even when his sins are forgiven him, although it was the first sin that caused his falling into such misery. For the penalty is more protracted than the fault; lest the fault should be accounted small, were the penalty to end with itself. On this account it is also, either for the demonstration of our debt of misery, or for the amendment of our passing life, or for the exercise of the necessary patience, that man is kept through time in the penalty, even when he is no longer held by his sin as liable to everlasting damnation. This is the truly lamentable but unblameable condition of the present evil days we pass in this mortal state, even while in it we look with loving eyes to the days that are good. For it comes from the righteous anger of God, whereof the Scriptures say, “Man, that is born of woman, is of few days and full of anger:” for the anger of God is not like that of man, the disturbance of an excited man, but the calm fixing of righteous punishment. In this anger of His, God restraineth not, as it is written, His tender mercies; but, besides other consolations to the miserable, which He ceaseth not to bestow on mankind, in the fullness of time, when He knew that such had to be done, He sent His only-begotten Son, by whom He created all things, that He might become man while remaining God, and so be the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus: that those who believe in Him, being absolved by
the laver of regeneration from the guilt of all their sins,—to wit, both of the original sin they have inherited by generation, and to meet which, in particular, regeneration was instituted, and of all others contracted by evil conduct,—might be delivered from perpetual condemnation, and live in faith and hope and love while sojourning in this world, and be walking onward to His visible presence amid its toilsome and perilous temptations on the one hand, but the consolations of God, both bodily and spiritual, on the other, ever keeping to the way which Christ has become to them. And because, even while walking in Him, they are not exempt from sins, which creep in through the infirmities of this life, He has given them the salutary remedies of alms whereby their prayers might be aided when He taught them to say, “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”  So does the Church act in blessed hope through this troublous life; and this Church symbolized in its generality, was personified in the Apostle Peter, on account of the primacy of his apostleship. For, as regards his proper personality, he was by nature one man, by grace one Christian, by still more abounding grace one, and yet also, the first apostle; but when it was said to him, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven,” he represented the universal Church, which in this world is shaken by divers temptations, that come upon it like torrents of rain, floods and tempests, and falleth not, because it is founded upon a rock (petra), from which Peter received his name. For petra (rock) is not derived from Peter, but Peter from petra; just as Christ is not called so from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. For on this very account the Lord said, “On this rock will I build my Church,” because Peter had said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” On this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed, I will build my Church. For the Rock (Petra) was Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself also built. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus. The Church, therefore, which is founded in Christ received from Him the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the person of Peter, that is to say, the power of binding and loosing sins. For what the Church is essentially in Christ, such representatively is Peter in the rock (petra); and in this representation Christ is to be understood as the Rock, Peter as the Church. This Church, accordingly, which Peter represented, so long as it lives amidst evil, by loving and following Christ is delivered from evil. But its following is the closer in those who contend even unto death for the truth. But to the universality [of the Church] is it said, “Follow me,” even as it was for the same universality that Christ suffered: of whom this same Peter saith, “Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow His footsteps.” This, then, you see is why it was said to him, “Follow me.” But there is another, an immortal life, that is not in the midst of evil: there we shall see face to face what is seen here through a glass and in a riddle, even when much progress is made in the beholding of the truth. There are two states of life, therefore, preached and commended to herself from heaven, that are known to the Church, whereof the one is in faith, the other in sight; one in the temporal sojourn in a foreign land, the other in the eternity of the [heavenly] abode; one in labor, the other in repose; one on the way, the other in the fatherland; one in active work, the other in the wages of contemplation; one declines from evil and makes for good, the other has no evil to decline from, and has great good to enjoy; the one fights with a foe, the other reigns without a foe; the one is brave in the midst of adversities, the other has no experience of adversity; the one is bridling its carnal lusts, the other has full scope for spiritual delights; the one is anxious with the care of conquering, the other secure in the peace of victory; the one is helped in temptations, the other, free from all temptations, rejoices in the Helper Himself; the one is occupied in relieving the indigent, the other is there, where no indigence is found; the one pardons the sins of others, that its own may be pardoned to itself, the other neither has anything to pardon nor does aught for which pardon has to be asked; the one is scourged with evils that it may not be elated with good things, the other is free from all evil by such a fullness of grace that, without any temptation to pride, it may cleave to that which is supremely good; the one discerneth both good and evil, the other has only that which is good presented to view: therefore the one is good, but miserable as yet; the other, better and blessed. This one was signified by the Apostle Peter, that other by John. The whole of the one is passed here to the end of this world, and there finds its
termination, the other is deferred for its completion till after the end of this world, but has no end in the world to come. Hence it is said to the latter, “Follow me;” but of the former, “Thus I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.” For what means this last? So far as my wisdom goes, so far as I comprehend, what is it but this, Follow thou me by imitating me in the endurance of temporal evils; let him remain till I come to restore everlasting good? And this may be expressed more clearly in this way: Let perfected action, informed by the example of my passion, follow me; but let contemplation only begun remain [so] till I come, to be perfected when I come. For the godly plenitude of patience, reaching forward even unto death, followeth Christ; but the fullness of knowledge tarrieth till Christ come, to be manifested then. For here the evils of this world are endured in the land of the dying, while there shall be seen the good things of the Lord in the land of the living. For in saying, “I wish him to tarry till I come,” we are not to understand Him as meaning to remain on, or abide permanently, but to wait; seeing that what is signified by him shall certainly not be fulfilled now, but when Christ is come. But what is signified by him to whom it was said, “Follow thou me,” unless it be done now, will never attain to the expected end. And in this life of activity, the more we love Christ the more easily are we delivered from evil. But He loveth us less as we now are, and therefore delivers from it, that we may not be always such as we are. There, however, He loveth us more; for we shall not have aught about us to displease Him, or aught that He will have to separate us from: nor is it for aught else that He loveth us here but that He may heal and translate us from everything He loveth not. Here, therefore, [He loveth us] less, where He would not have us remain; there in larger measure, whither He would have us to be passing, and out of that wherein He would not that we should perish. Let Peter therefore love Him, that we may obtain deliverance from our present mortality; let John be loved by Him, that we may be preserved in the immortality to come.
6. But by this line of argument we have shown why Christ loved John more than Peter, not why Peter loved Christ more than John. For if Christ loveth us more in the world to come, where we shall live unendingly with Him, than in the present, from which we are in the course of being rescued, that we may be always in the other, it does not follow on that account that we shall love Him less when better ourselves; since we can in no possible way be better ourselves, save by loving Him more. Why was it, then, that John loved Him less than Peter, if he signified that life, wherein He must be more abundantly loved, but because on that very account it was said, “I will that he tarry,” that is wait, “till I come;” for we have not yet the love itself, which will then be greater far, but are expecting that future, that we may have it when He shall come? Just as in his own epistle the same apostle declares, “It has not yet appeared what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” Then accordingly shall we love the more that which we shall see. But the Lord Himself, in His predestinating knowledge, loveth more that future life of ours that is yet to come, such as He knows it will be hereafter in us, in order that by so loving us He may draw us onward to its possession. Wherefore, as all the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth, we know our present misery, because we feel it; and therefore we love more the mercy of the Lord, which we wish to be exhibited in our deliverance from misery, and we ask and experience it daily, especially in the remission of sins: this it is that was signified by Peter, as loving more, but less beloved; because Christ loveth us less in our misery than in our blessedness. But the contemplation of the truth, such as it then shall be, we love less, because as yet we neither know nor possess it: this was signified by John as loving less, and therefore waiting both for that state itself, and for the perfecting in us of that love to Him, to which He is entitled, till the Lord come; but loved the more, because that it is, which is symbolized by him, that maketh him blessed.
7. Let no one, however, separate these distinguished apostles. In that which was signified by Peter, they were both alike; and in that which was signified by John, they will both be alike hereafter. In their representative character, the one was following, the other tarrying; but in their personal faith they were both of them enduring the present evils of the misery here, both of them expecting the future good things of the blessedness to come. And such is the case, not with them alone, but with the holy universal Church, the spouse of Christ, who has still to be rescued from the present trials, and to be preserved in the future happiness. And these two states of life were symbolized by Peter and John, the one by the one, the other by
the other; but in this life they both of them walked for a time by faith, and the other they shall both of them enjoy eternally by sight. For the whole body of the saints, therefore, inseparably belonging to the body of Christ, and for their safe pilotage through the present tempestuous life, did Peter, the first of the apostles, receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven for the binding and loosing of sins; and for the same congregation of saints, in reference to the perfect repose in the bosom of that mysterious life to come did the evangelist John recline on the breast of Christ. For it is not the former alone but the whole Church, that bindeth and looseth sins; nor did the latter alone drink at the fountain of the Lord’s breast, to emit again in preaching, of the Word in the beginning, God with God, and those other sublime truths regarding the divinity of Christ, and the Trinity and Unity of the whole Godhead. which are to be yet beheld in that kingdom face to face, but meanwhile till the Lord’s coming are only to be seen in a mirror and in a riddle; but the Lord has Himself diffused this very gospel through the whole world, that every one of His own may drink thereat according to his own individual capacity. There are some who have entertained the idea—and those, too, who are no contemptible handlers of sacred eloquence—that the Apostle John was more loved by Christ on the ground that he never married a wife, and lived in perfect chastity from early boyhood. There is, indeed, no distinct evidence of this in the canonical Scriptures: nevertheless it is an idea that contributes not a little to the suitableness of the opinion expressed above, namely, that that life was signified by him, where there will be no marriage.
8. “This is the disciple who testifieth of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also,” he adds, “many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” We are not to suppose that in regard to local space the world would be unable to contain them; for how could they be written in it if it could not bear them when written? but perhaps it is that they could not be comprehended by the capacity of the readers: although, while our faith in certain things themselves remains unharmed, the words we use about them may not unfrequently appear to exceed belief. This will not take place when anything that was obscure or dubious is in course of exposition by the setting forth of its ground and reason, but only when that which is clear of itself is either magnified or extenuated, without any real departure from the pathway of the truth to be intimated; for the words may outrun the thing itself that is indicated only in such a way, that the will of him that speaketh, but without any intention to deceive, may be apparent, so that, knowing how far he will be believed, he, orally, either diminishes or magnifies his subject beyond the limit to which credit will be given. This mode of speaking is called by the Greek name hyperbole, by the masters not only of Greek, but also of Latin literature. And this mode is found not only here, but in several other parts also of the divine literature: as, “They set their mouths against the heavens;” and, “The top of the hair of such as go on in their trespasses;” and many others of the same kind, which are no more wanting in the sacred Scriptures than other tropes or modes of speaking. Of these I might give a more elaborate discussion, were it not that, as the evangelist here terminates his Gospel, I am also compelled to bring my discourse to a close.
- Sic eum volo manere donec veniam.
- Acts xii. 2.
- Deut. xxxiv. 6.
- Matt. xvii. 3.
- 2 Kings ii. 11.
- Matt. xxvii. 52, 53.
- Phil. i. 23.
- Wisd. ix. 15.
- Rom. viii. 24, 25.
- Job vii. 1.
- Matt. vi. 13.
- Job xiv. 1.
- Ps. lxxvii. 9.
- Gal. iv. 4.
- 1 Tim. ii. 5.
- Matt. vi. 12.
- Matt. xvi. 16–19.
- 1 Cor. x. 4.
- 1 Cor. iii. 11.
- 1 Pet. ii. 21.
- 1 Cor. xiii. 12.
- 1 John iii. 2.
- Ps. xxv. 10.
- Jerome, Book I., Against Jovinian.
- Ps. lxxiii. 9.
- Ps. lxviii. 21.