Have you ever had a burden so heavy on your heart, a duty you knew you had to perform, that its weight altered your view of the rest of life and of those who surround you? Suddenly, every song you hear taunts you. Every gust of wind against your cheek is a slap in the face. Every smile aimed your way provokes not a grin, but a growl: “Put that smile away! If you knew what I'm facing, you'd weep!" And has that pressure forced from within you feelings of envy and even bitterness toward people whose burdens seem so light compared to what’s crushing you? The Apostle Peter received news from the Lord Jesus which surely could have made him feel this way.
In John 21, the recently risen Christ tells Peter that he will one day die a martyr’s death, a violent violation of his freedom and will. The anticipation of such an end to Peter’s earthly life could have haunted him for the rest of it.
The frightening news of how he would die sinking more deeply into Peter’s heart, the ever- impetuous disciple wants to know if others might be headed for similar misery. Seeing John following behind, he asks: “What about him?” But Jesus the Good Shepherd guides his nervous sheep’s gaze away from the other sheep and back onto Himself. His words are firm and gentle, bracing enough to bolster Peter’s courage, and tender enough to elicit trust. Jesus says to him, "If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me."
John, who recorded these events, is quick to add in his narrative that such was not Jesus’ will for him. Jesus speaks these words to help Peter realize that He has the right to do with His disciples what He will, to place them where He wants them to be, even if that placement brings pain and a painful death.
It is possible that no one reading this blog will be called by Christ to a martyr’s death. But Jesus does call us to daily martyrdom, and He places each of His people in contexts and positions of responsibility in which this daily dying is to be lived out. Rather than looking with envy or incredulity to the supposed ease of other sheep’s callings, we are to focus our hearts upon the One who calls us to endure the particular pressures we face as a means of glorifying Him.
You may find yourself thinking, or even saying: “No one gets it. No one understands what I’m going through. The encouragements I get are just platitudes from people who don’t know what it’s like to be in my position.” We must be careful never to assume that someone else has it easy. We never know what another person is carrying in his or her heart at any given time. And to Jesus’ point, even if that person is sailing through life under sunny skies and upon calm waters, what is that to us? Each of Jesus’ disciples must take Jesus’ words to Peter very personally. The Lord looks us in the eyes through this text and says to us: “You, follow me.”
Jesus is not unjust if He calls us to tempests and torrents. As He tells us in John 15:20, a servant is not greater than his master. None of us servants has ever walked the unique path of suffering trod by our Master; and because of His bearing alone the burdens only He could bear, we will never have to.
Every path upon which He places us in this life, therefore, is a path leading homeward to Him, a path along which we come to know Him more fully, and to serve Him more faithfully. Every burden which He places upon us, He ultimately bears with us, and through us. He understands our pains and the pressures we feel, and He has promised the grace to sustain us as we carry out our unique assignments in His kingdom (Philippians 4:4-9).
Just look at Peter’s life as recorded in the book of Acts. He was still learning (Galatians 2:11ff) and yet, with his dark death looming always on the horizon, the increasingly emboldened disciple pressed on with his fellow brethren in serving his Master, following different paths and yet walking side by side in common service to Christ. The Lord even used Peter to pen words of encouragement to Christians who were also suffering for Christ (1 Peter 1:1-9).
May each of us who know and love Christ find contentment and joy in His particular callings upon us, knowing that He is with us always, and that though our duties differ in serving Him, our purposes and our pathways are ultimately the same. May we say (and do!) with Paul, Peter’s co-laborer in the gospel: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:20-21) And when we are tempted to look at others with envy, let us look in love and trust to the risen Savior who says to us, firmly and gently: “You, follow Me.”