I realize any conversation about being old can bring negative thoughts to people. But this is a phrase taken directly from Jesus in John 21. It was after the death and resurrection of Jesus and before he ascended back to the Father. He had met with a group of disciples beside the Sea of Galilee where they had gone fishing for the night. Early in the morning he was on the shore and called out to them to ask if they had caught anything. They hadn’t and that would be frustrating in itself. He told them to cast their nets on the other side and they would have a good catch. They did it and caught 153 big fish. When they reached shore Jesus had breakfast waiting for them. He had them bring some of the fish they had caught to add to the meal. It was then he took Peter aside to ask three times, “Do you love me?” At first it was a comparative question, “Do you love me more than these?” But then it was just “Do you love me?” Peter assured him he did love him and each time Jesus responded with the charge to “Feed my lambs” or “Tend my sheep”.
But Jesus didn’t end the conversation there. Listen to what he said then to Peter. “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.” We might have read this many times and wondered exactly what it was saying but John adds a short commentary to it saying (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) After saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.” Peter turned around and saw John and asked Jesus, “What about him?” Jesus said to Peter if it is my will that he remain until I come what is that to you, you come and follow me.” Of course the rumor then spread that Jesus had said that John wouldn’t have to die but that wasn’t what he had said.
Evidently Peter understood what was involved since years later he would refer to this statement and note that his death was drawing near. One thing is true generally of us, and that is that we are able when we are young to do many things and go many places according to our own will that changes as we become old. Suddenly there are limits based on ability, strength or circumstances in life. For a time at least our wisdom attained through a lifetime of experience and study tend to make up for the loss of physical abilities. But no matter how many vitamins we take or treatments we undergo, age will begin to have its affects on us. We will begin to have definite limits on our abilities.
For Peter it would come before he would have been considered by most as really old. It was during the lifetime of preaching and teaching the word of God. He was still very active in the church and serving the Lord. But the Roman emperor had him arrested and he was delivered to be crucified. If our traditions are correct, he refused to be crucified like Jesus and asked to be crucified upside down. When he was young he felt sure that if he were faced with death for Jesus he would be ready to do it. But when the real trial came instead of facing death he denied being his disciple to save his life. When he faced what he had done it broke his heart. But Jesus forgave him fully and gave him the responsibility of preaching the sermon of the gospel before the multitudes on Pentecost where 3,000 people gave their lives to Jesus and were baptized. From that day on he stood tall every time he was tried. In Acts 12 when it looked like Herod would have him executed he was sleeping soundly the night before his intended death.
But when he was old things would change. He would be led where he didn’t want to go and face a death he didn’t wish to die. But in that process he would glorify God by his death. It seems somewhat strange to us to talk about a person glorifying God through some kind of awful death at the hands of evil people. It would have felt that Satan was winning and that the cause of Christ was losing the battle when he was put to death. But God’s point of view was that his death would be a means of glorifying God. Think about how the church must of felt when they heard the news that Peter had been executed. I suspect many felt the church had gone through a horrible loss. Likely there were many who wondered how they would be able to go on without him. But the truth is that God’s work never rises or falls on the actions or life of a single person. God used Peter in a mighty way. But there are always those ready and waiting to serve and probably reach some people those like Peter would never be able to reach.
I remember visiting one day with a man who had been a leader in the church for many years and it was obvious even to him that death wasn’t far off. As we sat and talked about the church and the future he said, “I just wonder how the church will survive when I’m gone. I feel like I have carried it on my shoulders for a long time.” He was a good man but the church went on just fine after his death. People moved into leadership roles that wouldn’t have been considered in the past. In many ways it actually did better.
Many years ago Brother Gus Nichols was visiting with a group of preachers and was talking about how we get those feelings that everything hangs on us. He had a bucket of water sitting upon the stage and he asked each of us to walk up and put our hands down into the water and pull them out again. It seemed like a strange exercise but we respected him and did it. When we sat down he asked, “Now how big a dent did you leave in the water when you pulled your hand out?” The point was made. In life we may get those feelings of self-importance that everything will fall apart without us, but the Lord holds it all in his hands. Our job is to follow Jesus and glorify God by life or death.