Every Man's Life a Plan of God

Previously published in Pulpit Helps, November 2001.

" When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.' This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.' Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved followingsaith to Jesus. Lord, and what shall this man do?' Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me'" (John 21:18-23).

These verses of the closing chapter of John's Gospel present before us some of the last words of Jesus, which were addressed to two of His most prominent disciples, foretelling something of their future career, and especially somewhat as to the manner of their dying.

The characters and work of the two men were very different. Peter was full of energy, ardent, impulsive, ready for every new and worthy undertaking, practical, a leader for other men of action to follow. John, at least as we know him in his later years, was quiet, calm, thoughtful, dwelling more in the internal than the external, a lover of the truth and meditating upon it, rather than one who found his chief joy and satisfaction in the activities of the world. It is certainly suggestive to notice what Jesus said to them, as connected with these differences.

First, let us consider that the life and death which are predicted for each man is in accordance with the character of each. Peter, the man of fiery energy and eager for action and conflict, had begun his career by the carrying out of his own impulses. He was the impersonation of youth, a firm believer in himself and his own powers; determined to conquer and to succeed. His very method of working would bring him into the midst of dangers and enmities.

The truth for which he strove was disbelieved and rejected by men of every class. It was hated by all who saw in it danger to their own systems of faith, or to their personal success or power. Jesus predicted only what might be expected-that the time was coming when, having grown old in the conflict and in years, the ardent and active disciple would be overcome and led forth at the will of others, even to execution. He would glorify God by a martyr's death.

But equally in the case of the other disciple was the prophecy of Jesus in accordance with the natural flow of a life like his. The calm spirit moves serenely forward, and the years go by. If the life is lengthened to extreme old age, and the mind is in its full power at the latest season, the passing on and the passing away may be but as the change of the daylight hour to the beautiful evening time.

The text suggests that in the ordering of Providence, we are born with varying characters and gifts, and are assigned to different works for God in the world. Thus we may believe that there is a plan for each one, formed and watched over and carried to its completion by the divine Friend who calls us into His service.

How often we find that we do not escape certain difficulties or trials, which other men around us do not have. We hope to escape them, but we find them always with us. Is it not the Lord's appointment-not as an arbitrary thing, but as an outgrowth of our unique nature? Is it not true that we, in our individuality, were made for the accomplishment of a special divine purpose, and that our experiences are wisely fitted to realize the end? Surely, then, God's plan and purpose encompass every part of our experience, and brings us the lesson of trust and confidence that the natural movement of our life is under a supernatural guidance, and shows that we are guarded and guided by a Father's love.

Secondly, let us notice what Jesus answers Peter when he asks what John's fate will be. The Lord answers, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" It is a pointed question, followed by the bidding: "Follow thou me."

What is the lesson given here? Evidently, in part, that curiosity about the future is not to occupy our minds. Not questioning but working is the Christian's duty: This is the first part of the lesson. A second part seems to be that duty lies in the pathway of individual capacities and powers. Peter was called to follow the Lord in the line where he could best serve Him. In his case, this would result in his martyrdom. But simply following of the Master was to be the object of his thought. Think not of tomorrow; think of today, and its work. How simple the bidding was: "Follow me."

The future belongs to God. It will be one thing for one of His children, and another for another; and for both alike it will be but the following out of His plan from the beginning. If each shall follow the call of the Lord, the ending will be provided for, and, whatever it be, it will glorify God.

This is the essence of our Lord's words at the beginning of His public ministry: Live the right life today, and be not anxious for tomorrow (Matt. 6:33). What a wonderful peace there must have been in the souls of these two disciples if they guided their lives by these words in the years which came afterward-both hearing the Lord's voice daily, saying, "Follow me," for the present: and, "What is it to thee?" of the future.'

A third suggestion of the text pertains to the value which is to be placed upon different kinds of life. Mankind is always prone to praise the leaders in the struggle and warfare. But it is a striking fact that it was not Peter, but John, to whom the longest life and the accomplishing of the greater work was assigned. Peter followed the Master, and did an honorable service and glorified God, at its ending, by a death which corresponded with his life. But it was the meditative and thoughtful disciple-the one whom Jesus loved-to whom the last work of the Apostolic Age was appointed. After Peter and Paul had fulfilled their mission, John came to finish what they had begun. And the message which he sent down the ages is the most precious inheritance of the church.

We know little of what Peter taught or thought, but the thoughts of John set forth the deepest mysteries of the Christian truth, and let us into the innermost secret of Christian living. They open before us the heart of God, and read us lessons for which the thoughts of the other great apostles are only preparatory.

But the text also teaches that what seems the quiet, calm life, away from the stir and strife of the world is as near, or even nearer, to the heart of Christ, than one which is most conspicuous in its Christian labors. It was the meditative, loving disciple to whom was committed the task of writing the story of the Lord, which bore witness most fully of His divinity and humanity in their marvelous union. The believer who thinks and loves stands equal with the one who works and wars.

We may also note the importance of the union of the two types within the church. The work of Christianity is to be accomplished by human agencies and in human lives. Were only the more active virtues to be seen, the end would be but half-secured. Were they not seen at all, the aggressive force upon the world would be mainly lost. But God has joined the man of energy and the man of quiet and thoughtful spirit, and given to each his own sphere of working for Him.

Lastly, does not the question addressed to Peter respecting his fellow-apostle come with a divine emphasis and tenderness to each one of us? The command, "Follow me," fills all the sphere of duty; and the question, "What is it to thee?" commits the future to His keeping, and thus may give to everyone a perfect peace. We know not the end, but it will be the end of service to Him here, and the opening of something higher and better than earth.

Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) was an early American academic, widely regarded in his day as a cultural, educational, religious, and (at times) political leader. A grandson of Jonathan Edwards, he worked as a minister in Massachusetts and also served two terms in the state legislature there before moving to Fairfield, Connecticut, to pastor a church in 1783. In 1795, he was appointed president of Yale College (now Yale University) in New Haven, a position in which he served until his death. He is remembered as a stalwart defender of the faith who left a lasting impact on his students and the spiritual life of the United States.

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