“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do wish to go.” Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He says to him, “Follow Me!” (John 21:18-19).
This passage is sometimes taken to be a prediction that Peter would be crucified; indeed, according to tradition, crucified upsidedown so that others would have to gird him. In the context of John’s gospel, however, that is not what it means.
Jesus refers to Himself here. Jesus had girded Himself in His seamless tunic and had freely roamed the hills of the promised land. Then He was arrested, girded in a purple robe by the Roman soldiers, and led to execution (John 19:2). Peter, called to follow Jesus, would walk the same path. He would stretch out his hand to be girded by enemies, and be led to execution.
The “kind of death” Peter would experience would be a death like that of His Lord. The idea is not that Peter would die the same way, by crucifixion, but through a similar course of events.
This is true of every Christian. Our deaths take place “in Christ,” and whether we are martyred, die in painful illness or in an accident, or die peacefully on our beds, we die following Christ. In our deaths, Someone Else girds us, and Someone Else leads us where we do not wish to go, though it is best for us. In our deaths we glorify God, and our sufferings and deaths move the Kingdom forward (Colossians 1:24).
In terms of John’s gospel, though, we should understand that those who gird Peter and lead him will be enemies who are putting him on trial. God’s hand is behind it, but the enemies are in front.
There is another twist to Peter’s garments that we should take note of. The Holy Spirit calls our attention to the fact that Peter was stripped while he was at work fishing but put on his outer garment when he jumped into sea and swam to Jesus (John 21:7). Jesus then calls Peter to follow Him. The implication is that Peter will be a fisher of men, for this has been the sequence in the preceding gospels.
There is an analogy, I suggest, to the work of the high priest. The high priest strips off his garments of glory and beauty when he does the essential work of the Day of Atonement. Similarly, Peter strips off his garments when he fishes, and by implication, when he fishes for men he will not be wearing glorious clothes. When he finishes his work of fishing, he puts on his outer garment, plunges into sea, and comes to Jesus.
This passage is allegorical, because fishing is an allegory for evangelism. Peter and the disciples catch fish, and Peter brings them to Jesus (John 21:10-11). This is their work, and they strip down to do it. They put their clothes back on to present their work to Jesus. Perhaps we should see in this that we cannot win men by glory and beauty, but through hard work. Jesus already had some fish, the fruits of His own labor (John 21:9), and the disciples now bring Him more.
Peter will gird and ungird himself in this work of fishing for men, but at the end, others will gird him for his death.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.