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In John 21:18, 19 Jesus says to Peter,
18 “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 not wish to go. 19 Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.”
This dialog was a veiled prophecy about Peter’s life and ultimate death by crucifixion. Jesus said that Peter would “grow old,” indicating that he would live long enough to preach the gospel to many others. Finally, Jesus said, “you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you.” This was a metaphor, comparing an old man being dressed by others to Peter’s manner of death, imposed upon him by others. We know this, because John tells us that “this He said, signifying what kind of death he would glorify God.”
No early Church writings disputed this, although not many actually tell us the manner of his death. The earliest reference is from Clement of Rome (about 90 A.D.), who says in his Letter to the Corinthians,
"Let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted, and came even unto death… Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him."
The earliest reference to Peter being crucified upside down is found in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, which was written in the late second century. In the early fourth century, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea accepted this and wrote in his Ecclesiastical History, III, 1:
"Peter seems to have preached in Pontus, Galatia, and Bithynia, Cappadocia and Asia, to the Jews of the Dispersion. Finally, he came to Rome where he was crucified, head downwards at his own request."
He later quotes Clement of Alexandria’s Miscellanies (or Stromata), Book VII,
“We are told that when blessed Peter saw his wife led away to her death, he was glad that her call had come and that she was returning home, and spoke to her in the most encouraging and comforting tones, addressing her by name: ‘My dear, remember the Lord.’ Such was the marriage of the blessed, and their consummate feeling towards their dearest” (Eccl. Hist., III, xxx).
Almost everything in history is disputed by some, but the early church did not seem to doubt Peter’s crucifixion in Rome in the latter days of Emperor Nero. At any rate, Jesus’ prophecy does not tell us whether Peter was to be crucified in the normal manner or upside down. He was put to death either in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome (64 A.D.) or later with Paul (67 A.D.).
What about John?
John 21:20-22 says,
20 Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” 21 So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
It appears that Jesus had taken Peter aside and that they were walking away from the other disciples when John followed them. Hence, Peter turned around and saw John following them. This shows us that John overheard this conversation with Peter and was thus an earwitness of this prophecy.
John, of course, wanted to remain somewhat anonymous and avoids referring to himself by name. Nonetheless, he identifies Himself as the one who had been sitting next to Jesus at The Last Supper (John 13:25).
Peter asked Jesus about John’s ministry and death, but Jesus put him off. The lesson in this is that we should not be overly curious about other people. I recall many years ago learning this lesson. When I asked the Lord about someone else, He told me, “That is none of your business.” I learned then to restrain my curiosity. God informs us only when there is purpose in knowing, such as we see in 1 Corinthians 14:24, 25 in Paul’s discussion on the gifts of prophecy and tongues:
24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.
When we deal with other people, God exposes their hearts according to His discretion. It is only when we desire to know the heart of God more intimately and clearly that we are encouraged to draw near to Him and to know the secrets of His heart.
John 21:23 says,
23 Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die, yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”
Apparently, Peter understood that he himself was to die a martyr’s death at the end of his ministry. That being on his mind, he asked about John. Would he live long? Would he die at all? All of this appears to have been in the context of unrecorded conversation regarding Christ’s second coming. In other words, was He to return within their lifetime?
Rumors spread later that John would live to see the second coming of Christ. But John dispelled that rumor, telling us what Jesus really said.
The Signed Testimony
John 21:24 says,
24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
The Codex Washingtonensis (or Codex W), which is currently in the Smithsonian Institute, is an ancient book, bound in wooden covers, of the four gospels. It was discovered not far from Alexandria, Egypt in the early 1900’s by a man illegally digging in the ruins of Medinet Dimet, an ancient Roman garrison that was abandoned by 200 A.D. It was then sold to an antiquities dealer named Cheikh Aly Arabi.
In 1906 Arabi sold it to Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit businessman, who had retired in 1900 and who took a trip to Egypt. Being a lover of antiquities, Freer was attracted to the artwork on the two painted wooden covers and discovered that it was an old copy of the four gospels written in ancient Greek on sheepskin pages. He then purchased the 372-page manuscript on the outskirts of Gizeh.
The manuscript had tiny Hebrew writing in the margins and occasionally over the text itself. He brought it back to America and donated it to the Smithsonian Institute. Experts at the time assumed that it was a manuscript from the fifth or sixth centuries and soon lost interest in it without doing a proper forensic study.
In 1981 Lee W. Woodard was doing research on an entirely different area of study, and seeing Codex W, wondered if some of the ornaments on letters might actually be musical notations. He requested and obtain infrared and ultraviolet copies of the manuscript to see what might lie hidden under the words themselves. In looking at the photographs more closely, he began to do what others had not yet done and to see what others had not noticed earlier.
As the result of his studies since 1981, he concluded that Codex W was actually the original (or near-original) handwritten copy of all four New Testament gospels that were written in the first century. Each gospel was dated according to the Roman calendar of the time (A.U.C.), and each contained in tiny writing, the signature or logo of the author. Some of these signatures appeared in more than one location, suggesting an original form with material added later by the author.
John’s title is “Gospel of John,” and beneath the words “of John” in tiny Hebrew letters reads, “John’s words.” It was his seal of authentication, which was necessary in those days because scribes could easily make mistakes in transcribing books.
The first section of John’s gospel is dated from 65-69 A.D., but his “Truth Seal” above the word “true” in John 21:24 is dated in 67 A.D.
In 2006 Lee Woodard wrote of his findings in his book, First Century Gospel Found.
It is a large book and full of color pictures, which makes it quite expensive. Unfortunately, his material is not organized in the best possible way, making it somewhat tedious to locate useful quotations. Nonetheless, I think it is worthwhile to read, and hopefully it will inspire a paleographist to do a full forensic study of Codex W.
It would be nice to have an authentic, autographed copy of the four gospels!
John 21:25 concludes,
25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.
John’s account was by no means exhaustive. His purpose was first to supplement the other gospels with things that they omitted but which John personally saw and heard. Secondly, John used the Hebrew style of parallelism, or Hebrew chiasm, in the eight signs set forth to manifest the glory of God in the earth.
In doing this, John presented the evidence proving that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah. He was obviously selective, because if everything had been written down which Jesus had done in 3½ years of ministry, there were not enough sheep in the world to obtain a sufficient number of sheepskins to record it all.