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In John 21:22 Jesus said:

"If I want him to remain until I come, is that something to you?"

It is probable that John wasn't a martyr, but did Jesus mean that John shouldn't die by martyrdom? If so, are there any clues as to why?

This gospel is quite different from other gospels. The Church Father Clement of Alexandria (deceased in 215) described the fourth Gospel, named for the apostle John, as a spiritual gospel. The gospel also had many readers under the super spiritual Gnostic groups.

Nevertheless, Aristides, Melito of Sardis, and Tatian made positive use of John, and there is the orthodox part of the Early Church that indicate nothing noticeable to distrust this gospel.

But reading the Gospel of John (and assuming the evangelist is the same as the apostle, as opposed to the prophet) is there something which can lead to the question of why Jesus wanted John to stay?

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    I think Jesus' question may have just been a way of saying "Mind your own business and do what I say." Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary: "...It is the will of Christ that his disciples should mind their own duty, and not be curious about future events, either as to themselves or others." – John Martin Feb 25 '16 at 4:44
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    Without going into the incredibly deep topic of preterism and the "last days", it's speculated that John would be alive for his "coming", which happened during the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. – contactmatt May 25 '16 at 6:41
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If the Apostle John who wrote Revelation is the same Apostle John who wrote the Gospel of John (and the tone and style of both Books are highly similar) then it is implied that the same Apostle did not die by martyrdom (contrary to what is implied in John 21 for all the Apostles) but old age, since exile took the place, effectively, of captical punishment. This is strengthened by the idea that, if it is the same John, he would indeed be very old when it was written (around A.D. 100 give or take).

He did die ("This saying therefore went abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die. And Jesus did not say to him: He should not die; but, So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee?").

This would explain what "remain until I come" means; where 'I come' means when He is glorified, He returns to give revelation to the various Messianic congregations—to His Church through this Apostle.

The later time in which the revelation was given was probably so that it could address the pertinent issues of the now maturing Church, namely large-scale persecution which had been unleashed on the infant Church. And the exile from said place of persecution the probable reason for his being allowed to be exiled, not killed—allowed to "remain" so long.

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I've seen a lot of speculative explanations for this passage but it can really only be understood in the context of the whole Gospel, which Elaine Pagels explains brilliantly.

In Beyond Belief, at pages 61-63, Pagels says that although the evangelist grudgingly accepted Peter as leader, he frequently has an anonymous “disciple whom Jesus loved” surpass Peter, as if the author wished to undermine Peter. Pagels says that the author of John was trying subtly to put Peter down, perhaps because he had become too venerated, even worshipped. For example:

  • This disciple reclined next to Jesus at the last supper. Peter dared not ask Jesus who would betray him, but this disciple did.
  • Even after Peter betrayed Jesus and fled, this disciple remained with his mother at the cross. Jesus entrusted him with the care of his mother. This pericope is unique to John's Gospel.
  • This disciple saw the Roman soldier break the legs of the other crucified men, but spear Jesus.
  • He and Peter ran to the grave, but this disciple arrived first, so he was the first who “saw and believed”.
  • When the risen Jesus appeared by Sea of Tiberius, this disciple was the first to recognise him, saying to Peter, “It is the Lord”.
  • Although Jesus gives Peter the role “Feed my sheep”, the style suggests Jesus was not sure Peter loved him.
  • Then, at this last appearance Jesus says, or seems to say, that this disciple shall not die.

I would add to Pagels points that only John's Gospel portrays Peter as not the first disciple to meet and follow Jesus.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus most certainly chose Peter to lead his church, but John’s Gospel makes it clear that Peter was out of favour. In John 21:20-22, Peter sees the beloved disciple appearing to take the role he expected for himself and asks what the beloved disciple will do, seeming to expect Jesus to say that the disciple will lead the Christian church, but Jesus asks “What concern is it of yours?"

John 21:20-22: Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? Peter seeing him saith 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.

Verse 23, which jars somewhat with the preceding verses, is an authorial aside written to explain that Jesus had not meant the beloved disciple would live forever, at the same time repeating and emphasising Jesus' rebuke of Peter:

John 21:23: Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?

Verse 22 certainly seems to say that the beloved disciple (generally assumed to be John) would not die, but the next verse sets out to negative this without denying that John might live until Jesus' second coming. If, as Elaine Pagels says, the real theme of the passage was an implied rebuke of the apostle Peter, then we ought not look for any sense that the beloved disciple (whether John or another unnamed disciple) would live to see Jesus return to earth, or even just that John would not become a martyr.

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  • It's an interesting thing that the author makes the aside in v23. Might this be a redaction to explain the death of the beloved disciple after the fact? It could be that the Johannine community believed that the beloved disciple would have indeed lived until the return of Jesus and needed to clear up some statements to that effect after he did actually die. – Alex Durbin Dec 23 '16 at 18:12
  • Why would anyone want to undermine a dead man ? Peter's martyrdom preceded John's Gospel by decades. – Lucian Aug 17 '17 at 11:15

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