This Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Easter. Our gospel describes the Apostle’s encounter with Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias. Fishing and breakfast are completed. Peter has been restored from the denials of Holy Week and now he is commissioned anew.
18 Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
This enigmatic statement contrasts Peter’s experience during his youth, when he dressed himself and went wherever he pleased, with what was to happen to him when he grew old. His independence would be stripped away. He would be forced to stretch out his hands and others would ‘clothe’ him and lead him to a place he would not wish to go. Stretching out the hands is an allusion to the way those to be crucified were forced to stretch out their arms and bear the cross beam to the place of execution (cf. Barnabas 12:4; Justin, I Apology, 35). The evangelist leaves us in no doubt about the intention of this saying: Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Peter is known to have suffered a violent death (1 Clement 5:4) by crucifixion (Tertullian, Scorpiace xv.3), and 21:18–19 is the earliest testimony to his martyrdom by this means. Jesus’ next words to Peter were most apt: Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’ Peter was to take up his cross literally and follow Jesus.
When this chapter was written, Peter’s death was already an accomplished fact. Like his Lord (note the “You follow me” of v. 22), he had already stretched out his hands (v. 18) to die on Vatican hill. The tying fast (v. 18) would be the fastening to the cross, always accomplished in part by ropes.
At 13:37, Peter expressed his willingness to lay down his life for Jesus, a boast that Jesus rejected (13:38). Verses 18–19 show that now Peter is able to do what he could not do before: lay down his life in love.