This final passage of John’s Gospel centres on an ambiguous saying of Jesus, which provoked a rumour. ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ (John 21:22). Did this mean that this disciple would remain alive to witness Christ’s second coming? At least some of the brethren thought so (v.23). Yet the beloved disciple seems to have died by the time this passage was written. Hence the problem, and the need to challenge the rumour.
Yet the rumour was not completely scotched. This saying of Jesus was sufficiently ambiguous to provoke different answers concerning John’s destiny. Augustine knew the story that the earth near John’s tomb in Ephesus continued to move, a sign that John was not dead but sleeping (On the Gospel of John, Tractate 124.2). In one western tradition, John was destined to wander the earth until the Lord’s return.
Perhaps most widespread in the East is the tradition of John’s metastasis or ‘translation’ (the feast of which is celebrated on 26th September), depicted in this fourteenth-century fresco from Dečani Monastery in Kosovo. The aged John urges his followers to dig a grave for him outside the city of Ephesus. He lies down in the grave, and his disciples return to the city. When they subsequently revisit the burial site, his body is no longer there. One interpretation among Orthodox Christians is that John, like Enoch, Elijah (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11–12), and Mary, was translated to heaven.
The Dečani Monastery fresco, like the feast it visualizes, plays on the ambiguity of the dominical saying. On the one hand, John dies in that grave outside Ephesus. On the other, his ‘translation’ means that he is alive in the heavenly realm, where he ‘remains’ until the Lord comes. ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’
Culpepper, R. Alan. 2000. John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)
19(This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
20 Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” 23The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.
25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.