Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” (John 13:36-38)
One of the most famous things Jesus ever said was “Follow me.” He said it over and over. So much that it was recorded more than twenty times in the New Testament. Jesus says it first to Peter (Matthew 4:19). Perhaps this is why Peter is so confused when he hears Jesus saying he cannot follow Him where He is going. No one can.
Some people think Jesus is talking about ascending to the Father in this text, but that misses the context. Jesus is on His way to the cross. Satan has already entered Judas and he is on his way to betray Jesus as these words are spoken. Eventually He will transition to talk about going “to prepare a place for you” but the context here is His betrayal and crucifixion, not the ascension.
When Peter says he will “lay down his life for Jesus” he thinks he is willing to die to save Him. Could anything be more backwards? Sadly our thinking is often just as twisted. Like Peter we make all kinds of bold promises to God. We talk about living for Jesus and even dying for Jesus. We talk about “working on our relationship with God” (if I never hear that phrase again I will die happy). All of these things are simply vain attempts to follow Jesus where He says we cannot go.
We cannot go to the cross.
God is clear that He will not share His glory with another (Isaiah 42:8). This ultimately means God won’t let you go to the cross with Jesus. God isn’t a miser or a glory hound. He knows we crave glory and giving it to us would ruin us. We could not handle the glory of playing even the smallest part in our redemption. We are gifted salvation and that is truly glorious, but the glory of winning it is something we cannot participate in. He won’t share it with us… He loves us too much for that.
There will always be Christians who try to get you to follow Jesus to the cross. Especially when you sin. When I failed miserably they quickly rushed in to tell me in a hundred different ways how I must go there and make atonement for my sins.
Trying to save ourselves comes as naturally as drawing breath. My relationship with God is broken because of my sin and now it’s up to me to fix it. So onward to Calvary! It’s time to pay up. Perhaps when I’ve bled enough God will forgive me and my friends will accept me again. Foolishly, I’ve tried this. Thankfully God had none of it. No new crosses of condemnation or thorny crowns of shame are welcome at the cross.
Salvation is a work Jesus does alone. The payment for all our transgressions is done outside of us and apart from us. Our sin goes with Him but we must stay behind. Jesus goes to the cross solo. And just like Peter, we deny our Lord in the echo of all our misguided promises to Him.
But He lives for us and then naked and abandoned, He dies for us. This is what “working on our relationship with God” really looks like. It’s bloody, beautiful, and complete… and you have nothing to do with it. Now that’s glorious!
The Gospel is permanent restoration as a gift. There is nothing for us to do at Calvary, only something for us to believe and receive. We’re going to die someday, but not for our sins. We’ll die to gain everything we don’t deserve, everything Christ gloriously won—by himself—without you and without me, for you and for me.
So I’m done trying to steal some of God’s glory by paying for my own sins. I’m done trying to follow Jesus to the cross. He says I’m not allowed. He goes there alone so we never have to.
Daniel is the Director of Christ Hold Fast, an author, church and conference speaker and co-host of the podcasts 40 Minutes in the Old Testament and 30 Minutes in the New Testament. He has served as a church planter, pastor and worship leader and currently lives in Bentonville Arkansas with his wife Jessica and daughter Anna.