By Pastor Glenn Pease
A well-to-do tourist stopped to get some souvenirs at Indian teepee. When he saw the poor old Indian chief sitting there barely making enough money to survive, he decided to give him some advice. He said, "Why don't you go to town and get a job in a factory?" "Why," grunted the chief. "Well you could earn a lot of money." "Why," asked the chief. "Well," said the tourist, "If you work hard and save a lot you can build up a good bank account. Wouldn't you like that?" "Why," the chief asked? "For heaven's sake man," he shouted, "With a bank account you could retire and not have to work anymore." "Me not working now," the chief replied. And that was the end of the advice.
Here were two men who had very little in common. They were not equal in their possessions, in their opportunities, and in many other ways they were unequal. But they were equal in that one thing that made them both proud to be Americans. They were equal in their freedom. One was free to work hard and save, and the other was free to live leisurely and survive at best he could.
When we refer to the equality of all men we need to grasp that no one means by it that men are equal in every way. This is contrary to all the facts of life. Not even a fanatic for equality would argue that all are equal in size and strength. No one believes all are equal in their talents. Those who seek to destroy the concept of the equality of all men can find numerous illustrations to prove that men are not equal. They miss the whole point, however, for nobody is declaring they are equal in everything.
The question is not, can all women make equally good wives, but do all women have the freedom to try. The question is not, can all men bat equally well, but do all men have the freedom to play baseball? Elton Trueblood, the outstanding author and preacher, wrote, "The truth is that it is impossible to make a reasonable statement of the meaning of equality except in terms of freedom. Men are equal only because all men are intrinsically free..."
Once you depart from the issue of freedom, and try to prove equality, you quickly get into difficulty. There are many minor areas of life where men are equal, but they are not a sufficient basis on which to build. Richard Armor gives us a humorous illustration of equality. A part of his poem goes like this:
Of all the ills iniquitous,
The cold is most ubiquitous.
It comes to every national,
To sane and to irrational,
To debtor and to creditor,
Illiterate and editor.
And even royal highnesses
Have trouble with their sinuses.
To this minor negative equality we could add the major negative equality of death. All men are equally marching toward the grave. Jesus descended to this level of equality with all men. In our text of John 20 we see two great men literally running toward the tomb, and in them we see a clear illustration of how men can be equal but different.
Peter and John were both in the inner circle of Jesus. Both were granted the privilege of being Apostles and authors of inspired writings. They were equal as great men of God, and they were the best of friends. And yet, they were very different from each other. They were both exalted by Christ, but in different ways. Peter was made the number one man among the Apostles as the spokesman for all. He was the one who gave the explanation on the day of Pentecost. John, on the other hand, was the Apostle whom Jesus loved in a unique way. John mentions this in verse 2, for it is the thing of which he is most proud. Peter and John were equal, but because of the age difference it was fitting that Peter be the leader, and John be the object of special love. John's youth captured the love of Christ.
We see that even though men are equal, their age makes them different in the roles they play. Unique leadership tends to go to the older, and unique love tends to go to the younger. Later in life John became the aged Apostle who, like Peter, had great respect, and authority. When he tried to assert that kind of authority as a youth, he was called a son of thunder. He tried to be equal to an older man of authority, and it didn't work. He was young and rash, and did not have the maturity to be in control of great power. He was ready to call down fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans, which was contrary to the spirit of Jesus. Christians are equal before God, but they still have to play roles on the stage of life that are fitting to their age and maturity.
We see this in verse 4 where both Peter and John are racing toward the tomb. Very seldom are people so anxious to get to a cemetery. What thoughts raced through their minds as their feet raced to the tomb? We don't know, but it is possible they were motivated by sheer anger that someone had robbed the tomb, as Mary had said. Possibly they had to see quickly because they feared Mary had relapsed again into demon possession, and was having hallucinations. Whatever the case, John tells us he outran Peter and got there first.
Almost every commentary says John got there first because he was so much younger that he could outrun Peter. They were equal, but their age made a big difference in their ability to run. This all seems rather trivial, and we may wonder why John bothers to share such details. As we continue to study this record of their experience on that first Easter Sunday I think we will see that John is deliberately, or under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but unconscious to himself, giving us a valuable portrait of how men of God can be radically different, and yet one in Christ.
It is so important to recognize differences in Christians, for to fail to do so can lead to all kinds of problems. The Christians at Corinth had much contention and bitterness because they failed to recognize that the hand is different from the foot, but that both are equally important. The eye and the ear are both equally essential to the effective operation of the body, but they have radically different functions. The Corinthian Christians failed to see the truth of equality with differences, and it hurt the church. Christians with certain gifts and talents were rejecting Christians with other gifts and talents, and Paul had to say in I Cor. 12:21, "The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you."
The best of Christians can hurt themselves and the church by not recognizing that equality does not mean sameness. We can be one in Christ, and equally called, saved, and sanctified, and yet be totally different in personality, interests, and gifts. Peter and John are not only good illustrations of this issue of equal but different, but they are excellent examples of how Christians should let their differences influence each other positively.
Before we leave verse 4, which refers to their differences in physical stamina and running ability, we should point out that this is the area which is most obvious. Christians are of great variety in physical ability due to age, health, and other factors. Even this can lead to problems in the spiritual life. F. O. Nillson was the founder of the Baptist General Conference. For years he labored to start small Swedish Baptist Churches in Minnesota. He did a great work, and lived a sacrificial life. When he got older and younger men came on the scene, and they began to get recognition, he became bitter.
It hurt him that he was being out run by some younger servant who didn't know what real sacrifice meant. He failed to adjust to the reality of life which makes youth outrun age. The result was that his last years were spent in a negative spirit of doubt and despair. He wanted what can never be-equality and sameness. He wanted it to be that no one could rise to a place of honor and respect unless they did it by the same sacrificial efforts that he made. Life would not cooperate with his view, however, and he was hurt and rebellious. A good study of Peter and John could have helped him to avoid that tragic attitude.
Getting back to our text, we see in verse 5 that John comes to the tomb entrance first, but his nature is such that he does not go in, but merely stops and looks in. He is cautious and contemplative, but when panting Peter comes on the scene, he reveals his different personality by going right past the gazing John into the tomb to see for himself what was there. Peter did not in quiet reference approach the tomb, but presumptuously bursts in like a detective breaking into an apartment to get evidence. He didn't run all this way to meditate in the garden. He came to see what had happened, and that is just what he did.
A. W. Pink has an excellent comment on this. "Peter, more hot and zealous, impulsive, fervent, and forward, cannot be content without going into the sepulchre, and actually seeing with his own eyes. Both, we may be sure, were deeply attached to our Lord. The hearts of both, at this critical juncture, were full of hopes and fears, anxieties and expectations, all tangled together. Yet each acts in his own characteristic fashion! Let us learn from this to make allowances for wide varieties in the individual character of believers. To do so will save us much trouble in the journey of life and prevent many an uncharitable thought. Let us not judge brethren harshly, and set them down in a low place, because they do not see or feel things as we see and feel." John could have been offended with Peter, and called him a sacrilegious clown stumbling into sacred ground with an indifferent mind and insensitive heart. John didn't do that, however, for he loved Peter and accepted him for what he was. He recognized the differences in their nature as God given differences.
In verse 8 we that Peter's action influenced John, and it brought him into the tomb also where he saw evidence that made him believe. I like Matthew Henry's comment which shows how these equal but different Apostles probably helped each other just because of their differences. He writes, "Perhaps John's quickness had made Peter run faster, and now Peter's boldness makes John venture further than otherwise either the one or the other would have done." Their differences complimented each other, and because they loved each other their differences were constantly influencing each other in a positive way.
In 1876 Horace Bushnell preached a sermon on verse 8 which he titled Unconscious Influence. It has been republished many times as one of the greatest sermons. The whole point of the sermon is that Peter, by being what he was, unconsciously influenced John to step into the tomb. Had John been alone he may have just looked in, but Peter's presence in the tomb drew him in also. From this we learn that our character and conduct is always having an influence on others just because we are different. Christians differ in their boldness, and so if a shy Christian associates with a bold Christian he is likely to do things he otherwise would not. This process of unconscious influence works for good or evil.
Many a man walks into a bar and never dreams that his conduct may be encouraging a friend who is afraid to do so to go ahead and do it. The person he has this unconscious influence may go on to destroy his life, and add a heavy burden of sorrow on to the lives of many others. He did not do it deliberately, but only by unconscious influence. Another man by faithful attendance in church can influence neighbors and friends in such a way that it could be a factor in their eventual coming to Christ. Again, it may have been a completely unconscious influence. The point is, just to be alive is to be an influence constantly, and that is why we are warned to avoid all appearance of evil, and why we are to strive to constantly let the light of Christ shine through us in good works.
I was impressed the other night with one of those Frisbees that glow in the dark. If you hold it up to the light it absorbs the light, and then in dark it glows. It has no light in itself, and so it loses the light, and can only continue to glow by being brought near to the light again. So it is with us as believers. Only as we draw near to Christ and absorb His light can we shine in a dark world. If we are not perpetually under the influence of His love and grace, we will soon lose our light, and have no positive influence in the darkness of this world. We may be as different as Peter was from John in our personality, age, gifts, and numerous other ways, but we can be of equal influence for Christ if we learn to live in the presence of the living Christ, and to love one another as equals in Christ, even though often very different.