Simon Peter frequently steps forward as a spokesman for the rest of the disciples in the Gospels, and he fulfills this role again in today’s passage. Having heard from Jesus that He will be going away (John 13:33), Peter asks where the Savior is going (v. 36a).
It would be easy for us to castigate Peter for asking this question. The Gospels tell us that Jesus referred to His death and return to the Father several times before He told the disciples in the Upper Room of His impending betrayal and death (Matt. 17:22–23; Mark 8:31; Luke 17:25; John 10:11). Clearly, the Twelve had a hard time understanding and believing the Lord’s words that He would die. Yet we are not so different, for how often do we fail to believe the Savior? We should not be quick to stand in judgment over the disciples for their failures, but we should see how we are like them so that we might be prepared to believe Jesus. John Calvin comments, “We hear daily from the mouth of Christ all that is fitted for usefulness in life, and all that is necessary to be known, and, when we come to practice, we are as much astonished as apprentices to whom not a word had ever been spoken.”
Jesus, instead of condemning Peter for still not understanding that He will be departing, tells the Apostle that where He is going, Peter cannot follow now but will follow later (John 13:36). Peter cannot follow Jesus in death right away, but he will eventually follow Him to the grave and then to glory. There are two senses in which Peter cannot follow the Lord at this point in his life. First, it is not yet time for Peter to die. Peter will live for several more decades. Second, Peter cannot follow Jesus to death in the sense of dying to achieve the same ends. Peter cannot atone for sin; only Christ can do that. Still, Peter will follow Jesus to death eventually. Church history tells us that Peter was put to death for his faith under the tyranny of Emperor Nero in the early 60s AD.
As is typical of Peter, he responds boldly, telling Jesus that he can indeed follow Him now. In fact, he will follow Him even to death if necessary (v. 37). But Peter is speaking out of confidence in his own power and faithfulness. He does not realize that he is weak, but Jesus tells him that soon even loyal Peter will deny Christ before men. Peter is overconfident, trusting in his flesh and not in the power of the Spirit to sustain him. We, likewise, can place too much stock in our own abilities. So, as Calvin writes, “let each of us examine his own defects, that he may not be swelled with vain confidence.”