The Apostle John is familiar to us because he wrote so much of the New Testament. He was the human author of a Gospel and three Epistles that bear his name, as well as the book of Revelation. Aside from Luke and the Apostle Paul, John wrote more of the New Testament than any other human author. Scripture is therefore full of insights into his personality and character.
John’s zeal and ambition mirrored that of his elder brother, James, and he was rugged and hard edged, just like the rest of the fishermen-disciples. Although he was a frequent companion to Peter in the first 12 chapters of Acts, Peter remained in the foreground and John remained in the background.
But John also had his turn at leadership. Ultimately, because he outlived all the others, he filled a unique and patriarchal roll in the early church that lasted nearly to the end of the 1st century and reached deep into Asia Minor. His personal influence was therefore indelibly stamped on the primitive church, well into the post-apostolic era.
Zeal for Truth
From the beginning we see John as a spiritually aware man who sought to know and follow the truth. Without hesitation he began following Jesus as soon as John the Baptist singled Him out as the true Messiah.
John’s zeal for the truth shaped the way he wrote. Of all the writers of the New Testament, he is the most black and white in his thinking. For example, in his gospel,
- he sets light against darkness,
- life against death,
- the Kingdom of God against the Kingdom of the devil,
- the children of God against the children of Satan,
- the judgment of the righteous against the judgment of the wicked,
- the resurrection of life against the resurrection of damnation,
- receiving Christ against rejecting Christ,
- fruit against fruitlessness,
- obedience against disobedience,
- and love against hatred.
He loves dealing with truth in absolutes and opposites. He understands the necessity of drawing a clear line.
He uses the Greek word for truth 25 times in his gospel and 20 more times in his epistles. He wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 4). But sometimes in his younger years, John’s zeal for truth was lacking in love and compassion for people. He needed to learn the balance. The incident in Mark 9 when John forbade a man to cast out demons in Jesus’s name is a good illustration of this.
The Balance of Love and Truth
As a young man, John was capable of behaving in the most sectarian, narrow minded, unbending, reckless, and impetuous fashion.
But he wrote more than any other New Testament author about the importance of love —laying particular stress on the Christians love of Christ, Christ’s love for His church, and the love for one another that is supposed to be the hallmark of true believers. But love was a quality he learned from Christ, not something that came naturally to him.
Who is the Greatest of Us?
The Privileged Witnesses to the Transfiguration
In Mark 9:1, Jesus tells the disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the Kingdom of God present with power.” Of course, that sounded to the disciples like a promise that the Millennial Kingdom would come in their lifetimes. What happened immediately afterward clarified this.
Jesus was promising them a preview of coming attractions. Three of them would have the privilege of witnessing a brilliant foretaste of glory divine. It happened less than a week after Jesus promised that some of them would see the Kingdom present with power: “now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a mountain apart by themselves; And he was transfigured before them” (v 2). And “Elijah appeared to them with Moses and they were talking with Jesus” (Mark 9: 4). What an honor to witness such a scene!
All the disciples were constantly arguing about who was the greatest among them and the presence of the three at the transfiguration does seem to have fueled the debate about who was the greatest.
The Last Shall be First
Of course, Jesus knew what they argued about and saw the opportunity to teach them once again:
He sat down, called the 12, and said to them, “if anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when he had taken him in his arms, he said to them, “whoever receives one of these little children in my name receives me; And whoever receives me, receives not me but Him who sent me.” (v 35-37).
John had always been zealous and passionate for the truth, but now the Lord was teaching him to love.
It is wonderful to have a high regard for the truth, but zeal for the truth must be balanced by a love for people, or it can give way to judgmentalism, harshness, and a lack of compassion. It is fine to be hardworking and ambitious, but if ambition is not balanced with humility, it becomes sinful pride—self-promotion at the expense of others. Confidence is a wonderful virtue, too, but when confidence becomes a sinful self-confidence, we become smug and spiritually careless. Three years with Jesus moved the Son of Thunder towards becoming and Apostle of Love at the very point when he was most imbalanced, Christ gave him equilibrium.
The Balance of Ambition and Humility
John was also in the thick of the debates about who was the greatest. Mark records that James and John came to Jesus with their infamous request for the chief thrones. Coming as it did on the heels of so many admonitions from Jesus about humility (Mark 10: 31, Mark 9: 35) the brothers request shows amazing audacity. It reveals how utterly devoid of true humility they were. Their error was in desiring to obtain the position more than they desired to be worthy of such a position.
Jesus called them to himself and said to them, “you know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lorded over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; But whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Christ’s Kingdom is advanced by humble service, not by politics, status, power, or dominion. It is astonishing how little this truth penetrated the disciples’ consciousness, even after three years with Jesus. Even on the final night of his earthly ministry, not one of them had the humility to pick up the towel and wash basin and perform the task of a servant (John 13: 1-17). So, Jesus did it himself.
John did eventually learn the balance between ambition and humility. In fact, humility is one of the great virtues that comes through in his writings. Throughout John’s Gospel, for instance, he never once mentions his own name. Rather than write his name which might focus attention on him, he refers to himself as “the disciple who Jesus loved” (John 13: 23; 20: 2, 21: 7, 20), giving glory to Jesus for having loved such a man. In fact, he seems utterly in awe of the marvel that Christ loved him. Of course, according to John 13: 1-2, Jesus loved all his apostles to perfection. But it seems there was a unique way in which John gripped this reality and was humbled by it.
The Balance of Suffering and Glory
Jesus told James and John that before they would receive any throne, they would be required to “drink the cup that I drink and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with” (Mark 10: 38).
We know from his account of Jesus’ trial that John and Peter followed Jesus to the house of the high priest (John 18: 15). Because John was the son of Zebedee, who was known to the high priest as someone of importance, they were allowed in. There they watched as Jesus was bound and beaten.
As far as we know, John was the only disciple who was an actual eyewitness to Jesus’ crucifixion. He was standing close enough to the cross for Jesus to see him (John 19: 26). He probably watched as the Roman soldiers drove in the nails. John himself describes the scene as Jesus looked down from the cross and saw his mother, Mary, along with her sister, another Mary (wife of Clopas), Mary Magdalene, and John (John 19: 25). John writes, “when Jesus therefore saw his mother and the disciples whom he loved standing by, he said to his mother, “Woman here behold your son!” then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” and from that hour that disciple took her to his own home” (v 26 – 27).
When John’s brother James became the church’s first martyr, John bore the loss in a more personal way than the others. As each of the other disciples were martyred one by one, John suffered the grief and pain of additional loss. These were his friends and companions. Soon he alone was left. In some ways, that may have been the most painful suffering of all.
Virtually all reliable sources of early church history attest to the fact that John became the pastor of the church that the apostle Paul had founded in Ephesus. From there, during a great persecution of the church under the Roman Emperor Domitian (brother and successor to Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem), John was banished to a prison community in Patmos, one of the small Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea off the West Coast of modern Turkey. He lived in a cave there. It was while there that he received and recorded the apocalyptic vision described in the Book of Revelation. It was a harsh environment for an aged man. He was cut off from those whom he loved, treated with cruelty and reproach, and made to sleep on a stone slab with a rock for a pillow as the years passed slowly.
But John learned to bear suffering willingly. There is no complaint about his sufferings anywhere in his Epistles or the Book of Revelation. He was looking forward calmly to the day when he would partake in the promised glory of the Kingdom.
I noted earlier that John used the word ‘truth’ some 45 times in his Gospel and Epistles. But it is interesting that he also used the word ‘love’ more than 80 times. Clearly, he learned the balance Christ taught him and under the control of the Holy Spirit, all his liabilities were exchanged for assets.
In fact, John’s theology is best described as a theology of love. He taught
- that God is a God of love,
- that God loved his own son,
- that God loved the world,
- that God is loved by Christ,
- that Christ loved his disciples,
- that Christ disciples loved him,
- that all men should love Christ,
- that we should love one another,
- and that love fulfills the law.
Love was a crucial part of every element of John’s teaching.
And yet his love never slid into indulgent sentimentality. To the very end of his life John was still a thunderous defender of the truth. He lost none of his intolerance for lies. In his Epistles, written near the end of his life, he was still thundering out against errant Christologies, against anti-Christian deceptions, against sin, and against immorality. He was in that sense a Son of Thunder to the end.
John died, by most accounts, around AD 98, during the reign of Emperor Trajan. The early Christian historian Jerome says in his commentary on Galatians that the aged Apostle John was so frail in his final days at Ephesus that he had to be carried into the church. One phrase was constantly on his lips: “my little children, love one another.” Asked why he always said this, he replied, “It is the Lord’s command, and if this alone be done, it is enough.”
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Twelve Ordinary Men by John MacArthur