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Life of John

The Author of Revelation

Life of John, the Apostle

(By way of preface): The Steering Committee for this class has asked me to teach a session on the Book of Revelation. I am rather reluctant to do so, for this book tends to have the most sensational -- and least profitable -- of books written about it. It is not my desire to be sensational. This is the Lord’s class, after all, not mine. A study of Revelation often increases attendance and decreases listening.

Before we can begin such a study, some preliminary work is required, and this is the first of it. We need to begin by understanding what we can about the author of this book, and his relationship to our Lord Jesus Christ. This week we will study his biography; next week, we will begin a study of his intellectual life.

From the Call to the Last Week

We know comparatively little about John the Apostle. It is a common mistake among new Christians to confuse him with John the Baptist (a completely different person). There are, in fact, four “Johns” in the New Testament, the other two being John Mark (better known to us as Mark, author of the Gospel of that name) and a minor character who was a servant of Annas, the High Priest.[1] Modern “scholars” have confused things even more by speculating that the John who wrote Revelation was not John the Apostle, but someone known as John the Elder (which, in fact, is the name given in the letters of John). The early church was unanimous in its verdict that John the Apostle wrote Revelation, and I see no reason to undo the verdict 1900 years later.

John was called along with his brother James and their business partners, Peter and Andrew:

(Luke 5:1-11 NIV) One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, {2} he saw at the water's edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. {3} He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. {4} When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch." {5} Simon answered, "Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets." {6} When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. {7} So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. {8} When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus' knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" {9} For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, {10} and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon's partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Don't be afraid; from now on you will catch men." {11} So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

There is no reason to suppose this is the first time they had ever seen Jesus. But we should look at their reaction:

·         They are afraid of the power of this man, and the righteousness of this man. Indeed, “awestruck” is the word.

·         They do not leave their boats out of fear -- but for the challenge. These are men among men, and willing to take the risk.

·         They leave everything to follow him -- their commitment to him is 100%.

John quickly becomes one of the “intimate” disciples. In all the lists of disciples, he is mentioned among the first group of four. He is one of three or four who are taken in on “private” occasions, such as the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law[2] and the raising of Jairus’ daughter.[3] The ultimate in this is the real mark of the inner circle: the Transfiguration:

(Mark 9:2-10 NIV) After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. {3} His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. {4} And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. {5} Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." {6} (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) {7} Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" {8} Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. {9} As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. {10} They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what "rising from the dead" meant.

If John was awestruck at the sea, what must have he felt at this? Indeed, you can take this one of two ways. If you are the one in the inner circle, you can become either very humble (because you know you didn’t deserve this) or very proud (because you’re sure you did). John becomes possessive, and proud -- for he did not yet understand his Lord. We see it in three examples:

·         First, he objects to others who heal in Jesus name:

(Luke 9:49-50 NIV) "Master," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us." {50} "Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you."

·         Next, he wants to call down fire from heaven against those in a village who would not receive Jesus:

(Luke 9:51-56 NIV) As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. {52} And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; {53} but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. {54} When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" {55} But Jesus turned and rebuked them, {56} and they went to another village.

·         But perhaps the height of the idea that “Jesus is mine” (in the possessive sense) is the day when he and his brother try to get the top rank in the organization (Matthew’s account -- Matthew 20:20-28 -- involves their mother; Mark’s account is a bit more educational):

(Mark 10:35-45 NIV) Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask." {36} "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. {37} They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." {38} "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" {39} "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, {40} but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared." {41} When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. {42} Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. {43} Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, {44} and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. {45} For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Note that this comes immediately after Jesus tells them what manner of death He will die. Jesus is trying to hammer into their heads the entire nature of His Kingdom -- and John and James obviously haven’t got it yet.

The Week of the Crucifixion

The week of the Crucifixion occupies a major portion of the Gospels. In it we see more evidence of just how intimate a relationship John had with Jesus.

·         First, Peter and John -- by now the two most intimate with our Lord -- are sent to prepare the Passover we now know as the Lord’s Supper.[4]

·         At that Passover, an interesting bit of dialog happens:

(John 13:23-26 NIV) One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. {24} Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, "Ask him which one he means." {25} Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?" {26} Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon.

What fascinates me about this is that Peter -- Mr. Right Hand Man -- asks John to put the question. It may be that this is just because John is closest; it may be that John has become a favorite in some way. It is a curious point.

·         John accompanies Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane; like the others, he has trouble staying awake.[5] The relationship is not complete.

·         John follows Jesus to the trial at the High Priest’s house, as does Peter.[6] Interestingly, John is well enough known there to get in without fuss; but he has to vouch for Peter before he can come in.[7]

·         One of the most touching episodes of the Crucifixion involves John, and shows just how much Jesus thought of him:

(John 19:26-27 NIV) When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," {27} and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

·         After the Resurrection, we have an interesting portrait of the impetuous Peter and the more cautious John:

(John 20:1-9 NIV) Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. {2} So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!" {3} So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. {4} Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. {5} He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. {6} Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, {7} as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. {8} Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. {9} (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

John’s the faster man -- but stops at the door. Peter is the bolder man and goes in. Finally John does too -- and sees and believes.

·         Finally, there is that eerie meeting at the seaside described in John 21. Most of the commentary comes in the form of Jesus restoring Peter -- “feed my sheep.” But there is a hint of things to come:

(John 21:20-24 NIV) Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") {21} When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?" {22} Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." {23} Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" {24} This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

(The last verse may be an addition by a copyist, or more probably the amanuensis).

After the Ascension

We know very little about John after the Ascension. Acts largely portrays the history of Peter, and then Paul. John is with Peter in the early days (Acts 3-4) in which they heal a cripple on the steps of the Temple, but it’s Peter who does all the talking. Peter and John are sent to bring the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans.[8] Paul lists James, Peter and John as “those reputed to be pillars” in his recitation of his commission as an Apostle.[9] Lastly, we have his own testimony that John was exiled to Patmos, where he saw the vision which we call today the Book of Revelation.[10]

Eusebius, the historian of the early church, adds more detail. Quoting Iraneus, from the lips of Polycarp, he mentions a conflict with the heretic Cerinthus (who was somewhat of a hedonist, as far as I can tell.) John once entered a public bath house (common in those days), but as soon as he found that Cerinthus was there also, he ran out the door, encouraging his friends likewise, saying: “let us flee, lest the bath fall in, as long as Cerinthus, the enemy of truth, is within.”[11]

A final story from Eusebius will suffice. It seems that John, during an “inspection tour” of Asia Minor, took to himself a young man, to disciple him. After training and baptizing him, he left him in the care of the local bishop. Unfortunately, the young man was seduced away from the church with “expensive entertainments” which eventually led to his becoming a member of a band of robbers which waylaid travelers. The church had occasion to send for John; when he came, he asked the bishop to “return the deposit.” The bishop at first thought he was talking about money, but when John made it clear that he was speaking of the boy, the bishop said he was dead -- “dead to God.” John went into mourning, beating his head and tearing his garment -- and then asked for a horse and directions.

He rode towards the band, certain of capture. The robbers caught him and took him to their leader, none other than the boy John had discipled. When he saw his father in Christ, he turned in shame to run away. John ran after him, crying, “Why dost thou fly, my son, from me, thy father; thy defenseless, aged father? Have compassion upon me, my son, fear not. Thou still hast hope of life. I will intercede with Christ for thee. Should it be necessary, I will cheerfully suffer death for thee, as Christ for us. I will give my life for thine. Stay; believe Christ hath sent me.” Eusebius ends the story with these words:

“Then supplicating with frequent prayers, contending with constant fastings, and softening down his mind with various consolatory declarations, he did not leave him as it is said, until he had restored him to the church. Affording a powerful example of true repentance, and a great visible evidence of regeneration, a trophy of the visible resurrection.”[12]

This is the man to whom Jesus entrusted the Revelation of what was to come. A man who began his discipleship in awe; carried it through selfishness, always in the closest contact with his Lord. He ended it in old age, the only one of the Apostles of whom it is believed that he died a natural death. At the end of his life his repeated saying to the church at Ephesus was, “Little children, love one another.” The Lord speaks to those He loves, and they speak of His love.

[1] Acts 4:6

[2] Mark 1:29-31

[3] Mark 5:35-43

[4] Luke 22:8-13

[5] Matthew 26:36-46

[6] John 18:15-19

[7] Two reasons have been proposed for this. Eusebius mentions that John was of the priestly class (“wore the sacerdotal plate”) which may mean that he was a Levite. Others have suggested that he was the business man of the partnership, and well known as a supplier of salted fish.

[8] Acts 8:14ff

[9] Galatians 2:8-10

[10] Revelation 1:9

[11] Eusebius, I.XXVII

[12] Eusebius I.XXIII

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