“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”—John 1:1
John was the son of Zebedee, a fisherman, and his wife Salome (Matt. 4:21; 27:56; Mark 15:40; 16:1). There was a measure of financial success at this business, for Zebedee employed hired servants in his occupation (Mark 1:20). Later, Salome would follow the Lord like her son. She generously supported His ministry from the family resources (Luke 8:3; Matt. 27:56).
By being part of the fishing industry, John would know hard work. But there would also be time to meditate, and John had a tremendous capacity for great thoughts. While passing whole nights in stillness upon the waters of the Lake of Galilee, John would have the opportunity to consider the heavens above him. He could count the stars with their twinkling beauty and glory, and he would wonder about creation. His heart was drawn to heaven at an early age.
It is not surprising that when John the Baptist suddenly appeared, this son of Zebedee would be one of the first to attach himself to the forerunner of the Messiah. That was but one more step towards seeing the Saviour. Then, one day the Lord of glory appeared. “Behold!” cried the baptizer of men. “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!” John, the son of Zebedee, beheld “the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Little did John realize that by coming to Jesus, he would be personally transformed in several ways.
First, John would be transformed in his position. From the kingdom of darkness he was to become a king among men. In the book of Revelation we read that Jesus has made all who love and follow Him, “kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 1:6).
In spiritual terms this means that John accepted Jesus as His Lord, and Master, and sovereign King with the right to command His life. John would have gladly sung with Matthew Bridges,
“Crown Him with many crowns,
the Lamb upon His throne.
Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns
all music but its own.
Awake, my soul,
and sing of Him who died for thee,
And hail Him as thy matchless King
through all eternity.”
Second, John was transformed in his station in life for John was selected to be part of the inner circle of disciples that the Lord was forming.
Among the twelve disciples who would become the Master’s men, John, along with Peter and James, formed a select inner core. They alone were with Jesus in the most important moments of His ministry.
John was with the Lord in the chamber of death. He was with Jesus in the glory of the transfiguration and he was with Christ in the agony of the garden (Mark 5:37; Matt. 17:1; 26:37).
Third, John was transformed in his temperament. Once called The Son of Thunder, John became known as The Apostle of Love. This was possible because John grew more and more to be like Christ. John loved the Lord with all of His heart.
“O to be like Thee! Blessèd Redeemer,
This is my constant longing and prayer;
Gladly I’ll forfeit all of earth’s treasures,
Jesus, Thy perfect likeness to wear.
O to be like Thee! O to be like Thee,
Blessèd Redeemer, pure as Thou art;
Come in Thy sweetness, come in Thy fullness;
Stamp Thine own image deep on my heart.
O to be like Thee! Full of compassion,
Loving, forgiving, tender and kind,
Helping the helpless, cheering the fainting,
Seeking the wandering sinner to find.
O to be like Thee! Lowly in spirit,
Holy and harmless, patient and brave;
Meekly enduring cruel reproaches,
Willing to suffer others to save.”
Thomas O. Chisholm
The zeal of John was such that he would not remain near anyone who did not reverence the Lord as well.
Once, according to Polycarp, in Ephesus, when Cerinthus, the arch-denier of the Lord’s divinity came into the public bath where the apostle was, John fled from the building crying out he feared the wall of the bath house would fall.
John’s zeal for Christ, transformed him into a respected leader in the church. He helped to solve the controversy between the Jewish and the Gentile Christians (Acts 15:6). In later years, John became bishop (pastor) of the church at Ephesus.
When persecution began and John was driven to the isle of Patmos, he took pen in hand and was transformed once more into an author. In his old age, John once more saw the resurrected Christ in all of His splendor and glory (Rev. 1:9).
What joy that must have been to look upon His face! What a blessing it was for John to be taken into heaven and to behold the final scene at the end of time when “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of Christ” (Rev. 11:15).
In the end, John was transformed into a martyr for Christ. John was not put to death by the sword as His brother James. He was not crucified upside down as Peter. He was not beheaded as Paul.
John died of old age but he remained a burning witness for Christ to the very end. The last Apostle died in the city of Ephesus in the middle of the second century.
When the legends grew up around his life, they always focused upon the greatness of his heart. For example, the story is told of the youth whom John loved. On leaving the city of Ephesus, John committed the youth to the pastor in the presence of the flock. After a long absence the Apostle returned and cried out to the pastor, “Restore to me the pledge which I entrusted to thee.”
The pastor was alarmed, thinking it must have been a sum of money. “I demand the youth” exclaimed John.
Sighing heavily, the pastor replied, “He is spiritually dead. He became godless, and finally a robber.”
Calling for transportation, the Apostle hastened to a mountain cave, and at length found his former disciple the leader of a band of robbers. Recognizing John, the culprit fled through shame.
“Why do you fly from me, an unarmed old man?”
“Stop!” cried John.
“Believe Christ hath sent me.”
The robber returned weeping bitterly, but held back his right hand.
Finally, overcome by love, the robber gave his heart back to John, and another prodigal was restored, kindling joy and praise among the angels of God (Clemens of Alexander). The greatness of John’s heart is reflected in the richness of the gospel he wrote for it enables men and women, “To know Jesus Christ more clearly, to love Him more dearly, and to follow Him more nearly” (Richard of Chichester).
John will help all Christians in these objectives. Hearts will be blessed by a study of John’s gospel, as many have already been blessed over the centuries. “It is the unique, tender, genuine, leading Gospel,” said Martin Luther. “It reveals the soul of Christ,” declared John Calvin. In John’s gospel Jesus presented in many forms. Jesus Christ is the Eternal Word, the source of all life, and instrument of all revelations. Jesus is the Light of the world thereby illuminating the darkness of sin and error.
Jesus is the Fountain of living water, able to quench the thirst of the soul.
Jesus is the Bread of Life who alone satisfies the hunger of the heart.
Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, destroying all the terrors of death.
When John wrote his gospel, he had a threefold purpose.
First, the gospel of John ministered to the Roman world. The Greeks influenced the Romans. One of their philosophers was named Plato. He taught of an unseen world where there was a perfect reality. Plato said the things of this world were shadowy copies of eternal patterns. The practical question was always how to get to the real world from this world of shadows.
John declared that Jesus is the answer, for Jesus is the real [true] light. “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9).
Jesus is the real [true] bread that can feed hungry hearts. “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger” (John 6:35).
Jesus is the real [true] water that can quench all spiritual thirst. Jesus said, “He that believeth on me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35).
Jesus is the real [true] vine from whom spiritual fruit is derived. “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Jesus is the real [true] judgment. “And yet if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me” (John 8:16). In Christ there are no more shadows.
A second purpose of the gospel John wrote was to downplay the ministry of John the Baptist. As important as John the baptizer was, to fulfill prophecy, and to be a forerunner of Christ, Jesus takes pre-eminence. The man who ate locust and wild honey would be the first to agree, and say of Jesus, “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
A third purpose of the gospel was to challenge Gnosticism. The Gnostics did not believe that Jesus had a real body. Their beliefs gave rise to one of the early church heresies called “docetism” (dokein, “to seem”).
The Gnostics taught that Jesus only seemed to be a man when in reality he was a demiurge. The Bible tells us that anyone who denies Jesus came in the flesh is not of God. Of course Jesus Christ is more than a man. He is the very God of all creation.
To the very end of his long life John sought to teach others these great truths as he wrote of the gospel of redeeming grace.
When all capacity to work, and teach was gone, the aged Apostle would have himself carried into the local assembly. Holding up his trembling hands, John would say, “Little children, love one another.” On being asked why he constantly repeated this one saying, John replied, “Because it is the command of the Lord, and enough is done if this is done” (Jerome).
The ability to love others is not easy. But, it is the will of the Lord. It can be obeyed by being transformed into the image of Christ. That process begins with the new birth.