Whenever we speak about John, we must think of the twelve apostles, that group of disciples whom Jesus called to follow him. His divine call had a divine purpose. The twelve disciples whom Jesus called to follow him were to become the proclaimers of the new kingdom ushered in by Jesus, the Kingdom of God in the hearts of men and women everywhere.
The twelve apostles of Jesus were to be not only the proclaimers of the coming Kingdom, but also participants in it. They were to continue God’s work of redemption of lost humanity, not only in Jerusalem and neighboring places, but throughout the whole world.
The apostles were men of great faith whose life of devotion to God was to be imitated. But in the presence of God, these twelve men were human beings such as we are, with their many problems, be these problems material, physical, spiritual, or financial. The apostles had to deal with these problems in the same way we do.
In their equality with other human beings, the apostles were also men with desires of greatness, desire for recognition, and desire to be the one closest to Jesus. These desires sometimes brought disagreement and dissension among the twelve. These desires and struggles demonstrate that, being humans as we are, they were fallen creatures in need of God’s grace. They were fallen in their disobedience, in their lack of faith, and in their struggle to relate themselves to God.
Because the disciples struggled to relate to God in faith and obedience, and because they struggled in overcoming their humanness, they placed their faith in Christ and became men transformed by the marvelous power of God. It was the grace of God in Christ that worked in their lives, to make them, mere fishermen, tax collectors, revolutionaries, and simple men into bastions of faith and spirituality.
Thus, in their encounter with Christ, whom they recognized to be the promised Messiah of Israel, their lives were changed and they became associated with God’s work of bringing reconciliation to a lost world.
This process that transformed their lives was not taken at the initiative of the twelve. The initiative came from Christ himself, who, being able to know people in their potentiality rather than in their weaknesses, called them, as they were, in their doubts and small faith, transformed them, and sent them into the world to do God’s work.
After Jesus changed their lives, he gave them a commission and sent those twelve men to become the proclaimers of God’s good news. He sent them on their way, through the villages and cities of Judea with a message to all the people of Israel and to people everywhere that the redeemer of Israel, the beloved of all nations, had arrived.
When John, the one who was known as the beloved disciple, went out to preach about Jesus, he was a different person, no longer the John of the boat, not the John the rude fisherman of the past. The John who proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ was a new man, a man whose relationship with God had changed because of his encounter with Christ. He was a man whose life had been restored into the likeness of the life of Christ, with all the spiritual privileges and responsibilities derived from a relationship with the Son of God.
Because of his encounter with Jesus, John now was a man who followed Christ, serving the one who had changed his life, obeying the Lord who had transformed him into a new man, and doing the will of the one who had called him.
Thus, when we study the life of the apostle John, we are studying ourselves. A study of John’s life reveals the grace of God in action. It also shows that God can and does use people today to proclaim God’s amazing love to a lost world. A person transformed by divine grace, will live in abiding love and will proclaim this love to others.
The New Testament presents John as the son of Zebedee (Matthew 4:21; Mark 1:19-20) and Salome (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; 16:1), and as the brother of James, who also became an apostle. Thus, because of the relationship between Mary and Salome (cf. Mark 15:40; John 19:25; Matthew 27:56), it is possible that John and Jesus were direct cousins and John was a second cousin to John the Baptist.
John, together with his father and brother, was a fisherman in the Sea of Galilee. It seems that John’s family was doing well financially, for John’s father had hired servants (Mark 1:20). The presence of servants in John’s household would place his family well above the average Israelite family. Being a merchant, John was acquainted with many people and this may explain John 18:15-16. A disciple, probably John, was known to the High Priest, partly because his family used to do business with the family of the High Priest.
John and his family were partners with Peter and his family in the fishing business (Luke 5:10). This close association between John and Peter in business was also carried into their ministry of the gospel. We find John and Peter together in many activities during the ministry of Christ and together in many events in the early days of the church. As William Barclay, in his book The Master’s Men (Naperville: SCM Book Club, 1959), p. 26, wrote: “They were partners in the fishing boat and they were partners in the task of being fishers of men.”
Next: “John’s Call to the Ministry”
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary