As a good Jew, John was brought up in a religious home, where the piety of his mother, which is seen in all the gospels, was a great influence in his life. He owed to his mother the first inspirations of his life. When John the Baptist came proclaiming glad tidings of good news, it was no surprise that John was ready to join his disciples, a decision which, to many people, was strange, if not radical.
It was in the company of John the Baptist’s disciples that John first met the one who was to change his life. When Jesus came out of the wilderness, after being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan, and after forty difficult days of trials in the desert, John the Baptist said to his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1:35).
According to Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Time of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1965), 1:345, the day when John first met his Lord was a Sabbath. The impact of that first experience was so profound that fifty years later, John was able to remember the day and the hour of that first encounter (John 1:39). Andrew and John heard what the Baptist said about Jesus. They were so impressed with the personality of Jesus that they wanted to know where he lived so that they could follow him.
That day was such a day of discovery and of learning that Andrew and John went, each to search for his brother: Andrew for Simon Peter, and John for James. Their discovery became the context of their proclamation, “We have found the Messiah.” The knowledge that Jesus was the Messiah came, not because they searched the Scriptures nor because they heard it from John the Baptist. That knowledge came out of their meeting with Jesus and out of the deep conviction that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Messianic hope of Israel. On the following day, the first day of the week, the beginning of Christ’s active ministry, Jesus called the disciples to follow him.
“Come, follow me.” This call involved a renunciation of home, family and relationships. The call, “Come follow me,” implied a call to become the constant disciples of a teacher. It was a different call, for it was a call to become something quite new, of which their former occupation was a symbol.
A. B. Bruce, in his book The Training of the Twelve (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963), p. 13, wrote:
These words, “I will make you fishers of men” show that the founder of the faith desired, not only to have disciples, but to have about Him men whom He might train to make disciples of others; to cast the net of divine truth unto the sea of the world, and to land on the shores of the divine kingdom a great multitude of believing souls.
The Synoptic View of John
The Synoptic Gospels present a different picture of John the apostle. In the Synoptics we see in John much more of the old Jewish man than the Christian man presented in the Fourth Gospel. In the Synoptics, the infancy of John’s Christian life is clearly seen. He is not what he will be, for it is through his daily experiences with Christ that he will be transformed into another man. So, in the Synoptics John is presented as a man of great ambitions, desiring the principal place in Jesus’ kingdom (Mark 10:35). The Gospel of Matthew (20:20-28) attributes this request to John’s mother, maybe as a later rework of the tradition to remove this shameful action from one of the pillars of the church.
The reasons for John’s request are not known. Maybe it was based on his social condition or on the family ties with Jesus. Whatever the reasons, it shows the human nature of the apostle, his ambitious spirit, and his selfish mind.
Another picture of John in the Synoptics is that of a man with an intolerant heart. On one occasion when John and his brother saw a man casting out devils in the name of Jesus, John forbade him to do so. His action was based on the fact that this man was not one of the disciples of Jesus. Jesus gently rebuked John by saying that he who was not against them was for them (Mark 9:39-40).
The most significant characteristic of John in the Synoptics is that of a man of violent temper. This is seen in John’s attitude toward some unfriendly Samaritans who refused to welcome Jesus and his apostles (Luke 9:51-56). Because of the unfriendly treatment of the Samaritans, John and James wished to “bid fire come down from heaven and consume them.” This may explain why Jesus called them “Boanerges,” which translated means “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). The two brothers must have been violent and explosive in character, severe and aggressive, ready to thunder out in denunciation and condemnation.
How could John, with his character and attitudes, become one of the closest friends of Jesus? Jesus, unlike most people, could love a person, not merely for what he was, but for what he could become. He could love John in his intolerance and ambition, knowing very well that he had the character of becoming a man full of love, for John had a sincere spirit. He loved Jesus as intensely as he hated the Samaritans.
The Transformation of John
The transformation of John came slowly through his daily experiences with Jesus. In those most difficult moments in the life of Jesus, John was present, together with Peter and James. John was there during the Transfiguration. He was there in those dark hours of Getsemani and he was there preparing and participating in the Passover. John was present when Jesus gave the meaning of the sacrifice of his body and of his blood shed for a lost world. He was there when Jesus was tried and treated as a common criminal. John was there on the night of Jesus’ greatest suffering and he was there during the agony of the cross. These personal experiences left a deep impression on John’s soul. However, Easter morning marked a new beginning for John, for when Mary Magdalene told Peter and John about her experience before the empty tomb, it was John who believed without seeing (John 20:4–7). When John “saw and believed,” he was the first one to discern the full impact of the significance of the Easter event before anyone even thought of the fact that the Lord had risen.
Again, on the night when the disciples went fishing (John 21), it was John who, recognizing the person on the shore said, “It is the Lord.” Later on, as the church began to reach out with the gospel message, we find John preaching the Gospel in “many of the villages of the Samaritan,” possibly in the same village that once he desired to destroy. Thus, John’s life teaches us two things. First, it shows how slow believers learn the practice of love. Second, through personal experiences with Christ, a person’s life can be transformed and changed from a life where faith is not present to a life filled with deep love for Christ.
John’s Abiding Love
John is the disciple whose life reflects the love of Jesus with great intensity and depth. This love penetrated John’s being completely and transformed that abnormal zeal into an abiding love. Thus the natural character of John, by the power of the Holy Spirit and by the manifestation of the love of Christ in his life, was transformed and renewed. John was no longer the “son of thunder.” His gospel is the evidence of his tender heart. His overflowing love was enlightened by the divine guidance of God and by the deep insight of genuine faith. In the Fourth Gospel, John became the Beloved Disciple, the one who loved Jesus and the one whom Jesus loved.
The story of John, his life, his nature, his experience, his transformation, his love and message, is not lost in the ages of long ago. It is alive today through the missionary message of the Gospel. The fourth Gospel is concerned to show to every person that Jesus is God’s Son, the Messiah of Israel.
John’s gospel is closely connected with the basic aspects of the human experience, with ordinary human life. To John the context and the condition of human existence furnishes the content for the message of the gospel, for people are concerned with the true meaning of life and the ultimate fulfillment of their existence. Christians who proclaim the Good News must begin where people are. Authentic life is found when people develop a true relationship with Christ.
John’s life shows that there is no situation, no experience, no authentic part of human life which cannot be transformed by the grace and love of Christ. The missionary responsibility of each Christian is to proclaim this truth to people everywhere.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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