The Apostle John
Notes of an Address at Canterbury 2008
One of the Three
The Lord has placed it upon my heart to say something about the apostle John, perhaps one of the lesser known of the twelve apostles chosen by the Lord when He was here on the earth. (We know much of the apostle Paul being called after the glorification of the Lord in heaven.) Of the twelve only three have left us a written testimony. Matthew left us the first Gospel, Peter left two epistles bearing his name, and the third is John who gave us the Gospel that bears his name, three epistles and the Revelation. All the other disciples did not leave any written testimony.
On the other hand, among the twelve disciples there were three that had a place of special intimacy with the Lord – Peter, James and John. These three were the only ones allowed to be present when the Lord raised Jairus’ daughter, which already sheds light on the relationship that these disciples had with the Lord Jesus. They were also the only three disciples that went up the Mount of Transfiguration with the Lord where they were given an image of the millennium, the glorification of the Lord where Peter uttered those memorable words, “Lord, it is good we should be here. If thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles: for thee one, and for Moses one, and one for Elias” (Matt. 17:4). Then thirdly in one of the most grievous moments of the life of the Lord Jesus, those three were the only ones allowed to accompany Him into the Garden of Gethsemane where He was in a great agony anticipating the work that He should accomplish.
One could also add that John and Peter were the two who were sent to prepare the upper room for the Last Passover and the First Supper. These two disciples were chosen to do this work, the fruits of which we still enjoy today.
A Son of Thunder
We read a very interesting statement of James and John when they were sent by the Lord to the Jews in Mark 3:17, “and James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, and he gave them the surname of Boanerges, that is, Sons of thunder”. Only Mark gives us this well-known description of these two disciples which shows the very touching development which took place in the heart of John. We are not told anything of James, but of John we can see the change that took place in his life that resulted in him at the end of his life writing the very special Gospel about the Son of God becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us, and his first epistle in which he so vividly describes the wonderful and precious possession we have in having received life eternal. This shows quite a different heart from that at the time of his calling when as a young believer he started to follow the Lord Jesus. We have at least three passages in the Gospels which confirm his initial character as a son of thunder, as one who did not love the quietness and calmness of his soul, but rather loved to let thunder roll on this earth.
“And there come to him James and John, the sons of Zebedee, saying to him, Teacher, we would that whatsoever we may ask thee, thou wouldst do it for us. And he said to them, What would ye that I should do for you? And they said to him, Give to us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and one on thy left hand, in thy glory.” (Mark 10:35-37)
What self-confidence! What daringness! Even their mother was involved in this as we can see from Matthew’s account of the incident. She was no better than her sons, and they were no better than the other ten. They wanted to have the most prominent places in the glory of the One whom they acknowledged in faith, without doubt, as King of the Jews, the Messiah in whom they believed. They wanted to play a big part in that Kingdom, one sitting on the right hand, the other on the left. As sons of thunder they loved the spectacular.
Another two passages we find in Luke.
“And John answering said, Master, we saw some one casting out demons in thy name, and we forbad him, because he follows not with us. And Jesus said to him, Forbid him not, for he that is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49)
Here we see the presumption on the part of this son of thunder in telling somebody not to do things in the name of the Lord because he thought the twelve were the only ones entitled to do these things. There was no grace, only presumption. In the next passage we will see that his brother was no better. But what a wonderful graceful answer of the Lord! This, by contrast, shows the character of the Lord.
“And it came to pass when the days of his receiving up were fulfilled, that he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers before his face. And having gone they entered into a village of the Samaritans that they might make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was turned as going to Jerusalem. And his disciples James and John seeing it said, Lord, wilt thou that we speak that fire come down from heaven and consume them, as also Elias did? But turning he rebuked them and said, Ye know not of what spirit ye are. And they went to another village.” (Luke 9:51-56)
Here we see this love of judgement rather than grace, and a lack of grace in their hearts. Today we would say it was their flesh – religious flesh in all three cases. It was not the worldly activities of their flesh, but it was religious flesh showing itself.
We have to say that they did not yet know the difference between the flesh and the Spirit. They were born anew but they had no real sense of this difference between the two. Yet must we not confess that we sometimes have the same attitude as sons of thunder today although we know so much more that these disciples?
But the point I want to stress is that in the course of these three and a half years of the Lord’s ministry a change took place in John. We are not talking about a change at conversion from an unbeliever to a believer here, but the change that took place in a believer, someone who was born anew and yet still acting in this fleshly way as a son of thunder.
Obviously, we do not have any direct indication as to when and how the change began, but in the Gospel which John has written and has left us we see that the change had taken place already. This is a very practical lesson. How often have I met Christians who said, ‘That is my character; I cannot do anything about it’. Then I tried to bring home to them they were condoning the flesh, their old man, at this time. John did not know the truth concerning the old and the new man. Indeed, he could not. But if we excuse ourselves by saying, ‘That is how I am’ it is nothing less than condoning the old man which found its end on the cross. Our old man has been crucified with Christ.
John did not continue in this way, for when we turn to his own Gospel, we find five very well-known passages where he speaks of himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. We will see at the end of chapter 21 that this disciple whom Jesus loved is the one who wrote the Gospel. John does not mention his own name in his Gospel nor in his epistles, only in the Revelation, but “the disciple whom Jesus loved” can be none other that John himself.
The Disciple whom Jesus Loved
“Now there was at table one of his disciples in the bosom of Jesus, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter makes a sign therefore to him to ask who it might be of whom he spoke. But he, leaning on the breast of Jesus, says to him, Lord, who is it?” (John 13:23-25)
Here we see for the first time this wonderful expression with which he characterises himself five times in his Gospel. He does not say ‘who loved Jesus’; but “whom Jesus loved”. He was the object of the love of the Lord Jesus. It might be asked, ‘Did John think that the Lord loved him to the exclusion of the others?’ or was it a modest way of saying that he loved the Lord Jesus more than the others? Neither is true. So why was it that he could describe himself at the end of the ministry of the Lord Jesus as the disciple whom Jesus loved? I do not think we can explain this doctrinally, but I think this shows the change that had taken place in this son of thunder. He had seen the futileness of his own activities, and had seen and learnt during those three years with the Lord Jesus that there was nothing better than the love of the Lord, so that if someone had asked him, ‘What is the most important thing for you in this life and in eternity?’ it is my conclusion from these five passages that John would have replied, ‘That the Lord Jesus loves me. This for me is the most important thing in the world. There is nothing better than to know that my Lord, my Saviour, loves me.’ What a wonderful thing it is if a believer is conscious of the wonderful love of his Saviour.
In John 13 the Lord was in the Upper Room with the twelve, knowing that one of them would betray Him. Peter, on learning this, and knowing that John had a closer relationship to the Lord in the meanwhile than he himself had, said to John, ‘You ask him!’ This closeness is described by two expressions. There was one at table who was “in the bosom of Jesus”, and who “leaned on the breast of Jesus”.
We must not think of people at meals in those days being like us today all sitting on chairs around a table. It would be very difficult to imagine how one could be in the bosom of another in such a situation. Rather they were lying at table. They would have had bolsters on the ground and would lie on the ground with their heads towards the table and their legs away from it so as to lie side by side, and the one who lay before the Lord Jesus lay “in his bosom”. Further, he would also lean on His breast. Thus, this one was not only sure of this wonderful love of the Lord Jesus but he also desired His nearness. These two things go together. He was actually nearest to the heart of His Master. This was no doctrinal thing that he knew Jesus loved Him, but he felt it and he wanted to enjoy the proximity and nearness of the Lord. This nearness to His Lord is the source of his teaching. He learnt, as it were, through the heartbeat of his Master, leaning on His breast.
“Jesus therefore, seeing his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, says to his mother, Woman, behold thy son. Then he says unto the disciple, Behold thy mother. And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” (John 19:26-27)
After the Lord had gone through His trials and crucifixion and just as He was on the brink of saying, “It is finished”, we find John again very close to his Lord. In another Gospel we are told that all the disciples forsook Him and fled (Mark 14:50). John was among them. Their fear was so great that all, fearing for their own lives, fled from the place where the Lord was. But some way or other John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was moved to return to the place on Calvary’s hill to be near his Lord. At that moment, just before the Lord finished His work, He saw His own mother, Mary, among the women, and referring to John He said to her, “Woman, behold thy son”, and then He said to John, “Behold thy mother”. How wonderful that the Lord entrusted His mother to the care of John,the disciple of whom He was sure that being so close to Him he would take good care of her. We read nothing more of this as we read very little about John in later times, but we can be sure that Mary was taken care of in a wonderful manner by John who was so close to the heart of the Lord.
“Mary of Magdala … runs therefore and comes to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, to whom Jesus was attached, and says to them, They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him. Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and came to the tomb. And the two ran together, and the other disciple ran forward faster than Peter, and came first to the tomb, and stooping down he sees the linen cloths lying; he did not however go in. Simon Peter therefore comes, following him, and entered into the tomb, and sees the linen cloths lying, and the handkerchief which was upon his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded up in a distinct place by itself. Then entered in therefore the other disciple also who came first to the tomb, and he saw and believed; for they had not yet known the scripture, that he must rise from among the dead.” (John 20:2-9)
At the occasion of the incident on the day of resurrection we read of a different Greek word – not agapao as in the other cases but phileo – which shows that there is really an object worthy of that love. That is why it says “to whom Jesus was attached” rather than “whom Jesus loved”.
Peter and John are here seen together, and we see two things. Firstly, Peter’s steps were as it were faltering – and we know why. He did not have full liberty to run to the tomb of his Master whom he had so recently denied (John 18:17, 25, 26). John did not have this hindrance and so he could run faster, but out of reverence he did not enter the tomb. Peter however, wishing to see his Master went in, findingthe tomb empty. Then John entered in also.
His running faster shows that he had greater liberty to be with his Lord, and in his heart, he had deeper feelings for the suitability of the situation than his fellow apostle Peter.
“Jesus therefore says to them, Children, have ye anything to eat? They answered him, No. And he said to them, Cast the net at the right side of the ship and ye will find. They cast therefore, and they could no longer draw it, from the multitude of fishes. That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved says to Peter, It is the Lord.” (John 21:5-7a)
Peter again was the one who had persuaded the others to go fishing, which was not their business at that time, for the Lord had said to wait for Him in Galilee. Peter went to Galilee but he could not wait, he was not changed so much as John was changed. The rashness of his character comes to the fore all the time, but John had learnt and had been changed.
So they were on the lake fishing all night without result. In the early morning the Lord stood on the shore, and who was it that recognised the Lord? It was John. This again shows us the closeness of John to the Lord. This caused him to recognise the Lord while the others did not. John said, “It is the Lord”. What nearness and what knowledge of the Person of the Lord he had acquired in a short time! And what a change had been brought about in his own life that he called himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved”!
“Peter, turning round, sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also leaned at supper on his breast, and said, Lord, who is it that delivers thee up? Peter, seeing him, says to Jesus, Lord, and what of this man? Jesus says to him, If I will that he abide until I come, what [is that] to thee? Follow thou me. This word therefore went out among the brethren, That disciple does not die. And Jesus did not say to him, He does not die; but, If I will that he abide until I come, what is that to thee?” (John 21:20-23)
Why did Peter ask this question? There is no doubt that Peter loved the Lord also – he had just confirmed it three times (vv. 15-17), even though he had to be brought down very low. He loved the Lord but he could not easily endure that another disciple, of whom he was aware, was even more attached to the Lord than himself. That is the reason why he puts this question as regards John. Then the Lord in His wonderful grace said, “If I will that he abide until I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me.” This is the last thing that we learn about John in his own Gospel. This is the last time he referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, for whom the love of Christ was everything, and who shows us by these incidents that he really enjoyed this love and how he grew in the appreciation of it by being nearer and nearer to the Lord. What wonderful practical teaching this is!
The Disciple Whom the Spirit Could Use to Write of the Eternal Life
This is one of the reasons why the Lord chose John to give us a very special teaching. It is the teaching of the Holy Spirit, it is not the teaching of John in contrast to Paul and Peter. It is the same Holy Spirit who inspired Paul to open up the mystery – Christ in the glory and the assembly united to Him even now, “blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1:3) – who inspired Peter to exhort the believers going through trials and persecution to see that glory would only be reached by suffering and who inspired John to give us the most intimate teaching in the entire New Testament, the teaching which shows us that by being born again, by believing in Christ, we have received eternal life, presented to us in the Person of the Eternal Son of God made flesh and dwelling amongst us. “He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).
John does not speak about the assembly at all in his epistles, save only in the third speaking of the local assembly where Gaius his beloved friend was. Then in the Revelation he speaks throughout of the assembly in a special relationship, and as to its last days on earth. In general, it was not his task to open up the teaching as to the Assembly as Paul did, or the teaching of the Kingdom as Peter did, but he shows us the relationships often called the Family of God. I hesitate to say this because it is not strictly a family but rather a Father and children. We are born of God. This is the living relationship which has been created by new birth, a new life, life eternal, life in the Son. This life in the Son is developed in the Gospel of the Eternal Son of God in perfection, He the Eternal Life come down to this earth. In the epistles it is the believer who by faith has part in this. The life of Christ is in us. This shows us the intimacy of the teaching of John. He does not show us the glorious position in which we have been placed, the position of the glorified Christ being the prototype as it were of our position in the heavenlies as Paul does, but John speaks of the life on earth of the Son of God, eternal life as it has been revealed and opened up to us by the death and resurrection of Christ and says, “You must be born again”, for there must be a new beginning.
We live in the last days of the assembly here on earth, a day of increasing departure from the truth of the assembly. Beloved brothers and sisters, what do we realise in practice of what Paul has left for us as to the assembly? We have to confess to our own shame we know very little indeed. Where also is the teaching of Peter who was sent to the Jews to tell them the Gospel? But here we have the enigmatic utterance of the Lord Jesus, “If I will that he abide until I come”. He did not say he would remain until He came as the disciples thought, but in this enigmatic expression there is a truth hidden. This is what we find in the epistle of John, because this relationship of children of God to the Father and the fellowship of the children of God with one another is something that will remain even in a time when the truth of the assembly is practically lost and unknown. But let us ever remember that the Lord said the gates of Hades would not prevail against the assembly (Matt. 16:18). Practically it has gone to ruin, but still we are all children of God and the fellowship one with another will remain even when the truth of the assembly is no longer well-known. We have to fall down before Him and admit this failure to our shame. May the Lord grant us during these days of conference that we may remember we are children of the Eternal God and may He fill our hearts with joy.
I remember a brother now with the Lord who loved to say, ‘There is no way for a creature to get closer to God than to become His own child, to have part in His nature.’ We remain creatures, we do not become God, but a creature cannot be closer to God than by becoming His own child, possessing the same life, the life of the Eternal God presented to us in the Eternal Son.
May the Lord by these few remarks raise our hearts to love the Lord Jesus more and more, and to enjoy His love more.
In his epistle John speaks of the light of God in chapters 1 and 2, of the love of God in chapters 3 and 4, and of His life in chapter 5. This is just a rough outline of this epistle which in itself is very difficult to divide. So may the Lord help us as we study this epistle to draw our hearts closer to Himself, that His Person, as with the apostle John, might be the Person of whose love we may be more and more convinced of, and filled with, for His glory and for our own blessing.