John the apostle tells us that on the eve of his death, Jesus gathered his twelve disciples together around him and said:-
John 16: 7 – 13 Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but, if I go, I will send Him to you. When He comes, He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgement, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when He, the Spirit of Truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth.
Who was this John, and how did he come to hear the words of Jesus?
Our story begins in Matthew chapter 4. John and his brother James were sons of a Galilean fisherman called Zebedee and his wife Salome. They worked with their father in the fishing industry and in partnership with another fisherman called Simon, also known as Peter. Zebedee was a man of substance who hired extra labour to do the fishing for him and his family seemed to be part of the establishment in that they rubbed shoulders with Caiaphas the High Priest in Jerusalem. This relationship was to give John access to Jesus’ trial within the temple courtyard, whereas Peter was excluded and had to wait outside the door.
The scriptures tell us nothing about the religious background of Zebedee, although we do learn that Salome, Zebedee’s wife, was closely linked to Jesus and, in fact, had the courage, along with a few other women, to follow him even to the crucifixion itself (Matt 27: 56). The description of the women surrounding the cross (Matt 27: 56 and John 19: 25) and the comments from Jesus on the cross strongly suggest in many minds that Mary, Jesus’ mother and Salome were sisters. John and Jesus would then have been cousins in the flesh. While this is not certain, it is true that Salome was so concerned for the spiritual welfare of her sons, and had such faith in the authority of Jesus that she begged him that they might be allowed to sit at either side of his throne in the kingdom to come. This strongly suggests that Salome was a believer.
John’s call to be Jesus’ disciple coincided with the recruitment of James, John’s brother, and Peter and his brother Andrew, and occurred at the lakeshore in the town of Bethsaida as they were mending their nets (Matt 4: 18 – 22). The result of this was that Zebedee was left behind with the hired hands to keep the fishing business alive. It seems likely that John was among that early group of disciples who committed their future to Jesus and, as a result, followed him through Galilee and was spectator at the first miracle at the marriage in Cana (John 2 : 2). From there they travelled on south through Capernaum to the first Passover shared by the group in Jerusalem, where Jesus’ “zeal for the purity of his Father’s house consumed him” (Psl 69 : 9) and he hounded the marketeers from the temple precincts and stirred the Jewish hierarchy to fury for the first time (John 2). At that point, John, no doubt, realised that he had thrown in his lot with no ordinary man. In fact, he probably thought he saw in Jesus a kindred spirit as himself as far as zeal or fervour was concerned. Jesus himself nicknames James and John the “sons of thunder” exactly because of their intolerance. On one occasion they seemed to be prepared to burn a Samaritan village to ashes because it did not offer them hospitality as they were on their way to Jerusalem (Luke 9: 54); and on another they rebuked a man for casting out demons in Jesus’ name (Mark 9: 38) because he was not one of the twelve. Jesus gently rebukes their high spirits and narrow mindedness on both occasions.
Despite his apparent youthful exuberance and misdirected passion, John matured with age. He learned through time the merit of humility and was the only apostle who wrote in his gospel the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet; and by the time of the crucifixion, Jesus had enough confidence in the disciple whom he loved (most people think this was John) to turn the care of his mother over to him (John 19: 25), a charge that John fulfilled to the letter until she died. It is interesting that, as John took responsibility for Mary (? his aunt — see earlier), he, seemed to be the only grieving apostle who gathered with that small group of mourning women at the foot of the cross. At the end of his long and eventful life, his intolerance mellows to love. In his letters, “love one another” is one of his last commands (1 John 2). John’s life, then, serves to bring home several lessons to all of us, among which the most important must be that our zeal to bring the truth of the gospel to our neighbour must always be balanced by our love for those to whom we preach. Zeal without love is harsh and judgemental. Conversely, love without honesty about coming judgement simply ends up as gushing sentimentality. In everything, then, we need to speak the truth in love.
Following the commissioning of the twelve on the mountainside (Mark 3: 3), a particular closeness developed between John, his brother James, his business partner Peter and their master; and they commonly appear together at key events in the scriptures. This occurs, for example, at the recovery of Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever (Mark 1 : 29), at the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5: 35), at the transfiguration (Mark 9: 2), on the mount of Olives as they lamented over the city of Jerusalem (Mark 13: 3), at the preparation for the last supper (Luke 22: 8), at the arrest and trial before Caiaphas (John 18 :15) etc etc. So, it is not surprising that after Jesus’ departure, the bond between them remains firm. It is to Peter and John that Mary Magdalene runs with news of the empty tomb (John 20: 2);they both agreed, after the crucifixion, to return to the fishing (John 21: 3); they were together when the Lord appeared on the shore of Lake Galilee (John 21: 7), and after the Lord’s ascension, that bond continued. Together they saw his departure (Acts 1: 9), and were part of the committee that elected Matthias to replace the now dead Judas as one of the apostles. Together, Peter and John assembled in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2), together they went to pray at the temple (Acts 3), together they were involved in the healing of the crippled man at the temple gate; they were thrown together into jail. And then persecution began. James, John’s brother was executed by Herod (Acts 12: 2) and Peter was forced to flee from Jerusalem to escape the same fate at Herod’s hand. Fortunately, to the great relief of the church (Acts 12: 24), Herod succumbed to a worm infestation and died soon thereafter (Acts 12: 23).
Following on from these events , the focus of Luke’s narrative about the exploits of the early Christians(in the book we call the Acts) shifts to the life of Saul of Tarsus, his miraculous conversion, his time of seclusion and spiritual enlightenment, his missionary travels to Galatia in Asia Minor, and his ultimate return with his companion Barnabas to Syrian Antioch. But John and the Jerusalem church do not disappear altogether, and for reasons that turn out to be quite sinister. Because, a major problem, the scourge of the early church, raises its head in Antioch. The basic problem was that some formerly Jewish converts were peddling the false idea that any gentile believers required first to undertake a crash course in the Mosaic Law and then be circumcised before they could become Christians. The older converts in Antioch had all entered the faith through the synagogue, so this new restriction meant nothing to them. But, alarm bells immediately rang in Paul’s head. Many of the converts with whom Paul had been involved in the province of Galatia had had no previous link with Judaism, and Paul had placed no such legal restrictions upon them. To complicate matters, however, Peter, on a visit to Antioch, ate freely with the gentile believers without restraint which was as Paul thought it should be. But, when a number of Jewish believers arrived on the scene, Peter “withdrew and separated himself”, creating confusion in the minds of the gentile converts, triggering a rebuke from Paul, and threatening doctrinal division within the church. As a result, the whole question was referred back to the mother church in Jerusalem. Following a number of private interviews, Peter, Paul and Barnabas explained the basics of the case to the Jerusalem elders, John among them. From these discussions, James, the brother of Jesus, who was the senior bishop (or elder) presented his conclusions which were adopted by all in the Jerusalem church. Correspondence was then sent north to Antioch, and then on to Galatia, to the effect that no legalistic constraints should be placed on any believers, whether Jew or gentile. This consensual statement was among the last that we hear from John as an elder of the Jerusalem church and as part of the biblical narrative, although Paul commends John, James and Peter warmly in his letter to Galatia (Gal 2: 9) as the pillars of the Jerusalem church and as the purveyors of the gospel to the nation of Israel.
It is interesting to note that every historical reference to John the apostle in scripture comes from the synoptic gospels, from the early chapters of the Acts, from the short comment made by Paul to the Galatian churches, and, of course, in Revelation. Astonishingly, the fourth gospel (that we call the “Gospel of John”) from end to end never mentions John by name. But it does describe two unnamed individuals — the disciple whom Jesus loved and a certain “witness”. The beloved disciple appears six times in this book:-
- The beloved disciple, reclining beside Jesus at the last supper, is invited by Peter to ask the Lord who would betray him (John 13: 23).
- Later, at the crucifixion, Jesus passes his mother’s care into the hands of the beloved disciple (John 19: 26).
- When Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb, she runs back to tell Peter and the beloved disciple what she has found (John 20: 1 – 10).
- In John 21, the beloved disciple is one of the seven fishermen who are overwhelmed by the miraculous catch of fish.
- And again, in the same chapter, Jesus hints at how Peter will die, and Peter in turn asks what will happen to the beloved disciple.
- Finally, in the last few sentences of the book, the beloved disciple attests to the truth of everything written in it.
The question, then for all of us is whether this “beloved” one was John the apostle who put stylus to parchment to produce this gospel. That would be the conclusion which most commentators have reached. But, if John actually did write the gospel, rather than dictate its production, would he have had the temerity, the self-conceit, to say in broad daylight “Yes, I was his favourite; he loved me best of all”?
What, then, about this second individual in our narrative, the one we have called the “witness”? When we read of the spear being thrust into Jesus’ side at the time of his murder, drawing forth blood and water, there comes the comment:-
John 19: 35 He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true and he knows that he tells the truth.
And again, as we have already discussed, the whole book winds up with the comment that:-
John 21: 24 This is the (beloved) disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
Were John, the beloved disciple, and the one we call the “witness” all one and the same? It would seem so, but whether it was this John who wrote his gospel and letters in his own hand or dictated the text to another ( mysteriously called “John the elder”) is still an open question.
John’s Gospel and the synoptic texts (Matthew, Mark and Luke)
In our previous discussions (see “John Mark” and “Matthew the Taxman”) we concluded that John Mark, probably with guidance from Peter, described the deeds of Jesus in the gospel he wrote. Matthew, on the other hand, focused on the words and teachings of Jesus. The gospel ascribed to John goes a step beyond deeds and words.
Mark’s gospel overflows with descriptions of miracles, and miracles are a key part of his writing. In distinction, John’s gospel describes only seven miracles, five of which are unique to the book, and to none is ascribed the term “miracle”. “Sign” is considered a perfectly adequate term, downplaying the miraculous nature of the event itself and ascribing that supernatural capability to Jesus.
So, he feeds thousands from a few scraps of bread and fish and immediately afterwards describes himself as the bread from heaven upon whom the whole world should feed.
He restores sight to a man who was blind from birth, reinforcing his subsequent claim that he is the light of the world.
He raises Lazarus from the dead, proof that he indeed is to the world what he claimed to be —-the resurrection and the life —- and then confirmed that by rising from the tomb on the third day after his crucifixion.
John’s “signs” therefore are not meant to be the main focus of the story, but simply underscore the supernatural nature of the character of Jesus, the character of one who calls himself on seven occasions in the gospel of John “I AM” or “YAWEH” in Hebrew. To put it another way, every action of Jesus, every miracle he performed as recorded in Mark’s gospel is there for our wonderment. In John’s gospel, on the other hand, these “signs” are instead a window that allows us to glimpse the fundamentals of Jesus’ very essence. Jesus’ deeds are not just wonderful, they also reveal vistas that allow humanity to catch a flash of the basic nature of God.
Just as Matthew’s gospel expanded the deeds of Jesus with a detailed commentary on his teaching, so does the gospel of John. But John is not satisfied to quote the saviour’s words and stop there. He widens them into long discourses and adds his interpretation to them in order to amplify, elaborate and refine Jesus’ meaning. He does this, presumably:-
John 20: 31 that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
John’s gospel, then, is remarkably different from the other gospels. It reflects the insights of the man who was closest to the Messiah in his life. Mark wrote in his gospel about what we believe Peter had seen of the deeds of Jesus with his eyes; Matthew wrote of what he heard Jesus teaching; but John’s gospel goes one step further by providing an interpretation of what the life of Jesus meant in relation to the character of his Father. Mark, if you like, was the cameraman, Matthew was the sound engineer, but John was the film producer. John saw the need for a permanent record to be made of the deeds and words of Jesus, but to him these facts fell short of the full story. John fused Jesus’ deeds with his words, co-ordinated and harmonised them and produced a gospel that unifies Father and Son, a gospel that has become the jewel in the crown of the New Testament. Surely, as the words flow, as he tries to equate the character of Jesus with the very being of YAWEH, the essence of God Himself, he must have remembered how Jesus had said:-
John 16: 12 I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.
This book, of all the gospels, most clearly bears the stamp of that Spirit of Truth.