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The Apostle John And His Writings

I.The Life of the Apostle John

Eugene P. Vedder Jr.


The topic I intend to speak on this weekend is the life and writings of the apostle John. John was the author of five books in Scripture, the Gospel of John, the three Epistles of John and the Revelation. It is usually assumed that John was a young man, perhaps the youngest of the apostles when the Lord called him to follow Him. We have no definite word in Scripture as to that but he lived into the AD 90s (the Revelation is often dated at AD 96) and so he must have been a very old man by this time.

Firstly I want to look at the life of the apostle John, then at the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John and finally the Revelation of Jesus Christ which He gave through His servant John.

John, A Mature Believer Conformed to the Mind of God, Contemplating the Lord Jesus

In speaking of the life of John I want to start with some words he wrote toward the end of his very long life that characterize his whole life from start to finish.

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we have contemplated His glory, a glory as of an only-begotten with a father), full of grace and truth; (John bears witness of Him, and he has cried, saying, This was He of whom I said, He that comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me;) for of His fullness we all have received, and grace upon grace. For the law was given by Moses: grace and truth subsists through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the Only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him."   (John 1:14-18).

As far as we know all John's writings were written when he was a very elderly man and so this was written sixty to seventy years after John began to follow the Lord Jesus. I deliberately read from the J.N.Darby translation for its accuracy here. I like this word 'contemplated' here in the first parenthesis, "We have contemplated His glory, a glory as of an only-begotten with a father". In our society today everything is fast and since the advent of television they say that children's attention span has decreased quite a bit. They say the programming for children's television has to move along very swiftly. But Scripture speaks of contemplating, contemplating the glory of the Lord Jesus. To contemplate is more than simply to look at something, it is to spend time looking at something while thinking about it. John says this in retrospect about the Lord Jesus, "we have contemplated His glory". John spent his many years on this earth after the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus very much occupied with the Lord Jesus and His glory, he "contemplated His glory, a glory as of an only-begotten [literally 'from with'] a father".

The Word was with the Father and He came from the Father into this world. The term "only-begotten" is used in reference to rank and to importance in Scripture for it speaks of Isaac as Abraham's "only begotten son" (Heb.11:17) when Abraham had an older son in point of time, Ishmael; but Isaac was the son that God had chosen for pre-eminence. If a man has only one son and this son is of greatest importance to him there exists a closeness between them and then the son comes to represent the father, this is something special, the son is not then just one of the family. This is really what we have here, "We have contemplated His glory, a glory as of an only-begotten [from with] a father".

The Lord Jesus is "the Word". A word is the expression of a thought and so "the Word" is the expression of the mind of God. The Lord Jesus did not just say "Thus saith the Lord", He did not just tell forth the mind of God, but He Himself was the full expression of God; He is God. "The Word became flesh" and John was still enjoying the wonder of it, 'To think, He came here and lived! He dwelt among us! and we have contemplated His glory!"

John then mentioned John the Baptist's witness to the Lord Jesus, "This was he of whom I said, He that comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me, for of His fullness we all have received, and grace upon grace". As we look at the life of the apostle John we will see a reason for his appreciating "grace upon grace". I think that all of us who have come to know the Lord Jesus, who have learned and experienced His grace, appreciate that it is "grace upon grace", it is not only an initial dose but constant grace.

"For the law was given by Moses: grace and truth subsists through Jesus Christ". Grace and truth is always the order in which we find these two terms in Scripture, never do we read of truth and grace. This subsists, it has its being, through Jesus Christ. There could not be grace and truth without the Lord Jesus.

"No one has seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him". John wrote in this way not merely because the Lord Jesus had ascended and gone back to the glory. The expression "in the bosom of the Father" speaks of His enjoying the affection of the Father and this was ever the case with the Lord Jesus. Even in those three hours on the cross when He was the sin-bearer He did not cry out "My Father, My Father, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" but "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34). So the only-begotten Son is "in the bosom of the Father" and He has declared Him.

This is my starting point for looking at the life of the apostle John. These are John's words as a mature, old brother who had come to know the Lord Jesus in His youth, who had walked with Him, who had observed Him, who had considered what He had observed, who had contemplated the Lord Jesus for perhaps sixty-five years; he wrote from this perspective.

It was not an account written when he was a young man following the Lord but it was written with the maturity that came from a real reflection, a real contemplation, a real enjoyment of the Lord Jesus. I say this from the human side, for John's writings (as is Scripture as a whole), are inspired of God (1 Tim.3:16). We always have to see these two sides as parallel. God told him what to write, but what he wrote is the fruit of his contemplation of the Lord Jesus and when we read these words here we can see why John did not mention his own name, he did not put himself into prominence. The only book where he mentions his own name is the Revelation, but always in his writings John focuses on the Lord Jesus. He sets Him before us so that if he refers to himself in the Gospel he refers to himself usually by what he was in relation to the Lord Jesus - "the disciple whom Jesus loved". He had learnt to appreciate the love of the Lord Jesus. Sometimes he referred to himself as "the other disciple". He preferred to stay in the background and let others (particularly the Lord Jesus) have the place of prominence.

John, the Fisherman

The disciples (with the probable exception of Judas Iscariot) were all Galileans. They are referred to again and again as Galileans, and Peter is even told that his speech gave him away; the Galilean accent was well known. So John was from Galilee, called "Galilee of the nations" (Matt.4:15). The people there were a mixed people and being mixed they were looked down on by the Jews from Judea and Jerusalem where the Temple was.

So John started life with a bit of a handicap. He was the son of Zebedee and his mother is also referred to in several places. If you compare the accounts of the women who stood at the cross of the Lord Jesus in the Gospels of John and Mark there is real reason to believe that his mother's name was Salome and that she was one of the women there. John's Gospel gives us three names of women at the cross and mentions one to be the sister of Mary the mother of the Lord Jesus. Mark's Gospel mentions Salome as one of the women and it would be strange if two sisters each had the first name Mary which would be the only other way to understand the reference in John if Salome is not this one, but if Salome is indeed the mother of James and John then she is also the sister of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus, so that humanly speaking it may well be that the apostle John was a half-cousin to the Lord Jesus. I just mention this in passing. It is not that we want to build on this, because Scripture does not build on it, but it is interesting to see the connection.

John, the Younger Brother

John is usually mentioned in the Gospels in connection with his brother James and usually James is mentioned first. One finds in looking at the life of the apostle John that he was usually the one in the background. If there are two it may be "Peter and John" or "James and John" or if there are three, "Peter, James and John". It seems that John was happy to play second fiddle (and it is said that this is the hardest instrument to play). Most of us find this place that John took difficult. By nature we like to have a place of prominence.

John's family had a successful fishing business. The reason I say this is that when the Lord called James and John they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants (Mark 1:20), and the business evidently went on under Zebedee's leadership. Scripture definitely mentions James and John as business partners with Peter and Andrew (Luke 5) and in John 18 it mentions that he was known to the high priest.

John, the Disciple of John the Baptist

John was evidently a seeking soul. John the Baptist was preaching repentance, "Prepare the way of the Lord" and the disciple John was one of those who had followed him. He was present when John the Baptist looking at Jesus as he walked said, "Behold the Lamb of God". Immediately John and the other disciple followed Jesus. John at this time was a disciple of John the Baptist.

He had been in earnest about his own spiritual need, about his own condition, and he had gone to hear and had given heed to the message that God was giving through this messenger and when this messenger pointed him to the Lord Jesus he followed Him. As far as Scripture speaks of this it was John's first contact with Jesus (if there was relationship according to the flesh Scripture does not build on it and so we should not either).

It seems that after this first contact in John 1 and perhaps chapter 2 John may have gone back to the fishing business for in Mark 1, Luke 5 and Matthew 4 we find these disciples called to follow the Lord Jesus while they were at the seaside. This was something more than the initial contact. According to Luke 5 the Lord borrowed Peter's boat one day. Now He knew Peter, indeed He had named him (John 1:42), in other words He had staked out a claim on him, but Peter had gone back to his fishing. Then one day the Lord borrowed Peter's boat, used it for a pulpit and then paid him richly telling him to launch out and let down his nets. Peter, dropping down one net intending to prove that he knew better than a carpenter how to fish, found that he was not able to pull in all the fish that the Lord had sent into his net. He beckoned to his partners James and John and they came and there was a tremendous load so that both boats began to sink under the weight of the catch. It was shortly after this that the Lord called them to be His followers. Mark l does not mention the incident about the great catch of fish but mentions that James and John were mending their nets when the Lord called them to follow Him.

John, the Son of Thunder

The Lord re-named some of His disciples, and the name that He gave to James and John was Boanerges, meaning 'Sons of thunder'. This would seem to describe their character. When we read the writings of John we do not think of him as a son of thunder but it comes out in some of the other Gospels how hot-blooded and jealous he was by nature.

- In Luke 9 John came to the Lord very perturbed saying, "Master, we saw some one casting out demons in thy name, and we forbad him, because he follows not with us" (v.49), and the Lord rebuked him.

- A little later on in the chapter they were going through Samaria to Jerusalem and the Lord sent some of His disciples ahead to make reservations for the group that were following. But when they came to a Samaritan village, the villagers, seeing that they were headed for Jerusalem, said that there was no room there. Then James and John together said to the Lord (being right in the area were Elijah had been when the king three times sent a captain of the guard with fifty soldiers to arrest him), "Lord, wilt Thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?" (v.54). Again the Lord rebuked them. From these incidents we conclude that this was what John was by nature. The Lord had to tell them "the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them."

John in his life learnt to curb that 'son of thunder' disposition. Eventually he was the disciple whom the Lord could use to write about love and about loving one another. He learnt to appreciate the love of the Lord Jesus.

John was one of the three disciples whom the Lord took with Him when He did not take the whole group. Peter, James and John were taken up the mount of transfiguration and also into the room when Jairus' daughter was raised and so on. John was also ambitious and self-confident. We usually think of Peter in that way, but when Peter said that if everyone denied the Lord he would not, "so said they all", and somewhat previously when, with their mother, James and John came to the Lord and asked Him for the highest places for themselves the Lord spoke about the cup which He had to drink, and could they do the same? They thought they could, they were confident of that. Well, John was learning as we all do by fits and starts. He was intimate with the Lord one moment and arguing with his fellow disciples the next about the place they were going to have.

John, the Disciple whom Jesus Loved

In Luke 22 we find the Lord sending Peter and John to prepare the Passover. As we go on through the life of John we often find him associated with Peter. Later on in this chapter, "they began to question together amongst themselves who then it could be that was about to do this [to betray the Lord]. And there was also a strife amongst them which of them was to be the greatest" (vv.23-24). So right up until the night on which the Lord was crucified they were still arguing which of them should be the greatest. Yet the same night, thank God, we find in his Gospel, in chapter 13, that he was leaning on the breast of Jesus. "There was at the table one of His disciples in the bosom of Jesus whom Jesus loved . he leaning on the breast of Jesus says to Him, Lord who is it?" (vv.23, 25). It is beautiful and it is an encouragement to know that on the very same night when they had been arguing which of them should be the greatest John could be leaning on the bosom of the blessed Lord Jesus, but it is a discouragement to realize that on the very night that he was that close to the Lord Jesus he and the others could still be arguing which of them should be the greatest. Are we not like this? We learn by fits and starts. Often those things which are absolutely inconsistent one with the other are found side by side in our lives.

At Gethsemane John was one of the three disciples that the Lord took a little further than the others and asked them to watch with Him, but he fell asleep. John was one of whom the Lord expected a little more. A few hours before he had been leaning on His breast, had been in His bosom, and yet John, (and I suppose we can all say this) was not able to come up to the Lord's expectation that night. When the Lord was betrayed and arrested He submitted to it, allowing Himself to be led away. They all forsook Him and fled. That was the initial reaction because later on we find that John followed and Peter also followed at a distance. John came to the high priest's palace and he, being known, was admitted, and a little later Peter arrived and while at the gate, on John's word, he was let in. Peter then got himself into tremendous difficulty. John apparently witnessed the trial of the Lord Jesus and, while we do not read that he stood at His side or that he raised his voice in defense of his Lord, at least he was there. I am sure that this in itself was appreciated by the Lord Jesus.

At the cross John was the only disciple mentioned as being there although there were several women including the mother of the Lord Jesus, John's mother (if Salome was indeed John's mother), Mary Magdala, and Mary the mother of Clopas and John. Then the Lord Jesus, during those first three hours, turned to His mother and said, referring to John, "Woman, behold thy son!" and to John he said, "Behold thy mother!" and we read, "And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home" (John 19:27). The Lord committed His mother to John's care and John rose to the occasion. This was a responsibility that John took on himself for the rest of Mary's life.

In John 20 when Mary Magdalene came with the news of His resurrection Peter and John ran to the tomb, John outstripped Peter and got there first but Peter, the bold one, actually went into the tomb to check out the report. Then John writes, "Then entered 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" (vv.8-9). This was when John really believed the resurrection. Then he was one of the ten when the Lord appeared in their midst that evening and then a week later the Lord appeared when Thomas was with them also. Yet in chapter 21 we find that when Peter said "I go fishing" John was one of those who went with him. Six disciples followed Peter at that time, among them James and John, but John was the first one to detect who the stranger on the shore really was. He said, "It is the Lord" and "that disciple therefore whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Lord". He did not say, "It is Jesus" but "the Lord", and at the end of the chapter following Peter asked, "What shall this man do?" about the one who was following the Lord.

John, the Apostle

At Pentecost John was one of the one hundred and twenty who were together in the upper room upon whom the Holy Spirit came. When the crowd gathered wanting to know what was happening, we read that Peter, standing up with the eleven, preached the gospel to them. Peter did the preaching that day; the others stood with him backing him up. It is beautiful to see from the resurrection of the Lord Jesus onward that the strife for supremacy amongst the disciples was gone. Subsequent to the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus in Acts 1 we find a togetherness amongst the apostles.

In Acts 3 Peter met a lame man at the gate of the temple and John was again with him. They were working together, for "at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established" (Deut. 19:15). It is good for two to work together and John and Peter were working together there. Later the apostles sent Peter and John to Samaria after Philip had preached there because the Samaritans had not yet received the Holy Spirit. There they laid hands on them, prayed for them, and they received the Holy Spirit and in this way a potential division amongst Christians was averted. The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans and the Samaritans were glad to reciprocate. This ill-feeling could have developed into a 'Jewish' church at Jerusalem and a separate 'Samaritan' church in Samaria if the Spirit of God had not come in in this way, if He had not refrained from coming upon the Samaritans directly. Peter, and John, who previously had asked if he could call fire down from heaven upon the Samaritans, were sent by the Holy Spirit to pray for them that they should receive the Holy Spirit. We do not find any resistance on John's part at that point. It was part of the work the Lord had given him to do.

We find in Acts 8 that once this had happened, "they [Peter and John] therefore having testified and spoken the word of the Lord returned to Jerusalem and announced the glad tidings to many villages of the Samaritans" (v.25). John had got so close to the Lord that now the very people whom he was once willing to call down fire from heaven upon he now evangelized. His brother James was the first of the apostles to lose his life for the Lord's sake (Acts 12). After this we read of another James coming into the picture and in Galatians 2 we find that Cephas (Peter), James and John are pillars in the assembly in Jerusalem.

It was not that John had advanced one notch. The Lord had put James in ahead of him: the order is actually James, Cephas and John. John did not mind taking a back seat. We appreciate brethren who are like that. He was one of the pillars in the assembly at Jerusalem and he gave the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas according to the service that God had given him. John was not striving for a position for himself, he was ready to recognize the grace of God in others and the service that God had given others who were not part of the select twelve. There was one whom God had called in a different way for a different service, but he gave to this man the right hand of fellowship. It was not now "We forbade him because he does not follow us". Paul had a different ministry but John extended the right hand of fellowship to him.

The Lord said to Peter, and this was recorded at the end of John's Gospel, "If I will that he abide until I come, what is that to thee?" (21:22), and many have taken from this (and I believe rightly so) that the writings of the apostle John are particularly relevant in the time immediately before the Lord comes. The other disciples misinterpreted this statement and there were those who said, 'John is not going to die', but he said, 'That is not what the Lord said. He said, "If I will that John remains until I come, Peter, what business is that of yours?"' So when we quote or use the word of God it is important that we quote it accurately and use it for the purpose that God has given it.

We are not sure at what time the apostle John left Palestine, Judea or Jerusalem, but if he had not left before, certainly after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, he had. Church history tells us that John eventually spent the majority of his time in and around Ephesus until he was exiled to the isle of Patmos where the Lord used him to write the letters to the seven churches and the entire book of the Revelation. Ephesus was the main city of the Roman province of Asia which is a small part of what is now Turkey, so John would have been personally acquainted with the surrounding assemblies too.

John, the Writer

We are not told how long he was on Patmos "for the word of God and the testimony" as a very aged man, but it may well have been a year or more. Patmos is a very rocky island off the coast of Turkey. The sun beats down upon it and it is hot. Nothing grows very well there. The Roman emperor Domitian thought he had silenced John, but from that place the Lord has given us a book without which Scripture would not be complete. We are not told the order of John's five books although we find his commission to write in the Revelation. I do not know, but it may have been that he wrote his other writings afterwards. All the evidence shows that all his books were written when he was a very aged man.

The Revelation presents to us the ultimate victory of the Lord Jesus. When things in the world and the professing church seem so bad and, indeed, are getting worse, it is a great encouragement to see that the final outcome is going to be wonderful - it will be triumphant and it will be to His glory. Scripture would not be complete without the Revelation.

One of the church fathers wrote of the apostle John that when he got to be very old he was not able to go to meetings unassisted and brethren had to carry him there. He was not able to give ministry as he once had, but he would come to the meetings and simply say, 'Little children, love one another'. That is the ultimate application of John's ministry for Christians, "Little children, love one another". His ministry is filled with Christ; its application is for us. He writes as the affectionate elder.