Studies in his Life and Writings
By W. H. Griffith Thomas
There are few things more interesting than the study of biography. To trace a career from start to finish, to note the various features, circumstances, and crises, to discover the springs of character and the secret of power, to follow the course of a life from its opening to its close — all this is at once fascinating and profitable. It is probable that the vital interest of the New Testament is largely due to the fact that it is so definitely concerned with life, with human problems, needs, sins, weaknesses, conquests, blessings.
Of the lives recorded in Scripture there are none more truly valuable than those of the Apostles of our Lord, because their association with Christ gave them exceptional opportunities of development and progress. Of these apostolic lives it is probable that not one is more important than that of the Apostle John, because of his very intimate fellowship with his Master. In these studies an attempt will be made to look at the various circumstances and stages of his career with special reference to the development of his spiritual life.
In John 1:37-41. we are given certain hints of the way in which he commenced his discipleship to Christ, but it will be well to try to discover something of his antecedents in order that we may become more fully acquainted with the man and his subsequent life as a follower of Christ.
1. His name, John, corresponds to the Old Testament Jonah, which means "a dove," and although it would be going too far to say that the name had anything to do with his character, it is hardly possible to avoid noticing the dove-like elements in this apostle of love.
2. His age when first we see him is unknown, but there are certain circumstances which seem to suggest that he was quite young, and certainly the youngest of the twelve apostles. Thus, on running to the tomb of Christ (John 20:4), John outran Peter, as though he were able to do so by his youth. Then, too, his youth would readily explain the special relation that he bore to Jesus Christ, which was apparently accepted by the other disciples without any feelings of jealousy. It has also been suggested that his youthfulness will probably account for the difference between his Gospel and the other three, since his impressionableness would enable him to receive and assimilate the teaching of Christ in a way impossible to older men, whose intellectual habits had become firmly fixed.
3. His relatives are mentioned. His father was Zebedee; his mother Salome, who may have been a sister of the mother of our Lord (Mark 15:40; John 19:25). His brother was James, and from the fact that the two are always described as James and John, James would seem to have been the elder of the two.
4. His work was that of a fisherman, and his usual sphere of labor was on the Lake of Galilee, near his home.
5. His position was probably one somewhat better than that of an ordinary fisherman, because we read of the servants of Zebedee, his father.
6. His character may perhaps be indicated by the name given to him and his brother by our Lord: they were called "Sons of Thunder," a term which is usually considered to express their earnestness, zeal, and enthusiasm.
7. His religion. He was a follower, and, indeed, a close disciple, of John the Baptist, from which we may infer that he was an earnest, thoughtful, pious Jew, who had been impressed by the preaching of the great forerunner of Christ, and had thrown in his lot with those who were thus being prepared for the advent of the Messiah.
We may now look at the circumstances of his conversion. It is always interesting to see something of the way in which a man finds Christ. While there are many ways, there is but one goal, and the story of John's conversion is not without its practical value for us today.
1. As a disciple of the Baptist, he heard his master's testimony to Jesus Christ as "the Lamb of God." How far this led his mind back to Old Testament times and truths it is impossible to say, but it is clear that some special thought must have arisen in John's mind as he heard the reference to Jesus Christ as "the Lamb of God." This was not the first time that the forerunner had proclaimed Jesus Christ in this way, for the day previous he had said, "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). In this there may have been an allusion to the Passover Lamb, and also to the prophetic word concerning the Messiah (Isa, 53:7). If so, it would speak of sin and of sacrifice provided by God to remove the sin. This message is the very heart of the Christian Gospel, and the theme of the preacher should always, in one way or another, be that of "the Lamb of God." We can see the importance of this as we contemplate other parts of the Bible in which the two truths of sin and sacrifice are emphasized (Acts 8:32; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:6). 2
2. This testimony of the Baptist influenced John to leave his old teacher and to follow Jesus. It is significant that such a proclamation should have this effect, and it is a reminder of what has often since happened through the attractive power of Christ: "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me" (John 12:32). Happy the preacher and happy the hearer who find their theme and their attraction in the atoning death of our Lord and Saviour.
3. He inquired about Jesus as the result of the act of following. When our Lord turned and beheld him and the other disciple following, he asked them what they were seeking, and they replied, "Teacher, where dwellest thou?" This spirit of inquiry marked their interest in Christ, and when our thoughts have been turned to him, especially as the Lamb of God, it is natural and inevitable that we shall want to know something more of our Lord's presence and work.
4. The outcome of this inquiry was an invitation, which was accepted. "He saith unto them. Come and see." They came, therefore, and saw where he dwelt, and they abode with him that day. The personal invitation of Christ to the soul is noteworthy here, as always, and the response of the soul is equally important. Our Lord's "Come and see" is met by an acceptance and a stay with Christ that day. The result was that by his contact with Jesus Christ John became convinced that he was indeed "the Lamb of God."
5. The next day John set out to find his brother. This seems to be clearly implied by the references to Andrew. "He findeth first his own brother Simon." This is understood to imply that John in like manner found his own brother, his elder brother, James, and brought him to Jesus. It was a beautiful and yet very simple testimony. "We have found the Messiah." This was all, but it was sufficient. There was no argument, no elaborate reasoning, but a simple witness based on personal experience: "We have found." And then, with equal simplicity, we read, "he brought him unto Jesus." Mark how personal it is: ''he brought him."
From all this we are enabled to see the characteristics of every "true conversion. Whatever may be the precise method, there are certain essential facts which are true in every case.
1. Conversion is a personal relation to Jesus Christ. As the late Earl Cairns was so fond of saying, "Conversion is a personal transaction between the soul and God." The testimony of John the Baptist led to John the son of Zebedee seeking Jesus Christ and coming into association with him. Thus his conversion was due to contact with Christ, the touch of soul with soul.
2. This personal relation to Christ necessitated a definite step — that of inquiry, trust, and obedience. When Jesus Christ invited John to "come and see," the invitation was accepted, and in this act of intelligent confidence we see the initial stage of every genuine conversion. The soul must be willing to venture in response to the invitation of Christ, and when this definite step is taken the result is always sure.
3. The immediate outcome was a new attitude expressed in new activities. The personal experience of Jesus Christ immediately led John to endeavor to make known to his brother what he had received, so that the latter might share in the new-found interest and joy. This is a sure mark of definite conversion, the desire to let others know, the longing that others may share in that which has become so precious to us.