The Apostle John

Studies in his Life and Writings

By W. H. Griffith Thomas

Part 1. - The Life of the Apostle

Chapter 3


One of the most important points in the Christian life is the necessity of showing the young convert the duty of doing some work for him who has done so much for us. ''That we being delivered... might serve" (Luke 1:74). This was the next lesson to be learned by John. Although a disciple of Jesus Christ, it would seem clear that he returned home some time after the first interview with, and acceptance of, his new Master (John 1:36-39). But the time was at hand when he was to be called to definite work, and the occasion is recorded in three Gospels (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11). John and the others were now to be called from discipleship in general to specific ministry, and it is this ministry which we have to consider with special reference not only to John, but also to all disciples.

The work was that of soul winning, expressed by the figure "fishers of men." This has been rightly called "the greatest work of the world," for whether we think of non-Christian multitudes at home or unevangelized millions abroad, we cannot fail to see that the work of every individual Christian is first and foremost that of soul winning. Our Lord spoke of catching men alive (Luke 5:10, Greek), and it is significant that the only other phrase where the word is used refers to the power of Satan to take men alive (2 Tim. 2:26). There seems no real doubt that the proper rendering of this last passage refers to Satan, and not to the Christian worker.

It is important to give special attention to this turning point in the life of John, the son of Zebedee, by means of which he was led from the outer circle of discipleship to the inner circle of what may be termed "ministry." Along the lines of this subject emerge some great principles of Christian life and duty, which deserve earnest and constant consideration.

I. The Divine Purpose

Our Lord intended John to become a "fisher of men," to win men alive, and lead them into the sphere of fellowship with his Master. This is still the purpose of the Lord with every one of us, and as we consider what it meant for John, we shall be enabled to see what it means for us.

It is a definite service. We are called upon to deal with human beings, and are expected to "catch" them. Nothing short of this will suffice for our Master's work. We can see this among other things in the various titles given to the children of God in the New Testament. They are called "witnesses" (Acts 1:8). They are described as "ambassadors" (2 Cor. 5:20). They are designated "heralds" (1 Tim. 2:7, Greek). These titles clearly imply a distinct and pointed purpose, and we must not rest with anything short of definite results of service. Not merely are we to p'^it the message before men, but we must use means to lead them to accept the message, and to become disciples of Christ. The fisherman is never content with merely throwing out the line or the net. If he does not land some fish, he is not in any real sense a fisherman. It is recorded of a French doctor that, full of enthusiasm, he said he had operated upon eight people in connection with some very serious and complicated disorder. When asked how many lives he had saved, he replied, "Not one; but then, you see, the operations were so brilliant." This would never satisfy an ordinary medical man, and certainly in relation to things spiritual Christian men must never be satisfied with mere brilliance of testimony. It is for us *'by any means to save some." This is our definite work.

It is a difficult service. Men are not easily "caught." The power of sin is so great, and the character of sin is so varied; the self-will of man is so strong, the heart of man is often so far from God that the Christian fisherman finds it exceedingly difficult to catch the one for whom he is praying and striving. There is no work in its way so arduous and trying as that of endeavoring to save men from their sins and snatch them out of the hands of the Wicked One. Satan does not easily let go his prey, and whenever there are earnest endeavors on the part of Christian people to evangelize and win souls, there, it is perfectly certain, will be found the most intense opposition of the Devil. Soul winning is, indeed, a difficult work.

Yet it is a delightful service. Is there any joy in this world comparable with the bliss of leading an anxious soul to Christ? To hear the question, "What must I do?" to observe the evident interest and anxiety, to mark the genuine repentance, to see the eager acceptance of the Word of truth, and then to notice the soul surrendering to Christ and commencing to rejoice in his great salvation — all this is "joy unspeakable, and full of glory." It is the supreme felicity of life to be permitted to lead a soul into the presence-chamber of the King of kings.

II. The Divine Reminder

Our Lord spoke of his disciples "becoming fishers of men," and this clearly teaches the important lesson that such are not born, but made. The word "become" is in many respects one of the most interesting and suggestive in the New Testament, because it always implies a process and a progress. Thus the Apostle Paul urged the Christians at Corinth to "become" imitators of himself (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1). He also urged them not to ''become" children in their minds, but to "become" mature (1 Cor. 14:20). Many other passages in the New Testament similarly emphasize this idea of "becoming," always suggesting that the disciples were not then what they ought to be, but were to "become" so. Christians "become" fishers of men, and this implies that they are not originally qualified in this respect. What, then, does it mean to "become" a fisher of men, in what does the training consist? Perhaps if we consider some of the more important qualifications of ordinary fishermen, we may learn from them a little of what is needed in order that we may become fishers of men.

A fisherman needs watchfulness. Mark the alertness of the true fisherman; always on the lookout for fish, and for the best ways of catching it. So must it be with the true disciple of Christ, who wishes to win men for his Master. "They watch for your souls" (Heb. 13:17). "I have made thee a watchman" (Ezek. 3:17; 33:2-7; Acts 20:26, 28). The fisher of men must be eager and on the lookout for men. A clergyman once wrote to a friend, asking him whether he could recommend a curate, and said that he wanted a man "whose heart was aglow with the love of souls."

A fisherman needs patience. How wonderfully patient is the fisherman who remains hour after hour on the river bank, waiting for a bite. How utterly impossible it would be for him to fish with success unless he had this element of patience. Much more is this true of the servant of God who wishes to win men to Christ. "The servant of the Lord must be... patient" (2 Tim. 2:24, 26). Men are not always won at the first attempt, and any spirit of impatience will not only hinder the sinner from accepting Christ, but will hurt the worker's own soul. It will only be by prayerful patience that many a captive of the Evil One is rescued and brought to the feet of the Saviour. This patience will demand real strength and energy. The fisherman must be "instant in season, out of season" (2 Tim. 4:2), and persistently, prayerfully wait for every opportunity to lay hold of the one whom he desires to win for Christ.

A fisherman needs courage. Sea fishing in particular needs very great bravery and fearlessness. A fisherman often takes his life in his hands, and we know from our own fishing industry how many lives are lost in the prosecution of this daily task. So also fishing for men is by no means easy, and, as is well known, those who attempt it are often lacking in courage, and they do not find it any easier even after a long life of individual work. Dr. H. Clay Trumbull, one of the ablest and most earnest workers among individuals, has told us in his little work on the subject that he was as much afraid on the last occasion as on the first. Courage is, therefore, a pre-eminent requirement if we would persist in the work of soul winning.

A fisherman needs tactfulness. In the course of a day's fishing a man may often have to change his method, and also to use different kinds of bait. We also know that there are very great differences in fishing for various sorts of fish, and there are other diversities, according to locality and circumstance. All this suggests the need of tactfulness. When we think of spiritual fishing, tactfulness is one of the prime essentials. "The servant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves" (2 Tim. 2:24, 25). Men around us differ so widely in circumstance, character, temperament, and attitude to God that unless the Christian worker is characterized by tactfuhiess, he will often do more harm than good in his endeavors to win men for Christ. It is as true today as ever that "he that winneth souls is wise," and "he that is wise winneth souls" (Prov. 11:30). We need to know something of the devious ways of sinners, the different snares set by the enemy, and the precise aspects of Gospel truth best fitted to meet particular cases. All this requires and will demand tactfulness, wisdom, and discretion.

A fisherman needs self-forgetfulness. An old fisherman has said that one of the prime requirements of a true fisherman is that he should keep himself out of sight. This quality is pre-eminently necessary in the soul winner. His own individuality must be kept as far as possible in the background, in order that his Master may be first and foremost. There is always danger lest we attach men to ourselves instead of linking them on to Christ. At the King's levee there comes a point at which, after the introduction of 'the newcomer, the one who introduces him stands aside, his work being over. In like manner, in bringing a soul to Christ we carry the work to a certain point, and then stand back for the soul to have its own private and personal interview with the Master. "I labored... yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Cor. 15:10).

III. The Divine Promise

In case we should for a moment imagine that to "become" fishers of men is out of our power, the Lord gives to us, as he did to John, his own blessed assurance, "I will make you" (Mark 1:17). This is at once an indication that "God's biddings are enablings," and that our Lord never requires service without providing equipment.

Thus power for soul winning is possible. "I will make you." The Lord Jesus Christ is able and willing to equip us for the work of spiritual fishing. He himself was the, greatest of all soul winners in the days of his earthly ministry, and he is ready now to fit and prepare us for the same blessed work. Let this thought sink deep into our hearts; there is no reason whatever why every Christian should not be a soul winner. Here is the promise of the Lord Jesus Christ offering to prepare us for this blessed work. This should encourage us to believe in the possibility for each of us.

And power for soul winning is certain. "I will make you." This is one of the "I wills" of Christ, those gracious and blessed promises which are intended to encourage and hearten us for life and service. When Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour says "I will," he means it, and in special connection with soul winning we see the cheer and inspiration of such a promise, giving us a certain guarantee of strength and provision for the difficult task.

And power for soul' winning is blessed. To be fitted and equipped for this glorious work is surely a joy, a privilege, and a blessing. Christ our Master takes us into his school, trains us, teaches us, prepares us, and bestows upon us all needed grace and' wisdom, and then sends us out into the great ocean of the world, ready to "catch" men. There is surely nothing nobler, nothing more uplifting, nothing more glorious than to be equipped and commissioned by our Master to do "the greatest work in the world."

IV. The Divine Secret

It is now time for us to consider the precise requirements and conditions laid down for us in the Word of God with reference to the work of soul winning. We are already clearly aware of our duty to "catch" men. We have also seen some of the qualifications required in a spiritual fisherman. We have also been cheered and encouraged by the Master's promise that he will make us to become fishers of men. Now let us consider very carefully our attitude to him and the conditions required by him in order that we may be "thoroughly furnished unto all good works." The answer is found in the words, "Follow Me," "Come ye after Me." This is a very familiar message, but one that needs to be analyzed' into its constituent parts. What does it mean to follow, to "come after" Christ?

Trust him. To follow Christ means to depend upon him for grace, and the soul winner will never be of any service in. the kingdom of God unless he depends constantly and' entirely upon the grace of God to equip, guide, strengthen, and bless him in his labors.

Imitate him. Our Lord's life was a life of soul winning, and following him means doing as he did. A study of the Gospels will quickly reveal to us our Lord's wonderful dealing' with sinners, as, for example, in the story of the Woman of Samaria, will show some of the methods and secrets of the greatest of all soul winners. "Follow Me" means, among other things, "Imitate My example." As a soul winner, Christ's example is peerless.

Obey him. Following always includes and involves obedience, and, therefore, "Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it." The Lord is calling upon every one of us to do as much as we possibly can in the direction of soul winning. It is not sufficient, blessed though it is, to live a quiet, consistent life. This we must do. of course, but, in addition to this, there must be the testimony of the lip, and the endeavor, lovingly, yet aggressively, to win souls to the Master. And if we do not do it, our spiritual life will suffer, and we shall not be following our Master.

Abide in him. Following Christ is not only an act. but an attitude, one that covers a lifetime. Abiding in him means continual and ever-increasing fellowship. It implies living in his presence through faith, prayer, and the Word of God, and in this abiding fellowship with our Master- will come that force, freshness, fragrance, and fiber in spiritual life which will be the best possible means of attractiveness in soul winning. As water never rises above its level, so our work for God never rises above the level of our fellowship with him. We must "dwell with the King for his work," and in so doing we shall have his Spirit, his power, and his blessing.

As we continue to study the life of John, we see that at each stage he is being drawn closer to his Master, and enabled to learn more of that Master's will. Little by little it is being revealed to him what he is to be and to do, and whenever, like John, the believer is ready to "leave all and follow" Christ, the outcome is as certain as it is blessed. "Everything may be hoped of men who leave all for Christ. Where there is a noble soul, there is an indefinite capacity for growth" (Bruce, "The Training of the Twelve," p. 14).