Studies in his Life and Writings
By W. H. Griffith Thomas
The stages of the progress of John the son of Zebedee are decidedly interesting and spiritually valuable. After having been called from the ranks of the disciples of John the Baptist to become a disciple of Jesus Christ, he was led into definite service in what may be called "the ministry" (Luke 5:1-11). Then from this work he was called to still more special service as an Apostle, and it is this that we must now consider.
1. The Purpose. — In the original choice of the Twelve by our Lord, we are told that he ordained them that they should be with him and that he might send them forth to preach (Mark 3:14). They were thus to be continually with him in close association, and, at the same time, to go forth on his service proclaiming his message. This is always Christ's purpose for his people, fellowship with him and work for him.
But the appointment of the Twelve was made for much wider reasons. They were definitely selected as one of the three main methods of proclaiming and extending the Kingdom of God. Our Lord was already preaching and teaching, and also working miracles, but the time had come for a fuller development which was to be realized in connection with the work of the Twelve as they went from place to place carrying their Master's message and reproducing their Master's power (Mark 3:15).
Even more than this, the Twelve occupy a unique position in the records of the New Testament (Eph. 2:20), for there can be little doubt that our Lord selected them with a view to the ultimate as well as to the immediate future. It is striking to notice the contrast between the Twelve and the Seventy in two successive chapters (Luke 9:1; 10:1). The Seventy were intended simply for temporary work, and we never hear of them again, while the Twelve were selected both for immediate service, and also for the purpose of being founders of the future Church. The latter point is clear from the words and action of the Apostle Peter, who considered it necessary for some one with proper qualifications to take the place of Judas and to be numbered among the Apostles (Acts 1:21-26). It is evident from this that only those who could fulfill the necessary conditions could be so numbered, and therefore the Apostles, as such, have no successors. They were necessarily unique in position, opportunity, and place.
2. The Possibility. — John and his brother James were named by Christ "Boanerges," which means "the sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17). This is usually regarded as a reminder of their past, and is thought to refer to their warm, enthusiastic nature, but it does not appear as though any reproach were intended, but only the reminder that their intensity should be utilized and developed in zeal for their Master's cause. As some one has well said, "When God makes a prophet, he does not unmake the man." It is a profound satisfaction to realize that Christ can utilize all that is good in our past and make it subserve the interests of his kingdom. Whatever may be the nature, and however varied the temperament and circumstances, Christ can use all, for there is room in his Kingdom for every possible variety. The Apostle Peter must have had this in mind when he spoke of the "many-colored grace of God" (1 Pet. 4:10, Greek).
3. The Plan. — The great work to be done by these Apostles was that of witnessing to Christ, "Ye shall be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8), and a true witness requires three qualifications — intelligence, candor, and disinterestedness. It is clear that the Apostle John had these features, for nothing could be more impressive than his intelligence, his frankness, and his utter disregard of self in all that he had to say concerning the Gospel. In this respect all Christians are called upon to "witness" for their Master. He has left this work to us, and it can only be done by those who have a personal knowledge and experience of Christ. The Apostle Peter, speaking with John at a later date, said, "We cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). When the soul is in close and constant touch with Christ the evidence will come out instinctively and inevitably in testimony to him and to his grace.
The one thing essential to this work of witnessing is the training that comes from personal experience. The Twelve, including John himself, were at first very narrow and shortsighted, but the great thing was that they were in the presence of Christ, and, as it were, surrounded by his influence. Devotion to him was the one thing necessary, and when this comes about it is blessedly true that there is an indefinite capacity for growth and expansion. We read of the old workers of David that "they dwelt with the king for his work" (1 Chron. 4:23), and it was the personal influence of the character of Christ that beyond all else made these men, and the Apostle John in particular, what they became. In this respect we may all be "Apostles," that is, those who are sent forth by Christ to do his work, and our power for him will be in exact proportion to our fellowship with him. Just as water never rises above its level, so the strength and character of our work will never be greater than our fellowship with the Lord.
N. B. — Those who desire to study more fully the various elements in the training of the Apostles should give special attention to "The Training of the Twelve," by Bruce, and "Pastor Pastorum," by Latham. There are also several more recent books dealing with the particular characteristics of the Apostles of Christ, of which "The Apostles as Everyday Men," by Dr. R. E. Thompson, and "He Chose Twelve," by Dr. J. Elder Cumming, may be instanced.
The position of John as one of the Twelve is still more interesting, because out of the Twelve our Lord selected three, of whom John was one, and on several occasions these three were given the privilege of special association with the Master in his work. We do not know exactly why Peter, James, and John were thus selected, but it is more than probable that Christ saw in them such exceptional possibilities that he felt he could and must concentrate upon them the special features of his training for future life and service.
John was one of the three who attended our Lord at the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:37). Perhaps this was to teach the great lesson that Christ is the Lord of death and life. At any rate, it is an attractive hypothesis that the prominence given in the writings of the Apostle John to "eternal life" may have been due to his close association with the Lord at the death bed of this young girl. It was essential that the disciples should learn, and learn quickly and deeply, the power of their Master over death, and the way in which John thought of death and its contrast, life, is seen in the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle, and is decidedly striking and impressive. Death is, fundamentally, separation, and is capable of three applications: physical death is the separation of the soul from the body; spiritual death is the separation of the soul from God; everlasting death, in the full sense, is the separation of soul and body for ever from God. Wherever the thought of **death" occurs in John's writings, one or other of these aspects of "separation" will be found. In contrast, there is the thought of life, fundamentally that of union, and again it is threefold: physical life is the union of body and soul; spiritual life is the union of soul with God (John 17:3); everlasting life, in the full sense, is union of soul and body with God for ever. Under one or other of these aspects the complete teaching of the Apostle on "life" can be gathered.
The Transfiguration was another occasion on which John, with Peter and James, was permitted to be in special fellowship with his Master. After the serious and sad conversation a week before about the Cross, it would seem as though a gloom had settled upon the disciples (Mark 8:31-38), and it was therefore necessary that the glory of Christ should be seen by those who were to proclaim him later on. And so. on the Mount of Transfiguration, Christ was transformed before them, and they were permitted to see his glory. He was glorified in person in a way which they had never realized before. In answer to Peter's impulsive suggestion about three tabernacles, the Divine Voice reminded them that Jesus Christ their Master was God's Son in contrast with Moses and Elijah, who were only servants. Then, too, they were permitted to understand something of their Master's glory in connection with the very Cross which had been a stumbling block in that conversation, for the two men, Moses and Elijah, were actually making this death die subject of their conversation (Luke 9:31). In the light of what happened a few months later on the Cross, and in the gift of the Holy Spirit, these three disciples would naturally realize the blessedness and glory of the death, from which they had otherwise shrunk as something- intolerable (Matt. 16:22).
In these special associations the three Apostles, and John in particular, would find their convictions deepened and strengthened. Truth always becomes confirmed in personal experience and fellowship, for it is only thus that intellectual conceptions can become permanent. Ideas alone may easily degenerate into speculation; they need experience in order to be, as it were, burnt in and made part and parcel of the life. In fellowship with their Master, these men saw light on many mysteries, and long years afterwards John, doubtless referring to the Transfiguration, though perhaps to the life of Christ as a whole, said, "We beheld his glory" (John 1:14).
And yet it is important to remember that there are many experiences too sacred for expression. We know practically nothing of what John felt as the result of this close association with his Master at the bedside of Jairus' daughter and on the Mount of Transfiguration. A true disciple always knows more than he can tell, and, as it has been well pointed out, an author is, of at least ought to be, far greater than his book. We would naturally like to know something of what happened on these special occasions, but, to use familiar words, "something sealed the lips of that Evangelist." Meanwhile, we are sure that, as the outcome of personal experience, Christ always becomes more real and precious to those who are In close fellowship with him. The half of what he is to his people cannot be told (1 Kings 10:7). But although it cannot be "told." It can be lived, and the closer our fellowship with Christ the more precious he will be to our own souls, and the more powerful will be our witness for him.
Thus, whether we think of the commission of John as one of the Twelve, or of his companionship as one of the Three, we are certain it was in close contact with Christ that he derived his knowledge and power, and it will be in the same real fellowship that we shall know and love and serve him today.