The Apostle John

Studies in his Life and Writings

By W. H. Griffith Thomas

Part 1. - The Life of the Apostle

Chapter 5


A disciple is always intended to be, as the word indicates, a learner. Lessons are needed all through life. This was especially the case with the Twelve Apostles, and in particular with the Apostle John. Even after the privileges of the Transfiguration there were many things to learn before he could be all that his Master desired him to be. We must now notice some of the dangers to which the Apostles were liable, dangers that were likely to imperil their influence and give a wrong impression of their Master.

I The Peril of Narrowness

In Luke 9:49 we have the record of an experience in the life of the Apostle John which calls for special attention. Our Lord had just spoken (v. 48) of receiving a little child in his "Name," and it would seem as though this reference prompted John to think of an incident which had occurred apparently not long before, for he said, "Master, we saw one casting out demons in thy name." "In the name" always means "by the authority," and based upon the character. The "Name" of God invariably refers to his nature as revealed, and not to any mere title attri1)uted to him. The many passages in the Old Testament referring to "The Name of the Lord" invariably have this meaning of God's nature and character, while in the New Testament the allusions to our Lord's "name" (John 14:14) mean exactly the same thing, his revelation of himself with the authority and power associated with it. The person to whom John- referred was some one who had been using Christ's "name" or authority in casting out demons, and this was enough for the Apostle to rebuke and forbid him on the ground that he was not among the recognized followers of Jesus Christ: "We forbad him because he followeth not us." But Jesus rebuked his disciple, and said: "Forbid him not, for he that is not against you is for you" (v. 50).

In these words the Lord taught his follower the serious danger of narrowness in religion. It is clear that the man was not undervaluing Christ, or he would not have been casting out demons in Christ's name. The trouble seems to have been that he did not recognize the necessity and importance of fellowship with the disciples, and on this ground he had been rebuked by John. This is, perhaps, a hint about the danger of selfishness in religion: "He followeth not with us" It is only too possible to become so concerned with our own/ position and importance in relation to Christ as to regard our cause as identical with his.

But can we get beneath the surface and account for this ebullition of narrowness? What was the explanation? It is often suggested that we have in this an illustration of that want of balance in the Christian life which takes various forms according as particular elements of our nature are affected. Thus, it has been shown that when the conscience is lacking in knowledge the danger of fanaticism arises; when the intellect is wanting in experience the peril of dogmatism is seen; and when the will is short of love the risk of tyranny is evident. So that where narrowness takes the form of fanaticism or dogmatism or tyranny, the result is a want of proper intellectual, moral, and spiritual balance, which cannot but affect character, and then influence for evil whatever we may say and do for Christ. The Apostle John doubtless thought he was vindicating his Master's honor, and the fanatic, or the dogmatician, or the tyrannical person may have the same idea, while in reality the work of the Lord is being hindered. There is scarcely anything more subtle than the way in which the "old Adam'' often colors our testimony. We feel compelled to be faithful, and we make our protest accordingly, but all the while our own personal feeling — it may be of severity, or even of anger — enters in and spoils our testimony, and gives' people a wrong impression of ourselves and of our Master.

As we ponder this incident, it is important to consider some of the practical truths arising out of it which are continually necessary for our life and service. The first of these is that we may be perfectly certain that work such as here described — that of casting out demons — necessarily has the sympathy of our Lord Jesus Christ. We hear today a great deal about "philanthropy," and this, as Archbishop Benson once characteristically defined it, is "man-lovingness." The love of man as man is essentially true, right, and beautiful, and whenever the effort is made to help our fellows we may be perfectly certain that our Lord approves. There are many "demons" today, as ever, and if they are cast out we ought to rejoice, especially when the work is done in our Master's name.

Another point of great importance, as we read this story, is the reminder that all who work along right lines, casting out demons in the name of Christ, are really one body. The man in doing the work in Christ's name was definitely associated with the Master, whether he knew it or not. It is a useful reminder that our company is not the only one Christ has, and any idea of rebuking a man "because he followeth not with us" is apt to lead to spiritual pride and self-sufficiency. Just as there are hints in the Old Testament of the true worshipers of God outside the chosen people, so we must never limit the followers of Christ to those who belong to the organized company of his disciples with which we happen to be associated. We may go still further, and observe that the spirit of our Master may be outside our own company, and a very opposite spirit be within it. The tone and temper of the Apostle at this time were obviously much more dangerous to truth, life, and morality than anything the other man had been doing, and it is only too possible today to show a spirit of narrowness, haughtiness, and even bitterness, which will do immense harm to the cause of Christ.

Under these circumstances, we should try to see the good in what other people are doing, and at the same time endeavor to win them to a true Christian unity. It is a constant problem with individual Christians how to combine the extensiveness of sympathy with intensity of conviction. Our principles ought to be part of ourselves, and to go as deep down as possible; but our sympathies should he as wide as they can stretch, extending everywhere, so long as real good is being done. The danger of depth alone is narrowness, and the danger of breadth alone is shallowness. It is for us to seek to blend and harmonize these two principles, so that we may be as narrow as God's truth and as wide as God's love.

Then, too, it is important to remember that outward unity is not adequate as a test of real discipleship. We may have outward and visible unity at the expense of purity and truth. Unity is consistent with the greatest possible variety, and the more we insist upon outward and visible unity, the greater our danger of confusing unity with uniformity. The fact that a man "followeth not with us" is no necessary proof that he does not follow Christ, and the familiar words are as applicable today as ever: "In things essential unity, in things non-essential liberty, in all things charity."

And yet this will not mean that we are to tolerate everything and everybody, for it is clear that the large-heartedness which our Lord urged upon his servant applies only to those who are doing genuinely Christian work. The man was casting out demons in the name of Christ, and it was this that ought to have prevented him from being rebuked by the follower of Christ. An easy-going tolerance of every conceivable opinion and every possible effort is almost as far removed from truth as the narrowness of the Apostle. It does matter what a man is attempting, and also why he is making the effort, and if only we bear in mind that the work to be done is in the name of Christ, we shall be kept from an easy-going readiness to accept every one and everything, which is often prejudicial and paralyzing to true life and service.

II. The Peril of Vindictiveness

In Luke 9:54-56 another danger was revealed by John and his brother James. Our Lord was on his way to Jerusalem, and on sending messengers before him to prepare the way a certain community of Samaritans would not receive Christ, because he was going up to the city of their hated foes, the Jews. This was too much for James and John, who at once, in zeal for their Master, said, "Lord, wilt thou that we bid fire to come down from heaven and consume them?'* The spirit that prompted this outburst was praiseworthy, for they were jealous for their Master's honor. It is also worth while noticing their faith in the power to call down fire from heaven. They had evidently learned from their Master the secret of miracle-working, and thought they could exercise their authority and power in this way. According to the older text, we are to read, "Even as Elijah did," referring to the well-known incident in that Prophet's career (2 Kings 1:10-12), but whether we include these words or not, it would seem almost certain that an allusion to that story was in the minds of James and John. Yet, notwithstanding the elements of praiseworthiness in this expression of feeling, there was a serious and sad ignorance of themselves and of their Master in what they said, as we can see from the way in which they were at once rebuked. Here, again, some texts read that our Lord added, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of," and then, according to still other authorities, though fewer in number, he is said to have remarked, "For the Son of Man came not to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (Luke 19:10; John 3:17; 12:47). But whether we read these words or not, they express the true attitude of Christ and the spirit of his rebuke. James and John did not know what manner of spirit they possessed, and at least for the moment they had forgotten that their Master had come not to kill men, but to save them. Vindictiveness on the part of a follower of Jesus Christ is utterly abhorrent to the spirit of the Master and the truth of his Gospel. Defense, not defiance, is essentially Christian when the interests of others are at stake, but zeal for our Master, however well-intentioned, must never degenerate into personal feelings such as actuated James and John at this time.

As we contemplate afresh these two dangers of narrowness and vindictiveness, we naturally seek to discover the safeguard against them, as well as the cure for them if they should be expressed. This is found in the simple yet sufficient secret of fellowship with Christ. The closer we draw to him, the more large hearted and the more loving we shall become. In his light we shall see light, and in his love we shall feel and express love. We shall see things from his standpoint, and do only that which is in accord with his spirit. I remember once hearing Bishop Whipple, of Minnesota., so well known as "The Apostle of the Indians," utter these beautiful words: "For thirty years I have tried to see the face of Christ in those with whom I differed." When this spirit actuates us, we shall be preserved, at once from a narrow bigotry and an easy-going tolerance, from passionate vindictiveness and everything that would mar or injure our testimony for him who came not to destroy men*s lives, but to save them.