The Apostle John

Studies in his Life and Writings

By W. H. Griffith Thomas

Part 1. - The Life of the Apostle

Chapter 9


Like the lifting of a fog came the Resurrection of our Lord after his Crucifixion, and among the changes made by his rising from the dead there are few more striking and impressive than the transformation effected in the lives of his disciples. The Apostle John is seen to bear a special part in connection with the Resurrection, just as he had done in connection with the death. There are two events with which he was specially associated.

I. At the Tomb

The news of the empty tomb came to Peter and John early on that first Easter morning through Mary Magdalene. It is probable that Mary felt drawn to these two by their interest and sympathy, as well as their close association with Jesus Christ. Moreover, the mother of our Lord was staying with John. The announcement at once prompted the two disciples to go to the tomb (John 20:1-10). They both ran together, but John, as the younger man, outran his companion and arrived first. Yet although he stooped down, looked in and saw the linen cloths (not clothes) lying, something made him hesitate, and he did not actually enter the tomb. Up to this moment he, of course, had no idea of the Resurrection. When Peter reached the tomb he at once entered with characteristic ardor, and his fixed gaze (v. 6, Greek) at the linen cloths evidently led to a good deal of thought and perplexity as to what had happened. Then John, the younger man, was emboldened to enter, and it is interesting and significant to observe what they saw in the tomb. Special mention is made of the napkin, or "turban," that had been upon Christ's head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself.

What does this mean? Why is it singled out for such prominent attention? An old explanation, which is still heard from time to time, is that our Lord's Resurrection took place with perfect ease and calm and the entire absence of hurry, so that time allowed him to wrap up the napkin and put it in a place by itself. But although there may be no doubt as to the absence of haste, the original word does not naturally suggest this interpretation. The term as rendered in the American Revised Version is "rolled up" — that is, twirled or shaped like a turban — and there does not seem to be much doubt that the reference to "a place by itself" simply means separate from the rest of the linen cloths which were used for the body. What Peter and John saw as they continued to gaze were the linen cloths in the actual shape of the Body, the turban of the head naturally being where the head had lain, and the other cloths still remaining in the exact shape of the Body. Our Lord had evidently been raised from the dead by the power of God, and had left the linen cloths (in which were the spices) exactly as the Body had been placed by Joseph and Nicodemus. It was this manifest evidence of the Resurrection that led to John being the first to believe that our Lord had been raised (v. 8).

This view of the passage gives a satisfactory proof of the reason why John was able to believe. It was the sight of the cloths in the form of the Body that first led him to think, and then to believe in what had actually happened. The interpretation now favored has been held by some of us for a long time, and it was with great interest and no little satisfaction that so able a championship was found for it a few years ago in that interesting book, "The Risen Master," by Latham. The evidence was ample so far as John with his greater insight was concerned. And yet we are told definitely that up to that moment "they knew not the Scripture that he must rise from the dead." Facts are always the foundation of faith, although faith means very much more than believing facts. "Religious faith is rather the first fruit of life than the last blossom of thought." There was something else required besides this belief in the fact of the Resurrection. That faith had to be associated with Scripture, and again in turn with the Person of our Lord as living. As Pearson, in his great work on the "Creed," says, "Divine faith founded on Scripture gives infallible certainty." Faith in the true sense of the word is trust, confidence, reliance, and this is only possible in relation to a person. And so we are not surprised to read that both Peter and John went away from the tomb to their own home. They had not yet realized the force of what they had seen, and its bearing on their future life and work. Peter seems to have returned, still wondering what had happened (Luke 24:12), while John probably went to tell the mother of Christ what he had seen, and perhaps also the conviction that filled his mind, however inadequate his faith was at that moment (John 20:8),

II On the Lake

We are not told in detail any result to the Apostle John of the personal revelation of the risen Christ. We only know that he was among those who had the Easter message of "Peace be unto you," who felt gladness that once again the beloved Master was seen, and who received the commission with the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 20:19-23). We next find John with other disciples in Galilee, whither their Master had told them to go. While waiting for his appearance, Peter, with his characteristic impulse, proposed a return to their work as fishermen (John 21:1-7). Some writers think that they ought not to have engaged in this work, but simply waited in Galilee until their Lord should appear. Others are of opinion that poverty alone naturally suggested the necessity of work for a livelihood until Christ should come. Yet, again, others think that the very best thing for these disciples was to do some work while they were waiting, since work is one of the finest preservatives against either depression or indifference. It is particularly noteworthy that there are seven of these disciples, including John and his brother James. Five of them are described and two are nameless. It is no fancifulness to think of the seven as symbolizing the Church as a whole, there represented in the work of fishing, and, if so, it is particularly encouraging to think of the two unnamed disciples standing for the rank and file of God's people who do not occupy prominent positions. All are required in the service of their Master,

After a night of fruitless toil, Jesus stood on the beach, though he was not recognized by the disciples, and when, in answer to his inquiry, they confessed the fruitlessness of their work, he told them what to do, and the immediate result was a multitude of fishes. At this moment the Apostle John, with remarkable insight, said unto Peter, "It is the Lord." He is rightly described in this connection, as in others, as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," for love is the great perceptive power. Love is not blind, as some would have us believe, for "the secret of the Lord is with them that fear him, and he will show them his covenant." We all know how in science there is an imperative need of sympathy, if we would discover the secrets of Nature, and it is the same in things spiritual; to know, we must love. Love, too, is the great penetrative power which sees God in everything. Christ was realized in the course of daily toil, and the soul that is in close fellowship with God will soon go past all second causes, and say, "It is the Lord." Love to Christ will make the eye single, and thus the whole body will be full of light.

We must pass over the eager enthusiasm shown by Peter in his effort to reach the shore, and also the practical service of the other disciples, as they did the more humdrum work, though equally necessary, of dragging the fish to shore. The disciples were soon at their morning meal provided by the Master, and then came the solemn restoration by a threefold question of the disciple who had three times denied his Lord.

When this was over and the word came, "Follow Me," Peter naturally wondered what would happen to his young companion and friend, and, seeing John following, he asked the Lord Jesus, "What shall this man do?" It was not jealousy, but genuine interest and affection that prompted this question. "Lord, what about this man?" The answer of Christ was in the form of a slight and yet definite rebuke: "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me." The supreme requirement was that each disciple should feel himself in direct relation to the Master, and the following of Christ is the sum and substance of true living. To follow means to trust and obey; this, and this only, but this is all. Meanwhile, there seems to be the suggestion that John's part was that of waiting. The idea went abroad that John was not to die, but in reality our Lord only referred to the possibility of John's waiting till the coming of the Master. Not that it meant absolutely that he should do this, but that there was a sovereignty over his life as well as that of Peter's, and the issues were kept in the hands of the supreme Master. "If I will." This is the secret of all true discipleship. We are subject to the will of Christ, and we know that, as Dante says, "In His will is our peace." Each man has his own place, his own individuality, his own time, and his own attitude and to his own Master he stands or falls.

The last testimony to John in the Gospels is probably borne by some disciple of his or some disciples who were aware of what he had been, had seen, and had done. "This is the disciple that beareth witness of these things and wrote these things, and we know that his witness is true." These words read very like a postscript by another hand or other hands, assuring us of the reality of the man whose Gospel from the very first has been the treasure of the Church in its revelation of her Lord and Master. And as we close this record we can endorse with thankfulness the fine words of Godet:

"For my part, I rejoice to be able to say that the renewed study of this inimitable work has been the certainty of its authenticity shining before my view with ever more irresistible clearness. It is proved, as it seems to me, above all, by the luminous transparency with which there is revealed in it the self -consciousness of Christ. A Divine life, humanly lived, Jesus offers himself to the world as the bread of life, come down from heaven, that whosoever eats of it may realize through him the sublime destination of our race: man in God, God in man. This conception bears within it the seal of its origin."

As we review the story of the Apostle thus far in his career, we cannot help noticing the individuality of his life and witness. Although one of twelve, he stands out from the rest, because he possesses his own personality, lives his own life, bears his own witness, does his own work, and waits patiently his Master's will. This is always the true secret of Christian living, "to every man his work."

It is so sweet to know

     My whole life long

Thy loving plan for me

     Cannot go wrong.

I know that thou wilt choose

     The best for me,

And I can be at rest

     And trust in thee.