Studies in his Life and Writings
By W. H. Griffith Thomas
The Day of Pentecost was a watershed between two dispensations, and at the same time made remarkable changes in the lives of the Apostles. John, as the youngest of the twelve, does not stand out prominently in the record in Acts, though there are hints from time to time that Pentecost had influenced him and enabled him, like the rest, to serve his Master in the power of the Holy Spirit. And even if he thus takes a subordinate place in the early Church, we may well ponder the various hints given of him in order to discover what we can of his life and character.
I. What Pentecost Was
It is impossible to look at the story of Acts without recalling an important passage in the fourth Gospel which anticipated and really prophesied what would happen. On the last day of the Feast our Lord invited people to come to him and satisfy their thirst, and then this interpretation is added, "This spake he of the Spirit, which they that believed on him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (John 7:39). Under the symbol of water, this was a promise of the bestowal of the Spirit on all believers. The main thought seems to be that as long as Christ was bodily present there was no real need of spiritual presence. It is equally clear that "not yet" is not equivalent to "unknown before," but must be understood as referring to a time before Pentecost, because Christ was not yet ascended. In some way or another the descent of the Holy Spirit was associated with and depended on the ascension of Christ, for when Pentecost actually came the Spirit was given' to disciples alone, and was bestowed as a gift of the ascended Lord (Acts 2:33). As Dr. A. J. Gordon once said, "The Spirit of God is the successor of the Son of God in his official ministry on earth. Until Christ's earthly work for his Church had been finished, the Spirit's work in this world could not possibly begin."
The difference between the time before Pentecost and that day can also be seen in the results of the Holy Spirit's work in and through those who were disciples of Christ. Whatever activity they had shown before was as nothing compared with what they were enabled to do as the result of that gift (John 14:12).
It is inevitable to notice that the Day of Pentecost was the occasion on which, according to the Master's promise, the disciples were ''baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5). Much has been written on the subject of "the baptism of the Holy Ghost," though it may be worth while to remember that as it stands the phrase is not found in Scripture. There are seven passages which speak of people being baptized with or in the Holy Spirit, and this "baptism" is clearly stated to be the actual experience of every Christian without exception, and not the special privilege of a certain number (1 Cor. 12:13). is the term "baptism" when used of water refers to an initial act which is never repeated, it seems in every way best to interpret the phrase "baptized with or in the Holy Spirit" as referring to the initial work of the Holy Spirit in uniting believers to Christ and to one another in him (Acts 2:33; Gal. 4:6). If this is the true meaning, then the idea of "the baptism of the Holy Ghost" as a second distinct work of grace is not warranted by Scripture, especially as these words are not strictly Scriptural. But while this is so, we must be careful to use and to emphasize the important New Testament teaching on a Spirit-filled life as the privilege and duty of every believer. So that Pentecost meant the initial and never-repeated "baptism with the Holy Spirit" as the occasion of constituting the new community in union with the ascended Lord and as equipping them for his service. Thenceforward the disciples were not baptized afresh, but "filled" with the Holy Spirit for special needs as occasions arose. This distinction between the "baptism" and the "filling" of the Spirit is in exact harmony with New Testament phraseology in Acts and elsewhere, and, to put it in well-known words, we may say that there is "one baptism, but many fillings."
II. What Pentecost Did
Limiting ourselves to the effects of this gift of the Holy Spirit on the disciples and concentrating as far as possible on the Apostle John, let us try to see something of what happened.
In Acts 1:13 we find John with the rest in the place of prayer and expectation, and it is a point of some interest that while in the other lists of the Apostles contained in the Gospels (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16) John's name is third and fourth, here (in R. V.) it is found second, immediately after that of Peter. With the rest, he was waiting the fulfillment of the Master's promise, and they were "with one accord" expressive of that perfect oneness of desire and hope which showed that they were in the true line of blessing. This emphasis on "one accord" is particularly noteworthy in Acts, and calls for study by all who desire to know the secret of united intercession and life (Acts 1:14; 2:1. 46; 4:24; 5:12; 7:57; 8:6; 12:20; 15:25; 18:12; 19:29). There seems to be no doubt that the unanimity of the disciples was one reason why their Lord could and did bless them.
In Acts 2:14 we read of "Peter standing up with the eleven," so that on this occasion Peter was the spokesman not only for himself, but for the others, in proclaiming to the crowd his Master's message, and telling them frankly what had been done. The difference in the one who had denied his Lord is particularly striking, for the gift of the Holy Spirit had transformed him into a new man. There does not seem to have been the same temperamental weakness in John, though we feel sure that the gift of the Spirit must have made a decided difference in him as well.
In Acts 3:1 we read of Peter and John going to worship in the temple. The association of these two is particularly interesting in view of what we have already seen of them (Luke 5:10; 22:8; John 20:3, 4; 21:20-22). It has been suggested that this was due to the fact that they were the leaders among the Apostles, and we find them together on other occasions (4:13; 8:14). Mr. Walker, of Tinnevelly, in his fine commentary, speaks of them as "an admirable combination of strenuous activity and thoughtful love." Once again Peter is the natural leader, no doubt because of his greater age and experience, though he associates John with him in what he does, and the man who was healed clung to both apostles in his newborn gratitude (Acts 3:4, 11). This was another opportunity for testimony on behalf of Christ, and after the disclaimer of his and John's own power and holiness, Peter again gave testimony to their Master as the One who had made the man strong (3:11-26).
In Acts 4:3 John begins his life of suffering, for with Peter he is apprehended and put in prison. The testimony for Christ was particularly annoying to the Jewish authorities, especially because the resurrection from the dead was associated with it. Then on the next day Peter and John were brought before the Jewish Council, and were asked "by what power or in what name" they had done this miracle. With remarkable boldness the two men bore their testimony, and this attitude was a cause of astonishment to the Jewish leaders (4:13). Something had evidently happened, for there was no hesitation and no fear, as these two spoke frankly about their Master. The result was all the more surprising, because neither Peter nor John had received any technical training in Jewish theology. They were what we should call "plebeians," without professional knowledge, and, of course, this meant that in the opinion of the Council they were "ignorant," in the sense of ill-informed men. But, nevertheless, many of these leaders began to recognize that the men had been seen in company with Jesus of Nazareth, and it would appear as though they thought that this courage was somehow connected with their association with him. This was indeed the secret of what had happened, for by the power of the Holy Spirit they had been enabled to maintain their fellowship with Jesus Christ and to bear testimony to him and to his grace.
In Acts 4:19 we have a further illustration of the courage of Peter and John, for on being threatened and charged not to speak again in the name of Jesus, these fine men replied, "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you rather than God, judge ye; for we cannot but speak the things which we saw and heard" (4:19, 20). Thus they showed what has been well called "the moral imperative of grace." The Holy Spirit has wonderful power to transform ordinary and uneducated individuals into able, courageous witnesses for the truth (Luke 12:12).
In Acts 8:14 John is again mentioned with Peter as being sent by the Church in Jerusalem to Samaria, consequent upon the remarkable work done by Philip. Peter and John were to go down to bestow upon the baptized the unique gift of the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to avoid recalling the former attitude of John to the Samaritans (Luke 9:54) when he wished to bring upon them the fire of Divine judgment. Now he is to be the means in God's hands of conveying to them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is associated with this laying on of hands, and it is important to remember that this gift on the part of Peter and John was at once unique and personal. There is no suggestion in the New Testament that they were able to transmit this power to others. As apostles, they occupied a position which did not admit of any strict succession (Acts 1:22). Then, too, it must never be forgotten that these unique gifts of the Spirit in the early Church were not limited to the Twelve, because an ordinary Christian layman, Ananias, was enabled by the laying on of hands to bestow spiritual blessing on the new convert, Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:17, 18). The action of laying on of hands in the New Testament, and indeed throughout Scripture, is clearly that of benediction and commission rather than transmission (Sanday, "Conception of Priesthood").
In Acts 12:2 we have the last reference to the Apostle John in the Acts, where he is referred to in connection with the martyrdom of his brother James. Perhaps this description of "James, the brother of John," is a reminder of that memorable day when both James and John expressed their ability to drink of their Master's cup of sorrow (Matt. 20:20-28). James was the first to be executed, while John, his much younger brother, was destined to remain for many a year and to endure much suffering before he was called hence.
In Galatians 2:9 John is described with James, the brother of our Lord, and Peter as one of the "pillars" of the Church. This shows quite clearly the important and conspicuous position which he held at this time. The metaphor "pillar" is also interesting from the spiritual standpoint. It suggests something which rests on a foundation, and we know that John was indeed firmly fixed on the foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20). Then a pillar is intended to give support to a building, and we are sure that the Apostle John, by his intimate association with his Master, his knowledge of Christian truth, his gift of the Holy Spirit, and his disposition of genuine love, must have been of the greatest possible help in the Church of that day. We may also think of a "pillar" as a mark of beauty, for a pillar in a building undoubtedly adds to the attractiveness of the structure. The Apostle John was assuredly a "pillar" in this sense. The reality of his character and life must have been a witness to the "beauty of holiness" (Psalm 29:2). Whatever may be our position as Christians, it is for us first of all to behold and then to reflect "the beauty of the Lord" (Psalm 27:4; 90:17).
As we review these various instances connected with the life of the Apostle John after Pentecost, we are reminded of the work of the Holy Spirit in every believer. Indeed, without that Spirit no one can be regarded as a Christian at all (Rom. 8:9). The Holy Spirit is associated with three special features of Christianity in relation to the individual. The first of these is Conversion, including all the various aspects of the believer's initial spiritual experience. It is the providence of the Holy Spirit to convict of sin, to reveal the grace of God, to bestow the gift of life, to assure of acceptance in Christ, and to introduce us to the Presence of God. The second is Communion with God, for everything is intended to lead up to fellowship. The Holy Spirit alone makes this real, for after being introduced to God we have "access by one Spirit unto the Father," whereby communion with God begins and continues. Everything in connection with prayer and the other means of grace is associated with the Holy Spirit as the medium of communication and the guarantee of blessing. The third is Character, for life must be expressed in practice, and grace is needed to produce this effect. Here, again, the Holy Spirit makes character possible and real, for he abides in the soul, producing "the fruit of the Spirit," and by constant revelation of Christ strengthens the believer in the inner man, and transforms him into the image of the Son of God. There is scarcely anything clearer or more emphatic in Scripture than the Holy Spirit's relation to the individual, for his action covers our whole life. So it was, we are perfectly sure, with the Apostle John, and so it must be with each of us today.