Studies in his Life and Writings
By W. H. Griffith Thomas
It is now necessary to look back over the various records of the life of the Apostle John and to note, so far as is possible, the development of his character. We shall find slight, but quite definite indications of his growth, which will enable us to see something of what Divine grace accomplished in him. In order to look at this subject in detail, we will consider the revelations of the Apostle's personal life in the various Books that bear his name.
I. The Gospel
While naturally the Gospel as a whole Is impersonal, because it is concerned with, the revelation of Christ, yet there are three significant hints of the writer which seem to show a little of his character in' relation to his Master.
(1) The question of the young disciple (John 1:38). When Andrew and John left their old master to follow the new One, they naturally asked our Lord, "Where dwellest thou?" This was the simple, but obvious, question of one who wished to know something more of the new Teacher to whom they were going. This is still the inevitable desire of the newborn soul. He wishes to know more of his Master, for having realized that he is the "Lamb of God" (1:36), and having followed him (1:37), the instinctive craving of the recently enlightened heart is to have further knowledge and experience.
(2) The inquiry of the growing disciple (John 13:25). At the Last Supper John, leaning on the breast of his Master, asked the question in response to Peter's request, "Lord, who is it?" This expressed the attitude of one who had enjoyed a good deal of experience, and who was in the natural place for receiving still further knowledge. It is a mark of a growing disciple to hold fellowship with- the Master, and, concerning this or that which may perplex and prove difficult, to say, "Lord, who is it?"
(3) The insight of the mature disciple (John 21:7). After the Resurrection when the seven were at work in the early morning, it was John who first recognized his Master after the command about the net. This insight is characteristic of the true and mature disciple who is able to understand what is often hidden from less instructed followers. In the midst of troubles, surrounded by problems, pressed down by sorrows, and almost overwhelmed by difficulties, the growing disciple can, nevertheless, say, "It is the Lord."
These three stages of John's experience are interesting, because they express what is found elsewhere in Scripture. Thus, it would seem that the best reading of the well-known incident when Peter was restored indicates this threefold growth of the disciple of Christ (John 21:15-18). The first call was to feed the "lambs," referring to those who had just commenced the Christian life. The next call was to tend the "sheep," a word which seems to imply the fullest discipleship. And then, according to some texts, there is another word, "feed my growing sheep" (v. 17), expressive of a stage between the "lambs" and the "sheep." If this is correct, it certainly agrees quite literally with the stages in another writing of the Apostle John, where he describes Christians as, respectively, "little children," "fathers," "young men" (1 John 2:12-14). Comparison may also be made with other passages. In Psalm 5:11, we have a threefold joy: (a) the joy of trust, illustrating the commencement of the believer's life; (b) the joy of protection, marking- its progress; (c) the joy of love, indicative of the culminating experience of the godly. Then, too, we recall that the Apostle Paul, in addressing the elders of Miletus, spoke first of the "grace of God," referring to the elementary teaching; then, "the Kingdom of God," expressing full instruction; and, last of all, "the whole counsel of God," meaning thereby the complete revelation of God for his mature people (Acts 20:24-27). But whether we may use these passages or not, there seems to be no doubt that the Christian life is characterized by stages of ever-deepening desire for more knowledge of Christ and an ever-widening experience of what he is to the soul.
II. The Acts
As we have seen, the position of the Apostle John curing the period covered by the Book of Acts is quite secondary and subordinate, and yet we fed sure that he was truly faithful to whatever calls were made upon him. The New Testament picture of the believer after Pentecost is that of an individual filled with the Holy Spirit, and whatever had been the case previous to that time, it was nothing compared to the spiritual life then and afterwards. The dispensation of the Holy Spirit ushered in at Pentecost was signally marked in a threefold way. It was characterized by (a) a rich personal experience: men were full of faith (Acts 6:5), wisdom. (Acts 6:3), joy (Acts 13:52), and hope (Acts 7:55). Then it was noteworthy for its (b) great personal courage, both of speech (Acts 4:31) and of action (Acts 13:9). And as the outcome there was (c) splendid personal service in preaching (Acts 2:4) and living (Acts 9:31). There is scarcely anything more outstanding or more striking in the story of the primitive Church recorded in the Acts than the association of the Holy Spirit with every part of the life of the disciple and of the community. Not only are men like Peter, Stephen, and Paul filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8; 7:55; 9:17), but ordinary disciples have exactly the same experience (Acts 4:31; 13:52), and almost every Christian grace is associated with the Holy Spirit, including wisdom (Acts 6:3), comfort (Acts 9:31), power (Acts 10:38), faith (Acts 11:24), and joy (Acts 13:52). All this, we are confident, was the experience and life of the Apostle John.
III. The Revelation
Without unduly repeating what has been already said about the indications of the Apostle's life in the Apocalypse, one thing in particular may be emphasized. It is clear that all through the Book what he saw and heard he wrote, neither more nor less. The exact correspondence between the revelations he had from God and the response he made to them by putting them in writing is a wonderful testimony to his loyalty and faithfulness. It is a reminder of what he himself had recorded years before about his Master. In a striking passage we are told that "the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do; but what things soever he doeth, the Son also doeth in like manner" (John 5:19). To the same effect were other of the Lord's words, "I can of myself do nothing; as I hear, I judge." This precise agreement between what the Lord saw and heard from the Father and what he said and did in the world was beautifully imitated by his follower John, and we know that the visions he received in the island of Patmos were all reproduced with exactness for the benefit of God's people in all ages. Obedience is the organ of knowledge, for in proportion as we fulfill the Master's words, we receive the Holy Spirit and are enabled to understand still more of his truth and grace (John 14:15-17).
IV. The Epistles
It is generally -thought that the three Epistles which bear John's name were written towards the close of his life, and, although they are concerned with general instruction on Christian truth, they reveal certain aspects of the Apostle's own life which we shall do well to ponder.
1. Strong Testimony. — In the introduction to his first Epistle (1-3) he lays a strong foundation by his reference to our Lord and the substance of the Gospel. He places the greatest possible stress on the fact that he had heard, seen, and handled "the" Word of Life." and on the basis of this personal experience he was ready to bear witness and declare to others what had been so precious to him. Thus, Apostolic experience led to Apostolic testimony and Apostolic communication. John was a man of strong convictions, due to his consciousness of the Divine, human, life-giving, and unique Christ, and on this account was ready to pass on to others what he himself was finding so full of blessing and power.
2. Personal Experience. — This is seen by the frequent use of the word "we" throughout his Epistles. He thereby associated others with himself, and did not hesitate to speak in these terms. A careful consideration of such phrases as "we say," "we walk," "we know," "we ought," and many more, bears testimony to this aspect of his life and work.
3. Definite Appeal. — We observe this in the almost constant use of the words "I write" and "we write" (1:4; 2:1, 8, 12). The Apostle had a message, and it was essential that he should pass that on to others. The great frequency with which he uses the words "I write" points beyond all question to the definiteness of what he had to say. He knew the truth of which he wrote, and he wished others to understand it also.
4. Absolute Assurance. — It is well known that the word "know" is in some respects the keynote of the First Epistle, but it is perhaps scarcely realized how prominent the thought is. Thus "we know" occurs fifteen times; "ye know" six times; "ye have known" three times; "we have known" once; and "he that knoweth" once. Then, too, he tells us that his Epistle was written "that ye may know" (5:13). All this shows beyond question the confident assurance of the Apostle. To him Christianity was no question of mere assumption or simple hopefulness; it expressed itself in assurance. While faith possesses, assurance knows that it possesses, and as the Gospel was written that his readers might "have" (20:31), so the Epistle was written that they might "know they have" (5:13). Knowledge in regard to things spiritual is not concerned with intellectual attainment or capability, but with spiritual insight and experience. Indeed, it is frequently associated with what would be regarded by the world as great ignorance, and yet those who possess it are frequently full of profound insight into the truth of God in Christ.
5. Loving Interest. — If we may assume that the Apostle wrote his Epistles at the end of his life, great point is thereby given to his frequent personal appeals to his readers. The most frequent of these is his address as "my little children" (2:1, 18, 28; 5:21). Then, too, he appeals to some of them as "young men" and "fathers" (2:14). They are also regarded as "brethren" (3:13), and perhaps beyond all others as "beloved" (2:7; 3:2; 4:1, 7). It is probable, as Westcott suggests, that each of these titles has some special point in connection with the precise appeal made. In any case, it shows the keenness of the interest of the old disciple in those who were coming after him.
6. Perfect Satisfaction. — We are told that this Epistle was written for the purpose of fellowship similar to that which the Apostle himself enjoyed, and that in the fellowship there would be the fulness of joy (1:3, 4). This reference to their joy being "full" is also mentioned in connection with the "elect lady" of the Second Epistle (v. 12), and it is interesting to note that the same phrase is found four times in different connections in the Gospel. When all these passages are put together, they give the explanation of how our joy in Christ may be complete. Then, too, three times over the Apostle speaks of God's love being made perfect (2:5; 4:17, 18). This seems to mean that love to God had reached its height and crown in the experience of the believer, and there is perhaps nothing higher than this in the New Testament. Thus, we see something of the life the Apostle lived, and of the life he recommended to those to whom he wrote. When our joy is full and our love perfected, we know what fellowship means and what Christianity is intended to do for human life.
7. Holy Severity. — It might appear from what has been said that the Apostle in his old age had become somewhat weak and- tender, not to say sentimental, in his devotion to his Master and in the experience of Divine love, but a moment's consideration will suffice to show the falsity and impossibility of this idea, because love in Scripture is never merely emotional and sentimental, but is always associated with truth and righteousness. The Apostle of love is, therefore, ready to speak in the plainest tones of the "liar," who- denies that Jesus is the Messiah, and even describes him as "Anti-Christ" (1 John 2:22, 23). This view of our Lord is more than once emphasized, doubtless in the face of the errors that were already rife in his day. Those who were not prepared to acknowledge the true Incarnation of Christ were frankly said to be "not of God," and were showing an anti-Christian spirit (4:3; 2 John 7). In this connection the words of the Apostle concerning Diotrephes in his Third Epistle are very significant. Although John was able to rejoice in much that was true of Gains, the beloved, yet with equal plainness he speaks of Diotrephes as one who loved to have the pre-eminence, who would not receive the Apostle himself, but spoke against him with malicious words, who would not receive the brethren, and forbade those who were ready to do so and actually cast them out of the Church. All this seems to show that Diotrephes must have been very like one of those Nicolaitanes (Rev. 2:6, 15), and the Apostle was quite ready to deal severely with him, if they should meet. Thus, John shows the most perfect congruity between devoted love to Christ and genuine hostility to those who did not follow the truth. He divides men very plainly into two classes: the children of God and the children of the devil (1 John 3:10), and speaks of the way in which men are either marked by "love" or "hate." False doctrine is of vital importance, because it inevitably leads to false living. Character and conduct, doctrine and duty, necessarily go together as cause and effect.
As we take leave of the Apostle of love, it is fitting to observe two things in his life which are as true today as ever. (1) What Grace can do. Originally, John seems to have been an impulsive, perhaps also a sharp-tempered man, and yet through the influence of the Lord and his Spirit, his life was altogether changed. He illustrated the transformation of Grace. "Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the briar shall come up the myrtle tree" (Isaiah 55:13). Grace is still ready and able to transform lives and to change the "lion" into the "lamb." But Grace has its intensifications as well as its transformations. It does not take away from human nature anything that is right and true, but increases, deepens, intensifies all our natural force. So it was with the Apostle John. All the powers which he possessed before his conversion were taken up by his Master and used in Christian service. It has been well said that the Christian needs two births in his Christian life. He must first of all be changed from the natural to the supernatural by the New Birth of the Spirit. Then he must be born once more by being changed again into the natural, so that the supernatural may express itself in ordinary natural ways, as the man surrenders everything to God and places himself at his Lord's disposal.
But in order that all this may come about, it is important to remember (2) what Grace needs. If God is to work in us "to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13), he requires from us just two things: Faith and Faithfulness. We must trust and then obey. Faith appropriates the Divine grace into mind, heart, conscience, and will, and then faithfulness expresses that grace in love, loyalty, and labor for Christ. So it was with the Apostle John, and so it will be with every disciple today, if only we receive of our Master's fullness and then reproduce that grace in daily living. We shall show in our lives what Christ is and what he is willing to be to others, and then everything in us will reflect his image, reproduce his character, and bear testimony "to the praise of the glory of his grace."