The apostle John is familiar to us because he wrote so much of the New Testament. He wrote the book of John as well as three epistles that also bear his name, and the book of Revelation. Besides Luke and Paul, John wrote more of the New Testament than any other author.
Most of what we learn of John is from his own writing. We see his character and personality through it. We see his love for Christ and dealings with the early church. And finally, in Revelation, we see his vision of the future.
Both Scripture and history record his influence on the early church. John was a man hidden in the background, much like Andrew. However, he had his turn at leadership, reaching as far as Asia Minor, as he outlived all the other apostles.
John, the younger brother of James, was known for his zeal and ambition. He, like his brother, was willing to call down fire on the Samaritans. He also found himself in debates with the other apostles about who was the greatest. What is remarkable though, is that he is best remembered as the apostle of love. Much of his writing is about love. He writes of our love for Christ, Christs' love for the church, and our love for each other.
The theme of love seems to flow throughout his writing. However, the apostle of love is not how he started out. It's a quality and characteristic he learned from the Savior. But it took all of Christ's three-year ministry on earth for John to learn it.
John started out rugged, intolerant, narrow-minded, unbending, reckless, impetuous and brash. Just as you would expect one of the Sons of Thunder to be. He and his brother James were cut from the same fabric.
John, like James, aged well and learned from Christ. Much like us, his liabilities were exchanged for assets. He matured. Areas in his life of greatest weakness were transformed into his greatest strengths. This can happen in our lives as well, when we allow the Master Potter to do His work!
We are either walking in darkness, or in the light. Black or white. No gray. There is no in between with John. He draws hard lines. John had a narrow perception of truth. It was unlikely that he would have been remembered as the apostle of love in his early years. Three years with Jesus changes everything! AMEN! Jesus changed a Son of Thunder into an apostle of love!
Love and Truth
If you want to know about truth, read the book of John!
However, the young John still had to learn to balance love with the truth he was so passionate about. John lacked love and compassion for people, believers and unbelievers alike. He was intolerant. He, like Peter and James, was more concerned with who was most important between the three of them than the lost souls that followed Jesus.
"And He sat down and called the twelve. And He said to them, 'If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.' And He took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, 'Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me.” Mark 9:35-37
If John wanted to be first in the Kingdom, he had to learn to have a servant-like spirit. He was now in the perfect place, with the perfect teacher, to learn that!
"Love is manifested in service to one another." —John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful." I Corinthians 13:4-5
Something in John was about to change. He was beginning to see his lack of love and compassion for people. He would see it when he looked into the mirror of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus is a vivid picture of love and compassion. John had always been zealous for the truth, but now he was about to learn how to balance that with love—a lesson that still needs to be learned by many.
Each generation carries with it truth bearers. However, if these truth bearers do not come in love, they come in vain. They will not achieve their desired outcome. This was a major turning point in John's life and his thinking.
"The Kingdom needs men who have courage, ambition, drive, passion, boldness, and a zeal for the truth. John certainly had all of those things. But to reach his full potential, he needed to balance those things with love.... Zeal for the truth must be balanced by love for people. Truth without love has no decency; it's just brutality. On the other hand, love without truth has no character; it's just hypocrisy." —Jahn MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
Still today, we find this delicate balance missing in the lives of many Christians. Some place too much emphasis on love, whether out of ignorance, self-deception, or they simply do not care about truth. In many cases, truth is simply missing, or clothed in shallow statements of tolerance. Many talk of love and tolerance, but lack concern for the truth. It's a poor substitute for genuine love. Others however, have the truth but are unloving and intolerant. They lack love for people in their delivery of it. Both love and truth must be balanced.
"There is therefore no greater truth than love. The two are inseparable. After all, the First and Great Commandment is this: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind' (Matthew 22:37). And the second is like unto it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself' (v. 30). In other words, love is what real truth is ultimately all about....
The apostle of love learned the balance of love and truth.
Ambition and Humility
As a young man, John displayed ambitious plans for himself. There's nothing wrong with ambition when it is coupled with humility. But when it's not, this virtue turns into a vice. John's motives in the beginning were selfish ambition, lacking humility. Nowhere do we see this more than when he and his brother James, with help from their mother, secretly request of Jesus the highest seats in the Kingdom. This, after the many examples and teachings of humility that just didn't seem to sink in with the apostles. It seems amazingly audacious of them!
"The error was in desiring to obtain the position more than the desired to be worthy of such a position. Their ambition was untempered by humility." —John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
Again and again Jesus taught that those who desire to be great must first learn to be humble. He Himself, was the perfect example of humility! However, it's astonishing how little this truth sunk in with the apostles, even after following Jesus for three years.
"...everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18:14
Things changed for the apostles that final night, before Jesus' arrest. Jesus Christ Himself picked up a towel and basin of water and proceeded to wash their feet—a task normally performed by servants.
John did eventually learn to balance ambition with humility. We read it in his writing. He never once mentions his own name. He does not speak of himself or reference himself by name except as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." He was always giving glory to Christ for having loved such a man. John seemed absolutely in awe of the fact that Jesus loved him. It's humbling to grasp! John learned the balance of ambition and humility.
Suffering and Glory
In the early days of following Christ, John had a thirst for glory. We see it clearly in his desire for a prominent seat in the coming Kingdom. However, the price for glory in this Kingdom would be paid for with suffering. John was not yet ready for the amount of suffering it would require.
All the disciples needed to learn this. Remember, they all wanted the chief seats in glory. But Jesus said there is a price for those seats." —John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
John was eager to assure Jesus that he could partake in the suffering, though he was clueless as to the implementations of his own statement. John's eagerness was much like Peter's, who assured Jesus that he would never deny Him. All eleven apostles fled the night of Jesus' arrest. But the Good Shepard would bring each one back into the fold, and they would all learn what it meant to suffer for Christ's sake.
Each apostle, except John, was martyred, one by one. His own brother James was the first martyr. These were John's companions, his friends, and with each loss there was suffering on John's part as well. John was the last one left. Left to die in his old age. Imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos. Cutoff from those he loved. In many ways he had endured the most suffering of them all.
John learned to suffer for the glory of Christ, willingly, and without complaint. We never see in any of his writing a note of complaint. Through tribulation he acquired patience. He learned to look beyond earthly trials to Heavenly glory. He learned the balance of suffering and glory.
Much like Peter, Andrew and James, John learned the lessons he needed to learn. He learned the balance of love and truth, ambition and humility and suffering and glory.
One of the most powerful illustrations of John's transformation was seen at the foot of the cross. Isn't that were transformation happens for all of us!? John is the only apostle who is recorded in the Bible as being present at the crucifixion. He likely saw the nails driven into Jesus' hands. It is recorded that he saw the Savior's side pierced with a spear. And then there is this conversation between he and the Savior.
"but standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom he loved [John] standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home." John 19:25-27
John learned patience, tolerance, mercy, grace, forgiveness, tenderness and compassion. All of these are characteristics of love.
"It may seem amazing that Jesus loved a man who wanted to burn up the Samaritans. He loved a man who was obsessed with status and position. He loved a man who forsook Him and fled rather than suffer for His sake. But in loving John, Jesus transformed him into a different man—a man who modeled the same kind of love Jesus had shown him." —John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
It may, at the same time, seem amazing that Jesus loves us. At least is does for me. I'm sure it does for you as well. But in loving us, He transforms us. Isn't that a beautiful thought!
We mentioned earlier, how many times John wrote the word truth in his books, some forty-five times total. It is equally worth noting that he wrote the word for love more than eighty times! Almost twice as many times as truth. Love became the anchor of the truth he was so passionate about.
"John's theology is best described as a theology of love. He taught that God is a God of love, that God loved His own Son, that God loved the world, that God is loved by Christ, that Christ loved His disciples, that Christ's disciples loved Him, that all men should love Christ, that we should love one another, and that love fulfills the law. Love was a critical part of every element of John's teaching. It was the dominant theme of his theology." —John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
All this love, love, love yet John, to the very end, was still so passionate about the truth. He defended it. He was intolerant of lies. This Son of Thunder was still thundering against deceptive, errant theology and sin. The most powerful advocate of love was a man who never compromised the truth. And Jesus knew it needed to be that way.
To conclude our series from Twelve Ordinary Men by John MacArthur, let me just once again quote from his book because it is just so well said.
"Thus the fishermen of Galilee--Peter, Andrew, James and John—became fishers of men on a tremendous scale, gathering souls into the church. In a sense, they are still casting their nets into the sea of the world by their testimony in the Gospels and their epistles. They are still bringing multitudes of people to Christ. Although they were common men, theirs was an uncommon calling." —John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
John had to learn to balance a lot! Love and truth. Ambition and humility. Suffering and glory. What have you found to be the biggest balancing act in your Christian life? How can reading about John help with that?
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