John - Disciple, Apostle, Elder
Tom Bentley, Ballymena, N. Ireland
Nero has gone, and the persecution peculiar to his reign goes with him. There is a short lull ere another period of persecution breaks upon the Church. Domitian reigns, the storm breaks out which did not by-pass the aged sole survivor of the apostles. And that was how John found himself exiled on that small rocky island of the Aegean Sea, severed from that group of Churches among whom he had been ministering for many years. What punishment can be more depressing or demoralizing than exile? John must have felt very keenly the enforced solitude of his island prison. Can we imagine him walking along the seashore or looking out of his lonely cell, meeting everywhere he turned that vast, inexorable mocking blue sea? It is small wonder that he should not fail to notice that comforting detail in the vision of the new heaven and the new earth: 'and there was no longer any sea', (Williams). That cruel element of separation had forever disappeared from God's world.
For the emperor that little rugged island in the midst of the sea was but banishment, while for John it was a window which opened to offer him a unique vision of the Lord and 'things to come'. 'The Patmos of persecuting Rome is to John', says one, 'the door of sublimest communion with heaven. The chains of resentful power may confine the body, but they cannot bind the soul'. The wrath of the wicked can but bring saints the nearer to the choice things of God. Our minds recall a young priest, sitting among exiles, who describes his experience thus: '. . . as I was among the captives by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God', Ezek. 1.1. Some of the exiles could only see the swollen stream carrying away their cherished hopes, and yet, above that same river, the skies were parted asunder and Ezekiel turning his face upward could see visions of God. If we find ourselves circumscribed in this natural world, is it not that we may be lifted to a higher realm? Shut out from this sphere and separated from all earthly friends we can become conversant with spiritual realities and are further encouraged to communicate with God. When the sky over the life of a believer suddenly gets dark, when disaster knocks at his door and he sees his cherished plans lie in ruins, then it is that God opens the heavens and sends His messages of comfort and strength. Thus it was with John.
The Revelation of John
The boat which set sail from some secluded point on the coast of the island of Patmos carried, carefully hidden in its hold, 'The Revelation of Jesus Christ'. We are in no doubt as to who the apocalyptic penman was, for at the beginning and at the end the writer places his signature - 'I John'. Those who are familiar with the contents of this Book are aware that it is made up of several distinct scenes and acts. The first gives us the apocalypse of Christ in His relation to the churches on earth, and His judgment of them. The second gives us the apocalypse of Christ in His relation to the Church in Heaven, and the scenes into which the saints are introduced after they are caught up from the earth. The third gives the apocalypse of Christ in His relation to the world, and His administrations of retribution to the nations.
John docs not fail to trace in the vision the supremacy of God's ways, first in relation to himself as an individual servant - banished but blessed and put out of circulation that he may be given revelation. He sees also the supremacy of God's ways in the seven churches, set as they are in the darkness of moral night, that they may be searched and judged by the One whom John turns to see as he hears the trumpet-like Voice. John observes that divine supremacy reaching on and on until Israel, the nations, yea the whole universe comes under His sway, when in one glorious unbroken unity a New Heaven and New Earth appear.
Saints still require such a ministry. The need for men of God to rise up with vision keen to interpret to us the ways of God, is increasingly great. These must be like John - he was 'in the Spirit', in a condition wholly loosened from the earth - ready to hear what the Spirit saith.
The First Epistle of John
There is not only a need for men with vision, having a capacity to receive divine communications, but also that such men should possess a tenderness and depth of feeling as they serve the people of God in the work of the ministry. The main characteristics of John's first Epistle are didactic and controversial, yet the personal chord is frequently struck, the writer alternating between the 'you' of direct address, 1. 3, 5; 2.1, 7, 8, 12-14; etc., and the 'we' in which spontaneous feeling unites him with his readers, 1. 6, 10; 3. 1-2; 4. 7, 10, 11; etc. Note that paternal love and sympathy break out in the affectionate address 'little children', 2. 1, 28; 3. 7, 18; 4. 4; 5. 21. Again, the introductory 'beloved' indicates that he is deeply stirred by the superlative greatness of his message and its supreme importance to his readers. He shows himself intimately acquainted with their problematic environment, 2. 19; 4. 1, their dangers through an unprincipled leadership, 2. 26; 3. 7, their spiritual development, 2.12-14,21, their victorious experiences, 4.4, and perils, 5. 21. He announces to them the things concerning 'the Word of life', 1. 1, that they may have fellowship with him, 1. 3; and that his joy may now be full he ministers these precious verities to them. Surely these are features of a key man - one whose joy is served in aiding Christian development, in protecting the saints from the perils to which they are exposed, in guiding them to the glorious fulness of eternal life, in bringing before them the implications of the Gospel that they have believed and in presenting the tests of genuine discipleship. The writer is one who, to his readers, is of recognized authority so that he does not find it even necessary to remind them who he is. They know him as a spiritual guide; he is fully acknowledged since his very attitude towards them draws out their whole-hearted response. It is in this that John, the beloved apostle, stands as an example to all those whose province it is to instruct, exhort and warn. Like the Master, John used all authority with all tenderness.
This spirit of tenderness did not always mark John. We are left to the writer of the second Gospel to interpret for us the name Boanerges; he gives the meaning as 'sons of thunder'. The two brothers, James and John, obviously shared an ardent and impulsive temperament. The incidents are familiar: censuring an exorcist and then with indignation invoking divine vengeance upon a Samaritan village. It was a strange proposal to come from men who had been for some time disciples of Christ, and especially from one who, like John, had been in the Saviour's company at the time of the meeting of the woman by the well when Christ spoke of the glorious harvest awaiting the willing reaper, John 4. 35-38. And yet this same John, a short time after this truculent proposal, goes down from Jerusalem and preaches the Gospel in 'many villages of the Samaritans', Acts 8. 25, possibly in this very village he had desired to see destroyed. Such are the contrasts that growth in grace brings. Often in the same crude stage of our lives, opinionativeness, intolerance, and blind passionate zeal mark us; may we know like John that spiritual maturity, and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit and thus know what spirit we are of.
The Gospel by John
Finally, there is his Gospel which has become 'almost the cornerstone of the New Testament Canon'. John under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit was brought to understand much that was beyond him when he followed his Lord in Palestine, as indeed, several passages in the book itself suggest, 2. 22; 7. 39; 12. 16; 16. 12. His purpose is to nourish his readers in their devotion to Christ, the Gospel itself being his own worship of Christ. What a full-orbed presentation of Christ it is! Let not its apparent simplicity hide its maturity and profundity.
One has well said of John's writings that 'they are supplementary in character'. It is just this that makes John a key man, one who, under the developing hand of God, can be so used in the divine economy. May we likewise be a welcome and worthy adjunct in the service of God, in whatever sphere we serve.