By Pastor Glenn Pease
A farmer in Georgia was sitting on the porch of his tumble-down shack. He was ragged and barefoot when a stranger stopped for a drink of water. Wishing to be agreeable, the stranger said, "How was your cotton coming on?" "Ain't got none," replied the farmer. "Didn't you plant any?" asked the stranger. "Nope, fraid of boll weevils." "Well," said the stranger, "How is your corn?" "Didn't plant none. Fraid there wa'nt going to be no rain," came the reply. The stranger confused but persevering asked, "Well, how are your potatos?" "Ain't got none, scart o' potato bugs." "Really, what did you plant," asked the astonished visitor. "Nothin," said the farmer. "I just played it safe."
Most people do not play it that safe, but most people are afraid to take a chance, especially on people. We fear to risk putting our trust in others because we know how weak and fallible people are. Jesus knew this better than anyone, but He took great chances, and put His trust in men who are very risky candidates for Apostles. Jesus wanted to play it safe, He never would have chosen John the younger son of Zebedee. John was not just potential trouble, he was actual trouble. There are more negative characteristics of John in the New Testament than any of the 12, and yet he became the great Apostle of love.
John could be called the Apostle who experienced the greatest change, for he went from the most proud, arrogant, intolerant, and narrow-minded of the 12, to the most loving man whose writings have done more to spread love than any other man in history. John is a good example of the fact that Jesus did not choose men for what they were, but for what they could become. Before we see what John became by the grace of God, let's look at the negatives we have on him in the synoptic Gospels. There are no negative facts about John in his own Gospel, for John, though he was a partner with Peter all his life almost, was a different character from Peter. John did not bring out his errors like Peter did. Peter told of his blunders, but John would rather forget them.
When John wrote his Gospel the other three were already written and well known. They are so negative on John that he probably thought there was little he could add, so he ignores himself all together in his own Gospel. He never even mentions his own name. In only 6 places is he even referred to. In three of the six he is called, "This man," "That disciple," and "The disciple who testified these things." In the other three he is "The disciple whom Jesus loved." He has that very positive distinction, but let's look at him in the other Gospels.
In Luke 9, for example, we get quite a glimpse into John. In verse 46 he and the others are arguing as to who is the greatest. We know John thought he was the best of all, or at least second best, for as we shall see later, he had the audacity to ask Jesus for a place at his right or left in the kingdom. In verse 49 we see John demonstrating his intolerance. He said to Jesus that he saw a man casting out demons in his name, and he forbid him to do so because he did not follow with them. John cannot take all the blame, for the others, no doubt, felt the same. The point is, we see John as ideal material for becoming a zealous bigot. He would have made Christianity so exclusive and narrow that it would have been horrible to disagree with him. He would be excommunicating or executing all over the place.
The proof of this in the next paragraph. The Samaritans did not like the Jews, and when they knew Jesus was heading for Jerusalem they refused to give He and His disciples any hospitality. This burned John and his brother James, and his tornado like temper wanted to blow. John is a victim of prejudice, and he wanted to burn the place down. He said to Jesus, "Do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?" This was John's solution to the problem of prejudice and social injustice at this stage of his life. Later in the book of Acts we see him with Peter going to the Samaritans and laying hands on them, and seeing them filled with the Holy Spirit. John praying down the fire from heaven to bless the very people he first longed to see consumed by the fire of wrath.
Some ancient authorities add, "As Elijah did," in verse 54. John thought he had a Biblical basis for his bad temper. Just because Elijah called down the wrath of God, John thought he should do the same. You the pride and arrogance here that most all of us have to some degree. We try to find a text or example in the Old Testament as a precedent for our sub-Christian attitudes. We feel justified in being sub-Christian if we can find someone who is just in having the same feelings. In verse 55, however, Jesus rebukes them, for their spirit is not in accord with His at all. He came to save and not destroy men. John was not thinking of that at all. He was only concerned about his rights and pride. He wanted to have the power of God's wrath to back up his pride. Imagine the danger of a man like John without Jesus around to rebuke and control him. Jesus had to rebuke him for arguing about greatness, for forbidding a man to heal in His name, and for his bad temper. John had some learning to do to become the Apostle of love.
Jesus knew his character fully, but He took the risk of trying to train him to be all God wanted him to be. He and his brother are given a special nickname in Mark 3:17. They are called sons of thunder. Most all of what we say about John applies to his brother James as well. They were, no doubt, spoiled rotten. They probably got everything they ever wanted, and that is why they were such temperamental hot-heads. They had much wealth, and were among the rich of their day. Their father had hired servants, and John had a large home, for he took in Mary the mother of Jesus after the crucifixion.
We have a clue also in John 18:15 that John was of a well-to-do family very influential in society. When Jesus was arrested we read, "Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door." John got Peter in, but he would have been better off shut out, for inside he made his three fold denial. Peter had no connections like John. John knew people in high places. John was the only one of the 12 at the cross, because he did not fear officials like the others, for he was used to dealing with people on that level.
H. V. Morton in The Steps Of The Master writes, "There is in the back streets of Jerusalem a dark little hovel, now, I believe, an Arab coffee-house, which contains stones and arches that were once part of an early Christian church. The Franciscan tradition is that this church was erected on the sight of a house which had belonged to Zebedee, the father of St. John. This family, said the Franciscans, were fish merchants of Galilee, with a branch office in Jerusalem, from which they used to supply, among others, the family of the High Priest." This would explain how John knew the High Priest, and could get himself and Peter inside. Solome, their mother, was one of the women who followed Jesus and ministered of him of her substance. She asked Jesus to give her boys the best positions, and this indicates she was a woman of wealth and position herself.
All of this shows that John and James did have some reason for their pride. They were in a higher social class, and they had prospects for being very successful in the secular world. They figured they should have the top spots in the kingdom Jesus came to establish. We often hear that Jesus chose poor fishermen to be His disciples, but this tradition is not supported by the evidence of Scripture. In Mark 10:35-45 we read of how James and John came to Jesus and request Him to do what they asked. He says, "What do you want me to do for you?" They say, "Grant us to sit one at your right and one at your left in your glory." They were use to getting places by knowing somebody, and so why not with Jesus?
Jesus uses the occasion to do some teaching. He tells them that their request is not His to grant, and verse 41 says the other Apostles were indignant at James and John. The struggle for power among the Apostles was just like the struggle among any group of men. Greatness and position is all they could think about and squabble about. Jesus teaches them they are acting like the Gentiles who loved to lord it over one another. He says the whole thing is to be reversed in His kingdom. The greatest are the servants, and He closes His lesson with His own powerful example. "For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many."
In Matt. 20:20-29, Matthew tells us their mother put them up to it, and so we see behind their own ambition was the family status and ambition. Not only did the family of John have wealth and status, but they were related to Jesus according to the best evidence. In John 19:25 we read that standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother's sister. This sister is likely the Solome that Mark and Luke mentioned, and whom Matthew in 27:56 calls the mother of the sons of Zebedee. Not only John, but His mother was at the cross. We see a strong tie of families making John the full cousin of Jesus. All of this led to him feeling he should have special privileges. It also makes it clear why John took Mary home with him after the cross.
Leonardo da Vinci apparently thought James and John got their way with Jesus, for in the Last Supper John is at the right and James at the left of Jesus. John lived the longest and received the greatest revelation ever. He became the greatest prophet of all time through the book of Revelation. The greatest achievement of John, however, was his becoming the Apostle of love. He penned the greatest verse of Scripture on God's love in John 3:16. He alone wrote, "God is love." He writes of love in his epistle more than all the others put together. Love of brethren is a key note with him who was once the most quarrelsome of all. He became as strong on love as he once was on revenge. He said those who do not love are in darkness and do not love God. He wrote, "If anyone says I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar."
John never lost his temper, but he brought it under the control of love. He could be sharp, but did so in love. Many are the stories of tradition of how he loved people, and once risked his life to win back a youth who became a thief. The stories are likely true, for no name ever became so popular as John, which means God is gracious. There is a long list of Christian leaders named after John. John Chrysostom, John Huss, John Wycliffe, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, John Milton, and John Bunyan just to mention some of the best known.
He saw more real tragedy in his own life as well as future tragedy in his visions than the rest of the Apostles put together. His first master, John the Baptist was beheaded. His Lord was crucified, and his brother James was the first of the Apostles to be martyred. He lived to see all the rest martyred also, plus masses of other Christians. In John 21:20-23 we read of the rumor that got started that John was not going to die. He did finally die, but only after outliving 12 Roman Emperors. But John, who saw more hell on earth than any of the 12, also saw and gave to Christians the only vision we have of heaven. He was 90 or older and was ready for a literal journey to heaven when God revealed it to him in spirit. You wonder how an old man could take all that excitement with horseman, battles, trumpets, violence, and noises of agony. There is certainly reason to believe that even as an Apostle of love John was in a positive way right to the end a Son of Thunder.